If you’re in a good band, you have at least one perfect Christmas song in your arsenal. The Pogues have “Fairytale of New York.” Run-D.M.C. have “Christmas in Hollis.”
The Waitresses have “Christmas Wrapping.” You get it.
Now if you’re in a great band, you roll up your sleeves and create an entire album’s worth of Christmas songs -- easier said than done, right? If making the perfect LP is difficult, making a perfect Christmas LP is nearly impossible. There are a few out there, though -- 20 to be exact.
Alarcon and Ancient Champ go back and forth, as they do, and settle the scores on the 20 best Christmas albums ever recorded.
Alarcon: Champ, I know Christmas means a lot to you, you being a musician and all, you always say you love the giving and god knows what to make of that. I remember Ron & Nancy [the Champ’s mid-’90s garage-rock band] used to perform a sincere rendition of “You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch” without a hint of irony. Before it became en vogue to cover songs from children’s programming for nostalgia’s sake. John Easdale of Dramarama was in the audience the first night you performed the song. I was there when he approached you after that set and complimented the band, but I digress.
When it comes down to it, that’s what sells a great Christmas song -- sincerity. Is the artist playing it for laughs, or do they mean it? That’s why The Damned’s "There Ain't No Sanity Clause" has always seemed like a novelty song to me. And it could’ve been that way for the duet between Bowie and Bing when they did “Little Drummer Boy.” There was sincerity there between the two singers. I know Bowie is a sensitive subject, but you have to admire the effort.
But I’m going on about singles, the topic is albums.
The first great Christmas album that comes to mind is James Brown’s A Soulful Christmas. Perfect from beginning to end, and he didn’t compromise his sound. James could’ve just as easily inserted lyrics about papa’s new bag or popcorn and the songs on A Soulful Christmas still would be perfect.
Ancient Champion: And let’s not forget either, there ain’t no S-A-N-T-A without S-A-T-A-N. But then anything magical without a miracle means Satan’s hands are about anyway too, right? I think a lot of these recordings are both magical and miraculous too… Quickly qualifying myself - Pascal’s Wager-like. Just in case. So… on with the list.
Outsideleft's Ultimate Guide to Christmas LPs
A Soulful Christmas (1968)
Alarcon: I already mentioned this one, but it’s so great -- I love how Brown didn’t cover any Christmas standards -- every tune is a JB original. I also like how he threw in “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” even though it wasn’t a Christmas song -- he just added it to send a message.
The Champ: This is amazing on every level. But because it lacks the standard regurgitation of the holiday standards (with ever diminishing returns), I think it gets overlooked and is woefully underrated as just a great, great record. It’s one of the first one’s out of the holiday decorations box every year in our house. And a great James Brown record. 1995s Funky Christmas is also worth checking if you’re a value shopper - has as few more tracks, quite a different record though I suppose.
Alarcon: So is it number one, then?
The Champ: Number one in our house.
Merry MeX-Mas (1994)
(Sympathy for the Record Industry)
Alarcon: Like James Brown’s A Soulful Christmas, I love this one because it’s tailored towards El Vez’s audience. “Brown Christmas,” “Pancho Clause,” and “Oranges for Christmas” really speak to the Hispanic holidays. Plus, “Feliz Navidad” morphing back and forth into PiL’s “Public Image” is a stroke of genius.
The Champ: I’ve always loved Sympathy For The Record Industry. What a label, Long Gone John’s catalog is peerless. This is the label that gave us the White Stripes and Satan’s Cheerleaders! I’ve still got those records. El Vez’s MeX-Mas is pretty raucous. Again, if you don’t do the standards, if you reminisce about a Latin-punk Christmas you’ll get nothing everywhere. What about the Jagger-esque/Stonesy Orange Christmas? Very cool...
Merry Christmas (1994)
Alarcon: Twenty-seven years on and I think most of the world hears “All I Want For Christmas” and it triggers a Pavlovian response which signals to the listener to gird their loins, as Christmas is coming. It’s more popular than “Jingle Bells.”
The Champ: It’s easy to mock Mariah, but she’s better than we are. “All I Want For Christmas” is me and Mrs. Champ’s (although she never calls herself that) all time fave holiday song. As you say, you know it’s coming once you hear it. A joyous thing. Mariah’s made Christmas an industrial strength thing for her, what with her unmissable live Christmas show. I just hope it can return soon.
Merry Christmas From Brenda Lee (1964)
The Champ: It sometimes feels like Brenda Lee and not Bing Crosby invented Christmas. Surely Brenda’s “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” is an early annual holiday treat in your home?
Alarcon: Yes, this one’s always on rotation. Brenda gives the old Christmas chestnuts a new sheen with a light touch. A rousing, campy collection of twelve songs backed by Nashville's A-Team, which comprised of the legendary collective of session musicians that included Boots Randolph, Hank Garland, Grady Martin, and the Anita Kerr Singers. A heavy hitter, for sure.
Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas (1960)
Alarcon: The sexiest of all the Christmas albums. Although I’m positive this album was a beast to produce, Ella makes it sound so effortless. It’s as if she walked into the studio, laid down each track, back-to-back, in one take. The great ones make it look so easy.
The Champ: First on in the car every Christmas, and it pretty much stays there. Used to be the cassette, then the CD and now the streamer. We love it that much every December. Ella leans on the standards but she pretty much sets the standard that few others meet, and never for an entire LP like this. Who knew you could enjoy Frosty so much. It just oozes joy, jazz and class from when class was still a thing.
The Vince Guaraldi Trio
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
Alarcon: This one’s a personal favorite. Champ, did Peanuts air in the UK back in the day? I remember watching A Charlie Brown Christmas during the mid-’70s and falling in love with Guaraldi compositions. Some discount this LP as background music; something to throw on while the kids are ripping wrapping paper off their gifts on Christmas eve, but it’s more than that. It’s the seasonal soundtrack to my youth and it always pulls at the heartstrings.
The Champ: This is music as legend. Now let me think of Charlie Brown and Friends, Ms. Champ is hangin on to some tatty UK first edition I think. Survived that childhood cull. You’re right, good music to open presents to. But of course that can’t happen here until granny is ready. Sometime Christmas afternoon.
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings
It’s a Holiday Soul Party (2015)
Alarcon: Some of the best Christmas albums don’t sound like Christmas albums at all and Holiday Soul Party is a little like that to me. It’s a funk and blues album with Christmassy lyrics and the occasional sleigh bells ringing in the background. This one’s good all year ‘round.
The Champ: Sharon Jones, unbelievably big loss. Holiday Soul Party features the great “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects” and plenty of other great songs. As you say, great Christmas albums don’t have to get mired in the obvious and there’s nothing obvious here. It’s a great record.
A Tav Falco Christmas (2017)
The Champ: Tav is a big friend of OUTSIDELEFT, one of my all time favorite features is how Tav Falco spends Christmas, will it ever be bettered? A Tav Falco Christmas record is a perfect record from him. Imagine the party with that S/T?
Alarcon: When I listen to this album, I feel like Tav really channeled Bing Crosby when he sang these standards. There’s a weight of traditionalism here; I can’t put my finger on it, but I love how he approached these songs.
The Ventures' Christmas Album (1965)
Alarcon: The mid-’60s were a great time for pop music and The Ventures were a big part of that guitar explosion of the era. They captured the spirit of Christmas and didn’t compromise on their rambunctious sound. I wonder what conservatives thought of The Ventures rock and roll take on these Christmas standards -- I can imagine some thought The Ventures' Christmas Album was the end of civilization.
The Champ: This is the end of civility. It’s pretty amazing what the Ventures do. The Ventures in Space - one of the greatest records ever, so you can trust the Ventures to handle some little thing like Christmas with aplomb. You know there’s the British band, The Shadows who also began in 58, whammy barring the reverb and vibrato. It is astonishing what the Ventures do to guitars.
She and Him
A Very She and Him Christmas (2011)
The Champ: Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward’s A Very She and Him Christmas is a gentle beauty, delightfully so. In some ways this doesn’t conform to the standard Christmas boilerplate LP. It’s way more interesting than that. But what would you expect from M. Ward as a producer and Zooey Deschanel, who never appears as if she’d be happy being pigeon holed. Johnny Thunders and Patti Paladin come to mind. It’s homespun indie gold. And all of the proceeds head off to charity.
Alarcon: Deschanel’s voice always surprises me, I always forget how unique it is. It compliments Ward’s delicate indie touches. Plus, it’s on the Merge and I tend to trust that label. It’s difficult to go wrong with this disc.
The Champ: Ah, the many moods of Christmas and all of them instinctively Low! The jaunty “Just Like Christmas” gets things off to a deceptive start and has fitted nicely onto many Christmas playlists. But then the unbearable and beautifully sparse, “Long Way Round the Sea;” it’s easy to imagine putting another log on the yuletide fire and getting the acoustic guitar out, and then putting it on the fire too. Then sleeping for a very long time. Perfect for that kind of Christmas which, not to make light of this in any way at all, is a tough time for many people. Low acknowledges that at least. It’s not a holly jolly Christmas for everyone. But this particular Christmas is a great record at any time of the year.
Alarcon: Depressing, I agree, but I love funeral dirge music just as much as I love Christmas music so obviously, this album hits both marks dead on. Low’s rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” is good enough to listen to anytime of the year -- it’s almost drone-like. John Cale would be proud. This makes me want to listen to more of Low’s catalog, which is a great sign of a perfect Christmas record.
Jackson 5 Christmas Album (1970)
The Champ: Of course the Jackson 5 Christmas Album is anchored by the almost peerless Santa Claus is Coming to Town, probably one of the most played Christmas songs ever. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is so great they made it sound like anyone could do it. Guess what? It ain’t that easy, it takes an entire Jackson 5 to make a good fist of these songs. And what... The abundant joy on this album presages the massive mess that came later.
Alarcon: “Up on the House Top” is a stone cold jam -- one of the few Christmas songs I shamelessly listen to during the off season. Michael’s voice soars.
Christmas in the Heart (2002)
The Champ: What’s Dylan doing here? He’s doing Christmas right, right? Like the way I would do it, grumpily, curmudgeonly. If I wasn’t half his age.
Alarcon: Curmudgeonly is a good word for Bob, here. It’s also maybe the most raw his voice has ever sounded, isn’t it? Some critics accused him of sounding flippant throughout this album, but he responded perfectly when he said, “These songs are part of my life, just like folk songs. You have to play them straight.” Dylan’s voice and delivery here is what puts this one on the list.
Songs for Christmas (2006)
(Asthmatic Kitty Records)
The Champ: Aaahhh. The one for people who really take their Christmas seriously. Sufjan spreads Christmas over 5 discs. Great if you get Christmas started the day after Black Friday and don’t want the party to end… Sufjan Stevens catalog is daunting to me. So much. So much. At first that probably seemed like a fine thing and now, all I can think of is, remember when records would go out of print?
Alarcon: Champ, remember when OL used to publish at least one piece on Sufjan Stevens every week? He seemed to dominate the mid-‘00s. Then nothing. Is he still alive? What happened to him? How do you pronounce his first name? I’ve never heard it spoken out loud. Anyway, there’s something for everyone within this collection. Considering there’s over 40 songs, there better be.
Christmas Classics (1977)
The Champ: Bing invented Christmas. Came up with the color for Santa’s uniforms. Put snow on a soundstage. Developed microphone technology that makes him sound like… Bing. And in some reports was not always nice to his kids. Sounds like Christmas ‘round ours, 1970. Well this album does, if nothing else.
Alarcon: I feel like OL would get heated emails and messages – more so – if we didn’t include Bing on this list. You’re right, Champ, good or bad, Bing was the soundtrack to most kids’ Christmas, whether they liked it or not. A bit old-fashioned, but Bing’s Christmas Classics is a Christmas staple, like eggnog and deviled eggs: all forced upon you when you were too young to say, “This is horrible.”
Mary J. Blige
A Mary Christmas (2013)
Alarcon: A very adult Christmas album. Refined, classy, no fucking around. This is the Christmas album you play from start to finish at office holiday parties, or when the in-laws come over. Oddly enough, critics hated this album calling it over-produced and formulaic. The Guardian gave it a catty 2 of 5 stars and called her cover of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” unlistenable. Is it really that bad? Listen for yourself.
The Champ: Mary, Mary, Mary - this is a Holiday classic, it’s got Mary J. Blige’s incredible, impeccable voice, it’s on Verve, the imprimatur of a certain class, when class still meant something as I say, back in 2013, or whenever. It’s got the holiday hits and plenty of the ones you never want to hear again. In many ways it reminds me of an almost perfect rockin’ Christmas party, the drinks are going down, it’s going great ‘til the guy you’re hangin with for fun starts to get a little more handsy than you’d like. It all gets fucked up. And when you wake up on Christmas morning you recall that perfectly uneven experience and you know you’ll do it all again next year.
Alarcon: I had so many Christmas mornings like that in my twenties.
Kylie Christmas (Snow Queen Edition) (2015)
Alarcon: Is this a Christmas album? A pop album? A disco album? Yes, it’s all of those things and more. I’ll be frank and say that James Corden absolutely ruins Kylie’s turn at Yaz’s “Only You” and that’s what keeps this LP from being perfect, but her duet with thee Iggy Pop on “Christmas Wrapping” makes up for it. She’s a national treasure.
The Champ: James Corden. At least he got out. Kylie in a Santa hat. When this goes on the stereo it just feels like no one can bring Christmas home, or to the office party like Kylie can. She’s just hard wired into the good times part of so many British brains.
The Beach Boys
A Beach Boys’ Christmas Album (1964)
The Champ: There’s something about this album that always reminds me of nearly getting run over, nearly getting into a fistfight, nearly getting shot in the Carrows car park on Harbor Blvd while I was heading for my Carrows Christmas dinner Christmas Day. That would be more redolent of my Low period, (see #whatever Low ends up being). But sure enough the guy that jumped out of his car after nearly running me over was listening to the A Beach Boys Christmas Album, really, really loudly. Maybe he was having a Blue Christmas too.
Alarcon: Champ, I can’t top that one, but A Beach Boys’ Christmas Album, as great as it is, invokes some traumatizing memories of my own. Right out of high school, I got a job at Pier One Imports. Corporate used to send us cassette tapes every month and for December, we got several Christmas-themed cassettes and they all included every song from this album. Every song. I haven’t been able to listen to a Beach Boys’ Christmas song since. “Little Saint Nick” really raises my blood pressure. It nearly ruined Pet Sounds for me.
The Champ: That bone idle corporate idiocy is enough to make and old man's piss boil.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year (1999)
The Champ: Really hard to know what to make of this so warrants its place don’t you think? I mean, I wasn’t following Hendrix’s career so closely after he died, but this really seems to have been scraped off the studio floor. Or maybe Jimi loved Christmas? Although it doesn’t all together sound like it. An all-time great though.
Alarcon: Champ, my guess was that Jimi was in a recording studio sometime in early December and the engineer accidentally hit the record button while he was warming up with a “Little Drummer Boy/Silent Night” medley. “Three Little Bears” is a great throwaway jam, though even though I fail to hear a Christmas connection, then again, does it matter?
Elvis' Christmas Album (1957)
(RCA Victor Records)
Alarcon: I wonder if the King was taking the piss when he recorded this Christmas album? I hear a lot of unnecessary inflection and even a barely-audible chuckle or two. Did The Colonel force Elvis into a Christmas LP? That said, “Blue Christmas” is perfect, but this one feels rushed. The Colonel was a task master, but Elvis’ Christmas Album remains the world's best-selling Christmas LP and one of the best-selling albums of all time. As they say, 50,000,000 Elvis fans can't be wrong.
The Champ: Can’t be denied. If you listen closely you can hear the Christmas decorations going up in a million homes with this on the turntable, beginning with Graceland.
And a few to worry about…
The Most Wonderful Time of The Year
Holiday for Swing!
Main Image: James Brown holiday sweater screengrab
Ultimate Guide Next Time: Alarcon and Ancient Champ's Ultimate Guide to Breads