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Christmas music: Good for the soul

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OKLAHOMA CITY – When it comes to holiday music, people often fall into one of two camps. There’s those who love it, started listening to White Christmas in December, and know without a doubt that the best version of “Winter Wonderland” is Tony Bennett’s. 

The other is full of those who despise it, avoid holiday radio stations at all cost, and cringe whenever they hear “chestnuts roasting on an open fire...”

But it doesn’t need to be this way. I’ll be the first to admit that not all holiday songs are created equal, and there are plenty of terrible or downright obnoxious ones out there. But for every “Funky, Funky Christmas” by New Kids On The Block, there’s a “Sleigh Ride” by Ella Fitzgerald or “White Christmas” by The Drifters. 

And to help you sort out the good from the bad - because did the world really need a David Hasselhoff Christmas album? - here are the only albums you’ll need this holiday season. 

1. Various Artists, Holidays Rule: Schmaltz-free and devoid of any filler, Holidays Rule is probably one of the most straight-forward holiday albums there is. With an eclectic mix of different performers and artists like The Civil Wars, Punch Brothers, The Shins, and more, it’s a whimsical and folksy alternative to most Christmas music on the market. Best Tracks: Fun’s infectious cover of “Sleigh Ride” and The Head and the Heart’s wistful “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”

2. Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas: The First Lady of Song’s Christmas record is so good that you’d be excused for wanting to blast it all year round. She breathes new life into endlessly covered hits like “Winter Wonderland” and jazzes up slower compositions like “Have Your A Merry Little Christmas.” It’s jaunty, nostalgic, and a damn perfect album, holiday or otherwise. Best Tracks: Fitzgerald’s version of “Sleigh Ride” is without a doubt the best and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” is a breezy delight. 

3. Various Artists, A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector: With 60‘s artists The Ronettes, Darlene Love, and The Crystals contributing tracks, Phil Spector’s holiday collection is a gift indeed. While the sunny melodies and creative arrangements may capture the playful, innocent side of Christmas well, its the soulful delivery of the various performers that takes the record above and beyond. Mixing holiday standards with original songs, “A Christmas Gift For You” is a true classic that only gets better with age. Best Tracks: The Ronette’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is harmonized to perfection, but nothing can match the emotion and sheer vocal power of Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”

4. Various Artists, Merry Christmas, Baby: Romance and Reindeer From Capitol: Forget Now That’s What I Call Christmas - this is the best collection of holiday music out there. An underrated gem, “Merry Christmas, Baby” is comprised of Capitol-era artists such as Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, and Johnny Mercer. If you only need one album of holiday music, this is the one to get. Best Tracks: Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is sweetly romantic while Julie London’s “I’d Like You For Christmas” is a smoldering standout. 

5. Elvis Presley, Elvis’ Christmas Album: Of course the “King of Rock” made a spectacular, rollicking holiday album. Everyone knows that “Blue Christmas” is essential to any holiday party playlist, but just as noteworthy is Elvis’s take on a variety of styles from carols (“Silent Night”) to pop standards (“Here Comes Santa Claus”). Best Tracks: The strangely sexual “Santa Claus Is Back In Town” is suggestive fun, and “Santa, Bring My Baby Back To Me” is a classic pop-rock record. 

6. Louis Armstrong & Friends, The Best of Christmas Songs: With a voice as brash and unique as Armstrong’s, this album is a refreshing and relaxing treasure. With collaborations ranging from Duke Ellington to Dinah Washington, The Best of Christmas Songs is a swinging treat that will make you feel like you’re experiencing the holidays right in the middle of New Orleans. Best Tracks: “Zat You, Santa Claus?” is the perfect showcase for Armstrong and his ‘big band’ production, while “Christmas In New Orleans” is sure to lift the spirits of even the most hardened holiday music haters. 

7. Sufjan Stevens, Songs for Christmas and Silver & Gold: With a voice as soothing as it is unique, Stevens’s holiday music collection recorded over the course of nine years is composed of over a hundred tracks. Ranging from holiday standards to baroque hymns to his own kooky originals, listeners are sure to find something to appreciate in this collection. Best Tracks: Stevens puts his signature touch on “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and manages to create a new classic with the spunky “Put The Lights On The Tree.”

8. Mariah Carey, Merry Christmas (1994): Did you really think I wasn’t going to include the Queen of Christmas herself on this list? There aren’t many modern albums deserving of being added to the Christmas music canon. But with a genuine sense of festive fun and gospel-tinged arrangements, Carey’s Merry Christmas is one of the last great contemporary holiday albums. Best Tracks: Carey’s cover of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” rivals Darlene Love’s original, but “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is the obvious pick that still holds up to this day.

9. Christina Aguilera, My Kind of Christmas (2000): Don’t roll your eyes just yet and instead listen to this album to soak in all of its ridiculous, over-the-top, tinsel-coated glory. Christina Aguilera has one of the greatest voices to ever grace pop music, and she seems all too aware of that as her sky-high soprano overwhelms on every single track. But whereas most Christmas albums are there to lull you into a nostalgic mood, My Kind of Christmas’ disco/R&B-infused take on the holidays sounds right at home by the fireplace and on the dance floor. Best Tracks: “Merry Christmas, Baby” is a sultry slice of R&B and “Christmas Time” sounds like Aguilera mixed “Genie In A Bottle” with “Santa Baby.”

10. She & Him, A She & Him Christmas (2011): Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward’s celebration of the holiday season is slight, spare, and beautifully elegant. Each track is stripped down to Ward’s guitar, piano, or ukelele with Deschanel’s dreamy vocals. Their take on Christmas classics may not be to everyone’s liking, but there’s no denying the sweetness and charm on display. Best Tracks: Their cover of the Beach Boys’ “Christmas Day” has just the right amount of sweetness to counteract the melancholic tone of “Blue Christmas.”

11. The Carpenters, Christmas Portrait (1978): It’s almost like Christmas was invented for the sole purpose of having Karen Carpenter sing beautifully sad songs about it. People love to hate on the Carpenters for their unabashed sentimentality and lack of musical depth, but that’s exactly what makes their Christmas record such a winner. It’s deliciously sweet collection of squeaky-clean Christmas ballads just schmaltzy enough to cure any eggnog hangover. Best Tracks: “Merry Christmas Darling” is a cozy sweater of a song while “Silent Night” is a grand, bombastic ballad bolstered by Karen’s luscious vocals.

12. Bing Crosby, White Christmas (1945): You can’t make discuss Christmas music with mentioning the very embodiment of the genre himself. Bing Crosby’s version of White Christmas has sold over 50 million copies and it’s certainly easy to see why. The Irish crooner was blessed with one of the smoothest voices in popular music, and this album is elegant bliss from beginning to end. Best Tracks: “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” is classically beautiful and “Mele Kalikimaka” is a Hawaiian-sounding treat. 

13. Various Artists, A Very Special Christmas (1987): This benefit album was organized as a way to raise funds for the 1987 Special Olympics by music industry honcho Jimmy Iovine. It’s dated in the best possible way, with ‘80s superstars like Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and more all contributing their takes on holiday classics. While some tracks are certainly better than others (nobody asked for a John Cougar Mellencamp cover of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”), it’s hard not to have fun listening to this record. Best Tracks: Whitney Houston’s “Do You Hear What I Hear?” packs an emotional punch while Eurythmic’s “Winter Wonderland” is just as bizarrely wonderful as you think it is. 

14. Various Artists, New Wave Xmas: Just Can’t Get Enough (1996): If the thought of a compilation album filled with Christmas songs by ‘80s New Wave artists doesn’t fill you with a sense of glee, then we are two very different types of people. There’s a certain scrappy charm to this album, filled with rare recordings from the likes of The Pogues, They Might Be Giants, and David Bowie. Although I will say the lack of the Waitresses “Christmas Wrapping” is pretty inexcusable. Best Tracks: Captain Sensible’s 1984 singe “One Christmas Catalogue” is one of the best pop songs to come out of the decade, and the same can be said of The Pretenders’ “2000 Miles.” 

15. Ariana Grande, Christmas & Chill (2015): This six-song EP is basically your average Ariana Grande album with cookie and mistletoe references thrown in for good measure. But that’s hardly a bad thing, with the R&B arrangements as seductive as they are festive. Plus there’s a song where Grande sings about being seduced by Santa and having sex with him (if you’re into that, I guess). Best Tracks: “Wit It This Christmas” is a slinky gem, and “December” will surely warm you up more than any fire ever could. 

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About the Author

Keaton Bell

Born in Minnesota but raised in Oklahoma, Keaton is a senior at the University of Oklahoma...

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