30 essential Christmas albums you need to spin this season

30 essential Christmas albums you need to spin this season

From Elvis and Frank Sinatra to Dolly Parton and Mariah Carey, these yuletide classics capture the essence of Christmas

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Clockwork from bottom left: Nat King Cole: The Christmas Song (Image: Capital Records); Kenny & Dolly: Once Upon A Christmas (Image: RCA Nashville); Elvis’ Christmas Album (Image: RCA Records); Mariah Carey: Merry Christmas (Image: Sony Records); The Monkees: Christmas Party (Image: Rhino Records)
Clockwork from bottom left: Nat King Cole: The Christmas Song (Image: Capital Records); Kenny & Dolly: Once Upon A Christmas (Image: RCA Nashville); Elvis’ Christmas Album (Image: RCA Records); Mariah Carey: Merry Christmas (Image: Sony Records); The Monkees: Christmas Party (Image: Rhino Records)
Graphic: The A.V. Club

It seems as if every artist has recorded their own holiday record at some point in their career. Each year brings a new batch of Christmas records, some recorded to cash in on a hot new fad, some crafted with posterity in mind. The great and maddening thing about Christmas albums is that there are no strict rules constituting a successful holiday album. Records ignored upon their initial release turn into enduring seasonal classics, novelties become beloved perennials and blockbusters become the bond that ties together generations. What follows is a list of albums The A.V. Club feels have become embedded into the fabric of the Christmas season, spiked with a couple of recent records that already show signs of being modern classics that will stand the test of time.

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30. Burl Ives, Have A Holly Jolly Christmas (1965)

30. Burl Ives, Have A Holly Jolly Christmas (1965)

A Holly Jolly Christmas

Arriving in 1965, a year after Burl Ives narrated the Rankin/Bass stop-animated television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Have a Holly Jolly Christmas certainly carries some of the same jovial spirit as that seasonal perennial even if the versions of “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” on this record are different than the ones on the show. They’re in softer focus and a tad slower than the ones recorded for the show, a vibe that is sustained throughout the record. Although it occasionally hints at Ives’ roots as a folk singer, it’s a collection of sweet, pillowy pop that’s so warm, it sounds as if it was sung by Santa himself.

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29. Cheap Trick, Christmas Christmas (2017)

29. Cheap Trick, Christmas Christmas (2017)

Christmas Christmas

Very few Christmas albums actually rock. Sure, there are scattered seasonal singles throughout the years that bring the noise but few albums sustain that level of volume and energy throughout the length of an album. Cheap Trick addressed that problem with their 2017 album Christmas Christmas, a high-octane album that contains covers of some of those stray songs—Roy Wood’s monumental “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday,” the Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight),” the Kinks’ “Father Christmas”—then adds a couple clever, self-referential originals to the mix, along with a version of the Saturday Night Live novelty hit “I Wish It Was Christmas Today.”

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28. Red Simpson, Truckers’ Christmas (1973)

28. Red Simpson, Truckers’ Christmas (1973)

Red Simpson was the king of truck-driving country, his reign in the late 1960s and early 1970s so undeniable that he was given the opportunity to record an entire album of truck-driving holiday songs in 1973. On the surface, Trucker’s Christmas is the very definition of a novelty record, an album born of a fad and featuring such songs as “Truckin’ Trees for Christmas,” “Santa’s Comin’ In A Big Ol’ Truck” and “Blue Blue Christmas (For This Truck Drivin’ Man),” each introduced by Simpson with a bit of po-faced narration. All these period affectations are key to the album’s charm: even with all its silliness, it’s a workingman’s Christmas record, delivered with the no-nonsense twang that defined the Bakersfield sound.

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27. Johnny Cash, The Christmas Spirit (1963)

27. Johnny Cash, The Christmas Spirit (1963)

Released in 1963, the same year he had a crossover smash with “Ring Of Fire,” The Christmas Spirit fits comfortably next to the folk-tinged albums Johnny Cash was recording for Columbia during the early 1960s. Save a version of “Blue Christmas” with prominent plucking from guitarist Luther Perkins, there aren’t many nods toward pop, or frivolity for that matter. The Christmas Spirit isn’t quite austere but it is sober: it’s the rare Christmas album that treats the religious roots with reverence and finds plenty of space for the downtrodden.

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26. Norah Jones, I Dream Of Christmas (2021)

26. Norah Jones, I Dream Of Christmas (2021)

The key to Norah Jones’ music is that she’s a traditionalist who doesn’t take herself too seriously: she enjoys exploring the areas where pop, jazz and country intermingle, lingering on aspects that other musicians ignore. It’s an attitude that comes into full flower on I Dream Of Christmas, a subdued but swinging collection produced by Leon Michels, previously a member of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. Norah Jones concentrates on such secular standards as “Blue Christmas,” “Run Rudolph Run,” “Christmas Time Is Here,” and “Christmas Don’t’ Be Late,” and augments these numbers with sly originals that emphasize the playful vibe.

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25. Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton, Once Upon A Christmas (1984/1997)

25. Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton, Once Upon A Christmas (1984/1997)

Riding high off the success of “Islands In The Stream,” Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton teamed up with producer David Foster for Once Upon a Christmas, a 1984 album paired with a television program featuring every one of the album’s songs. Given that accompanying special, it’s no surprise that Once Upon a Christmas plays into the showbiz side of Kenny and Dolly, an aspect slightly underplayed on the 1997 revision of the album which finds space for Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas,” originally released as part of the soundtrack to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Even with this alteration, Once Upon a Christmas is a sparkly, tongue-in-cheek affair that benefits from the natural charisma of the two singers.

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24. Los Lobos, Llegó Navidad (2019)

24. Los Lobos, Llegó Navidad (2019)

Eschewing the familiar holiday fare, Los Lobos concentrated on seasonal songs not often heard during the Christmas season on their 2019 Llego Navidad. The Los Angeles band focuses entirely on holiday songs from south of the border, concentrating on songs from Mexico, Central and South America, along with tunes from the Rio Grande border, like Freddy Fender’s “It’s Christmas Time in Texas.” That’s one of the few tunes on Llego Navidad sung in English: most of these songs are sung in Spanish and many are given acoustic arrangements. While the album echoes the group’s 1988 classic “La Pistola Y El Corazon,” it’s also undeniably a holiday album, a joyous and welcoming collection of Christmas tunes that convey the spirit of the season.

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23. A Very Special Christmas (1987)

23. A Very Special Christmas (1987)

A Very Special Christmas 1987 Full album

Superstar producer Jimmy Iovine oversaw A Very Special Christmas, a 1987 charity album for the Special Olympics. Iovine convinced seemingly every superstar of the era to donate a track. With one exception, each musician contributed a cover: Bruce Springsteen offered a live rendition of “Merry Christmas Baby,” Eurythmics strolled through “Winter Wonderland,” Madonna camped her way through “Santa Baby’’ and U2 poured their soul into “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” All of these performances have their charms but it was that lone original, Run-DMC’s riotous “Christmas In Hollis,” that turns this album into an unalloyed classic.

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22. Nat King Cole, The Christmas Song (1962)

22. Nat King Cole, The Christmas Song (1962)

A revision of the 1960 LP The Magic of Christmas, The Christmas Song originally swapped out “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” for “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You),” a song Nat King Cole turned into an enduring standard through his hit version in 1961. Over the years, the distinction between the various track listings have blurred, especially with CD and digital incarnations collecting the various Christmas tunes Cole recorded for Capitol. In the process, The Christmas Song turned into a generous collection of sweet, stately readings of carols, renditions that can occasionally seem endearingly old-fashioned but the slightly stuffy surroundings are always warmed by the easy grace of Cole.

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21. Pistol Annies, Hell Of A Holiday (2021)

21. Pistol Annies, Hell Of A Holiday (2021)

Pistol Annies telegraph their attitude in the very title of Hell Of A Holiday, the 2021 album by the country supertrio of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley: they’re not bothering with familiar fare here, they’re serving up their own rousing holiday bash. Relying primarily on original material, the trio serves up humor and harmony, allowing for a slight bittersweet current, one that rises to the surface on their empathetic cover of Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” but also can be heard on such originals as “The Only Thing I Wanted” and “Happy Birthday.” This adds appealing complexity to an album, capturing the complicated emotions lurking beneath the frivolity of the holiday season.

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20. Jimmy Smith, Christmas Cookin’/Christmas ‘64 (1964)

20. Jimmy Smith, Christmas Cookin’/Christmas ‘64 (1964)

Originally titled Christmas 64, it returned to the market as Christmas Cookin’ in 1966, a title that not only nods to Jimmy Smith’s 1961 classic Home Cookin’ but better describes the spirit of the music. Smith may be augmented by a bigger band on this record—a sound the organist explored to great effect on his 1964 album The Cat—but the heart of the albums lies in the soulful groove he creates with guitarist Kenny Burrell, drummer Grady Tate and bassist Art Davis, who are the combo that back him on the bulk of the album. This funkiness makes for a swinging, stylish Christmas soundtrack, one that evokes the cool vibes of mid-century modernism.

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19. The Monkees, Christmas Party (2018)

19. The Monkees, Christmas Party (2018)

A sequel to the spectacular 2016 comeback Good Times!, the 2018 album Christmas Party follows the same blueprint as its predecessor: Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger serves as chief producer, curating a set of specially written tunes by the likes of Rivers Cuomo, Andy Partridge, and Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey, balancing these new songs with sharply-chosen covers and excavated recordings from the vaults, so Davy Jones gets to participate alongside Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork. The end result is remarkable: a record that revives the spirit of classic Monkees without a trace of pandering, a jovial, mischievous attitude ideally suited for Christmas.

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18. Mariah Carey, Merry Christmas (1994)

18. Mariah Carey, Merry Christmas (1994)

Mariah Carey - Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) (Official Audio)

A success in 1994, Merry Christmas became regarded as a classic as its lead single “All I Want For Christmas Is You” turned into an undisputed holiday standard, a song that’s more popular in 2022 than it was upon its original release. With its knowing nods to Phil Spector’s landmark Christmas album, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is such an incandescent joy that it suggests the rest of Merry Christmas shines as brightly. There are few moments that rival it for good cheer, including a version of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” but a lot of the album is a bit more solemn, providing a showcase for Carey’s show-stopping range

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17. Ray Charles, The Spirit Of Christmas (1985)

17. Ray Charles, The Spirit Of Christmas (1985)

Experiencing a revival through his association with Columbia, which marketed him squarely at the country market, Ray Charles seized the chance to cut his first holiday record. By 1985, he was overdue to deliver a collection of seasonal good cheer but the remarkable thing about The Spirit Of Christmas is that despite its occasional period production gloss, it hearkens back to the funky, swinging spirit that fueled his records for ABC in the early 1960s. The combination of slick polish and sly soul makes for a delightful affair.

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16. Dean Martin, The Dean Martin Christmas Album (1966)

16. Dean Martin, The Dean Martin Christmas Album (1966)

Released in time for the holiday season of 1966, The Dean Martin Christmas Album arrived toward the end of a hot streak for Dean Martin, a period kicked off with the 1964 chart-topper “Everybody Loves Somebody” and continued through “I Will,” a Top 10 hit in 1965. Martin wasn’t singing rock, he was firmly in the middle of the road, buttressed by the sumptuous productions of Jimmy Bowen. These lush environs are perfect for Christmas, particularly the secular standards that comprise the bulk of The Dean Martin Christmas Album. Martin sings smooth and easy while the music glows sweet and mellow, like a fireplace on Christmas Eve.

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15. Bing Crosby, Merry Christmas/White Christmas (1945/1955/1995)

15. Bing Crosby, Merry Christmas/White Christmas (1945/1955/1995)

Bing Crosby - Silver Bells (Visualizer) ft. Carol Richards

Originally released as a collection of 78s called Merry Christmas in 1945, this Bing Crosby album was eventually retitled White Christmas, taking its title from the name of the Irving Berlin tune that Crosby turned into a pop phenomenon in 1942. “White Christmas” became the best-selling single in history, so it’s no surprise that the label eventually gave it the top billing, but this is hardly an album that relies on its hit single. The Christmas recordings Crosby cut in the 1940s are the foundation of secular holiday music, offering sumptuous, sophisticated arrangements complemented by Bing’s intimate delivery: it’s music that evokes the warmth and rousing spirits of the season.

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14. A Motown Christmas (1973)

14. A Motown Christmas (1973)

Originally released as a double-LP in 1973, A Motown Christmas excavated album tracks and stray singles the label released during the previous decade. Naturally, the label’s current superstars the Jackson 5 occupy the center stage, with the group responsible for a full quarter of the album’s 24 songs but even with this heavy presence, they don’t dominate proceedings: the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and the Supremes provide funky, soulful readings of familiar seasonal tunes. The sound and style are unmistakably Motown but that bright, joyous beat is well-suited for the holidays.

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13. Tony Bennett, Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album (1968)

13. Tony Bennett, Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album (1968)

A singer of exquisite taste, Tony Bennett never relies on extravagance or flash to sell a song: he underplays, a trait that can be quite appealing in regards to Christmas music. His subtle touch also opens the door for the snazzy, stylish arrangements of Robert Farnon, who fills the album with cinematic flair, a vivid picturesque quality that is integral to the enduring appeal of Snowfall.

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12. Nick Lowe, Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection For All the Family (2013)

12. Nick Lowe, Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection For All the Family (2013)

Lover of pop music that he is, it was perhaps inevitable that Nick Lowe would work his way toward a Christmas album, especially considering how he refashioned himself as a sophisticated crooner in the 1990s. Lowe spends a good portion of Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection For All The Family laying on the smooth charm but he’s sharp enough to give his holiday affair a big beat and a hefty dose of wit. He turns the traditional carol “Children Go Where I Send Thee” into a hopping rockabilly number, snaps his fingers on Ron Sexsmith’s “Hooves On The Roof” and captures the manic spirit of the season on “Christmas at the Airport,” as funny a song as he’s ever written.

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11. Willie Nelson, Pretty Paper (1979)

11. Willie Nelson, Pretty Paper (1979)

At its core, Pretty Paper is a sequel to Stardust, the landmark 1978 collection of Great American Songbook standards by Willie Nelson. Like Stardust, Pretty Paper is produced by keyboardist Booker T. Jones, who helps Nelson tease out idiosyncratic renditions of songs that other artists play straight as an arrow. The arrangements are spare, evocative and lively, giving plenty of space for Willie to play with the melodies and lean into his trademark Trigger for jazzy solos.

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10. Leona Lewis, Christmas, With Love (2013)

10. Leona Lewis, Christmas, With Love (2013)

Leona Lewis never disguised her debt to Mariah Carey yet it still comes as a bit of a shock that her 2013 holiday album Christmas, With Love betters Carey’s Merry Christmas. The key is Lewis has enough distance to acknowledge “All I Want For Christmas Is You” as not only a classic but the template for an entire retro-fantasia that blends the titanic rush of Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound—not for nothing does she cover both “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)“ and “Winter Wonderland,” both pivotal moments on A Christmas Gift For You—with a modern pop sensibility that’s playful yet still places vocal pyrotechnics at the forefront. It’s knowing and frisky without being campy: it’s simply an irrepressible dose of chipper holiday cheer.

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9. Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas (1960)

9. Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas (1960)

Released in 1960, right as Ella Fitzgerald was in the middle of recording a series of seminal Song Book albums for Verve, Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas is a classic of its own, sitting comfortably alongside such albums as Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers & Hart Songbook. Concentrating entirely on secular seasonal songs, Fitzgerald creates a sprightly soundtrack to a bustling, cosmopolitan Christmas: these are delightfully idiosyncratic versions of familiar tunes that manage to still seem fresh decades after the album’s original release.

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8. James Brown, James Brown’s Funky Christmas (1995)

8. James Brown, James Brown’s Funky Christmas (1995)

James Brown recorded no less than three Christmas albums for King Records between 1966 and 1970, a period where he was on an absolute hot streak. The 1995 compilation James Brown’s Funky Christmas collects 17 highlights from these LPs, balancing string-laden ballads with gritty R&B workouts. If the former veers a little toward the syrupy, the latter saves the day, offering some of the liveliest, funkiest Christmas music ever recorded.

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7. Beach Boys, The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album (1964)

7. Beach Boys, The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album (1964)

Taking a cue from his idol Phil Spector, Brian Wilson ushered the Beach Boys into the studio in the summer of 1964 to record their own response to A Christmas Gift for You. Wilson was inspired enough to write a clutch of original Christmas tunes, all in the vein of the Beach Boys’ early surf rock singles: “Little Saint Nick,” the best known of these, is a virtual rewrite of their hit “Little Deuce Coupe.” All these new songs are fun but the collection of seasonal covers are equally good, showcasing the Beach Boys’ knack for turning vocal harmony and studio wizardry into iconic American pop.

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6. Kacey Musgraves, A Very Kacey Christmas (2016)

6. Kacey Musgraves, A Very Kacey Christmas (2016)

Kacey Musgraves designed A Very Kacey Christmas as a conscious, clever throwback to the golden era of holiday records: the mid-century LPs that pioneered the very idea of a Christmas record. Musgraves relies on a number of standards that populated numerous holiday albums of that era—”Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Let It Snow,” “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” “Mele Kalikimaka”—then fusing uptown pop with countrypolitan, an inspired blend that also lends itself well to the handful of originals that she writes for the record. The concept is as clever as the execution, resulting in one of the best Christmas albums of recent years.

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5. Bob Dylan, Christmas In The Heart (2009)

5. Bob Dylan, Christmas In The Heart (2009)

At the time of its 2009 release, the existence of Christmas In The Heart seemed absurd: why would Bob Dylan spend his time recording a collection of Christmas tunes? The answer in retrospect seems obvious: Christmas songs are an integral part of American tradition, something that Dylan takes very seriously. Fortunately, he doesn’t take himself too seriously on Christmas In The Heart. He’s clearly having a ball alternating between his gravelly croon and bluesy yelp, helping to turn this album into a riotous collection of roadhouse rockers and warm, burnished nostalgia.

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4. Elvis Presley, Elvis’ Christmas Album (1957)

4. Elvis Presley, Elvis’ Christmas Album (1957)

One of Elvis Presley’s first albums, Elvis’ Christmas Album is also one of his enduring classics thanks to how it’s pitched perfectly between his raw early rock and roll and the softer pop he’d soon explore. The gentler touch is evident on such seasonal standards as “White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “O Little Town Of Bethlehem,” not to mention the clutch of hymns that close the record, recordings where he’s given supple support by the harmonies of the Jordanaires. But what really keeps the record moving are the rock and roll numbers. Whether it’s the cheerful bop of “Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me)“ or the bluesy growl of “Santa Claus is Back In Town”—or “Blue Christmas,” which blends the two approaches—Presley sounds alive and not too far removed from the wild rocker of Sun Records.

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3. Frank Sinatra, A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra (1957)

3. Frank Sinatra, A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra (1957)

Recorded at the start of Frank Sinatra’s spectacular streak of concept albums at Capitol Records in the late 1950s, A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra has many of the same attributes as such masterworks as Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! and Where Are You? First, it boasts lively, picturesque arrangements from Gordon Jenkins, who helps create the illusion of a winter wonderland with his strings and choirs. The album is cleverly structured, too, offering a side of bustling secular seasonal tunes and a side of stately carols, the two sides complementing each other in sensibility and sound. Combined, they amount to an album that sounds equally good at holiday parties and quiet nights at home by the Christmas tree.

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2. The Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

2. The Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

A small wonder of an album, A Charlie Brown Christmas is very much a product of its time, the place where the urbane swing of cool jazz intersected with the existential modernist humor of Charles M. Schulz on the playing field of network television. The commercial considerations that propelled the first Peanuts special onto the air have been lost to time, leaving behind the wry film itself and its beautiful, bittersweet soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. The pianist penned two songs that turned into standards—the bopping “Linus And Lucy” and its sighing counterpart “Christmas Time Is Here”—and then surrounded it with interpretations of carols plus a couple other originals that find sweetness and melancholy intermingling in a fashion that’s well-suited for the holidays: from one angle, this is a pure joy, from another it’s a poignant reminder of Christsmases past.

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1. A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector (1963)

1. A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector (1963)

A showcase for Phil Spector and his Philles Records roster—it originally was titled A Christmas Gift To You From Philles Records—this 1963 album is the foundation of all modern Christmas records. Making only a passing nod at the religious roots of the holiday—it ends with a “Silent Night,” the only song here that could be classified as a carol—Spector celebrates the bustle of the season, a time filled with fantastical creatures cavorting in a winter wonderland. His titanic Wall of Sound turns gentle numbers into monuments and gives the sillier tunes gravitas, but the center of the album lies in “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” the lone original here that became an enduring standard as it captures the overwhelming majesty of the holiday season and the pathos at its core.

 

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