I think holiday music gets a bad rap. Sure, it comes a little too early in these last few years – Christmas music before Thanksgiving seems.. well, it’s bullshit. I find it annoying and gratuitous, and I just won’t listen to it voluntarily. I do like a lot of the music itself on its own – just in its own time. I have a month to get burned out on it as it is. Do I really need an extra 3 weeks?
However, I think a lot of people have grown a distinct distaste for holiday music itself (not just the burnout) because we’re so accustomed to hearing the same old, hokey versions of songs our grandparents listened to, the same bombastic arrangements of hymns that have been played on repeat by local adult contemporary stations for decades, the same warbling, over-the-top tunes that just make us cringe when we hear their blaring horns and pealing chimes. I get the hate.
But Christmas music isn’t all bad. There are great albums out there that can make your season merry, set the mood for special holiday memories, and brighten up any party. Given the chance, you might even like them. These are my favorite Christmas albums.
For the quirky girl in you
Zooey Deschanel is the She of She & Him, so this album is full of her doe-eyed charm. The arrangements are simple – it’s just 2 people, accompanied either by guitar or ukulele. There’s a coziness to A Very She & Him Christmas, maybe because the artistry is incredibly exposed, maybe because the vocals are gentle and unobtrusive. It’s modern but strangely timeless, and likely one of the most original and interesting holiday albums of the last… well, basically since Mariah Carey came out with “All I Want for Christmas is You.”
For the child in us all
Nothing is more classic or timeless than The Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. The simple arrangements of piano, bass, and drums are perfect backdrops for any gathering, quiet nights at home by the tree, or trying to feel the spirit while you’re sitting in traffic, lamenting this particular Target run because the place is PACKED. Charlie Brown is as much a part of the holiday season as cheeks red from the cold and twinkle lights, and the music is at the core of its magic.
For the sophisticate
Diana Krall’s smooth alto drawl is like the musical realization of the perfect after dinner coffee – rich, creamy, and makes you feel like an adult. Christmas Songs feels swanky without feeling pretentious, with tracks that range from upbeat and playful to achingly nostalgic. This is ideal for dinner or cocktail parties without the littles, because we all need a little grown-up time.
For a good time
I know this list is a bit jazz-heavy, but there’s something about jazz that demands originality, and as far as Christmas music goes, originality is all I can really ask for at this point. Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas is quintessential for the holidays, with party-ready charts that the whole family can get down with. Fitzgerald’s playful versions of “Frosty the Snowman,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (one of the ONLY tolerable recordings of the song, to my knowledge) are among my favorites for the sophistication she brings to songs that are usually geared more toward children. I especially love her sweet (and mercifully non-melancholic) “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” because it’s so tenderly sung and generously given. I’d like to think these recordings will live on forever as the ultimate in holiday perfection.
For kids from 1 to 92
This album really has a little something for everyone. It’s jazzy, it’s poppy, it’ll take you back in time, and bring you right into the moment. Not only is Elf one of the best Christmas movies of all time, but the Elf soundtrack is a universally likable gem in a mineshaft world of droning holiday tunes.
BONUS: Holiday for Swing
For surprising your friends with something unexpected
As it turns out, Seth Macfarlane isn’t just a comedic genius; he’s a fantastic musician. Like an actually good musician. No wonder he chooses to use a full studio orchestra when they do the music for Family Guy.
Anyway, Holiday for Swing is great, if not a little bit of a throwback. The orchestrations are lush, his voice is rich, and the whole package is reminiscent of the 60s without the cheese factor.
BUT THERE’S A CAVEAT. I think what makes this album super fun is making it a bit of a game and letting everyone stew and wonder “why is this voice so familiar?” while you let or make them guess who it is. Or maybe I’m a monster for making my friends and family play guessing games, I dunno.
So before you get all humbuggy about holiday music, maybe skip the Bing Crosby and Andy Williams for a while (and for the sake of all things you consider holy, just walk away whenever you hear Madonna’s “Santa Baby”), and try these albums out. Sure, you might resent that you actually like them, but you might actually like them.
What holiday albums are on your list?