Santa's–Sorry, Sasha's–Christmas Playlist

In my house, I have a little stack of CDs that I bring out once a year—for Christmas Eve and Christmas day. I then put them away on the shelf until the following year. This annual Festival of Christmas Albums is met with varying degrees of pleasure and resignation by the family members present; listening is non-negotiable, though we may not make it through all of them. Once in a while a new Christmas album will make the cut and be added to the stack, but not every year.

First up, because it always gets played, is Elvis Presley's If Every Day Was Like Christmas (RCA 07863-66506-2, 1994). This BMG release combines Presley's two Christmas albums with some bonus tracks: Elvis' Christmas Album, from 1957, and Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas, from 1971. The title song is a stand-alone release from 1966, but for me the heart of the matter are the tracks Elvis cut in Hollywood in 1957, before he went into the army. These are the last recordings Elvis made with his original trio of Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and D.J. Fontana; they quit at the end of the sessions. I like the pairing of a swinging "Blue Christmas" with "White Christmas."

If you miss the film on TCM this time of year (which is hard to do), you can listen to the soundtrack from Holiday Inn instead (Universal Music B00-11730-02, 2008). Irving Berlin's 1942 film and the song it contained, "White Christmas," are American identifying tags. Linked inextricably to the WWII period, the song won Berlin his only Oscar, and it remains one of the most recorded to this day. Most of the Christmas albums on my list include "White Christmas" as a common denominator. Bing Crosby's performance here remains definitive.

Kicking it up a notch in both tempo and years, It's a Holiday Soul Party, by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings (Daptone Records DAP-037, 2015), gets us out of Nashville and into Brooklyn. I wish Sharon Jones was still making records, with that proud retro-recording technology, but sadly she is gone now. Sharon and the Dap-Kings bring a smokin' R&B twist to "White Christmas," contrasted by "8 Days of Hanukkah" and "Ain't No Chimneys in the Projects." Let the X-mas party begin!

Then there's Frank's contribution to the Christmas album genre: A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra (Capitol Records W-894. 1957). Yes, there's a great version of "White Christmas" here, arranged by Nelson Riddle. The late-1950's Capitol years are Frank's greatest, both for his voice and the sound Capitol was getting from Frank and his arrangers. Some of these traditional Christmas songs take on different flavors depending on who's singing. When an urban touring musician like Sinatra sings "I'll Be Home for Christmas," that colors the mood. Another one that seems to work well for Frank is "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Another classic seasonal album.

Cut to 1963, and it's time for Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (Philles Records PHLP 4005, 1963). Darlene Love, The Ronettes, The Crystals—what's not to like? I know the answer to that: Phil Spector himself. But boy do these tracks sound fabulous! The album opens with Darlene Love's take on "White Christmas"; her version of "Winter Wonderland" is irresistible. The album closes with "Silent Night," which includes a spoken greeting from Phil that now seems creepy; if he'd just had a bit more Christmas spirit, maybe he wouldn't have ended up as he did.

Out of the blue, in 2009, Dylan stepped up to the plate with Christmas in the Heart (Columbia 88697-57323-2, 2009). I know, don't start, Dylan doing a Christmas album? I like his version of "Winter Wonderland." And like Frank, Dylan brings a personal touch to "I'll Be Home for Christmas." You haven't lived till you've heard Bob's take on "Must Be Santa." Chestnuts roasting by an open fire, a glass of his excellent Heavens Door bourbon in his hand, it's Uncle Bob singing some Christmas songs for the kids. I love it—once a year.

My pick for a new addition this year to the Christmas-album canon, is the recently recorded Holidays (Sunnyside Records SSC-1731, 2023), from two of New York's own: composer and reed man Ted Nash and partner and vocalist Kristen Lee Sergeant. Recently recorded at Jazz at Lincoln Center's in-house studio, the nine tracks here present a whole 'nuther take on the Christmas album tradition. Mixing classics such as "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" and "The Christmas Song" with lesser-known tunes, Nash's highly contemporary, smokin' arrangements for jazz orchestra are fresh and creative. Sergeant's strong, clear vocals are ably supported by some of New York's best jazz musicians. Tradition, but for a New Year.

Now it's time for me to go spike the eggnog and spin one (or more) of these albums. Heck, maybe I'll just skip the eggnog and go straight to the spike?

Happy Holidays.—Sasha

alexk's picture

But only two days to play them? Brutal!

Christmas records get the green light on Black Friday around these parts and go strong until Christmas day.

I like adding a few to the stash each year. This year, I picked up The Salsoul Orchestra's uncut, 100% pure disco album "Christmas Jollies" and Al Green's "White Christmas." Neither are essential but both are a lot of fun.

Happy Holidays!

MBMax's picture

I like this list.

I would add two indispensables (for me anyway):

Chris Squire's Swiss Choir and the inimitable Nat King Cole's Christmas Song.

And by the by... was in Amoeba LA a couple of months ago and snagged a test pressing of Molto Molto. My wife and I both are loving it. Well done. She even made a rare call out of appreciation from the other room.

Usually she raises her eyebrows or silently shakes her head :-)

Merry Christmas All!

beeswax's picture

A wild throw from left field is Cyndi Lauper's "Merry Christmas . . . Have a Nice Life," which is the second best album of her entire career.

Archimago's picture

Don't know if it's the 2nd best album of her career (She's So Unusual, and True Colors both great).

But yes, Merry Christmas... Have A Nice Life! is a wonderful seasonal album that's quirky and just plain fun. An album that sounds excellent in ambiophonics (crosstalk cancellation).

argyle_mikey's picture

For something a little more (forgive me) understated, try “Tinsel And Lights” by Tracey Thorn.

Lars Bo's picture

I've been listening a lot to Tracey Thorn on "Fuse" through this year. If I had made a list of Top 2023-albums, it would be on there.

In jolly seasons, though, if to sing is to pray twice it must be thrice with Bing's dreaming.

I read the other day that "Last Christmas" was No. 1 Xmas-song in the UK for the first time. Chris Rea's "Driving..." is harassing Danish radio and malls etc. in latter seasons. It's just too much... but, if I fail to escape, the minor melody line in Rea's chorus gets me every time.

Happy holidays to all

Elliott Studio Arts's picture

Ramsey Lewis released two essential Christmas albums in the 60's that are a permanent fixture in my Christmas playlist..

barfle's picture

Merry Christmas, Darling; This Time of the Year; All I Want for Christmas is You.

All good songs that should be on anyone’s Christmas playlist.

I have compiled my list onto a Musid DVD, which allows over 20 hours of stereo audio in a single disc, and has a shuffle feature. Lots of fun!