Christmas music. For some, it’s the bane of the Christmas season; overplayed music that begins, in some cases, before Thanksgiving. To others, it’s the warm sounds of the season that bring joy to the heart and wonderful memories to the mind of Christmas’ past. If you belong to the first group, you may not be interested in this article. On the other hand, if you’re like me, and simply can’t wait, each year, until it’s time to break out the many variations of “Jingle Bells” or “Deck The Halls”, then you’ll hopefully find this article a good read, and perhaps you will even add your thoughts in the comments section.
Those of us who love the music, all have our opinions as to what the best albums are of all-time. Chances are, they are the albums you grew up hearing on mom and dad’s hi-fi or console stereo. Perhaps, it’s collection by someone now firmly entrenched in the oldies genre, but who was a teenage idol when you first heard them. No matter the story or reason behind your choices, the fact is, they are the collection of songs that you either A) still spin every December (this would be me), or B) still recall with incredible clarity, even if thirty years has passed since you last heard it. With that in mind, I will present to you my choices. My ten Christmas albums, that are must plays every December, without fail.
Christmas With Eddy Arnold
One of the first two albums to hit the turntable nearly every year (the other one is farther down the post), in my youth (as well as even now), this is my all-time favorite Christmas album. Hitting the market in 1962, the original issue featured an illustrated picture of Arnold, wearing winter gear and holding a guitar, with a winter scene in the background. Later versions featured a photo of Eddy Arnold in front of a lit Christmas tree amongst a dark background. “Christmas Can’t Be Far Away” is the perfect opening track for the album, and the season, with its slow, melodic depiction of all the signs that point to the nearing of Christmas Day. “C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S” associates each letter with the holiday’s real meaning. It is arguably the most beautiful track on the album. Eddy’s take on every track, here, is stellar, whether it’s dishing out a surprisingly strong rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock”; traditional classics like “White Christmas”, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”, or “Winter Wonderland”; or the great Christmas hymns like “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” and “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day”. I never get tired of listening to this album, it is truly a delight to the ears at Christmastime.
Charley Pride Christmas In My Hometown
Another of my Christmas favorites is this 1971 release from Charley Pride. So many great tracks, here, on this album. “Christmas In My Home Town” was a quick-paced track that was regularly heard on country radio, during Decembers of the 70’s and 80’s. One of my favorite Christmas songs that I have to hear, every year, as well as being a “must Play” on the Ultimate Twang show. Charley also does one of my favorite versions of “Deck The Halls”, as well, his baritone a perfect match. “Silent Night”, “Little Drummer Boy”, and “O Holy Night” are also first-rate versions of majestic classics. “Happy Christmas Day” and “Santa and The Kids” have never achieved classic or standards status, yet they are quality tracks, delivered in near flawless fashion by Charley Pride. One other track that should be mentioned, here, too, is “They Stood In Silent Prayer”. What a great track to tell the story of the first Christmas!
Charley Pride is one of my favorite artists and this album is always a great listen. A nice mix of music that’s Christmas AND country!
Christmas With Ed Ames
If Eddy Arnold’s album wasn’t the first seasonal disc on the turntable, then likely it was because this album was. If there was ever a singer created for Christmas music who wasn’t named Crosby, this album makes an extremely strong argument for Ed Ames. Christmas with Ed Ames was released in 1967, and this is an album that I can truly say simply makes me feel good whenever I listen to it. Christmas is a time of joy, and I’m not sure there is an album where the joy shines through any more than this one. I mentioned Charley Pride’s version of “Deck The Halls” being one of my favorite takes of this classic, well the version found here is my absolute favorite. To me, there is no version that touches Ed Ames’. And the lite, airy touch he gives to “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” is a near-perfect match. The remaining nine tracks, though, are just as impressive, each one handled flawlessly by Ames’ powerful voice. You may well be familiar with his version of “Do You Hear What I Hear”, as it still gets radio play, at Christmas, and with good reason. His recitation of a part of the Christmas story during “O Come All Ye Faithful”, simply takes the track to another level. Also worth noting are “Sweet Little Jesus Boy”, “I Wonder As I Wander”, “Away In A Manger”, and “The First Noel”. Well, really, every track is worth noting, here. Again, this album is full of spirit and is a true joy to listen to, literally every time it’s played. It never gets old.
Christmas With Chet Atkins
A 1961 release, this collection is like two completely different albums on one record, and both are excellent. Side 1 is contemporary, while side 2 is traditional. This is one of my “go-to” albums when I want some good instrumental Christmas music, and if I had to pick simply one instrumental album, this would be it. There’s a great version of “Jingle Bell Rock”, which I think is the best version not performed by Bobby Helms. It’s joined on the first side with outstanding performances of six more classics like “Jingle Bells”, “Winter Wonderland”, “Jolly Old St. Nicholas”, and “White Christmas”, among others. The first side is performed by Chet with his trademark electric guitar, while the second side is all done with a classical guitar and minimal arrangement. The result is an incredibly intimate performance of some of the greatest songs of Christmas. “The Coventry Carol” is a medley with “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”, but is so great it could easily stand on its own. To begin with, I love the melody and to have it performed so flawlessly, it’s a true highlight every time I listen. Chet played it solo, with no backing instruments or voices, resulting in a powerful performance. His work on “The First Noel” is also so stellar that it’s my favorite version of this song; vocal or instrumental. And it simply continues with the rest of the side; “Little Drummer Boy”, “Deck the Halls”, and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” are all part of an overall outstanding performance. Simply a great album.
The Living Voices The Little Drummer Boy
Another album that I’ve heard, literally, as long as I can remember. RCA used to release albums, using various vocal groups, under the name The Living Voices. The albums were generally easy listening in nature, covering everything from movie songs to standards to Christmas, and were generally released on their Camden budget label. This album was released in 1963, and was recorded in Nashville by the Anita Kerr Singers, the group heard on so many of the big country hits of that era; that is, if the Jordanaires weren’t being used. I admit it, it’s one I must play at least once, every year! Great, vintage (my wife would say cheesy) sounds that just make the season even better. Side 1 is a bright collection of sounds, whereas side 2 is more mellow. I have always loved the way they mixed “Jingle Bells” and “Sleigh Ride”; two songs that complement each other perfectly. And putting together “Pine Cones and Holly Berries” along with “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” is sheer genius. I should note, by the way, That I cannot say this was the first time that was done. I know Mitch Miller had a single version, as well, but I haven’t been able to find a release date. Back to this album, though, this medley also wraps with a bit of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”.
As mentioned, side 2 is more mellow, and I admit that I don’t always spin this side, unlike side 1. Nothing really stands out on this side; all five tracks are solid and consistent, though “Do You Hear What I Hear” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” are especially enjoyable.
I may have to break down and grab another copy of this, when I see one (or maybe get the cd, as it’s now available in that format!), as my copy is starting to show signs of age, as well as probably having been spun with a worn stylus, a couple of times, over the past fifty-ish years. This is a great, album to just sit and chill to.
The Dean Martin Christmas Album
A 1966 release that’s also been a long part of the Christmas tradition, although probably a few years less than Ed, Eddy, and the Living Voices. I say that because I actually remember when we got this album.
Another album full of holiday goodies, delivered as only the great Dean Martin could do them. “Marshmallow World” is the album’s highlight, here. It’s a “must-play” every year on our Ultimate Twang Christmas Show (where I mix in some non-country Christmas with the country Christmas). But by no means is it the only good track, here. Dean performs the best vocal version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” in existence, in my opinion. His Capitol Records recording of “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” may be superior, but his version on this album is not far behind. On this version, he gives it a little more relaxed, smooth treatment, compared the earlier version.
He also excels on “Silent Night” and “Silver Bells”, as well as “Winter Wonderland”.
This album is like the Living Voices, in being a great album to just sit back and chill with, enjoying some great smooth sounds the way that only Dean Martin could do it. A great album to decorate by, by the way!
Bert Kaempfert Christmas Wonderland
Though this album was released in 1963, I did not become aware of it until probably the early 1990’s. I was aware of German bandleader/songwriter Bert Kaempfert, largely through his hit “Wonderland By Night”, plus I had heard “Holiday For Bells” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town”, both of which are included on this album. However, in the years since my discovering this album, it has become another of my “go-to” albums when I’m in the mood for some good Christmas instrumentals.
Known for his easy listening (what some would call “elevator music”), that’s exactly what is found, here, and makes this a perfect album whenever a little mellow background music is called for, during the season. But beyond that, it’s just a really good album to listen to.
On this album, you’ll find a lively version of the “Little Drummer Boy”, one of the album’s highlights, along with the aforementioned “Holiday For Bells” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town”. His orchestra’s performance of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is also worth noting as a great performance.
He also does a little different interpretation of “Sleigh Ride” than what is generally heard. Generally, this song, as you know, is performed in a fast, and in some versions, almost break necked pace. Here, though, Kaempfert turns it from a horse race into a more leisurely Sunday afternoon ride.
“Toy Parade”, “Jingo Jango”, and “Christmas Wonderland” are also worth noting, here.
The temp never sways too much, on this album; slow isn’t dreadfully slow, while fast isn’t petal-to-the-metal. Bert Kaempfert maintains a consistency throughout the album, both in tempos and sound, but can do so, avoiding the pitfall of the album becoming a monotonous string of same-sounding songs.
If you like that 1960’s style of Christmas sound (which I do), then this album is right up your alley.
Jim Reeves The Twelve Songs of Christmas
Back on the old Ultimate Twang blog, I did a full Classic Album Review of this, as well as several other classic Country Christmas albums. On that post, I noted that the only thing that kept this album from being an equal to Eddy Arnold’s Christmas collection (my all-time favorite; country-wise), was two tracks; “Senor Santa Claus” and “The Merry Christmas Polka”. Okay, so I’ve softened my stance on those two tracks, in the time since; maybe they’re not as bad as I once thought, but I still wish he had chosen a couple of other songs to cover. That being said, the rest of the album is nothing short of stellar. Likely, you’re familiar with “An Old Christmas Card”, the track that seems to have gotten the most air play, over the years, from this 1963 release. It is one of my favorite Christmas tracks, but by no means is it the only great one, here. In fact, other than the two previously mentioned tracks that don’t quite do it for me, the rest of this album is as good as there’s ever been, with the additional highlights being “Mary’s Little Boy Child”, of which I’ll take Jim’s version over even the Harry Belafonte classic; plus “Adeste Fidelis”, “Silver Bells”, “Silent Night”, and even Jim’s take on “Jingle Bells”; all great tracks that I love to hear over and over. He also does a great cover of Eddy Arnold’s “C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S”, as well.
This is another album that I didn’t actually grow up with, as I didn’t have a copy until the late 80’s, after college. But since that time, it’s become one of my “must-listen-to” albums, each Christmas season. Great songs performed by one of the greatest vocalists, ever. Need I say more?
Yule Train Christmas Sampler
While doing a little research on this album, I noticed that someone had a copy of it on sale on Ebay for ONLY $99.99! I don’t know, but maybe it is worth that, as it is rather scarce. Released in 1990 by Rhino, I don’t believe this album was ever actually commercially available, but was rather a promo cd meant to be played by record stores, promoting the various Christmas collections that Rhino had available, at the time. That list included their Greatest Christmas Hits series in the Country, R & B, and Pop genres, Dr. Demento’s collection, the classic Bummed Out Christmas (I still need this one!), among others. Of course, the result is a unique mix of music that makes this cd rather fun to listen to. There are classics, here, from Nat King Cole, Brenda Lee, The Chipmunks, Bobby Helms, Elvis, Bing Crosby, and Eartha Kitt (you can likely guess which songs). But there’s so much more. Not only is there Bing singing “White Christmas”, there’s also the Drifters’ version, which I love. There’s also two versions of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town”, with the Jackson 5, then later, the 4 Seasons. Ever heard James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to The Ghetto”? It’s here. If you grew up in the 1950’s, you’ll remember Edward “Cookie” Byrnes. He’s here with “Yuleville”. There’s also Ernest Tubb’s version of “Blue Christmas” Buck Owens “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy” and a Hank Thompson track “I’m Gonna Wrap My Heart in Ribbons”. And there’s even depressing Christmas, here, though actually more funny than depressing when you hear them in “Christmas In Jail” and “Somebody Stole My Santa Claus Suit”.
I don’t necessarily always listen to the whole album, but it’s one that, every year, gets played at least partially, usually multiple times.
Vince Guaraldi Trio A Charlie Brown Christmas
Some of the most recognizable sounds in Christmas are on this album. Basically, if you’ve watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, and frankly about 95% of us have multiple times, you know most, if not all the tracks. You can’t not like this album. It’s just great music. I’m not a big fan of Jazz, but I make an exception, here. I love these songs. I’m sure that part of the reason I and many others feel this way is because it is a link to our own youth, or the very least our kids’ youth, or both. But beyond that, it’s just flat-out good music. Great background music, great chillin’ music, great instrumental (mostly) Christmas music.
This album was released in 1965 and continues to sell, fifty years later, with sales well over 3 million since 1991. I want to get the re-issued copy on red vinyl, that is available as of this writing.
In addition to these ten, here are some others that are also worth mentioning. They may not get played every year, but if I can, they get a spin or two.
Nat King Cole The Christmas Song
One of the classic albums of Christmas, the title track is one of my all-time favorites. Love his versions of “Deck the Halls”, “Cradle in Bethlehem”, and “Caroling, Caroling”, as well.
Patty Loveless Bluegrass & White Snow
As great a country singers as Patty Loveless is (one of the best, in my opinion), she might well be an even better bluegrass vocalist. This album is bluegrass Christmas at its best. “Away in A Manger” & the underrated “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem”.
Martina McBride White Christmas
Vocally, this might be her best album. Great interpretations of classic Christmas songs.
Holiday Sing Along with Mitch Miller
Another one from childhood, though I really haven’t listened to it a lot, until the past few years. Another that my wife could call “cheesy”, but there’s something fun about listening to this album.
Perry Como Sings Merry Christmas Music
Another one I should listen to, more. This is the original RCA Victor release from 1956 with the full sixteen tracks. Later RCA Camden reissues deleted several tracks, though all sixteen have reappeared on CD. “That Christmas Feeling” (I also have on 78) is the highlight, here.
Garth Brooks Beyond the Season
Arguably the country Christmas album of the nineties, this is one of those albums that I don’t listen to a lot, but when I do, I am always glad I did. Really, does anyone do “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” any better than Garth, except maybe Tennessee Ernie Ford? “The Old Man’s Back in Town” is stellar, too, of course having been spun on radio, many times, over the years. Plus, his version of the Buck Owens classic “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy” is nearly as good as Buck’s.
These are the ten albums that I must play, every year, along with others that I try to play. They are as much a part of Christmas, to me, as the tree, gifts, and food. I’m sure you have your favorites, as well, and I invite you to tell me what they are in the comments section below.
About Thy Author
Mike the Country Musicologist is a lifelong music and radio fanatic, lover of vintage agriculture, and big sports fan, including the Colts, Reds, Hurricanes, Pacers, Purdue & Butler Universities. He has collected records since childhood, focusing on classic country and top 40 oldies music. After convincing Vincennes University in Indiana to give him an Associate’s Degree in broadcasting, he has spent most of his adult life on the radio, having worked for several stations in Indiana and North Carolina, including his current gig, hosting the weekly World Famous Ultimate Twang Radio Show. The show is heard Thursdays, 4-7p ET on WSFM-LP/AshevilleFM, which is at 103.3 FM in Asheville, North Carolina, as well as online at ashevillefm.org. Be sure to follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.