The 5 best Christmas albums

Okay, you’ve heard all the typical Christmas collections — popular singers performing familiar carols, divas singing newly minted “contemporary” songs, tasteful arrangements of the same old same old — but you’re craving something unique, something that breathes new life into the tradition, something that stimulates both your need for nostalgia and your need for adventure. These five choices, spanning styles from jazz to alternative to folk to classical, deliver the goods.

A Charlie Brown Christmas
Vince Guaraldi Trio
Yes, it may be well known, but it’s different enough from the run of the mill to qualify as one of the best. And besides, it’s indelibly linked to our childhood memories of the Peanuts gang. Interesting jazz arrangements of traditional carols, original compositions, children’s angelic voices, and the perennial favorite “Linus and Lucy” all mingle to create a deeply satisfying album.

Our Heart’s Joy
This a capella all-male singing group has recorded a number of wonderful, out-of-the-ordinary Christmas albums. On this album, they perform a wide variety of mainly lesser known sacred works from the 15th to the 20th century — songs that are among their best-loved repertoire. For those more interested in familiar territory, check out their collection “Our Favorite Carols.”

Manhattan Transfer: Christmas Album
Manhattan Transfer
The voices of this jazz vocal quartet blend smoothly to produce thrilling harmonies and unique arrangements of familiar holiday tunes. John Lennon’s lovely lullaby “Goodnight” closes the album. No other version of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” will be as satisfying after you’ve heard theirs.

James Taylor at Christmas
James Taylor
Despite the range of styles represented on this album, from blues to jazz to folk to lush classicism, Taylor’s voice unifies it all with tasteful restraint and simplicity, especially on the guitar-accompanied cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River.” Of particular interest is a different take on “Jingle Bells.” It’s a risk to play around this much with a well-known tune, but the risk pays off.

Midwinter Graces
Tori Amos
In this unique Christmas album, Tori Amos mixes traditional carols into original songs. It’s a gutsy choice, but the result is sublime. Her unparalleled piano playing, as always, drives the music. There’s a wealth of creativity and artistry on this album that puts most Christmas albums to shame.

For additional posts that provide interesting music lists, see About Music and This Site.

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