My obsession with Christmas records can be traced directly back to the series of “A Very Merry Christmas” LPs sold exclusively each holiday season by the W.T. Grant’s department store chain. From 1968 to 1975, the annual sampler of holiday tunes featured a bizarro mash up of performers on each album, pressed up by the CBS Records plant located in my hometown of Pitman, N.J. Each year, the eclectic mix would inexplicably include artists like Jim Nabors, the Andre Kostelanetz Orchestra, Cary Grant, Mahalia Jackson, the Ed Sullivan Orchestra and Bobby Vinton, all cohabitating on the same 12 inches of vinyl. But my absolute favorite was 1971’s “A Very Merry Christmas, Volume 4,” where in the span of 40 minutes, I was simultaneously introduced to the artistry of Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, Aretha Franklin, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Johnny Cash, Gary Puckett, Mark Lindsay (of Paul Revere and the Raiders!) and Barbra Streisand (who, because of the mood lighting on the cover, I became convinced was a black woman. It is perhaps important to note I was seven).
The Christmas before Grant’s went toes up and filed for bankruptcy protection, my father let me —me! — pick out the family’s copy of “A Very Merry Christmas Volume 8,” which turned out to be the final LP of the series (personally, I’ve always felt it was the particularly lethal sequencing of Fred Waring and The Pennsylvanians’ rendition of “Sleigh Ride” next to “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” by Tennessee Ernie Ford on Side One that sealed the department store’s economic fates).
As a life-long Christmas music vinyl collector, my addiction knows no season. I will crate dive through record store holiday selections (usually hidden in the back of the store, at ankle level) at any time of year. I’m (somewhat) proud to possess both the “Bonanza: Christmas on the Ponderosa” LP (Lorne Greene singing “Stuck in the Chimney” is life-changing, albeit, not necessarily in a good way) and the “Christmas With Colonial Sanders” album (yes, that Col. Sanders) just because I wanted, no, actually, I needed to hear Kate Smith bellow her way through “‘O Holy Night.”
In the spirit of the season, I thought I’d share some of my favorite holiday album finds from Christmases Past (most of which have been sadly forgotten over the decades), along with some more recent gems you may want to check out. While I unearthed these from various dusty Christmas record shop bins (I’ve included the retailer where applicable) or online store, all of the following selections are also available to stream via Spotify.
12. J.D. McPherson, “Socks” (New West): With a fresh glut of Christmas album cash grabs tossed haphazardly into the marketplace annually, it’s nearly impossible to release something that truly stands out. But on his 2018 release, this roots rocker singer-songwriter does precisely that. McPherson wrote all of the album’s 11 original seasonally themed songs, including the title track, an ode to every kid’s worst nightmare — discovering a beautifully wrapped box of foot sweaters under the tree on Christmas morning. Other standouts McPherson trains his trademark growl and Fender guitar on include: “Bad Kid,” “Hey Skinny Santa!” “Ugly Sweater Blues” and McPherson’s bluesy vocal grudge match with Lucie Silvas on “Claus vs. Claus.” If you spring for the vinyl LP format of the album, you’ll score a large a Mitch Miller-styled “Sing Along With Socks!” lyric booklet, filled with gorgeous retro illustrations by Anika Orrock.
11. Dean Martin “A Winter Romance” (Capitol): This 1959 concept album from the iconic crooner leans way into the Rat Pack vocalist’s public persona as a booze-swilling ladies man, down to the highly stylized album cover photo of Dino in a clinch with one bundled up ski bunny outside a snowy chalet while making eyes at the Hitchcock blond behind her. While Martin includes some traditional Christmas fare like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” it’s the originals co-written by Sinatra songsmith Sammy Cahn, including the title track, “The Things We Did Last Summer” and “It Won’t Cool Off” that elevate the album to its snowy peaks, making it the perfect mid-mod soundtrack for sipping hot toddies by the fire. (Discovered at Lost n Found Records, Knoxville)
10. Tracey Thorn, “Tinsel and Lights,” (Merge Records): Released in 2012, Thorn, one-half of the English husband-and-wife act Everything But The Girl, creates a melancholy modern masterpiece with this mix of retro and recent seasonal selections (Sufjan Stevens, Randy Newman, anyone?). Thorn’s sensitive treatments of standards like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (with strings!) and Joni Mitchell’s “River” certainly deliver. But it’s the singer-songwriter’s decidedly adult originals like the album opener “Joy” (what’s a better grown up Christmas gift than a friend phoning to tell you she’s cancer-free?) and her stunning closer, a cover of husband Ben Watt’s “25th December” that will leave you thinking of family whilst crying in your Christmas cocktail.
9. The Everly Brothers, “Christmas With the Everly Brothers and the Boystown Choir” (Warner Bros.): To be clear, this is likely not the Christmas record most fans of this pioneering rock n roll singing duo had dancing in their heads when they first dropped the needle on this in 1962. Filled with their trademark soaring harmonies, Don and Phil Everly literally take listeners to church, complete with pipe organ and the 33-voice Boystown Choir. The concept recreates the Christmas celebrations of the brothers’ youth, spent caroling with neighbors in Brownie, Kentucky. As expected, the album focuses on traditional hymns, including “Adeste Fideles” and “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella,” with each brother getting a solo number with the choir as well. For the album’s closing track, Don and Phil toss fans a brief rendition of the secular carol, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Largely forgotten nearly 60 years after it was released, this album, featuring one of the early rock era’s great vocal duos, is a gem if you’re looking for a reflective, reverent Christmas music alternative. (Discovered at Wuxtry Records, Decatur).
8. Chet Baker/Christopher Mason, “Silent Nights” (Rounder/Varrick): Addicted to heroin and without a bank account much less a record contract, jazz trumpeter Chet Baker recorded this quiet quintet Christmas record featuring alto saxophonist Christopher Mason in its entirety on Jan. 7, 1986 in New Orleans. As was customary at this point in his career, Baker requested the performance money in cash up front and likely signed away any rights to royalties. Like Baker himself, “Silent Nights” is alternately fascinating, gorgeous and ridiculously flawed, filled with careless clams, alongside moments of great beauty. By the time the album was released, Baker would have less than two years to live. But for many jazz fans, “Silent Nights” represents a unopened gift that’s been stashed on a shelf, collecting dust for decades. (Discovered at House of Music, Collegetown Shopping Center, Glassboro, N.J., RIP)
7. Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, “The Nutcracker Suite” (Columbia): This tragically overlooked 1960 gem from Ellington’s Columbia Records catalog is a reimagined version of Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet for Duke’s formidable jazz band, as conceived and arranged by longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn. With Ellington band legends Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves on sax and Ray Nance on trumpet keeping things swinging, Strayhorn, executing a concept he successfully pitched to Columbia producer Irving Townsend, finally steps out from Ellington’s long shadow. Indeed, on the album cover, Strayhorn and Ellington are featured in a portrait photograph together in matching white sweaters, snapped by photojournalist (and future 1970s filmmaker) Gordon Parks. It’s the first — and only time — Ellington would share the cover spotlight with his brilliant arranger. (Discovered at Wuxtry Records, Decatur, Ga.)
6. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, “It’s a Holiday Soul Party” (Daptone): This 2015 seasonal LP is guaranteed to break you out of any seasonal funk. Just when you’re convinced you can’t endure yet another version of Irving Berlin’s chestnut, Jones and the Dap Kings transform “White Christmas” into a soul rave up, perfect for rocking around your Christmas tree. Jones’ bluesy “Silent Night” is equally jaw-dropping and her original “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects” might rival her fellow Augusta, Georgia soul legend James Brown’s “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto” as a modern yuletide R&B standard. Sadly, just a year after this album’s release, pancreatic cancer would take Jones from us at age 60. Blessedly, she and the Dap Kings left us this new Christmas classic to remember her by each December.
5. Odetta, “Christmas Spirituals” (Vanguard): First released in 1960, this spare, beautiful recording of spirituals, features the folk singer’s rich contralto vocals, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar with the help of jazz bassist Bill Lee (filmmaker Spike Lee’s father). As the album liner notes warn, “There will be found in the texts no Santa Claus or Kris Kringle, no North Pole and reindeer, no Christmas tree, holly and mistletoe. Instead, these songs go back to the fundamentals of the birth of Christ, the mother, the manger, the arrival of a ‘Prince of Peace,’ all of them felt deeply as kin to the lives of the people who made the songs.” In short, one of the most powerful Christmas LPs ever issued. (Discovered at Wax n Facts, Atlanta, Ga.)
4. Tammy Wynette, “Christmas With Tammy” (Epic). Tammy Wynette was the reigning Queen of Country when she released this 1970 seasonal platter. Produced at CBS Records in Nashville by longtime collaborator Billy Sherrill (who also twisted the knobs on her 1968 classic “Stand By Your Man”) with The Jordanaires and The Nashville Edition on backing vocals, this a criminally short (26 minutes) yuletide collection but Wynette’s legendary voice can work a tear out of the most miserly Scrooge. And it wouldn’t be a pedal steel soaked Wynette record without some domestic drama best exemplified by “(Merry Christmas) We Must Be Having One” and of course, “Lonely Christmas Call,” a plea to a straying husband and father to return home for the holidays, written by Wynette’s own longtime on again-off again love, George Jones.
3. Ramsey Lewis Trio, “More Sounds of Christmas” (Chess/Argo): This swinging 1964 follow up to the jazz trio’s successful 1961 seasonal disc “Sounds of Christmas” might even edge out its predecessor. On original tunes like “Egg Nog” and “Plum Puddin’,” pianist Lewis, bassist Eldee Young and drummer Steve McCall are laid back while laying down a serious groove and having a ball. Lewis’ inventive arrangement of the consistently cloying “Twelve Days of Christmas” even makes one of the squarest seasonal standards sound hip. On lengthier cuts like “White Christmas” and “We Three Kings,” much like their live nightclub appearances, the trio has a chance to stretch out and deliver some tasty solo work. Discovered at Records Galore, Clarkston, Ga.)
2. Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, “That Holiday Feeling!” (Columbia) Highlighted with swinging charts by Sinatra arranger (and Gorme’s frequent collaborator) Don Costa, this is the holiday platter Ol Blue Eye’s fans always wished he’d made. Both Lawrence and Gorme have opportunities to show off their vocal prowess on solo turns, but this 1964 album really delivers when the husband-and-wife team combine their powerhouse pipes on “Winter Wonderland,” “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town” and the utterly incomparable “Sleigh Ride” (where Lawrence supplies the vocal sound effect of a whip cracking, swear to god). Plus, the big band and lush string-laden title track might be the antithesis of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Steve and Eydie flirt mercilessly with each other, trading lyrics like “Those reindeer soon will be here/Won’t mean a thing to me dear/When Santa Claus begins his flight/I hope he gets a flat tonight.” Cheesy? Absolutely. But who wants to celebrate the holidays without an ample supply of cheese?
1. Charlie Byrd, “The Charlie Byrd Christmas Album” (Concord): Perhaps best known as the jazz guitarist who helped to popularize the bossa nova craze in the late 50s and early 60s and for recording the 1960 Brazilian classic LP “Jazz Samba” with saxophonist Stan Getz, this gorgeous 1982 recording of solo acoustic guitar is a late-career gift. This relaxing collection combines old and new carols, ranging from the traditional English “The Holly and the Ivy” and “In the Bleak Midwinter” to Sinatra’s “Mistletoe and Holly” and the Mel Torme’ and Robert Wells’ chestnut “The Christmas Song.” Especially when accompanied by your favorite adult beverage after a long day battling holiday traffic and crowds, this quiet, reflective Christmas record is capable of relieving any level of holiday stress. (Discovered at Basement Records, Knoxville, Tenn.)
In the comments section below, please leave some of your top picks of the season so we can be introduced to your favorite overlooked holiday albums. Happy Holidays!