The holiday season has always been musically rich, with great artists across the spectrum eager to perform traditional carols and praise songs in their own distinctive fashions. Here are 10 such pieces – all classics. We’re not assigning numerical ratings, simply providing a list. All can be purchased online via Amazon, and most can also be streamed.
Nat King Cole – “The Magic of Christmas/The Christmas Song” (1960)
Cole’s glorious voice was never more compelling than on this collection, although the funny thing about this LP is it originally did NOT include perhaps the best known Cole holiday tune ever, “The Christmas Song.” That 1946 anthem today stands as the most frequently played seasonal number ever, but for whatever reason it was left off the original LP. Cole cut it three different times. Since this was the only Christmas album he ever made, subsequent reissued editions added “The Christmas Song.” But there are many other notable Cole tunes here, especially “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and “O, Come All Ye Faithful.”
James Brown – “A Soulful Christmas” (1968)
This ranks as the best of the three holiday themed LPs Brown recorded for two major reasons. The first is great cover art featuring Brown dressed as Santa with the tagline proclaiming “Santa’s Got A Brand New Bag.” The second is the presence of the cuts “Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto” and “Let’s Unite The Whole World At Christmas.” Even more interesting was the decision to include a lengthy and powerful version of “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
The Jackson 5 – “The Jackson 5 Christmas Album” (1970)
The energy and vitality of the Jackson 5 at their best resonates throughout this one, with Michael sounding quite spirited on “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” and the spicy “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” There are also memorable versions of “The Little Drummer Boy,” Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Frosty The Snowman.”
Charles Brown – “Charles Brown Sings Christmas Songs” (1960) West Coast blues vocalist/pianist Charles Brown was a huge influence on Ray Charles’ early music, and he also made several outstanding blues and R&B tunes. But he’s probably best remembered among the non-blues audience for his gorgeous “Merry Christmas Baby,” a song he wrote in 1947, but somehow saw credited to Johnny Moore. It later became one of Elvis Presley’s biggest holiday hits. Still, many think “Please Come Home For Christmas,” written and recorded in 1960 and the centerpiece of this collection, is even better.
The Temptations – “The Temptations Christmas Card” (1970)
This was the Temptations first holiday album, and it helped mark the group’s major personnel change, with David Ruffin having departed and replaced by Dennis Edwards. This one is also special because every group member got a lead on at least one tune. Neither Otis Williams or Paul Williams got to be in the spotlight often, which made “The Christmas Song” (Otis) and “White Christmas” (Paul along with Eddie and Dennis) highlight occasions. The Funk Brothers’ backing adds instrumental spice and muscle.
Mahalia Jackson _ “Christmas With Mahalia Jackson” (1962) Jackson, often considered modern gospel’s greatest pure talent, was at her best on this set that blended soaring versions of Christmas carols with definitive renditions of such gospel favorites as “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” “Bless This House” and “City Called Heaven.” But she didn’t neglect holiday fare: she’s magnificent throughout on her performances of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Away In A Manger,” and “Silent Night, Holy Night.”
Ella Fitzgerald _ “Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas” (1960) Those who only want to hear Fitzgerald doing brisk uptempo numbers or scat singing may not like her more restrained style here, but it’s a testament to both her strong faith and a desire not to overdo embellishments on traditional religious material. But she still finds ways to make these treatments interesting, and you won’t hear more entertaining versions of “Jingle Bells,” or “Frosty The Snowman,” as well as a tremendous version of “The Christmas Song.”
Ramsey Lewis Trio _ “Sound of Christmas” (1961)
Other than being quite short (29 minutes), this album is both a nicely done jazz holiday session, and the opportunity to hear the original Ramsey Lewis trio long before they hit it big. After Lewis began simplifying his arrangements and cutting pop covers some purists revolted and never forgave him, nor acknowledged his excellence as a pianist. Ably assisted by bassist Eldee Young and drummer Red Holt, the 10-song menu includes a fine Lewis original in “Christmas Blues,” and solid versions of “Winter Wonderland,” Sleigh Ride,” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”
Various Artists _ “What A Wonderful Christmas” (selections cut at various periods, but LP first issued in 1997)
While this is usually marketed as a Louis Armstrong LP, he’s only featured on six of the 14 tunes. He recorded all six of these holiday songs for Decca during his time there from 1949-1958. The other eight were mostly done in the 1950s, and are a grab-bag of fine selections. They include a rare Dinah Washington version of “Silent Night, Holy Night,” R&B icon Louis Jordan on “May Every Day Be Christmas,” Eartha Kitt’s Immortal “Santa Baby,” and Lena Horne concluding the set with “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”
Wynton Marsalis _ Crescent City Christmas Card (Columbia, 1989) This is the latest recorded session among these albums. It was chosen because at the time Wynton Marsalis had gotten a lot of hit for controversial statements, and was under fire from some critics for alleged timidity as a soloist. On this date he played with a lot more fire and imagination than a lot of his critics at the time thought he could deliver. It’s the best in contemporary updates of classics, with Marsalis offering a epic version of “Winter Wonderland,” and Wycliffe Gordon achieving trombone excellence on “Let It Snow.”
Ron Wynn is currently the sports and entertainment editor for the Tennessee Tribune, a columnist for the Tennessee Jazz and Blues Society and editor-in-chief for the online media company Everything Underground. He is co-host of the radio show “Freestyle” on WFSK-FM and has been nominated for contributions to Grammy-winning music.