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Holiday tunes: The best Christmas albums to combat the tired radio classics this festive season

Holiday tunes: The best Christmas albums for the festive season
Holiday tunes: The best Christmas albums for the festive season Copyright Canva - Columbia Records
Copyright Canva - Columbia Records
By David Mouriquand
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Sick of hearing Bing Crosby, Band Aid and Mariah during the Christmas season? Fret no more - here are the Christmas albums you need in your life (and ears) during the holidays.

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It’s fast approaching and let’s face facts, Christmas nowadays rhymes with your ear canals being assaulted with old favourites like Bing Crosby’s 'White Christmas', Wham!’s 'Last Christmas', Band Aid’s 'Do they Know It’s Christmas', and of course, Mariah dominating the airwaves for another year with ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’.

Not bad songs per se – except for that last lunatically overplayed one, which at this point, is like taking a (musical) sledgehammer to the face. However, other options are available.

Here is Euronews Culture’s guide to spending a holly jolly musical Christmas without relying on the clichéd holiday tracks radios will be repeatedly blaring out until you’ve reached the point of no return where the thought of strangling Rudolf and his reindeer mates just for shits and giggles feels like the only sane option.

And while Elvis, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Phil Spector have released classic holiday records, we’ll be recommending some more underappreciated gems that guarantee a festive good time, and avoiding the typical cash-in releases that reek of cynical Yuletide piggybacking.

So, without further ado, here are the seven best (and overlooked) Christmas albums you should be listening to.

Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (1960)

Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (1960)
Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (1960)Verve

Trust the First Lady of Jazz to record not only one of the best Christmas albums, but also a classic that has stood the test of time outside of the festive season. 

Concentrating entirely on secular seasonal songs, Ella avoids any and all schmaltz or the holiday's frequent maudlin leanings. Instead, she offers infectiously spirited and idiosyncratic takes on the Christmas songs – with some incredible arrangements to boot. 

This record is a joy to listen to, and the songs somehow still feel fresh. You’ll also be left wondering how ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ can sound so sensual and sultry.

The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album (1964)

The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album (1964)
The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album (1964)Capitol

You can hear The Beach Boys’ smiles (and delightful jumpers) all over this 1964 collection, in which the band worked with a 41-piece orchestra. It’s everything you’d expect: lush, expansive and truly bubbly. 

The versions of ‘White Christmas’, ‘Blue Christmas’ and ‘Merry Christmas, Baby’ are highlights, as is the darkly comedic ‘Santa's Beard’, which recounts how Mike Love’s five-year-old brother pulls Santa’s fake beard off, only to be faced with the existential crisis that something has gone wrong somewhere and the demystification of the adult world has only just begun. Merry Christmas!

Various artists – A Motown Christmas (1973)

Various artists – A Motown Christmas (1973)
Various artists – A Motown Christmas (1973)Motown

This double album of Motown goodness is an absolute must, and the tracklist says it all. 

The Jackson 5’s ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’; The Temptations’ ‘Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer’; Stevie Wonder’s ‘Ave Maria’; Diana Ross & The Supremes’ ‘Joy To The World’... 

Naturally, the label’s 70s superstars are all there in full force, with The Jackson 5 taking centre stage. It’s upbeat, funky, jazzy and perfect for a holiday alternative to some of the more overly sentimental Christmas dross that forgets the holiday is supposed to be a lively affair.

Sufjan Stevens – Songs for Christmas (2006)

Sufjan Stevens – Songs for Christmas (2006)
Sufjan Stevens – Songs for Christmas (2006)Asthmatic Kitty

Sufjan Stevens has never been one to shy away from a concept. Granted, his plans to write an album for every US state died out after Michigan and Illinois, but when it came to his Christmas project, he delivered the full set. 

His 42-track compilation, split over 5 EPs is an imaginative and revisionist Christmas miracle. There are holiday classics as well as originals here, like his ode to stressed-out parents (‘That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!’), the wearily optimistic ‘Get Behind Me, Santa!’ (featuring the stunning line “It’s a fact of life whether you like it or not – so put your hands together and give it a shot”) and the why-isn't-it-more-of-a-Christmas-standard ‘Come On, Let's Boogie to the Elf Dance.’

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Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – It's A Holiday Soul Party (2015)

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – It's A Holiday Soul Party (2015)
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – It's A Holiday Soul Party (2015)Daptone Records

This was the last album Sharon Jones released before her death in 2016, and what a way to go. She recorded it while undergoing chemotherapy for her pancreatic cancer, and her and the band’s soulful and passionate renditions of Christmas classics take on a deeper dimension with that background knowledge. 

‘It’s A Holiday Soul Party’ is a soulful and emotional journey, with ‘8 Days of Hannukah’, ‘Please Come Home for Christmas’ and ‘Silent Night’ standing out. 

It’s hands down one of the greatest Christmas albums ever, on par with Ella’s Swinging Christmas. And that's saying something.

Norah Jones – I Dream of Christmas (2021)

Norah Jones – I Dream of Christmas (2021)
Norah Jones – I Dream of Christmas (2021)Blue Note Records

This one is perfect for curling up on a sofa with a cozy blanket and a warm drink. 

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Jones offers up gentle takes on Christmas classics as well as her own originals, and she somehow manages to combine holiday cheer with her trademark nostalgic sound. 

The record may seem like a cash-in, considering Jones feels like a all-too-natural fit for a collection of reworked Christmas tunes, but the sensual swinging (pipe down at the back) sounds produced by Leon Michels, previously a member of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings (them again), makes this record a surprisingly terrific listen.

Tyler, the Creator - Music Inspired by Illumination and Dr. Seuss' The Grinch (2018)

Tyler, the Creator - Music Inspired by Illumination and Dr. Seuss' The Grinch (2018)
Tyler, the Creator - Music Inspired by Illumination and Dr. Seuss' The Grinch (2018)Columbia Records

Bet you didn’t know this one existed. Well, it does, and it’s well worth your time this Christmas season. 

Tyler, the Creator's hip-hop holiday offering, which debuted alongside 2018's The Grinch, is one for both seasoned rap fans and children alike. In the space of 6 tracks, he’s managed to make it the perfect soundtrack for a raucous house party and a kiddie-friendly get-together. ‘Lights On’ featuring Ryan Beatty and Santigold is a highlight, as is Hot Chocolate with Jerry Paper. 

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It’s the most original entry in our list, and a future favourite for those of you preferring rap to wrapping during the holidays.

Happy listening, one and all!

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