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From Johnny Cash to Mariah Carey to Phil Spector: the 20 best Christmas albums of all time

Melody Lau

Christmas music is one of the many signifiers of the holiday season and whether you’re a fan or not, these classics are ubiquitous come December (or as early as late October if you’re a particularly keen shopping mall).

While there is an abundance of Christmas music to choose from nowadays, there are a number of reliable holiday albums that are guaranteed to put us in a cheerful, jolly mood. Read below to see the 20 best Christmas albums ever released, from traditional carols to rockin’ new renditions.

Johnny Cash, Christmas with Johnny Cash (2003)

Johnny Cash was one of country music’s most powerful storytellers, and his Christmas albums were just one of Cash's many great accomplishments. In addition to hosting annual Christmas specials on CBS in the '70s, Cash also released four Christmas albums. When he died in 2003, a Christmas compilation called Christmas with Johnny Cash was put out featuring some of Cash’s most heartfelt renditions, including the incredibly moving tale of “Christmas as I Knew It.”

Frank Sinatra, A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra (1957)

These are the sounds of a utopian Christmas, songs that are polished to a tee and topped with a neatly tied bow. Sinatra’s warm and inviting holiday renditions are charming, delightful and guaranteed to paint the perfect picture of Christmas for you and your family.

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

The black-and-white songbooks are given a fresh coat of Technicolor thanks to jazz singer Elle Fitzgerald’s enchanting skills. Her words are stretched like pulled sugar while melodies swing and sway with an infectious charisma.

Bing Crosby, White Christmas (1986)

Nothing is more welcoming than the hearty baritone voice of Bing Crosby. One of the singer's biggest hits was “White Christmas,” which he performed in the 1942 film Holiday Inn. The track is a snow-filled dream, wistful and romantic. “Bing had no problem being best known for this song and being so closely associated with Christmas,” Bing Crosby Rediscovered director Robert Trachtenberg told People. “His feeling was that there was no downside to being tied in with this holiday of love, joy and good will.”

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

The Beach Boys’ jubilant harmonies were made for festive hits like these. This 1964 Christmas album elevated carols into soiree-ready dance numbers, from the jazzy “Frosty the Snowman” to the swinging waltz of “White Christmas.”

Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

A Charlie Brown Christmas has been running on TV for 50 years now. Many, many people grew up listening to West Coast jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi’s now famous cartoon soundtrack, but its appeal reaches far beyond our childhood memories. As Peanuts producer Lee Mendelson once said of Guaraldi’s appeal: “It’s adult-like, but also child-like.” It bonds us all.

Sufjan Stevens, Songs For Christmas (2006)

Christmas music is often shrouded by jangling embellishments and brimming with glee. While Sufjan Stevens’s extensive catalogue of holiday music expounds the same spirit as other festive classics, Songs for Christmas (and his followup collection, Silver & Gold) offers a more serene acoustic soundtrack for the winter months.

Elvis Presley, Elvis’ Christmas Album (1957)

The King of Rock 'n' Roll adds a little swing to the holidays with his Christmas renditions. While Elvis doesn’t transform songs into full-on rock anthems, he does stamp every track with his signature drawl, luring listeners in with every bellowing note.

Boyz II Men, Christmas Interpretations (1993)

For those sexy Christmas moments, Boyz II Men’s Christmas Interpretations is the smoothest, most romantic collection of Christmas classics. Songs are smothered in beautiful harmonies and a distinctly ‘90s R&B sound, but they're still as alluring now as they were two decades ago. Brian McKnight also hops onboard to help write many of the album’s original songs (he also sings on the pretty epic version of “Let it Snow”).

Sharon Jones, It’s a Holiday Soul Party (2015)

Sharon Jones brings an electrifying energy to everything she does, including her brand new holiday album, It’s a Holiday Soul Party. Songs here are bursting with life as Jones rips through songs like “White Christmas” with a soulful force that makes it impossible to not dance along.

Mariah Carey, Merry Christmas (1994)

A modern-day pop classic, Mariah Carey proves that she’s one of the best singers in recent memory by tackling standards like “Silent Night,” “O Holy Night” and “Joy to the World” with an undeniable flair. Also, the original song “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is one of few relatively new Christmas songs to achieve classic status.

Arcade Fire, A Very Arcade Xmas (2001)

A hidden gem in the Canadian rock band’s discography, A Very Arcade Xmas was recorded live at a party in 2001. The EP was never officially released, but according to rumours, band members gave away copies to friends and family as a Christmas gift. The songs have since made it online, and although it’s not very polished (in fact, many descriptions online hint that the band may have been drunk during this recording), it’s still entertaining to listen to especially if you’re a big fan of the band.

Nat King Cole, The Magic of Christmas (1960)

Each of Nat King Cole’s swelling Christmas carols on The Magic of Christmas are like small little short films bursting with cinematic grandeur. Decked out with orchestral arrangements, songs like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” take listeners through the movements like a successful film narrative would.

A Motown Christmas (1973)

From the joyously vibrant “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” from the Jackson 5 to the slow groove of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want to Come Home for Christmas,” A Motown Christmas is a dynamic showcase of one of the liveliest musical moments in American music history. A young Michael Jackson lights up “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” while the Temptations bring the harmonies on a twinkling “Silent Night” and the Supremes bring pomp and circumstance to “Joy to the World” — all in all, a great time capsule of Motown’s most notable artists.

A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector (1963)

Voted as the 142nd greatest album of all time by Rolling Stone, A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector is more than just an amazing Christmas album. Spector’s wall-of-sound production turns songs we all grew up on into sparkling pop hits. From the Ronettes’ glamorous harmonies on “Sleigh Ride” to the Darlene Love standout “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” Spector has really created a timeless collection of holiday gems.

Louis Armstrong and Friends, What a Wonderful Christmas (1997)

Jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong could’ve produced a perfectly wonderful Christmas album on his own but his list of very notable friends just brings these songs to a whole other level: Peggy Lee, Duke Ellington and Eartha Kitt, just to name a few. This is a staple for jazz fans during the holidays.

The Ventures, Christmas Album (1965)

If you love the Beach Boys’ Christmas album then you’ll love surf-rock band the Ventures’ Christmas album. The band who wrote the Hawaii Five-O theme song brings the holidays to the beach on this collection of sunny instrumental jams.

Willie Nelson, Pretty Paper (1979)

For a more relaxing affair, Willie Nelson’s Christmas album, Pretty Paper — which was produced by Booker T. Jones — is the perfect, laid-back soundtrack to those quiet winter nights. So grab a warm cup of cocoa, sit back and enjoy Nelson’s breezy versions of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.”

James Brown, James Brown’s Funky Christmas (1999)

The godfather of soul can inject funk into anything he sings. On this collection of Christmas songs, Brown transforms the holidays into a horn-filled celebration that’s on par with his other works.

A Very Special Christmas (1987)

This successful compilation features a who’s-who of '80s chart-toppers: U2, Run-D.M.C., Madonna, Whitney Houston, Bon Jovi and the Eurythmics. Proceeds from this album went to the Special Olympics and was so big that it spawned 10 more volumes. The original’s star power and amazing renditions of Christmas classics still stands out as the best of the bunch, though.