The American Christmas canon returns every year through store loudspeakers, seasonal radio stations, and Christmas party playlists everywhere. We can expect the usual standards: Bing Crosby, The Carpenters, Vince Guaraldi, “the” Mariah Carey song. They’re classics for a reason, but sometimes even the classics need a freshening up.
We’ve compiled ten of the best under-played Christmas records to put you in the holiday spirit -- whether that’s at 12:01 a.m. on November 1st or after Thanksgiving (or right now). From indie to country to jazz to surf rock, these yuletide tunes will have you feeling holly and jolly in no time.
Best track: The Coldest Night of the Year
M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel put a sentimental twist on Christmas classics with silky smooth vocals, warm guitar, and 1960s flair. “The Coldest Night of the Year” is a considerably less creepy version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that’s reminiscent of the carefree, flower child vibe of The Mamas and The Papas.
Best track: Glittery feat. Troye Sivan
Last year, country rebel child Kacey Musgraves graced the world with a television variety show packed with stars like Lana Del Rey, Troye Sivan, James Corden, and more. With jaw-dropping costumes, sets, and musical numbers, it was a beautifully modern version of the variety shows of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Troye Sivan partners with Musgraves for “Glittery,” a more grown-up, bossa-nova-meets-pop take on spending Christmas with your special someone.
Best track: Sleigh Ride
Vocalist Inara George and multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin offer a jazzy, electronic, easy-listening revamping of the classic Christmas catalog. The Chordettes-style vocals and digital production style of “Sleigh Ride” will transport you to Christmastime in MarioWorld (in the best way possible).
Best track: What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?
Some classics need freshening up; others need preserving over generations: the stunning voice of Ella Fitzgerald is one of the latter. Her masterful 1959 Christmas record pulls you through every holiday emotion: giddy celebration, somber remembrance, and heartwarming nostalgia. “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” perfectly encapsulates the hopefulness and sadness of longing for love during the coldest part of the year.
Best track: Come on! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!
Indie artist Sufjan Stevens blends the sacred and secular with his four-disc, 42-song 2006 release. In between seasonal hymns like “O Holy Night,” “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and “Come Thou Font,” Stevens adds quirky breaths of fresh air like “Come on! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!,” “Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time!,” and “What Child Is This Anyway?”
Best track (so far): Christmas in April
Multi-instrumentalist and mega-talent Andrew Bird released a six-song EP of Christmas classics last year, and this year, he’s presenting the full album. Hark! will be released on October 30th, but Bird has already released two singles, a quarantine-related release, “Christmas in April,” and his take on John Cale’s “Andalucia.”
Best track: Taking Down the Tree
Low’s 1998 release Christmas features moody, expansive soundscapes and intimate vocals across eight tracks of originals and standards. This is the album you play through your headphones to decompress during your much-needed “me time” after hours of shopping, hosting, cooking, wrapping, and cleaning.
Best track: Blue Christmas
The Ventures made tidal waves through the music industry with their instrumental pop rock straight from a California shoreline, and their 1964 Christmas album is no exception. Sing along to your favorite yuletide tunes with an upbeat, surf-rock twist; my personal favorite from this record is their toe-tapping version of the slow ballad “Blue Christmas.”
Best track: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Hear Music/Concord Music Group’s 2012 compilation album features megastars and indie gems alike, including Paul McCartney, The Shins, Fruit Bats, The Civil Wars, and The Punch Brothers. The tracklist doesn’t stray far from the canon, but you’re transported to a unique musical universe with each new track -- like the Southern Gothic realm of The Civil Wars’ “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
Best track: Pretty Paper feat. Willie Nelson
Let’s be honest, could Dolly Parton really ever do wrong in anyone’s eyes? This year, the unofficial Patron Sainte of Appalachia released a twelve-track Christmas album to offer 45 minutes of uninterrupted wholesome Christmas spirit. Featuring Dolly Parton’s air-tight vibrato, expansive orchestrations, and a feature from her goddaughter, Miley, A Holly Dolly Christmas would warm even the smallest, Grinch-iest of hearts.