I love Christmas music. I’m happy to see a wide variety of artists do Christmas albums, but only some of them are truly great. Last year I thought about picking what I think are the best of the best. I didn’t get it done, but have been thinking about it all year this year. For the last twelve days, I’ve posted my top-twelve Christmas songs of all time, one song per day. Obviously, such a list is subjective, although I’ve discovered some overlapping agreement in various corners of the internet. Whether or not you agree that these are the very best, I hope you enjoy the selections and at least recognize their excellence.
My criteria for picking these songs is a little fuzzy. I’m hoping some of you will make your cases for inclusion of other selections, and maybe introduce me to some new fantastic Christmas music along the way. A few of these were new to me this year just from poking around Youtube. I wanted to include a bit of variety, which I have done. There’s vocal, genre-popular, jazz (big, small, old, new), and gospel, and a mix of classics / carols and originals. What you won’t see here are the overdone classics (eg. Bing Crosby) and pop-star stuff (eg. Mariah Carey). There’s something about each song that stands out to me, which I introduce individually.
There’s a lot of wonderful Christmas music that isn’t on my list, but I’ll highlight a few honorable mentions here that I feel deserve special mention, some of which made my list, but some of which didn’t.
There are two Pentatonix tracks I had penciled in: Mary, Did You Know, and Little Drummer Boy. Their recordings of both are worthy, and I mention them in the introductions to both songs. In particular, I accept that the Pentatonix recording of Little Drummer Boy has notably better audio quality than 4Him’s (and is certainly less dated), but I prefer 4Him’s arrangement. Their recording is the Little Drummer Boy I most enjoy listening to for reasons I can’t clearly convey. Also, Pentatonix is far more popular and I figure giving the nod to 4Him puts a little more variety in the mix. But after enjoying Voactive/Lowry and 4Him, go check out the Pentatonix tracks. They’re fantastic.
I don’t have a habit of listening to Mannheim Steamroller other than at Christmas time. But I can think of no other group that is so closely associated with Christmas music in modern times. They’re an institution unto themselves, and that’s not just my opinion – only Mannheim Steamroller has more than one top-10 selling Christmas albums of all time (depending on the list, they have two or three). None one of their songs made my list, but Mannheim Steamroller is a special genre of Christmas music (Trans-Siberian Orchestra, also, but even moreso Mannheim). All of their Christmas albums are great, and their unique sound and take on Christmas music deserves its own mention.
The one best Christmas album of all time comes from another artist, the only one who has two songs on my list. Although Harry Connick Jr. has produced more than one Christmas album (two were best-selling Christmas albums of the year), the first one is head and shoulders above the rest, and stands out over any other Christmas album ever produced. It is one of the better selling Christmas albums of all time (in the top-20 anyway), but moreso, it is musically the most fantastic assembly of Christmas music greatness ever. The big band is fantastic, the arrangements are brilliant, the originals are wonderful, and the vocals are fresh, heart warming, and yet nostalgic feeling. When My Heart Finds Christmas is a wonderful Christmas gift to the world. Thank you, Harry!
Finally, the all time best piece of Christmas music is not a carol or popular song, it is a classical masterpiece. In fact, it is arguably the single most important piece of music of any genre ever written: Handel’s Messiah. There are simply no words to capture how important, beautiful, and inspired the Messiah is. I’ve included a modern take on the familiar Hallelujah Chorus, which I love, but the original arrangement is worth experiencing. If you have never been to see the Messiah, go see it. If you play, play it. If you sing, sing it. Nothing compares to the Messiah.
Without further ado, here’s the list as presented:
- The 12 Days of Christmas – Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. For the next 12 days, I’ll unveil my top-12 songs of Christmas (caveats, more details, and the full list to come in a blog post on the 24th). To kick off the festivities here on 12/12 I give you the 12 days of Christmas in 12 different time and key signatures from one of my all-time favorite bands, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. This arrangement is clever, hilarious, a bit ridiculous, and yet delightful to listen to. The album won a Grammy, and Edgar Meyer and the Tuvan Throat singers pitch in on this track – a fitting launch to my 12 Songs of Christmas.
- Let It Snow – Harry Connick Jr. This is one of two songs I include from When My Heart Finds Christmas, which I consider to be the best Christmas album of all time. Only Harry gets two spots on my top-12! The band nails this fantastic arrangement. Hope you’re staying warm!
- The Little Drummer Boy – 4Him. For every drummer’s favorite Christmas song, I have to give an honorable mention to Pentatonix, whose version ironically includes no drums. But this not-so-well-known early-90s recording by 4Him is the one that tops the list for me. The backing track doesn’t swing like Harry’s big band, but it nicely compliments the slightly different timing, tasteful inside vocal movement, and great lead performance, which has kept me coming back to this track for the last couple decades.
- Carol of the Bells – Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This video is a charming addition to the best Trans-Siberian Orchestra treatment of a Christmas song. Although I regard Mannheim Steamroller as slightly more quintessentially Christmas, TSO is a close second. This rocks and yet remains musical, providing a truly unique take on this excellent piece, which is wonderful on its own and fantastic in this arrangement. RIP Paul O’Neill – thank you for the great music!
- Mary, Did You Know – Voactive featuring Mark Lowry. Again, honorable mention goes to Pentatonix for a ridiculously good recording of this wonderful modern Christmas song (and I’m not the only one who thinks so – theirs has over 150 Million views on YouTube). But I like this track by Voactive with Mark Lowry even better, though it’s not quite as popular. Lowry wrote the lyrics to the song and there’s something special about seeing him do it. The arrangement is incredible, and that soprano… Woah!
- O Holy night – David Phelps / Bill & Gloria Gaither. Everybody does O Holy Night, but nobody nails it like Phelps and the Gaither crew. Maybe there are more interesting arrangements, and there are other good vocals, but noting else can touch this. It starts out great, and then, O Holy Wow! Enjoy!
- Christmas Time Is Here – Vince Guaraldi Trio. Having just watched a couple of the TV specials last night with the littles, I present this, written and recorded for the Chrarlie Brown Christmas special. Christmas Time Is Here has become a special part of modern Christmas culture and this recording is the original, non-lyric, long version. It’s sensitive, nostalgic, and simply good. Grab some hot chocolate, close your eyes, and soak up the trio that, maybe more than any other, introduced jazz to a Christmas-loving audience growing up in the latter part of the last century.
- Hark! The Herald Angels We Have Heard On High – Postmodern Jukebox with Dave Koz. The video is an important part of the fun of this recording. This is a medley of two angelic Christmas songs with lyric origins in Luke 2 (the Gloria itself from v14). The humorously jazzy style is Postmodern Jukebox re-imagination with cameo contribution by Dave Koz.
- Joy To The World – Cory Henry. This came to me out of nowhere, from an album that appears to have disappeared. I have no idea what other treasures were on it, but this is the most ridiculous Joy To The World I’ve ever heard. Granted, the arrangement of the melody isn’t especially fantastic, but it’s placement over a monster gospel groove, leading to an epic early-Henry solo (later in the song) is incredible!
- It Must’ve Been Ol’ Santa Claus – Harry Connick Jr. This original is New Orleans jazz story telling at its best. It might seem out of character for me to love a believe-in-Santa song that is more lyric than band (though the band tears it up!), but this is feel good genius. It’s one of my favorite recent originals and doesn’t get nearly enough attention. Enjoy!
- Hallelujah Chorus – A Soulful Celebration. Quincy Jones assembles an all-star cast to nail this groovy Hallelujah Chorus arrangement. The greatest single piece of music of all time is remade with perfect respect to both the song and the content of the lyric by music greats including Patti Austin, Andrae Crouch, Larnelle Harris, Al Jarreau, Chaka Kahn, Gladys Knight, Johnny Mathis, Take 6, and many more! The whole album is worth a listen, but this is the track to stand for, both in the original and this rendition.
- Silent Night / A Child Is Born – Ann Hampton Callaway. This song was inspirational in the creation of my 12 Songs of Christmas list. When I first heard the segue to A Child is Born, I was hooked! Brilliantly sensitive instrumental parts behind a masterful vocal performance of a perfect medley makes this my favorite Silent Night of all time. I hope you’ve enjoyed the selections, and a Merry Christmas to all!