indieland's 30 Days of Christmas - Day 4 - Best Throwback Holiday Albums
Pulling off a holiday album that works can be tricky. On one hand, its easy to throw together a bunch of traditional songs and run with it. However, its difficult to pull off well. Its about finding a balance between familiarity and originality, while maintaining the festive spirit of the holidays.
Here are some highlights of holiday albums that have stood out through the years. While most of these are on independent record labels, I've included some from artists on major labels that inspire independent artists the world over.
The Temptations - The Temptations' Christmas Card (1970, Motown)
The Temptations released their Christmas album "The Temptations' Christmas Card" in 1970, and its been going strong every year since. Featuring the only essential take on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" you'll ever need, and immortalized in Will Vinton's extraordinary Christmas special from 1987, the music from this album stands the test of time.
Sufjan Stevens - Songs for Christmas (2006, Asthmatic Kitty)
Some artists go for traditional takes on holiday songs, and no one is better equipped to tackle Christmas classics than Sufjan Stevens. His comprehensive 2006 collection includes 42 tracks, and while his takes are generally straight forward, his gentle voice and graceful guitar playing make for a classic Christmas experience. There are also several solid originals thrown into the mix for good measure.
Chance the Rapper & Jeremih - Merry Christmas Lil' Mama (2016, self released)
Considered by many hip hop fans to be an instant classic, "Merry Christmas Lil' Mama" features Chance the Rapper and Jeremih celebrating the holiday with both pizzazz and grace. I consider this project to be the finest holiday album of the last several decades. From the gorgeous "Joy" to the wistful "Snowed In", and the fun opener "All the Way", this is the rare Christmas project that is easy to enjoy at any time of year. Make sure to check out the 2017 version "Re-Wrapped", which features several new tracks as well.
Wynton Marsalis - Crescent City Christmas Card (1989 - Sony)
Wynton Marsalis may be somewhat of a jazz purist, but he stepped outside his comfort zone for this diverse Christmas album. The highlight is his take on "'Twas the Night Before Christmas", though the entire project is worth listening to.
James Brown - James Brown's Funky Christmas (1968 - Universal)
When it comes to lively holiday music, no one did it better than James Brown. This shouldn't be a surprise, considering he was the Godfather of Soul and one of the 20th century's most enduring and influential artists. His classic 1968 album includes perhaps the finest original Christmas song of the last 50 years in "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto".
Donny Hathaway - Donny Hathaway (1971, Atlantic)
Any list of holiday classics is simply incomplete without the inclusion of Donny Hathaway's beautiful "This Christmas". It is such an absolute must for any and all holiday playlists that it is on this list despite not being a part of a complete holiday album. The final song on Donny's second album, released in April 1971, "This Christmas" has stood the test of time and is certainly in the discussion for greatest holiday song of all time.
Bob Dylan - Christmas in the Heart (2009, Sony)
Almost ten years ago, the world was shocked by Bob Dylan's ridiculous Christmas experiment, "Christmas in the Heart". No one could quite tell if the legendary artist was serious or playing a joke on his fans, but one thing was certain: "Christmas in the Heart" goes down best with eggnog, and lots of it. Dylan's voice was shot years ago, but its never sounded this close to the edge. A must hear at least once a year, if nothing more than for the confused reactions it will elicit to all newcomers. Long live Bob Dylan!
Duke Ellington - The Nutcracker Suite (1960, Columbia)
Leave it to Duke Ellington to use Tchaikovsky's beautiful "Nutcracker" work and modernize it for a big band. Also released in 1990 as a part of Duke's "Three Suites", this is everything you could want in a holiday work - traditional, fun, passionate, and modern, all at the same time.
Vince Guaraldi Trio - A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965, Fantasy)
The soundtrack to the classic Peanuts Christmas special, Vince Guaraldi became most famous for this work. This album is still just as flawless over 50 years later, and I fully expect that its influence and magic will easily continue for years to come.