6. Peggy Lee, A Christmas Carousel, 1960
Reissued this year as Christmas With Peggy Lee, this innovative album contains many less familiar songs, including three of the singer—songwriter’s own compositions (“Don’t Forget to Feed the Reindeer,” “Christmas Carousel” and “The Tree”). Lee could bring as much sex to singing as Elvis; but whereas he was singing from the gut and the gutter, she was the voice of mature eroticism. She sexualizes a neutral song like “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” (undermelody: “Big fat Santa’s on his way”), turning Saint Nick into a sugar daddy. Mostly, though, the mood is one of longing and regret, which suits a vocal style so intimate it was practically internal. Her beautiful “White Christmas” emphasizes the distance between the singer and the people she wants to be near. In the Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn “Christmas Waltz,” the chorus goes: “And this song of mine / In three—quarter time / Wishes you the same thing too.” But there’s a tentative, almost skeptical tinge to those “wishes.” She knew that, even (or especially) at Christmas, grownups don’t get everything they hope for.
7. Various Artists, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, 1963
Long before he was an eccentric recluse charged with murdering an actress, Spector was the wunderkind of pop—rock production techniques, infusing such girl—group hits as “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Be My Baby” with his Wagnerian pomp and sonic drive. In this great set, arranger Jack Nitzsche smartly attaches vamps from RB (Sleigh Ride‘s “ringa-linga-linga-ding-dong-ding”) and the Big Band era to the Christmas hits of the previous two decades (no spirituals here) and supplements the tambourine-and-drum pulse of the Spector sound with chimes, sleigh bells and a million maracas. The Crystals’ propulsive version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” might be my favorite Christmas song ever. This is a meticulous Christmas album: you’ll hear rarely used intros and second choruses to go along with the excellent sax solos and samplings of faux Mozart. Like his singers, Spector was still a kid in 1963; he turned 23 the day after Christmas. And he still had sensational work ahead (“River Deep Mountain High’). But the Wall of Sound never got better than this.
8. The Roches, We Three Kings, 1990
Instead of sitting the children down for a reading of The Little Engine That Could, some gramps will tell them, “Once, kids, there was a thing called harmony.” There’s no richer reminder of how lovely three voices singing as one can sound than this album by the New Jersey sibs: soprano Terre, contralto Maggie and alto Suzzy. The sisters’ neo-traditional sound works wonders on a range of Christmas songs. A third of the 24 cuts are of secular songs, including a Caribbean-flavored “Deck the Halls,” a “Sleigh Ride” whose percussion is horse-clop tongue clicks and a very heavily Brooklyn-accented “Winter Wonderland.” Even the infectious title track has an folk-rocky vibe. Overall, though, the program is liturgical, the tone inspirational, the impact indelible.
9. Oscar Peterson, An Oscar Peterson Christmas, 1995
I know people (I’m married to one) who cherish Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas as the finest holiday jazz album. But I’ll take this one, from Montreal’s gift to coolness. In 1993, the pianist suffered a stroke that severely restricted his left side. But, as this buoyant set shows, he could still outplay the competition with one hand tied behind his back. “Christmas Waltz” is the one you’ll be hitting the replay button on.
10. Trey Parker, Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics, 1999
Mr. Hankey is a talking turd who, in the early years of South Park, emerged for the annual Christmas show — notably the all-singing episode that sprang from this, the most obscene and fabulous of all holiday CDs. Parker and uber—chartsman Marc Shaiman worked their coprophagic magic on material both traditional and original. Parker uses the pseudonym Juan Schwartz for the fatalist’s folk tune “Dead, Dead, Dead” (“And so on Christmas morning / Let good tidings fill your head / What a festive season! / Some day you’ll be dead”). Eric Cartman warbles a soulful misdirection of “O Holy Night” (“Jesus was born and so I get presents”). Not to ignore Hanukkah, Parker and Shaiman expand the tune “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” into a five-part round for Kyle, his parents, Stan and Cartman; and Kyle plaints “The Lonely Jew on Christmas” with the help of someone who sounds like Neil Diamond. (It’s Parker again; he’s everywhere.) For the prissiest of your relatives, you can play the finale: a seriously heartfelt chorale of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” But all 18 tracks are funny, terrific and, in their oddball fidelity to the conflicting spirits of Christmas, kind of sweet.
11. Various artists, Ultimate Christmas, 1998
If you buy (or can tolerate) only one Christmas album, this is it. Among the 17 tracks are Bing’s “White Christmas,” Elvis’ “Blue Christmas,” Nat’s “The Christmas Song,” Johnny’s “Sleigh Ride,” Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby,” Sarah MacLachlan’s “Song for a Winter’s Night” and, to go out on a note of heartbreak, Judy Garland’s original of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” We’ll be playing this one forever, if the fates allow.
12. Sarah McLachlan, Wintersong, 2006
When the stockings are hung, the kids are in bed and two grownups sit before the fireplace, nursing glasses of eggnog and pondering the emotional vectors of the past year, this is the album to put on. McLachlan works in a whisper, like Peggy Lee, but with an audible poignancy rather than sexiness. She renders “Silent Night” as a lullaby to the baby Jesus, and mines all the yearning in “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Addressing not just Christmas but all the chilly months, Wintersong is truly a seasonal CD. My favorite pieces are by two of the singer’s fellow Canadians. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night” is another lonely-in-the-cold ballad — “If I could only have you near / To breathe a sigh or two / I would be happy just to hold the hands I love / On this winter’s night with you” — that McLachlan treats as both a prayer and a plea. In her take on Joni Mitchell’s “River” she gives us a little epiphany. Twice she sings “I wish I had a river so long, I would teach my feet to fly” — and the second time, she holds the last word for 10 seconds, as it gathers strength, touches on a wistful tenderness and breaks off. In one note, and so many moods, it is a perfect flight, from gentle ascent to a graceful landing on tiptoe.
Which sets me to thinking about another virtuosa vocalist. Isn’t it odd, and sad, that k.d. lang — the supreme lyric reader of our time, the modern singer without rival at making sentiment sound like world-weary wisdom — hasn’t done a Christmas album? That would be a lovely present under next year’s tree.