I like Christmas music. I always have. And I listen to a lot of it between Black Friday and Christmas Day. What follows is a list of my 10 most-listened-to albums, according to play information from Media Jukebox, my laptop music player.
10. A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector/Various Artists. Originally released on November 22, 1963, and now as familiar as the weather—which is the most appealing characteristic of Christmas music. It’s music we already know. It takes us to places we have been and places we want to go again.
9. The Spirit of Christmas/Ray Charles. Released in 1985. Who’s gonna say no to Brother Ray singing holiday tunes?
8. Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas/Kenny Burrell. An album celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2016, and one for the short list of holiday albums that sound good in July. Burrell, a guitarist who turned 85 this year, still teaches jazz at UCLA.
7. In the Christmas Spirit/Booker T and the MGs. Another album celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2016. I’m not the first person to marvel at the economy of this band, and this record. Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, and Al Jackson never play one more note than they need to, and the ones they do play could not be improved upon. (Hear the whole thing here.)
6. Winter Wonderland/Earl Grant. If you know Earl Grant at all, it’s from his 1958 hit record “The End.” Winter Wonderland features a mix of vocals and instrumentals with Grant on piano and organ. It was released in
1969, just months before Grant’s death in a traffic accident at age 39 1965.
5. Christmas Variations/Rick Wakeman. On which Wakeman applies a filigree of piano, synth, and Mellotron to change up familiar seasonal music, hence the “variations” in the title. A positively lovely record, released in 2000. (Hear the whole thing here.)
4. Merry Ole Soul/Duke Pearson. On the list of life’s great stuff, classic Blue Note Records small-combo jazz is right up there. Merry Ole Soul, released in 1969, is one of the best examples of the style, regardless of the season. (Whole album here.)
3. Holiday Soul/Bobby Timmons. Holiday Soul came out in 1964, when soul jazz was growing in popularity, and Timmons was right on time. This thing swings. (Somewhat scratchy vinyl version of the whole thing here.)
2. MoJazz Christmas/Various Artists. Motown made several forays into jazz. The subsidiary label Workshop Jazz released a few albums in the early 60s, including some of the first recordings by the Four Tops. In 1969, a jazz single by Funk Brother Jack Ashford was the only release on the Blaze imprint. And in the 1990s, Motown founded MoJazz. Among its most prolific artists were drummer/vocalist Norman Connors (whose single “You Are My Starship” made the Top 40 in 1976), ex-basketball star and bassist Wayman Tisdale, guitarist Norman Brown, and saxophonist J. Spencer. The label also reissued albums by the Crusaders, Hugh Masekela, Grover Washington Jr., and even Stevie Wonder’s instrumental album, which he recorded in 1968 under the name Eivets Rednow. Brown and Spencer are heard on MoJazz Christmas, which is pleasant enough when it pops up on shuffle but not something I’m going to put on deliberately. (But you can. The whole thing is here.)
1. A Charlie Brown Christmas/Vince Guaraldi Trio. Some albums simply wear out on us. We loved them for years, we listened to them a million times, we know they’re great and/or historically important, but we simply don’t need to hear them anymore. But for me, A Charlie Brown Christmas isn’t there yet. It makes the Christmas season feel the way it’s supposed to feel, and nothing else does it quite the same way.
Honorable Mention: The Spirit of Christmas With the Living Strings. Why my laptop music player doesn’t show this among my 10 most-played Christmas albums I do not know, but it certainly belongs on the list because it’s been a part of every Christmas in my life since my parents brought it home way back when. It, too, makes Christmas feel the way it’s supposed to feel. (Full album here.)