Essential Christmas Albums

The Best Music for the Best Season

Annunciation to the Shepherds, Master of the Houghton Miniatures, 15th century

True confession: I own over forty Christmas CDs. That may seem excessive to some; this I acknowledge. Whenever I feel tempted to judge someone for a shoe fetish or other acquisitive hobby, I remember my drawer of Christmas CDs and realize that I live in a glass house. I’d be hard pressed to give up any of my CDs, but if forced at knife point, I would whittle the collection down to the following ten (not in any particular order).

Mariah Carey: Merry Christmas
No, Mariah’s not my favorite artist; I wouldn’t want to be her pen pal, or anything. But this album is genius. Hot take: I can only abide the songs “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night” as sung by two people. Mariah is one of them. (Who is the other? Read on.) I defy you to be in a bad mood after listening to “Jesus Oh What a Wonderful Child.” This is definitely the most-played album at our house every December.

Black Christmas: Spirituals in the African-American Tradition
This album would still be worth its weight in gold if it boasted only the four tracks sung by Thomas Young. His butter-rich tenor voice on “Rise Up, Shepherd” and “Sister Mary Had-a But One Child” gives me chills each and every time. But the whole thing is great.

Handel’s Messiah — Helmuth Rilling and the Oregon Bach Choir
After many long years, my quest for the perfect recording of Messiah has ended. For a time The Academy of Ancient Music’s version worked okay, and Leonard Bernstein’s recording with the New York Philharmonic has considerable (if quirky) charm.

But I’m blessed to be friends with a member of the Grammy-winning Oregon Bach Choir, and she gave me this CD a few years ago. Rilling is a stickler for diction and precision; his discernment and discipline serve the intricate counterpoint of Handel’s masterpiece beautifully. Thomas Quasthoff, one of my favorite singers in all the world, is the glorious bass. And soprano Sibylla Rubens’s cadenza at the end of “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth”: unqualified perfection.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Hodie/Fantasia on Christmas Carols
Oh, how I love my Ralph. He is to Christmas music what Dickens is to Christmas literature. The Hodie is a cantata based on the traditional English Christmas Eve “Nine Lessons and Carols” service (see below). The Fantasia is shorter, but no less wondrous.

Benjamin Britten: A Ceremony of Carols
Otherworldly. Transfixing. Gorgeous.

Stephen Cleobury and The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge: A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols
There is nothing more satisfying to my rampant anglophilia than this double CD. Highlights include “Riu, Riu Chiu,” Thomas Adès’s “The Fayrfax Carol,” Boris Ord’s “Adam Lay Ybounden,” and David Humphries’s reading of The Fourth Lesson.

Ella Wishes You a Swingin’ Christmas
Though at times I enjoy me some Bing and Nat, some Donny and some Harry, I’m not really much for secular Christmas songs in general. This album is an exception; Lady Ella can do no wrong. The purity of her tone, her flawless style: she slays me. I can only hope that if I’m very, very good, in the next life I’ll be able to sing like Ella Fitzgerald.

John Denver: Rocky Mountain Christmas
I’ve loved this album since I was about ten. John Denver’s crystal-clear voice and gentle guitar arrangements are infinitely soothing. He’s the only other person who, when he sings “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night,” makes the experience enjoyable rather than mind-rendingly torturous for me.

The John Rutter Christmas Album
John Rutter has been writing and arranging brilliant Christmas carols for decades; he is surely one of Britain’s national treasures. He conducts The Cambridge Singers and The City of London Sinfonia on this CD, a compilation of many of his best-known compositions. A favorite of all in this house is “The Donkey Carol,” written in 5/4 time to symbolize Mary’s bumpy ride to Bethlehem.

Andrew Parrott and the Taverner Consort: The Promise of Ages
Andrew Parrott rocks my world. Who else could weave together an album of carols spanning 600 years into a cohesive whole? The Consort goes from ethereal to rollicking with nary a blink. Favorites include “I Wonder as I Wander,” “Staines Morris,” and “Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending.” Can’t get enough.

Happy Advent! Here’s hoping this list makes your holiday season a bit merrier.

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Novelist, foodie, francophile. Top Writer in Books. My Patronus is our corgi, Moneypenny.

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