While holiday music might be overplayed by the time the new year comes around, hearing Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” on the radio is a sure-fire way to tell when it is officially Christmas time.
However, while most people can name an endless list of Christmas carols and standards, there are not too many albums that could be considered Christmas staples. The following five records are ones that are either worthy of such title or are just perfect for the winter season.
A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi
Of all the records on the list, this is the one that could already be considered a “Christmas classic.” The special this soundtrack is attached to is considered one of the best Christmas specials, and this soundtrack has a big part in making A Charlie Brown Christmas one of the greatest, unique pieces of Christmas media.
Composed by Vince Guaraldi, this album is filled of mostly instrumental jazz compositions that are either originals or based off of standards. But even if there is no vocalist to grab the attention of the listener, that is not exactly what makes this record such a holiday treat. This record carries with it an incredibly warm atmosphere that could eliminate the need of a fireplace to sit in front of. The best tracks off this record perfectly capture the warm feeling of being cooped up at home, simply enjoying the company of friends and family as you look outside a frosted window as snow comes pouring down for what seems like forever. Even the tracks that do have vocals, which are carols sung by children, are as endearing as actual Christmas carollers.
While this may be a record to avoid for un-festive types, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” whether soundtracking the special or even on its own, is a wonderful album that should have a spot on everyone’s holiday playlist.
For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver
For Emma, Forever Ago, the first record from Justin Vernon under the Bon Iver name, was recorded during the winter of 2006-07 in a secluded hunting cabin in Wisconsin where Vernon hunted for food and at one point had to deal with a wild bear breaking into his home. The rustic, wintery environment in which this album was crafted translates onto the record with extreme clarity. The stripped-back, lo-fi recordings that populate this record take the listener directly to the cabin in which these songs were written and recorded.
However, this is not the record to play for the whole family at the Christmas party; For Emma is an intensely intimate record. While Vernon’s lyrics are often intensely cryptic, the vulnerable, haunting falsetto they are sung with brings more emotional power than most lyrics and most albums could ever deliver. It is the defining factor of an album that could be considered one of the best folk records of the 21st century.
Vespertine by Björk
While this record’s predecessor, 1997’s Homeogenic, could belong on this list, Vespertine just captures the atmosphere of what makes this such a perfect winter album with so much more accuracy. The icy synthesizers, celestial choir vocals, and vast soundscapes that can be heard quite a lot throughout the record perfectly capture the chilling majesty of the tundras of Björk’s homeland, Iceland.
But this record will not be for everyone, Björk’s habit of releasing some of the most forward-thinking, left-field pop music on the planet does not stop with Vespertine. Some of her most experimental work (“Cocoon”) lands on this record. Also, if you look into the lyrics of the record, you will find that Vespertine is one of the most sexually explicit records in her discography.
But for how far-out and carnal this record can be, Vespertine is an immensely emotional, passionate record that makes the confession of love of another person sound like the most important, monumental statement ever made in the history of recorded music. Björk is a master of composing songs so big they could touch the stars, and Vespertine shows her at her peak.
Silver & Gold by Sufjan Stevens
Another artist that has a knack for writing wintery music, Sufjan Stevens, has luckily embraced this by having not one but two Christmas albums under his belt. His second time around with Silver & Goldis the superior not just because there is more (mostly quality) material, but it embraces the versatility Stevens had showcased in between the release of his first Christmas record, Songs for Christmas. Shades of indie folk, rock, chamber pop and folk, indietronica, glitch pop, and progressive pop all show up, so do not expect the entire record to blend together.
With an album length of almost three hours, listening to the record in its entirety is not recommended. However, with so many shades of music being covered on one record, you can simply pick you favorites and come out with a reasonably sized collection of favorites. Whether it be classics given an indie twist (“Silent Night”, “Angels We Have Heard On High”), original compositions that would be holiday staples in a just world, (“Christmas In The Room”, “Lumberjack Christmas/No One Can Save You From Christmases Past”) or oddball, electronically-tinged art pop tracks (“Joy To The World”, “Up On The Housetop”), not everything will work for everyone, but there will at least be one song for everybody. But nobody should skip on “Christmas Unicorn,” which may rank as one of Stevens’ best tracks and the Christmas song to end all Christmas songs
808’s and Heartbreaks by Kanye West
Initially claimed as West’s worst release yet now a dark horse record that helped pave way for many of today’s biggest rap stars, 808’s and Heartbreaks is definitely an interesting, one-of-a-kind installment in Kanye’s discography.
After three straight records that were heavily inspired by the sounds of old-school soul and funk, 808’s and Heartbreaks was quite the stark opposite. Synthetic synthesizers and 80s drum patterns act as the base for 90% of the instrumentals on this record, and West exclusively sings in auto-tune on a singing-heavy record. Matched with the dark, moody vibes of the album, it is a very cold listen. It is a style that will not apply to everybody, especially for people who have an intense distaste for the artists that have to thank 808’s for paving the way for them, like Future and Young Thug. However, even the most narrow-minded of hip hop fans should be able to acknowledge the strength of songs like “Say You Will,” “Love Lockdown,” and “Street Lights.”
808’s is definitely a flawed record. “See You In My Nightmares” is a stain on an otherwise stellar second half, and West’s lack of vocal chops is sometimes too much for the auto-tune to mask. But it is an emotionally bare record, a novelty for West at the time and something that’s influence on popular music can not be overstated. So if you are one of those people who might have initially dismissed 808’s due to its initial reputation, there is no better time to give the record another chance than this winter.
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