1. Vince Guaraldi, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” Don't deny it — the infectious “Linus and Lucy” has become almost as important to the holiday music canon as “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman.” It was very unusual at the time to have a jazz soundtrack featured on a kid's special. But, today, it would be hard to imagine Christmas without Guaraldi's playful tones.
2. Squirrel Nut Zippers, “Christmas Caravan.” Christmas albums from popular music artists are normally throwaway affairs (hello Bob Dylan!) But this is inarguably the Zippers' finest achievement on wax and one of the best contemporary holiday albums of the past 20 years, with several cuts (“My Evergreen,” “Indian Giver,” “A Johnny Ace Christmas”) in contention for future standard status.
3. “Christmas with Buck Owens and his Buckaroos.” Buck's Christmas disc features a set of fun, uptempo country music for the holidays, with “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy” and “Blue Christmas Lights” readymade for endless repeat. For a more somber take on Christmas twang, proceed to Merle Haggard's equally-fine “Christmas Present.”
4. Mahalia Jackson, “Sings Songs For Christmas.” This is where the world's greatest gospel singer tackles the world's greatest Christmas songs. The arrangements by Sid Bass and Marty Paich may oversweeten things at times, but Jackson's powerful voice and boundless devotion come through on every cut. Pick hit: “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.”
5. James Brown, “Funky Christmas.” It certainly isn't the most reverent holiday music on the market, but anything in the CD bin that includes the words “James Brown” and “Christmas” in the title is worth your while (there are several different J.B. X-mas releases available). “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” is one for the ages, and “Go Power at Christmas Time” can kick any Christmas party into third gear.
6. The Roches, “We Three Kings.” An offshoot of an annual Christmas caroling excursion by the folk-rocking Roche sisters (Maggie, Terrie and Suzzy), this CD deftly mixes expertly harmonized takes on standards such as “Winter Wonderland” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with a handful of stunning Roche originals that perfectly capture the positive vibes of the season.
7. Various, “Bummed Out Christmas” You knew it had to happen: a compilation of anti-Christmas songs and downbeat holiday tunes that shows the dark side of Yuletide. Any disc that features the Sonics' rocking “Don't Believe in Christmas” alongside George Jones' devastating country ballad “Lonely Christmas Call” is a force to be reckoned with. If you can't find this, “A John Waters Christmas” will do nicely in its place.
8. Elvis Presley, “Elvis' Christmas Album.” Are you lonesome Christmas night? Try taking one of the King's finest long-playing achievements — his 1957 Christmas release — home for the holidays. So many classics here: “Blue Christmas,” “Santa Claus is Back in Town,” “Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me,” etc.
9. Low, “Christmas” You wouldn't think that a holiday album by this somewhat downcast Minnesota indie-rock band would be so affecting and reverent. But Low's mellow set of superior holiday originals (like the ace “It Was Just Like Christmas”) and re-jiggered standards (“Little Drummer Boy,” “Silent Night”) serves as the perfect soundtrack for a cup of hot cocoa and the smell of a decorated Conifer tree.
10. “The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection.” The Motown label took Christmas very seriously, with nearly every one of its legendary artists contributing a holiday song (or an album) that still resonates. This 2-CD set contains nearly all of Motown's holiday output, from Marvin Gaye's stately “Purple Snowflakes” to the Jackson 5's definitive take on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Essential.
11. Various, “A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector.” Even “Wall of Sound” producer Spector's recent murder conviction can't diminish this 1963 landmark, which saw many of his regular artists (Darlene Love, the Ronettes) collaborate on a set of originals and standards that has endured for years. Spector himself delivers the spoken outro, which lends just the right amount of showbiz schmaltz to the proceedings.
12. Shelby Lynne, “Merry Christmas” Veteran country singer Lynne keeps it warm and low-key on her new yuletide offering, stripping chestnuts like “O Holy Night” down to her smoky voice and acoustic guitar. There's a fine rendition of the oft-covered “Christmas Time's A-Comin'” and impressive new ones, like the heartbreaking “X-Mas.”