The runners and riders for best Christmas album 2023. Photos: PR / Jane Greenwood / Apple TV
The Christmas album is a difficult act to get right. People want a “new” classic Christmas album, but they get easily bored if you regurgitate the same old covers. They say they want new Christmas songs, but will then happily ignore them and skip straight to the old favourites.
2023’s Christmas albums see another crop of diverse stars attempt to get the balance right, and unlock the magical formula of the instant classic holiday record. Has anyone succeeded? Let’s find out…
The essential guide to Christmas albums 2023
Pop goes Christmas
Cher – Christmas
You come to this with all the goodwill in the world: it’s Cher! It’s Christmas! Alas, there’s nothing to get excited about. At its heart, it’s an album with an identity crisis. The original tracks, notably DJ Play A Christmas Song, are Cher-by-numbers disco bangers while the oldies are all faithful retreads with no attempt made to bring the two sides together. She brings in Darlene Love to duet on her own ’60s classic Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) and Stevie Wonder for the Motown favourite What Christmas Means To Me, but neither capture the magic of the original cuts. Cher kind of makes them worse. I take no pleasure in saying that.
Pentatonix – The Greatest Christmas Hits
The acapella/beatbox ensemble bring together a decade’s worth of festive covers to create the single most punchable collection of music ever put to disc. Unbearably smug. Hideously chirpy. Revoltingly sincere. Music for people who thought Glee was too edgy. Burn every copy.
Brandy – Christmas with Brandy
Slick, ’90s R&B from the The Boy is Mine singer. Opener Feels Different, a Brandy original, is great: taut, crisp and compelling. But don’t be deceived. The new songs mostly blend together into something mushily bland and rather dated. An enjoyably sparse and airy R&B vibe occasionally surfaces but it’s quickly pulled down by some generic production, especially on the classic stuff. Santa Baby has none of the slinky bite it needs, and attempting po-faced, over-sung soul versions of Jingle Bells and Deck The Halls is baffling – the joy of those songs is in loudly and messily singing them, not nodding away deep in your headphones like a YouTube cat.
RuPaul – Essential Christmas
While the “Essential” in the title is possibly the biggest stretch in history, there’s a lot to enjoy here. This collection of Mama Ru’s recent festive offerings is a selection box of proper bangers, notably Brand New Year, Hey Sis, It’s Christmas and the brilliant bounce of the Big Freedia-featuring Jingle Dem Bells. It’s disposable, sure, but there’s a refreshing absence of oldies and a big, silly grin to be had all the way through. RuPaul’s Christmas album is better than Cher’s. There. I said it.
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A touch of class
Hannah Waddingham – Home For Christmas
The soundtrack to Waddingham’s Apple TV special, recorded in London’s Colosseum to a packed audience, is a glossy, camp joy. While Cher cheerlessly photocopies What Christmas Means To Me, Waddingham and her band rip through it with palpable delight. Oscar-nominee Leslie Odom Jnr. brings some chocolatey voiced class to Please Come Home For Christmas, Sam Ryder turns up to tear Run Run Rudolph a new one and the English National Opera (ENO) chorus brings all the goosebumps to O Holy Night. Waddingham is a hoot, with pipes to kill for. The textbook example of how to nail a Christmas special.
Gregory Porter – Christmas Wish
Now this is the good stuff. Porter’s luxurious voice lends itself beautifully to the jazzier end of the festive song book, and the arrangements are done with a real depth and sincerity. His Silent Night is gorgeous, his run on Motown staple Purple Snowflakes is deft and silky, and a double-bass-led version of Vincent Guaraldi’s jazz classic Christmas Time is Here conjures the crackle of an open fire as the snow falls outside. None of this is a surprise from a singer so famously enamoured of Nat King Cole and Marvin Gaye, but Porter clearly understands this stuff. Most surprisingly, his own Everything’s Not Lost is placed next to some of the most beautiful songs ever written and holds its head high. Sheer class.
Johnny Mathis – Christmas Time is Here
The third-best selling artist of the 20th century (no, really) is back with his 71st album and seventh Christmas collection. And it’s exactly what you want it to be. Even at 88, Mathis has a beautiful voice and his brandy-soaked journey through comfortable-as-old-slippers classics is what Christmas is supposed to sound like. Which makes sense – Johnny Mathis has been making holiday albums since 1958: he’s part of the template. Did we need yet another re-recording of his 1976 UK Christmas number one, When A Child Is Born? Of course not. But, my, it’s still a pretty thing.
Curveball of the year
Wheatus – Just A Dirtbag Christmas EP
It’s Teenage Dirtbag re-recorded with sleigh bells and different lyrics and you immediately roll your eyes. And then you smile. And then you get to the “I’ve got two tickets to …” line and you laugh out loud at the audacity, and all in all you have a great time. It’s silly and knowing, cheesy and nostalgic and really quite fun. Which is very Christmas. We also get three properly great new festive songs; likeable grunge-pop with tongue firmly in cheek and foot firmly on fuzzbox. A Christmas miracle!
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