It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Wait a second… That kind of sounds like a song, doesn’t it? Over the next few weeks, we will be turning to a lot of our favorite songs of the season. Over the years, there have been a multitude of Country Music-related Yuletide platters that have stood the test of time. So….what are the best ones? That is completely relative to whoever is composing the list, but I will tell you that my original assignment was to select ten – and I asked for twelve. Even that was a tough task, given my love of Christmas music. In picking these, I tried also to choose from a wide variety of eras – not wanting to limit myself to albums from the 80s, or today. So, grab a cup of egg nog, and let the debates begin!
Alabama, Christmas (1985)
This album had to belong on the list because it was one of those albums that served as the soundtrack of the holiday celebrations growing up. It wouldn’t be December without hearing the timeless “Christmas In Dixie,” and Randy Owen’s vocal performance on “Tennessee Christmas” is one of his better ones. Growing up listening to nothing but Country, I wasn’t even aware of Amy Grant’s original until a little later. “A Candle In The Window” stirs emotions, and thirty years later, “Thistlehair The Christmas Bear” still makes me smile!
Garth Brooks, Beyond The Season (1992)
I remember it being August of 1992, and actually playing some of this album in radio. That’s how hot Garth Brooks was at the time of this album’s release. The amazing thing to me about this collection is that for all you hear about Brooks’ progressive sound and style, this album was one of his more laid-back projects. “The Gift” remains one of his most poignant vocal showcases, “Silent Night” is still very moving (though just a little dated with the recitation), and his rollicking take on “Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy” was a fitting nod to Buck Owens. I haven’t played this in August much since then… but you can bet it will get a few spins this season!
Faith Hill, Joy To The World (2008)
For all of her crossover-based appeal, this set might be the best example of Faith Hill’s power as a vocalist. This was very much an “old-school” holiday package, with most of the songs sounding like they could have been recorded straight out of 1955. The set also included one of the most powerful original songs of the Christmas season over the past decade with “A Baby Changes Everything.”
Lady Antebellum, On This Winter’s Night (2012)
While the award-winning trio could have gotten real fancy with their production on this album, they let the songs, and their gorgeous harmonies, tell the story. “This Christmas” was a highlight here, as was a stunning version of “Silent Night (Lord Of My Life),” that has to be heard to be fully believed. The album swings effortlessly between Country and Pop, and stands as one of the best Country holiday albums of the decade so far.
Patty Loveless, Bluegrass & White Snow (2002)
At the time of the release of this album, Loveless was on a critical roll with the success of her 2001 masterpiece Mountain Soul. I always viewed this package as kind of a sequel to that album, with its Appalachian stylings. The standards are incredible here, but the originals really set this one apart, with the title cut, “Christmas Day At My House,” and the fun-filled “Santa Train,” about a yearly event that takes place throughout the mountains of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee.
Lorrie Morgan, Merry Christmas From London (1993)
Morgan’s music sometimes has taken a backseat to her personal life, but this gem deserves placement on this list. Recorded ‘Across The Pond’ with The New World Philharmonic and Choir, this album takes the listener back in time to the days of Sinatra and Martin. Adding to the authenticity of the sound are pop stalwarts Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis, who guest on “Little Snow Girl” and “Blue Snowfall,” respectively. She also gives a nostalgic tip of the hat to her father, George Morgan, on the rarity “Up On Santa Claus Mountain.” If you’ve never heard this one, seek it out. You’ll thank me later!
The Oak Ridge Boys, Christmas Time’s A Coming (2012)
With six Yuletide albums released – so far – during their Hall of Fame career, there’s something that just fits about the holidays and the Oak Ridge Boys. I could have picked either of the six, but I have always had a special place in my heart for this festive platter, which was just a lot of fun – with their joyous cover of Bill Monroe’s timeless song of the season, Richard Sterban taking the spotlight on “Here Comes Santa Claus” and Joe Bonsall’s exuberance on “Peterbilt Sleigh.”
Darius Rucker, Home For The Holidays (2014)
The most recent album on the list, what really hit me on this album was how versatile the South Carolina native was on it. The disc was a mixture of the solemn (“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O’ Come All Ye Faithful”), the fun (“Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow”), and a couple of originals (“Candy Cane Christmas” and the superbly-written “What God Wants For Christmas”). Sheryl Crow added the right touch of flirtatious on the simmering version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” helping to make this one a definite keeper.
SHeDAISY, Brand New Year (2000)
I always thought that the Osborn sisters got a huge lack of respect. Many compared them to the Dixie Chicks, but they were very different stylistically. Dann Huff took the keys and ran on the trio’s holiday collection – which was one of the most musically adventurous Country Christmas albums ever. The arrangements and the harmonies are still as intoxicating as they were fifteen years ago.
George Strait, Merry Christmas Strait To You (1986)
I think if you considered yourself a Country Music fan in the 80s and 90s, this one was essential to your collection. Strait and co-producer Jimmy Bowen split it down the middle, mixing five classics like “Frosty The Snowman” up with newer material, such as “For Christ’s Sake, It’s Christmas.” It’s one of those discs that it’s not quite the holidays without.
Conway Twitty, Merry Twismas (1983)
Conway Twitty’s animated alter-ego, “Twitty Bird,” was the co-star on this novel album. At the time of it’s recording, it reportedly cost $250,000 to produce – an unheard of amount for an disc at that time – let alone a Christmas album. His family re-issued the album a few years ago, much to the delight of his fans around the world. I remember having the original cassette, and to a ten year old, it was magic. After all, as one of the songs on it states, “Christmas Is For Kids.”
You see, twelve slots isn’t really that much. Consider that albums by Emmylou Harris, Jim Reeves, The Statler Brothers, Trisha Yearwood, and Merle Haggard didn’t make this list. There’s too many to mention. But, there’s only eleven, and while it’s tough to for me to narrow the list down to a dozen, it’s pretty easy to tell you my favorite……
Recorded not too long after these Hall of Famers made history with “Islands In The Stream,” the duo recorded an album together that stands as not just my favorite Christmas record, but maybe my favorite overall. The classics were great, but what truly made this one shine was the originals, written for the most part by Parton. For years, this has always been the first Christmas album I play every year, and on my Black Friday shopping runs, this one is always in the car. Songs like “With Bells On” and “I Believe In Santa Claus” take me back to a simpler place and time, and “The Greatest Gift Of All” keeps my hope alive. I just wish someone would re-issue the equally classic CBS-TV special the two filmed to promote it. That would truly make it “A Christmas To Remember.”