The best Christmas albums of 2023 (and the worst), from Cher to Kate Rusby via Myleene Klass

Everyone tries a Christmas album sooner or later – but which of this year's offerings are any good?
Evening Standard
David Smyth2 minutes ago

Christmas is a time for singles, isn’t it? When everyone talks about the race for the Christmas number one, they mean the individual song that’s dominating the season, not the album – otherwise The Killers’ greatest hits would qualify as this year’s festive favourite.

For decades, a CD or cassette single was as ubiquitous a stocking filler as a squashed satsuma, but now that streaming services are stuffed with ready-made Christmas playlists that will serve up Mariah and Wham! and Ed and Elton with automatically generated ease, recording a whole Christmas album seems like a bit of a faff.

But as Michael Bublé will tell you, his voice muffled from beneath an enormous pile of cash, getting the tone right on a consistently charming Christmas album can pay off year after year. It’s a very tricky balance to pull off – any originals can’t be too big a dip in quality from the neighbouring all-time classics, and those iconic songs need to be delivered in a fresh way while also conjuring a glow of nostalgic familiarity. Plus the biggest question of all: how many sleigh bells? Will you jingle all the way or have more of a silent night? 

Everyone tries a Christmas album sooner or later. For Cher, whose new album is simply titled Christmas (★★) it’s definitely later. At 77, she’s finally noticed that despite releasing records since the mid-Sixties, she’s never done a festive compilation. This is surprising as it turns out she had a role on one of the greatest Christmas songs of all time: Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) by Darlene Love, from Phil Spector’s classic 1963 collection A Christmas Gift to You.

Cher sang backing vocals on it as a 17-year-old and now 82-year-old Darlene belatedly returns the favour. It’s faithfully delivered with clanging bells and the same swinging sax solo, and suits Cher’s bombastic voice.  

The rest is such a mix of styles that it ends up more of a mess. The Auto-Tune pioneer gets robotic again on Christmas Ain’t Christmas Without You and the thunking Eurodance of DJ Play a Christmas Song, but there’s also a romantic duet with bankable Bublé and rollicking rock and roll on Chuck Berry’s Run Rudolph Run.

The biggest turkey is Drop Top Sleigh Ride, on which Compton rapper Tyga is tasked with bringing a wholly unwanted gangsta vibe to the holiday season: “Sit on my lap, your Santa's here.” 

Gregory Porter

Californian jazz singer Gregory Porter has a more coherent feel on his warm and cozy Christmas Wish (★★★★). He hasn’t had to change his usual style – piano, strings, brushed drums and that creamy Baileys voice – to create an album that sits comfortably beside the Christmas standards of the Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.

He also reaches back to the work of the giants of soul, covering Stevie Wonder’s anthem for peace on Earth, Someday at Christmas, and Marvin Gaye’s more surreal Purple Snowflakes. Among the handful of originals, Everything’s Not Lost may make an unlikely claim, that bombs and conflict can take a back seat because “Christmas and New Year is coming on strong,” but it’s a gorgeous four minutes of peace.

Like Cher, musician and presenter Myleene Klass is another one who’s got Christmas previous. Who knew that as a young girl she was in the choir on Cliff Richard’s Mistletoe and Wine? In the past year she’s proved a prolific pianist, knocking out three albums for the least discerning audience of all: babies and their exhausted parents. Her My Lullabies (★★) series has already done slow, echoey piano instrumental versions of Motown hits and an I’m a Celebrity… cash-in of jungle-related tunes. Naturally she’s now turned to all the most obvious Christmas songs. It’s soothing with a side of cynicism. 

A better instrumental collection is Winter Guitar Hymnals From The Boneyard (★★★★) by Northern Irish musician McKowski. The Omagh guitarist, real name Mark McCausland, spent one night recording intricately plucked acoustic versions of familiar favourites, including Joy to the World and White Christmas, as well as a couple of originals, giving them a frosty, folky feel that owes a lot to John Fahey’s enduring 1968 album of seasonal guitar music, The New Possibility.

If you want something more modern and have had it up to here with sleigh bells, Mississippi singer Brandy has made a festive album that stays in the sleek soul world that made her one of the giants of Nineties R&B. Christmas With Brandy (★★★) contains more original songs than most – it’s a half-and-half mix – and even on overdone standards such as Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, she does the meandering vocal thing to such an extent that it’s barely recognisable.

Kate Rusby
David Angel

You might think indie acts would be too cool to stoop to making Christmas music, but past collections by Low, Sufjan Stevens and Bright Eyes are some of the best. This year it’s the turn of Kentucky band My Morning Jacket to put out a Christmas album that’s a bit rougher around the edges. Happy Holiday! (★★★★), only available on vinyl and on Bandcamp, contains more obscure material such as The Band’s Christmas Must be Tonight, all carried along by Jim James’s angelic voice.  

For Christmas music that you’ll be able to tolerate all the way to twelfth night, however, it’s safest to turn to an expert. Yorkshire folk singer Kate Rusby is now on her seventh Christmas album and has just wrapped up her annual festive tour. Light Years (★★★★) is full of softly sung traditional music, as well as Chris de Burgh’s 1975 oddity A Spaceman Came Travelling. Forget Christmas cash-ins – she’s in deep, and knows exactly how to spread goodwill to all men.