3. Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
You had to know this one was coming. I’ve tried to include some offbeat choices on this list, but when it comes to holiday albums everyone should love, there’s simply no way around Vince Guaraldi’s indelible soundtrack to the Charlie Brown Christmas special. What is there even to say about this justly famous album, besides “everyone loves it and of course they do”?
It leads off with possibly my favorite track, “O Tannenbaum,” but its formula of gentle, mostly instrumental jazzy takes on Christmas classics, sprinkled with a few originals, is solid throughout—so solid that “jazzy takes on Christmas classics” is a whole genre of music now. The most famous of its original pieces, “Christmastime is Here,” by this point elicits a mass Pavlovian response, generating a wave of holiday wistfulness with its first chords. I’ve watched it change the temperature of a room more than once, and I’d be willing to bet it has the power to dissipate family holiday tensions if deployed at the right time.
My only (extremely minor) critique of the entire album is that coming right after the transcendent instrumental version of “Christmastime is Here,” the children’s-choir version can’t help but sound just a little shrill. Similarly, I love these kids, but they’re painfully flat on “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Of course they’re singing in character as the Peanuts gang, but they couldn’t make a listenable version for the soundtrack? Still, if I let the imperfections of children’s voices ruin “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” I would clearly be missing the whole point.