This is not going to be easy. Just about everybody who has ever recorded a song has put out a Christmas album, even Bob Dylan (WHAT?). I will select my ten personal favorites, and, in the process, I am certain I will leave out billions and billions of yours. Feel entirely free to inform me of what a chucklehead I am. That’s what the comments section is for. But, just as the lottery people say, you can’t win if you don’t play, you can’t yak if you don’t read. So polish up those spectacles, and let’s get to it.
As I often do with these lists, I will lay them out in reverse order of their quality. That is not to say that my first-listed, tenth best Christmas crooner is at all shabby. In fact, I think he is nothing short of excellent. Let’s we go see, OK?
Where is it carved in tapioca that the essayist cannot vote for himself? While it is true I have never made, let alone sold a recording of my Christmas songs, that is not to say that I haven’t sung them a-plenty. The only thing close to a professional performance I put on was my part in a Christmas fundraiser for the Kensington Arts Theatre (for which I also wrote three Christmas skits). Between our enthusiastic singing and our questionable acting (We had almost no time to rehearse.), we made a nice chunk of money, but it all went to the theatre.
I do most of my holiday singing in a piano bar setting. I cover a good bit of ground, from the silly (Tom Lehrer’s “Christmas Carol,” “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”) to the popular (“Silver Bells,” “Holly, Jolly Christmas”) to the sacred (“O Come All Ye Faithful/Adeste Fideles“). Nobody seems to mind too much when I sing these songs of the season. I’ll take that as a ringing endorsement.
Actually, it helps that I perform these fine songs in a setting where cocktails are served. I have learned over the years that, the more people drink, the more they seem to like my singing. If I could get all America drunk at the same time, I could win a Grammy.
9. Jim Reeves
There probably is not a single country singer who hasn’t put out a Christmas album at some point. I do not listen to a huge amount of country music, so my knowledge of the field may be limited.
I like Jim Reeves because he recorded one of my favorite country songs, ever: “He’ll Have to Go,” which was a crossover hit in 1960. I like his Christmas album, Twelve Songs of Christmas, because it features a good selection of songs, well-performed. My favorite is Silver Bells. True, his version of that song is nothing like Wilson Pickett’s, but, you see, that is not a bad thing; it’s a good thing.
8. Ella Fitzgerald
If this were about singers in general and not focused on Christmas music, I think this lady would have ended up at the head of the class. That is not to say there is a thing wrong with her holiday material.
The best showcase for her Christmas songs would have to be the excellent album, Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas. If anyone knew how to make something swing, it was Ella Fitzgerald. Here is a sample from that album of a song that is upbeat to begin with, and made even moreso by Ella. You could do worse than to have that album for this or any holiday season.
7. Celtic Woman
At this point, your narrator needs to clarify a term that showed up in the title of this novelette. By “crooner,” he means any assemblage of such people, be they solo or in a group, such as Celtic Woman. He also intends to include those vocal artists to whom the term “crooner” might be somewhat demeaning, such as Celtic Woman. To call them crooners would not be altogether inaccurate, but it would be like calling Secretariat a nag or General Patton a G.I. Nevertheless, those are the parameters we are working with, so let’s get yet even further on with it.
The group’s membership has fluctuated, as some members took maternity leave, while others decided to go in different directions. The ladies who put out the beautiful Christmas Celebration album were Chloe Agnew, Orla Fallon, Lisa Kelly and Meav Ni Mholchatha, with Mairead Nesbitt accompanying them on the amphetamine fiddle. (I do not mean to say that the lady takes them, but, my goodness, she is one high-energy commodity). Actually, the group has an excellent orchestra and choir to back them up, but, among all these, Ms. Nesbitt is the one who gets to perform in the spotlight.
And, while I would like to commend the entire album to your attention, I will be happy to highlight my favorite song on it, Christmas Pipes. Did I not pick out a nice one for you? The rest of the album isn’t 0.5 bad either. Maybe you should give it a listen.
6. Haley Westenra
Speaking of Celtic Woman, this young New Zealander served a brief stint with the group, although she was not part of the above-noted Christmas album. If you want to familiarize yourself with her work as a member of that group, I would suggest you link to a recent article I wrote, My Favorite Bridges, to Sing, that is. On the second page, you will find Celtic Woman’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” featuring Haley Westenra.
Ms. Westenra may be the best female vocalist practicing today, and almost certainly the best soprano. I would put her ahead of Charlotte Church or any individual member of Celtic Woman, and, quite obviously, I think highly of that group.
She has made a variety of recordings, including a Christmas album: Winter Magic. It does not offer the standard Christmas fare, but the selections are all a joy to listen to. Let me bring one of the more familiar pieces to your attention, which the young lady sings in liturgical Latin, Veni Veni Emmanuel.
Like another very talented singer I am going to list, and soon, much of Ms. Westenra’s output is dedicated to opera, but we can be grateful she took this opportunity to remember the Christmas season.
5. Luciano Pavarotti
You may or may not have heard of Hayley Westenra, but I would imagine you know who Mr. Pavarotti is. He’s some guy who used to sing a little opera from time to time. Fortunately for us (not that listening to excellent opera is a hardship), he also put out a fine Christmas album, titled O Holy Night, featuring that song (which he sings in English).
Like the previous album I listed, this one does not feature your standard fare-not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it is nice to add a little variety to the season. For example, consider what I feel is the strongest piece in the collection, Gesu Bambino. Presumptuous as it may be, singer #10 on this list thinks he would like to add that song by singer #5 to his inventory of Italian songs, which already features the operatic arias, “Eh Cumpari” and “C’e la Luna,” if not this holiday season, then certainly by the next one.
4. Nat King Cole
You know why Nat King Cole is here, don’t you? It is for his biggest holiday hit, The Christmas Song. Strangely enough, that signature song of his does not appear on his 1960 album, The Magic of Christmas, which still provides as fine a collection of Christmas music as you will want to hear. The song he is most famous for does show up in a number of compilation albums, to say nothing of the countless plays it will get, here, there and everywhere, every holiday season.
Somehow, Christmas would not quite be Christmas without Nat King Cole.
3. The Irish Rovers
I’ve said it before-where I did, I cannot, for the life of me remember-and I’ll say it again: The Irish Rovers 1999 album, An Irish Christmas, is the finest Christmas album I have ever heard, period.
I am no fuller of the blarney than anyone else (being about 20% of that ethnicity), but this still ranks as the finest collection of Christmas music, superbly performed, that I have ever had the pleasure to listen to. I have not been very pushy about telling you to go out and buy any of this stuff, but, seriously, buy, borrow or steal this one. It is well worth your while. The vocals are hearty and spirited, and the instrumentation is nothing short of spectacular. Just to give you a taste, here is one of their more traditional carols, Good King Wenceslas. Sadly, this excellent album is not as well represented in the You Tube as it deserves to be. I guess you will have to hear the album itself. Nobody said life was fair.
2. Bing Crosby
Come on, did you really think I was going to leave Bing Crosby out of the mix? He is the first singer you think of, is he not, when you think of Christmas music. He has covered just about every well-known Christmas song, and covered them all very well indeed over the course of his lengthy career.
There is one song for which he is best known. You know the one I mean, don’t you?
Say, wait a minute, I hear you the unjustifiably-suspicious reader wonder, if the great Bing Crosby is only #2 on this list, who could possibly be #1?
Yet even more seemingly-unfair, while Mr. Crosby has put out a vast trove of Christmas crooning, the guy who beat him out is what you’d call a “one-hit wonder.” Who in the world could I be referring to? Why, it’s none other than…
1. Porky Pig
Yeah, sure, Elvis (not Costello-the other guy) did a good enough job with the song, “Blue Christmas,” to begin with, but after the erudite Mr. Porky Swine covered the number, scarcely anyone since has even thought about trying to compete with him, and for good reason. Just take a listen.
Every holiday season, I never fail to puddle up whenever that tender ballad gets broadcasted. You feel the same way too, don’t you?
And that wraps up my list of favorite Christmas crooners. Stay tuned next year for my even more impressive list of the best Arbor Day crooners.
Peace on Earth, goodwill, the whole bit.
Own observation and experience