It’s that time of year again! A time in which we can begin pieces with cliché statements, and a time in which we can write about Christmas music freely and with confidence.
And am I ever confident about this: Over the last few years, a new batch of holiday albums have emerged to remind us why NSYNC’s 1998 offering really wasn’t that great, or why it may be time to stop relying exclusively on the work of our Christmas queen, Mariah Carey. There have also been albums that did quite the opposite, sending us retreating to old favorites in shock and dismay.
But let’s get to it. Here’s the official ranking of recent Christmas albums — no ’90s classics by Hanson or Mariah allowed (since we already know they’d be Nos. 1 and 2). 6ix God bless us, every one.
10. Pentatonix, A Pentatonix Christmas (2016)
I’ll keep this simple: Do you like a capella groups? Do you like Pentatonix? If yes, you are likely livid that Pentatonix’s A Pentatonix Christmas has come in last on the Official Christmas Album Ranking™, and that’s fine. You can yell at me on the internet. If you love Pentatonix, their holiday offering is exactly what you’d want and expect — especially since this one’s in the same spirit as their first record, 2014’s That’s Christmas to Me. But if you don’t, you won’t be won over, because a Christmas album has never turned any person into a fan of anyone, ever.
In all fairness, Pentatonix do a great job of being themselves on this album. But the distance between all-encompassing love and “No, I said turn that off right now” can only serve to create even more holiday tension than what most of us will come face to face with at the mall. And while that tension might be the true spirit of Christmas, the music of Christmas is supposed to, you know, diminish it.
9. Kylie Minogue, Kylie Christmas (2015)
Kylie Minogue is a force. She can perform a pop song better than most of us could ever hope to. And while this has meant a successful holiday crossover for other artists, Kylie Christmas simply feels like her talents are being wasted. Not every song can be “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” but damn it, Kylie Minogue is above celebrating the arrival of Santa Claus. And the thing about this particular record is that, despite the songs being A-OK (nothing sounds straight-up bad), it feels like she knows it.
8. Taylor Swift, The Taylor Swift Holiday Collection (2007)
Full stop, Taylor Swift’s cover of “Last Christmas” is exactly the mix of pop and country that still has me crying whenever I hear “All Too Well.” But the rest of the album is a reminder of why girlfriend left her introductory genre behind. While glossy mainstream country obviously played a key role in the rise of Swifty, her Christmas record is so entrenched in the genre that unless you’re ride-or-die for Garth and Trisha, it can be a little alienating. Enter: “Silent Night,” a song that feels like it belongs at the end of an emotional Nashville scene — like, one that takes place at a Christmas concert in the school gym.
7. Leona Lewis, Christmas, With Love (2013)
I’m ashamed that we don’t talk about Leona Lewis’s “One More Sleep” — the first song on her 10-track Christmas album — with as much zest as we do any of Céline Dion’s jams on These Are Special Times (which is one of the greatest Christmas albums to ever exist). But alas, we are lacking as a society.
Is the whole album stacked with songs of that quality? Sort of — tracks like “White Christmas,” “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” and “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” are exactly what you need when stuck in traffic and convinced you can reach those high notes if you turn up the music loud enough. But “Your Hallelujah,” “O Holy Night,” and “Ave Maria” slow down the pace, making the whole thing seem a little less fun, even if Lewis can sing to high heavens. Which ultimately ranks this particular record as ... fine. It’s fine! Everything’s fine.
6. Snoop Dogg, Snoop Dogg Presents Christmas in tha Dogg House (2008)
There comes a day in December (usually the 21st or 22nd) where you need a break from Christmas music. You’ve listened to all the Charlie Brown Christmas you can, and you need a palate cleanser, because the violins and the emotions have all gotten too sentimental. Enter: Snoop Dogg’s Christmas in tha Dogg House, featuring covers and collaborations galore. And honestly? I accept it. Maybe it’s the lack of high notes or the remix of “The Christmas Song,” but this is why I trust Snoop and Martha Stewart to continue building the ultimate holiday legacies.
I am just disappointed that Martha was not included in this collaboration at all.
5. Mariah Carey, Merry Christmas II You (2010)
Sixteen years after the release of Merry Christmas, Mariah’s Christmas album follow-up must be embraced in the way you embrace any friend you’ve known for years but drifted away from. She isn’t the same, life isn’t the same, but it still feels good to be with someone who truly gets you. And in this case, the “you” is Christmas. Clearly Mariah is the queen of the season for a reason, but while each song carries the magnificence of Carey being festive, it lacks the heart and soul of its 1994 predecessor, particularly in that it’s less fun than it is grand. And while it would make for a terrific album separately, when comparing Merry Christmas II You to Mariah’s sound of yore, it’s the friend who just doesn’t have the same sense of humor anymore. Meaning you can never quite be as close.
4. Kelly Clarkson, Wrapped in Red (2013)
“Underneath the Tree” is the “All I Want for Christmas Is You” of the 2010s and I will fight with anybody (on Twitter) who argues otherwise. Because the truth is this: Kelly Clarkson has the voice and persona for a holiday album. She’s got the range. She’s unabashedly enthusiastic. Whether she’s keeping it low-key with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” or hooking us up with “4 Carats,” a track that seems like a love letter to Santa (or to a secret lover who’s really into the holiday season — both kind of weird, but sure), she’s committed to the cause, pouring as much sentiment into these as she did into “Behind These Hazel Eyes” (the greatest ballad of the 2000s). The downside? There’s a cover of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a song that needs to be eradicated from our planet and our memories — regardless of who’s singing it, I’m sorry.
3. Ariana Grande, Christmas & Chill (2015)
At this point, Ariana Grande could release an album of Arbor Day songs and I’d be like, “Sure.” In one of the only successful attempts in history, Grande’s EP embodies the magic of Destiny’s Child’s 8 Days of Christmas by making lyrics about cookies and balsam firs seem like reasonable accompaniments to a #sexy and/or grown-ass Christmastime. Especially since Christmas music is bananas — we are singing about a holiday defined by tinsel and a North Pole resident who consumes inordinate amounts of baked goods during the course of an evening. Nothing about it is sexy at all. But despite this, Ariana’s “Winter Things” — a track accompanied by a ukulele — comes off as more charming, warm, and lovely than it does “festive.” Especially since it also lists a slew of winter activities that can double as an itinerary for keeping visiting friends and family happy during the last week of December (minus the romance, obviously).
If only it was longer. Because while you could switch over to 2013’s Christmas Kisses, EPs are a massive buzzkill in any/all road-trip or gift-exchange scenarios. We need 100 songs, not five.
2. Kacey Musgraves, A Very Kacey Christmas (2016)
Remember what I said about Taylor Swift and country? Remember what I said about Pentatonix’s Christmas album appealing only to fans of Pentatonix? Well, look upon your Christmas god, for she is named Kacey. While still staying true to her country roots, she warms up the genre (think: less Swiftian twang, more Loretta Lynn’s “Country Christmas”) enough to make it seem inviting to anybody. (Read: even those of us not super-into country.)
Plus, unlike Pentatonix, she uses her Christmas vibes to turn those who may be indifferent into a fan. Her voice is sincere enough to convince us she actually enjoys singing holiday songs, but she’s avoided falling into Christmas campiness by recruiting Willie Nelson, Leon Bridges, and subdued instrumentalists, making it a listenable album — not just a listenable Christmas album.
1. Justin Bieber, Under the Mistletoe (2011)
Not only does my precious son manage to make Christmas music seem romantic and slow-dance-able via this record’s title track, he balances it with “Drummer Boy,” a remixed version of “Little Drummer Boy” featuring Busta Rhymes that includes Biebs rapping the line, “I’m so tight I might go psycho / Christmas time so here’s a recital,” which truly embodies the spirit of the season.
Not to mention, the album earned Mariah’s blessing: She appears on Justin’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You (SuperFestive!),” and her choice to include herself suggests that she’s deemed Baby B worthy of co-singing her Signature Song (and/or co-piloting the season altogether). Which, admittedly, pales in comparison to Justin shouting, “Santa’s coming, girl!” to start his version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” a song that’s been in my head since I first heard Under the Mistletoe five Novembers ago.