I really can't rank these. These are just my favorites, and they are for various reasons.
I mentioned before I like classic jazz Christmas music, and for a Classic Jazz Christmas album, you cannot beat Columbia Records' "Jingle Bell Jazz". I bought this album on vinyl years ago and I NEVER get tired of it. The CD version dropped one track, but it was the track I liked the least, so I wasn't too bothered by that. Dexter Gordon's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is quite possibly my favorite version of this song, and Duke Ellington's "Jingle Bells" is hands down my favorite version of what is honestly at it's core a pretty dull song. But not when the Duke took it on. That cat layed that tune out and decked the hall for all time with it, and it kicks! Plus Bob Dorough's "Merry X-Mas to Whom It May Concern" (w Miles Davis) is a "modern" classic. Gotta say I prefer the original vinyl cover art, though.
Vince Guaraldi's "A Charlie Brown Christmas". This is consistently a top Christmas album every year. It's classic jazz, and it has some songs that at least at first were not the same carols you hear over and over and over again -- but many have since been recorded and re-recorded and have become classics on their own -- most notably, "Christmastime is Here". Even the standards have an off-kiltered innocence to them. This is one reason I like Jazz Christmas music. It's the same song ... but it's not! Plus, this album is the source of the original song most associated with Peanuts, "Linus and Lucy".
Doris Day's "Personal Christmas Collection". I just discovered this a few years ago after hearing "Old Saint Nicholas" on another great classic Christmas collection (a series of releases called "Ultra Lounge Christmas Cocktails") and I sought her album out. This is a solid Christmas album. There's a reason Doris Day was a popular singer - she had a great voice and knew how to use it! It is easily one of my favorite Christmas albums.
The Ultra Lounge Christmas Cocktails Series. Not so much an album but a series of albums. Several original classic versions of classic Christmas songs. Peggy Lee, Kay Starr, Dean Martin, Julie London, Nat Cole, June Christy, Les Brown, Stan Kenton, Johnny Mercer, Lena Horn ... I mean ... what are you waiting for?
The Roches "We Three Kings". I first saw a Roches ablum when I worked at Whizz Records back in my College days. The self-titled "The Roches". It was intriguing. But then one night I saw them on Johnny Carson. Quirky, irreverent, great harmonies (and they can also sing badly on purpose, which is harder than you think when you are good)... when they came out with a Christmas album I was torn. I loved the group, but I don't like irreverent Christmas Music for the most part. I thought this is either going to be really really good, or really really bad. It is great. Apparently also released with an alternate album cover.
Rhino Records' "Blue Yule". Of my three Blues Christmas CD's, this was my first and still the best, album cover art notwithstanding. Louis Jordan, Lightnin' Hopkins, Canned Heat, John Lee Hooker ... My other two are the Alligator Records Christmas Collection, and Blues, Mistletoe, and Santa's Little Helper.
The Sixteen, "Christmas Music from Medieval and Renaissance Europe". For when you need to remember the reason for the season, the real meaning of Christmas. The later in the Christmas season, the more traditional I like my Christmas music until by Christmas I'm practially listening to Church Music, and I mean renaissance Catholic Cathedral music. It doesn't get any more traditional than this, and "Quem Pastores Laudavere" still makes the hair on the back of my head stand on end.
King's College Choir, "Christmas at Kings". Can't beat King's College for Choir Music. This IS Christmas Music. Real Christmas Music. (Not Beethoven Christmas music - Lucy Van Pelt) ;-) Wow, knock your socks off Christmas Music. Yeah.
Dean Shostak, "Crystal Carols". Ever see anybody play the glass bowls - you know, like Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality? Wet fingers, and glasses and glass bowls filled with varying levels of water? Well, this is way better. Benjamin Franklin invented an instrument called a Glass Armonica which was basically a spindle with different sizes of glass bowls on it that you spun and "played" with your fingers. It makes one of the most ethereal sounds you'll ever hear, and it lends itself very well to Christmas Music. Dean Shostak has obliged us. I have a friend, though, who is looking for "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" on Glass Armonica. If you know of a version, drop me a line.
Rita Ford, "A Music Box Christmas". Nothing says 19th Century Christmas like music boxes. There's just something magical about them. Simple and complex at the same time. Details. Precision. And the stupid electronic music boxes of today are an insult to their memory. I love this collection.
I discovered this one this year, Westminster Concert Bell Choir - "Christmas at Westminster". Like music boxes, there's just something about the clear, ringing tones of metal, and these folks are real pro's. A little organ music splashed in, but definitely in the background ... accompaniment to the bells, not out in front. I'd like to find one that's JUST bells sometime, but this is good stuff!
Christmas With the Chicago Chamber Brass. I was at my brother's house over Christmas back in the early to mid 1980's and he had KWMU public radio on. I was recording Christmas music on my tape recorder. Later, when I listened to the tape, there was an incredible sequence of tunes all from this album, tracks 19 through 25 and it built and built and finished with a bang. I looked for this album for years. I mean like 10 or more years. Finally had a guy at a local independent record store order it for me. 2 weeks after it came in, the guy closed his doors for good. Now you can order it easily on the net. Great brass Christmas album, and nothing says Christmas like Brass!
Christmas Guitar, instrumental acoustic guitar ... is some of my favorite Christmas music. The warm sound of the wood resonator evokes a crackling fire in the fireplace and soft light of a Christmas tree on a winter's evening. I bought a Christmas Guitar album back when I was in the Musical Heritage Society record club by Stephen Siktberg called "Christmas Guitar". I can't find it anywhere on line, but it's my go-to guitar Christmas Album.
Doug Smith put out a beautiful guitar Christmas album. John Fahey put out three or four, and one of my favorites is the instruction CD of Steve Kauffman that came with his Mel Bay Christmas Guitar book. So I need to sort this one out, but an acoustic guitar Christmas album would about wrap this up.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. But it's a pretty well balanced one. There are other great ones like the Manhattan Transfer's Christmas Album, jazzy and lush, alternately and sometimes at the same time. The Phil Spector (later-in-life murdering aside) Christmas Album, David Lanz's "Solstice", and the first "Merry Axemas" cd for rock guitar (Eric Johnson's "The First Nowell" alone is worth buying this album). But.... that's all we're doing this year.