This holiday weekend, friends, family, lovers and associates will gather for dinners and parties and who-knows-what-else to celebrate the season. If you’re looking for the perfect soundtrack, there’s an endless array of Christmas albums to choose from—but here are some picks for soul/R&B fans that should get chestnuts roasting on open fires. Queue up all of them—or cherry-pick for the ultimate playlist, but know that you can really deck the halls with some funky grooves and a little quiet storm.
Christmas Album by the Jackson 5
This is an absolute must-have. You really can’t go wrong with this 1970 release from the J5. The crown jewel here is the brothers’ take on Stevie Wonder’s classic “Someday At Christmas.” There’s an uber-funky take on “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and there's nothing like the Jermaine-led opener “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”
Christmas Interpretations by Boyz II Men
Boyz II Men’s first official Christmas album masterfully blended their brand of smooth, well-crafted urban contemporary with the holiday season, offering up a stellar original tune in “Let It Snow,” and several other winners that blend the festive spirit of the holidays with secular warm grooves like the midtempo “You Are Not Alone,” and more faith-based tracks like the quasi-topical “Do They Know.”
This Is Christmas by Luther Vandross
Luther’s 1995 Christmas album wasn’t particularly well-received, but it's aged better than it should have. Mostly comprised of original songs, it features some lushly-arranged seasonal tunes like “With A Christmas Heart,” a warm and elegant opener. But the highlight is the Richard Marx co-penned single “Every Year, Every Christmas,” a moderate hit that would be covered by Patti Labelle in 2002.
Merry Christmas by Mariah Carey
A contemporary classic! Mariah was at the peak of her '90s run when she dropped this multiplatinum smash—carried over the top by her neo-standard “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” But it’s far from the only standout here. Mariah does a great cover of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” and a beautifully rendered “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
James Brown's Funky Christmas by James Brown
Sometimes you need to put a lil stank on Christmas—and nothing works better than this classic LP from JB. A compilation of great holiday-themed '60s and '70s songs from the Godfather of Soul, it never misses a beat: from the jerky opener “Go Power At Christmastime” to the classic “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto” and string-laden “Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year.”
The Christmas Album by Al Green
Green had moved away from secular music by 1983, but his religious conversion fit right in step with a holiday-themed album. The result was this release, which may suffer a bit from its dated production, but which features Green’s voice in full flight and some really inventive arrangements, like on Green’s upbeat take on “White Christmas,” and an “O Holy Night” that sounds like it was produced halfway between '70s Motown and '60s Stax.
Healing Season by Mint Condition
Mint Condition has consistently delivered immaculately-crafted albums and their 2015 Christmas album Healing Season fits perfectly within their catalog. As to be expected, the uber-versatile band tackles standards ("Little Drummer Boy") and relatively modern favorites (“Santa Claus Goes Straight To the Ghetto”) but the originals are great: like the breakup anthem “Lonely Christmas” and the uplifting title track.
8 Days of Christmas by Destiny’s Child
This album is mostly traditional Christmas tunes, but with a few originals that really shouldn’t be missed. Destiny’s Child dropped this in 2001, with the hit single “8 Days of Christmas” dominating radio. It hasn’t aged all that well—but it's far from the most noteworthy moment here. “Winter Paradise” is another original track that works better, and covers like the sparse “Silent Night” and “Carol of the Bells” a capella save the album from its sometimes-dated production.
A LaFace Family Christmas by Various Artists
This compilation from 1993 was a great showcase for the burgeoning talent on the LaFace roster at the time, with a glorious rendition of “Silver Bells” by A Few Good Men that was a fixture on urban radio, “This Christmas” featuring a teenage Usher doing a winning take on Donny Hathaway’s standard, TLC’s how-can-you-hate-this hit “Sleigh Ride” and a then-unknown OutKast dropping their first single “Player's Ball” in the mix as the most unlikely holiday tune ever.
One Wish: The Christmas Album by Whitney Houston
Released as she was in the midst of a late-career resurgence, Whitney’s amazing voice is front-and-center on this collection from 2003. The vast majority of the tracks here are traditional Christmas songs, but the Freddie Jackson-penned title track is a perfect slice of contemporary R&B. Whitney’s singing is committed and soaring throughout—despite it being a fairly straightforward album with few surprises. While her version of “Little Drummer Boy” isn’t the greatest rendition of the classic song, hearing Houston duet with a young Bobbi Kristina is achingly bittersweet in hindsight.