In 1994, Mariah Carey's Merry Christmas helped revitalize the contemporary pop holiday album. The singer's effort wasn't the top selling yuletide-themed collection of the year -- that title went to Kenny G's Miracles: The Holiday Album -- but its enduring popularity helped set a new standard for the modern Christmas album.
By the turn of the century, recording a holiday album became a rite of passage for almost every burgeoning pop star, with some -- including Mariah herself -- releasing more than one over the course of their careers. And seasonal music, secular or otherwise, continues to transcend genre and age: both Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber were just 17 when they released their first holiday collections.
We've decided to take a look back and tally the 21 best Christmas albums of the 21st century so far.
21. Ariana Grande, Christmas & Chill (2015)
Like 2013's Christmas Kisses, Ariana Grande's second holiday EP, Christmas & Chill, eschews traditional sounds of the season, opting instead for contemporary R&B grooves, trap synths and punny innuendo like "Are you down for some of these milk and cookies?" Despite some sleigh bells and a few tossed-off references to the North Pole, this isn't your parents' holiday fare.
20. Michael Bublé, Christmas (2011)
Michael Bublé's earliest memory is listening to his parents play Bing Crosby’s iconic 1945 album Merry Christmas. So it seems fitting that the Canadian singer would become one of his generation’s most popular holiday crooners, and that his multi-platinum 2011 Christmas album would become his best-selling release in the U.S. The album features a selection of standards both old and new, including a pared-down cover of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and a playful rendition of “Jingle Bells” featuring British vocal trio the Puppini Sisters, arranged in the style of Crosby’s famous duet with the Andrews Sisters.
19. Destiny's Child, 8 Days of Christmas (2001)
It should come as no surprise that Beyoncé is the star of Destiny's Child's 2001 album 8 Days of Christmas, delivering expressive performances of "Silent Night" and the a cappella "Opera of the Bells," both arranged and produced by the singer herself. While the album's early-aughts production hasn't aged quite as well, a cover of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" segues seamlessly into a blingy reinterpretation of "Silver Bells" that's titled – what else? – "Platinum Bells."
18. Taylor Swift, The Taylor Swift Holiday Collection (2007)
A little goes a long way on Taylor Swift's short-and-sweet holiday EP. Initially released as a Target exclusive in 2007, the now widely available collection boasts country versions of both pop favorites (Wham!'s "Last Christmas") and traditional carols (a stirring rendition of "Silent Night"). True to form, most of the tracks here carry a hint of lovelorn melancholy, including the Swift original "Christmases When You Were Mine," which finds the singer – who grew up on a Christmas tree farm – pining for holidays past.
17. Justin Bieber, Under the Mistletoe (2011)
Countless pop artists have tried in vain to put a modern twist on traditional Christmas fare. Justin Bieber, however, mostly succeeds, a feat even more miraculous given that 2011's Under the Mistletoe was only his second album. Understated midtempo ballads like "Christmas Eve" and "Mistletoe" (which peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100) wisely lean on the singer's smooth harmonies with minimal contemporary R&B flourishes. A Motown-inspired rendition of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" is bolstered by a savvy sample of the Jackson 5's "ABC," while the hip-hop-infused "Drummer Boy" features an amusing, rapid-fire verse from Busta Rhymes.
16. Bob Dylan, Christmas in the Heart (2009)
Bob Dylan's Christmas in the Heart juxtaposes the legendary folk troubadour's exaggerated rasp with mostly straightforward interpretations of familiar seasonal classics. Dreamy girl-group harmonies weave throughout "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and the country-inflected "Winter Wonderland," lending an airiness to this smart, scrappy and surprisingly charming collection.
15. Jessie J, This Christmas Day (2018)
The big, brassy arrangements on Jessie J's This Christmas Day are as boisterous as the giant red bow sitting atop her head on the album's cover. Standouts like "Man with the Bag" give the English singer the opportunity to flex her vocal muscles, while the lounge-y "Let It Snow" allows her to flaunt her range in ways her contemporary pop and R&B efforts haven't. The standards hew close to their source material, but J puts her own stamp on a medley of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Jingle Bells," an unexpected slow-burner produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
14. She & Him, A Very She & Him Christmas (2011)
On the aptly titled A Very She & Him Christmas, M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel adapt their stripped-down folk-pop sound to the Christmas canon. Understated covers of the Beach Boys' "Christmas Day," NRBQ's "Christmas Wish" and Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" make for perfectly unobtrusive accompaniment for a low-key holiday soiree. It's all very She & Him.
13. Annie Lennox, A Christmas Cornucopia (2010)
In the liner notes of Annie Lennox's A Christmas Cornucopia, the singer claims that she doesn't subscribe to any one particular religion. And while the songs themselves are almost exclusively nonsecular, Lennox draws on both folk traditions and the ancient histories she claims the songs carry with them. Tracks like "Lullay Lullay (The Coventry Carol)" and "As Joseph Was a Walking (The Cherry Tree Carol)" are inventively arranged, with the African Children's Choir featured prominently throughout.
12. Tracey Thorn, Tinsel and Lights (2012)
Accompanied by husband Ben Watt, her partner in the '90s pop group Everything but the Girl, British singer-songwriter Tracey Thorn takes an unorthodox approach to 2012's Tinsel and Lights. The majority of the album is populated by covers of holiday-adjacent songs originally recorded by artists as disparate as Dolly Parton, Scritti Politti and Jack White. The result is an offbeat but unexpectedly heartwarming collection that feels both familiar and strikingly original.
11. Bette Midler, Cool Yule (2006)
For her very first Christmas album after more than 30 years in the business, Bette Midler sticks to what works – lush string arrangements and big band numbers like the title track – and keeps the spotlight on both the songs and, of course, her distinct voice and sense of humor. The album also includes a seasonal revamp of "From a Distance," the original version of which Midler took all the way to No. 2 on the Hot 100 way back in 1990.
10. Diana Krall, Christmas Songs (2005)
If the current state of the world is giving you a yen for simpler times this holiday season, queue up Diana Krall's classy Christmas Songs. With help of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, the Canadian vocalist brings some vintage verve to mostly recognizable holiday standards like a swinging rendition of "Let It Snow" and a sultry interpretation of "I'll Be Home for Christmas."
9. Tori Amos, Midwinter Graces (2009)
Tori Amos has made a career out of subverting the Christian patriarchy, so her subdued entry into the holiday music canon came as a bit of a surprise in 2009. The album's nine canonical Christmas songs, steeped in Biblical imagery, are largely reverent to their source material. Even the singer-songwriter's five original compositions – including the standout "Winter's Carol," a pagan yarn about the passing of the seasons – seem tame by Amos' standards. Musically, however, the album is expectedly rich, dark, and inventive.
8. Sufjan Stevens, Songs for Christmas (2006)
Sufjan Stevens's sprawling Songs for Christmas, a compilation of five EPs' worth of traditional carols and original songs recorded between 2001 and 2006, doubles as a document of the singer-songwriter's progression as a musician, from stripped-down acoustic ditties to opulent chamber-pop anthems. Aside from song titles like "Get Behind Me, Santa!," there's no ironic indie twist here. Just faithfully arranged hymns interspersed with festive interludes – because, on a 42-song album, sometimes 30 seconds of "Jingle Bells" is all you need.
7. Kylie Minogue, Kylie Christmas (2015)
Though some fans might have expected 2015's Kylie Christmas to innovate a well-worn genre by, say, injecting it with some EDM oomph, Kylie Minogue's first Christmas collection smartly sticks to timeless, lovingly executed arrangements of secular holiday fare. "100 Degrees," featuring sister Dannii Minogue, does nod to Kylie's trademark disco style, but standards like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Let It Snow" prove the chameleonic Aussie pop star is capable of adapting to just about any musical style. And the album's original material holds its own alongside the yuletide classics, the standouts being the Chris Martin-penned "Every Day's Like Christmas" and the tongue-in-cheek "Oh Santa."
6. Kacey Musgraves, A Very Kacey Christmas (2016)
Rising country superstar Kacey Musgraves' A Very Kacey Christmas is a charming collection of classic holiday chestnuts like a fiddle-inflected "Let It Snow" and the tropical "Mele Kalikimaka" (both featuring Americana trio and fellow Texans the Quebe Sisters), along with a handful of originals, including the weepy "Christmas Makes Me Cry." The album's balance of vintage camp and cultural inclusivity almost makes the inclusion of "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" worth overlooking.
5. Pentatonix, Christmas Is Here! (2018)
With four Christmas releases under their belts in just five years, Pentatonix have become a perennial fixture on the Billboard charts. The a cappella quintet's Christmas Is Here! is more diverse – and, thus, more pop-friendly – than their previous holiday efforts, with cover songs of "When You Believe" from The Prince of Egypt and alt-pop band The Neighbourhood's "Sweater Weather" snuggled up alongside standards like the orchestra-assisted "Jingle Bells" – recorded in the frenetic style of Barbra Streisand's iconic 1967 rendition.
4. John Legend, A Legendary Christmas (2018)
Released in 2018, A Legendary Christmas is already famous for its revamped version of the perennially controversial "Baby, It's Cold Outside," featuring Kelly Clarkson. But John Legend's first holiday album features a wealth of more time-tested treasures (including "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" as a toe-tapping duet with Esperanza Spalding) and the Marvin Gaye rarity "Purple Snowflakes." Even if Legend's holiday originals don't prove to be as, well, legendary, his velvet baritone and Christmas carols go together like eggnog and brandy.
3. Mariah Carey, Merry Christmas II You (2010)
While Mariah Carey's inaugural holiday opus, Merry Christmas, hewed closely to both the Christmas and Adult Contemporary templates, its 2010 sequel more fully reflected the singer's versatility, branching out into R&B ("When Christmas Comes"), house ("Auld Lang Syne"), even opera ("O Come All Ye Faithful," featuring her mother, Patricia Carey). At the same time, the album commits even more faithfully to a classic holiday aesthetic than its predecessor, employing live orchestration on tracks like "Christmas Time Is in the Air Again." Of course, the album's other original songs don't dare compete with "All I Want for Christmas Is You" (a new version of which is also featured here, lest you forget about it), but "Oh Santa!" gives it the ol' yuletide try.
2. Sarah McLachlan, Wintersong (2006)
Wintersong is everything you'd expect a Sarah McLachlan Christmas album to be: wistful, lush, understated. Longtime producer Pierre Marchand envelops the album's 12 tracks in layers of reverb and lush harmonies, rendering songs like "What Child Is This?" into cool gusts of atmosphere. In McLachlan and Marchand's hands, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Christmas Time Is Here" are even more melancholic than usual, while the title track, the album's sole original song, is a mournful piano ballad in the vein of McLachlan's late-'90s hit "Angel." It's all as breathtaking and sad as it sounds – and just as comforting.
1. Kelly Clarkson, Wrapped In Red (2013)
Kelly Clarkson's Wrapped In Red gave the singer-turned-TV-host the opportunity to flex the versatility that made her a star: she flaunts her vocal prowess on standards like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"; she rocks out on "Run Run Rudolph"; and she nods to her Southern roots on "Baby, It's Cold Outside," a duet with Ronnie Dunn, and "Silent Night," featuring Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood. But it's the album's five original songs, all co-written by Clarkson, that make Wrapped in Red the best Christmas album of the century so far. The rollicking "4 Carats" puts a clever, modern twist on "Santa Baby," while "Underneath the Tree" and "Every Christmas," like Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" before them, already sound like standards. Wrapped in Red became the best-selling holiday album of 2013, making Clarkson the first American female artist to hold that distinction in the SoundScan era.