Andy Williams. Brenda Lee. Burl Ives. No, these aren’t the first three singers to ever be played on a gramophone. They are the perennial chart-toppers on Billboard’s holiday chart. And sure, everyone loves a classic tune like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas” during the holidays, but that doesn’t mean we have to shelve the slickly produced pop stars who work so hard year-long to motivate us in spin class and make our teeth-brushing a performance as epic as an arena concert come December.
When you’re ready for a break from the traditional greats, try streaming these holiday pop masterpieces chosen from the past 30 years.
10. Various Artists, Christmas Queens 4 (2018)
The most recent installment from the Drag Race queendom’s holiday series is arguably the best, and by best, we mean definitely delete half of it. But the standouts are cheesy slices of electropop perfect for tipsy outfit planning, panic shopping and dancing in your living room through your Uber’s arrival: Bebe Zahara Benet rolls an alphabet’s worth of Rs on “Little Drummer Boy,” Blair St. Clair’s “Last Christmas” is so electronic it must run on batteries and the incomparable Alaska Thunderfuck’s gravely vocals make for the least sexy version of “Santa Baby” ever recorded.
9. Boyz II Men, Christmas Interpretations (1993)
That Boyz II Men are essentially a forgotten ’90s relic while New Kids on the Block will tour until Nostradamus’s final predictions come to pass is a true miscarriage of justice. The proof of their genius is on this smooth-as-a-peppermint latte collection of R&B Christmas tunes that, like the first Christmas itself, is all about the baby-making.
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8. Why Don’t We, A Why Don’t We Christmas (2017)
The social-media supergroup’s five-track EP features chill vibes, frisky snaps and solid original tunes such as the aca-perfect “Hey Good Lookin’.” If their version of “Merry Little Christmas” is in no danger of dethroning Judy Garland as the gold standard, their contemporary production makes this a solid bet to play for Christmas futures.
7. *NSYNC, Home for Christmas (1998)
The original R&B-tinged tunes on this album hold their own opposite classics older than St. Nick himself, all sung with emotions worn on the boys’ denim jacket sleeves. “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays” has emerged as the group’s most durable jam, but lesser-known originals such as “Home for Christmas” and “Under My Tree” are perfect for curling up with your significant other or fur baby.
6. The Braxton Family, Braxton Family Christmas (2015)
Toni! Tamar! Three other Braxtons! The sisters Braxton band together on this collection that will help you get down with only the mom-est of dance moves as the tree is going up. “Mary Did You Know?” is so haunting it will have you dueting with Jacob Marley himself and don’t even bother listening to their deep R&B version of “This Christmas” if you aren’t playing the air sax.
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5. Justin Bieber, Under the Mistletoe (2011)
Just as Canada’s most charming little shit was evolving into his “adults can actually listen to this” period, he dropped this solid collection of Christmas tunes, accompanied by actual instruments that perfectly support his cherubic voice. But the angel on top of this tree is “Mistletoe.” Almost a decade later, the tune is a radio staple, ensuring future generations will ask, “Mom, what’s a shorty?”
4. Whitney Houston, One Wish – The Holiday Album (2003)
That voice + those gorgeous religious standards (“The First Noel,” “Joy to the World”) = less spiritual transcendence than they suggest on paper. While it may not live up to the promise of her excellent “Do You Hear What I Hear?” from 1987, Houston’s legend lives nonetheless on this solid collection of diva balladry dotted with true moments of glory (hold on to your heart for “The Christmas Song” ad-lib “Happy Kwan-zaaaaaa!”).
3. Ariana Grande, Christmas Kisses (2013) and Christmas and Chill (2015)
Mini-Mariah delivered a sugar-glazed four-track EP sweeter than those donuts she licked with Christmas Kisses, which includes a pop R&B spin on “Last Christmas,” drumline beats on the shamelessly saccharine “Love Is Everything” and sobbing into your stocking on love-lost-at-Christmas ballad “Snow In California.” The exceptional “Santa Tell Me” is only on this EP in Japan, but with its combination of bells, claps, and belting, this is a truly excellent song (to sing in the privacy of your own home).
Arguably the superior of Grade’s two holiday EPs, the cool pop-R&B collection Christmas and Chill doesn’t get wrapped up in holiday clichés, trading more in moody beats than bells (don’t panic, there are also bells). Even though it’s loosely tied to the holiday, it’s as thirsty and confident as any of the superstar’s subsequent work.
2. Mariah Carey, Merry Christmas (1994)
“All I Want For Christmas Is You” remains the most popular song of the season: last year, it hit a new high of number three on the Billboard Hot 100. In a true Christmas miracle, the album is no one-horse sleigh either: witness the Motown muscle of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and wrap-yourself-in-a-sheet-and-pretend-you’re-the-blessed-Virgin traditional glories such as “Oh Holy Night.”
1. Kelly Clarkson, Wrapped In Red (2013)
It’s a universally agreed upon fact that Kelly Clarkson can sing even the most unsingable garbage (see: “A Moment Like This”). So it should come as no surprise that truism extends to her collection of incredible Christmas standards, such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “White Christmas,” and “Silent Night” (featuring the Reebs herself, Reba McEntire). The originals such as the title track, “Underneath the Tree,” and “Every Christmas” are delights unto themselves, produced by frequent Sia collaborator Greg Kurstin.