Chart Watch

Chart Watch Extra: The Top 40 Christmas Albums

Chart Watch

This is the 32nd holiday season since Elvis Presley went to trim that big Christmas tree in the sky, but he still has the most popular holiday album of all time. Elvis' Christmas Album, originally released in 1957, has sold more than 12 million copies, allowing it to beat out Kenny G's 1994 smash Miracles-A Holiday Album. (So in addition to being the eternal king of rock'n'roll, Presley kept the mellow, but much-maligned, saxophonist from claiming the top spot.)

Presley's album logged three weeks at #1 in December 1957, before surrendering the top spot to Bing Crosby's holiday perennial Merry Christmas. But Elvis returned to #1 the following week, in what seemed very much like a passing of the torch-or in this case, a Christmas candle. The Bing-to-Elvis hand-off represented a move from old to young, from Tin Pan Alley to rock'n'roll, from "White Christmas" to "Blue Christmas."

Christmas albums have been an integral part of the holidays for more than 60 years.  Yet there was no authoritative list of the most popular Christmas albums of all time. So I made one, based on a combination of two objective criteria. I used Nielsen/SoundScan sales figures for albums released since May 1991, when the company began tracking sales for Billboard. For albums released before that date, I relied on the Recording Industry Assn. of America's certification figures. The RIAA's figures are less precise (and they reflect shipments rather than sales), but they allowed me to give pre-1991 releases much fuller representation.

All of the albums in this all-time top 40 have either sold 1.5 million copies, according to Nielsen/SoundScan, or have been certified double platinum by the RIAA, reflecting shipments of 2 million copies. The list includes a broad range of music. Pop and country are well represented, as you might expect, but there's also a smattering of R&B (Boyz II Men), jazz (The Vince Guaraldi Trio), jazz lite (Kenny G, Harry Connick Jr.) and classical crossover (Josh Groban, Charlotte Church).

Five artists have multiple entries in the top 40. Mannheim Steamroller has four, Trans-Siberian Orchestra has three, and Elvis Presley, Kenny Rogers and Kenny G each have two.

Three of the top 40 holiday albums were released before 1960. Bing Crosby's Merry Christmas, the forerunner to White Christmas, was issued in 1945. Four of the albums were released after 2000. Josh Groban's Noel came out just last year.

I used Nielsen/SoundScan sales figures for two pre-1991 releases, Nat "King" Cole's Christmas Song and Carpenters' Christmas Portrait. These albums are due for a certification upgrade. When the RIAA updates these figures, these albums will move up sharply.

If the number following the title is in an even million-unit increment, it comes from the RIAA.  If not, it's the latest Nielsen/SoundScan figure. RIAA certification ties are broken in order of their current Nielsen/SoundScan tally. In four cases, I combined Nielsen/SoundScan sales tallies of various editions of an album, provided the title remained the same. I marked those four tallies with an asterisk.

These are the 40 most popular Christmas albums of all time. I hope yours made the list. Mine did (see #37).

1. Elvis Presley, Elvis' Christmas Album, 12,000,000. The original edition of this album, which spawned Presley's holiday perennial "Blue Christmas," topped the chart for four weeks and has sold 3,000,000 copies, according to the RIAA. In 1970, RCA released a revised "budget" edition, which dropped four gospel songs from the original and added two songs, including Presley's 1966 holiday hit, "If Every Day Was Like Christmas." It has sold 9,000,000 copies, per the RIAA. This grand total combines the two tallies.

2. Kenny G, Miracles--The Holiday Album, 7,206,000. This album held the top spot on Billboard's pop chart for three weeks in 1994. It went on to top Nielsen/SoundScan's catalog chart (which ranks older albums) for 27 weeks, longer than any other holiday album. It was the #1 holiday album of the year for both 1994 and 1996. The album included the saxophonist's hit version of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." It's the best-seller of the nine instrumental albums on this list.

3. Mannheim Steamroller, A Fresh Aire Christmas, 6,000,000. This 1988 album was the second holiday release by the instrumental studio group assembled by producer Chip Davis.

4. Mannheim Steamroller, Mannheim Steamroller Christmas, 6,000,000. This 1984 album was the act's first release. It spawned the adult contemporary hit, "Deck The Halls." Mannheim Steamroller is the only act with two albums in the top 10.

5. Celine Dion, These Are Special Times, 5,022,000. This is locked in a tight race with releases by Barbra Streisand and Mariah Carey as the best-selling holiday album by a female artist. It's also the best-selling holiday album by an artist born outside the United States. Dion was born in Canada. This was the #1 holiday album of 1998. It includes the #1 single "I'm Your Angel," a duet with R. Kelly.

6. Barbra Streisand, A Christmas Album, 5,000,000. The diva previewed this 1967 album with the release in 1966 of the lullaby "Sleep In Heavenly Peace (Silent Night)." In 2001, she released a follow-up, Christmas Memories, which has also topped the million sales mark.

7. Johnny Mathis, Merry Christmas, 5,000,000. The romantic balladeer released this album in 1958, a year after he burst to stardom. Percy Faith led the orchestra. Mathis' other holiday albums include Sounds Of Christmas (1963), Give Me Your Love For Christmas (1969), Christmas Eve With Johnny Mathis (1986) and The Christmas Album (2002).

8. Mariah Carey, Merry Christmas, 4,937,000. This 1994 smash features the zesty "All I Want For Christmas Is You," which just this week became the first holiday song to sell 1 million downloads. Carey released the album in between her blockbusters Music Box and Daydream.

9. Josh Groban, Noel, 4,059,000. This was the best-selling album of 2007, a first for a holiday album. It was #1 for five weeks, longer than any other holiday album in the 52-year history of Billboard's weekly album chart. It will almost certainly be the #1 holiday album of 2008 as well. The album features Brian McKnight, Faith Hill and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Groban previewed the album in 2006 when he released "I'll Be Home For Christmas" as a digital download.

10. Various Artists, A Very Special Christmas, 4,000,000. This 1987 collection featured tracks by Bon Jovi, U2, Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna, all of whom were coming off #1 studio albums. It also included Run-D.M.C.'s "Christmas In Hollis," which became an R&B hit. Proceeds from the album, and its five sequels, were donated to the Special Olympics. This is the highest-ranking Various Artists album.

11. Bing Crosby, White Christmas, 4,000,000. This album originated in 1945 as Merry Christmas. It logged 39 weeks at #1 between 1945 and 1957, more than any other holiday album in history. In 1998, the title was finally changed to White Christmas, in recognition of the album's most famous track. Crosby introduced the Irving Berlin evergreen in the 1942 movie, Holiday Inn. Crosby's rendition of the song was one of the five initial recordings inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1974.

12. Mannheim Steamroller, Christmas In The Aire, 3,698,000. This 1995 release was the third holiday album by the instrumental ensemble. All three were multi-million-sellers. This was the #1 holiday album of 1995.

13. Various Artists, Now That's What I Call Christmas! 3,315,000. This star-studded 2001 release is the best-selling two-CD holiday album. The collection, which includes everybody from Perry Como to Britney Spears, was the #1 holiday album of both 2001 and 2002. A pair of sequels, 2003's Now 2: The Signature Collection, and 2006's Now 3, also sold well.

14. Harry Connick Jr., When My Heart Finds Christmas, 3,015,000*. This 1993 release was the #1 holiday album of that year. Connick also had the #1 holiday album of the year in 2003 with Harry For The Holidays. He has another hit with the new What A Night: A Christmas Album.

15. Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas, 3,000,000. This album was released in 1965, to coincide with the initial airing of the classic Peanuts TV special. Its stature has grown with the years. This is one of only two Christmas albums to be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. (The other is A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector.) Sadly, the jazz pianist was just 43 when he died in 1976.

16. George Winston, December, 3,000,000. The new age pianist released this instrumental album in 1982. It was his first album to make the Billboard chart. It paved the way for a long string of non-holiday releases, including Winter Into Spring and Autumn.

17. Elvis Presley, Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas, 3,000,000. Presley recorded this album in May 1971. It was released that Christmas, 14 years after Presley's first Christmas album. The Imperials Quartet provided backup vocals. These were Presley's only two Christmas albums released in his lifetime, though since he died in 1977 there have been many Elvis holiday compilations.

18. Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Christmas Eve And Other Stories, 2,821,000. This album had its genesis in 1995, when the hard rock group Savatage released an album which included the track "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)." Producer Paul O'Neill built this 1996 album around that track, and wound up with a blockbuster--and a holiday franchise.

19. Kenny G, Faith--A Holiday Album, 2,742,000. Five years after releasing Miracles--The Holiday Album, Kenny G followed up with this collection. This became the #1 holiday album of 1999. The album featured "Auld Lang Syne (The Millennium Mix)," which became a top 10 hit on the pop and adult contemporary charts. Kenny G released a third hit holiday album, Wishes--A Holiday Album, three years later.

20. Mannheim Steamroller, Christmas Extraordinaire, 2,707,000*. This 2001 album was the ensemble's sixth holiday release. Johnny Mathis was featured on "O Tannenbaum." The album was released simultaneously with a four-CD box set, Mannheim Steamroller Christmas Collection, which consisted of this album and the act's first three holiday releases.

21. Garth Brooks, Beyond The Season, 2,649,000. This is the highest-ranking holiday album by a country artist. Brooks released it in 1992, when he was at the peak of his career. The collection, which featured the country hit "The Old Man's Back In Town," was the #1 holiday album of 1992. Brooks had a second hit holiday album, Garth Brooks & The Magic Of Christmas, in 1999.

22. Amy Grant, Home For Christmas, 2,651,000*. This 1992 hit was Grant's second holiday album. Her first, A Christmas Album, was released in 1983. Grant had a third holiday hit in 1999 with A Christmas To Remember. Highlights from all three albums (plus four new tracks) comprise the new The Christmas Collection. (Yes, Grant had dibs on this title before *NSYNC came along.)

23. *NSYNC, Home For Christmas, 2,641,000. This is the one of two albums on the list by a boy band, along with New Kids On The Block's Merry, Merry Christmas. The quintet released the album in 1998, in between their blockbuster first and second pop albums.

24. Nat "King" Cole, The Christmas Song, 2,336,000*. This album was first released in 1960 as The Magic Of Christmas, but without Cole's classic "The Christmas Song." (Which is a little like Christmas dinner without the turkey.) Capitol came to its senses in 1963, adding the beloved song and re-titling the album. The King Cole Trio introduced "The Christmas Song" in 1946. It was one of the five initial recordings inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1974.

25. Various Artists, A Very Special Christmas 2, 2,168,000. Run-D.M.C. and Jon Bon Jovi were the only artists from A Very Special Christmas to return for this 1992 sequel. Unlike the first album, the sequel featured a country artist--Randy Travis. The album also featured collaborations by Bonnie Raitt & Charles Brown, Ronnie Spector & Darlene Love and the oddball team of Frank Sinatra & Cyndi Lauper.

26. Reba McEntire, Merry Christmas To You, 2,000,000. McEntire teamed with Vince Gill to perform "On This Day," one of the highlights of this 1987 album. In 1999, McEntire released another gold album, Secret Of Giving--A Christmas Collection.

27. George Strait, Merry Christmas Strait To You!, 2,000,000. Strait released this album in 1986, though it didn't cross over to the pop chart until the following year. "When It's Christmas Time In Texas" saluted Strait's home state. In 1999, Strait released a second gold holiday album, Merry Christmas Wherever You Are.

28. Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton, Once Upon A Christmas, 2,000,000. The country superstars released this album in 1984, a year after topping the charts with their smash duet "Islands In The Stream." The album, which was tied to their TV special A Christmas To Remember, is the only collaboration on this list. The duet "The Greatest Gift Of All" and Parton's "Winter Wonderland/Sleigh Ride (Medley)" were released as singles.

29. Alabama, Christmas, 2,000,000. The country group previewed this album in 1982 with "Christmas In Dixie," which became a top 40 country hit. The full album followed in 1985. In 1996, the group released a sequel, Christmas Volume II.

30. Anne Murray, Christmas Wishes, 2,000,000. Murray is the second highest ranking non-American artist on this list. Like the top-ranked Celine Dion, Murray was born in Canada. Murray released this album in 1981. She issued a sequel, Anne Murray Christmas, in 1988.

31. John Denver, Rocky Mountain Christmas, 2,000,000. Denver previewed this album in 1973 when he released "Please, Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas)." The album followed in 1975, accompanied by a TV special of the same name. In 1979, Denver teamed with the Muppets on the platinum album A Christmas Together. Denver released two more holiday albums, Christmas Like A Lullaby and Christmas In Concert. The latter was recorded in December 1996, which turned out to be Denver's final Christmas.

32. Kenny Rogers, Christmas, 2,000,000. Rogers released this album in 1981, one week before Anne Murray's Christmas Wishes. Rogers had a second double-platinum holiday album three years later with a collaboration with Dolly Parton. He had two more gold holiday albums--Christmas In America in 1989 and The Gift in 1996.

33. New Kids On The Block, Merry, Merry Christmas, 2,000,000. The boy band released this album in 1989, in between their #1 albums Hangin' Tough and Step By Step. "This One's For The Children," a track from the album, went on to become a top 10 pop hit. The album includes both traditional songs and period pieces such as "Funky, Funky Xmas."

34. Neil Diamond, The Christmas Album, 1,897,000. Diamond previewed this album in 1984 with "You Make It Feel Like Christmas," which was an adult contemporary hit. Eight years later, he finally got around to releasing a holiday album. In 1994, Diamond released The Christmas Album Volume II.

35. Vince Gill, Let There Be Peace On Earth, 1,766,000. Gill released this album in 1993, in between his top 10 albums I Still Believe In You and When Love Finds You.  He performs the title song as a duet with his daughter, Jenny Gill. "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" became a country hit. In 1998, Gill released a second Christmas album, Breath Of Heaven.

36. Boyz II Men, Christmas Interpretations, 1,756,000. This is the best-selling R&B holiday album. It featured the Top 40 hit "Let It Snow," which featured Brian McKnight. Boyz II Men released the album in 1993, between their smash albums Cooleyhighharmony and II.

37. Carpenters, Christmas Portrait, 1,690,000. Karen and Richard released this album, accompanied by a TV special of the same name, in 1978.  It included a new version of their 1970 classic, "Merry Christmas Darling." In 1984, following Karen's death, Richard assembled a second holiday release, An Old-Fashioned Christmas. In 1990, highlights of the two albums were combined into Christmas Portrait--The Special Edition. The warmth and sense of longing in Karen's voice was perfectly suited to Christmas music.

38. Trans-Siberian Orchestra, The Lost Christmas Eve, 1,664,000. This 2004 release was the third holiday album by the group, following Christmas Eve And Other Stories and The Christmas Attic.

39 Charlotte Church, Dream A Dream, 1,630,000. Church was just 14 when this album was released, which makes her the youngest artist on the list. She is one of two artists with classical roots on the list. Josh Groban is the other. Church, who was born in Wales, is the only artist on the list who was born outside of North America.  Dream A Dream, which features the London Symphony Orchestra, was the #1 holiday seller of 2000.

40. Trans-Siberian Orchestra, The Christmas Attic, 1,521,000. This was the second album by the ensemble. It was released in 1998, two years after Christmas Eve And Other Stories. It features "Christmas Canon," which has sold more than 300,000 downloads.

Two Frank Sinatra albums, A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra and The Sinatra Christmas Album, have been certified platinum, but neither has gone double-platinum or reached the 1.5 million mark in Nielsen/SoundScan. Other holiday album perennials who didn't meet the criteria, but deserve mention, include Perry Como, Andy Williams and Burl Ives, as well as such pop stars as the Temptations, Martina McBride, Hanson, Clay Aiken,  Il Divo and Sarah McLachlan.

Joel Whitburn's Christmas In The Charts 1920-2004 was invaluable in preparing this column. Here's the link to his site.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

 

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