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James Brown

On James Brown's "Funky Christmas," the Godfather of Soul plays holiday originals and standards that sound more like James Brown than Christmas tunes.

For some music fans, Christmas time can be one of the most painful times of year. Holiday music is commercialized and safe. It's inescapable, lurking in the background at the store and in video ads.

With a little Googling and a few suggestions from friends, here's a line-up of Christmas albums for holiday parties that might not send music snobs fleeing from the room:

James Brown, "James Brown's Funky Christmas"

Like the Ventures, you won't find a radically altered sound on the Godfather of Soul's Christmas album. This compilation pulls together some standards ("The Christmas Song") with holiday originals like "Go Power at Christmas Time." No matter what the song, it sounds like Brown with Christmas lyrics.

John Zorn, "A Dreamers Christmas"

Composer John Zorn has won a MacArthur "genius" grant and is famous for making radical Jewish music, often of the dissonant variety. So it was a surprise when he and his "lounge"-themed band, including guitar legend Marc Ribot, released this record, which includes creative versions of standards, plus some quirkier material like Vince Guaraldi's "Christmastime is Here." It winds up with Faith No More singer Mike Patton doing a lounge-crooner version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

Vince Guaraldi Trio, "A Charlie Brown Christmas"

Speaking of Guaraldi, the jazz pianist recorded what's probably the most casually listenable Christmas album of all time for Charles Schultz's Christmas special. 

The Ventures, "The Ventures Christmas Album"

This album is exactly what you think it is: The Ventures, perhaps the most well-known surf band of all time, adapting holiday classics in their own style. They haven't messed with the guitar tone, but they have, perhaps inevitably, added bells.

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, "It's a Holiday Soul Party"

The soul phenom, who died in 2016, never sang anything half-heartedly, not even "Silver Bells." She and her band, the Dap-Kings, put in maximum effort and re-arranging and transforming tunes like "White Christmas" from sentimental retreads into hot soul. (Hat tip to Greg Ragan.)

The Staple Singers, "The 25th Day December (The Christmas Album)"

Mavis Staples and the family band provide a stirring gospel-soul take on holiday music. (Hat tip to Bryan Ramirez.)

Kenny Burrell, "Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas"

Jazz guitar legend Kenny Burrell is a master of soulful phrasing, sophisticated harmonies and understatement. Even played-to-death tunes like "Little Drummer Boy" transform into great Burrell tunes after he's stated the themes and does his thing.

Phil Spector, "A Christmas Gift for You"

The influential producer applies his "wall of sound" production to standards with the Ronettes, Darlene Love and more.

John Fahey and Terry Robb, "Popular Songs of Christmas and New Year's"

Fahey, a scholar of American acoustic guitar styles, recorded many Christmas albums that are still available in print and online. Like many of the artists on this list, his selection of standards works because he plays them like they were his own material, without much winking and zero cynicism. With the help of fellow picker Terry Robb, they arrange medleys and renditions of classics into (Hat tip to Josh Vanek of Wantage Records.)

Christopher Lee, "A Heavy Metal Christmas"

These are singles, not albums, but it's important that you know of their existence. Christopher Lee, the legendarily deep-voiced actor of "Lord of the Rings" fame, recites Christmas songs like "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Silent Night" over metal riffage.

Mars Williams, "Presents an Albert Ayler Xmas"

Chicago saxophonist Mars Williams and friends perform in Witches and Devils, a tribute band to Ayler, the 1960s saxophonist who revolutionized the instrument with a combination of soulful marches and accented with expressive screeches and honks. For this recording, Williams and company apply Aylers' raucous sound to Christmas classics like "O Tenenbaum" and "The 12 Days of Christmas." This is definitely not for everyone, but if you want some avant-garde jazz for your holiday party, an album does exist to fulfill your needs.

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