Every December, when it’s time for me to put up my Christmas tree or bake Christmas treats, the first thing I cue up on Spotify is my Black Christmas playlist. There’s nothing like the warm familiarity of Nat King Cole or the tranquility of Boyz II Men ushering in the holiday season. In my everyday musical life, I am always in search of new artists and genres. I reserve December for exclusively listening to Christmas music, but I also use this season to find new artists and songs to add to my list. For example, although it’s a fairly old song, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” was the best addition to my Christmas playlist in 2017.
This year, as we rapidly approach Christmas, I wanted to pass on the same explorative spirit to your holiday listening and share with you my Black Christmas Listening Guide. This curated list showcases Black artists whom I love and feel inspired by during this season.
“Celebration!” by Adolphus Hailstork, performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Paul Freeman
I do not believe there is any way I could curate a list and not include one of my favorite composers, Adolphus Hailstork. One of his most performed works, “Celebration!” is not a Christmas piece. In fact, the work was commissioned by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in 1976 to celebrate America’s bicentennial. Nevertheless, the spirited nature and lightheartedness of this piece makes it perfect for holiday listening.
“Let It Snow” by Imani Winds
This version of “Let It Snow” does not leave room for predictability. Instead, it offers a jazzy contemporary take on the Christmas classic. What I enjoy most about this arrangement, in addition to the inclusion of a jazz ensemble, is the virtuosic riffs passed around the quintet.
“Emmanuel” by Norman Hutchins
One of my favorite elements of the Advent is waiting in anticipation for certain songs in the Gospel canon to circle back around in church. Though released in 2014, “Emmanuel” seems like it has been around forever and is one of Norman Hutchins’ more well-known songs. While the lyrics are simple and short, Hutchins creates excitement through vocal harmonies and modulations.
“Now Behold the Lamb” by Kirk Franklin and The Family
“Now Behold the Lamb,” by Kirk Franklin — one of Gospel’s leading artists — speaks about being grateful for the Nativity. This song features The Family, a vocal ensemble consisting of 23 vocalists who sang together from 1992 to 2010. The two soloists Tamela Mann and Dalon Collins alone make “Now Behold the Lamb” a worthwhile listen, but what adds to its uniqueness is the improvised musical anecdotes at the end.
“Who Would Imagine a King” by Whitney Houston
This sweet ballad sung by the great Whitney Houston considers how parents must feel when they are holding their newborn babies for the first time. Life’s path is uncertain and varied, and your child can do and accomplish anything. With this thought, Houston imagines that Mary would have never considered her child being a king. This song is beautifully sung, arranged, and mixed; it’s certainly worth a listen.
“Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” by DMX
This version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is so fun because it is such an unexpectedly enjoyable combination. DMX’s signature raspy voice juxtaposed with the lightheartedness of this kid’s Christmas song is certainly comical, but also endearing. My favorite parts are the “forever” ad-libs at the end. DMX is surely missed.
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Matt Jones Orchestra ft. Fatai
Master composer and orchestrator Matt Jones presents this beautiful arrangement of the Christmas classic. It is rich and full, with vocalist-artist Fatai serving as the icing on the cake. If you are looking for a song to give you all the Christmas feels, look no further.
“Winter Wonderland” by Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis is one of my favorite musicians across any genre, and I would be remiss to exclude him from this list. This song, and the album as a whole, showcases Marsalis as the expert improviser he is — he can make something sound brand new while also making it feel incredibly familiar.
“Christmas in Hollis” by Run-D.M.C.
If you are used to listening to more traditional Christmas music, this song by iconic 80s hip-hop group Run-D.M.C. will definitely shake things up. The title of the song details the neighborhood in Queens, New York where Run D.M.C. was founded and, as it suggests, shares some of the happenings in Queens on Christmas Eve.
“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” by Ella Fitzgerald
One of the bonuses of the Christmas season is the anticipation of the New Year shortly thereafter. The holiday season can be difficult for some, but the hope of the New Year can serve as comfort. Fitzgerald’s gentle and inviting voice shares her apprehension and perhaps nervousness in asking a love interest what they are doing on New Year’s Eve. It is the perfectly warm setting to welcome in a new year.
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