I mentioned earlier that the Leroy Anderson Christmas Album was my favorite recently-released Christmas album. But I would probably rank it only in the top 10 overall among my all-time favorites. (I love making lists; I'm trying not to make yet another "all-time" list, but I don't have much will power!) My absolute favorite would be The Carpenters' Christmas Portrait, first released in 1978. It's got glossy production values, old-fashioned but creative musical arrangements, creamy choral backgrounds, and of course Karen Carpenter's lovely lead vocals. For many years, this album was only available in a truncated version combined with cuts from their second (and inferior) Christmas album, but a few years ago, A&M Records released a 2-disc Christmas Collection with both albums in their entireties, so that's the way to go. The album is best listened to as a whole, as most of the cuts (some of which are medleys of 2 or 3 songs) segue into one another. Whenever I hear any version of "Sleigh Ride," I always expect to hear it slide right into a rollicking piano figure followed by the lines, "It's Christmas time and time for a carol, time to sing about the little King..." The songs are mostly 40's and 50's secular holiday songs, though Karen sings a lovely version of the Bach/Gounod "Ave Maria" and the album opens with a nice instrumental medley of traditional carols.
#2 would have to be Carols for Christmas, a 2-disc collection by David Willcocks and the Royal College of Music Chamber Choir with some occasional embellishment by organ or brass. These are all traditional carols, in traditional arrangements, sounding like they were sung in a giant old cathedral; when I listen to this in the car, I imagine I'm in that cathedral singing right along. Practically all my favorite carols are here: "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," "O Come O Come Emmanuel," "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming," "Good King Wenceslas," It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Patapan," and a few I was less familiar with, like "O Little One Sweet" and "Whence Comes this Rush of Wings." The album was originally released in 1983 and was marketed as a tie-in with a book of Christmas art from the Metropolitan Museum. Sadly, both the book and the CD are out of print, but both are worth looking for, especially the album.