Album Review #37: A Christmas Gift for You by Phil Spector (1963)

A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector

Nothing quite like having to review a Christmas album in April, is there?

The genre of holiday-specific music has such a stigma surrounding it. I’m not saying I don’t completely understand it. It’s just that through all of the ad-nauseum overplaying of the same three to four standards for almost three whole months every year, it can be hard to remember that, when taken at face value, they’re not at all bad songs. The tragedy of Christmas music is, sadly, that for most people, these songs have been overplayed to the point that hearing a couple notes out of their melody is enough to trigger flashbacks. So in spite of all this, my mission for this review is to give these holiday staples a fair, unbiased assessment, and judge them without any of the knee-jerk reactions they tend to get three-quarters of each year. You ready? Alright, let’s do this.

“White Christmas.” This is a great start to the album, performed by Darlene Love. Her voice is beautiful, and the pulsating, rhythmic instrumentation is excellent. The lyrics aren’t really that relatable for me personally, having to suffer through the hell that is the Midwestern Winter every year, but I can see where they’re coming from. Grass is always greener on the other side, after all. “Frosty the Snowman.” Alright, this one can spark revulsion in a lot of people, and I will admit I personally find it to be one of the album’s weaker tracks, but at least it’s somewhat catchy. It’s not my least favorite holiday standard, but it’s down there. At least The Ronettes’ rendition has personality. “The Bells of St. Mary,” performed by Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans, isn’t that bad, with a pretty impressive vocal performance from Mr. Soxx himself, and an almost angelic chorus backing him. Next up is “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,”  performed by The Crystals. I know it’s a pretty tired joke at this point, but I still can’t help but find the lyrics to be somewhat disturbing. Seriously, the lyrics make Mr. Claus out to be some sort of all-seeing Orwellian dictator, and the cheery melodies only somehow make it even more mildly unsettling. Oh well, at least The Crystals have great harmony. After that comes “Sleigh Ride.” I’ll admit, I have a bit of a soft spot for this one. The main melody is just damn catchy, and I can’t deny that this is one Christmas song I don’t mind hearing outside of the typical holiday season. Last on Side A is “Marshmallow World,” which is probably my favorite track off of the album. Performed once again by Darlene Love, it’s just stupidly catchy, with a pretty great saxophone solo to boot. Maybe it’s just because I’ve heard it before the least out of all of them, but this one just strikes me as the album’s highest point.

Phil Spector, eltrochilero(dot)com

Phil Spector looking cool in his producer’s booth. Image source:

Side B starts off strong with my second favorite track off the album, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Sung by The Ronettes, it’s got a really interesting melody, with a great harmony from the instruments and backup singers. After that’s The Crystals’ rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which, I’m sad to say, isn’t really anything special. I don’t know why, maybe it’s just how many times I’ve heard it before, but it just doesn’t seem to do that much to set it apart from the slew of other versions by countless other artists. It isn’t bad, not at all, but it just doesn’t stand out to me as much as the songs it’s surrounded by. “Winter Wonderland,” performed once again by Darlene Love, is excellent, with a superb chorus and great plucked strings. Strangely, it seems to have a subtly more lo-fi aesthetic to it compared to surrounding tracks. I’m not sure if it’s done intentionally on Spector’s part, but either way it makes it sound even better. “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” is up next, and The Crystals give their usual great choir-of-singers treatment to it, accompanied by some great percussion, as well as a trumpet interlude. Darlene Love has one last hurrah with “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” with probably her best vocal performance of the album, backed by some great instrumental harmony to boot. The saxophones on this one are awesome, not to mention the piano part. Finally, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans reappear for the final time for “Here Comes Santa Claus.” His vocals are pretty good, and the backup singers are alright, but overall, this one just doesn’t stand out as much as the others. The track that precedes it kind of overshadows it, and sadly, I would say that this one is one of the record’s more forgettable tracks. The album is closed off by a nice little spoken word thank-you note delivered by Spector himself, backed by an instrumental “Silent Night.” He seems really proud of everyone involved, and he’s really, really happy you bought his album this Christmas season.

Probably the most significant aspect of this album is its production style. Dubbed the “Wall of Sound,” it was Spector’s trademark. It involved mastering the record so that it sounded like every instrument came together as one, heavy sound, and it was virtually unheard-of at the time. I personally think it sounds incredible, and although the sound can be somewhat polarizing for some, you can’t deny the influence it had on the world of music. Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was heavily impacted by this style, even naming A Christmas Gift for You as his favorite album of all time. The style can even be heard in genres and bands decades in the future, with shoegaze bands such as My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, many metal bands, and pretty much the entirety of popular music to at least a small extent. Phil Spector’s musical vision changed the whole of music, and no matter what you think of his work, you can’t deny his massive importance.

So, yeah. Now for the elephant in the room. Yep, it’s no secret that Phil wasn’t exactly the most stable person in the production buisness. In fact, he threatened both The Ramones and Leonard Cohen at gunpoint during the production of their respective albums, and working with him was almost never a pleasant experience for anyone involved. This all culminated in 2009, when he was charged with the second-degree murder of Lana Clarkson on his estate. He is currently serving his sentance of 19-years-to-life in prison. So it comes as no surprise that, for many people, enjoying his life’s work can be a little difficult. I generally do a pretty good job of separating the art from the artist, but I have to admit that in this case, even just hearing him speak is a little bit on the uncomfortable side. If you can’t separate the music from the person, that’s totally understandable. I understand that this album is a pretty bad double-whammy of a hard-sell, being an album of Christmas music produced by a convicted murderer. But if you can somehow see past all that, you’ll find a pretty revolutionary catchy pop album. I just don’t blame you at all for steering clear.

Favorite Tracks: “Marshmallow Land,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland”

Next Up: Live at the Harlem Square Club by Sam Cooke (1963)

Album Review #36: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan by Bob Dylan (1963)

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan

This is one of those albums that’s difficult to talk about. Bob Dylan is simply one of the most important musicians of all time, full stop. I mean, how exactly do you go about writing a review of a Nobel prize laureate’s greatest masterpiece? There isn’t a single track on this thing that doesn’t have something huge to say about the human spirit, and each of Dylan’s lyrics are perfectly written to deliver said messages. With nothing but an acoustic guitar, harmonica and a whiny, nasally voice, he managed to make one of the most culturally significant, emotional and timeless albums of all time, thanks almost solely to the sheer power and brilliance of his songwriting. This is one of those records that should simply be made required listening for the entire human race, and that’s an honor that only a handful of albums have ever been worthy of.

As by far the most acclaimed and popular album of Mr. Dylan’s acoustic era, this album can be a bit hard to approach. My advice for a first time listener is to just sit back, forget about the status the record holds, and just listen to the lyrics as they come. Don’t think too hard about them, at least not on your first listen: just hear them and let their emotion and power do their thing. The beauty of the songwriting here is that, unlike a lot of his later work, the lyrics aren’t that hard to understand. They say what they mean, and they’re strong enough on their own to have an impact without much of a hidden meaning or symbolism behind them. He knows exactly how to get you sad, angry and happy with nothing but a good melody and a stroke of the pen. His guitar work doesn’t hurt either: the excellent chord progressions and rhythmic strumming are a perfect chaser for his lyrics, and his guitar proves itself to be more than enough instrumentation necessary to hold the entire record up on its own. His harmonica is great too: on the tracks where it shows up, it serves as a nice (although rather shrill at points) partner to his guitar, blowing out short bursts of improvised harmony that glue together the song quite well. All said, his lyrics really are the true star of the show here. Listening to this masterpiece, it’s difficult to deny that he deserved that Nobel Prize in Literature moreso than almost any other singer-songwriter of the 20th century.

Bob Dylan 1963, nprdotcom

Dylan c. 1963. Image source:

In terms of individual tracks, this record is positively jam-packed with classics. Right off the bat we have “Blowin’ in the Wind,” one of Dylan’s most world-famous songs. It’s lyrics are a powerful indictment of war and fighting in all of its forms, and it retains its poignancy and relevancy even to this day. Telling of this album’s excellency, then, that it isn’t even close to the album’s best track. The album’s third track, “Masters of War,” is chilling and filled with pure rage so strong you can feel it in your stomach. It’s probably the album’s most direct and un-subtle anti-war statement, and it’s all the better for it. The pure hatred in his voice is almost startling, and if you aren’t at least a little angry and/or upset by the end of it, you’re either a robot or just didn’t pay it that much attention. Then there’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” I honestly don’t even know if I have the writing prowess to communicate the qualities of this song, so I’ll just say that it’s jaw-droppingly beautiful, and you just need to experience it. There are a few other great tracks worth mentioning too: “Talkin’ World War III Blues” is a darkly humorous account of the end-times, and “Oxford Town” is a brief, depressing picture of segregation and racism on college campuses.  Really though, every track on this album is important and deserves recognition. Dylan didn’t waste a single song when making this album, and all 50 minutes of it still feel fresh today.

This is just one of those albums. It’s hard to talk about, because I don’t want to overhype it, but at the same time, it’s wholeheartedly deserving of said hype. It’s the perfect showcase of Bob Dylan’s songwriting ability, not to mention his guitar playing, and is one of the most essential records of the folk genre, right up there with Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads. It’s an album that was both timely in 1963 when it came out and timeless and relevant even today, almost 55 years after its release. It retains its sense of urgency and relevancy through (for the most part) refraining to reference contemporary figures and events, and in doing so, it creates a politically charged, powerful and still-applicable record that can be repeatedly discovered and loved by each generation to come.

Favorite Tracks: “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” “Masters of War,” “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Oxford Town”

Next Up: A Christmas Gift for You by Phil Spector (1963)

Album Review #35: With The Beatles by The Beatles (1963)

With the Beatles, The Beatles

This album is hard for me to review. Not because of how ludicrously important it is to music as a whole, (I had no problem reviewing Elvis Presley or Kind of Blue, after all) but simply because of how close and personal it is to me. This right here is, like, all I would listen to as a kid, and as such almost every track holds a deep-rooted nostalgia factor to me. I’ll try to review this record as objectively as I can, but in this instance that will be pretty much borderline impossible. Anyways, as the first of seven Beatles albums included in the book, (but not the first Beatles album, as Please Please Me sadly did not make the cut) this album has a lot of hype to live up to. Thankfully, I would say that it absolutely does.

First off, simply for clarity, every Beatles album I will be reviewing will be the original U.K. release, and not the butchered and gutted North American versions released by Capitol. In addition, going forward, if there are two separate versions of a specific album, I will be reviewing the version with more content. If the two versions both contain tracks unique to each other, I’ll be reviewing a sort of “composite” version containing all tracks, such as, for example, Aftermath by The Rolling Stones or Are You Experienced? by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Alright, back on topic. This album, or at least the crappy Capitol version Meet the Beatles, was their big breakthrough in America, and hearing the plethora of grade-A pop songs on this record, it isn’t difficult to see why. Right from the get-go, “It Won’t Be Long” explodes with superb guitar hooks and “yeah” chanting, and the follow-up, “All I’ve Got to Do” sports some fantastic vocal harmonies. “All My Loving” is just a hypnotic whirlwind of guitar strumming and harmonized lyrics, and to be perfectly honest, every single track on this album has something going for it. I think my personal favorite would have to be “Till There Was You,” which is really just beautiful. It serves as a nice break from the energetic rock and roll populating the rest of the record.

The Beatles 1963, fanpopdotcom.jpg

The Beatles, c. 1963.

From left to right: John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr.

Image Source:

While this is certainly the better album by a longshot, I think its predecessor Please Please Me deserves a mention as well. It’s looser, less refined, and generally just less developed as With The Beatles, but its collection of tracks is still quite strong; the opener, “I Saw Her Standing There,” is as good as anything on its follow-up, “Love Me Do” is fully deserving of its status as first Beatles hit, and of course their cover of “Twist and Shout” is simply essential. With The Beatles is still the superior album, however. It just seems to know what it’s doing so much more, and each and every melody, harmony, hook and bridge just feels more well-thought-out. Please Please Me is more of a picture of the learning artist than the artist at its peak, and With The Beatles a portrait of the artist that has improved upon itself and truly refined their craft.

In summary, With The Beatles is one of the best showcases of their pure, basic pop-making expertise of their discography. Each song is short and to-the-point, and every hook and melody is memorable and well-written. Later albums would see them drop their mop-top personas and dive head-first into innovation and experimentalism, but if you’re looking for a good picture of their music-making skill in its most basic form, there’s no better place to start than here.

Favorite Tracks: “Till There Was You,” “All I’ve Got to Do,” “It Won’t Be Long,” “All My Loving”

Next Up: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan by Bob Dylan (1963)