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: eltrochilero.com

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)

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