The Secrets of Great Christmas Pop Music

Phil Spector A Christmas Gift_post.jpg

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By its nature pop music aspires to the inescapable. And by parasitically attaching itself to a ubiquitous holiday, Christmas-themed pop achieves this to immodest extremes. At least once and probably dozens of times this season you'll hear, for no good reason: Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" (Paul famously claims to have written "Yesterday" in his sleep, which raises the question of when the hell he wrote this); Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" (in what will be this article's only foray into the theological, perhaps there's a reason most humans don't have five-octave vocal ranges); and of course Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock," a song so stupid, so boring, so spiritually poisonous that to even describe it feels unethical.

A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, released on November 22, 1963—the same day as the Kennedy assassination, in a perverse and thoroughly sacrilegious accident of history—leads the counterargument that it needn't always be this way. Recorded at the zenith of Spector's "Wall of Sound" period, Christmas Gift is the greatest holiday album ever made, an exhilarating and almost militant rebuttal that excess and kitsch aren't always guilty pleasures but sometimes truly profound ones. The Crystals' "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" features a Hal Blaine drum part that would make John Bonham blush, exploding a novelty song into a rock and roll classic (both Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen would later appropriate LaLa Brooks' thrilling hesitation into the first syllable of "SAN-ta"). The Ronettes' "Sleigh Ride," with its infectiously vacuous "ring-a-ling-a-ling" background chorus, boasts no fewer than five key changes and a performance from the incomparable Ronnie Spector that seems to turn the phrase "sleigh ride together" into a sexual euphemism. The only "classic" Christmas carol on Christmas Gift is "Silent Night," nominally included here as a final track that's actually a spoken "thanks" from Spector "for giving me the opportunity to relate my feelings of Christmas through the music that I love." (The fact that Spector is Jewish makes this strangely perfect.)

The sheer exuberance of Spector's Christmas Gift is the gold standard for Christmas pop and has rarely been approached since. Stevie Wonder's 1967 album Someday At Christmas has some moments of real beauty and one moment of absolute transcendence in "What Christmas Means To Me," an irresistible Motown teenage dance romance barely dressed up as a holiday song. The Funk Brothers rhythm section grooves with edgy precision, and seventeen-year-old Stevie sings with all the buoyant and precocious energy of, well, a kid on Christmas.

That same year, perhaps emboldened by the modest success of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles released "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)" as a year-end exclusive to members of their fan club. As songwriting goes it's not exactly "A Day In The Life," but "Christmas Time" pinpoints that disingenuous line between pious and profane that's at the heart of both the Christmas industry and the pop industry and shapes it into its own objet d'art, and hearing the best band in history at the height of its powers gleefully bang its way through something this stupid is a gift in itself.

In 1968 Clarence Carter unleashed "Back Door Santa," a funky-as-hell bit of lascivious suggestion that doesn't have a lot to do with Christmas but is today best known by its prominent sample in Run-D.M.C.'s "Christmas In Hollis." "Christmas in Hollis" is probably still the most famous example of Christmas-themed hip-hop (an admittedly slight sub-genre), although Run-D.M.C. were passing their prime when they made it in 1987 and today it sounds cloying, the Queens of "Hard Times" and "It's Like That" bleached into a winter wonderland. De La Soul's "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa," on the other hand, from 1991's De La Soul Is Dead, uses the department-store Santa as a metaphor for falseness and betrayal in recounting a father-daughter relationship destroyed by incest, rape and revenge. It's David Sedaris meets David Lynch, neither the stuff of Hallmark cards nor holiday radio but a powerful and haunting piece of music nonetheless.

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Jack Hamilton has written for Slate, NPR, and Los Angeles Review of Books. This fall, he will be a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  

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