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The rise and fall of Christmas music

These days seasonal albums are mostly made by middle-aged musicians for middle-aged listeners.

CHRISTMAS MUSIC as we know it was born in 1963, when Phil Spector corralled his stable of singers into the studio to record “A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector”. Until then, there had only been schmaltzy carols and easy listening staples, with occasional hints of a party tune. Even “Elvis’ Christmas Album” (1957), with its awkward mix of the sacred and the secular, was devoid of the excitement the young Presley could normally summon at will (it ended up selling more than 20m copies and became the best-selling Christmas album of all time, so no one was really complaining). Mr Spector made the first Christmas album that managed to be both thrilling and seasonal. It sounded like the Christmas party, not the snooze after Christmas dinner. 

In so doing he unwittingly created a new line of descent for festive pop: one of maximalism, of breathlessness, where sleigh bells race pounding drums to the end of the song. Mr Spector’s Christmas was the one Roy Wood was recreating on “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” (1973), and the one Mariah Carey was celebrating on “All I Want For Christmas Is You” (1994). Mr Spector made the Christmas record into an annual rite of passage. It was no longer just a slightly sordid cash-in, but something to be embraced.

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So these days you can find heavy metal Christmas albums, funk Christmas albums and punk Christmas albums. John Fahey, a great American primitive guitarist, had his biggest commercial success with an album of Christmas instrumentals after realising that “White Christmas” was a hit every year, and that he might be able to make a little money if he eschewed extended slide guitar improvisations in favour of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”.

Britain has embraced the Christmas single: between 1974 and 1990, nine of the number ones on Christmas Day were explicitly festive records. In America, meanwhile, there has never been a seasonal song at number one at Christmas in the Billboard Hot 100. Perhaps the Christmas single has lost some of its lustre—Katy Perry has released her song “Cozy Little Christmas” exclusively on Amazon Music, more or less guaranteeing that it would not be an immediate hit.

Yet the Christmas album remains a regular feature on the release schedule of major artists. This year, for example, Eric Clapton has one out (his EDMish version of “Jingle Bells” is so spectacularly horrible that it almost demands to be heard), as does John Legend, who offers a tasteful, lush, jazzy and funky record called “A Legendary Christmas” (soul and funk have long produced some of the best Christmas pop). There are two separate albums called “Christmas Party”, one from RuPaul, a drag performer, and the other by the Monkees.

It is this last record that is the most telling. On it the three surviving Monkees—Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork—are aided and abetted by a series of musicians and songwriters who are younger without actually being young: Andy Partridge of XTC, Peter Buck of REM, Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, the novelist Michael Chabon (who supplies the lyrics to “House of Broken Gingerbread”), with the whole thing overseen by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne.

That castlist is the clue to what Christmas albums now are: pieces of nostalgia. The people they are aimed at are middle-aged, trying to recreate their old Christmases of Slade or the Pogues. The people who make them are middle-aged, trying to claim their own place in a pop lineage that goes back to “A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector”. You can see it, too, in the tracklisting for the Monkees’ album. It includes songs that would never get anywhere near an album intended for an actual Christmas party, such as “Jesus Christ”, originally recorded by Big Star, an American rock band, on their desolate album “Third/Sister Lovers” (albeit as one of that record’s rare upbeat numbers).

In a sense, then, for all the debts to Mr Spector, Christmas records have returned to their pre-Spector purpose. Forget the teenagers: they’re in their bedrooms on Spotify, YouTube or Netflix. But in the living room, the adults have pulled on the Christmas sweaters and poured the egg nog. Now, what will it be, Bing Crosby or Eric Clapton?

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