The Best Christmas Album Ever Recorded?

Steve Tupai Francis, the author behind the Kraftwerk’s Computer World 33 1/3, kicks off our series of festive posts with a deep dive into one of his favourite alternative Christmas albums: A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. Take it away, Steve!

Hands down, the best Christmas album ever recorded.

On A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (1963), super producer Phil Spector’s goal was to create the ultimate Christmas record, capturing the Yuletide spirit in all its cheesy, nostalgic and heart-warming glory, while also delivering a pop masterpiece. He scored on both counts. Ironic really as Spector was no one’s idea of someone you would want to spend time with over Christmas, but that’s another story…

Recorded over six intense weeks between September and October 1963, and released on the day that JFK was assassinated (November 22, 1963), the record is jam-packed with Spector’s self-described “teenage symphonies.” The album employs the vocal talents of many of the stars on his roster: The Ronettes (‘Frosty the Snowman’, ‘Sleigh Ride’, ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’), The Crystals (‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’, ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’, ‘Parade of the Wooden Soldiers’), Darlene Love (‘White Christmas’, ‘(It’s A) Marshmallow World’, ‘Winter Wonderland’, ‘(Christmas) Baby Please Come Home’, and Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans (‘The Bells of St Mary’ and ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’).

In creating his famous ‘Wall of Sound’, Spector would include every instrument known to humankind on his records – strings, horns, earth-shattering percussion and drums, multiple guitars and bass, and even a theremin. His innovative and revolutionary approach to production meant that he was to able to marshal and corral all of these instruments into a coherent whole while at the same time ensuring the vocals could shine through the cacophony.

Spector featured some of the best contemporary session musicians on the record – Hal Blaine on drums (he was a member of the “Wrecking Crew” and played on everything from The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley to Simon & Garfunkel, the Byrds and the Carpenters), Sonny Bono on percussion, Jack Nitzsche (famous producer, arranger, and piano player who went on to work with Neil Young and the Rolling Stones), Leon Russell on piano (produced and played with Dylan, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Elton John, Joe Cocker), Tommy Tedesco (guitar, also a member of the ‘Wrecking Crew’), and Brian Bonnelli (on theremin, also a member of the Wrecking Crew’). Phil even managed to co-opt legendary Beach Boy, Brian Wilson, to play on several tracks.

Darlene Love opens the album with ‘White Christmas’ and her soaring vocals and spoken word interlude kick things along in the best way. She should have been a star, right up there with the likes of Roni Spector and Diana Ross. The Ronettes deliver two Christmas favourites that can still be heard in department stores the world over. ‘Frosty the Snowman’ is all hand claps, full orchestration and Ronny Spector’s (Phil’s wife) vocals. ‘Sleigh Ride’ though is the real classic, featuring some killer backing vocals that are worth trying at home after several carafes of egg nog and Christmas ‘spirits’ – “Ring-a-ling-a-ling/Ding-dong-ding…”

Bob B. Soxx’s & the Blue Jeans’ take on ‘The Bells of St Mary’ is the real surprise packet. The soaring soulful baritone of Bob B. Soxx is something to behold. And finally, one of THE best girl groups of the ‘60s: The Crystals. Their version of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ is epic beyond belief. Stand slack-jawed as you listen to the continuous drum solos rolling through this massive song.

But in the best of all/worst of all category (depending on your sense of humour/perversity) is Phil’s bat-sh&*t crazy version of ‘Silent Night’. With the song in question banging away in the background, Phil spoils it all with a long, indulgent, self-congratulatory spoken word ‘epistle’ from Saint Phil himself…it begins like this:

“Hello, this is Phil Spector, it is so difficult at this time
To say words that would express my feelings
About the album to which you have just listened
An album that has been in the planning for many, many months…”

And on it goes for another four or five stanzas in his creepy, reedy voice. Imagine having to endure the original deranged five-minute version. Thankfully engineer Larry Levine convinced Phil to trim the track back to a more bearable two minutes. This one will definitely scare the kids, or at least have them scratching their heads.

Note: if A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector is the best ever Christmas album, then what is the second-best? Well, that would be Soul Christmas released by Atlantic/Atco featuring Booker T. & the M.G.’s, King Curtis, Solomon Burke, Joe Tex and Otis Redding. The best song though is the dirty double entrendre-ridden epic from Clarence Carter, ‘Back Door Santa’ (yep!!!). This song has to be heard to be believed. Try this lyric on for size: “I ain’t like old Saint Nick/He don’t come but once a year…” Ahhh, but that’s a blog for another day folks..).

A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector is a yuletide classic, an alternative Christmas album that needs to be played at full volume. And as Phil says in his ‘Silent Night’ soliloquy, he will be there to spend Christmas with you, whether you like it or not. 😊

“May we wish you the very merriest of Christmases
And the happiest of New Years, and thank you so very much
For letting us spend this Christmas with you…”

Thanks Phil. Merry Christmas to you too.

Steve Tupai Francis has over 25 years’ experience in writing in a range of contexts including music, academia and civil society. Steve is obsessed with music, with David Bowie, Kate Bush, Prince, Japan and Kraftwerk taking pride of place in his collection of over 3,000 records.

Kraftwerk’s Computer World is available to buy in bookshops and online (including at Until Sunday 10th December 2023, you can get it 30% off in Bloomsbury’s Holiday Sale.

1 thought on “The Best Christmas Album Ever Recorded?”

  1. Great article Steve. I think the best song on the record is the throwaway – “Here Comes Santa Claus” (Bob B. Sox and the Blue Jeans) – it’s the last song on the record before Phil’s burst of sincerity, but it has the best example of one of Phil’s greatest techniques – the subliminal horns – sounds like there’s abouy 1000 of them, but you can’t reall hear them, unless you listen for them. Merry Christimas, Tim

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