A Christmas Gift to You from Philles Records was released on November 22, 1963, the same day that John F. Kennedy was shot dead at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. "The entire country was completely somber," the album's auteur, Phil Spector, said a half-century later. "No one was celebrating anything. There really was not a Christmas that year."
So, the most mesmerizing and bombastic Christmas album of all time lay somewhat dormant until nine years later, when it was re-released by The Beatles' Apple Records as Phil Spector's Christmas Album. Since then, as A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector, it's gone onto be regarded as one of the finest achievements in pop music. It's Brian Wilson's favorite record. According to Spector, it was George Harrison's too. It was the crowning achievement of Spector's Wall of Sound, 13 songs from the producer's in-house favorites—The Ronettes, The Crystals, Darlene Love, The Blue Jeans—that fully realized his vision for modern music. They were "little symphonies for the kids." They crackled and exploded. They burst through speakers with an exuberance that belied Spector's often torturous recording process.
There were a dozen standards and covers, all of which became definitive in their own ways. The Crystals' irrepressible "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" set the tone for Bruce Springsteen; The Ronettes' "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," with its ebullient innocence, was borrowed soon after by The Jackson 5. But nobody's ever topped the Spector versions. "I really wanted to show that Christmas songs were really beautiful songs written for anytime of the year, and could be sung by anybody anytime of the year," Spector said in that interview. "I wanted to make masterpiece songs and prove a point that Christmas music was great music."
The one original on the record is a masterpiece in its own right. "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," written by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and Spector himself, is a staggering song, buoyed by a rasping saxophone and peppered with overblown church bells, its choir and snare both fighting through the speakers for space, all failing in their ways. Nothing could compete with Darlene Love. She sings it with complete abandon. She obliterates every syllable; she generates all the power of an electrical storm. "The snow's coming down / I'm watching it fall," she howled, turning an innocuous image into a world-altering event.
It's also shatteringly melancholic, a letter to what might as well be an absent lover, an admission of misery that leads to detachment: "They're singing 'Deck The Halls' / But it's not like Christmas at all," Love sings. "'Cause I remember when you were here / And all the fun we had last year." In the chorus, as the backups repeat the word "Christmas," Love looks around, details the ideal Christmas in her eyeline, then ignores it completely: "Pretty lights on the tree / I'm watching them shine / You should be here with me / Baby please come home." As the song crescendos, she goes back and forth with the choir, screaming "Please, please, please" over and over again.
I've spent the last 25 days writing about Christmas music. I've picked up a different song, album, or theme every morning and we've now got a fully-opened Noisey Advent Calendar that you can flip back through this Christmas Day. I started doing this because I thought that some Christmas songs had been undercriticized, undercelebrated, or otherwise underheard—that we were getting the dregs of holiday music pumped to us for no good reason. But after three-and-a-half weeks, I'm not really sure I've made more than a small dent in the season. I never got around to Outkast's "Player's Ball," one of three bona fide hip-hop holiday classics alongside "Christmas Rappin'" and "Christmas in Harlem." I never wrote about John Fahey's deft and dismembered "Christmas Fantasy Part 1," which flickers between chaos and harmony in ways that still puzzle me. "Fairytale of New York" and "All I Want for Christmas Is You"—both great in their ways, both deserving of their legacies—have been picked apart often enough for me to ignore them. But I regret not writing about James Brown's lava-like "Santa Claus Go Straight to The Ghetto" and Sonic Youth's bizarre Martin Mull cover, "Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope." I could at least have cracked some third-rate jokes about The Darkness' "Christmas Time (Don't Let The Bells End)" one Tuesday or another. This is, to some extent, the inevitable side-effect of a project that required me to wake up every morning and stare at a blank page, hoping that something festive would grab me before lunch. There's always next year.
Still, I think I ended up with some sort of throughline. On December 1, when I wrote about Tom Waits's down-and-out "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis," I figured that I'd spend a significant portion of the next few weeks overusing the word "lonely." I did overuse that word, and I probably could have found a few more synonyms for "brutal" while I was at it. I tried to work in some levity and some wholesomeness (pop-punk provided the former; hip-hop the latter), but I mostly wrote about misery. And I don't think that was just my own taste taking over. Christmas is often just an unwelcome but inevitable reminder of absence. It's as much about the people who aren't there as those who are, if there are any there at all. The chirpy, family-values side of the season is often just a way to cover that up—or at least a quick way of fighting back against the darkness.
If I thought that was a sensible way of coping with grief, I'd probably be working in advertising and living in a much nicer apartment. If you thought that broad, forced smiles were a good way of coping with loss, you probably wouldn't be reading this article. Dig deep enough for long enough, and you'll find the kernel of sadness inside a seemingly happy song. Joey Ramone's demo version of "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)" and Judy Garland's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" have both had their jagged edges sanded down for the holiday industry, but their discarded lines speak to each other and reveal more about Christmas than any half-assed comp record could:
Joey: "Why have we been torn apart?"
Judy: "We'll have to muddle through somehow."
You don't have to look far for the pain beneath "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." Spector is a murderous bastard, and, less importantly, he was a nightmare in the studio. The song was originally intended for Ronnie Bennett, Spector's future wife, but Spector determined that she couldn't put the requisite "emotion" into the vocals, so it ended up with Love. And then, of course, there's Kennedy and that "completely somber" December in 1963, this thrilling record unwittingly entering a world at completely the wrong moment.
You don't need all that context, though, to fall for Love's performance. The desperation, the effortless agony, the permanent crescendo, the sense that every bar means more than the last because she seems to believe, if she keeps screaming it, that whoever she's screaming to really will come home. Maybe it's about love gone wrong. That can sting. But the beauty of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" is its openness. Hearing Love tear through its every beat, it can be about anyone or anything—a parent, a lover, a friend, someone who just can't make it this year, someone who just didn't make it in the end. Hearing someone else embody that pain, and then transcend it, is the reason we're drawn to great music in the first place. "I remember when you were here / And all the fun we had last year," she sings, cutting through a cacophony, the bells and drums thundering into the horns and the choir. "If there was a way I'd hold back this tear / But it's Christmas day / Please, please, please."
Alex Robert Ross is watching it fall. Follow him on Twitter.