Wall of Sound for Scrooges

Why a weird Christmas album by a convicted murderer is the greatest holiday recording

I've never really liked Christmas music. Sure, there are a few songs I don't mind hearing just once a year, but considering how vast the Yuletide catalog is, it's remarkable how much of it is disposable, homogenous mall-speaker drone. Is there another genre of music that instantly conjures memories of waiting in hellishly long department store lines?

But there's one holiday collection that I can listen to even when there isn't snow on the ground: 1963's A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. That title alone should rightly fill you with dread — a gift from who?!? — but it's easily the greatest Christmas record ever pressed.

I know, I know: Spector was a vile dude long before they hauled him off to prison for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson. Not exactly synonymous with holiday cheer. But it's impossible to deny he had a hand in some of the most indelible records of the '60s, none of which he's getting royalties for anyway.

On Christmas Gift, he recruited his roster of artists — the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans — and a stable of session musicians to apply his iconic Wall of Sound production style to some secular musical mainstays. The album was a labor of love for Spector, but it hit stores the same day that President Kennedy was assassinated — another morbid footnote in the album's history — and flopped miserably.

It's now regarded as a classic, with good reason. Spector and company polish musty old standards with a glorious pop sheen: You never realized you needed another version of "White Christmas" until you hear Darlene Love's upbeat take on it, and the Crystals' rollicking "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" has become the song's go-to arrangement.

The only original composition on the record is Love's rousing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," and it deserves to be up there amongst Spector's all-time greats. It has since become a standard unto itself.

The album does have one outright clunker — its very last track, a drippy instrumental version of "Silent Night" that actually features a spoken introduction by Spector himself, in which he expresses gratitude to all the technicians that made the record possible. "But the biggest thanks goes to you," the incarcerated murderer says to us, "for giving me the opportunity to relate my feelings of Christmas through the music I love."

So yeah, switch off your turntable before it gets to that part, unless you want everyone around the dinner table to feel real creepy. But if you're not in the Christmas spirit anyway, maybe that's your thing. ♦

Nathan Weinbender is the Inlander's film and music editor. The best Christmas gift he ever got was a Sega Genesis in 1995, which is collecting dust in his apartment right now.

Spokane International Film Festival @ Magic Lantern Theatre

Sat., Feb. 29, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun., March 1, 12-10 p.m., Mon., March 2, 6-10 p.m., Tue., March 3, 6:15-10 p.m., Wed., March 4, 7-10 p.m., Thu., March 5, 7-10 p.m. and Fri., March 6, 7-10 p.m.
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About The Author

Nathan Weinbender

Nathan Weinbender is the Inlander's Music & Film editor. He is also a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, where he has co-hosted the weekly film review show Movies 101 since 2011.