Christmas from Stax and Spector.
Various Artists – Soul Christmas (Atlantic, 1968)
What separated Memphis soul label Stax from their Motown contemporaries was the rough, unfiltered and seemingly unpolished tone of the music. Where Diana Ross and The Temptations would glide seamlessly to the top of the charts on pristine production and crisp performances, Wilson Picket and Tina Turner grinded and grunted their way into history thus forging what I refer to as Grit Soul, with tangible emotions hammered home by iconic Stax house band Booker T & The MG’s. The most soul-filled track is Solomon Burke’s “Presents for Christmas,” a gospel tinged prayer that subtly asks for peace and racial harmony in the year of Martin Luther’s murder, while those who like their carols devoid of real world troubles will take to William Bell’s “Every Day Will Be Like A Holiday,” a simple anthem of love made all more merry thanks to an exemplary horn arrangement. Christmas purists who prefer their holiday songs on the “classic” side of the equation will have to settle for notable instrumentals from Booker T and company. The only vocalist to take a crack at a standard is the eternal Otis Redding on “White Christmas,” whose raspy plead for snowfall is almost as heartbreaking as “These Arms of Mine.” Dream away sir. GRADE: A-
Various Artists – A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector (Phillies, 1963)
Released on the day John Kennedy was struck down in Dealey Plaza, and subsequently a victim of poor sales given the national mood, this former flop has come to be considered one of the quintessential Christmas albums — and rightfully so. For all of the eccentricities of producer Phil Spector, to say nothing of his 2009 murder conviction, his revolutionary “Wall of Sound” recording technique was the calling card for an entire generation of pop radio and an undeniable influence on the likes of Brian Wilson and the Beatles. Here he gives almost equal record space to Darlene Love (“He’s A Rebel”), The Ronettes (“Be My Baby”), The Crystals (“Da Do Ron Ron”) and Bobby B. Soxx and the Blues Jeans (“Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”) as each give decidedly Spector-esque takes on Christmas jingles and holiday standards alike. Each song is as sonically lush and rich as a Spector work ought to be, but for all the musical bombast, it’s the smaller, more charming moments that stick; the “Ring-a-ling-a-ling-a-ding-dong-ding” backing vocals and subtle key changes of The Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride,” the harmonies of Darlene Love’s “Winter Wonterland,” or the brief pauses in the chorus of The Crystals’ “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” which Springsteen used as the template for his own version of the song. Those who prefer the misty-eyed classics of Crosby and Nat Cole have the right, but I prefer maximized pop to match the jolliness of the season. Ring-a-ling-a-ling-a-ding-dong-ding indeed. GRADE: A