Imagine, for a moment, that the only football teams that ever existed were the national side of Bhutan, my five-a-side team DisOrient FC, and the famous Ajax team of 1971-73 that won three consecutive European Cups. You wouldn’t bother having a debate about which was the best team, would you? Not when the answer is so obvious (my five-a-side team, DisOrient FC).
That’s how I feel about Christmas albums. Why would anyone bother arguing about the greatest Christmas album of all time when Phil Spector clearly made it back in 1963? Nothing – not even the Beach Boys’ Christmas Album or James Brown’s Funky Christmas – has come close. A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector propels itself with the joie de vivre of the best 60s girl groups – the Ronettes, the Crystals – yet never considers itself too cool to incorporate snow, Santa and sleigh bells (even if they end up reverberating around Spector’s wall of sound).
Don’t get me wrong: there are loads of great Christmas songs – your Fairytale Of New Yorks, your Last Christmases. But a Christmas album has to pull off the trick of repeating this kind of free-flowing joy without becoming sickly. It requires stamina and coherence: Low’s Just Like Christmas might be one of the sweetest festive tracks, but the mini-album on which it appears is so stuffed with slowcore takes on standards that it makes the Queen’s speech seem like a euphoric EDM meltdown. Then again, the Low record itself seems like a euphoric EDM meltdown compared to the Watersons’ A Yorkshire Christmas, which included not one but two spoken-word tracks about the 1910 Hawes junction rail disaster. As Oscar Wilde once said: to include one tale about an ancient Cumbrian train crash on your Christmas album is a misfortune, to include two is just plain weird.
Then again, trying to better Spector seems pointless when perfection has been so resolutely achieved. Pop albums are always going to fail in comparison (last year’s Kylie Christmas featured a duet with James Corden), but the modern trend for indie artists thinking they can outsmart the concept itself is even more awful. Remember to pull a social sickie for She & Him’s Christmas Party; the DJ appears to be spinning lifeless acoustic swing versions of festive standards.
Not every Christmas album is this terrible, of course, it’s just that the debate over whose is best is pointless. Sufjan Stevens’s five-disc compendium of 100 Christmas tunes may have been extremely clever, but you know what’s smarter? Writing a festive album nobody would better for half a century, which still won’t be beaten in 50 years’ time.
- A Christmas Gift To You From Phil Spector will be played in full from 6pm, today, at Spiritland, N1