The beauty of A Christmas Gift For You is that it doesn’t tinker dramatically with the Phil Spector formula. If anything, it’s Spector multiplied. The songs have that big Spector beat—the relentless rush of rock ’n’ roll—and all manner of extraneous clatter. And they’ve been transformed to varying degrees into personal statements. Darlene Love’s version of “Winter Wonderland” includes a spoken-word segment that acknowledges it’s being recorded in sunny Los Angeles. “Frosty The Snowman” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” are kiddie music on a sugar high, perfect for a man who’d been in the business since he was a teenager. “The Bells Of St. Mary’s” sounds almost desperate, like the “last-chance power drive” that Bruce Springsteen would later sing about on his Spector homage, “Born To Run.” The bells, horns, and strings all over this album had been a part of Christmas music long before Spector came along, but Spector super-charged them, generating a sound so exciting that rock ’n’ roll Christmas albums ever since have felt obliged to follow the lead of A Christmas Gift.

Personally, I tend not to like the rockers’ version of Christmas as much as I like the ones sponsored by B.F. Goodrich. Give me Jack Jones singing about “carols at the spinet”—an old-timer nodding to even older times—and keep whatever rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” some hard-rock act knocked out in an afternoon in June for its label bosses. But I do love A Christmas Gift For You, in the same way that I love it when someone brings chili-cheese dip and beer to a Christmas party instead of candied nuts and boiled custard. The Christmas season is a time of traditions—of bringing out the tree-skirt that’s been in the family for 50 years, and dusting off your late grandmother’s hand-written gingerbread recipe—but those traditions can become oppressive if they never vary. A Christmas Gift For You brings a bit of secular modernism to the stiflingly sacred. It’s like finding a Peanuts paperback mixed in with the dry old children’s picture books that your great-aunt spreads on her coffee table at Christmas, or discovering an unexpectedly fun board game at the bottom of her old toy chest full of wooden blocks.

This is doubly true of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” the Love-sung Spector original (co-written with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich) that has become as much of an enduring classic as the songs that Spector had his acts cover. The images of falling snow, church bells, and Christmas trees twinkling are set against Love’s lonely wailing, which takes the melancholy of holiday standards like “Blue Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and amplifies it tenfold. More importantly, when Love refers to people singing “Deck The Halls,” it places “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” in the context of other Christmas songs, acknowledging how music defines the season as much as the smells of pine, chimney smoke, and Scotch Tape do. Good Christmas music evokes the sensations that make the holiday special. Great Christmas music becomes one of those sensations. That, indeed, is a gift.


Tomorrow: Put on your yarmulke…