Classic Rock of Christmas Past

"Can 12 great Christmas songs be . . . (recorded) with the same feeling and sound that is found on the hit singles (of today's most exciting artists) without losing for a moment the feeling of Christmas?"

That was the challenge that Phil Spector, widely regarded as the most compelling record producer of the rock era, set for himself 24 years ago when he went into the studio with Darlene Love, the Crystals and others from the troupe of singers he used on such hits as "Be My Baby" and "He's a Rebel"--hits that were among the most evocative teen-age expressions of desire and dreams ever put on record.

Christmas music was a natural for Spector's "wall of sound" production style because most of the songs Spector chose for the album--from the standard "White Christmas" to the novelty "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"--reflected the same mixture of innocence and sentimentality that he wove into his regular pop recordings.

And sure enough: The album Spector came up with 24 years ago--"A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector," just released in CD by Rhino Records--captured the spirit of his classic hits with such purity of vision and heightened emotion that it still stands as the most endearing rock-related Christmas LP ever.

Spector's album was the model for Jimmy Iovine's "A Very Special Christmas," which is available in regular CD through A&M; and in a special, higher-priced "audiophile" edition through Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (a quick blindfold test of the two versions did not indicate a marked difference in sound purity). Iovine's album even opens up with a version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" by the Pointer Sisters that echoes the Spector arrangement of the same song, and closes with "Silent Night," which also closed the Spector collection.

Unlike Spector, however, Iovine didn't impose his vision on the music. Instead, he invited 15 leading pop-rock figures (from Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger to Whitney Houston and the Pretenders) to contribute a track each to the charity project (profits go to the Special Olympics). While that decision leaves "Special Christmas" as a less compelling work than Spector's "Gift," it remains a warm, appealing package. Especially engaging are Madonna's remake of Eartha Kitt's teasing "Santa Baby," John Cougar Mellencamp's playful "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and Run-D.M.C.'s original rap, "Christmas in Hollis."

The last song also shows up on "Christmas Rap" (Profile Records), another attempt to mix Christmas sentiment with contemporary pop style. This collection of nine new Christmas raps won't satisfy Christmas purists, but--thanks to Spyder-D's "Ghetto Santa" and King Sun-D Moet's "Christmas in the City"--it offers a vitality and charm of its own.

Also recommended: works by the two singers whose voices have arguably been most identified over the past four or five decades with Christmas music: Bing Crosby's "Bing Crosby Sings Christmas Songs" (MCA) and Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song" (Capitol). Also, Elvis Presley's "Elvis' Christmas Album" (RCA), the most prized Christmas album by a solo rock artist; Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper" (Columbia), gentle, tasteful arrangements in a package with budget sticker price (spotted around town for $8.98), and the Temptations' "Christmas Card" and "Give Love at Christmas" (Motown), two albums on a single budget disc (as low as $10.99) that includes a version of "The Little Drummer Boy" that Seger used as a model for his rendition of the song on Iovine's Christmas album.

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