Rarely, if ever, has a musician in the idioms of rock, jazz, country, soul, or the blues determined that the making of a Christmas album was a logical way to put forwards an artistic statement. Christmas albums are byproducts of careers and success within those careers. They’re made because that’s simply how this works, there’s a market, and they can be done quickly. Plus, virtually no one takes them as seriously as anything “proper” that that musician puts out, so you might as well hew to the seasonal status quo and pile up a few more presents under the tree.
Artistic standards are lower for Christmas albums than regular albums, and so are listener expectations. You don’t listen to a Christmas album, necessarily; you have it on. Big difference. Christmas albums aren’t picked over. They aren’t statements. They’re usually meant for, and consumed as, background music. It’s hard to imagine someone at a desk in the night, headphones on, scrutinizing a musical performance of “Jingle Bells,” making notes the way one might as if listening to Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland or a new release of Wagner’s complete Ring cycle. Yes, I am guilty of this with Jimmy Smith’s version of the holiday perennial, but I’m thinking it’s just me.
Happy accidents exist with Christmas albums in which they do become works worthy of focused listening whether the album is played in April as the birds ramp up nest-building activities outside, or December 20th with the kids gazing lovingly at the soon-to-be-filled stockings hanging in front of the fireplace. No appreciation of Ella Fitzgerald’s career and talents is complete without repeat plays of Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, with that aforesaid focus. She sings as well there as anywhere else. With Fitzgerald, the art is in that singing, not necessarily in the connective depth of that singing, the way it is with Billie Holiday, who didn’t have Fitzgerald’s vocal chops. As a result, “slighter” fare isn’t a cause for depreciation.
There are other artists whose finest musical work ended up being a Christmas album, with Andy Williams being but one example. Records like The Andy Williams Christmas Album, always feel like flukes, though, surprises—not intentional artistic realizations or an executed vision where all went according to artistic plan. We’re fortunate that matters turned out as they did, and despite Christmas albums being ubiquitous, Christmas albums of good faith value and worth—intrinsic artistic value—are not. They are the gifts that we didn’t ask for, which we’re excited and grateful to have received.
Personally, I will listen to just about anything Christmas-related. I am a Christmas monster, in that I’ll devour anything pertaining to the holiday. If a Christmas episode of a dismal sitcom in syndication comes on in March, I’m turning up the volume on the set, and I feel a degree of relief, too, that Christmas is still out there, in some fashion or other, even though I’m one of eighteen people watching that show, and the only one under ninety-years-old. Whatever: Mike Baxter and his family are celebrating Christmas and as we now say, “I’m here for it.” Programmers blindly schedule those episodes and fire them out. No one thinks, “Eh, this is a little incongruous, a Christmas episode right now, but whatever, keep the spirit in your heart ‘year round.” But I look at it that way and I do the same thing with music, though I understand that Christmas albums are less an artistic rite of passage than a capitalist rite of product.
But then we have the case of Elvis Presley, who at no point in his career was passive about Christmas music, but especially in 1957. Presley had been releasing music with RCA since the year before. What this means to the causal fan is that 1956 and 1957 were the years when Presley was a massive hit-maker and phenomenon, his version of what the Beatles were in 1964 and 1965. The odd, magical modernism of the Sun era—those recordings from 1954 and 1955 that remain unlike anything in the history of American music—seemed as if from another lifetime. They were sonic visions that floated in from an alien world—one that nonetheless understood America weirdly well—to visit in the middle of the night, whereas this period with RCA produced the songs we still encounter without any searching in daily life: “Don’t Be Cruel,” Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog.” Presley’s ubiquity starts here. If the music was not at the level of the Sun sides, that’s really not a big deal. Blood on the Tracks wasn’t at the level of Highway 61 Revisited, but you’ll take it, right? Close enough.
Presley once boasted that he knew every gospel song there was, and when someone knows a form of specialized music in that way, it makes me think they’re likely to know other forms in that manner as well, or would possess an ability to launch themselves fully into a different such pocket. It’s logical that RCA would salivate over a Christmas record from Elvis during this period, but Elvis himself must have viewed that directive from management to make a Christmas LP as an opportunity to kick some musical ass, which is really what Presley did every time he entered the studio around this time when there was no fluff and everything was muscle.
If rock and roll has a definitive Yuletide set, it’s Elvis’s Christmas Album, released October 15, 1957, and which can be listened to throughout the year, because the LP is among the finest Presley ever made. That’s what I always want with a Christmas album, Christmas literature, or a Christmas film: A perfect complement to the season it enriches, which will also add value to my life if I partake of it in May. In rock and roll, the movers and shakers are the big inventors, but they usually do so in part by remaking what had previously existed. The Beatles, for example, didn’t come up with the pop song, but they took preexisting forms and transformed them in ways that the connective strand with the past got snipped in two. What do you want to compare “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to? What sounded that way? What was written that way? I wouldn’t have answer for you.
That’s how it is when one creates work that is meant to go forward—always forward. People who know nothing about Presley’s art like to hop on social media during the days when Presley trends—his birthday, for instance—and call him a racist who stole everything he did from Black musicians, which is akin to insisting that John Coltrane pilfered Coleman Hawkins because they both played tenor saxophone. Hawkins played it well. Coltrane played it better. Sorry. Hawkins innovated. Coltrane innovated more. Likewise, apologies. If you have a problem, your beef is with reality. Coltrane had listened to Hawkins, admired him, studied him. Okay—still did what he did better, and still invented more. That’s not Coltrane’s fault any more than the talent and innovations of Elvis Presley are his. You just have to accept how good this guy was. The ignorance is glaring, and also the agenda, and the emptiness of lives which perpetually resort to this type of captiousness. When Presley was great, it was pretty much impossible for him not to blaze his own form of path. When he was bad—as with many film soundtracks—he still blew you away with the voice. That’s the reality of being one of the best singers who has ever lived. We make jokes about how someone could sing the phonebook and we’d listen, but if Sam Cook showed up at your house with a directory and an offer to perform a private concert of a couple pages, would you say no? I’d get a tape rolling and bootleg that bad boy. Can you imagine Sam Cooke singing the name, “Markowitz?”
Christmas Elvis had component parts, and one of them was that of mischievous, hip-thrusting Santa. The raw, rockin’ version of rhythm and blues Saint Nick. Saint Nick with the big old—wait. We can’t do that. We must stick to innuendo, and no one better excelled at innuendo than late 1950s Elvis. Partially this was because of the songsmiths writing the tunes he sang, and also his delivery. Presley sang as a first person narrator. You know how you read a special short story and there’s an indelible voice unlike any voice you’ve encountered, and it pulls you to it so that you’re in for the whole ride—intensely, intimately—wherever that ride takes you? That’s Elvis the singer.