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The enduring appeal of the Christmas album

The holiday season means a lot of different things to different people. We explore the Christmas season from a pop culture point of view.

Outdated, gimmicky and quite often tawdry, the Christmas album appears to have long ago faded into musical obscurity, becoming nothing more than a relic of a bygone era. A Christmas album is essentially a covers album, with listeners usually attracted to a certain release by the brand of their favourite star and not because of the music the album contains. Every musical artist from The Jackson 5 to Elvis Presley and Sufjan Stevens have recorded Christmas albums in the past, and though different artists record the songs in their own personal style, they are largely the same collection of songs.

The days of families sitting around together at Christmastime in the company of crooners and country and jazz musicians are over, and the stigma around Christmas albums today imply a lack of creativity and integrity on behalf of those responsible. So why would record labels and musicians continue to persevere with such an archaic and pervasive process?

Music is a key feature of the Christmas season and its celebrations, and though seemingly obsolete, the Christmas album is just as much a part of mainstream contemporary culture as it was many years ago.

From the earliest of carols and hymns sung at churches, to the incessant repetition of “Jingle Bell Rock” at supermarkets today, music has always permeated the Christmas experiences of people around the world.  Some of the noblest and most instantly recognisable compositions in public consciousness are Christmas songs and because of this, they are interestingly far removed from an individual’s typical taste in music. A lot of Christmas songs have existed for decades and have survived the test of time because they're so singable, accessible, and flexible, and it is for this reason fans of Metallica are just as likely to nod along to “Jingle Bells” as “Master of Puppets”.

The holidays elicit plenty of human emotion, and driven by nostalgia, the human brain can at times be no match for the extremely gratifying chord progressions and melodies imbued in holiday tunes.

Music of this kind was solely intended for religious purposes and use during church liturgy, with the word “carol” growing throughout this period to mean a song in which something devoutly religious is treated in a style that is familiar or festive. The tradition of singing Christmas carols in return for alms or charity however began in England in the 17th century when town musicians were licensed to collect money in the streets for profit in the weeks preceding Christmas; a tradition that continues today.

The emergence of recording equipment and home entertainment systems then inevitably brought about the Christmas album. Mass manufactured and distributed, this concept allowed musicians to sell their music as they did in the 17th century, opening up a new market and allowing people to enjoy it from their own homes. Starting out as a practice of predominantly jazz, folk and country artists, the concept of the Christmas album has spread to almost any genre you can think of.

Though different people find different sentiments in Christmastime, Christmas albums continue to provide people with an extremely heart-warming, poignant soundtrack to the holiday. Whilst emanating from a very religious origin, the popular Christmas songs and albums we hear today tend to be secular; more about the reflection and emotion that the holiday brings.

Oft-covered favourites such as “Jingle Bells”, “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” make no explicit reference to anything religious, predominantly alluding to the magic and joy which brings people together around this time. The instantly gratifying themes and melodies of Christmas tunes don’t discriminate, meaning anyone can find solace in their enchanting magnetism regardless of potential hindrances such as religion, race or location.

In 1967 Barbara Streisand (who is Jewish and doesn’t celebrate Christmas) made one of the top 10 selling Christmas albums of all time; an album consumed by many Jewish people, helping some form a different attitude toward the holiday, and inspiring a multitude of Jewish musicians to do the same.

James Brown’s Christmas albums contained uplifting themes for struggling families in the ghetto, and though the wintertime themes that permeate many Christmas songs aren’t quite as pertinent here in Australia, there are countless of our own adaptations and creations that spread the same jubilant messages.

Whilst the essence and sentiment of the holiday is one thing keeping the Christmas album relevant, physical sales are also playing their part. With overall music sales dropping faster and heavier than the bass at an overcrowded Ibiza nightclub, you could be forgiven for thinking the interest of the public in regard to something like the Christmas album would follow a similar pattern. But interestingly there are some recent examples which suggest the Christmas album is still very much relevant.

Josh Grobin's 2007 effort Noël (five times platinum), Andrea Boccelli's 2009 My Christmas (two times), and the 2010 Susan Boyle's The Gift (three times) all sold well in recent times, while Michael Buble’s 2011 album Christmas has again re-entered the bestselling charts around the world in the last few weeks.

Holiday albums aren't released due to anything having to do with the holidays themselves. Instead, they're released at the time the record label thinks will optimize their sales and plays. Christmas music sells well because people are always looking for something new, but with the familiar seasonal vibe, and like the gift voucher, boxes of chocolate and cash, they’re also popular gifts for those unsure what to buy for others. It’s a time of the year people are willing to spend money, and because of this there is a huge spike in music sales in general. Gimmicky? Sure, but most mainstream music is driven by sales, and to ostracise Christmas music for this reason would be unfair given the wider context in which it sits. People may only listen to them around Christmas time, but that doesn’t stop the masses from buying them, and buying them regularly.

There is no one reason behind the Christmas album’s impassioned, subjective appeal. Celebratory and sentimental in tone, they hearken back to simpler times with memorable holiday practices that everyone relates to differently — and this is why different people living all over the world continue to love them as they do. The traditions made most popular by jazz musicians and crooners such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra have, despite popular belief, stood the test of time – even progressing to beyond that of merely the musical realm with television programme Downton Abbey’s release of a Christmas album this year.

Though most recognise the adverse connotations around the Christmas album, it is not detracting buyers, and the celebratory spirit of the holiday means people will continue to consume them in both a responsive and pecuniary sense until this is no longer the case. It wouldn’t be too surprising if the Christmas album continued to thrive long into the future, as like the smooth, intrinsic harmonies they contain, it is a concept that is likely to continue to stand the test of time and the ever-shifting human lifestyle.

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