Just a quick explanation of how I'm doing this year's Christmas posts. So, obviously this SM TOWN Christmas album is part 1, and for part 2 I'll be reviewing some of my favorite K-Pop Christmas offerings, both old and new. Rules and stuff will be discussed in part 2. But now, on to more important business.
When news of this album first broke, I was ecstatic. Of course, SM Town isn't SM Town without a fail Yoochun English rap, a Jaejoong/Lina or Jaejoong/BoA duet, or some goofing around courtesy of Shindong and Eunhyuk's rap part, but I could do without that if it meant getting one song with everyone thrown in, acting happy in a fake-snow wonderland. Right? That was until I found out that not only was there no group song this year (WHAT KIND OF BLASPHEMY IS THIS?!), but the album would be 100% English. Let's just say that if Yoochun, who actually spent more than a few days in the US, manages to epicly screw up all his English parts, what more the others. And let's face it, there are only a handful of SM Town artists who can actually speak good English. I'm still thinking of whether or not BoA is in that handful.
Let me put it simply, the album is too Americanized. It's hardly K-Pop anymore. Say all you want to say about how K-Pop is just a rip-off of Western music, but you know, even if majority of the songs probably are, you can tell the difference between K-Pop and American pop. You know why I'm into K-Pop? It's because I'm so sick of US Pop, and here we are, back to the very sound I want to avoid.
The problem with it sounding too American is that one, obviously they're not American, but two, really now, what good, distinctively Christmassy POP songs have the Americans contributed to the standard Christmas repertoire? "All I Want For Christmas Is You"? Seriously now. "Last Christmas"? You have got to be kidding me. They're merely pop songs with Christmas lyrics about gifts and snow. There’s so much more to a Christmas song than that. This SM Town album sounds like a confused Rat Pack-turned-makeshift Christmas album, to be completely honest.
Yes, I'm very picky with Christmas songs, but that's only because my childhood was filled with some of the most gorgeous Christmas songs anyone will ever hear. I grew up not only listening to them, but singing them as well. I know my Christmas repertoire - everything from the classic Handel's "Messiah" to Filipino novelty Christmas songs where you make sounds out of combs and pieces of wax paper, to the most tear-jerking, yet most distinctly Filipino Christmas song you will ever hear, I've sung them all. So imagine going from all those, to a bunch of pop songs that don't even sound like Christmas. They are inferior not because they are pop songs, there are some gorgeous pop Christmas songs (DBSK's "Winter Rose" for heaven's sake!), they are inferior because they don't sound like Christmas, they don't serve their purpose.
You want me to tell you what Christmas sounds like? Christmas sounds like a cup of hot chocolate, rich and creamy and sweet, it sounds like a thick blanket wrapped around you, keeping you warm. It sounds like bells ringing in the distance and lights all over, it sounds like you're being surrounded with your family and friends and you're all happy. Christmas songs literally wrap you around in a nice, warm, hug, and refuse to let go. Christmas is such a simple feeling, but it overpowers everything else. Now regardless of how that gets translated into music, that's the standard framework of a Christmas song, and the minute you deviate from that even a bit, you lose the Christmas. All of it.
I don't care if you want to add electric guitars (like Aly&AJ's "Greatest Time of the Year"), go all-out with synths and loops and the works (surprisingly, JYP Nation's "This Christmas"), make everything epic and waltz-y (a-la DBSK's "Winter Rose"), keep it to a bare minimum (Josh Groban's "Thankful), or even make it kinda reggae-ish (like the brilliant Nota a cappella version of "The Little Drummer Boy", complete with a RAP PART), bottom line is that it has to leave people warm and fuzzy.
With the SM Town album, I felt nothing. Nada. Zilch. The entire album sounded like a pop album released any time BUT the holidays, it sounds so clean, too clean almost, and Christmas is not a cleaning contest on who can use the most sanitized production, it’s a contest of who can make the most emotional, goosebump-inducing song. No feeling whatsoever, they all sound like robots. Don't get me wrong, there are gorgeous songs on this album, namely BoA's "Distance", that song is stunning, but they're just not Christmas. Let me put this nicely, even T-Ara's "O My God", which I'm not even sure if it's a Christmas song, sounds more like Christmas than this entire album put together.
Unlike your usual pop song which lasts for a few months before becoming completely irrelevant, when you release a Christmas song, the standard shelf life is forever. Yes, forever. For the good ones, at least. My Christmas playlist this year includes pop Christmas songs that were released as early as 1998. 98 Degrees, BSB, that staple *NSYNC "O Holy Night" 5-part a cappella arrangement, Blue's "Gift", Aly&AJ, and even the DBSK Christmas EP - they're all still relevant. That's because Christmas never grows old, and people will always have a need for a Christmas repertoire. Which is why no one should be surprised that the most familiar "classical" pieces are in fact the Christmas offerings.
In simpler terms, "2011 SMTOWN Winter: The Warmest Gift" is more novel than it is lasting. The arrangements are faddish, the over-all sound very current, but under those you have nothing that can transcend time and cement these songs as Christmas staples. In colloquial Filipino/Taglish, this album is a "one time big time", and does not have the lasting qualities of other, better, Christmas releases. And actually, some of the songs on this package sound more like they belong on the acts' respective albums, and not a CHRISTMAS-themed compilation.
Super Junior's "Santa U Are The One", excusing the horrid English on the chorus (Ear after ear? Seriously?), sounds like a pop song they just slapped some bells on, and some lyrics about happiness and Santa. That's it. It's SO Big Time Rush (but even BTR made a better Christmas song than SuJu)/One Direction ala-"What Makes You Beautiful". I mean it's an okay song, nice and happy and upbeat, and I'd probebly listen to it a lot if it were not for the "ear after ear", but that's all it will ever be, and that's not it's purpose. When I first heard this, I thought it sounded nothing like Christmas, as in nothing at all, but actually, after listening to the rest of the album, this is probably the song that's closest to getting what Christmas songs should be. But still not enough.
And really now, SHINee's "Last Christmas" has got to be one of the worst covers of one of the most cheesy, cheap Christmas songs ever released.
As far as "The First Noel" covers go, DBSK win by light years. So I thought that since SM was behind their cover, the Jang Ri In verson would be really good too. Boy was I wrong. I like some parts of the arrangement, like the simple piano part, those gorgeous strings, and the drums, but you know what it sounds like as a whole, including that oriental-sounding instrument? It sounds like an American's attempt to make something "oriental", like "Ninja Assassin" or whatever. And that really disturbs me, because Jang Ri In is CHINESE, and SME is a KOREAN company. I don't get it, and don't think I ever will. To top it all off, like I said earlier, the vocals totally ruined the song. Totally. Why do you have to put all those unnecessary runs and strange vocal techniques into a song that's supposed to be nice, and quiet and simple then it's supposed to explode, but in the really big and tasteful way. Then Ri In just does a Christina/Mariah on it.
And, of course, a special Christmassy wrap-up:
The most Christmassy song: Thankfully, "Santa U Are The One"
The great, but not Christmassy songs: "Distance", "1,2,3", "Amazing"
The worst song: "Last Christmas"