The 2011 Pop Reviews Now Holiday Special Part 1: "2011 SMTOWN Winter: The Warmest Gift"

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.

It's been a good three years since any sort of SM Town release, the last being the half-SM Town Summer 2009 EP with Super Junior, SHINee and DBSK. If you remember correctly, we were told that the other half of SM Town, namely the girls, would be featured on the Christmas album. Well, clearly that didn't happen. But FINALLY, SM has decided to put something out in time for Christmas. Is it any good? Well, that's a pretty long story.

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.

And once again, my psychic powers did not fail. The English is horrible. I'm an English major(well, comparative literature, but I'm still under the English department), I know. But the bad English isn't really the big problem, it's the fact that it's in English.

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.

This album is massively confused. Massively. So either the song itself isn't K-Pop enough, or when they finally get the song choice right, they screw up the execution. My prime example? Jang Ri In's version of "Oh Holy Night", which is actually one of my favorite Christmas songs. The girl has a gorgeous voice, she really does, and what does she do? She murders the song. All those runs and those strange sounds she makes with her voice. No, just no. There's a reason why the Christina Aguilera Christmas album was a complete failure.

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.

I hate the covers on this thing. I hate them. DBSK's "Sleigh Ride" is the biggest disappointment. Because seriously, we went from "Winter Rose" to this monstrosity. This is one of the rare instances that I will consent to a version in another language, because seriously, DBSK should've just done an English version of "Winter Rose". Now THAT is a song that can be milked for all it's worth, because it’s shelf life is literally forever. But no, they had to give DBSK a cheesy cover of "Sleigh Ride", that actually makes them sound sleazy, to be honest.

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.
It was bad enough when Wham! did it, for heaven's sake. Then they SM-ify everything? Oh dear. The production is okay, and I kinda like the outer space-like synths, but you mix those with some of the most uninterested, boring and lazy vocals I've ever heard from SHINee and you have a disaster. I'm serious, they all sound bored out of their wits, which they probably were, and for once, I would've liked Jonghyun to go wild, because seriously, I fell asleep listening to this song, and not in the good way.

J-Min's cover of the John Lennon song "Happy X-Mas (War Is Over)" is okay, nothing special, and the girl has a nice voice, but once again, it sounds so uninspired. And boring.

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.

BoA's "Distance" is gorgeous, it really is. I love it and I'll probably be looping this for the next few days, but it's still not Christmas enough. "Distance" actually reminds me a lot of a Stacie Orrico/Young CCM-type song, in terms of treatment. The harmonies, and even the instrumentation, sound like something straight off Stacie Orrico’s self-titled album. Which is very, very, VERY far from Christmas. And that bugs me. There's a difference between "gorgeous pop song" goosebumps and "Christmas song" goosebumps, and the goosebumps I got this time were the "gorgeous pop song" ones. Basically, the only part of the song that made it remotely Christmas is the lyrics, and that's a foul. Which is such a shame because BoA has had some really amazing, really Christmassy, releases over the years, and even if "Distance" does match up in terms of gorgeousness, it fails at being Christmas. When you talk of BoA Christmas songs, "On December 27th" is still, hands-down, the best of them all, not even "Meri Kuri" comes close.

SNSD’s “Diamond”, and I'm not sure if I've ever used this analogy, but it kinda sounds like something that would fit right in to the Christmas talent show set list on "Mean Girls", you know, when the slutty, popular girls trying to sing and dance at the same time in skimpy Santa outfits and high heels? Maybe not that drastic, but the chorus is EXACTLY like that. However, the middle 8, and that small bit before it (which I presume is Sunny's part) is gorgeous. Stunning, almost. And actually, it's probably the most Christmas I've heard on the entire album, but then we go back to the uninspired chorus. It's not as boring as the SHINee track, but even for SNSD they can do better.

f(x)'s “1,2,3” also sounds nothing like a Christmas song, bar those strings which were probably just thrown in last-minute. It actually sounds more like the theme song for a FRIENDS rip-off, like, really. It sounds like it belongs on a Disney chick-flick soundtrack (Kinda like that song that's on the "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen" soundtrack, which, conveniently, is also called "1,2,3"), not an SM Town Christmas album.

While we're on the topic of songs that sound like they belong elsewhere, CSJH (DANA&SUNDAY)'s "Amazing" sounds more like a charity single ala-Destiny Child's "Stand Up For Love". Pretty far from Christmas, if you ask me. Not that I oppose to Christmas ballads, but again, there's a way to do it without completely missing the point. And it's not that I don't like the song either, I do, it's gorgeous and Dana and Sunday's voices are stunning and the middle 8 kills me every single time, then by the time that stunning piano line comes in just before everything explodes with the chorus behind I die again, but yet again, THIS IS NOT CHRISTMAS. Same goes for Kangta's "For The First Time", Kangta's voice is stunning, but this sounds more like a Disney animated fairytale song that plays just when the prince is about to kiss the princess/girl. It actually sounds like something straight out of Aladdin. Again, pretty far from Christmas, if you ask me.

TRAX's "Like A Dream" sounds like what I kind of expected TRAX to do, but it's too clean, like they sucked all the emotion out of the song and left it to rot. In terms of "band"-ish K-Pop Christmas offerings, actually Infinite's "Lately" takes the prize. I'm sorry, TRAX, but this song sounds more like those tracks you put behind a montage of tour videos and screaming crowds and bands going wild on stage. All in back and white. And in reality, those tracks are usually the cheesiest, filler of filler tracks.

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"


  1. I really really agree with what you said there. Yes, I really did like a lot of songs from this album but I didn't really feel the Christmas vibe either. Super Junior's song was the most Christmas-sy of them all and I find it cute but it still lacked idk, the holiday familiarity? Something like that.

    I really liked BoA's, TRAX's and f(x)'s songs but they didn't sound very holiday-like either. f(x) didn't even bother with the Christmas-sy lyrics. The best part about their song, to me, was Amber and her pretty voice ^^;;

    And you're so right about SHINee's Last Christmas. I've always hated this particular song and I thought that SHINee singing it would make it better but sadly, it made me hate it even more. It WAS so dull and uninspiring -_-

    I felt that HoMin's vocals were wasted. I think if they had covered another song, it would have been magic. An English version of Winter Rose seems hard to pass up now that you've suggested it. I still love DBSK's Christmas release from waaaay back and I was hoping they could do something like that again (even with the two people they have left -- Winter Rose gave me hope </3).

    Can't wait for your next holiday special! :)

  2. In my opinion, the album is competent and listenable, but nothing special.

    Yes, you have used that 'Mean Girls slutty dance' comparison before (can't remember where, but I was reading back over your old posts yesterday and it definitely came up). Get a new analogy :p
    I really don't agree with it this time; the song isn't brilliant by any means, but the chorus of 'Diamond' is NOT akin to the 'Jingle Bell Rock' scene in 'Mean Girls', I think.

    Also, with regard to '1,2,3', I was surprised to hear Amber's actual singing voice! Very much welcomed :)

  3. I agree completely... I found it contrived and uninspiring. I also give you props for mentioning N'SYNC's version of O' Holy Night, it's one of my favorite renditions of that song (due largely in part to JC's 4 beautiful 4 octave range and perfect pitch tone being put to work). I'd also recommend Boyz II Men's version of Silent Night, it's stunning.

    I really wanted to feel something with this album but I just couldn't save for JMin whose voice is just lovely and BoA. Everyone else was lacking and the arrangements were painfully generic to the highest degree. Shinee's rendition was downright painful and the Jonghyun overdose (in true shinee fashion) throughout the song was especially bad...

  4. I disagree with this review, not with what you said about it, but more like the expectations you had laid upon it.

    The only thing I was truly disappointed in was the lack of a group song, because that's staple for SMTOWN, and they didn't have it this year. But having listened to almost all the SMTown albums, I have to say, this album wasn't really a dissapointment. The tracks are really standard for an smtown album. Their albums are never particularly ingenious and creative, and some of the songs on this album are honestly surprisingly good considering this was an SMTown album. The songs are really generic, but most smtown songs are.

    Secondly, well, the fact this album wasn't meant to be a Christmas album. Just a winter album, and it did a fine job at being a winter album. I'd actually say some of these songs are too Christmassy for being simply a Winter song. Of course you can't completely separate Christmas from Winter, or Winter from Christmas. They're tied together. So of course it'd have to follow the Christmas theme somewhat, hence the remakes and the Christmas title song. I think SM knew this album wasn't completely Christmas, which is why they promoted as being a Winter Album not a Christmas album. It's sort of like cheating, but you have to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    Although I will say it doesn't have the same SMy love as the last albums, I think it's pretty standard for SMTown.

  5. Whoa, I'm clearly in the minority because I don't think that SHIHNee's version of Last Christmas is bad.. at all. It's just that it's in that typical SHINee, futuristic-y, kind of style. But apart from that, you're pretty spot-on.

  6. Have you heard the last Winter SM Town way back in 2007?

    I thought SNSD's song: "Love Melody" had very Christmassy sounding verses. The chorus got too peppy, but in "Diamond" only the pre- middle 8 and the middle 8 sounded like Christmas. It's actually Hyoyeon and Sunny who do that pre middle-8 part.

    I'm also disappointed that there isn't 1 large company-wide song where everyone gets like 1-2 seconds to sing? At least make it feel like SMTown.


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