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While foraging though a local record shop’s bargain bin recently, I ran across two Billboard compilation CDs from about a generation ago: 1989, to be exact.
The first volume of Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits was hardly comprehensive. Covering 1935 to 1954, it comprised a mere 10 songs, nine instantly recognisable – Eartha sings Santa Baby, Bing sings White Christmas. (The 10th, Christmas Island, seems to have fallen out of favour, even though Bob Dylan covered it on his 2009 puzzler Christmas in the Heart.)
The second volume had the same number of songs – including, in ascending order of heinousness, The Chipmunk Song, Nuttin’ for Christmas and Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer – but from a survey period almost twice as long, 1955 to the “present” of 1989. Ten songs for 35 years. Nine, actually, because Vol 2 includes a different version of White Christmas.
If Billboard made a similar compilation of popular Christmas songs written after 1989, what would be on it? Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You, and that’s all. It’s at No 1 on Billboard’s holiday digital songs chart this week. All I Want for Christmas Is You came out in 1994. When Michael Bublé and CeeLo Green elect to cover the tune, it can safely be called a standard.
But what else? There hasn’t been another original holiday single in the US in the 19 years since All I Want for Christmas Is You that’s had anything close to that song’s commercial or cultural impact.
Big stars making their first charge into the yule breach this year include Kelly Clarkson, Mary J Blige, and, alarmingly, the cast of Duck Dynasty. It’s up to you whether you’d rather hear Clarkson or the Robertsons of Duck Dynasty do Baby, It’s Cold Outside, but both options are available.
Where are the new Christmas standards? The release of holiday-themed material may no longer be de rigueur in artists’ recording contracts, but it isn’t as though big pop names have stopped writing Christmas songs. We’ve just stopped embracing them. Lady Gaga released Christmas Tree in 2008. It’s wretched, but at least it wasn’t another cover of Santa Baby. Coldplay’s Christmas Lights, from 2010, is terrible, too, but you’d expect them just to do Happy Xmas (War Is Over), right?
Gaga and Coldplay are two of the biggest acts of the 21st century. Do you remember either of those songs? Or Brad Paisley’s 364 Days to Go from 2006? Or Justin Bieber’s Mistletoe from only two years ago? Or the New Pornographers’ Joseph, Who Understood?, from 2007, which spares a thought for a guy who might not have found the Immaculate Conception quite so miraculous?
But none of those had the cultural penetration of Christmas pop originals from the generation before: Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime (1979) or Wham!’s Last Christmas (1984). Love ’em or hate ’em, these songs get played year after year, and they all came from artists who were at or near the height of their fame when they released them, as Gaga and Coldplay and Paisley and Bieber were when they released theirs.
The yule canon isn’t just closed – it’s a location-undisclosed black site that’s locked down tighter than Santa’s workshop. In 2006, when the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers released a list of the most-performed holiday songs in the US, the newest song to crack the top 10 was Jingle Bell Rock, from 1957. The most recent song in the top 25 was Do They Know It’s Christmas? an all-star charity single from 1984.
No wonder the best of this year’s new Christmas records sound old. Clarkson’s Wrapped in Red marries the bounce of All I Want for Christmas Is You to the style of A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, released the day Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Of Wrapped in Red’s five originals, at least the title track and Underneath the Tree have reasonable odds of remaining in the yuletide rotation five years from now.
So does One More Sleep, the original lead-off track from Leona Lewis’s holiday offering, Christmas With Love. Lewis’s album has fewer new songs than Clarkson’s, but their sound is even more self-consciously Spector-y: its second track is a Winter Wonderland that’s almost indistinguishable from Darlene Love’s version of 50 years earlier. Its cover art, too, is a throwback.
Nick Lowe’s Quality Street – which shares this year’s “A Christmas album by who?” category with Kool & the Gang’s Kool for the Holidays – contributes four worthy new songs to the holiday missal: my favourite, A Dollar Short of Happy, which Lowe co-wrote with Ry Cooder, is in the honourable tradition of forlorn yule standards like Charles Brown’s Please Come Home for Christmas. But they’re all too subtle to stand a chance of breaking through.
The 10 Christmas EPs Sufjan Stevens has released since 2006 comprise more than 100 songs, many of them original compositions. On the whole, they’re tremendous, by turns giddy and sombre, insolent and reverent.
The Killers have released an original Christmas charity single every year since 2006, an admirable custom even if none of them have been as great as the first, A Great Big Sled. It’s a bell-ringing, hall-decking specimen of Eighties U2-style bombast with a chorus that sounds ripe for the covering by other artists. I would’ve loved to hear Blige belt out this song on her new collection, A Mary Christmas, instead of sticking to the overfished dozen she’s recorded. (We’re good on The Little Drummer Boy, forever. Please just stop.)
It’s a shame A Mary Christmas doesn’t bother to submit new songs. Since consumers can cherry-pick the songs they want, why make the effort? It’s yet another way the iTunes-YouTube era’s commercial imperatives have altered the aesthetics of music making: once upon a time, consumers had to purchase a full album to get the version of Silent Night they craved. So a handful of original Christmas tunes on a record helped new songwriters earn some royalties.
And if one of those new songs hit? Ho-ho-ho, it could be Christmas every day for the rest of your life. – Washington Post