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 the years 1935 to 1954, it comprised a mere 10 songs, nine of them instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever spent a December in America: Eartha sings “Santa Baby,” Bing sings “White Christmas.” (The 10th, “Christmas Island,” seems to have fallen out of favor, 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. At this writing, it’s also at No. 1 on the Holiday page of the iTunes Store. But if that irresistible candy cane of a love song, co-written by Carey and Walter Afanasieff, were a candy, uh, man, he’d be old enough to vote now. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” came out in 1994. It is, if anything, more ubiquitous now than it was then. At this time last year, a delightful video of Carey performing the song for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon while Fallon and the Roots and four moppets played and sang along on toy instruments renewed its cachet.
But what else? There hasn’t been another original holiday single 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. Despite the gigabytes of Christmas music released each year – 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 – they are, overwhelmingly, reiterating yuletide warhorses.
Which is not to say there haven’t been original Christmas songs that have received wide radio airplay. (Faith Hill’s version of “Where are you Christmas?” in 2000 comes to mind.) But none come close to supplanting the likes of Frosty and Rudolph and Little St. Nick.
What gives? Where are the new Christmas standards?
The release of holiday-themed material may no longer be de rigueur in artists’ 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?
None of those had the cultural penetration of Christmas pop originals from the generation before: Paul McCartney’s beloved and despised “Wonderful Christmastime” (1979) or Wham!’s feather-haired “Last Christmas” (1984) or Run-D.M.C.’s simply unfathomable “Christmas in Hollis” (1987). 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.
The yule canon, it seems, 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 U.S., the newest song to crack the top 10 was “Jingle Bell Rock,” from 1957.
It makes sense, sort of, that during the nostalgia-drunk holiday season, people crave old songs. But nostalgia is a deeply strange and deceitful concept. We needn’t have lived through the era of Polaroid or vinyl or Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound to feel comforted by our modern simulations of these antiquated cultural totems. And nostalgia and Christmas, at least in its secular observance, are inextricably linked.
Interestingly, some of the best holiday songs of the 21st century can be found on the soundtrack album from comedian Stephen Colbert’s special “A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All.” They’re tart but absent the bitterness that makes most song parodies instantly wearying. “There Are Much Worse Things to Believe In,” written and performed by Colbert and Elvis Costello, isn’t even all that much of a parody. In fact, it implores listeners to trade in their cynicism for sincerity.
That’s actually the same sentiment expressed in “Love Is Everything,” on a new holiday-themed EP from Ariana Grande, the 20-year-old singer-songwriter. It’s a not-bad attempt by Grande to join Mariah in the holiday hall of fame. As I write this, it’s at No. 2 on Billboard’s Holiday Digital Songs chart, right behind “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” But on the iTunes chart, it’s being beaten out by another Grande holiday track: A cover of Wham!’s “Last Christmas.”