Why Are There No New Christmas Songs?

Dec 17, 2019
Originally published on December 17, 2019 4:09 pm

This year, Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" turns 25. Her single-item wish list seems to have been the punctuation mark on half a century in which a new, original and secular holiday song became ubiquitous every few years.

In 1979, that was Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime." In 1982, it was The Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping." 1984 gave us "Last Christmas" by Wham! and 1987 saw Run-D.M.C. rap about "Christmas in Hollis." Love these songs or hate them, chances are you know them. That's not something you can likely say about any yule-tunes written this century, but that doesn't mean people aren't writing them.

Aloe Blacc, a singer-songwriter from southern California perhaps best known for his guest vocal on Avicii's 2013 smash "Wake Me Up," had eight new songs on his 2018 album, Christmas Funk.

"It is intimidating to think about trying to write something that will stand the test of time," Blacc says, especially as he also wanted to expand the emotional palette of holiday music. "My goal was to do songs that felt sentimental from a direction that it's not usually presented from. Yeah, we want to get together and give hugs and have Christmas cheer, but there's also some family members you don't want to see during the holidays."

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Dr. Demento, a pop music historian who specializes in oddities and ephemera, likens the contraction of the Christmas playlist to an increased yearning for tradition.

"Most Americans eat pretty much the same big meal every year, turkey and all the trimmings," Dr. Demento says. "If they introduce a new recipe, people will comment about it. 'Hey, mother, what's this?' "

Speaking of new recipes, the Dallas' early '90s band Old 97's try one out in the holiday tune "Here It Is Christmas Time."

"I talk about peach pie instead of one of the more traditional Christmas desserts, so that's a little weird," Rhett Miller, the country-rock band's frontman, says. "I mention doing the dishes. I like the idea of subverting the normal Christmas clichés, but you sort of have to love them to subvert them."

He made quite a few attempts at dodging those clichés, writing nine new songs for the Old 97's album, Love the Holidays. He gets why some people roll their eyes when the Christmas songs start up, but he's willing to risk the audience's annoyance to write a song that sees its emotional currency renewed every year.

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"I really love when songs have utility and can point to milestones in people's lives," Miller says. "When songs do that for us, that's a really special thing ... I don't think there are any songs that are useful or as fraught with emotional baggage — in a good way — as Christmas and holiday songs are."

Another new holiday project, Molly Burch's The Molly Burch Christmas Album, is only the Austin-based singer-songwriter's third full-length album, holiday-related or not. But its two originals aren't pitched to the rafters the way Mariah Carey's big hit was.

"My goal was to write songs that felt like a little mix of classic holiday and also just, like, not overwhelming. And I wanted them to sound like me," Burch says.

They were also a low-pressure way to nudge herself into thinking about material for her next album — not about cracking anyone's holiday playlist.

Miller would like to have an entry in the canon, though. And he's willing to wait for it.

"A brand new Christmas song, great as it might be — and believe me, I just wrote nine fantastic ones — it's maybe going to take an entire generation for them to catch on," he says.

If that sounds far-fetched, consider that Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" just hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time ever this week.

It only seems like it's been there forever.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

After 25 years, the No. 1 song on Billboard's Hot 100 chart is Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU")

MARIAH CAREY: (Singing) I don't want a lot for Christmas. There is just one thing I need.

SHAPIRO: Thousands of new holiday songs have been released since, but none has become an enduring standard like this one. Chris Klimek reports on the challenge of trying to crack the tiny yuletide cannon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU")

CAREY: (Singing) All I want for Christmas is you.

CHRIS KLIMEK, BYLINE: Mariah Carey's single-item wish list was the punctuation mark on half a century in which a new, original secular holiday song would become ubiquitous every few years. This was 1979.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WONDERFUL CHRISTMASTIME")

PAUL MCCARTNEY: (Singing) Simply having a wonderful Christmastime.

KLIMEK: Here's 1981.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS WRAPPING")

THE WAITRESSES: (Singing) Bah humbug. No, that's too strong 'cause it is my favorite holiday.

KLIMEK: Now 1984...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST CHRISTMAS")

WHAM!: (Singing) Last Christmas, I gave you my heart.

WHAM!: ...And 1987.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS IN HOLLIS")

RUN-DMC: (Rapping) It's Christmastime in Hollis, Queens. Mom's cooking chicken and collard greens.

KLIMEK: Love these songs or hate them, you know them. It's not something you can likely say about any yule-tunes written lately, by which I mean this century. People still write them, though.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MRS. SAVED CHRISTMAS")

ALOE BLACC: This is the story about how the missis saved Christmas - Mrs. Santa Claus that is.

There's no way that Mrs. Santa Claus isn't the most important person in the room up in the North Pole, so I thought she deserved to get some shine.

KLIMEK: Aloe Blacc, a Southern California singer-songwriter who's been making records since 2003, had eight new songs on his 2018 album "Christmas Funk."

BLACC: It is intimidating to think about trying to write something that will stand the test of time.

KLIMEK: He also wanted to try to expand the emotional palette of holiday music.

BLACC: Yeah, we want to get together and have fun and give hugs and Christmas cheer. There's also, like, some family members you just don't want to see at the holidays.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T WAIT FOR CHRISTMAS")

BLACC: (Singing) I can't wait for Christmas. Ain't it written all over my face? You been swimming all in my business. Hold me back. I'm about to catch a case. Let the beat drop.

KLIMEK: Dr. Demento, a pop music historian who specializes in oddities and ephemera, likens the contraction of the Christmas playlist to an increased yearning for tradition at this time of year.

DR DEMENTO: I mean, most Americans eat pretty much the same big meal every year; turkey and all the trimmings. If they introduce a new recipe, people will comment about it. Hey, mother, what's this?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE IT IS CHRISTMASTIME")

RHETT MILLER: (Singing) Will you stop by for a piece of delicious peach pie while I tell you my yuletide wishes? You can help me do the dishes because here it is, Christmastime.

Instead of one of the more traditional Christmas desserts, I mentioned peach pie, which is a little weird.

KLIMEK: That's Rhett Miller, the front man of Old 97's, a country rock outfit formed in Dallas in the early '90s.

MILLER: So I like the idea of subverting the normal Christmas cliches. But, you know, you sort of have to love them to subvert them.

KLIMEK: He made quite a few attempts at dodging those cliches, writing nine new songs for the band's 2018 album "Love The Holidays." He gets why some people roll their eyes when the Christmas songs start up, but he's willing to risk your annoyance to write a song that sees its emotional currency renewed every year.

MILLER: I really love when songs have a utility, when songs mean something in people's lives, when they can be a part of people's lives, when they can be a touchstone. But I don't think there are any songs that are as useful or as fraught with really emotional baggage in a good way as Christmas and holiday songs are.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLIDAY DREAMING")

MOLLY BURCH: (Singing) It's the holiday season. It's the season of believing. And I'm dreaming for this reason of you.

KLIMEK: This year's Molly Burch Christmas album is only the Austin-based singer-songwriters third full-length, holiday or not. It's two originals aren't pitched to the rafters the way Mariah Carey's big hit was.

BURCH: My goal was to write songs that felt like a little mix of classic holiday, and then I wanted them to sound like me.

KLIMEK: Rhett Miller, however, would like to have an entry in the canon, and he's willing to wait for it.

MILLER: A brand-new Christmas song, as great as it might be - and I wrote nine fantastic ones - but it's going to maybe take an entire generation for them to catch on. You know, we'll see.

KLIMEK: If that sounds far-fetched, consider that Mariah Carey and "All I Want For Christmas Is You" just hit No. 1 in the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. It only seems like it's been there forever.

For NPR News, I'm Chris Klimek.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU")

CAREY: (Singing) Baby, all I want for Christmas is you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.