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December 10, 2013

All I want for Christmas is a new Christmas song

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. When Michael Bublé and CeeLo Green elect to cover the same tune, it can safely be called a standard.

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. 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.

What gives? 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. It seems we've just stopped embracing them. Lady Gaga released "Christmas Tree," which she wrote with Martin Kierszenbaum and Space Cowboy, 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?

That New Pornographers song, at least, is terrific. But 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, as Gaga and Coldplay and Paisley and Bieber were when they released theirs.

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. The most recent song in the top 25 was "Do They Know It's Christmas?" an all-star charity single from 1984.

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.

No wonder the best of this year's new Christmas records sound sort of old. Clarkson's Wrapped in Red marries the bounce of "All I Want for Christmas Is You" to the style of the classic A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector, first released the same day President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Of "Wrapped in Red's" five originals, I'd say that 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' holiday offering, Christmas With Love. Lewis' 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 to the graphic design of the Mad Men era.

Nick Lowe's Quality Street — which shares this year's "A Christmas album by who?" category with Kool & the Gang's brand-new-though-you'd-never-guess-it Kool for the Holidays — contributes four worthy new songs to the holiday missal: My favorite, "A Dollar Short of Happy," which Lowe co-wrote with Ry Cooder, is in the honorable 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. You might hear one of them in a Starbucks, but broad cultural buy-in ain't gonna happen.

It never happens anymore even though plenty of great artists have released great Christmas songs since Mariah first donned her Santa furs. The 10 Christmas EPs Sufjan Stevens has released (in the form of two boxed sets) since 2006 comprise more than 100 songs, dozens of them original compositions. On the whole, they're tremendous, by turns giddy and somber, insolent and reverent, capturing the whole range of complex emotions the holiday season engenders. Check out "Put the Lights on the Tree" or "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!" ("Mr. Frosty Man" is in the middle of the pack, songwise, but its zombie-splatterin' claymation video is — like the Sufjan Christmas EPs as a whole — superb counterprogramming for when you've had a few sugar cookies too many.)

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 '80s U2-style bombast with a chorus that sounds ripe for the covering by other artists. I would've loved to hear Mary J. 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," ladies and gentlemen, forever. Please just stop.) But "A Great Big Sled" has become a seasonal staple only to me, apparently.

It's a shame that A Mary Christmas, like an increasing number of holiday albums, doesn't bother to submit any new songs for our consideration. Since consumers can simply cherry-pick the songs they want, why make the effort? It's yet another way that 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 Xmas tunes on a record helped new songwriters earn some royalties, even if it was often the requisite holiday standards driving the sale. And if one of those new songs hit? Ho-ho-ho, it could be Christmas every day for the rest of your life. Stephen Colbert underlined this point in 2008's "Another Christmas Song," which has a lyric about how writing a calculated yuletide staple will help fund his retirement and concludes with the soothing words, "Copyright Stephen Colbert."

Ironically, the soundtrack album from his special A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All, is composed, save for one cover, of all originals, and they're some of the best holiday songs of the 21st century. (He and Jon Stewart duet on "Can I Interest You in Hanukkah?") They're funny, of course — but the Colbert tunes are also surprisingly relistenable, as would-be standards must be. 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," the better of the two original songs on a new holiday-themed EP from Ariana Grande, the 20-year-old singer-songwriter and actress. 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."

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