Illustration: Carolyn Figel
In 2017, Berklee musicologist Joe Bennett published a lighthearted study on commonalities in the music and lyrics of Christmas songs. Written with a Santa-like wink, Bennett posited that the “ultimate Christmas song” would likely include some variation of his findings: A whopping 95 percent of the surveyed tracks were in a major key, and 90 percent were in the 4/4 time signature that echoes clopping horses and jangling sleigh bells. Home, romance, family, and the usual trappings of Christmas were also in the lyrical mix, with words like snow, party, and Santa cropping up.
Unsurprisingly, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” considered the peak of modern Christmas music, checks all of Bennett’s boxes. Combining the vibe of a lost track from 1963’s A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector with the production of a mid-’90s pop song, the lovelorn open letter helped land the octave-vaulting Carey the unofficial title of “Queen of Christmas.” The single has since become synonymous with the season, and has topped the Holiday 100 for 52 weeks, since the chart began in 2011. (It’s already re-entered the Hot 100 this year, landing at No. 25 on the November 26 chart.) Meanwhile, Carey has so embraced the Queen of Christmas ideal — this despite a recent legal ruling denying her a trademark of the title — that her November 1 videos where she trills “It’s tiii-iimmme!” have become the unofficial seasonal kickoff.
Yes, “All I Want” is indeed wonderful. But its 28-year reign over charts and hearts has meant that other, more modern Christmas tracks have been relegated to lower ranks of holiday playlists, despite their merit. If “All I Want” were a car, the almost three-decade-old tune would have graduated from classic to antique by now, putting it in the company of Wham!’s “Last Christmas” (38 years old) or Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” (42). Consider the following 50 songs, including another from the queen herself, the new classics — those Christmas tunes created in the last quarter-century that have the potential to become holly, jolly staples. Nearly every one fulfills Bennett’s basic criteria for an ideal holiday track (some better than others), but only one has the commercial appeal and ear worm potential to compete against the queen herself.
Thanksgiving has “Alice’s Restaurant”; Christmas has “Snaildartha.” This 2004 composition tells the tale of Jerry the Christmas Snail, whose search for enlightenment leads him to the North Pole and a surprising revelation about who he is at his core. (It’s based on the story of the Buddha, hence the title.) Written by Minneapolis-based composer Chris Strouth, narrated by comedian Matt Fugate, and performed by a loose-limbed jazz combo that includes saxophonist George Cartwright, “Snaildartha” is a 45-ish-minute investment that gets even better with repeated listenings. Its vibe makes it an ideal lazy Christmas Day soundtrack, and its story is a balm for existentially troubled holiday revelers. Could the Snaildartha 6 wear a crown fit for Mariah Carey, though? Likely not, thus its spot at No. 50.
Since its release in 1977, Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” has been one of power pop’s greatest achievements, a rollicking riff with some genuine longing on the part of frontman Robin Zander. This Yuletide re-skinning of the song isn’t the most original Christmas tune out there; the realization that “to want me” and “for Christmas” had a similar cadence probably caused a lot of high-fiving in the studio. But the way it channels its source material’s carnality does echo the more gift-receiving-centric songs of the season.
SoCal punks the Vandals’ entry to the Christmas-song canon is a punchy fable about a Christmas Day clash between a punk and a skinhead where the good guys win. Fellow Golden Staters No Doubt covered this cut for 1997’s A Very Special Christmas 3, but Dave Quackenbush’s vocal on the original gives the final proclamation from God — “Oi to the punks and Oi to the skins / But Oi to the world and everybody wins” — an extra shove.
This melancholic ballad feels like a 21st-century update of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”; it’s part-holiday song, part-elegy for the singer-songwriter’s mother, who she had spent every holiday with before her passing in 2017. While the way Michaelson’s voice breaks on the line “They say time flies, and baby, it’s true” is a gut-punch, the string-laden track grapples with grief in a way that is suffused with love.
Nash’s repertoire is studded with catchy, biting songs about rocky moments in romantic relationships. The crunchy, punky opening track on her first Christmas EP is no different, with its first verse depicting an office-party-drunk Nash walking in on her boyfriend and best friend getting it on. Her vitriol is punctuated by some real-life worries — how’s she going to tell her mom about this? — that only make her cresting anger more righteous, and more sing-along-ready, a crucial attribute for an “All I Want” successor.
A scruffy ode to service-industry workers who are obligated to spend their festive season taking care of customers (in this case, a movie theater attended by “15 soggy patrons who have nowhere to be”), this offering from Seattle’s Harvey Danger is a tenderly rendered set piece about the holidays’ less-glamorous corners capped by a spat-out chorus and a shimmying, giddy breakdown.
This breezy soul-pop cut has longing for love at its core — “Just keep followin’ the North Star / It’ll light the way crystal clear,” JoJo instructs her missing paramour — but its simmering beat and JoJo’s honey-dipped vocal are cheer-inducing enough to make this song feel downright festive.
The narrator of this chugging indie-pop cut has received an entirely unpleasant surprise for the holidays: her no-good ex, who’s shown up “in Christmas stockings (how shocking!)” to make the case for crawling back into her good graces. Long Blondes vocalist Kate Jackson’s steely alto is exquisite at conveying battle-of-the-sexes-borne disgust, telling her ex in no uncertain terms that the prospect of watching the queen on TV while having some solo fish and chips is a much better present than any reconciliation. It’s almost the opposite of ‘All I Want,” an admirable stance for a new classic to take.
This shimmering ode to a stubbornly non-blooming plant that’s supposed to come into flower is a great metaphor for dashed holiday hopes — although Hatfield, whose recent run of songwriting productivity led to this track about an actual plant of hers, is pretty Zen about the whole thing. “I have faith that someday it may bloom,” Hatfield told the Boston Globe in 2020. “But if it doesn’t, that’s okay, too.”
Danish collective Alphabeat specialized in time-suspended dance-pop that was relentlessly cheery even as vocalists Stine Bramsen and Anders Stig Gehrt Nielsen described longing and sadness. Their 2012 Christmas single is all about stoking merriment, though; Bramsen’s laser-beam soprano intertwines with Nielsen’s affable voice as they welcome the world to their party over pillowy synths.
The TikTok-beloved indie-pop band’s first Christmas single is a hooky throwback to the call-me-maybe era, with Lili Trifilio longing to hear the voice of an ex: “We can pretend the holiday antics / Give us an excuse to speak,” she suggests over choppy riffs and snow-flecked synths. She doesn’t get an answer — the doo-doo-doo’s that close out the song suggest that she’s figured out ways to distract herself — but the song’s sweetness and longing make it hard not to root for her. It’s one of the younger classics on the list, so it still has room to rise.
The late-2010s resurgence of the Monkees resulted in a pair of albums helmed by the late Adam Schlesinger that showed how the Prefab Four had influenced so many modern pop masters. Christmas Party, the 2018 release that wound up being the Monkees’ final album, included tracks penned by Rivers Cuomo and Andy Partridge alongside familiar cuts. “Christmas Party,” written by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Young Fresh Fellows’ Scott McCaughey and sung by Micky Dolenz, is a sun-dappled bit of psych-pop that channels the band’s later-period experimental side as it describes a party with such a lengthy guest list that the band’s former foil Auntie Grizelda snagged an invite.
Aimee Mann and Ted Leo describe holiday-season ennui in painstaking detail on this gently glum guitar-pop cut, which showcases their collective songwriting prowess in impressive fashion. Lesser songwriters would have their depictions of holiday loneliness descend into self-pity, but Mann and Leo instead sigh and “turn the radio on and wait for somеone to sing me through.”
Lizzo’s pre-megafame holiday song celebrates how the Yuletide season can double as cuffing season. Listening to this seven years after its release shows how fully formed the Minneapolis singer, rapper, flautist, and mogul’s aesthetic was even then through how she balances honesty (in the old days, “I would rather paint my nails and watch some bad TV” while others were celebrating) with her overwhelming charisma and powerhouse voice.
Throughout their career, Britpop heirs the 1975 have been refining their human-condition observations. But their peppy entry into the holiday-song canon, which appeared on this year’s Being Funny in a Foreign Language, shows how their trenchant observations have a beating heart at their core. A brisk whirl through overheard family conversations about logistics and gossip that sonically recalls early-’80s modern-rock holiday offerings like Squeeze’s “Christmas Day,” it illustrates how exhausting yet gratifying going home for the holidays can be: “It’s Christmas so this is gonna be a nightmare / I just came for the stuffing, not to argue about nothing / But mark my words, I’ll be home on the 23rd,” Healy vows near the song’s end, belying his enjoyment of the sometimes-exasperating times.
This mid-2000s cut by the Swedish disco duo of Sally Shapiro and Johan Agebjörn is an icy synth-dance ode to an out-of-reach crush Shapiro met at a concert. The outro, where Shapiro repeats “Don’t go, don’t go” as if she’s trying to beam it into her affection object’s brain, is hypnotic enough to be worthy of its own remix. (For the record, Mariah’s “All I Want for Christmas” got its own official remix in 2003, with Jermaine Dupri and Bow Wow.)
Being a relatively new genre, hip-hop came late to the Christmas-music game; Kurtis Blow’s 1979 cut “Christmas Rappin’” was the first rap song to come out on a major label, while Run-D.M.C.’s 1987 “Christmas in Hollis” was the first to really break on pop radio thanks to its joyous video and pumping beat. But making inroads into the canon hasn’t been easy, despite legitimately great songs like Outkast’s “Player’s Ball” and other entries in this countdown. (In fact, the season-ending edition of Billboard’s Christmas 100 includes zero hip-hop songs. Blame the way adult-contemporary radio, the onetime home of “all of the hits, none of the rap,” has colonized the holiday space, as well as the way “holiday” is synonymous with “tradition” in the minds of those station’s programmers.)
Never one to be daunted by what people might think, Lil Jon entered the holiday-song fray in 2018 with this thrashy holiday-party starter. In a 2019 interview with Entertainment Weekly, the crunk pioneer admitted he’d had it kicking around his files “for a while,” but it didn’t fully come together until the sugar-water pushers at Kool-Aid approached him about a collaboration. It’s not solemn by any means, but the sheer glee conjured by Lil Jon’s feisty bark being juxtaposed with the Kool-Aid Man’s rumbling “Oh yeahhhs” over a manic ‘00s-channeling beat will put a smile on even the most eggnog-devoted partygoer’s face.
Low’s 1999 EP Christmas is one of the many highlights of the slowcore pioneers’ lengthy catalogue, with versions of “Blue Christmas” and “Silent Night” as well as originals like the stark “Taking Down the Tree” and rueful “If You Were Born Today (Song for Little Baby Jesus).” On the opener, drummer-vocalist Mimi Parker (who passed away earlier this month at age 55) recalls a trip through Scandinavia; the track’s distortion-aided guitars and insistent beat give the journey a youthful wonder, with Parker’s repeated refrain “It was just like Christmas” magnifying that feeling.
“You know Christmas? Was made for the children — Destiny’s children,” Kelly Rowland proclaims over synthesized brass bleats at the outset of 8 Days of Christmas, the fourth album from Destiny’s Child, which mostly gives ’00s makeovers to well-worn classics. But it’s the title track, an update of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” that shows off DC’s innovative approach to pop-R&B, adding a dizzying pre-chorus and jubilant refrain to the original’s day-by-day rundown, and putting Chloë shades and a Mercedes-Benz CLK Class on the same level as back rubs and “quality T-I-M-E.” By the end, the trio gets to flaunt its collective prowess on a fluttering bridge before Beyoncé takes center stage for some prime early-career vocalizing. Who wouldn’t be crazy in love after receiving gifts that balanced the beautifully thoughtful with the extremely expensive?
Downtown funk collective !!! gets down for the holidays on this cut, with frontman Nick Offer channeling his new-wave crooner side as he recounts how he laid down his feelings one Christmas: “I’ve been ’round the world / Seen all kinds of girls / But I’ve seen nothing better / Than you in that sweater,” he sighs. She’s since disappeared into the ether like the track’s closing arpeggios, but the memories — and !!!’s dance-floor-ready grooves — remain.
Billy Corgan’s plaintive wail lends itself to being surrounded by grandiosity, as Smashing Pumpkins songs like “Disarm” and “Tonight, Tonight” have shown. While the alt-rock survivor and wrestling promoter has a reputation for being a bit of a grouch, this cut from 1997’s A Very Special Christmas 3 is by no means Grinchy; instead, it’s a straight-up celebration of the season, a family portrait of excited kids and loving parents that’s given a fireside glow by the orchestration of storied arranger Arif Mardin.
A “Carol of the Bells” flip is the basis for the Wu-Tang member’s 2008 holiday offering, where he uses his flair for description and rhyme to depict Christmas scenes — “Sisters and brothers, sliding down garbage can covers / Snowball fights, eggnog splashed with Hennessy” — while reminding listeners that, like Santa, Ghostface knows if they’ve been bad or good.
Britpop girl group the Pipettes channel their forebears on this giddy, dimestore-synth-studded track, which has plush harmonies, a triumphant key change, and even a declaration of love to the red-suited toy-toter.
This windswept, heartbroken ballad about Christmastime loneliness puts Swae Lee’s raw emotion at its center. Its simply stated lyrics are given extra oomph by the Rae Sremmurd rapper and singer’s wide-open vowels, particularly when he wails “Holiday’s been quiet / Holiday’s pretty quiet” at the end of the first verse.
Reveling in holiday-season lassitude, this piano-and-jingle-bell-accompanied track recounts a Christmas day spent under the covers with a loved one. Marie Ulven’s romanticism is in full force here, and the sing-song vocal melody and crisp production make “two queens” a sweet soundtrack to anyone using the holidays as an excuse to turn in and get close. (Ironically, this bedroom-based track was the first one Ulven worked on with an outside producer.)
On “Believe,” country-pop singer Cam reflects on Christmas as a time to dig in and summon optimism. The song has a minimalist arrangement — highlighted by a spectral slide guitar — and crystalline vocal harmonies, which add a glow to its message of hope for better days ahead.
The Celtic new-age master released her holiday-themed album And Winter Came … in 2008, and while all of its tracks were new Enya compositions, “White Is in the Winter Night” has a timeworn feeling, with Enya’s halting vocals making it seem like she’d plucked it from a local choir’s repertoire, which justifies its spot in the top half of this list.
Soul belter DRAM’s lone original entry on his 2017 Christmas EP #1EpicHoliday is a woozily romantic ode to getting down for the holidays. Showing off the splendor of his falsetto, DRAM weaves around strings and jingle bells as he describes his dreams of a mistletoe kiss blossoming into a long fire-lit evening.
Boy bands and holiday tie-in records go together like gingerbread men and really, really sweet icing. *NSYNC’s biggest hit from its 1998 holiday album Home for Christmas might be most remembered for its vibes — particularly on the post-bridge breakdown, where the five teen idols have their repetition of the titular phrase bolstered by the gospel choir Voices of Praise. It’s a cheery flourish that doesn’t quite catapult this new classic to the top 20.
In 2018, hip-hop auteur Tyler, the Creator contributed two songs, including his interpretation of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” to that year’s animated retelling of the Grinch’s story. He was so inspired by the dastardly Dr. Seuss character, he went on to release an EP of self-penned songs that included this entertaining careening boast, which is filled with references to his childhood and hip-hop peers.
Gaga’s entry into the holiday-music catalogue is a Frankenstein-ed synth-pop cut that brings together some of her early-career signature moves — herky-jerky synths, sung-spoken-vocals, awkward double entendres (“My Christmas tree’s delicious,” she declares at one point) — and melodies borrowed from “Deck the Halls.” It’s no “Bad Romance,” but it does show how her avant-pop was on the verge of leveling up.
This sulking, sinuous track by D.C. indie rockers Tuscadero holds up decades after its release. The vintage synth accompanying its dour verses adds a dose of seasonally appropriate gloom, while its shout-along chorus allows any listener to yelp “Merry this and happy that” with enough venom to fill a fireplace’s battalion of stockings.
Christmas-loving pop spitfire Musgraves’s bright soprano and R&B belter Bridges’s wail prove to be great foils for each other on this country-soul cut, where two star-crossed lovers lament being apart during the holiday season over vintage organs and swooping strings.
Tegan and Sara Quin have been refining their lovelorn pop for nearly a quarter-century, and their contribution to the soundtrack for the 2020 romcom Happiest Season shows how their pop studies translate to the Christmas-song ideal. This collaboration with songwriter Alex Hope (who produced the track) outlines a wishlist with one person on it, and its insistent chorus is cushioned by dreamy atmospherics.
Chance the Rapper and Jeremih’s collaborative holiday mixtape Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama, which was originally surprise-released in 2016 then expanded to a two-disc version in 2017, featured top-notch collaborations between the two Second City legends, who were backed by beats from producers like Francis and the Lights, the Social Experiment, and Zaytoven. The 2020 re-reissue opens with this laconic solo Chance track (Jeremih was in the hospital after contracting COVID) in which he lays down a series of boast-tinged nicknames for himself over a loose, jazz-tinged beat.
Since 2006, the Las Vegas pop-rockers have released a slew of Christmas songs in varying styles: 2010’s “Boots” is grand yet pensive, tracing the inner monologue of a wayward son who’s been welcomed home for the holidays; the trilogy of 2007’s “Don’t Shoot Me Santa,” 2012’s “I Feel It in My Bones,” and 2015’s Richard Dreyfuss–assisted “Dirt Sledding” chronicles a complex relationship between Santa and a “clean living boy”; and 2009’s Mariachi El Bronx collaboration “¡Happy Birthday Guadalupe!” is a brightly hued holiday love song. But the band’s first offering, released in 2006, is the star on its tree; it has the Old West synth-pop vibe of that year’s Sam’s Town, while the cameo from Toni Halliday of the British electro-gaze legends Curve provides a sweetly chilly counterpoint to Brandon Flowers’s wail.
The trio of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley gets saucy about Santa on this flirtatious offering from their 2021 Christmas album Hell of a Holiday. Is three Christmas queens better than one? Maybe not, but we’re getting there.
Thorn’s songwriting and resonant alto distill bittersweet moments into pop gems. This gleaming track from her Christmas album of the same name captures the memory of a romantic holiday to New York like a snow globe — frozen in time, glittery when shaken up, and isolated from the crueler, less sparkly world, which is filled with “things about how the time goes / That we’d rather not know.”
Enuff Z’Nuff were one of the hard-rock era’s more underrated acts, and “Happy Holiday” wraps their appeal up in shiny paper. Lead singer Donniie Vie’s rasp gives this chiming yet robust cut an air of wistfulness, his harmonies with band namesake Chip Z’Nuff add an extra tinge of poignancy, and the guitar heroics by Derek Frigo crack open the song’s heart just in time for its outro.
We’ve reached the Taylor Swift segment of the ranking. The 2020 diptych of folklore and evermore showed Swift spreading her songwriting wings, and this track — written from the perspective of someone who’s mulling over a holiday fling with a long-ago ex — is one of her best recent offerings. Its potent cocktail of false nostalgia and present-day bitterness makes for an emotionally resonant cut that shows how going home for Christmas can sometimes be about taking a trip to one’s past self. It’s the kind of simple but effective Christmas storytelling, coming from a beloved crooner, that’s capable of cracking the top 10 new classics.
Soul belter Sharon Jones told Interview in 2014 that she wrote this strutting cut in a 3 a.m. burst of creativity. Its lyrics, which tell the story of a young girl confused over how Santa Claus will get into her apartment, possess the wit and knowing that made the late Jones such a dynamic force in 21st-century R&B.
As holiday-tour stalwarts Trans-Siberian Orchestra have been proving for a quarter-century, Christmas music and over-the-top rock pomp are a well-matched pair. Another example of this seasonal synergy: this 2003 Christmas single from British giggly-glam outfit the Darkness. Vocalist Justin Hawkins and his bandmates throw themselves fully into a song that’s equal parts poignant and impudent, with its wordplay on the British slang term “bellend” and Hawkins’s mighty falsetto giving cover to Boxing Day loneliness.
The “awkward family times” subgenre of Christmas music has been resurgent in recent years, although it’s been turning out crowd-pleasers since Worcester DJ Bob Rivers launched the kvetching “The Twelve Pains of Christmas” in 1986. Leave it to Carly Rae Jepsen to turn home-for-the-holidays tension into a sticky-sweet ode to Yuletide angst. Within its subgenre it’s downright pleasant, all things considered — after all, getting Grandma accidentally high is much nicer than toasting her being run over by a reindeer.
Sia’s high-concept pop helped define radio during the 2010s, and her first holiday album Everyday Is Christmas, which she worked on with pop guru Greg Kurstin, sounds very of the decade. The Australian singer-songwriter’s yawp was one of the era’s most prominent voices, but songs like the slow-burning title track and the strutting “Sunshine” could, with some lyrical tweaks, have fit in on top-40 playlists. The opener, “Santa’s Coming for Us,” has a slightly menacing title, but it’s actually meant in a nice way. Its “Cheap Thrills”–recalling bounce soundtracks Sia getting amped for the big man’s eventual arrival.
If you’re going to c’mon and ride the Christmas train back to the ’90s, this Miami bass-posse cut is the ideal soundtrack. It has a galloping electro beat, liberal use of vocoders, and multiple riffs on “The 12 Days of Christmas” that include wishes for “ten-karat gold,” “nine Sega tapes,” and “five months’ free rent.” (Who among us, etc.)
In 2013, Ariana Grande released Christmas Kisses, an EP consisting of two pop-R&B originals co-written by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and two covers, including a vocal-run-studded take on Wham!’s chestnut “Last Christmas.” For its 2014 Japanese reissue, she tacked on the self-penned Christmas song “Santa Tell Me,” an effervescent cut written from the perspective of someone who was “sort of … fed up with Santa because he doesn’t necessarily pull through all the time.” She’s speaking, of course, of Christmas’ top gift-bestower not being able to prevent her from falling in love: “Santa, tell me if you’re really there / Don’t make me fall in love again / If he won’t be here next year,” she pouts, although her acrobatic vocal performance and some extremely vigorous synth hits keep the song from being too downcast.
Since then, Grande has stayed in the spirit by releasing her woozy second holiday EP Christmas & Chill, dueting with Idina Menzel and Kelly Clarkson, playing girl-group belter alongside Mariah Carey and Jennifer Hudson (more on that in a bit), and collaborating with Megan Thee Stallion and Jimmy Fallon on the pro-booster 2021 bounce “It Was a … (Masked Christmas).” But “Santa Tell Me,” with its sweet pleading and retro stylings, still shines brightly as Ari’s boldest attempt at positioning herself as Mariah’s one true heir.
The Raveonettes wound up being one of the coolest acts to come out of the early-’00s rock explosion. Their blend of shoegaze, proto-rock, Wall of Sound pop, and black-leather-clad attitude — with a crucial dash of nostalgia-dappled romanticism — has made their catalog stand the test of time. Their first holiday song, which came out on the heels of their debut Chain Gang of Love, only adds to the duo’s bona fides. As Wagner told Interview in 2008, “I always enjoyed Christmas and especially [songs] by Nat King Cole, the Everly Brothers, the Beach Boys, and Bing Crosby, to name a few. I think we have a certain nostalgia in our music which translates really well into Christmas epics.” Combining fuzzed-out surf guitars with simply expressed longing (“I wish that I could walk / I wish that I could walk / You home,” Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo sing on the bridge), it’s a brief distillation of how holiday-season brightness can enhance deep-seated yearning. The song blended the modern with the classic so well that Ronettes leader Ronnie Spector approached the duo about writing a song for a Christmas album she was working on in the early ’00s; that album never came to pass, but the Raveonettes recorded the track, the sweetly shimmering “Christmas Ghosts,” for their 2008 EP Wishing You a Rave Christmas.
In 2011, the R&B smoothie Lloyd was at a crossroads. His debut album, King of Hearts, contained showcases for his soaring voice, including bubbly wide-eyed love songs like “Cupid,” club-ready cuts like the sinuous “Bang!!!!” (which featured an early guest verse from 2 Chainz, then credited as Tity Boi), and the play for “Fuck You”–like infamy “Dedication to My Ex (Miss That),” which was bolstered by cameos from André 3000 and Lil Wayne. But pop’s early-2010s embrace of electropop and casting aside of R&B resulted in the disappearance of Lloyd’s crossover airplay, which led to 2000s top 20 hits like the windswept “You” and the punchy “Get It Shawty.”
At least “She’s All I Want for Christmas,” which came out at the end of 2011, gave a joyful cap to Lloyd’s year. The Polow Da Don-produced romp calls back to the brass-heavy Christmas cuts released by the likes of James Brown, the Jackson 5, and Stevie Wonder while also having a 21st-century edge. “I guess I have been stuck in the ’60s lately,” Lloyd told Global Grind shortly after the single’s release. It’s a good place for Lloyd to be: His giddy vocal turbo-charges his rundown of his romantic wishlist, while the bubbly beat and crisp brass surrounding him make his promises of “a lot to give” sound like a pile of fun. That was Lloyd’s aim: “I grew up listening to all these people sing songs that really gave me a really good feeling every time I heard [them] … [I wanted to] give the people of my generation that same feeling that I got, but their own.”
The wild success of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” made Carey automatically associated with Christmas. But as the 2010s rolled around, she really started to lean into the Yuletide season being the Time of Mariah: She headlined her first Christmas residency at the Beacon Theatre, directed the Lacey Chabert–starring Hallmark Christmas movie A Christmas Melody, and developed an animated flick around her signature Xmas classic. (Thanks to switched-up chart rules, the rise of streaming, and the large swath of radio stations flipping to all-holiday music, “All I Want” finally hit the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100 in 2019.)
Part of this original ramp-up was 2010’s Merry Christmas II You, Carey’s second Christmas album. Its lead single, “Oh Santa!,” which Carey wrote with longtime collaborators Bryan-Michael Cox and Jermaine Dupri, was a different type of throwback: It was more uptempo than “You,” and its girl-group vibe (which was provided by Carey’s layered vocals) was complemented by a chant that recalled hip-hop pioneers like L’Trimm. Think of it as the spiritual B-side to her original Christmas chestnut — a comparison that Carey invited when she released a mash-up of the two. By 2020, she was headlining the Apple TV+ extravaganza Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special, a star-studded show that featured a Mariah-produced remake of “Oh Santa!” with Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande filling out the song’s previously theoretical vocal trio. “I enjoyed it as a producer and a songwriter,” Carey told EW in 2019. “I layered it and made it my own girls’ group when I first did it, and to reinvent that song with these incredible women was a very special moment.” She might have been denied the “Queen of Christmas” trademark, but “Oh Santa!” is a reminder that she’ll hold that title no matter what the courts say.
Mariah Carey isn’t the only one giving Mariah Carey a run for her crown. Enter: Kelly Clarkson. Every year, there’s more proof that American Idol should have just called it off after its first season — not because of the show itself, but because of the way Clarkson, who won the televised singing contest’s inaugural season, has proven herself to be the ultimate pop star with her up-for-anything attitude and powerhouse voice.
Wrapped in Red, Clarkson’s 2013 holiday album, was another example of Clarkson nailing the pop-star ideal. She duetted with Reba and Trisha, covered the solemn “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and the cheeky “Run Run Rudolph,” and even snuck in an Imogen Heap cover. “In my career, especially since Idol, everyone’s like, ‘Are you pop? Are you country? Are you rock?’ I think that’s what’s cool about the Christmas record — I didn’t have to pick,” Clarkson, whose battles for creative control with her then-label RCA had racked up headlines in the late ’00s, said during a 2013 appearance on Today.
One of the originals on the record, the Clarkson/Greg Kurstin co-write “Underneath the Tree,” has all the right elements: chiming sleigh bells, sound-bolstering backup singers, lyrics that outline her loneliness. (At the time of its release, she was married to Brandon Blackstock — who inspired the track “Winter Dreams (Brandon’s Song) — but she noted on Today that she’d been alone for six and a half years before that, thanks to the vagaries of pop-star life.) “Underneath the Tree” doesn’t reinvent the Christmas-song template, but its willingness to revel in tradition while showcasing modern pop’s sparkle is a big part of why it’s the most worthy heir to “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”