Why are there no new Christmas songs? Not just globs lobbed onto the annual glut of Christmas releases, but records that actually join the rotation of holiday classics. On Billboard’s Holiday Hot 100 chart right now, there’s only four songs from the past ten years that have made it to the top 50.
This week, we listen to each of these holiday hits — from Kelly Clarkson, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, and the Jonas Brothers — and ask if any of these songs can go the distance to become the 21st century’s additions to the Christmas-music canon.
Nate Sloan: Let’s start with the song that’s sitting comfortably at No. 13. It’s Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree,” originally released in 2013.
Charlie Harding: The first thing I noticed is that this is immediately drawing on all of the throwback sounds of Christmas. It’s got quarter notes on the piano, church bells, giant orchestration, and a sort of ’60s wall of sound feel with big reverberations. If you played this back-to-back with “Jingle Bell Rock,” I’d be like, Cool, same kind of deal.
Nate: I hear that Chuck and I would suggest another Christmas classic as the reference point here: “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” by Darlene Love.
Charlie: Oh my gosh, it’s the same chords.
Nate: And that was produced by Phil Spector, inventor of that wall of sound approach you were referring to.
Charlie: I’m just going to be a curmudgeon and say that I enjoy the original more than the Clarkson song it influenced.
Nate: I agree. I think if the song works at all, it’s because of those nostalgic sonic references we heard and because of Kelly Clarkson’s powerhouse vocals.
Charlie: It’s running eight years long. Let’s see.
Nate: So keep that one in your mind as we move to the song that’s sitting at No. 17 on the holiday charts. It’s Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me,” from 2014.
Charlie: That’s neat, because it has some of the timbres of old Christmas music, your glockenspiel and more traditional instruments like strings. But it’s much more contemporary in the way that it’s syncopated; it’s more rhythmically engaging. It doesn’t sort of fall on these rock-and-roll backbeat tropes.
Nate: I think you’re onto something, Charles. ’Cause when we get to the first verse, they lean even further into those modern production choices.
Charlie: That feels like a Jay-Z beat.
Nate: It’s a little bit “99 Problems,” I think.
Charlie: It’s Jay-Z meets A Christmas Carol. I never knew I wanted it, and it works. It totally works.
Nate: Okay. Let’s move a little further down the charts to No. 34, where we will encounter an old friend, Justin Bieber, and his song from 2011, “Mistletoe.”
Charlie: I’m a believer. There’s a little sleigh bells, some Jason Mraz guitar. Nate, I don’t like that song.
Nate: Wow. Very visceral reaction here.
Charlie: No, this is just a personal thing. I don’t like the sort of “Jason Mraz-y ’50s chord progressions with a reggae beat” kind of vibe. It’s just bro music to me. I’m sorry.
Nate: I hear “Mistletoe” as almost a carbon copy of the Jason Mraz “I’m Yours.” It’s got the exact same chord progression. It’s got the same guitar and the same guitar rhythm, even has similar melodic phrasing. But I would venture to say this is even cringier than “I’m Yours,” especially when we get to the chorus of “Mistletoe.” Hearing Justin Bieber sing “shorty” just kind of ruins Christmas for me.
Because you’ve been good this year, I’m going to give you one more. It’s not in the top 40. It’s currently at No. 42, but it’s a song from 2019 called “Like It’s Christmas” by a band I know you love — it’s the Jonas Brothers.
Charlie: Oh, I like this. It’s so camp. Is it a timeless classic? No, but do I enjoy anything that opens with a baritone going “boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.”
Nate: We’re so easy, Charles. But we still have a job; we have to pick which of these four songs we think is the most likely to join Mariah, Perry Como, and Bing Crosby in the annals of Christmas-music classics. Is it the Jonas Brothers, is it Bieber, is it Ariana Grande, or is it Kelly Clarkson?
Charlie: I want it to be Ariana Grande. It’s my favorite song, but it’s definitely going to be Kelly Clarkson because it so closely adheres to the Christmas formula.
Nate: So a bold prediction from our resident songwriter. I’m going to disagree. I’m going to go ahead and say that “Santa Tell Me,” by Ariana, is going to be the biggest modern hit that we’ll see, because like we were saying, it’s got that blend of modern production and kind of classic Christmas holiday cheer.
Charlie: You know, the fact that old-school hip-hop is having such a nostalgia wave right now, it makes me think that maybe you’re right. Because holiday music is all about nostalgia and as we get older, the references, which feel nostalgic, creep up in the decade. So maybe those references feel like they fit in the same world of throwback hip-hop.
Nate: We’ll have to reconvene ten Christmases from now and see it and see what has emerged in our collective listening conscience.
Charlie: I’ll see you in the podcast metaverse in ten years.