the industry

What the Holiday 100 Reveals About Our Love of Christmas Music

It’s Mariah’s world (obviously) — but Ariana and Kelly are settling into it.

Illustration: Carolyn Figel
Illustration: Carolyn Figel

Eleven years ago, trad-pop vocalist Michael Bublé released his first full album of holiday music. Simply titled Christmas, the 2011 collection was an instant blockbuster, topping the Billboard 200 album chart for five weeks and selling 2.5 million copies in its first year. The album was largely composed of standards, with the Canadian crooner wrapping his honeyed pipes around such mainstays as “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” “Jingle Bells,” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” There was only one original — a serviceable number called “Cold December Night” — and Bublé’s label Reprise didn’t even promote it as a single. What would have been the point? Standards are what Bublé does best — and back then, those warhorse songs drove the holiday-music market.

The same week Bublé’s album hit No. 1, Billboard launched a new holiday-music chart, one to track individual songs. The Holiday Songs chart used the same methodology as Billboard’s venerable Hot 100, combining track sales, radio airplay, and song streams to determine the biggest merry-season hits. Holiday Songs launched with 50 positions. On that first edition, dated December 10, 2011, the overwhelming majority was standards, from Bing Crosby to Brenda Lee. Only 14 songs were less than a quarter-century old, and fully half of those young recordings were covers of standards and hymns, like Amy Grant’s “Winter Wonderland” or Josh Groban’s “O Holy Night.” (Two of the covers were by Bublé.) That left just seven originals on the inaugural chart that were less than two decades old — and interestingly, two of those young originals were in the top-two positions: at No. 2, then-17-year-old Justin Bieber, with “Mistletoe.” And at No. 1, a track that was exactly as old as Bieber himself, first written and recorded in 1994. Yes, that song.

All these years later, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is still No. 1 on the Holiday chart, which Billboard doubled to 100 positions in 2013 and renamed the Holiday 100. In fact, in the 57 weeks the chart has existed (Billboard brings it back each December for just five or six weeks; it’s the Mallomars of charts), Carey’s chestnut has been No. 1 for 52 of them, or 91 percent of the time. It’s enough to make you wonder why Billboard needs this thing at all.

But what actually has made the Holiday 100 useful in its nearly dozen-year existence is what it reveals about Christmas music habits when we’re not listening to “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Beneath the No. 1 spot is where things get interesting — where what you might call the “Bublé versus Bieber’ dilemma actually plays out. It’s notoriously hard for any song to break into the Christmas canon, whether it’s a new composition or a reboot of an old standard. So it’s on the lower rungs of the Holiday 100 where you can observe the artists angling to be the next Christmas queen or king. And the competition is glacial: On this chart, a track that’s 10 or even 15 years old is considered a “new standard.”

Frankly, the Holiday chart is small potatoes for “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” As you might have heard, in recent years Carey’s Christmas classic has also been topping the big chart — i.e., the Hot 100, Billboard’s flagship all-genre pop chart. Every December since 2019, Carey’s “Christmas” has amassed streams, sales, and airplay so big, it’s pushed current, nonseasonal singles by the likes of Post Malone, the Weeknd, and BTS out of the way and gone to No. 1 among all hit songs. (In another week or two, I fully expect Carey to eject our current Hot 100 topper, Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero,” and settle into the No. 1 spot for a long winter’s nap.) In my previous writings and on my podcast Hit Parade, I have detailed the bespoke set of circumstances that brought about the Mariah carol’s belated triumph. Long story short, a quarter-century of methodology changes by Billboard, coupled with the explosion of streaming music post-Spotify, have conspired to make Carey’s single the preeminent digital-era holiday standard.

Since the Holiday 100 is really just a mini–Hot 100, with the same data set and overall methodology, Carey has of course dominated this chart, too — in fact, even more resoundingly, as on the Holiday chart she’s only competing with other tracks Billboard has tagged as holiday songs. What fascinates me about this slow-moving chart is watching the gradual shifts in popularity among what is largely the same set of competitors every December.

Old holiday hits do wax and wane in popularity from year to year. For example, on the very first Holiday 100 in 2011, Nat King Cole’s definitive take on the Mel Tormé standard “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)” — the song that opens, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” — ranked third among all holiday songs. It got as high as No. 2 during the 2013–14 season, but has never done quite that well since; on the latest Holiday 100, Cole’s chestnut ranks seventh. Whereas the roughly contemporaneous Dean Martin take on “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” has grown considerably over the last decade: Only ranked 31 on the 2011 Holiday chart, it got as high as No. 6 in 2019 and opens the 2022 season at a respectable No. 7. John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s peacenik sing-along “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” has fared noticeably worse: On the 2011 chart, it opened at a high-water mark of No. 9; on this week’s Holiday 100 relaunch, it only ranks 25th.

But these are all decades-old recordings. What about new, or at least newer, carols? Has anything broken through the radio-and-Spotify ice floe? The seemingly safer approach is the Bublé strategy: the umpteenth cover of a Christmas standard. Typically, this is how you sell albums. The three biggest-selling holiday albums of the 21st century — Josh Groban’s sextuple-platinum Noël, Susan Boyle’s triple-platinum The Gift, and Bublé’s now sextuple-platinum Christmas — consist largely or entirely of covers of standards. Buyers of these compact discs want a known quantity. But with CD sales decimated by the turn of the ’20s and streaming taking over the business, new versions of old standards don’t have the pop they once did — if you want to hear “The Christmas Song” on Spotify, it’s easier to hit play on Nat King Cole’s rather than try a newer version. This includes hymns: Groban’s “O Holy Night” has never climbed higher than No. 26 on the Holiday 100 and hasn’t appeared on the chart in a few years. Bublé’s standards do routinely make the Holiday 100, but only his “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” has cracked the Top 10, and only momentarily.

The higher-risk, higher-reward challenge is recording a brand-new Christmas song in hopes you’re creating the next “Last Christmas” or “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” (Remember that it took decades for the Wham! and Carey compositions, both late-20th-century entrants, to become the reliable standards they now are.) Probably my favorite holiday newbie of the last decade — and Vulture’s recent pick for the best original Christmas track since “All I Want” — is Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree,” which like Carey’s carol attempts to evoke vintage Phil Spector–era R&B and, like the Carey song, succeeds as a composition in its own right. Co-written by Clarkson with veteran songwriter-producer Greg Kurstin, “Tree” benefits from Kurstin’s sparkling production and, of course, Clarkson’s titanic voice. It sounded like a hit from the moment it arrived as the lead single of Clarkson’s 2013 Christmas collection Wrapped in Red, and over the years, it has performed very respectably. In its first holiday season, “Tree” peaked at No. 8 on the Holiday 100, and while it has never gone higher, it comes back to a reliable Top 20 berth each year. Moreover, as holiday songs have taken over the all-genre Hot 100 each December in recent years, “Tree” keeps inching higher — two years ago it got as high as No. 12 on the big chart. I’m betting on Clarkson’s “Tree” as the underestimated tortoise in the seasonal race.

I did note above that Carey’s “Christmas” has topped the Holiday chart 52 out of its 57 weeks since 2011. So what topped the chart the other five weeks? It’s a hodgepodge of four singles, three of which could be considered candidates for new-standard status. The aforementioned “Mistletoe,” by Justin Bieber, was the first song to pull off a brief Carey upset, the last week of the 2011 holiday season. Co-written by Canadians Nasri Atweh, front man of the schlocky Canuck reggae band MAGIC!, and his songwriting partner Adam Messinger, “Mistletoe” is basically a cod-reggae carol, with the gentlest of skank beats riding beneath the requisite sleigh bells that tell you this is a Christmas record. “Mistletoe” arrived at the peak of Bieber’s first wave of teen fame, when he was in the middle of a record run of No. 1 albums and blockbuster YouTube videos. (It took Bieber until the mid-’10s to age out of his boyhood stardom, win adult fans, and score regular radio hits.) “Mistletoe” topped Holiday Songs for the week ending January 7, 2012, which, thanks to Billboard’s data lag, actually reflected a flurry of tween-and-teen-fueled digital sales the week of Christmas ’11. A decade later, “Mistletoe” has a so-so legacy. It makes the Holiday 100 every year but has never come close to its peak moment — it got as high as No. 19 in 2015 and more often makes the lower rungs of the Holiday Top 40; this season, it opens at No. 41. Clearly, Justin is not going to provide a permanent respite from the Mariahpocalypse.

The next two carols to interrupt Carey’s run on top came from the same group: a cappella titans Pentatonix with “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Mary, Did You Know?” Since they broke out after winning the third season of NBC’s The Sing-Off, Pentatonix have become an unlikely pop juggernaut, scoring multiple chart-topping albums and doing especially well with holiday music. Nine years ago, they made the oft-covered, arguably awful “Little Drummer Boy” tolerable, which was enough to send it to No. 1 on the Holiday 100 for one week. A Pyrrhic victory, at best, and no one’s gonna mistake the barely avoidable “Drummer” for a new standard. Their other chart-topper, one year later, was more interesting — a cover that may as well be an original. “Mary, Did You Know?” was written in 1984 as a Contemporary Christian music track and became a modest 1991 hit for CCM artist Michael English. After that, the song had an unusual afterlife: remade as a minor 1997 country hit by Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd, a minor 2004 adult-contemporary hit by Clay Aiken, and a very brief 2012 R&B hit by CeeLo Green before finally getting remade by Pentatonix as the lead single of their 2014 double-platinum That’s Christmas to Me. Their “Mary” was the smash — topping the Holiday 100 for two weeks in 2014 (two! Mariah got paused for a whole fortnight!) and basically becoming the flagship version of the kitsch hymn. It often returns on the lower rungs of the Holiday 100 (it’s only No. 77 this week) and most years is actually outcharted by Pentatonix’s more recent cover of “Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen’s deathless standard that has been dubiously reclassified as a holiday song (Pentatonix’s take peaked at No. 2 Holiday in 2016 and is currently No. 43). In any case, Pentatonix are settling into a comfortable Bublé-like role as purveyors of multiple covers and will not break Carey’s vice grip with any one song.

So … what about the so-called Baby Mariah? Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me” has strong bones — Grande co-wrote it with frequent Max Martin collaborators Ilya Salmanzadeh and Savan Kotecha — and it holds a unique slot in the annual Christmas derby: an uptempo holiday original that actually sounds like the 21st century. Early on, it was easy to underestimate. “Santa” dates to the first phase of Grande’s post-Nickelodeon fame, appearing on a 2014 rerelease of a 2013 holiday EP called Christmas Kisses. Brand-extension holiday albums, those quickly recorded Christmas CDs churned out after a teen-pop act’s first flush of fame, are a time-honored tradition, and their songs are mostly disposable, *NSYNC’s “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays” excepted (even that song has never gone higher than No. 37 on the Holiday 100, and that was six years ago). But “Santa Tell Me” was extraordinary, with a clever lyric that doubled as both a “Yes, Virginia” parable about Saint Nick and a romantic quandary: “Santa, tell me if you’re really there / Don’t make me fall in love again / If he won’t be here next year.” In its first season, for just one week, “Santa” interrupted Carey’s run atop the Holiday 100, on the chart dated January 10, 2015. As with Bieber in 2011, that likely reflected piles of late-season digital consumption by Grande’s core fan base, which, back then, leaned teen. But the difference between “Mistletoe” and “Santa Tell Me” is how the latter comes back strongly on the Holiday 100 each year, routinely making the Top 20. For the 2022 season, Grande’s “Santa” reappears at No. 16 — one of only two 21st-century originals in the Holiday Top 20, the other being Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree” at No. 12.

Still, that’s two sparkling holiday originals from the last decade, sitting outside the Holiday Top 10, perennially stuck behind the likes of Andy Williams and Burl Ives. Neither Clarkson nor Grande is any imminent threat to Carey’s 28-year-old Christmas classic. If anything, chart nerds are keeping a closer eye on the even more venerable “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” to see if Brenda Lee — who reliably hits No. 2 every year on both the Hot 100 and the Holiday 100 — can steal a march on Mariah. But Kelly and Ariana should take heart: Two decades ago, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” began its chart life on the Hot 100 at No. 83. The game of Christmas-standard creation requires patience — and Carey has been playing the long game.

What the Holiday 100 Reveals About Our Love of Xmas Music