No format of music feels as culturally out of time as holiday music. Every December, radio stations that normally have playlists highly restricted in terms of both era and genre suddenly start juggling pop standards from the '40s with soul songs from the '60s, new-wave songs from the '80s and alt-rock songs from the '00s. Consequently, when you grow up listening to these songs one month out of every year (and rarely a second longer), you start feeling like they all exist on their own plane of space and time, never having originated from any specific moment or place.
That's what makes it remarkable to go back and find out exactly when all these songs first entered the Christmas canon. It seems impossible that Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime," Kurtis Blow's "Christmas Rappin'" and Elmo and Patsy's "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" all spawned from the same decade, let alone the same year, but sure enough, there they all are on the 1979 release calendar. The lineage of modern holiday music is full of such strange stockingfellows, adding up to a fascinating timeline that never coheres into an obvious narrative, but is full of enough twists and turns to make it an exhilarating sleigh ride.
To honor (and hopefully illuminate) this history, Billboard is going back through the last half-century of holiday music to choose the one song that reigns supreme in each year. Song years were determined by whenever the most famous version of the song was first widely debuted, and covers were avoided in all but the most essential circumstances. And by "holiday songs," we're sticking to songs that make specific references to Christmas, Hanukkah or other wintertime holy days -- no songs about New Years', no songs just about December, and no songs that just kinda sound festive.