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.
Read on to celebrate 50 years of pop music underneath the tree with us, and check out our Spotify playlist of all of ’em at the very bottom.
1967: Stevie Wonder, “What Christmas Means to Me”
With bells dusting snow over a syrupy Motown groove, this highlight of Stevie Wonder’s 1967 holiday set Someday at Christmas became a deserved (and oft-covered) holiday radio classic. Bursting with adolescent energy, the song catches a teenage Stevie caught in between kiddie enthusiasm for carols and tree decorations and adult fixation with getting under the mistletoe at all costs.
Also Worth Remembering: The lullaby arrangement and circular melodies of Roger Miller’s “Old Toy Trains” make it a worthy ’67 runner-up, while The Royal Guardsmen’s joyous novelty hit “Snoopy’s Christmas” gives the ongoing musical saga between its title hero and the Red Baron an appropriately mushy holiday denouement.
1968: Clarence Carter, “Back Door Santa”
A trio of soul standards makes 1968 a stiff competition, with the burbling zamboni-organ riff of Otis Redding’s definitive “Merry Christmas Baby” rendition having a snowball fight with the sprightly boogie (and underpinning urgency) of James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto,” and the leering horns of Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa.” Tough choice, but only one of these songs was sampled for the definitive hip-hop Christmas song two decades later, and only one of ’em offers pop’s first great pun about Santa only coming once a year.
1969: The O’Jays, “Christmas Ain’t Christmas, New Years Ain’t New Years Without the One You Love”
A relatively light year on classics, with the O’Jays easily skating to victory with this buoyant early Gamble and Huff production, which manages to stay light on its feet despite its long and over-explainy title — wisely chopped in half for later reissues.
Also Worth Remembering: Isaac Hayes’ “The Mistletoe and Me” has some draw with its hypnotic crawl, but given the kind of hot-buttered epics that Hayes was cranking out at the time, it’s also the rare holiday song that could probably stand to be about ten minutes longer.
1970: Donny Hathaway: “This Christmas”
An absolute monster year, encompassing Jose Feliciano’s masterpiece of bilingual seasonal effervescence “Feliz Navidad,” The Carpenters’ melancholy classic (a.k.a. The Carpenters’ Carpentersy Carpenters song) “Merry Christmas Darling” and the entirety of the Jackson 5 Christmas Album (including their timeless versions of the judgmental staple “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and the psychosexual perennial “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”). Yet they’re all competing for second place behind the heart-filling season’s greetings of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” whose drum fills feel like warm hugs and whose bonus coda is as welcome as a 13th day of XMas.
Also Worth Remembering: 1970 just keeps going — don’t sleep on a couple of pissed-off, Vietnam-era holiday soul burners in The Staple Singers’ “Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas” and James Brown’s “Hey America.”
1971: Joni Mitchell, “River”
A couple rock legends vie for the 1971 crown, as John Lennon’s benchmark holiday protest single (“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”) squares off against Joni Mitchell’s standard-setter for December despair (“River”). Lennon’s is certainly the more conventionally Christmas song, with its chant-along chorus and Phil Spector-summoned downfall of sleigh bells and reverb, but nobody messes with Joni when it comes to conjuring the holiday blues that make you want to squirrel away in your chimney until the start of Spring Training. (Just look at the album cover.)
1972: Leon Russell, “Slipping Into Christmas”
A particularly dusty late-night Christmas ballad emerges as 1972’s finest, its guitar slides reverberating with such beer-soaked loneliness that you can practically hear the bar owner preparing to announce last call. Plus, the impossibly bluesy way Russell enunciates his “sliiiiiding into New Years’” refrain makes all of this generation’s DM-slitherers look like the half-steppers that they truly are. (Not to be confused with longtime collabor Elton John’s “Step Into Christmas” — released a year later, and a tad too predictable by comparison.)
1973: Slade, “Merry Christmas Everybody”
A year for British smashes that never quite made it stateside: U.K. rock chartbusters Slade led the way with the barnstorming “Merry Christmas Everybody,” with pounding piano and a hoarse-throated chorus that treated the holidays as something you drunkenly shout about at the pub in between soccer matches. Coming in just behind was Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day,” whose lush sonic twinkle certainly has the right idea, but whose introductory cha-ching sound is maybe just a little too on the nose for the holiday cash-in to follow.
Also Worth Mentioning: Jim Croce’s “It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way” and Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” two holiday downers more powerful than any drugs the glam-rockers were taking in the mid-’70s.
1974: Mud, “Lonely This Christmas”
The Brits continue to reign, as Mud’s Elvis-goes-doo-wop throwback leads a pack that also includes Sparks’ frisky anti-holiday rocker “Thank God It’s Not Christmas” and George Harrison’s too-easy attempt to get in the game with the ornately produced “Ding Dong, Ding Dong.”
Also Worth Remembering: The Beach Boys found some success returning to holiday music with the rollicking “Child of Winter (Christmas Song),” but the song’s faux-redneck breakdown and some bleating synth horns badly undercut any potential timelessness.
1975: Emmylou Harris, “Light of the Stable”
When you’ve got Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young and Dolly Parton providing backing vocals, life is pretty good no matter who you are. But Emmylou Harris still shines alone above this 1975 country-rock hymn, imbuing each chorus “hallelujah” with the passion of a hundred torch-song ballads.
Also Worth Remembering: The late Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas,” a rare holiday ballad of prog-rock complexity and cynicism that still manages to be more rousing than overbearing. (The song’s a perennial runner-up, having finished at No. 2 in the U.K. charts behind Queen upon initial release — much to the consternation of orchestrator Godfrey Salmon, who bitched in 2014: “I thought ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was rubbish, and still do.”)
1976: Luther, “May Christmas Always Bring You Happiness”
Christmas goes disco, as Luther Vandross’ eponymous early quintet scores a minor hit with this cuddly, glowing and vaguely floor-filling contribution to the Funky Christmas soul compilation.
Also Worth Remembering: More ambitious on the holiday mirror ball front was the Salsoul Orchestra’s “Christmas Medley,” which stitches together about a dozen early X-Mas standards over a relentless club beat, with results more admirable than actually listenable.
1977: Bing Crosby and David Bowie, “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy”
Hard to side against The Kinks’ “Father Christmas,” an all-time holiday sneer about the greed and bloodlust the season inevitably fills the youth of the world with. But nearly 40 years later, December’s still not complete without at least one viewing of David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s endlessly surreal television duet, as memorable for its casting of Bowie as a pretty-boy ditz and Bing as some kind of ghostly specter as it is for the beautiful music the generations-apart pop legends make when they open their mouths together. Might even have extra resonance this season, for sadly obvious reasons.
Also Worth Remembering: The heavy-hearted bossa nova of late-night queen Roberta Flack’s “25th of Last December” certainly sounds more like a nocturnal sob on a sleepless 24th.
1978: Root Boy Slim & Sex Change Band, “X-Mas at K-Mart”
The critical set would undoubtedly point to Tom Waits’ dingy seasons’-greetings narrative “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis” or Big Star’s inside-out gospel ditty “Jesus Christ” — but, well, eh. “X-Mas at K-Mart,” by idiosyncratic southern-rocker Root Boy Slim, is similarly warped, but considerably more festive than either, and with a much funnier punchline: “I musta died and gone to heaven / ‘Coz hell is X-Mas at the 7/11.”
1979: Kurtis Blow, “Christmas Rappin‘”
Kurtis Blow invents the hip-hop holiday banger; with a song penned by a couple of Billboard writers, believe it or not. All involved seemed to have a grasp of the historical implications — “Don’t you give me all that jive about things you wrote before I’s alive / Cause this ain’t 1823, ain’t even 1970” — and the ensuing jam was b-a-d enough to get sampled in both the best anti-drug anthem and the best pro-boner jam of the next two decades.
Also Worth Remembering: Yeah, it could probably stand to be 20% less cute, but grinching on Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” is still illegal in at least 15 states.
1980: Kate Bush, “December Will Be Magic Again”
Bush invokes Bing Crosby and Oscar Wilde but needs neither; unsurprisingly, she has no trouble conjuring sufficient end-of-year sorcery on her own with each vocal dribble down the “ma-ha-ha-ha-ha-ahhh-gic” chorus. Many seasonal songs attempt to evoke flurries, but “December Will Be Magic Again” goes for the full white-out, convincingly suggesting that drowning in a snowstorm would be the purest way for one to celebrate Christmas.
Also Worth Remembering: Less elegant in their holly-jolly grandeur: The Yobs’ “C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S,” one of the first songs to put the X rating in X-Mas, and The Star Wars Intergalactic Droid Choir’s What Can You Get a Wookie for Christmas (When He Already Owns a Comb?),” which just about everyone should be nerdy enough to enjoy a little.
1981: The Waitresses, “Christmas Wrapping”
The first great Christmas song of the MTV era, and the beginning of the next golden age of holiday music. “Christmas Wrapping” never ceases to be a revelation: a perfectly executed story song that gets both the big things (the swaggering sax hook and gratifying sing-along chorus) and the little things (lyrical details like “Now the calendar’s just one page” and a sneak-funk bass line) uncannily right, a missed connection that turns into a modern-day X-Mas miracle.
Also Worth Remembering: Billy Squier had a typically yelping, strutting Christmas song this year, if you’re into that sort of thing.
1982: Bruce Springsteen, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”
A worthy-enough rendition to merit stretching the no-covers policy, The Boss made the anticipatory Christmas classic his own with a 1975 live performance that finaly saw wide release on a 1982 Seasame Street compilation. With Bruce’s quivering vocal urgency (and absurdly dramatic spoken-word intro) turning its protagonist into a femme fatale worthy of side three of The River, “Santa” is more full-blooded than it ever had been before, and nothing ever feels less like Christmas when the Big Man joins the band.
Also Worth Remembering: Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas” is nearly as heartbreaking as Bruce’s “Santa” is joyful, and Fear’s “Fuck Christmas” is certainly worth 45 seconds of your hating-ass time.
1983: The Pretenders, “2000 Miles”
A tearjerker even by holiday-song standards, “2000 Miles” unplugs the faucet by the end of its first goddamn couplet, thanks to the contrast in singer Chrissie Hydne’s devastating delivery — stretching “He’s go-o-one 2000 mi-i-i-les” to about 40 syllables, then pausing before barely getting out the next four at all: “It’s very far.” Like Kate before her, the snow blankets Chrissie and the rest of the production, but only enough so that you can tell she means it when she braves the storm to insist: “I’ll think of you wherever you go.” The song only makes a handful of references to Christmas; remove all of them and it’s still obviously one of the best Christmas songs ever written.
Also Worth Remembering: The Weather Girls’ “Dear Santa (Bring Me a Man This Christmas),” which is exactly as awesome as you’d expect.
1984: Wham!, “Last Christmas”
Somehow, after three decades of remorseless overplay and unconscionable covers, “Last Christmas” still sparkles like a cartoon snowflake, as immaculate a synth-pop confection as the ’80s ever gave us. William Shakespeare would’ve burned the Globe Theatre to the ground to write a quatrain as good as “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart / The very next day you gave it away / Next year, to save me from tears / I’ll give it to someone special,” but mid-’80s George Michael probably tossed it off while waiting for the next ski lift.
Also Worth Remembering: Michael also lent his talents to another of the year’s best holiday songs: Band Aid’s “Do They Know Its Christmas,” an ultra-hyped act of ’80s celebrity selflessness that comes off today as an exercise in coke-fueled arrogance and imperial ignorance — but shit, what an outro. And quick shouts-out to the much-humbler “Christmas Here (Could Never Be Like That)” by Wednesday Week, which gently shames us New Yorkers for taking the spectacle of X-Mas in the Big Apple for granted, and howling Prince B-side “Another Lonely Christmas,” an easy No. 1 in nearly any other year.
1985: Bryan Adams, “Christmas Time”
Certainly not a classic on the order of the last four of these, but an invigorating-enough combination of Beatlesque melodies with Bon Jovi-worthy choruses (and key changes), packing the peak confidence of a Vancouver journeyman who had somehow become North America’s biggest rock star outside the state of a New Jersey.
Also Worth Remembering: A Jimmy Buffett wintertime song sounds like an oxymoron, but “Christmas in the Caribbean” reminds you that you only ever have to be as cold as your next pina colada.
1986: “Weird Al” Yankovic, “Christmas at Ground Zero”
Cold war paranoia was so pervasive in the mid ’80s that it was infecting both our holiday songs and our comedy songs. With its skronking sax and soft-shoeing pianos, Yankovic’s apocalyptic Yuletide anthem is barely a degree removed from the real deal, and though everything about it is certainly clever, it’s doubtful anyone managed to find lyrics like “Everywhere the atom bombs are dropping / It’s the end of all humanity / No more time for last minute shopping / It’s time to face your final destiny” particularly funny at the time.
Also Worth Remembering: Did you know there was a Max Headroom Christmas song? There was a Max Headroom Christmas song.
1987: Run-D.M.C., “Christmas in Hollis”
Wow, what a year: Not just the GOAT of hip-hop holiday songs, but a trio of all-time alt-rock Christmas classics in the gutterpunk majesty of The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s “Fairytale of New York,” the Spector/Springsteen-worthy blood-rush of U2’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” cover and the shimmering grunge-pop of The Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Wanna Fight Tonight).” Still, you don’t need us to tell you which one of these is still iconic enough to inspire SNL skits three decades later.
Also Worth Remembering: Timbuk 3’s “All I Want for Christmas (Is World Peace),” foreseeing a slightly less sardonic and significantly more bummed-out version of Weird Al’s nuclear fantasia.
1988: They Might Be Giants, “Santa’s Beard”
Not to be mistaken with the Beach Boys song of the same name, this TMBG cut from 1988’s Lincoln is like “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” if it was about Kris Kringle, seething with jealousy at the seeming irresistibility of St. Nick’s facial hair. Perhaps just insecurity, but kudos to Johns Flansburgh and Lindell for being the first rock duo geeky enough to portray Santa as the All-American jock he probably sorta is .
Also Worth Remembering: Coldcut dragged holiday music into the sampladelic era with “Coldcut’s Chirstmas Break,” an intensely inessential cut-and-paste X-Mas jam that couldn’t be any more 1988 if it featured a guest verse from the California Raisins.
1989: Vince Vance and the Valiants, “All I Want for Christmas Is You”
An unfortunately forgotten country throwback waltz with a powerhouse vocal performance from guest singer Lisa Layne, hitting all the right notes, down to its blazing sax solo and climactic key change. Of course, it’s hardly a mystery with the song — which, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with Mariah Carey — has slipped through the cracks; if there had been a small indie character drama in 1989 named Forrest Gump, we probably wouldn’t be talking about that one much today either.
Also Worth Remembering: New Kids on the Block’s “Funky Funky XMas,” the first good-bad holiday song of the modern boy band era.
1990: The Rebel Pebbles, “Cool Yule”
Really kind of a dreadful year for holiday music, all late-period Barry Manilow and the original “Grown Up Christmas List.” But hey, this was a fun one: a nervy, B-52’s-go-valley-girl contribution to the Just in Time for Christmas compilation, courtesy of college-rock safe haven I.R.S. Records. The Christmas wish list rolled out in the song’s breakdown is the obvious wonky highlight: “A year’s supply of hair mousse / A cashmere sweater for my pet goose!”
Also Worth Remebering: If you’re under the age of 40 and don’t still get a little bit of a tingle at the sound of Home Alone theme “Somewhere in My Memory,” then Macaulay Culkin probably stole a cab from you sometime in the past decade.
1991: De La Soul, “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa”
In the running for the darkest Christmas song ever, the centerpiece to De La Soul’s post-D.A.I.S.Y.-age 1991 masterpiece De La Soul Is Dead was this jaw-dropping story of a classmate getting sexually abused by her dad as everyone (including the trio themselves) dismisses her woes, until she crashes his mall Santa gig and shoots him dead. Tough stuff, but a necessary reminder that even the Most Wonderful Time of the Year can still encompass all manners of human suffering.
Also Worth Remembering: Pearl Jam’s “Let Me Sleep (It’s Christmas Time),” another despairing song that yearns for a return to the childlike wonder of earlier Christmases, but will settle for a (possibly permanent?) state of unconsciousness. Winters in the early ’90s must’ve been absolutely brutal.
1992: Pansy Division, “Homo Christmas”
Easily the most bubblegummy holiday song to ever involve the rectal insertion of candy canes, Pansy Division’s first Christmas anthem is sweet, smart and subversive from its opening lines: “You’ll probably get sweaters / Underwear and socks / But what you’d really like for Christmas / Is a nice hard cock.” The fact that its chord progression seems to have accidentally predicted Blues Traveler’s “Runaround” is a nice bonus, especially when you consider what Pansy Division would’ve undoubtedly titled that song instead.
Also Worth Remembering: A couple pretty good songs from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Christmas All Over Again” and holiday queen Darlene Love’s “All Alone on Christmas,” as well as Enuff Z’Nuff’s lighter-waving Monster Ballads: X-Mas highlight “Happy Holiday.”
1993: Saint Etienne, “I Was Born on Christmas Day”
A frothy club duet from sophisti-pop mavens St. Etienne, whose hot-chocolate harmonies, chiming bells and delicately raging 4/4 beat give the production a top-of-the-tree ornamental glimmer. The group speaks from experience, by the way — neither lead singer Sarah Cracknell or guest vocalist Tim Burgess was in fact a December 25th baby, but writer/producer Bob Stanley indeed was.
Also Worth Remembering: Unclear why it took until ’93 for some country star to celebrate a “Honky Tonk Christmas,” but better late than never for Alan Jackson to rise to the occasion.
1994: Mariah Carey, “All I Want for Christmas Is You”
Is it possible to get sick of it? We’re pretty damn determined as a society to find out, but until then, Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff’s holiday-pop masterwork remains the modern-day pop song that Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole look down from the heavens to acknowledge: “OK, we’ll give ’em this one.” It’s become as inextricable to December as forgetting to wear your scarf, and even in a catalog that includes 18 No. 1 hits on the Hot 100 — more than anyone except The Beatles — it stands as the song Mimi will be remembered for when “All I Want” is as old as “Ode to Joy” is today.
Also Worth Remembering: Too bad that the only Chanukah song that your X-Mas-decorations-in-October neighbors actually know had to come out the same year as the best Holiday song of the last 30 years, but Adam Sandler’s gotta take the L on this one. Still, after a Final Destination-like run of lesser sequels, you may forget how winning the original is — if there was one man in this world meant to rhyme “Carnegie Deli” with “Arthur Fonzarelli,” it’s Sandler.
1995: The Flaming Lips, “Christmas at the Zoo”
Between Brad Pitt’s titular underground movement in 12 Monkeys and The Flaming Lips’ holiday guerilla mission from Clouds Taste Metallic, 1995 was a hell of a year for attempted zoo anarchy. With its bubbling bass, sleeting bells and ultimately pretty chill animals (“The elephants, orangutans, all the birds and kangaroos all said / Thanks but no thanks man, but to be concerned is good…”), the Lips song comes off a lot less despairing than Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi cynicism, and is likely a lot more enjoyable a holiday listen for it.
Also Worth Remembering: Jeff Foxworthy’s “Redneck 12 Days of Christmas,” maybe? Maybe not.
1996: 10 K.A.N.S., “Whachugot4XMas”
Yes, Virginia, there is a Quad City All-Star Christmas, and in late 1996 everyone should have been riding the train to the North Pole for 10 K.A.N.S.’ “Whatchugot4XMas.” A rapturously celebratory holiday anthem — hard to not be at least a little ecstatic over that Cameo “Candy” bass line — but not necessarily one for the Quad City kiddies: “Red-nose like Rudolph is how I feel / Gonna be spikin’ the eggnog with Strawberry Hill.”
Also Worth Remembering: Beck’s “Little Drum Machine Boy” does the lord’s work of turning the standard Hanukkah prayer opening (“Baruch atah adonai…”) into a robotic hook worthy of a Mantronix callout.
1997: Fountains of Wayne, “I Want an Alien for Christmas”
The extraterrestrial fascination of the X-Files era eventually found its way to X-Mas via Fountains of Wayne’s endearing holiday request for an otherworldly lifeform. The band presents their case with typical power-pop pragmatism: “I’ll always keep him company, he’ll never be alone / And we can hang around the house all day and watch The Twilight Zone.” Better hope for him this December, guys, it might be a little harder to clear after January 20.
Also Worth Remembering: Not surprising that Billy Corgan got all the way into the Christmas spirit for Smashing Pumpkins’ dippy-but-satisfying ballad “Christmastime,” nor that South Park quickly found its way into holiday satire with the saccharinely scatological “Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo.”
1998: *NSYNC, “Merry Chritsmas, Happy Holidays”
The advent of TRL didn’t exactly bring about a new golden age for holiday pop, but it breathed new life into a sagging format, particularly with *NSYNC’s irrepressibly peppy lead single from The Winter Album. As much as “Happy Holidays” may be postmarked by its textbook turn-of-the-century production, the song underneath is nearly as timeless as anything Phil Spector ever glossed up, and if you don’t get into boy-band formation from the first “It’s a wonderful feeling, with the love in room from the floor to the ceiling…” you probably listened too way too much KoRn in the late ’90s.
1999: Blowfly, “The 12 Lays of Christmas”
Technically a cover, but no partridge-in-a-pear-tree-purchaser ever pictured “Twelve Days of Christmas” like this. The filthy holiday song is a proud tradition in itself by now, but Blowfly’s “12 Lays” stands on a tier of its own, the cult icon unleashing every X-rated act in his arsenal — few if any of which can be reprinted here, but all of which still add up to an oddly triumphant holiday anthem. Free speech is its own form of Christmas cheer, y’know.
Also Worth Remembering: Slowcore vets Low’s Christmas EP, significantly lower-energy in its celebration, but just as beautiful.
2000: Saturday Night Live Cast, “I Wish It Was Christmas Today”
A subpar SNL skit but a great SNL fictional song, “I Wish It Was Christmas Today” would’ve been funnier it was more obviously shoddy. But fact is, despite Horatio Sanz’s amateurish six-stringing and Jimmy Fallon’s late arrival on a couple of Casio chord changes, the surf-pop bop is one of the 21st century’s most addictive holiday songs — a status borne out by how many times the thing has returned to SNL over the years, even getting a studio cover from Julian Casbalancas.
Also Worth Remembering: Weezer’s “The Christmas Song” is one of the best kinds of holiday songs — the type where you could listen without paying close attention to the title and lyrics and think you uncovered some secular fan favorite you’d long since forgotten about. And at the height of the teen-pop megaboom, there’s no excuse for Britney Spears’ “My Only Wish (This Year)” not having become friggin’ massive.
2001: Destiny’s Child, “8 Days of Christmas”
Yeah, yeah, another “Twelve Days” not-quite-cover. Whatever: You try denying Destiny’s Child at the height of their powers, Beyoncé announcing a gift list that makes five golden rings look like stocking filler, while the operatic funk of the production knock-hockeys all around her. Besides, after a long couple of years of dealing with bug-a-boos whose bills, bills, bills she kept having to pick up, it was nice to hear that The Queen had finally found a real man to give her her propers.
Also Worth Remembering: Blink-182 repped well for the bratty side of the aisle with “I Won’t Be Home for Christmas” (“It’s time to be nice to the people who/ You can’t stand all year/ I’m growing tired of this Christmas cheer”), and Willa Ford tried her best.
2002: The White Stripes, “Candy Cane Children”
The A-side to The White Stripes’ Merry Christmas From The White Stripes EP basically sounds like Jack White making up Jack White-esque lyrics over some improvised Neil Young riffing, with all the ramshackle charm the duo had before they began forgetting about their own ridiculousness. “Oh, when Christmas finally comes / And nobody’s got a gun / And you think it might be fun to get a new toy/ Think again boy.” Sure.
Also Worth Remembering: You don’t necessarily have to listen to B2K’s “Sexy Boy Christmas” (from 2002’s Santa Hooked Me Up!), but you should never forget about its existence.
2003: Fall Out Boy, “Yule Shoot Your Eye Out”
Fall Out Boy check in with an acoustic banger titled after the most famous recurring line from A Christmas Story, and you couldn’t have scripted it better yourself if you were holing up in Fueled By Ramen’s basement for the first 11 months of 2003. “And all I want this year is for you to dedicate your last breath to me/ Before you bury yourself alive.” Christmas really is the most emo of holidays, isn’t it?
Also Worth Remembering: David Banner’s “The Christmas Song,” a chilling cry on behalf of the Yuletide-disenfranchised, and The Darkness’ “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End),” a mid-’70s holiday-hit callback from a band who’d basically spent their entire lives preparing for just such a tribute.
2004: Paul Holt, “Fifty Grand for Christmas”
In an unremarkable year for Holiday music — there’s Josh Groban from the Polar Express soundtrack, if you really want it — the best contribution was this novelty meta-X-Mas song from former X Factor hopeful Paul Holt, who judge Simon Cowell had disparagingly guaranteed $50,000 if he ever made a No. 1 single. With a convincing X-Mas production that certainly sounds like it’s aiming for pole position, the lyrics to the mostly self-explanatory “Fifty Grand for Christmas” happily (and hilariously) take Simon up on his offer: “I’m gonna get fifty grand for Christmas / Buy this record now! / Fifty grand for Christmas / Thank you, Simon Cowell!” So close: “Fifty Grand” topped out at No. 35.
2005: Blondfire, “Underneath the Misletoe”
Another down year is led by California indie-pop duo Blondfire, whose “Underneath the Mistletoe” is a whisper of bass, tambourine and vocals, with occasional piano tickles and guitar licks that flare up like crackling flames. For a soundtrack to compulsory makeout sessions, you could do a lot worse.
Also Worth Remembering: Someone needs to teach the kids about Smash Mouth’s The Gift of Rock, featuring covers of “Father Christmas,” “2000 Miles” (!!) and “Snoopy’s Christmas,” among others.
2006: The Killers, “A Great Big Sled”
In the midst of a period of all-time doldrums for the holiday song, 2006 saw two artists zooming in to redeem the format: Sufjan Stevens, who released his idiosyncratically intimate 42-track, five-EP set Songs for Christmas, and The Killers, who released the first of their many widescreen Christmas melodramas with “A Great Big Sled.” Brandon Flowers & Co. would get weirder and wilder with their X-Mas selections, but perhaps never more appealing than with the Toni Halladay-featuring “Sled,” in which the group finds the perfect conveyance for their barrel-chested synth-rock preposterousness.
Also Worth Remembering: Can never miss a chance to give love to Aly & AJ, whose “Greatest Time of Year” was a typically fantastic turbo-pop air-strike. And kudos to inaugural America’s Got Talent winner Bianca Ryan for actually enlisting writer/producer Walter Afanasieff for “Why Couldn’t It Be Christmas Everyday?,” which loves “All I Want for Christmas Is You” as much as Mariah loved Christmas itself back in the day.
2007: Taylor Swift, “Christmases When You Were Mine”
Taylor Swift’s first (and to date, only) Christmas collection was mostly unspectacular: a so-so “Last Christmas,” a bizarrely misguided “Santa Baby,” the glorified Sunday School assignment “Christmas Must Be Something More.” But in the middle was an absolute neutron bomb: “Christmases When You Were Mine,” a song whose slow-bleeding guitars and choked-up vocals cut right to the core of the holidays at their most unforgiving, and foreshadow Taylor’s later aptitude for being miserable at celebratory functions. The fact that it isn’t better known must be like a national safety thing.
2008: Ghostface Killah, “Ghostface X-mas”
Leave it to hip-hop’s greatest storytelling surrealist of the last quarter century to revive the hip-hop holiday narrative. To be fair, aside from some Hennessey in the eggnog and check-ins on the “little elves getting busy in Santa’s workshop,” GhostDeini mostly colors inside the lines here, keeping the story to PG portraits of families enjoying Christmas merriment. Still, he can’t resist letting all the little kiddies know exactly who’s coming to town: “I know if you been bad or good / So be good for old Ghostface!“
Also Worth Remembering: A couple exquisitely crystalline indie rock songs, The Yeah Yeahs’ “All I Want for Christmas” and Glasvegas’ “A Snowflake Fell (And It Felt Like a Kiss),” and Stephen Colbert’s big Colbert Christmas opening number, “Another Christmas Song.”
2009: George Michael, “December Song (I Dreamed of Christmas)”
A quarter century after his first foray, Michael returns to the holiday song realm, with the much more meditative “December Song,” originally written for the Spice Girls. The song’s tender melancholy is pleasing enough, though to be honest, in a stronger year this would only get an honorable mention — but with 2009’s only real competition coming from Bob Dylan’s covers album of Christmas standards (??!?), George cruises to his second victory here.
2010: Kanye West feat. CyHi Da Prince and Teyana Taylor, “Christmas in Harlem”
The best-remembered of Kanye’s GOOD Friday tracks not to make My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and maybe the most beloved hip-hop holiday song since the Run-D.M.C. standard it’s titled after. Sampling Marvin Gaye and interpolating The Brothers Johnson, the song simply feels like going home, with all the accompanying warmth, comfort and minor bittersweetness that implies. And luckily, Teyana and CyHi are around to cut Kanye off before he starts elaborating too much on how much like Bad Santa he is.
Also Worth Remembering: Shoulda burned a couple of these off in 2009 — Los Campensinos’ “Kindle a Flame in Her Heart” is irresistible Christmas indie, Mariah Carey’s “Oh Santa!” is a welcome return from Mariah to her fixed Yuletide throne, Corey Taylor’s “X-M@$” is much-needed bilious holiday dissent and Coldplay’s “Christmas Lights” is a better tribute to “2000 Miles” than their own cover of “2000 Miles.”
2011: Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler, “Snowflakes”
The 2011 holiday season was musically dominated by the release of Justin Bieber’s Under the Mistletoe, which did have a couple choice Christmas jams with the sighing “Only Thing I Ever Get for Christmas” and his absolutely bonkers EDM update of “Drummer Boy” (featuring Busta Rhymes, natch). But the best Christmas album of that year was This Is Christmas, the collaboration between singer-songwriter Emmy the Great and Ash frontman Tim Wheeler, whose ten tracks contained some of the sharpiest, funniest, and most eggnog-punch-drunk holiday songwriting of the decade. “Snowflakes” was the early highlight, a synth-pop torch duet worthy of classic Erasure covering classic ABBA.
2012: Dragonette, “Merry Xmas (Says Your Text Message)”
A gem of a Christmas kiss-off, and one of the first songs to address the no doubt millions of “u up?” type texts exchanged over the holidays. Singer Martina Sobrata channels her best Dale Bozzio for each upper-register-reaching “Merry X-mas,” and imbues every “says your text message” explanation with unexpected pathos, making it all the more satisfying when she slams down the imaginary receiver: “Mine says: ‘Thanks a lot, and f–k you.'”
Also Worth Remembering: Blink-182’s long-overdue (and really quite stirring) tribute to December 26th, “Boxing Day,” and Too $hort’s unexpected “The Hanukkah Song,” earning the Oakland rapper honorary M.O.T. status for life by turning “Judah Maccabee” to “Judah macked a bitch.”
2013: Kelly Clarkson, “Underneath the Tree”
One of the few Christmas songs this century not forced to wait out a Hall of Fame-like eligibility period for consideration, 2013’s “Underneath the Tree” was hailed as a classic almost instantly. Deservedly so: The song shoots off like Saks Fifth Avenue fireworks, the kind of hyper-holiday production where you can hear the sax solo zooming in from four measures away. Not a lot of singers could keep up, but Kelly Clarkson lives for this shit, seemingly delivering the chorus in one breath, without her cheeks even getting red.
Also Worth Remembering: No shame whatsoever in the consolation prizes for !!!’s positively radiant disco-pop snuggle “And Anyway It’s Christmas” or Sky Ferreira’s seething, bloody and strangely sublime Suicide homage “Omanko.”
2014: Ariana Grande, “Santa Tell Me”
No pop star of the 2010s was as obviously bound to make (or at least attempt) great holiday music as Ariana Grande, the ideal mix of theater kid, vocal powerhouse, and general sucker for nostalgia. 2013’s Christmas Kisses EP got her halfway there, but she fully achieved her destiny in ’14 with “Santa Tell Me,” featuring a chorus that cleverly splits the difference between “Santa Baby” and “Baby Baby,” drums that give the song real backbone, and a closing swell powerful enough in its Christmas Spirit to put the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future all out of work.
Also Worth Remembering: Pentatonix’s presence around the end of the year is threatening to become as overbearing as Black Friday commercials, but “That’s Christmas to Me” remains laudably restrained, and actually pretty likeable.
2015: Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, “8 Days of Hannukah”
Finally, a Hanukkah song reigns supreme for 2015. Grooving with applesauce sweetness and latke-like sizzle, “8 Days of Hannukah” obviously hits its stride when it gets to its count-off section: “Day 1!/ Time to light a candle for those Maccabees whose oil did burn and burn/ Day 2!/ Time to spin the dreidel, and hope that thing will show up on my turn.” Eight crazy nights, indeed — thanks for this one, Sharon.
Also Worth Remembering: The holidays jogged both LCD Soundsystem and Green Day back to life at 2015’s end, the former with the soaring “Christmas Will Break Your Heart” and the latter with the chiming “XMas Time of Year.” And while the Christmas & Chill EP couldn’t hope to live up to “Santa Tell Me” (or its own insta-classic title), it was another winner for Ariana Grande, particularly the mixtape trap ballad “True Love.”
2016: Dej Loaf feat. Kodak Black, “All I Want for Christmas Is You”
Yep, the third such title on this list, but a song completely different from the other two — this one’s an incredibly touching tribute to the importance of family at Christmas time, which really feels closer in spirit to “All That I Got Is You” than either other “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Wistfulness threatens to turn to depression as Dej asks “Santa, I wish you could bring back some of my people,” but she pulls back for a still-teary-eyed remembrance of being denied Christmas Air Jordans under her tree, and how bratty she was about it. But the now-matured and appreciative MC realizes in retrospect: “Christmas is more than just about, y’know, gifts.” And if you don’t get that after going through 50 of these songs, you never will.
Also Worth Considering: Been a hell of a year so far for these things: Gucci Mane finally made the leap to East Atlanta Santa with “St. Brick Intro,” Kacey Musgraves stated the all-too-obvious with “Christmas Makes Me Cry,” and Brett Eldredge unleashed his inner Sinatra — who knew? — with the aptly titled “Glow.” Even HBO’s Vinyl, whose shitty fictional tunes may have ultimately been the show’s undoing, managed one fantastic faux-holiday song, in Matthew Bogart-as-Robert Goulet’s “Christmas, You Go So Fast.” And just today, a surprise seasonal mixtape from Chance the Rapper and Lil B, as triumphant as anything to come from the non-Wrigley Field parts of Chicago this year. Who knows what other presents the next nine days may still hold?