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NPR Arts & Life

Why Are There No New Christmas Songs?

Thousands of new holiday songs have been released since 1994, but none have become standards in the way pop songs about Christmas routinely did in the '60s, '70s and '80s. What's the challenge of cracking the tiny yuletide canon?

This year, Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" turns 25. Her single-item wish list seems to have been the punctuation mark on half a century in which a new, original and secular holiday song became ubiquitous every few years.

In 1979, that was Paul McCartney's " Wonderful Christmastime." In 1982, it was The Waitresses' " Christmas Wrapping." 1984 gave us "Last Christmas" by Wham! and 1987 saw Run-D.M.C. rap about " Christmas in Hollis." Love these songs or hate them, chances are you know them. That's not something you can likely say about any yule-tunes written this century, but that doesn't mean people aren't writing them.

Aloe Blacc, a singer-songwriter from southern California perhaps best known for his guest vocal on Avicii's 2013 smash " Wake Me Up," had eight new songs on his 2018 album, Christmas Funk.

"It is intimidating to think about trying to write something that will stand the test of time," Blacc says, especially as he also wanted to expand the emotional palette of holiday music. "My goal was to do songs that felt sentimental from a direction that it's not usually presented from. Yeah, we want to get together and give hugs and have Christmas cheer, but there's also some family members you don't want to see during the holidays."

Dr. Demento, a pop music historian who specializes in oddities and ephemera, likens the contraction of the Christmas playlist to an increased yearning for tradition.

"Most Americans eat pretty much the same big meal every year, turkey and all the trimmings," Dr. Demento says. "If they introduce a new recipe, people will comment about it. 'Hey, mother, what's this?' "

Speaking of new recipes, the Dallas' early '90s band Old 97's try one out in the holiday tune "Here It Is Christmas Time."

"I talk about peach pie instead of one of the more traditional Christmas desserts, so that's a little weird," Rhett Miller, the country-rock band's frontman, says. "I mention doing the dishes. I like the idea of subverting the normal Christmas clichés, but you sort of have to love them to subvert them."

He made quite a few attempts at dodging those clichés, writing nine new songs for the Old 97's album, Love the Holidays. He gets why some people roll their eyes when the Christmas songs start up, but he's willing to risk the audience's annoyance to write a song that sees its emotional currency renewed every year.

"I really love when songs have utility and can point to milestones in people's lives," Miller says. "When songs do that for us, that's a really special thing ... I don't think there are any songs that are useful or as fraught with emotional baggage — in a good way — as Christmas and holiday songs are."

Another new holiday project, Molly Burch's The Molly Burch Christmas Album, is only the Austin-based singer-songwriter's third full-length album, holiday-related or not. But its two originals aren't pitched to the rafters the way Mariah Carey's big hit was.

"My goal was to write songs that felt like a little mix of classic holiday and also just, like, not overwhelming. And I wanted them to sound like me," Burch says.

They were also a low-pressure way to nudge herself into thinking about material for her next album — not about cracking anyone's holiday playlist.

Miller would like to have an entry in the canon, though. And he's willing to wait for it.

"A brand new Christmas song, great as it might be — and believe me, I just wrote nine fantastic ones — it's maybe going to take an entire generation for them to catch on," he says.

If that sounds far-fetched, consider that Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" just hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time ever this week.

It only seems like it's been there forever.

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