The Kings and Queens of Christmas
December 14, 2020
Written by Rhian Daly
Making a Christmas single or album is a rite of passage for most pop artists when they reach a certain level in their careers. Despite the sheer amount of festive releases that are recorded and shared every year, there are only few who are lucky enough to become as synonymous with Christmas as the holiday’s other traditions. We call them the kings and queens of Christmas – raise a glass to them with us below.
Think Christmas songs and your brain will likely go straight for ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, Mariah Carey’s globally renowned hit that’s become a key indicator things are beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Taken from her 1994 album ‘Merry Christmas’, the track appeared alongside covers of more traditional tracks like ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Hark! The Heralds Angels Sing’. The original song is now one of the best-selling singles of all-time and – given its omnipresent status every December – doesn’t seem like it will be slipping down the list any time soon. Not even for Carey’s new version of ‘Oh Santa!’, which sees her team up with vocal powerhouses Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande.
Key festive track for your playlist: ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’
For such a huge festive classic, Wham!’s lone contribution to the Christmas canon ‘Last Christmas’ has surprisingly little do with the holidays at all. A tale of heartbreak and unrequited love, it uses the season as a setting, cushioning George Michael’s romantic failure with glittering synths as soft as taking a walk in freshly fallen snow.
Despite being the best-selling UK single to never reach Number One, ‘Last Christmas’’ legacy is incredibly strong. As well as being covered by numerous artists at the top of their games – think Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Coldplay, The xx and tons more – it’s also inspired a whole movie. Co-written by Emma Thompson (at George Michael’s request), the film packed big star power with Game Of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke and Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding in the lead roles, and cemented the song’s ties with Christmas even more.
Key festive track for your playlist: ‘Last Christmas’
“If nobody remembers you for the rest of the year, they’ll remember you at Christmas,” Shakin’ Stevens once told the Guardian of his desire to score a Christmas Number One. With a decades-long career and numerous hits under his belt, the Welsh musician definitely doesn’t have to worry about being forgotten, but his presence looms even larger come December. ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’, Shaky’s 1985 single, achieved his dreams of a festive chart-topper in its year of release, but has bonded him with Christmastime for far longer than one season 35 years ago.
That perennial Christmas classic isn’t his only foray into musical festivities – in 1991, he released a whole album of the same name as that track, featuring covers and originals ready-made for wrapping presents and carving turkey to. In 2015, meanwhile, he brought an inventive touch to the usual Xmas sounds, reworking ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ with lashings of banjo to raise money for the Salvation Army. But it’s the original that has remained a staple of the season, a track that immediately gets you into the Christmas spirit.
Key festive track for your playlist: ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’
Although Californian singer Darlene Love has enjoyed a rich career besides her festive contributions, it’s her most famous Christmas song that really defines her. ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ featured on the classic Phil Spector-produced album ‘A Christmas Gift For You’ and became one of its enduring tracks thanks to her emotive, expressive voice. Since its release, it’s been covered by an eclectic range of artists from Smash Mouth to Mariah Carey, Little Mix to The Offspring, and saw Love take up her own Christmas tradition of performing it every year on the David Letterman Show from 1986 to 2014. Even the singer herself wasn’t immune to its powers – after taking a break from her career to raise a family, it was hearing this track on the radio that spurred her on to return to the stage.
That song is far from her only Christmassy work though. She can also count ‘All Alone On Christmas’ as another festive single, with it appearing in two classic Xmas films Home Alone 2 and Love Actually. In 2007, she put out a whole album of Christmas covers called ‘It’s Christmas, Of Course’, that saw her share her takes on other Yuletide smashes from The Pretenders and John Lennon.
Key festive track for your playlist: ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’
Where most artists might call it a day at a few Christmas albums over their careers, US singer Andy Williams (best known outside of the festive season for singing ‘Moon River’) kept the holiday releases coming until he had eight of them. Over studio albums, compilations and a live record, the late star shared takes on traditional standards and then-current releases, well and truly earning his nickname of “Mr Christmas”.
It’s perhaps his first Christmas record, 1963’s ‘The Andy Williams Christmas Album’, that is his most integral Yuletide release though, containing original song ‘It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year’. The elegant track was actually written for his own TV show, The Andy Williams Show, but went on to have a life that extended far beyond the programme’s run and into film soundtracks, covers by other artists, ad features and a general dominance of the Christmas music scene, even nearly 60 years on.
Key festive track for your playlist: ‘It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year’
In comparison to Williams, the King went for a less is more approach to festive records, releasing only two in his lifetime. That didn’t stop one of them – his first, ‘Elvis’ Christmas Album’ – from going on to become not only the best-selling Christmas album of all time, but also one of the best-selling albums of all time full stop. The record boasted his acclaimed track ‘Blue Christmas’, as well as a version of Bing Crosby’s hit ‘White Christmas’.
It was the latter that threatened the album’s success after songwriter Irving Berlin took offence to Presley’s rendition and called up radio stations across the US demanding they boycott the release. Unluckily for him, not many were on his side and went ahead and played tracks from it anyway.
Key festive track for your playlist: ‘Blue Christmas’
Want to get in the Christmas spirit but still feel like you’re attending a hoedown in Tennessee? Dolly Parton has you covered with not just her back catalogue, but her film career too. The country icon has been getting festive on-screen since 1969, when she starred in the TV special An Old-Time Country Christmas. It wasn’t for over another decade that she would spread Christmas cheer on record, making her first festive release in 1982 with the song ‘Hard Candy Christmas’. While her Yuletide recordings have included plenty a traditional standard, she’s also shared tales of the festive season from her own world, like 1986’s simple and heart-filled ‘Smoky Mountain Christmas’.
Over her illustrious career since, she’s done it all – from teaming up with Kenny Rogers for the duets album ‘Kenny & Dolly: Once Upon A Christmas’ to playing an angel in her own Netflix Christmas movie, Christmas On The Square, and recording the accompanying soundtrack ‘A Holly Dolly Christmas’. Given she’s said she has no plans to retire, perhaps we might be treated to yet more Christmas gifts from Parton in the future.
Key festive track for your playlist: ‘Smoky Mountain Christmas’
With his soulful, serene baritone, who better than Ol’ Blue Eyes to take on some of Christmas’ most evocative tracks? His first Christmas album ‘Christmas Songs By Sinatra’ is a stuffed tighter than a turkey with beautiful renditions of slow-paced staples like ‘White Christmas’ and ‘O Little Town Of Bethlehem’. He also lent his distinctive vocals to more uptempo cuts too, tackling traditional rousers like ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!’
That record wasn’t his only Christmas outing – his back catalogue also features three more studio albums to play as you pull crackers and play board games. In the Christmas spirit, he roped in some help for a couple of them, making ’12 Songs Of Christmas’ with pals Bing Crosby and Fred Waring, and hosting a family affair with Nancy, Tina and Frank Jr. on ‘The Sinatra Family Wish You A Merry Christmas’.
Key festive track for your playlist: ‘Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow’
What says Christmas more than a little festive quarrel? When Eartha Kitt released her tongue-in-cheek single ‘Santa Baby’ in 1953, she accidentally landed in her own disagreement with people across America, who felt the track was too suggestive to be appropriate for the holidays. After the song was banned across the American South, Kitt recorded an olive branch of a single a year later, dubbed ‘(This Year’s) Santa Baby’. Released as a b-side to ‘Hey Jacques’, it didn’t have the same impact as the original, which went on to cement its own cultural legacy.
Key festive track for your playlist: ‘Santa Baby’