The yule canon, it seems, isn’t just closed—it’s a location-undisclosed black site that’s locked down tighter than Santa’s workshop. In 2006, when the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers released a list of the most-performed holiday songs in the U.S., the newest song to crack the top 10 was “Jingle Bell Rock,” from 1957. The most recent song in the top 25 was “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” an all-star charity single from 1984.
It makes sense, sort of, that during the nostalgia-drunk holiday season, people crave old songs. But nostalgia is a deeply strange and deceitful concept. We needn’t have lived through the era of Polaroid or vinyl or Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound to feel comforted by our modern simulations of these antiquated cultural totems. And nostalgia and Christmas, at least in its secular observance, are inextricably linked.
No wonder the best of this year’s new Christmas records sound sort of old. Clarkson’s Wrapped in Red marries the bounce of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” to the style of the classic A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector, first released the same day President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Of Wrapped in Red’s five originals, I’d say that at least the title track and “Underneath the Tree” have reasonable odds of remaining in the yuletide rotation five years from now. So does “One More Sleep,” the original lead-off track from Leona Lewis’ holiday offering, Christmas With Love. Lewis’ album has fewer new songs than Clarkson’s, but their sound is even more self-consciously Spector-y: Its second track is a “Winter Wonderland” that’s almost indistinguishable from Darlene Love’s version of 50 years earlier. Its cover art, too, is a throwback to the graphic design of the Mad Men era.
Nick Lowe’s Quality Street—which shares this year’s “A Christmas album by who?” category with Kool & the Gang’s brand-new-though-you’d-never-guess-it Kool for the Holidays —contributes four worthy new songs to the holiday missal: My favorite, “A Dollar Short of Happy,” which Lowe co-wrote with Ry Cooder, is in the honorable tradition of forlorn yule standards like Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas.” But they’re all too subtle to stand a chance of breaking through. You might hear one of them in a Starbucks, but broad cultural buy-in ain’t gonna happen.
It never happens anymore even though plenty of great artists have released great Christmas songs since Mariah first donned her Santa furs. The 10 Christmas EPs Sufjan Stevens has released (in the form of two boxed sets) since 2006 comprise more than 100 songs, dozens of them original compositions. On the whole, they’re tremendous, by turns giddy and somber, insolent and reverent, capturing the whole range of complex emotions the holiday season engenders. Check out “Put the Lights on the Tree” or “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” (“Mr. Frosty Man” is in the middle of the pack, songwise, but its zombie-splatterin’ claymation video is—like the Sufjan Christmas EPs as a whole—superb counterprogramming for when you’ve had a few sugar cookies too many.)
The Killers have released an original Christmas charity single every year since 2006, an admirable custom even if none of them have been as great as the first, “A Great Big Sled.” It’s a bell-ringing, hall-decking specimen of ’80s U2–style bombast with a chorus that sounds ripe for the covering by other artists. I would’ve loved to hear Mary J. Blige belt out this song on her new collection, A Mary Christmas, instead of sticking to the overfished dozen she’s recorded. (We’re good on “The Little Drummer Boy,” ladies and gentlemen, forever. Please just stop.) But “A Great Big Sled” has become a seasonal staple only to me, apparently.
It’s a shame that A Mary Christmas, like an increasing number of holiday albums, doesn’t bother to submit any new songs for our consideration. Since consumers can simply cherry-pick the songs they want, why make the effort? It’s yet another way that the iTunes-YouTube era’s commercial imperatives have altered the aesthetics of music making: Once upon a time, consumers had to purchase a full album to get the version of “Silent Night” they craved. So a handful of original Xmas tunes on a record helped new songwriters earn some royalties, even if it was often the requisite holiday standards driving the sale. And if one of those new songs hit? Ho-ho-ho, it could be Christmas every day for the rest of your life. Stephen Colbert underlined this point in 2008’s “Another Christmas Song,” which has a lyric about how writing a calculated yuletide staple will help fund his retirement and concludes with the soothing words, “Copyright Stephen Colbert.”
Ironically, the soundtrack album from his special A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All, is composed, save for one cover, of all originals, and they’re some of the best holiday songs of the 21st century. (He and Jon Stewart duet on “Can I Interest You in Hanukkah?”) They’re funny, of course—but the Colbert tunes are also surprisingly relistenable, as would-be standards must be. They’re tart but absent the bitterness that makes most song parodies instantly wearying. “There Are Much Worse Things to Believe In,” written and performed by Colbert and Elvis Costello, isn’t even all that much of a parody. In fact, it implores listeners to trade in their cynicism for sincerity.
That’s actually the same sentiment expressed in “Love Is Everything,” the better of the two original songs on a new holiday-themed EP from Ariana Grande, the 20-year-old singer-songwriter and actress. It’s a not-bad attempt by Grande to join Mariah in the holiday hall of fame. As I write this, it’s at No. 2 on Billboard’s Holiday Digital Songs chart, right behind “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” But on the iTunes chart, it’s being beaten out by another Grande holiday track: A cover of Wham!’s “Last Christmas.”
Correction, Dec. 16, 2013: This article originally misstated that the New Pornographers' "Joseph, Who Understood" is about the Immaculate Conception. It's about the Virgin Birth.