If “half a billion views on YouTube” is any criteria to go by, there’s really only one candidate for a modern Christmas standard, and by “modern” I mean “recorded after Bing Crosby’s lifetime.” With all apologies to Run-D.M.C., Low, Cristina, and the in-house musicians of Studio One, we’re going to have to go with Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” co-written and co-produced with Walter Afanasieff for Carey’s matter-of-factly-titled 1994 album Merry Christmas. (Same initials, word to Jarvis Cocker.) Carey’s song hit for a billion or so reasons, not the least of which was (i) her post-Music Box megasuccess, (ii) the generational-crossover ’90s R&B-via-’60s-pop arrangement, and (iii) what Kurt Vonnegut coined as “oodles of charm.”
It’s a fun song that belongs on every Christmas-party playlist — as long as it’s Mariah Carey’s version. If it’s credited to almost anybody else, watch the hell out. In my efforts to find out whether a Christmas song can still be a standard if the original has never been matched, much less eclipsed, I ran across several versions that were adequate at best, and at their worst had me wondering if Mariah felt compelled to return her royalty checks unendorsed. Choose carefully — you don’t want to subject friends and family to the most unnecessary adaptation of a holiday classic this side of the Ron Howard Grinch movie.
My Chemical Romance (2004)
Everybody’s favorite emo-pop-punkers/semi-secret theater geeks seem like they’d be a good fit for the Philles/Motown joy-buzz of this particular standard, right? Like, they’d actually cover it for fun, but without making fun of it? You might have to ignore the questionable company on its first appearance, a KROQ compilation that also includes a Billy Idol song named “Yellin’ At The Christmas Tree,” Sarah Silverman’s “Give The Jew Girl Toys,” and something called “Donald Trump – The Christmas Apprentice” to get the full amount of sincerity from this, but you listen to this and tell me if Gerard Way thinks he’s too cool for Mariah Carey. It does get pretty overdramatic — the titular “Want” seems like an understatement in this context, something more like “All I Will Die Horribly If I Don’t Get For Christmas Is You” — but us seasonal affective disorder sufferers need our carols, too.
The Cheetah Girls (2005)
People who are at a loss as to whether there’s anything that will ever define nostalgia for the ’00s might be optimistic in a way: I’m as sick of the surface-level signifiers of ’90s overculture as anyone who spent their teen years back then thinking everything was lame, but nearly everything about the aughts was worse in nearly every imaginable way. That era was just a relentless crush of post-Bizkit edginess clashing with Never Forget patriotic hypersincerity that culminated in the economy crumbling to dust. At least we had Broadcast and Burial and Definitive Jux — but that’s not how nostalgia works. Nostalgia works when it taps into the idea of a simpler time free of anxiety and responsibility, and if you were listening to moody psychedelic/grimy beat concoctions to keep the dread at bay, you were probably an adult already. And what did not-yet-adults listen to in the ’00s? Disney. A fuckton of Radio Disney. It really does feel like another decade when music felt like as big a pop-cultural Disney monopoly as movies did, so if you want a reminder of what kind of wallpaper singers the mouse used to make incomprehensible amounts of money back then, press play and try to find something in this. I sure as hell couldn’t.
Lady Antebellum (2010)
Speaking of nostalgia: now that they’re in their Vegas residency/independent label years, it’s easy (though not easy enough) to forget what a Grammy-snatching phenomenon Lady Antebellum were off their 2010 album Need You Now. The totally-not-an-Alan-Parsons-rip title track was one of the running gags of most peoples’ livetweet play-by-plays, along with the whole wave of, “I’ve just now heard of this band and what the fuck is up with that name,” reactions. Then Arcade Fire won Album Of The Year and now here we are. Need You Now was a triple-platinum phenomenon in the waning years of the You Can Buy CDs In Department Stores era, a January release that moved enough units to justify a quickie Target-exclusive Christmas-season EP later that year. A Merry Little Christmas features one original (the thoroughly anonymous algorithm-lyric pseudo-soul “On This Winter’s Night“) and five super-obvious standards, with Carey’s song played as though the slow-build intro is the tempo the entire song should be played in. The countrified harmonies are nice enough, but the musical arrangement is all CVS, no bangers.
Bowling For Soup (2011)
Football-jersey punk for people who think “drinking” is a personality and that the Bloodhound Gang were a little too esoteric, Bowling For Soup snatched up all the good hitmaking and longevity karma that Fountains Of Wayne once seemed destined to earn. Life and the fairness thereof, everybody. There isn’t even really much about this version that seems to hold to some youthfully subversive version of rocking out with your sex organs out. It’s an exurban version of punk, which mostly just means the same tempo and rhythm as the original Carey version but with overdriven guitars and a lead vocal from Jaret Reddick that seems too intent on concentrating on getting the melody down than it is in fucking with it. You don’t have to tear down the edifice of a Christmas standard to reveal all the accumulated grime and filth underneath, but you don’t have to make it sound less alive, either.
Ariana Grande (2012)
Let’s take it back to when Ariana was just another teen idol turned aspiring pop singer, rather than one of the biggest names in music. Was there always something there? Probably, sure, but transcendence takes time, and not everyone has the luxury of breaking out in an experimentation-ready pop landscape when they’ve been steeped in trad showbiz. So, it’s an interesting study watching Grande circa 2012, still coasting off Splenda-rush Nickelodeon-friendly material like “Put Your Hearts Up” and “L.A. Boyz” en route to finding another version of herself in ’90s R&B on Yours Truly. And how else do you nod towards that transition than by performing Carey’s Christmas song? Live outdoors in L.A. with a whole gospel choir as backup? Grande is more than ready to be a star here, her stage presence shifting remarkably from a personably shy giddiness to a charismatic poise once she starts singing. Does she break from Carey’s orbit? Not really; the arrangement and her performance are strictly homage, a case of someone taking another step towards self-realization by retyping Hemingway. But sometimes you’ve gotta celebrate another singer’s Christmas before you celebrate your own.
Kylie Minogue And Mumford & Sons (2015)
Oh no. Listen, I like Fever as much as any music dork who had a couple windows thrown open at least a bit by the whole poptimism thing, and I know it’s pointless to complain about a little goofy one-off that’s less than a minute long, but y’all had to go and Mumford this up, didn’t you? My god, that one dude’s got a melodica! I’m gravely offended on behalf of Augustus Pablo and/or Clinic. This is a Christmas bit where somebody’s playing a banjo and it’s not a muskrat in a toque, so I could do without it. Maybe we could get in Robyn and Mastodon to be the Riverbottom Nightmare Band version of this.
Masetro Ziikos (2017)
The War on Christmas is over. Everybody lost.