It’s December. The lights are up. The holiday festivities have begun. And most us are probably thinking about what colourfully-wrapped confectionary we’ll be chomping down come the Christmas holidays. So what better time to look back at Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas*, a catalyst for selection box-guilt, cheeky high school kisses, bruised backsides and general Christmas party embarrassment.
Cashing in at Christmastime
A cursory glance at Wikipedia at the number of Christmas releases year over year, be they albums, compilations or EPs, in most cases, more than doubled in the period between 1994 and 2014. Everybody and their aunt’s best friend has been looking to get in on the Christmas fever, and with the exception of a handful of releases, you know exactly what you’re getting: reinterpretations of holiday classics with the odd original to tickle your festive fancy.
The cheerful predictability of these albums is part of their appeal. And even though the Christmas album continues to be an excuse for some pop stars to go through the motions simply to strike another album off their multi-album contract, or make a quick bundle, our relationship with them is unlike other seasonal music releases. The Christmas album segment is so full of repetition, so stuffed with sycophantic cheeriness, and so intertwined with our contemporary, commercialised festive season that Christmas albums are more about tolerance than they are taste.
A Carey Christmas
Still, Carey’s album is one of the defining Christmas albums of popular memory and it set the tone for the dozens of festive albums that have followed to this day. Quite simply, Christmas had never popped like it before.
Lead single. ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’, is an extravaganza of innocent longing, thrust along by a rhythm section specially selected for maximum Christmas cheer. The clattering of piano keys, the bass’s zestful cross-rhythm, the jingling of tambourines (a staple of Christmas pop records), and Carey’s all-consuming cries that, thanks to a spot of digital vocal mastering, seem to defy what’s humanly possible and reach the ears of unsuspecting listeners even at low volumes. The feel-good factor at the heart of this song, written by Carey and Walter Afanasieff, is what’s contributed to so many of us overindulging, saying something stupid or acting the fool in front of our boss(es), friends and family, or a certain special crush.
Mercifully, with the exception of ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town’, the rest of Merry Christmas is a more demure listen than the dopamine-charging, Christmas party favourites. Songs based on traditional Christian hymns, such as ‘Silent Night’, ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘O Holy Night’, occupy much of its running time, arranged as gospel standards that emphasize togetherness. Carey shoots for a gospel classic of her own with ‘Jesus Born on This Day’, a song composed of a synthetic orchestra and live children’s choir that carries you upwards. The close of the album, ‘Jesus Oh What a Wonderful Child’, goes full charge into a dramatic gospel chant that cheers the listener on to their next festive appointment. Though, original song, ‘Miss You Most (at Christmas Time)’, a whimsical ballad about a long-gone lover, has all the traits of a favourite for those with an ache in their heart.
Carey’s Merry Christmas doesn’t do anything we haven’t heard before. But in terms of pop music, it set the format for what a Christmas pop record is today. It’s got its selection of covers and Christian standards, but it also achieved the holy grail of festive songwriting achievements: original Christmas songs that have become recurring chart hits. It may now be as ubiquitous as holiday decorations, but it just wouldn’t be Christmas without a Carey song.
* Preparation for this month’s Choice Cuts lead me closer to the madcap, and moneymaking, world of seasonal albums. Christmas albums have long been a thing, but it’d be nice to find out what albums exist for other cultural, religious and season events: Chinese New Year? Hanukkah? Kwanzaa? Maybe even an Eid record? If you know of any, I’d love to give them a listen. Tweet me @dk33per.
For classic albums, rarities and more, see my Choice Cuts archive.
Images (from top): MariahJournal.com; Columbia