The New Christmas Canon: The 25 Best Original Holiday Songs Since “All I Want For Christmas Is You”
It's been a quarter century since Mariah Carey broke the charts. Why hasn't anyone done it since?
It’s inescapable. With Thanksgiving officially in the rearview, you’ve no doubt already heard Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” at least once this year, whether you gleefully queued it up yourself or encountered it in the wild as you knocked out some holiday shopping.
As it celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, calling “All I Want For Christmas Is You” a holiday classic feels like an understatement. It’s got everything that makes a Christmas song great: sleigh bells, catchy backup vocals that are easy enough to sing along with for those not blessed with Carey’s range, plenty of yearning. At its core, it’s a love song wrapped up in green and red with a lacy silver bow on top. What’s more universal, after all, than “I just want you for my own, more than you could ever know”?
By now Mariah’s holiday opus is a modern standard on par with other beloved classics like “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” or, hell, even “Jingle Bells.” This year, it made its annual return to Billboard’s Hot 100 chart earlier than ever, coming in at No. 39 the week of Nov. 23. It broke three Guinness World Records, becoming the highest charting holiday song on the Hot 100 for a solo artist, the most-streamed track on Spotify in a 24-hour period (it netted 10.8 million streams in one day last December) and broke the record for most weeks in the UK Top 10 for a Christmas song.
But while “All I Want For Christmas Is You” will be sung for many holidays to come, it also is the only Christmas original from the past 25 years you can say that about. Begs the question: Where are the other modern Christmas classics?
Below, we’ve put together a playlist of 25 strong contenders — some festive, some goofy, some sad, and all original compositions — that were penned and released in the years since 1994. If you need a break from “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” we’ve got you covered.
John Legend, “Bring Me Love” (2018)
John Legend’s got the kind of vocal chops and natural charisma that make a holiday album from him a no-brainer. But while he could have easily stuck to serviceable covers of classics like “This Christmas,” his A Legendary Christmas album contains not one but six original compositions. The best of those is the catchy “Bring Me Love,” a Motown-inspired plea to Santa for a special delivery.
Diamond Rugs, “Christmas in a Chinese Restaurant” (2012)
“Christmas in a Chinese Restaurant” is a melancholy tale from Diamond Rugs (the supergroup featuring members of Deer Tick, the Black Lips, Dead Confederate, Los Lobos and Six Finger Satellite) whose drunken narrator finds himself dining alone on the holiday and “walking through the town square singing Christmas carols to myself.” With lines like “how’s the turkey? How’s the ham? I can’t finish my moo goo gai pan,” it’s funny, but Deer Tick frontman John McCauley delivers just the right amount of pathos as he describes his tears turning to ice and offers one last resigned “Feliz Navidad, and all that.”
Kacey Musgraves, “Christmas Makes Me Cry” (2016)
When it comes to the originals on Kacey Musgraves’s A Very Kacey Christmas, “Ribbons and Bows” may be catchier, and “A Willie Nice Christmas,” her duet with Willie Nelson, more fun, but the underrated “Christmas Makes Me Cry” is a great entry into the canon of sad Christmas songs. “It’s the ones we miss/No one to kiss under the mistletoe/Another year gone by, just one more that I just couldn’t make it home,” she sings. “And I know that they say have a happy holiday, and every year I swear I sincerely try/Oh, but Christmas, it always makes me cry.”
McCarthy Trenching, “Christmas Song” (2008)
Sad songs just hit differently around Christmastime; there’s something about all the love and good cheer that makes a song like McCarthy Trenching’s “Christmas Song” and Phoebe Bridgers’ stunning cover of it all the more devastating. “You don’t have to be alone to be lonesome,” Dan McCarthy reminds us. “It’s so easy to forget, and sadness comes crashing like a brick through the window, and it’s Christmas, and no one can fix it.”
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects” (2009)
Originally released in 2009, “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects” also appears on Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings’ excellent Christmas album It’s a Holiday Soul Party. It sees Jones reminiscing about her holidays as a child spent wondering how Santa would reach her when “there ain’t no chimneys in the projects” and eventually becomes an ode to her mother’s resourcefulness.
Saturday Night Live, “I Wish It Was Christmas Today” (2000)
Part of what made this recurring SNL sketch funny was the sheer effort and dedication to this simple holiday ditty — with Horatio Sanz on a backpacker guitar, Jimmy Fallon cluelessly pushing buttons on a keyboard, Chris Kattan holding said keyboard and Tracy Morgan shimmying stone-faced. Between Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show, they’ve performed it 11 times over the years, and while the joke is that it’s bad, it turns out it just needed a little sprucing up: The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas recorded a cover of it that transformed the bit into a banger.
Fitz and The Tantrums, “Santa Stole My Lady” (2010)
This Fitz and The Tantrums track is essentially a soulful twist on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” with the jolly elf macking on our narrator’s girlfriend instead of his mother. “I caught Santa under my tree, he was flirting with my honey trying to take her from me,” he sings. “Hey, don’t be fooled by this fairytale, watch out or he could do this to someone else. He took my girl, and he made me cry, and that’s the way I feel about Christmastime.”
Sufjan Stevens, “Christmas in the Room” (2008)
Sufjan Stevens has recorded significantly more Christmas songs than there are hypothetical entries in his abandoned 50 states project — between his Songs for Christmas and Silver & Gold, there are 100 — but the loveliest one is arguably “Christmas in the Room,” which reminds us that all you need on the holidays is the company of someone you love. Though he’s got “no travel plans, no shopping malls, no candy canes, no Santa Claus,” he promises the object of his affection that “I’ll dance with you, I’ll laugh with you ’til it’s Christmas in the room.”
The Killers, “Don’t Shoot Me Santa” (2007)
The Killers have released plenty of Christmas singles, but none as spot-on as “Don’t Shoot Me Santa,” an overwrought plea to a vengeful, gun-toting Saint Nick to spare our narrator because he’s “been a clean-living boy” despite his earlier admission that he’s “been killing just for fun.” It teeters on self-parody, and it’s absurd in the best possible way.
Rufus Wainwright, “Spotlight on Christmas” (2003)
Rufus Wainwright and his musical family members have made a tradition of performing their “A Not So Silent Night” holiday show each year, but on “Spotlight on Christmas,” he forgoes the pomp and circumstance to remind us of the true meaning of the season. It’s an indictment of Yuletide materialism, noting that “all the horses and toys never could fix the poor little rich boys” and asking us not to forget that “Jesus, Mary and Joseph once were a family, poor but rich in hope, yeah.”
Fountains of Wayne, “I Want An Alien For Christmas” (1997)
Don’t worry, Santa: the narrator of this Fountains of Wayne power-pop holiday single has the logistics all figured out. “He can live in the bathtub, so don’t worry about a thing,” he sings. “And I’ll take him out for walks when it gets nicer in the spring.”
Low, “Just Like Christmas” (1999)
This Low track, an indie classic, offers up a reminder that those warm, fuzzy Christmas feelings aren’t dependent upon snowfall. “By the time we got to Oslo, snow was gone, and we got lost,” Mimi Parker sings. “The beds were small, but we felt so young. It was just like Christmas.”
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “All I Want For Christmas” (2008)
Karen O and company’s “All I Want for Christmas” is full of sleigh bells and “fa la la”s and a similar sentiment — “my only Christmas wish is for you to be near” — but don’t mistake it for the band’s take on Mariah. The track is an excellent original, offered up to fans as a free download on their MySpace page back in 2008.
Kanye West, “Christmas in Harlem” (2010)
Kanye West gets some strong assists from CyHi Da Prynce, Teyana Taylor and some Marvin Gaye samples on this holiday offering — part of his GOOD Fridays series — from 2010. West’s only become more divisive in the years since, but a Christmas groove like this one is something we can all get behind.
Kelly Clarkson, “Underneath the Tree” (2013)
You’d be forgiven if the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Kelly Clarkson and Christmas is Alan Rickman and a woman in devil horns dancing to “The Trouble With Love Is” in Love, Actually. But “Underneath the Tree,” from her 2013 holiday album Wrapped in Red, is a shimmering pop gem perfect for this time of year.
Los Campesinos!, “Kindle A Flame In Her Heart” (2010)
This Los Campesinos! holiday track opens by recalling a childhood nativity play with uh, limited resources: “At eight years old, I played the role of Gabriel dressed head to toe in white denim, though with less optimistic foresight.”
Ariana Grande, “Santa Tell Me” (2014)
Ariana Grande has earned herself some comparisons to Mariah Carey throughout the years, and while “Santa Tell Me” hasn’t become nearly as ubiquitous as “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” it’s cut from a similar cloth. Grande demands that Santa tell her if the object of her affection feels the same way or if she’s wasting her time.
LCD Soundsystem, “Christmas Will Break Your Heart” (2015)
There’s no denying that LCD Soundsystem’s “Christmas Will Break Your Heart” is a real bummer. Throughout its lyrics, James Murphy notes that “Christmas will crush your soul,” “wreck your head,” “shove you down,” “drown your love” and “break your heart like the armies of the unrelenting dark once the peace talks fall apart.” And yet, despite all that, it offers a hopeful note as he defiantly concludes, “but still I’m coming home to you.”
Harper Blynn, “Christmas Ain’t No Good Without You” (2010)
After a name change in 2014 and a brief stint as Mosco Rosco, Harper Blynn is now defunct, but the band’s entry into the Christmas canon lives on. The sentiment behind “Christmas Ain’t No Good Without You” is pretty straightforward, as Pete Harper and J. Blynn rattle off a list of all the gifts that failed to lift their spirits in the absence of that special someone over a doo-wop groove.
Kathleen Edwards, “It’s Christmastime (Let’s Just Survive)” (2019)
This Kathleen Edwards ode to dysfunctional family gatherings just came out last month, but it’s already a favorite thanks to hilarious lines like “You have a meltdown when we play Scrabble/it’s not my fault you’re always left with vowels” and “The cat pissed on the Christmas tree, and it soaked through the box of the iPad that you bought me/Is it too soon to ask/Did you get Apple Care with that?”
Aloe Blacc, “Tell Your Mama” (2018)
“Tell Your Mama” comes from last year’s Aloe Blacc holiday album Christmas Funk, and it’s all about passing along best wishes this time of year. “Tell your mama merry Christmas from me and mines to you and yours,” he sings on its infectious chorus.
Sia, “Candy Cane Lane” (2017)
Sia’s 2017 album Everyday Is Christmas was an ambitious one; each of its 10 tracks is an original holiday tune. “Candy Cane Lane” sounds like it’d be right at home in one of the festive claymation specials it mimics in its music video, full of jingle bells and an invitation to “bring a friend who loves to play.”
Puss N Boots, “Christmas Butt” (2019)
This live favorite from Puss N Boots (Norah Jones, Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper) finally got a studio release this year on their Dear Santa EP. It laments the “shrill ads for beer and automobiles scored with ‘Jingle Bells’ and Taylor Swift” we encounter every year before imploring us to “shake your Christmas butt ’til your cranky goes away.”
Piebald, “(All I Want for Christmas Is To) Rage With My Friends” (2019)
We weren’t exactly expecting the first new Piebald music in 12 years to be a Christmas EP, but we’re not complaining. “Maybe you’re thinking, ‘This is weird of Piebald, who haven’t made new music since 2007 to musically rebirth themselves with a 3-song holiday release,'” the band said in a statement last month. “Well, our response to you is this, ‘You’re not wrong. However, we have never really done anything the right or proper way. Weirdly it’s just how we do things at camp Piebald.'”
Slow Club, “Christmas TV” (2009)
This English indie folk duo’s Yuletide single isn’t overtly Christmasy; it opens by reminding us that “it’s okay to have scars, they will make you who you are.” But that’s something we occasionally need to hear this time of year, and ultimately the narrator’s one holiday wish is revealed: “I’d like it if you made it to mine by Christmas Eve, so you can hold me and we’ll watch Christmas TV.”