On those old Christmas songs’ unprecedented success in 2018: Thank today’s (monotonous) hip-hop and pop.

You may have heard that Mariah Carey came just a couple of rungs shy of getting her first No. 1 single in over a decade with a song that’s nearly a quarter century old and has since become a holiday standard.  

The song “All I Want For Christmas Is You” reached No. 3 on the latest Billboard Hot 100 chart (revealed New Year’s Day and dated January 5), which is the holiday nugget’s highest peak yet – and the highest position achieved by any holiday tune in 60 years!

However, that was the last chart that will reflect this year’s holiday activity and like the other 22 holiday themed songs that jingled their way onto the Hot 100 this past November and December, Mariah’s classic will begin its annual descent down the list next week – if it doesn’t fall off completely – as radio stations and music consumers in general return to their normal pre-holiday playlists.

Mariah Carey (center) surrounded by (clockwise from top left) Nat King Cole, Burl Ives, Brenda Lee, Dean Martin and Bobby Helms.

But Carey’s near-triumph wasn’t the only Yuletide story on this year’s charts. This year’s representation of Christmas music on the Hot 100 was staggering!

https://www.billboard.com/charts/hot-100

Of the 23 holiday songs listed on this latest chart (itself an all-time record), all but one of them reached a new high in the 2018 holiday season.  Four of them reached the top ten for the first time: Andy Williams’ “Its The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (No. 10 peak last week); Burl Ives “A Holly Jolly Christmas” (No. 10 this week); “Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” (No. 9) and Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock” (No. 8).

And the song that’s arguably the most classic of all – Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” – just missed the top ten, reaching No. 11 on this week’s chart, also a new high. 

Chalk up new chart peaks also for holiday tunes by Gene Autry, Dean Martin, Wham!, the Ronettes, José Feliciano, Perry Como, Elvis Presley, John and Yoko Ono Lennon, Darlene Love, Chuck Berry and Frank Sinatra.  Only Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” failed to match its high of No. 11, which it achieved in previous years.  

So what made 2018’s holiday season such a festive one musically?  Why did songs we’ve mostly known and loved all our lives all of a sudden make such a huge chart splash in 2018?

Much of the credit has been given to new Billboard chart rules that allow older songs (including all those holiday classics) to chart again as long as they rank above No. 50 and are rising in more than one of Billboard’s three chart metrics: streaming (on services like Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, YouTube, Tidal or Amazon); sales or digital downloads, or radio airplay.  Most of the returning Christmas songs made gains in all three measures as they climbed this season’s charts.  

But those chart rules have been in place for more than a decade and streaming has been a chart input since 2013. So what changed this time?  Why did practically ALL of those old holiday standards have a bigger chart impact this year than ever before?

Look no further than the other 77 (non-holiday) songs on this week’s list.

To put it mildly, the non-holiday pop songs on the chart today are mostly Debby Downers.  Either that or they’re overly aggressive hip-hop songs filled with vulgar content that just doesn’t mix well with the holidays.  Consequently, radio stations likely had no problem replacing them with the more palatable holiday standards we’ve come to know and love over the years. 

Take the six non-holiday songs in this week’s top ten. The three highest – Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next,” Halsey’s “Without Me” and Post Malone’s “Sunflower” featuring Swae Lee – are all dispirited tunes about rocky relationships – with the first two taking it to the extreme of breaking up.  A fourth, “Happier” by Marshmello featuring Bastille, seems upbeat, but it’s really about a heartbroken lover’s decision to move on from an ending relationship and it couldn’t be more melancholy in its lyrical content. 

The only two top-10 tunes that don’t fit pop’s prevailing sad-and-broken narrative are the aspirational “High Hopes” by Panic! At The Disco and Travis Scott’s recent self-affirming No. 1 crossover hit “Sicko Mode.”

And those are just the ones that managed to rank above most of the Christmas tunes.  Further down the chart in the top twenty are more self-absorbed hip-hop songs by Lil Baby and Gunna, Kodak Black featuring Travis Scott and Offset, Sheck Wes, Gucci Mane + Bruno Mars + Kodak Black (again) and Cardi B.  

The only non-hip-hop, non-holiday song in that area of the chart?  The seven-month-old “Girls Like You” by Maroon 5 featuring rapper Cardi B (again).  Frankly, that’s a tune radio should’ve moved on from months ago after it ran its course at No. 1.  As it ranks at No. 14 this week, though, “Girls” actually has a strong chance to return to the top ten on the next chart – in its 32nd(!) week on the list – as holiday songs above it disappear and radio stations’ end-of-year retrospectives of 2018’s biggest hits start to impact.

The story of all this depressing – or in Maroon 5’s case, stale – pop music doesn’t end there. The next five non-holiday songs in the top 30 are all even moodier tunes about struggling to make it in life or getting over failed or past relationships; in other words not the kind of music we gravitate towards en masse during the holidays.  

It’s not until you get to No. 30 that you find more festive current fare in “Taki, Taki,” the part-Spanish/part-English dancehall tune by DJ Snake featuring Selena Gomez, Ozuna and – who else? – Cardi B.  And even that song, complete with Cardi rapping about her, well, bodily assets, sounds more like a summertime jam than the dead-of-winter hit it purports to be.  

The story is pretty much the same below the top 30 where – with very few exceptions – you have a combo of run-of-the-mill hip-hop and dreary pop songs, many of which have been around for months.

Oh, and classic holiday tunes…

Yes, it’s those good old-fashioned, eternally merry and positively uplifting holiday classics that lifted our spirits this year perhaps unlike ever before.  

Alas, it’s time for those 23 holiday songs on this week’s chart to begin their mass exodus from the list, thus paving the way for all those “misfit tunes” we call contemporary hits to rebound up the chart.

Then we’ll get to be inundated again with depressing pop songs about forlorn ex-lovers, raunchy hip-hop tracks about, well, all the things rappers boast about, and just plain music that you’ve been hearing for months and months with no end in sight (Maroon 5).

That is, until next November and December when we’ll be granted our annual reprieve from pop music’s current doldrums…and all we’ll want for Christmas is for Mariah Carey and the others to once again make their annual bid for pop’s pinnacle.

Until then, have a “happier” 2019!

DJRob

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