How Pop Stars Cashed in on the Holidays With Mixed Results
Q: What do Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Stevie Wonder and The Jackson Five have in common?
A: They all recorded a song written in 1944 by a then 19-year-old Jewish kid from Chicago named Mel Tormé.
Since it was penned, "The Christmas Song" (better known by its opening lyric, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire"), has earned an estimated $19 million in royalties for Tormé and his estate, proving that it is possible to get rich off one song.
Cashing in on Christmas music can mean big bucks, which is why just about every musical act from Celine Dion to Twisted Sister has put out at least one holiday-themed single. While most are covers of well-known songs, a few - like Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" - have become instant classics earning their perennial place in the holiday hall of fame.
So, here they are, from rap to rock and from country to tarantella - the best and most ironic pop-introduced holiday songs.
TOP 10 HOLIDAY POP SINGLES OF RECENT YEARS
10. The Killers - "Great Big Sled"
Every December since 2006, the Killers have put out a Christmas single for AIDS charity (RED). The band’s first Christmas single was the booming "A Great Big Sled" - the track that started it all, bringing the Killers’ pop-stadium rock to the North Pole.
09. The xx - "Last Christmas"
There’s no recorded version of the xx’s cover of Wham!’s classic "Last Christmas" (it was performed live on BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge), but it’s a cover that’s hard to forget. The sexy and sullen xx bring out the melancholy that’s lost in the original’s upbeat pop structure. The trio put their stamp on the song, drawing out the song’s melancholy.
08. Destiny’s Child - "8 Days of Christmas"
What’s Christmas without a little Beyoncé, Kelly and Michelle? On their holiday track the ladies lay down a groove that calls back the nostalgia of ’90s R&B. The song is a little naughty, a little sexy, but hard to resist.
07. Beck - "The Little Drum Machine Boy"
This hilarious Beck cut twists the original "Drummer Boy" carol into a Hanukkah funk song, with a mean bass and robotic vocals chanting Jewish prayers. The track ends with Beck riding the "Jingle Bells" melody but with much different lyrics - "I get down, I get down, I get down all the way" - which eventually leads Beck to yell, "Hanukkah pimp!"
06. Kanye West - "Christmas in Harlem"
This one-off from Kanye West is an unusually warm song with its lovely samples from classics by Marvin Gaye and Shuggie Otis. It’s a touching song, showing that Yeezy isn’t such an asshole and may have a soft side.
05. The Ramones - "Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)"
The Ramones’ Christmas song is probably the best punk holiday track to date, or the only one. Though the song is on the band’s 11th album (far past their peak), Joey Ramones’ vocals sound earnest, and the New York legends bring back their iconic ’50s beach-rock sound to the holidays.
04. Julian Casablancas - "I Wish It Was Christmas Today"
Julian Casablancas, the lead singer of the Strokes, first performed this song on "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon." It walks the line between synthpop and rock, blending in Christmas bells and cheer. It’s a bit silly, but Casablancas’ dead-serious vocals drive the track, making it one of the more enjoyable original pop Christmas songs of late.
03. Lady Gaga - "Christmas Tree"
Sure, Lady Gaga put out that lovely "A Very Gaga Holiday" EP in 2011, but Gaga’s best Christmas song is "Christmas Tree," made back in her Fame days. It’s a hilarious dance song full of sexual innuendos that will undoubtedly get you dancing during the holiday season.
02. Wham! - "Last Christmas"
The xx may have brought something new to Wham!’s epic, but there’s nothing like the original. The sweet classic ’80s pop duo, George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, made a modern classic, thanks to the song’s unforgettable hook and Michael’s adorable vocals.
01. Mariah Carey - "All I Want For Christmas Is You"
In 1994 Mariah Carey released Merry Christmas; and while most holiday albums range from forgettable to horrific, hers was outstanding with the highlight "All I Want For Christmas Is You." Mimi jazzes things up, but her stunning vocals shine through, transforming the song into one of the most revered Christmas jams to date.
TOP FIVE MOST IRONIC HOLIDAY POP SONGS
05. Various Artists - "Baby, It’s Cold Outside"
Written by Frank Loesser (the composer of "Guys and Dolls"), this holiday classic barely mentions any holiday at all. On the surface it’s innocent enough, but listen closely to the lyrics of this duet and read between the lines: She wants to leave, he wants to keep her there using the excuse "baby, it’s cold outside." Finally he slips her a roofie - "Say, what’s in this drink?" - and the song is over.
04. Lou Monte - "Dominick the Donkey"
This novelty song written in 1960 actually made it to number 14 on Billboard’s "Bubbling Under the Hot 100" list. In this little ditty loaded with bad Italian typecasting, Santa owns a donkey that saves Christmas in Italy. The worst stereotype in the song actually occurred during the song’s production: According to Wikipedia, the original studio recording of "Dominick the Donkey" was financed by the Gambino crime family of the New York mafia!
03. John Denver - "Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk on Christmas)"
Featured on country-and-western icon John Denver’s 10th studio album titled Rocky Mountain Christmas, alcoholism and potential spousal abuse permeate the lyrics of the cowboy Christmas classic:
"Just last year, when I was only seven
And now I’m almost eight, as you can see
You came home at quarter past eleven
And fell down underneath our Christmas tree."
Ironically, two decades later Denver himself would run his car into a tree (presumably a spruce; it was in Aspen), resulting in a prolonged court trial for DUI.
02. Band Aid - "Do They Know It’s Christmas"
Written in response to the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, this became the number-one selling single in UK history. The melody and sentiment are spot-on, but songwriter Bob Geldof should have done some research before penning the lyrics "And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas" - unless on a mountain, it never snows in Ethiopia. The title itself is ludicrous considering most of the people in the affected region were Muslim.
01. NewSong - "Christmas Shoes"
Largely regarded as possibly the worst holiday song of all time, this sticky-sweet country Christian classic written in 2000 spawned a 2002 made-for-TV movie of the same name starring Rob Lowe at a career low point. The song, which is told from the point of view of a narrator stuck in line at a mall behind a bedraggled young boy who’s trying to buy shoes with pennies for his dying mother from a less-than-sympathetic cashier, inspired a classic holiday rant by comic Patton Oswalt. If you can suspend cynicism long enough to get through this song without giggling, you’re either possessed by the Christmas spirit or drunk.