The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Christmas Songs Emanating Non-Stop from Your Radio
Do you hear what I hear? They're everywhere, they're everywhere. And they won't stop until December 26, if then.
The practice of radio stations switching to an all-Christmas music format for the holidays (beginning this year right after Halloween) isn't nearly as old as it feels.
In golden days of yore some stations would work intermittent Christmas music into their playlist over Dec. 24 and 25. WPAT in Paterson, NJ, serving the greater New York metropolitan area, used to air a cleverly engineered playlist over those two days, starting off with secular ditties early on Christmas Eve, getting more serious as the day progressed and moving to classic carols and religiously themed play through Christmas day, finally segueing into some fairly abstract alternative instrumental holiday faire until midnight.
Following the news, they would revert without comment to their regular programming as if Christmas had never happened.
Soft-rock stations started migrating in numbers to all-holiday play lists in the '90s. The first documented station to go all Christmas was Phoenix, Arizona's 99.9 KEZ, in 1990. The rest of the industry dutifully fell in line with the every-day, around-the-clock format. Nielson estimates some 500 stations across the country turn all-Christmas during the holidays.
This year's Christmas Song Selection
"12 Days of Christmas," Straight No Chaser
Straight No Chaser (SNC) is a professional a cappella group which originated in 1996 at Indiana University. In 2007 their video of "The 12 Days of Christmas" went viral with over 8 million views and subsequently led to a five-album record deal with Atlantic Records.
Why? Well, to put you in the holiday mood, of course. That and there's the now-time-honored conviction, based on industry statistics, that an all-Christmas format increases a station's listening audience by 50% or more.
The format is wildly popular with advertisers. At least one station reports that holiday music accounts for a third of its ad revenues in a year. The station's ad manager reports ad time for the holiday season "generally sells out by the end of July."
Somebody's listening. Advertisers think with their wallet.
The bombardment is deep but not really that broad. The holiday playlist at most stations isn't all that extensive. According to FiveThirtyEight the top 15 songs comprise half of the music played on holiday radio; the top 53 songs make up 90 percent of the spins. (Yes, Nate Silver's political website reports on Christmas music on the radio.) If you're overcome with a certain sense of deja ecoute over what's coming through your radio, there's a reason.
Genuine Christmas hits are slow in the making. The last bona fide new holiday tune to crack the rotation was Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You," released in 1994. Of course some added variety leaks into the list with songs covered by more than one artist—which, come to think of it, could either detract from or add to your sense of repetition. "White Christmas" comes readily to mind. Among the most popular versions are Bing Crosby's and one by The Drifters (incidentally their biggest selling single.)
FiveThirtyEight's calculation of the twenty holiday songs getting the most radio airtime
Pct. of Radio Plays
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)
It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Chrristmas
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Holly Jolly Christmas
Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer
Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree
Frosty The Snowman
Jingle Bell Rock
It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
Carol Of The Bells
Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
Most recently played 8,000 songs on 70 iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel) soft rock, variety and oldies stations playing a holiday format.
Interestingly, "White Christmas" didn't make the FiveThirtyEight list. Nor did it crack the top-ten playlist compiled by The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), the organization of music publishers, composers and songwriters.
ASCAP's's Top 10 Christmas plays
All I Want for Christmas Is You
A Holly Jolly Christmas
Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow
Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree
Jingle Bell Rock
It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
It did make ASCAP's honorable mention list, however—only fair for America's putative favorite Christmas song.
White Christmas 1941
Winter Wonderland 1934
Feliz Navidad 1970
Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town 1934
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas 1943
Here Comes Santa Claus 1947
The Christmas Song 1946
Frosty the Snowman 1950
Jingle Bells 1958
Bing Crosby's recording of "White Christmas" is the world's best-selling single with estimated sales in excess of 100 million copies worldwide. Other versions of the song have sold 50 million more. (In all, it's been covered over 500 times.)
When Berlin first played "White Christmas" for Crosby at Paramount, he said, "You don't have to worry about this one, Irving."
This year's installment marks the 20th anniversary edition of The Skelly Family Christmas Website
Don't tell the Evangelicals or the Catholics, but the most popular Christmas songs on the radio are overwhelmingly secular. If you're looking for the classic carols of your childhood — the kind sung by rosy-cheeked choraliers huddled under a lamppost, bedecked in oversize scarves and beaver hats, harmonizing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," seek elsewhere.
"Little Drummer Boy" seems to be the one unabashedly religious carol to permanently crack the holiday lineup. Five of the top 15 songs are generic wintry tunes and three are from iconic 1960s TV specials (like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer), according to FiveThirtyEight.
Fun fact: Approximately half of the 30 best-selling Christmas songs by ASCAP members were written by Jewish composers. Irving Berlin was born Israel Isidore Beilin in Russia. He also wrote "Happy Holiday." Johnny Marks has three top Christmas songs, the most for any writer: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," and "A Holly Jolly Christmas."
She's neither Jewish nor a household name, but ... Darlene Love has contributed two notable Christmas Songs to our modern holiday treasure collection. They've made her one of the biggest musical stars of the Christmas season whose name isn't on the tip of anyone's tongue. But people remember the voice.
One song gets little air time but is part of a 29-year holiday tradition enjoyed by millions.
The other song gets virtually no air time at all, but it's as famous as its counterpart for reasons having nothing to do with the radio.
"Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" is a song Love recorded for the 1963 holiday compilation album, "A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector." Spector planned to have his wife Ronnie (of the Ronettes) sing the song. According to Love, when Ronnie Spector couldn't get as much oomph into the song, Spector, ever the producer, brought Love into the studio to finish the job. The song became a big success over time and is now one of Love's signature tunes. And a big reason is David Letterman.
In 1986, she was asked to sing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on a David Letterman Christmas week show. It was a a big enough success that Letterman reprised it the following year and then turned it into an annual event.
One of the highlights each year was the sax solo by Bruce Kapler, the saxophonist for Paul Shaffer's house band. He'd make his entrance in such novel ways as being pulled in on Santa's sleigh, "flying" in from the rafters on wires, walking down the steps of the audience risers, jumping out of a fireplace and appearing in a giant snow globe.
Love released another Christmas single in 1992, named, "All Alone on Christmas." It was written and composed by Steven Van Zandt (the guitarist with the do rag from the E Street band) and both Van Zandt and E Street saxophonist Clarence Clemons, along with the brass group Miami Horns, performed in the music video.
The song features prominently in the movie "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York" in the soundtrack behind the memorable scene of a joyfully liberated-from-his-family MaCaulay Culkin hanging out the window of a taxi cab as he crosses the Queensboro Bridge into his Manhattan adventure.
(Another fun fact: Donald Trump, then the owner of the Plaza Hotel, had a cameo in "Home Alone 2.")
Love had already been around the music industry for a long time. As a pop singer and as a highly sought-after backup singer. Over the years, she has done backup for acts like Sam Cooke, Dionne Warwick, Bill Medley, the Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, the Ronettes, U2, and Sonny and Cher.
She is a lady with a powerful vocal instrument. Often she's a far more powerful singer than whomever she's backing up, on stage or in studio.
She enjoyed early but brief notoriety in 1962, singing lead on "He's a Rebel," a song written by Gene Pitney. She recorded it with a girl group named the Blossoms. Produced by Phil Spector, it reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 list. It's been ranked No. 263 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Billboard also named the song #31 on their list of 100 Greatest Girl Group Songs of All Time.
The problem for Love was that Spector credited the single to different girl group. Spector had learned a competing version would soon come out from Vikki Carr on rival label Liberty Records, and he wanted to beat it to market. The Crystals were his group of choice to record the song, but they were touring on the east coast. His studio was in Los Angeles.
So Spector had The Blossoms record the track and then credited The Crystals to the public and on the record label.
A member of that group recalled, "Our mouths fell open" upon hearing a disc jockey announce "the new Crystals song." The quintet then had to work "He's a Rebel" into their live repertoire and sing it on tour.
Yet another fun fact:"He's a Rebel" reached No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 list in November. The number two song was Pitney's "Only Love Can Break a Heart", giving him in effect the two top-selling singles in the U.S. Pitney never had a #1 hit as a singer, and this would have been his best chance.
Faithful to her roots in an uncertain world, Love continues to do a Christmas show every year in New York City, which is always capped by "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)."
This year's Christmas Alt. Song Selection
What's up with Britain?
You probably won't hear this one on the radio. Ever find yourself inexplicably drawn into that melancholy underside of Christmas? Here's a holiday ditty worth your moody attention: a 1987 UK release, "Fairytale of New York" (by The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl). The British listening public's favorite Christmas song, this is the U.K.'s most-played Christmas selection of the 21st century. But go early. Don't find yourself listening to this late on a Christmas night having just polished off several beers or brandies or that roach you've been carrying around in your change purse for a couple of months. Leave it to the Irish to pair bleakness and despair with a hauntingly touching musical arrangement and the faintest glimmer of hope.
Slightly more positive Christmas Spirit than the previous six years at this time. However, notably larger than usual bulge in mid-range response ("Do You Hear What I Hear)." Which way will this sentiment trend as we go deeper into the season? A bi-polar stock market offers little guidance. Unusaully small curmudgeon factor at this stage ("Bah Humbug)."