What’s It Take to Break a Holiday Hit? Songs Must Stand the Test of Time

This year, a handful of new recordings beat long odds and were among the 50 most popular holiday tracks: Lizzo’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas” and Lauren Spencer-Smith’s version of “Last Christmas” by Wham! ranked Nos. 39 and 47, respectively, in consumption – measuring track sales and streams – from Nov. 4 to Dec. 22, according to Luminate. Kane Brown’s version of “Blue Christmas,” made famous by Elvis Presley, ranked No. 48.  

If historical trends persist, though, many of this year’s new holiday recordings won’t even survive the summer. Creating a holiday standard is one of the most difficult, unlikely tasks in all of songwriting.  

Looking back over the last five years shows the slim odds a new recording faces in becoming an annual favorite. In 2017, 72 newly released tracks made the top 1,000 holiday recordings of the last two months of the year. Three of them — Sia’s “Santa’s Coming for Us” (No. 37), Pentatonix’s “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” (No. 68) and Us the Duo’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (No. 98) — made the top 100. Gwen Stefani had eight of the 72 new recordings in the top 1,000. Hanson’s “Finally, It’s Christmas,” at No. 610, was an original song competing against new recordings of well-worn favorites like “Wonderful Christmastime” and “The Christmas Song.”  

Five years later, only 30 recordings released in 2017 remained in the top 1,000. Sia’s “Santa’s Coming for Us” dropped from No. 37 to No. 171, while her song “Snowman” has risen to No. 53 to become the most popular recording of the class of 2017. Stefani had only three recordings from 2017 in the top 1,000, and her top-ranked holiday song, “You Make It Feel Like Christmas,” released in 2011, slipped to No. 42 from No. 18 five years earlier. Hanson was in the top 1,000 — with “What Christmas Means to Me,” originally recorded by Stevie Wonder in 1967, not its original song from five years earlier. 

To become a holiday favorite, a new recording must prove itself by competing against popular holiday songs that have withstood decades-long wars of attrition. Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is a relatively young holiday standard at 28 years old. “Last Christmas” by Wham!, ranked No. 5 this holiday season, is 36. Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me” (No. 7) and Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree” (No. 8), just 8 and 12 years old, respectively, have beaten the odds to challenge established recordings like Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (No. 6), released in 1963 and often heard in advertisements and movie soundtracks.  

That weeding-out process isn’t enough to deter songwriters from trying to create the next holiday hit and collect royalty checks year after year, though. This year, Chris Isaak, Backstreet Boys and Thomas Rhett released albums or EPs of Christmas songs. Sam Smith, Alanis Morissette, Dan + Shay, Joss Stone, Lukas Graham and Remi Wolf released individual tracks.  

Even though the odds of writing a holiday standard are slim, the payoff is a lure, says Rhett Miller, singer for the alt-country band The Old 97’s. Miller and his musician friends have told “a probably apocryphal story” amongst themselves about musician Nick Lowe walking to his mailbox one day in a bath robe and finding a check for a million dollars not knowing that Curtis Stigers’ cover of his song “Peace, Love and Understanding” was featured on the soundtrack to the movie The Bodyguard that would go on to sell 44 million copies worldwide.  

“In the olden days, landing a song on a soundtrack like that was sort of the end all be all,” says Miller. “But, really, the Christmas song is the biggest dream of any songwriter — to have a song that connects and becomes a standard.” Miller acknowledges the long odds a holiday recording faces in becoming a recurring hit. Writing a holiday standard is like winning the lottery: A jackpot is exceedingly unlikely, but, as the saying goes, you can’t win if you don’t play. “I did have an idea that if we contributed an album of holiday songs to the conversation, we would at least be in the running for one of those songs that connected,” says Miller.  

Miller has the benefit of having an influential company in his corner: Disney. James Gunn, writer and director of Marvel Comics’ Guardians of the Galaxy movie franchise, cast the Old 97’s for the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special that premiered on Disney+ video on-demand streaming service in November. The Old 97’s re-recorded their original song, “Here It Is Christmastime,” with actor-singer Kevin Bacon, and performed the song wearing prosthetic makeup. That helped “Here It Is Christmastime” debut at No. 7 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales and No. 27 on the all-genre Digital Song Sales charts for Dec. 10. Although the recording ranks only at No. 865 this holiday season, it will likely benefit from Marvel Comics fans viewing the special in the coming years.   

In the streaming age, nothing helps posterity like a partnership with a giant multi-national entertainment platform. Lizzo, Spencer-Smith and Brown, the top of the Class of 2022, recorded their holiday tracks under exclusive partnership with Amazon Music. In earlier years, Amazon Music has released original holiday recordings by Katy Perry (“Cozy Little Christmas” in 2018), Carrie Underwood (an original song, “Favorite Time of the Year,” in 2020), John Legend (“Happy Christmas [War Is Over]” in 2019), Taylor Swift (“Christmas Tree Farm [Old Timey Version]” in 2019) and Camila Cabello (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” in 2021).  

“Each year, we really look to work with artists that we know our customers love and who we think are going to be a good fit for our holiday listeners and really work with them to find the right track,” says Stephen Brower, global co-lead, artist relations at Amazon Music, “whether that’s a cover in the case of Lizzo doing Stevie Wonder’s ‘Someday at Christmas’ or in Katy and Carrie’s cases, having brand new songs.”  

What holiday listeners seem to want every November and December is comfort music that harkens back to eras bygone. Even an original holiday song must have a classic, throwback sound that takes from late ’50s and early ’60s pop and rock. The rockabilly in Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock” and Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” production in The Ronettes “Sleigh Ride” set a template that’s been closely followed by later artists. “Ever since Mariah, only songs that had that ’60s Spector feel seem to be getting any traction,” says Sean Ross, author of the Ross on Radio newsletter.  

Christmas is no time to reinvent the wheel. Recreating the sounds of Christmas past gives Lizzo, Spencer-Smith and Brown the best chance at capturing an audience and maintaining momentum for the next five years. “Because the Christmas music season is typically only about six weeks, people don’t get tired of them,” Tom Poleman, chief programming officer for iHeartMedia, says in an email to Billboard. “As a result, there’s a huge supply of great songs to play, making it hard for new ones to cut through. The ones that do break through are usually well-made remakes of holiday classics by a big star like Kelly Clarkson.” 

This holiday season, Clarkson’s covers of Chuck Berry’s “Run Run Rudolph” (No. 103) and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (No. 238) were the first and second most popular versions of those songs after the originals. She also has popular versions of “My Favorite Things” (No. 282), “Please Come Home for Christmas” (No. 317) and “Silent Night” (No. 382). But Clarkson is the rare contemporary artist whose original songs are more popular than her covers. In a few years, “Under the Mistletoe” (No. 105) from 2020 and “Christmas Isn’t Canceled (You Are)” (No. 168) from 2021 could become the next “Underneath the Tree” (No. 8). 

Miller is aware of the long odds that “Here It Is Christmastime” faces in the coming years – but he’s hopeful he can have a Clarkson-level hit one day. “It’s going to be something,” he says. “But will it be my Nick Lowe-in-a-bath robe moment? I don’t know. It would be great if something broke through.” 

Glenn Peoples