When you really think about it, many things have changed since 1984. Despite the fact that we still celebrate the holiday season in the same ways as we did 30 years ago, most of the songs played on the radio this time of year are recent additions to Christmas playlists. Though many modern artists still decide to cover classics like “White Christmas” and “Sleigh Ride”, new songs from every genre have been added to the Holiday music annals.
These ten songs from the past 30 years are notable for being gifts that keep on giving.
1. Mariah Carey - “All I Want For Christmas Is You”
Mariah holds the record for the most No.1 singles by a female artist, but this song is possibly the crowning achievement of her career. It’s the 19th best-selling digital single of all time, has inspired countless covers (including two remakes by Carey herself), and was recently reported by NBC Nightly News to be popular among homesick US troops overseas.
Notably covered by: Michael Buble (2011), Celtic Thunder (2010), Lady Antebellum (2010), My Chemical Romance (2004)
2. Wham! - “Last Christmas”
With the only mention of the holiday being that the events of the song take place during (presumably) a Christmas party, this tale of love gone wrong sold over a million copies in the UK. Still, it never got to No.1 on the charts because of another Christmas hit: Band Aid’s “Do They Know Its Christmas?”. Feeling the spirit of giving, the duo would later donate their share of the royalties from this song to the same cause. In recent years, the song has especially become a staple among female teen singers, including the cast of Glee (2010), Taylor Swift (2007), Ashley Tisdale (2006) and Hilary Duff (2002).
3. Band Aid - “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
This charity project benefiting victims of an Ethiopian famine sold over three million copies, becoming one of the best selling singles in UK history. Its artist roster reads like a who’s who of the 1980s, with (Here’s to you, if you recognize all of these names.) Phil Collins, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Bananarama, Kool & the Gang, Sting, Paul Young, Paul McCartney, George Michael, David Bowie, Big Country, the Boomtown Rats, Shalamar, Marilyn, and members of Culture Club, Ultravox, Heaven 17, the Style Council, Status Quo, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Today the song is often derided for its somewhat dated sound and odd lyrics, but you can’t argue with its legacy: it led to Live Aid, USA For Africa’s “We Are the World”, and two follow-ups. (Band Aid II and Band Aid 20)
Notably covered by Slade (1985) & The Barenaked Ladies (2004)
4. Adam Sandler - “The Chanukah Song”
Originating as a Saturday Night Live skit, it is one of the few Chanukah songs you hear on radio. Some might argue that the song’s silly nature is offensive, especially the drug references that remain in some versions, but the song has been covered by Neil Diamond, inspired an animated movie (2002‘s Eight Crazy Nights), and has an ultra-serious Wikipedia page that includes the statement, “Spock could be no more than half-Jewish, since he was half-Vulcan”!
5. Elmo & Patsy - “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”
Performed by a veterinarian and his ex-wife, this novelty song is hated by most grandmothers. Which do you think is the funniest line, “They should never give a license, to a man who drives a sleigh and plays with elves.” or “Should we open up her gifts or send them back? SEND THEM BACK!”? While the song isn’t often covered, it’s beloved on country radio stations and the Dr. Demento set, led to an animated Christmas special (which isn’t nearly as good as you would think it would be), and was featured in a recent Wal-mart commercial.
6. Run-DMC - “Christmas in Hollis”
Did you know that rap music barely existed 30 years ago? Even harder to believe is the relative lack of popular Christmas songs in hip-hop, but this is a rare exception in the genre. Nearing the 25th anniversary of its original release, this song seems to get more and more exposure every year.
7. Dolly Parton - “Hard Candy Christmas”
You wouldn’t think this song about Christmas heartbreak came from a play entitled The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, but it does. Relatively unknown to those above the Mason-Dixon line, Parton’s soft-rock carol garners major airplay on country music stations, and not just during this time of year.
Notably covered by RuPaul (1995) and Leigh Nash (of Sixpence None the Richer) (2005).
8. NewSong - “The Christmas Shoes”
Possibly one of the most dismal songs in recent history, the song is about a boy who doesn’t have enough money to buy fancy shoes as a gift for his mother, who is on her deathbed. Though the song has a somewhat happy ending, it is, as loved (inspiring a novel and a made-for-TV movie,) as much as it is hated (just look at comments that follow any mention of the hit). It sparks quite a debate. Does it remind you what the season is really all about or does it depress you out of a merry mood?
9. Vince Vance & The Valiants - “All I Want For Christmas Is You”
Confusingly sharing the same name as Mariah Carey’s seasonal hit, this country standard isn’t as well known as it is heard. Despite the name Vince Vance & The Valiants, female singer Lisa Layne provides the lead vocals.
10. Michael English - “Mary, Did You Know?”
Contemporary Christian music is an often-ignored genre, with surprisingly few of their Christmas songs popular with the secular market. Still, “Mary, Did You Know” remains the cornerstone of their field, with many cover versions of this hymn originally written by Mark Lowry of the Gaithers.
Notably covered by Kathy Mattea (1993), Wynonna Judd & Kenny Rodgers (1997), and Clay Aiken (2005).