“Make my wish come true, all I want for Christmas is you.”
Inspired by Tom Ewing’s “Popular” (which traces the history of UK #1 singles) and Tom Breihan’s “The Number Ones” (which does the same for US #1s), “We’re #2!” looks at the history of those songs which almost but not-quite managed to reach the summit of the UK Singles Chart, beginning a quarter century back from this column’s inception (March 2019) up until whenever the Present Day comes about.
015] Mariah Carey – All I Want for Christmas is You
Reached #2: 11th December 1994, 15th December 2017, 28th December 2018
Weeks at #2: 3, 1, 1
In December of 1973, a yearly British tradition was born. There had been Christmas-themed #1 singles on Christmas Day many years before that point – in particular, Dickie Valentine had taken “Christmas Alphabet” to the summit for Christmas Day 1955 – but the idea of the Christmas #1 and the prestige and honour of taking home such an accolade wasn’t canonised until 1973 when Slade and Wizzard put out competing Christmas-themed singles and, with the help of the British music press and mainstream news media latching onto the festive novelty of it all, stoked up a fun little chart war to goose sales and put a sports team-style narrative over proceedings. Were you a “Merry Xmas Everybody” homer or “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” til you died? Slade ended up winning out – good thing, too, cos they had the better song; “Christmas” is an obnoxious pummelling 2, “Xmas” is a lightweight 3 but would have been a low 4 without that shriek at the end – and the Christmas single nuclear arms race was set for the next four decades.
We Brits, for anybody reading outside of the UK, took and do still somewhat take this whole thing very seriously. These battles are a subject we’re going to repeatedly return to over the course of this series, there are still people over 30 years on upset that “Fairytale of New York” by Pogues was shut out of its best shot at the accolade by Pet Shop Boys covering Elvis Presley, and they are very much endemic of the British pop charts’ frequent infatuation with novelty songs and charity singles – music which scores as well as it does not by its merits as enjoyable music that will stand the test of time and resonate with a greater societal mood, but for the brief bantz hit of the song’s central joke or as an easy and affordable Good Act that one can do in order to feel better about engaging in an ultra-capitalist and consumerist yearly tradition. When The X Factor started dominating the #1 slot with their insipid winner’s songs year after year from the mid-2000s, online grassroots internet campaigns rose up in an often-vain and, to be perfectly honest, bloody stupid effort to somehow stop this scourge and bring back the spirit and competition of the holiday #1. (More on that a good decade from now.) And whilst America too loved its Christmas singles, I feel comfortable in saying that they don’t have quite the exact same rabid connection with newly-written Christmas songs, rather than covers of Christian hymns and Old Standards, as we Brits do.
Case in point: Mariah Carey’s 1994 Christmas record, Merry Christmas. By October of 1994, Mariah Carey was a made woman. She had scored two massive US #1 albums, her self-titled debut of which was the biggest-selling album of 1990, and 8 US #1 singles plus an additional pair of #2s. She had received critical and industry adoration as a vocalist for her unmistakable voice and towering five-octave range, even getting to do a big show-off passing-the-torch duet with Luther Vandross (one of those aforementioned US #2s), and had been effortlessly straddling the line separating pop music from R&B to become inarguably one of the biggest artists in America. In the UK, she’d finally managed to cross over – her first two albums struggled singles-wise on the charts, but following her 1992 MTV Unplugged showcase and her 1993 third studio album Music Box, the hits started raining down from upon high – even scoring a four-week stay at #1 with the massive ballad “Without You” back in February (responsible for our entry on Ace of Base’s “The Sign”).
And, in the midst of her imperial phase and what seemed like it was going to be the peak of her career, Carey announced that she would be doing a Christmas album. This was greeted with mass confusion by those in the industry and on a critical sphere. As Carey’s then-collaborator Walter Afanasieff explained to Billboard in a 2014 retrospective on the song, “20 years ago, Christmas music and Christmas albums by artists weren’t the big deal they are today.” In the US, they were seen as exclusively the field of washed-up aging pop stars and failing entertainers, both of which were extremely uncool and neither of which applied to Mariah freakin’ Carey, a woman who was busy having her latest album go Diamond. Hell, in the US, “All I Want for Christmas is You” didn’t even receive a proper single release, meaning that it didn’t chart on the Hot 100 for several years due to chart eligibility rules.
But, as we would all eventually discover, Mariah Carey don’t give a fuck about following your preconceived notions for how she should present herself. Carey has been revelling in being a goofy, self-aware entertainer who sincerely throws herself into wherever her muse takes her for coming up on three decades and Merry Christmas was just the first taste of that fact. She and Afanasieff started work on the album back in late 1993, planning to mesh Old Standards with some freshly-penned works of their own. The first of the three originals to come to fruition was “Miss You Most (At Christmas Time),” a wistful ballad in the vein of “Lonely This Christmas” and less miserable works like “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” very much in the wheelhouse of the mega-ballads Carey had achieved superstar success on Music Box with. The second, “Jesus Born on This Day,” fit neatly into the hymnal traditional Christmas number you’d perhaps hear at a gospel-y church on Christmas Eve service.
For their last original, Carey and her-then husband (who was also the then-CEO of Sony Music) Tommy Mottola wanted to do something a little different. Rather than actively attempt to fit their new songs into the established Christmas canon, they wanted to pull from a different source for inspiration: Phil Spector’s 1963 compilation A Christmas Gift for You, in which the then-not-disgraced uber-influential mega-producer got his rolodex of regular acts to record a series of Christmas covers he would gloss up in his trademark Wall of Sound production technique. Afanasieff started pumping out some old-fashioned 60s rock-n-roll on his piano, Carey improvised the general melody around the opening line “I don’t want a lot for Christmas,” and the trio had the base of the song down within 15 minutes. Carey would call up Afanasieff every few weeks after those initial outline sessions to workshop some lyrics and fine-tune the song, then everyone reconvened in New York at The Hit Factory in the Summer of ’94 to finally commit the track to tape.
One of the major tricks of Phil Spector’s best work is the way that his songs feel absolutely effortless, proud of their basic songwriting origins and as if they have been dropped into being fully formed with almost no redrafting required, whilst still nudging you in the ribs over the little tweaks and tinkerings that accentuate and make the songs – there’s a reason why “Be My Baby” feels as if anybody could have written it in minutes yet its many, many imitators and rip-offs (some by Spector himself) nonetheless feel lesser, hollow, unfinished. And that’s a trick which Carey and Afanasieff absolutely nail with “All I Want for Christmas.” Even with that ornate, drawn-out near-acapella opening minute which sets the listener up on the kind of anticipation for something BIG dropping afterwards that many EDM DJs try in vain for their entire careers to conjure themselves, this is a very simple song. Not a lot of chord changes, each section of the song is noticeably distinct from one another but the sections themselves almost never deviate or find a different variation, and despite how wordy the lyrics can be, the vocal melodies are mostly just scales, the vocal equivalent of Slash’s opening riff to “Sweet Child O’Mine;” just a bog-standard scale any half-decent musician does for basic practice.
But it sounds amazing. I mean, of course it does, it’s Mariah Carey. I’m not a particularly huge fan of her music, but her vocal talents are undeniable on every song and she sings the everloving fuck out of this. The specific deep bobbing timbre in her verses seems to be one a one-woman quest to resurrect the soul of The Ronettes and her harmonising with the backing vocalists on the titular refrain – and what an utter monster of a refrain that is – cuts through with just the right level of force and joy to avoid falling into the obnoxious shrillness of lesser Christmas jams. But even instrumentally, the song sounds a million bucks, which was why I found it so surprising in my research to discover that almost the entire song is synthesised. Afanasieff had initially recorded the track with a live band in California but ended up hating the results so much that he scrapped almost all of their contributions and instead largely programmed the instrumentation himself. I guess that makes sense, though. The song’s production even sounds like a slightly faded 60s R&B-inflected pop jam, right down to how the constantly triplet-ing piano keys overpower the chords that are meant to be driving the song and how the snare seems redundant when the additional percussion (here manifesting as sleigh bells) are higher and more commanding in the mix.
“All I Want” really does feel timeless, like, in the words of Slate’s Adam Ragusea, “it could have been written in that era [1940s post-war Christmas covers by artists like Nat King Cole] and locked in a Brill Building safe that wasn’t cracked again until 1994.” The instrumentation, the diminished chords (one of the secrets to Christmassy vibes), the powerhouse central vocals being augmented and supplemented by expertly-timed interjections from the backing vocalists like in classic 60s girl-groups, the jazzy tempo that’s upbeat but not fully rock-and-roll, the same classic piano melody songwriting that Elton John rode to his 70s pop peak. It’s almost impossible to properly pin down exactly when this song most fits in its origin, that seamless meshing of influences and styles conspiring to make it feel as if it belongs to all eras at once – if this song were first written tomorrow, it would feel like a throwback, befitting the retro-soul/pop revival that burbles up in different forms every few years, but simultaneously still feel resolutely Now.
That fact may seem hyperbole, but what years of commercial shorthand by merciless and irony-blind marketing executives may have obscured is that “All I Want” is a resoundingly and proudly anti-commerce Christmas song. Carey sings about her desire for her lover and how she will happily trade all material things, all the Christmas iconography and trappings, so long as her baby comes back home. To her, the season isn’t the season at all unless this man – who, from the tone of the song and Carey’s longing but not heartbroken vocals, we can deduce is already hers and completely acting on the up-and-up but just being kept away due to work or travel or some other commitments outside of their control – is at home with her in her arms. No amount of presents, snow, laughing children quite stirs her Christmas spirit like spending time with someone who means the world to her. There’s something truly resonant and universal about that, something which speaks to a base human need to be loved and part of a group, and though the lyrical intentions are romantic they still ring out through platonic sentiments towards friends and family. In the most relentlessly capitalistic and commercialised time of year, here is a song which rejects all of that, in a manner which our more capitalistically sceptical 2019 ears can relate, to sing about how other people are who really matter and tangibly earnestly means it.
All of which may be why this song just refuses to date or die. Christmas singles obviously have a specific relevant shelf life, but many of the efforts to deliberately write new Christmas songs that want to enter the canon, whether they be aiming for Old Standard-esque respectability or affected “cooler” interpretations, don’t exactly age like mulled wine. (Who here has honestly ever listened to The Wombats’ 2008 Christmas single “Is This Christmas?” after December 26th 2008?) Yet “All I Want for Christmas” is still here, still fresh every single time it gets broken out by Tesco tannoys and radio DJs after Bonfire Night has dispersed (and then thoroughly worn out by the time of Christmas itself but that’s not the song’s fault), and still completely and totally beloved on a mass instantly-recognised scale. The Darkness’ “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)” is similarly exceptional (and we’ll actually be talking about that one in full some point in the future) but it hasn’t demonstrated anywhere near the lasting strength of “All I Want.”
To wit, there is every chance that this entire article could end up completely negated at some point in the future. “All I Want for Christmas” isn’t just one of the biggest-selling singles of all-time despite never having reached the summit of either the US or UK singles charts (moving 16 million physical copies as of this writing), and it doesn’t just bring in well in excess of £600,000 for the singer in royalties all by itself each and every single year, and it doesn’t just place on either the US or UK or both singles charts every single year since its release without fail, it keeps doing so in the absolute upper echelons of the current pop charts. Streaming is what was actually responsible for the song finally breaking through into the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, 23 years after the initial release, and it even found a new peak at #3 back in January. Here in Britain, meanwhile, the rise of streaming has seen the song return to its #2 perch for the last two Christmases. Not even “Fairytale of New York” has managed to ride the seasonal wave back up to the #2 slot after its initial run!
And there is a very good conceivable chance that this could be the year in which “All I Want for Christmas is You” finally achieves the big one on at least one side of the Atlantic. The album Merry Christmas, which was unsurprisingly a monster success, turns 25 in November and Carey is going all-out, gearing up to release a remastered and expanded 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition to commemorate the occasion and blatantly goose “All I Want”’s chances at reaching #1 somewhere. Will it work? Honestly, by this point, I do think it’s only a matter of time before this thing finally sits upon the Iron Throne, even if it’s only for a week and even if it takes the extremely morbid route of tribute streams/sales that push the song to new peaks when she passes (more on this when we reach 2016). Ragusea made the assertion that the song deserves to be in the Great American Songbook whilst The AV Club’s Annie Zaleski wrote in 2015 how the song will be around forever, and both are hard takes to argue with. Should it finally pull off the victory which has been denied for so long by increasingly unworthy pretenders to the throne, it will be well-earned because “All I Want for Christmas” is an absolute unfuckwithable monster of a song.
I’ve still only given it a 4 because I don’t like Christmas or novelty songs very much. This handicap is important for the series going forward.
Bonus Beats: Because I apparently cannot escape this fucking film, here’s one of Love, Actually’s 14 climaxes. Specifically, the one where Sam (an adorable Thomas Brodie-Sangster) plays drums in the talent show performance of his crush Joanna (Olivia Olson) who belts out a shockingly strong cover of “All I Want for Christmas is You.”
Bonus Bonus Beats: Perhaps unsurprisingly, “All I Want for Christmas is You” has been covered a lot of times – WhoSampled has the official total as of this writing down at 76 – although weirdly it took almost a decade for the floodgates to really open. Kicking off this sampling, here’s My Chemical Romance, fresh off of the release of Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, putting together a slight piss-take version for KROQ-FM’s Kevin and Bean’s Christmastime in the 909. And people still think that MCR were somehow self-serious.
(My Chemical Romance scored no UK #2 singles but they did manage to spend two weeks at #1 with 2006’s potentially-immortal “Welcome to the Black Parade.” As much as I would love to be a contrarian since it’s not my favourite My Chem song, it is obviously a 5.)
Bonus Bonus Bonus Beats: In 2010, American country music trio Lady Antebellum put together a Christmas EP entitled A Merry Little Christmas where they officially canonised the song alongside Old Standards like “Let It Snow” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Their take slows the song down and strips it back considerably to more resemble the aforementioned Standards than something Phil Spector would have written. It would also be later reused for the full Christmas album, On This Winter’s Night.
(Lady Antebellum’s highest UK chart peak to date was with a 2012 re-release of “Need You Now,” which eventually topped out at #15.)
Bonus Bonus Bonus Bonus Beats: Pre-Poptimist re-evaluation Justin Bieber, who was barely 6 months old when “All I Want for Christmas” was first released, recorded his own hyper-faithful cover for a 2011 Christmas EP, Under the Mistletoe, with the twist being that it was a duet with Mariah Carey herself. This was a bad move because even 2011 Mariah Carey blows Bieber’s pitchy vocal performance out of the goddamn solar system. It peaked in the UK at #148.
(We will meet Justin Bieber, and Mariah Carey again, later on in this series.)
Bonus Bonus Bonus Bonus Bonus Beats: Lastly, New York power-pop legends-in-waiting Charly Bliss capped off their Indiesphere breakthrough 2017 by recording a cover that feels extremely Primitives without losing the Ronettes sensation so key to the song’s power.
The #1s: In its first run on the chart, “All I Want for Christmas” was kept from the top for all three weeks by East 17’s “Stay Another Day,” the tenured British boyband’s only #1. Written by member Tony Mortimer in tribute to his brother Ollie, who had died by suicide, the group’s first ballad doesn’t really scream ‘Christmas song’ until its final minute when the out-of-place Christmas bells enter in an effort to make the otherwise beat-less song build to something resembling a climax. If their inclusion seems highly mercenary as a way to piggyback off of the Christmas market when it was time to put the single out (this was parent album Steam’s third), then you’d be absolutely right; it’s a Christmas song for people who claim that Die Hard is the greatest Christmas movie of all-time. Also, if it’s about his brother’s suicide, then what’s all this business about “don’t say it’s the final kiss?” That’s weird. Song’s a 2.
In its second stint at the #2 slot, “All I Want for Christmas” was beaten off by the second week at #1 of Ed Sheeran’s insufferable empty ballad “Perfect,” the latter having finally made it to the summit thanks to Beyoncé jumping on a remixed duet version. Spoilers for when we get the 2010s, I largely detest Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé’s presence here genuinely feels like she’s lowering herself for non-existent gain. She’s better than this, he almost never is. It’s a 1.
In its latest attempt at reaching the top spot, the honours of blocking “All I Want for Christmas” fell to Ava Max’s factory-assembled Lorde via Katy Perry “Sweet But Psycho.” The satirical intent of the song is lost by the verse lyrics largely re-enforcing the intentionally mental illness-demonising and stereotypically sexist images invoked by the chorus, and every facet of the song feels like something Ariana Grande rightly threw in the trash for being too generic, but the hook is sticky and the song’s not actively grating. It’s a high 2.
The gaps: Our one-week gap separating “Love Spreads” from “All I Want for Christmas” (chart dated 4th December) saw former #1 “Let Me Be Your Fantasy” by Baby D drop down on account of “Stay Another Day”’s ascension. The rest of this series will largely fill in the gaps separating Mariah’s later stays at #2.
We’re #2! will return in three weeks’ time.