Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Top Seasonal Songs?—Sorting them Out is Harder Than I Thought

A lot of readers of this blog now get here through links on my Facebook page.  They know that I am in the midst of my third annual Holiday Music Festival which runs from December 1 to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.  I post one, sometimes two, video clips of songs of the season—traditional carols, pop secular standards, music from other nations and cultures, and songs of such other seasonal festivals as Advent, St. Nicholas Day, Santa Lucia Day, Chanukah, Solstice, New Years, and the Feast of the Three Kings. 

I try to mix it up without omitting my most cherished personal favorites.  Because these days I am as hip and cutting edge as a dull butter knife, my personal tastes run to the golden age of American Christmas songs in the 1940’s and ‘50’s featuring performers like Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Autry, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis, etc.  You know the ones.  I stretch a bit to include The Carpenters.

I’m not overly fond of the newer Christmas songs released by pop, country, rock, and R&B, many of which seem to be just pop love tunes with a Christmas hook, or an excuse for showy vocal gymnastics of the Maria Carey ilk.  There are exceptions—the Wall of Sound girl groups on Phil Spector’s Christmas album—but that goes back to 1963 and dates me to.  More recently it is hard to resist Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s rollicking Santa Clause is Coming to Town.

I also could do without most seasonal novelty songs.  The best of them brought a grin or a smile the first few times you heard them, and then wear out their welcome.  Some are actually painful—Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, Dominic the Christmas Donkey.  But again there are exceptions like Eartha Kitt’s original steamy Santa Baby—eat my shorts, Madonna.

The question of just what are the most popular of these secular songs frequently comes up.  The answer is harder to find than you might suspect, partly because one of the most reliable sources for tracking “hits”, Billboard, removed Christmas songs to a separate list several years ago.  Also because various lists that I found track these things differently.  Some track the songs themselves in all of their versions, other track a single recording or at least versions of the same song by the same artist.

Back in 2006, The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), the organization that licenses songs for composers and publishers and collects royalties for their performance, published a list of the 25 top holiday recordings.  This list is obviously dated and reflects then current releases.  Here are its top 10 based on radio play that year:

The Christmas Song
Nat King Cole
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
The Pretenders
Winter Wonderland
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
Bruce Springsteen
White Christmas
Bing Crosby
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
Andy Williams
Jingle Bell Rock
Bobby Helms
Little Drummer Boy
The Harry Simeone Chorale & Orchestra
Sleigh Ride
The Ronettes

By contrast, CBS Radio has released the play list for the 14 affiliated stations that program 24/7 holiday music before the holidays.  They rely on sales not only of physical records but now down loads as well, plus add a very few new releases.  The list is limited to only 25 songs, scheduled by a complicated algorithm that I don’t pretend to understand.  The top songs might be heard almost hourly, the bottom few a couple of times a day.  Many other stations programming Christmas music look to this as a guide, or use very similar methods resulting in the insanely repetitive sound of most Christmas music stations.  Here is CBS’s top seven for the current year.

Merry Xmas (War is Over)
John Lennon

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Andy Williams

Last Christmas

Have a Holly Jolly Christmas
Burl Ives

All I Want for Christmas is You
Mariah Carey

The Christmas Song
Nat King Cole

Feliz Navidad
Jose Faliciano

What a difference less than a decade makes!  Only Nat and The Christmas Song make both lists.  Even Bing didn’t make the CBS cut.

Again, back in 2006 ASCAP released another list of top songs—all versions.  This is what that list looked like featuring composers rather than artists.

The Christmas Song
Mel Tormé, Robert Wells

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin

Winter Wonderland
Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith

Santa Clause is Coming to Town
J. Fred Coots, Haven Gillespie

White Christmas
Irving Berlin

Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!
Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne

Jingle Bells Rock
Joseph Carleton Beal, James Ross Boothe

The Little Drummer Boy
Katherine K. Davis, Henry V. Onorati, Harry Simeone

Sleigh Ride
Leroy Anderson, Mitchell Parish

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
Johnny Mark

Now that looks more like a list compiled by a geezer like me.  Still several favorites are left off.

Despite all of this Billboard, still lists Bing Crosby’s 1947 recording of White Christmas as the number one best selling seasonal song of all time with sales of over 50 million.  That does not include the original 1942 recording that went to #1 that year and in 1945 or the version from the 1952 film White Christmas which also was a hit.  All in all, the combination of song and artist will probably never be touched as it remains perennially popular and sells like hot cakes year after year.

An interesting note I discovered in my research for this entry—how very different the top holiday song list is across the puddle in the United Kingdom and Ireland, which are considered one market. A 2010 survey conducted by PRS for Music, roughly a British equivalent of ASCAP, came up with this top ten:

All I Want for Christmas is You
Mariah Carey

Last Christmas

Fairytale of New York
The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl

Do They Know it’s Christmas
Band Aid

Merry Xmas Everybody

White Christmas
Louis Armstrong

Driving Home for Christmas
Chris Rea

Merry Christmas Everyone
Shakin’ Stevens

Mistletoe and Wine
Cliff Richards

Walking in Air
Aled Jones

The Pogues song, which has frequently been #1 since its release in 1987 and almost always leads popular surveys of favorite Christmas songs over there, is almost never heard in this country outside niche devotees of Irish music.  The Pogues are an extremely popular Celtic/Punk band over there.  It is easy to see, however, how their wonderful song Fairytale of New York with its bleak portrait or a relationship gone sour and dreams smashed over several Christmases, would never fit into the relentlessly upbeat world U.S. holiday radio play.  It may be the most melancholy Christmas song ever recorded this side of John Prine’s Christmas in Prison.  But it is such a great song, I think I will add it to my personal top ten this year.

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