I know that even by posting a headline like the one that sits atop this newsletter I am doing a two-step on the razor’s edge of cancellation. These times, they’re already fractious enough. And here I am adding chaos and confusion. For what?! We’ve already got a law on the books that states who rules Christmas and here I am submitting an amicus brief (I have no idea what an amicus brief is, actually. I presume, given the root word, that it’s a paper that says “we’re friends”). The point is: no matter the many topics on which we, as a society, fail to reach consensus, no matter that issues that seem so basic and yet create so much division, no matter how wide the proverbial aisle is, everyone can agree that at some point at least two decades ago Mariah Carey invented Christmas and has been the benevolent ruler of the period from November 1st to New Year’s Day ever since. So it is written in the ancient scrolls.
I am not disputing this! And I have absolutely no stake in taking Queen Mariah down a peg. I am part of the Lambily from way back. I pledge allegiance to the whistle tone of the United States of Mari-ica. But I would like us to consider that perhaps Christmas is a large and diverse queendom ruled by at least two musical monarchs. Like one-third of the musical SIX. Both belters, alike in diva-ty, have changed the sonic landscape of the holidays, consistently offering up new classics in a market oversaturated with roasted chestnuts and hot takes about how cold it is outside.
While many musicians put out a holiday offering or two at some point in their career, most aren’t able to relocate the vibe from Bedford Falls, where Christmas songs have rung bells and given angels wings since Irving Berlin first put pen to paper. Christmas is a throwback holiday, a nostalgia-fest. And sometimes? A snooze. But in the hands and head voices of Mariah Carey and–I’m just going to say it now–Kelly Clarkson, the holidays have been getting a reboot. But not a bad reboot where the old property becomes a zombie and a ghost of itself at the same time and we just watch out of a weird sense of obligation hoping to catch, even briefly, that nostalgic spark and remember what it is to feel joy. No, an actually good reboot. Mariah and Kelly are making Christmas new and fun!
I first started thinking about this in the decidedly un-Christmas-y month of October, when Kelly released When Christmas Comes Around…, her second holiday album. I was just sitting around, minding my business, waiting for the point in the year when Mariah’s “All I Want For Christmas Is Your” shoots back to the top of the charts (as it just did this week). Kelly's first Christmas album, 2013's Wrapped in Red, is a modern classic, showcasing the stylistic versatility that she now ably displays in her daily "Kelly-oke" segments. The standards-heavy album is anchored by the title track and the Top 40 hit "Underneath the Tree". It's fun, it's nostalgic; it makes the old seem fresh. What more could we want?
While we've gotten very solid holiday-themed singles over the years from artists like Ariana Grande, Christina Aguilera, and Destiny's Child, plus modern classics from Wham! and Run DMC, it's just blatantly unfair to ask anyone to give the culture what Mariah gave with her 1994 album Merry Christmas. Not only does it include her now-behemoth single, but also definitive versions of "O Holy Night" (rivaled only by Celine's), "Joy to the World", and more.
Nobody's done it like Mariah in the world of festivity for going on 30 years and I don't expect anyone will. And yet!
There's something so smart about the first American Idol, daytime television's new princess, the indefatigable and effervescent Kelly Clarkson pivoting to a dipped-in-acid, Wall of Sound-esque Christmas breakup album. We've done love for Christmas, we've done melancholy, now we're moving into wrath.
Listening to Kelly's sterling voice on "Christmas Isn't Canceled (Just You)", "Merry Christmas (To the One I Used to Know)", or "Glow", you realize you're in the presence of an artist who has gone through it, isn't afraid to show it, and is in the prime of her talent. Simply put, it's better than a Christmas has any right to be. Musically speaking, Christmas is a throwback album; she's innovating, she's experimenting, and she's stretching her mighty voice.
The same is true of Merry Christmas, of course. Mariah and Kelly aren't in competition--they're two peers who are peerless in this respect. Mariah's Christmas sounds as fresh and fun as it did 30 years ago; Kelly's Christmas uses classic sounds and super current slang to give us another side. And both of them put their whole foot into these albums. All hail the queens!
Kelly and Mariah are by no means the only artists who've really delivered on their holiday offerings. Here's a few other must-listens:
If The Fates Allow, The Cast of Hadestown
A simply phenomenal album, no skips whatsoever. You want HARMONIES?! You want MELANCHOLY??!! You want ARRANGEMENTS?! This is a perfect album
The Christmas Album and Simply Christmas, Leslie Odom, Jr.
Am I just going to keep posting covers of "Winter Song"? YES! But the great thing about Leslie Odom, Jr. is that he not only delivers an up-tempo, gorgeous cover of the perennial sad holiday classic, but he has enough up his sleeve to fill two Christmas albums, released five years apart. The man is jolly!
Snowfall (EP), Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson
I told you I was going to do this.
These Are Special Times, Céline Dion
Cover image: Getty, design by Sean Simon
Editorial assistant: Sean Simon