Last week, Mariah Carey was back on the top of the charts with a nearly 30-year-old song.
“All I Want for Christmas Is You” was released in 1994, but for the fourth year in a row, it has snagged a number one spot. It’s now the first song ever to have four separate runs at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“It went a couple of decades without really charting regularly” said holiday music expert JT Griffith. “But recently there’s been a conscious effort to get it to chart [and] now it is officially a Christmas staple.”
A longtime Christmas music curator for OPB, KMHD and the Oregon Zoo’s ZooLights, Griffith founded LIMINAL Music after 15 years as Nike’s in-house music supervisor. Since 2020, he’s been our guide to the very niche but very beloved, genre of holiday music.
Griffith spoke with “All Things Considered” host Crystal Ligori about what’s new, what’s old, and what you’ve got to keep on your holiday playlist.
Crystal Ligori: Let’s just start with what’s new this holiday season because each year, without fail, we do get new music for the holidays.
JT Griffith: The last couple of years we’ve had some humorous Jimmy Fallon Christmas releases, and this year is no exception. Jimmy does a duet with Dolly Parton that came out in the fall called “Almost Too Early for Christmas.” The theme is wanting to get (ready for) Christmas, but Halloween decorations are still out, and if you’d gone to a store this year, that was true. So, a little bit of a humorous track. Chris Isaak released a Christmas record, and it’s fantastic. “Everybody Knows It’s Christmas,” and I’m including one of those tracks in my playlist this year, “Jingle Bell Rock,” which of course is a perennial standard. And then there’s a bunch of new releases from some new artists. It seems like a good way for new artists to introduce themselves to a new audience. There’s a jazz pop vocal singer named Samara Joy who has a great track called “Warm in December.” And Chilly Gonzales — the Canadian composer and pianist who’s (worked) with Feist and Drake and a little bit with Daft Punk — has a very traditional album called “A Very Chilly Christmas” and does a version of “All I Want for Christmas is You.”
Ligori: I know often we get new holiday music because there are new holiday movies, and you’ve got some insight on that too?
Griffith: I do. In fact, I read an article that said there were 171 new Christmas movies this year. I have not watched them all or even cataloged them all, but that’s an extraordinary number. I think the standout from this year is an Apple Original called “Spirited.” It’s “A Christmas Carol” re-do with Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell (that’s) basically a musical comedy. The music and the soundtrack are from the composers of “Dear Evan Hansen” and “The Greatest Showman.” There’s also a holiday special from “Guardians of the Galaxy” — from the Marvel universe — that features some music with Kevin Bacon and Old 97′s. Without spoiling anything in the movie, there’s a concert that takes place, and the band is the Old 97′s, and the singer, performing as himself, is Kevin Bacon.
Ligori: So that’s new holiday music, but let’s go old school now, back about 100 years because a pretty well known Christmas carol is gaining new attention due to the ongoing war in Ukraine. Can you tell us about that?
Griffith: That’s correct. In fact, many might not know that one of the more famous Christmas songs actually is based on a Ukrainian folk poem and folk song. That’s the song “Carol of the Bells.” It was written In 1916 by a Ukrainian composer named Mykola Leontovich, and it’s really actually a New Year song but became a Christmas standard when it was reinterpreted by an American composer. The (original) story of the song is of a bird coming to visit a house and declaring that there will be a good cheer, good tidings, and bountiful wealth in the New Year. It’s interesting because it was actually written in a time when there was a lot of geopolitical and social tension in Ukraine, which I think mirrors today.
Ligori: Can we just talk a little bit about your love for the Christmas music genre?
Griffith: It started as a way of finding music that had been around in my life that I hadn’t really thought about like “What is it? Why do I love it? And can I track great versions down?” But I read an interview recently with Bob Dylan, who spoke to standards in general and the kind of American songbook, and in the interview he said that these old songs are his lexicon and his prayer book. And that he finds comfort and a sort of spirituality in Christmas songs in particular — even songs like “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” And I thought that really spoke to the persisting annual experience of nostalgia.
I believe these songs provide the opportunity to find a song for your own playlist that you can take and say, “Hey this is a lo-fi beats track that speaks to me” or “Here’s a classical track that speaks to me.” I was listening to KMHD the other day, and there was some great soul, funk Christmas music that isn’t necessarily part of the commercial Christmas music playlist. And I think that challenge to find deep cuts and meaningful tracks inspires me year round.
Ligori: Perfect segue JT. Let’s talk about those playlists.
Griffith: So I have two playlists [see bottom of story], one is a little bit more focused on new releases and new tracks from the last year. One of the trends is that a lot of Christmas standards or Christmas albums that have come out recently are being re-released with bonus tracks. One of my favorite new releases this year is also a retrospective of sorts. They re-released “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio and in it, is the classic album remastered and sounding better than it ever has, but then (also) multiple CDs or LPs of session outtakes. So I included in the playlist the song “Christmas is Coming,” which is one of the iconic songs from that Peanuts soundtrack. But the version I included was take number one. So there’s some studio chatter and then the first notes you hear are the first recording of Vince Guaraldi performing that song. For me that’s really special because that’s that kind of moment of musical holiday creation. New recordings push the envelope of what sort of this songbook is all about. And so I wanted to include some of those songs in the playlist as well.
And the second playlist, ironically one of the first songs in it, is a song that is a new release from Louis Armstrong. And I did not know this until just very recently but Louis Armstrong, “Satchmo,” the famous Jazz trumpeter and singer, had never released a Christmas record until this year, 2022. These are songs that are so part of the canon that have been released, but never in a full proper album. So they released “Louis Wishes You A Cool Yule” filled with all these songs that you know, (but also) one track that had never been released before: ”’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” It’s that famous voice reading that famous story, so I wanted to include that because while it’s clearly not a new release, it’s never been heard before.
The playlists this year are some Christmas standards played by artists very familiar to listeners, including Kurt Vile, Kishi Bashi, Phoebe Bridgers, Old Crow Medicine Show and one of my favorites from an artist named Amerigo Gazaway, who does a mash up of sorts of Christmas standards, but with a bit more of a hip hop, mixtape beat vibe. So there’s a lot of unexpected treats in our playlist this year.