Merry Christmas: Celebrating 20 years of Mariah Carey’s classic holiday album

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Mariahcareymerrychristmas1 November 1, 1994. Mariah Carey always loved the Christmas season growing up. As she told Billboard magazine in 1994, “I’m a very festive person and I love the holidays. I’ve sung Christmas songs since I was a little girl. I used to go Christmas caroling.” If holiday albums from major stars weren’t quite rare in 1994, they weren’t exactly the norm either. Still, few could have realized the success and influence Mariah would have with her 1994 release Merry Christmas. As Barry Schwartz wrote for Stylus magazine, Merry Christmas “transcends” the obligatory nature of the holiday album genre. Twenty years later, the album and its best-known song are cultural mainstays.

Going into the recording of her holiday collection, Mariah knew she wanted to do a few things. Mariah typically writes the songs she sings, but she recognized writing original holiday songs is a risky proposition. Carey told Billboard, “It was definitely a priority for me to write at least a few new songs, but for the most part, people really want to hear the standards at Christmas.” Mariah also knew she wanted a more gospel feel for the project, so she brought in noted composer and arranger Loris Holland to co-produce a few tracks and to play the Hammond B-3 organ. Mariah’s grandmother had taken her to church as a child, and Merry Christmas allowed her to combine her love for the holidays with her gospel roots. As J.D. Considine wrote in The Baltimore SunMerry Christmas is “the work of someone who genuinely loves this music.”

Mariah has said she was more free with her vocals on the project and didn’t worry about getting every line perfect. Critics took notice of this freedom and spirit immediately. Billboard said her “voice is a malleable marvel of emotion and range,” and Steve Morse of The Boston Globe wrote that the holiday collection “features the most unbridled singing of her career.” Considine noted that “the album’s real strength is the conviction she brings” to songs that could be corny, and Jeremy Helliger of People went as far as to say, “crooning Christmas carols seems to be [Mariah’s] calling.” Schwartz calls the songs and performances “undeniably brilliant” and wrote that Carey gives “elevated, near-definitive interpretations” of songs that numerous artists have sung.

While Mariah’s singing was deservedly praised, it is also notable that some of the new songs Mariah wrote for the collection have enjoyed their own success. The three original holiday songs Mariah wrote for the album are “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” “Miss You Most (At Christmastime),” and “Jesus Born On This Day.” While “Jesus Born On This Day” has gained some notoriety in Christian and gospel circles, having been covered by Avalon, Norman Hutchins, Morris Chapman, and Danny Chambers, it is “All I Want For Christmas Is You” that has become a legitimate holiday season standard. Sasha Frere-Jones wrote in The New Yorker that with the “charming” song, Mariah “co-wrote one of the few worthy modern additions to the holiday canon.” Rolling Stone placed the song on its list of The Greatest Rock & Roll Christmas Songs. Chuck Klosterman took it further writing for Spin that “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is, “Definitely the best Christmas song since ‘Christmas Wrapping’ (the Waitresses), possibly the best Christmas song since ‘Jesus Christ’ (Big Star), and arguably the best Christmas song since ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ (various artists).” Praise like that shows how widespread the love for “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is considering the magazine usually has little use for an artist like Mariah.

In fact acts ranging from My Chemical Romance to Shania Twain, John Mayer, Michael Buble, Miley Cyrus, and more have covered the track, further showing its mass appeal. Film director Richard Curtis says his film Love Actually, which has become a holiday staple itself, was a stab at capturing the feeling “All I Want For Christmas Is You” gives. Curtis says the song puts him in a good mood when he hears it, and he made sure to use it in the film as well. In naming it her favorite Christmas song, singer Leona Lewis echoes Curtis in saying “All I Want For Christmas Is You” makes her smile and that when you hear it, “you know it’s the start of Christmas time.” In 2011 the song was recorded for the television show Glee, and that same year the crew of the HMS Ocean made a video set to the song in celebration of their return home. The video went viral. During the 2012 holiday season, a new version of the song performed for Jimmy Fallon’s show received over 10 million views on YouTube. Blogger Greg Fanoe comments, “It’s a modern Christmas classic that’s infiltrated pop culture as much as any of the ‘classic’ Christmas carols.” Erin Strecker of Billboard noted the song “takes over pop culture each December.” Helliger may not have realized just how prescient his comment that “the frisky girl-group jubilance of ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’…makes it as good as any of the classics that surround it” was when he wrote it. Kelly Clarkson echoed that sentiment when she declared to KISS 108, “Do you know how many people would die to write [that song]?”

This sort of success came as a surprise to Carey. As she told Marie Claire, “Nothing against Casio, but I wrote ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ on my little Casio keyboard! I never knew it would turn into the hit it is!” The hit starts with opening chimes that Strecker calls “iconic” and Carey singing nearly a capella. After that intro it becomes clear the track is modeled after songs from the ’50s and ’60s. The AABA song structure harkens back to that time period, as does the wall-of-sound production style that was a trademark of Phil Spector. Carey and co-producer Walter Afanasieff use harmonies, bells, tympanis, and a fast pace to inject the track with what Roch Perisien of All Music Guide calls “exuberant fun.” Perhaps Rich Juzwiak said it best when he wrote for Slant that “‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ is totally a classic. A lot of people think it’s a cover, which I think is a testament to its success.” The pop sheen still allows the song to appeal to modern sensibilities, but its general vintage nature is the point. Kyle Anderson of MTV noted the songs mix of elements in calling it a “majestic anthem.” Rachel Beckman of The Washington Post described the song as “pure, distilled holiday music joy” while calling it “the best Christmas song ever.”

Keeping all of that in mind, it’s no surprise that Merry Christmas and “All I Want For Christmas Is You” have been commercial juggernauts. Merry Christmas has been certified 5x Platinum by the RIAA, which places it among the top 3 holiday albums of all-time in the U.S. It has also sold over 14 million copies worldwide, making it, according to Billboard, the “most successful Christmas album of all time.” “All I Want For Christmas Is You” continues to do extremely well each holiday season, and it even topped the Billboard Download Songs chart in 2005, over a decade after its initial release. As it is every season, it was among the 5 most-played holiday songs on U.S. radio during the 2013 holiday season. “All I Want For Christmas Is You” has charted on the UK singles chart 9 times, and it is one of fewer than 10 holiday singles to have sold 1 million copies there. Other tracks from Merry Christmas have also made the U.S. Download Songs chart and received significant airplay. The ubiquitous success of the collection has surely encouraged other artists to record holiday albums as well. As Sal Cinquemani of Slant writes, “Ever since Mariah Carey’s multi-platinum Merry Christmas, celeb-Christmas albums have become obligatory rites of commercial passage.” While it may have been common for artists to record a holiday song or two for a compilation album, it wasn’t until the mid-90s that it became common for major artists to release full-length holiday albums as a viable career move. The Guardian noted the album has generated “many imitations.” It is also now commonplace for AC radio stations to play holiday music 24/7 during the holiday season, which wasn’t something that was done in the early ’90s. Jon Caramanica summed it up when he wrote in the The New York Times that Mariah’s collection is “one of the great modern holiday albums.” Clarkson has admitted that she listens to the album in June.

Her influence isn’t necessarily something Mariah gets a lot of credit for, but it’s also not something that can really be denied. Even if you simply enjoy Merry Christmas for the fun, committed collection that it is, the effects of its creation are noticeable every holiday season. Check out her out Christmas videos below, and of course be sure to order a copy of her classic album, and 2010’s follow up, here.

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