Walk through a store in November or December, or listen to a holiday playlist, and you’re likely to hear one of a handful of classics, like Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” The Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride” or Perry Como’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” is practically a national anthem for those two months. And popular renditions of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Jingle Bell Rock” are instantly familiar even if the performers are not (Brenda Lee and Bobby Helms, respectively).
Nearly all Christmas standards possess two characteristics: if they’re not time-tested hits released by major labels, they’re new songs by one of a handful of artists with the marketing muscle to get attention. In any given year, a new Christmas “hit” is attained only by a few original songs by well-known artists. (Covering a standard such as, say, “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” might get your foot in the door, but know that Burl Ives’ 1964 recording is the definitive version that’s preferred by curators and programmers.) A new Christmas song must overcome listeners’ desire for familiarity during a season of ritual and whether it has longevity will be battle-tested over multiple years.
Billboard performed a review on Christmas 2020’s on-demand streaming data from the weeks ending Oct. 30 to Dec. 24 (weeks 44 to 51, from Nielsen Music/MRC Data), comparing them to the same weeks in 2019 to see which tracks made moves this holiday season. (Note: This is not an official Billboard chart).
Here are eight takeaways:
1. The top 10 was impenetrable. The top 10 had no turnover from 2019 to 2020, though there was some minor shuffling. While some entries were reordered, last year’s top five tracks remained in the top five while the bottom five remained in the bottom five. Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” were again ranked first and second, respectively. Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock” switched places — from No. 4 in 2019 to No. 3 in 2020 — with Andy Williams’ “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Burl Ives’ “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” dropped from No. 3 to No. 5.
Top 10 Holiday Songs of 2020 (2019 Ranking)
1. Mariah Carey “All I Want for Christmas is You,” 154.9 million (1)
2. Brenda Lee “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” 135.4m (2)
3. Bobby Helms “Jingle Bell Rock,” 126.5m (4)
4. Andy Williams “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” 108.6m (5)
5. Burl Ives “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” 89.3m (3)
6. Wham! “Last Christmas” 88.7m (6)
7. Jose Feliciano “Feliz Navidad,” 86.6m (9)
8. Ronettes “Sleigh Ride” 86.1m (8)
9. Nat King Cole “The Christmas Song,” 83.2m (7)
10. Perry Como “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” 79.2m (10)
2. A few new holiday songs rose in the ranks. Whereas a pop song can become a staple within weeks or months, a Christmas song requires a decade to become a standard. Only three songs released in the last decade have risen to such distinction — and they each ranked higher than a year ago. Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree,” released in 2010, rose from No. 16 in 2019 to No. 11 in 2020 while Ariana Grande’s 2014 track “Santa Tell Me” jumped from No. 30 to No. 13. Justin Bieber’s 2011 “Mistletoe” rose from No. 40 to No. 29.
3. Broadcast television exposure helps — if you can get it. First-year songs by Carrie Underwood from her album My Gift, released Sept. 25 — “Favorite Time of the Year” at No. 38, “Hallelujah” featuring John Legend at No. 57 and “Silent Night” at No. 58 — had help from Underwood’s Christmas special on HBO Max, My Gift: A Christmas Special from Carrie Underwood. Dan + Shay’s “Take Me Home for Christmas” reached No. 44 thanks in part to their performance on The Voice season finale Dec. 15. Kelly Clarkson’s new track, “Under the Mistletoe” with Brett Eldridge, was No. 40 after performances on Clarkson’s nationally syndicated talk show as well as The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and The Voice.
4. Amazon had the muscle to turn two exclusive recordings into successes. Justin Bieber’s new version of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” ranked No. 34, the highest of any 2020 releases. (A younger Bieber covered the song in 2011.) Underwood’s “Favorite Time of the Year,” at No. 38, is also an Amazon Original (included on her new album, My Gift).
5. Even proven classics can make a big jump. In 2020, Paul McCartney’s omnipresent “Wonderful Christmas Time” jumped from No. 43 to No. 21 on a 67.9% increase in on-demand audio streams. Digital services can take some credit: at Spotify, McCartney was on 801 service-created playlists, according to Chartmetric — a 147% gain from 324 playlists a year earlier. (Note that MRC Data figures cover only the U.S. while Chartmetric data is global.) As a point of reference, Mariah Carey peaked at 731 editorial playlists in 2020 compared to 372 in 2019 — a 96.5% increase.
6. Early success is difficult to maintain. Jonas Brothers’ peppy “Like It’s Christmas” debuted as No. 14 on-demand streaming in 2019 but fell to No. 48 in 2020. Likewise, Katy Perry’s 2018 track “Cozy Little Christmas” dropped from No. 29 to No. 51. To be sure, both tracks are among the few holiday tracks released in the last decade that ranked in the top 100 in 2020.
7. Indies are almost entirely shut out of the top rankings. Of the top 100 tracks of 2020, only three are owned by an indie label. Tori Kelly’s cover of “Let It Snow,” released on Schoolboy Records in October, at No. 99; Schoolboy has major label distribution — through Universal Music Group — but is independently owned by Scooter Braun’s SB Projects. Two Vince Guaraldi tracks from A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack were released in 1965 by Fantasy Records, now owned by Concord Music Group: “Linus and Lucy” at No. 49 and “O Tannenbaum” at No. 56.
8. New holiday music might be better off making money through purchases. While a holiday classic collects a growing amount of streaming royalties each year, new music can make money from one-time purchases and hope to have a life the following year. An avalanche of Christmas music is released each year either as a gift to fans or to capitalize on the category’s popularity — or both. Last year, Pentatonix, Meghan Trainor, Dolly Parton, Lady A, For King & Country, Matt Nathanson, The Bird and the Bee and Goo Goo Dolls were among the artists to release a full album of holiday music. If they’re lucky, those albums will keep selling in the coming years.