Don’t even try to front. I don’t care what you think of Mariah Carey from January through November, but even regular haters and take-her-or-leave-hers wave the white flag during the holidays.
Merry Christmas, originally released in 1994, is easily one of the most iconic holiday albums – chiefly because of one “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” I defy you to find a modern Christmas song that is more beloved, more well known and yes, more overplayed, than this. Over its 17-year history (we are old, y’all), “All I Want for Christmas Is You” – the greatest song of the 60’s not recorded or written in the 60’s – has become a standard of the season and the most important and culturally significant Christmas song of the last 30 or so years – easily. You can put that sucker on an album, jammed right next to chestnuts roasting, Jack Frost nipping and wintry seductions set to the apparently impassable snow gathering outside and you won’t even blink an eye. It’s an official Christmas classic, and one actually worthy of that position. It’s simply impossible to resist the joy that is bursting from that song. Decades from now, when we have loved and forgotten many a “new” Christmas song, we will still be cranking this one up to 11.
The good news is that the rest of the album has held up remarkably well. The decision to take the album into primarily a 60’s-inspired and gospel-influenced creative direction was a smart one that cements its classic status. “Silent Night” kicks things off on a very reserved and elegant but soulful note before careening into the rollicking force of “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” The church-drenched “O Holy Night” is still one of the best performances of that song on record, and the Darlene Love classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is a great companion to “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” The idea of doing Bruce Springsteen’s take on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” was pure genius and comes right before the gorgeous mashup of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.” The latter mashup, with its vocals stacked to infinity to create a giant wall of gospel sound, is one of those instances that really shows – no matter how crazy she can come across outside of the recording studio – how supremely talented the woman is inside the studio. She really doesn’t get enough credit for all the arranging and producing work she does on her albums.
The only things that don’t really hold up as well are the ballad “Miss You Most (At Christmastime)” – very pretty but a bit on the treacly side – and the dance rave-up “Joy to the World,” which is mashed up with Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” – another inspired pairing which actually saves the song. Still, if you’re listening to the album, there’s no need to skip these two. Just listen and remember what it was like back in the halcyon days of the 90s.
Last year, Mariah released a sequel, Merry Christmas II You, and there’s some really great, great stuff on it, including a stunning mashup of “O Come All Ye Faithful” and the Hallelujah chorus, a live recording of “O Holy Night,” a short rendition of the Peanuts classic “Christmastime is Here” and the “All I Want” cousin “Oh Santa!” She even includes an “Extra Festive” version of “All I Want,” but it’s really unnecessary because I don’t know how much more festive a song can get than the original version.
But 1994’s Merry Christmas still reigns supreme and untouchable. Even if Mariah had only written “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and that was the extent of her career, it would still ensure her place in the pop pantheon. If you’re one of the three people who don’t own a copy of this album, you can listen here. And check out the sequel here.