Liner Notes: From Sinatra to Bieber, rating holiday tracks through the decades


Illustration by Beatrice Villaflor

Modern holiday songs are put to the test to see how they compare to the classics.

MJ Gudino, Reporter

’Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring… except for you, bobbing your head to “Sleigh Ride” and “Jingle Bell Rock,” with their soothing sleigh bells echoing throughout the frosty night.

Whether you’re a fan of atmospheric tracks like “White Christmas” or modern pop hits like Justin Bieber’s “Mistletoe,” there is bound to be a holiday song for you. However, the question remains: which era is better? Modern or classic?

The most popular holiday songs came out decades ago. Even Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” was released almost 30 years ago. 

So, for our purposes, I’m defining modern holiday music as tracks released within the last 25 years.

Christmas music is rooted in church hymns and Bible verses, gaining popularity with the advent of Christmas carols like “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

These are classics, yes. I enjoy them well enough. But when I hear them, I feel the urge to fall asleep or get on my knees to pray — I certainly don’t feel that cheery holiday spirit. 5/10.

Influenced by events like the Great Depression and World War II, holiday songs evolved to be less about the church and more about love, family, home, Santa, snow and that warm, fuzzy feeling you get sipping on a cup of hot cocoa in front of the fireplace on a violently snowy night.

The ’40s gave us Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Frank Sinatra’s “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” and Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song.” 

These are bops, and that can’t be debated. Like wood crackling in a fireplace, Garland and Cole’s voices are rich and comforting. Sinatra delivers on the jazzy tune that I associate with warm lights and the sweet, familiar sound of the saxophone as he praises the snow— which I, too, love. 8.5/10.

With the growth of rock and roll in the ’50s came Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” and Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” 

The somber tone in Presley’s track added a new layer to Christmas music and really speaks to the Mitski listener in me. Lee’s track, meanwhile, is upbeat with saxophone and a swinging rhythm, living up to the song’s title. 9/10.

The ’70s, marked by political turmoil and anti-war sentiment, had John Lennon and Yoko Ono making music about peace. Their Christmas-themed track “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” reflects on the turbulent times and the sentiments that characterized the period. While the message is as classic as any other Lennon-Ono creation, it’s a bit lacking in the sleigh bell department. 7.78/10.

The genre in the ’80s featured the distinct synth pop-rock sound we hear in Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” my personal favorite track to play on repeat throughout December. Studies should be done on the effect this song has on people. 9.96/10.

The ’90s gave us Carey’s “Merry Christmas” album, which I award a 9.9/10 solely for “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” I’m not a huge fan of the song, but the effect it has had on popular culture is undeniable. 

The 2000s gets a 7.6 for NSYNC’s “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays.” These classics are the songs we grew up hearing at the mall, the elevator and all around us as soon as the clock struck midnight on the final day of November. 

Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande’s 2010s tracks focus on love and loss. For artists so young, their profundity astounds me. But I simply don’t enjoy being addressed as “shawty” as Bieber does so frequently in his work and the nostalgia isn’t there to cloud my judgment either. 4.32/10

A big part of the reason why classics are unequivocally better is their nostalgia. Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me,” despite its merits (sleigh bells), doesn’t hold a candle to “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” or Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby.” 

Michael Bublé, however, has pushed against more modern trends by covering classic holiday songs we know and love. He adds his own spin, while keeping the nostalgic holiday feel of the mid-20th century.

While I enjoy listening to alternative rock’s ironic takes on holiday music with The Killer’s “Don’t Shoot Me Santa” or Blink-182’s “I Won’t Be Home For Christmas,”  — and I’ll hear out a case for Bublé and songs like Kelly Clarkson’s 2013 track “Underneath the Tree” — nothing beats the classics during the holiday season.

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