In a world of “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells” and “White Christmas,” there are still original contemporary songs penetrating the yearly yuletide playlist.
Traditionally, many of the more lasting Christmas classics have leaned more into the pop category, and in 2021 there was no shortage of artists coming forth with new songs for the holiday season—Elton John and Ed Sheeran, Billy Idol, Kelly Clarkson, Rob Thomas and more—and some lyrics also reflecting the uncertainties around the past year and the pandemic.
To make the holiday season more festive, here are seven more pop-coated Christmas-y song contenders that may one day (one never knows!) become classics.
“Small Town Christmas” by Rob Thomas
Produced by Gregg Wattenberg, Something About Christmas Time is Rob Thomas’ fifth solo release, featuring a collection of holiday covers with special guests Brad Paisley, Bebe Winans, Ingrid Michaelson, and Abby Anderson, along with several original songs written by Thomas, including “Small Town Christmas.” Lyrically, “Small Town Christmas” is a reflection of recent universal hardships—We all need some comfort right now—while also embracing Thomas’ earlier Christmas memories and newer traditions through chorus Christmas in a small town / Snow is fallin’ all around / Drivin’ down the long roads / Anything is possible. “We live in a small town with a rural feel,” said Thomas of his home with wife Marisol. “Once we moved here, Mari and I started our traditions. Every Christmas Eve she makes moussaka and we watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’”
“On Christmas Day” by Billy Idol
This season finds a gentler, less punchy Billy Idol, looking back on mistakes and returning to the present Christmas spirit with “On Christmas Day,” singing I believe in you today / I see I found my way / So glad to be with you / On Christmas Day. Written by Idol and longtime guitarist and collaborator Steve Stevens, “On Christmas Day” is a new addition to the reissue and remaster of Idol’s 2006 Christmas album Happy Holidays. Produced by Idol and Brian Tichy, the new release of Happy Holidays was remixed and remastered by Paul Hicks, known for his work with The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, George Harrison, and John Lennon. “Most probably essential at Christmas is that the music is in the spirit,” says Idol. “Knowing that family, friends, and children might be listening, I wanted a selection that would please all, while still exploring the awe and mystery that is Christmas.”
“The Best Is Yet to Come” by Ben Rector
Technically a New Year’s Eve song, Ben Rector’s “The Best Is Yet to Come“—not to be mistaken for the classic standard of the same name, penned in 1959 by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, recorded by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett—pays homage to the passing holiday season and looks ahead to new beginnings. It’s been the kind of year I’d be fine if I forgot, yeah / But I’ll never forget it as long as I live and that’s saying a lot / The wildest menagerie of unfortunate crazy things and now it’s all over sings Rector over his new standard, which he wrote in its entirety at 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve of 2020.
For Rector, who shared “The Thanksgiving Song” in 2020, his is just another offering to the classics for the oncoming new year, even if it does sound more “Fairytales of New York” than “Auld Land Syne.” “The only New Year’s song I know is ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ and in a weird way this one almost sounded older than Christmas music,” said Rector. “It’s sounded like an old Irish drinking song as it was coming out, which I kind of like.”
“Merry Christmas, Happy New Year,” by Ingrid Michaelson (Featuring Zooey Deschanel)
“Merry Christmas, Happy New Year” was a new addition to Ingrid Michaelson’s release of Songs For the Season, Deluxe Edition, an extended version of her 2018 holiday album. Featuring actress and singer Zooey Deschanel, the duo offer their lovey-dovey croon of Something ’bout that red and green / Makes me need you next to me / It’s the season wishes still come true… Something ’bout those Christmas lights / And these frosty winter nights / I feel like a kid again falling in love with you. “I love her voice so much,” said Michaelson of Deschanel joining her on the track. “To me, she just feels very Christmassy, but that might just be because of ‘Elf.’ That’s one of my favorite holiday movies and so the fact that she’s in it and is singing a song with me is just so glorious.”
“Little Things” by ABBA
There’s something to be said when a mega pop quartet reappears after 40 years with new music. Upon ABBA’s return with their ninth album Voyage, their first release since The Visitors in 1981, they didn’t forget to offer something for the Christmas season with “Little Things.” Singing about the joy Santa brings, stockings full of nice little things, and tiny elves with wings, and backed by a children’s choir, ABBA’s first-ever holiday song leaves something sweet under the tree for 2021.
“Merry Christmas” by Elton John and Ed Sheeran
Complete with sleigh bells, a flying snowman, a mariachi singer, a disco-era drummer, and more in their band of characters, the video for “Merry Christmas,” the first holiday song written by Elton John and Ed Sheeran, captures the familiar festivities in the lyrics of kissing under the mistletoe and gathering around the tree, while also honoring the loss of the previous year. So kiss me under the mistletoe / Pour out the wine, let’s toast and pray for December snow I know there’s been pain this year, but it’s time to let it go / Next year, you never know, they sing.
“Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You)” by Kelly Clarkson
Written by Clarkson, along with Jason Halbert and Jessi Collins “Christmas Isn’t Canceled” is one of the original holiday tracks off Clarkson’s recent release When Christmas Comes Around… and comes from the perspective of a newly single woman navigating the holiday alone—I’ll be hanging every light I find in this house / Playing Christmas music so loud / This year Christmas won’t be quite so blue—and also reflects on making the best of the “canceled” feeling of holidays around the pandemic.
Produced by Jason Halbert, Joseph Trapanese, Jesse Shatkin, and Aben Eubanks, When Christmas Comes Around… is Clarkson’s second holiday album and addresses all the mixed experiences and emotions that come around the holidays. “‘When Christmas Comes Around’ captures how different the holidays can be for all of us during our lives,” said Clarkson, “and I hope everyone can find something on the record they relate to. Hopefully the happier songs, but if not, hey, you’re not alone.”
Bonus Track: “Don’t Stand So Close to Me by the Police (Official Christmas Version)
Though the subject matter of The Police’s 1980 hit “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” is less about getting in the yuletide spirit and more Nabakov’s “Lolita,” the recent “Official Christmas Version” of the song unearthed by the band in 2021 shows a more festive revelry around the opening track off the band’s third album Zenyatta Mondatta. Shot in December of 1980 while The Police were on tour in the U.S. and Canada, the Christmas-y footage was filmed in Grey Rock, Quebec, Canada and features footage of the band—Sting, bassist Andy Summers, and drummer Stewart Copeland—meeting and skiing with Santa, racing on snowmobiles and even dressing as Father Christmas while on the slopes. Sometimes, it’s not so much about the lyrics or the song. In the case of this Police “Christmas Version,” it’s all about the visuals.
Photo: Rob Thomas courtesy Atlantic Records; Kelly Clarkson by Carter Smith