There are plenty of reasons to dread the holiday season—and even if the inescapability of dreary Christmas music doesn’t seem as serious as family troubles or seasonal affective disorder, it’s no less depressing.
The genre’s religiosity isn’t the main thing that’s so off-putting to a certain type of listener; neither is the miasma of nostalgia that clings to these tunes. In truth, it’s simply the fact that most of them are just bad songs—stiffly pious, musty with age. Every year, it seems like they become a little longer than you remember, a little slower, a little harder to endure. The one bright spot during this time of year? Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” an incredible pop song doomed by its subject matter to only be played for a couple months each year. (The song celebrated its 20th anniversary over the weekend.)
“All I Want,” which Carey co-wrote with her former producer Walter Afanasieff, is a weird choice for a Christmas classic. While it presents a laundry list of traditional Christmas trappings—trees, presents, Santa, cozy fireplace situations—it also dismisses them, explicitly stating that they’re less important than Mariah being with the one she loves. For anyone who feels suffocated by the season’s cloying good cheer and respect for tradition, it’s a refreshing bit of shade-throwing on the whole endeavor—sleigh bells or no. But whatever grinchy joy you get from the hint of anti-Christmas subversion pales next to the deep pleasure of the music itself. “All I Want” is a purposeful invocation of ’60s girl groups filtered through the prism of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys—and it manages to hold its own against the originals, incorporating a thundering mini-orchestral arrangement that unfolds with the majestic overwhelmingness of a storm system. The chord progression on the verses builds with the confounding sense of inevitability of a song like “Be My Baby,” reaching for some platonic ideal of pop perfection. Then the chorus tumbles down a cascading G-major scale with unexpected grace before turning on a dime for the final lines. Listening to the song is like finding yourself in the path of a charging rhino that, right before impact, executes a perfect double cartwheel and ends in a pirouette.
“All I Want for Christmas Is You” is, famously, one of the few songs from the past several decades to enter the Christmas canon. Its embedding in Love Actually—itself a new holiday standard—has been given a lot of credit for that. But the song is perfect enough to stand on its own, and not just during Christmastime. It’s deservedly developed a little cult of pop aficionados who hold up the song as an example of immaculate construction and composition, along with evangelists like Grimes—who’s infamous for slipping it into DJ sets at any time of year. Both spread the idea that the best Christmas song of the past few decades is simply one of the best pop songs of the past few decades, hands down. It seems unfair to keep such a great tune confined to one short period of time each year—but as long as it’s there to offer a welcome respite from the dreadful music we have to endure for the season, it’s not such a bad deal.