NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- If holiday radio is on 24 hours a day for more than a month, why does its playlist feel like it has fewer songs than December has days until Christmas?
Perhaps it's because, despite having hundreds of songs at their disposal, 24-hour holiday radio programmers spun the Top 23 songs between 10,238 times (Elvis Presley's
) and 19,600 times (Burl Ives'
Have A Holly Jolly Christmas
) last year, according to Mediabase. The newest song to crack that list is Josh Groban's rendition of
Oh Holy Night
from 2002 (played 12,659 times last year) and the last "new" song to crack the Top 10 was Mariah Carey's
All I Want For Christmas Is You
, which was played 19,600 times last year but debuted 17 years ago.
It only feels like listeners are hearing the same holiday songs repeatedly because they are -- and a lot more often than they were only two years ago. According to Andrew Forsyth, a consultant for
BDSRadio, the average playlist size for all-holiday stations in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas/Fort Worth and Los Angeles shrunk from 752 songs in 2009 to 694, while the average number of times each song was played during the holiday season rose to 33.4 from 30.5.
Sean Ross, executive editor or music and programming for
, notes that of those fewer than 700 songs, only 120 account for more than 70% of the airplay. The heaviest hitters -- including Ives, Carrey, Cole, Brenda Lee's
Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree
(19,406 plays last year) and Andy Williams'
Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
(18,459 plays) -- are played as much as five times a day on some stations. Ross says the playlists are not only tightening, but placing added emphasis on standards and soft, traditional songs.
"Only a few novelties like
Elmo and Patsy's
Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer
are grandfathered, so to speak, and they would have a hard time getting played if they were new today," Ross says. "There seem to be a number of original songs coming from name artists this year -- Justin Bieber, Michael Buble, etc. -- but for the most part, artists putting out a holiday album are steering toward the standards because that's what radio plays."
As long as the listeners keep getting what they want, stations and their programmers have no need to stuff more songs into listeners' stockings each year. A 33-market study conducted by radio research firm
in 2009 found that the average market share for radio stations that switched to the all-holiday format rose 91%. Last December, 24-hour holiday music stations in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago and Houston all saw ratings jump from holiday 2009. ClearChannel, which already has more than a handful of its U.S. stations spinning holiday standards all day, got a 71% million bump in ad revenue for making the holiday switch last season.
Unfortunately, this means a lot of holiday songs and entire genres get lost in the mix. Ross finds that his Christmas favorites --
by the Temptations,
Christmas Ain't Christmas Without The One You Love
by the O'Jays and
Merry Christmas Baby
by Otis Redding -- often don't make the cut on holiday radio or are exiled to online channels such as United Kingdom-based
Smooth Radio Christmas
or those found on
satellite radio. Though it's tough to fault radio stations for going with the sure thing, a lot of holiday party hosts are left to dig through the digital crates when constructing their seasonal playlists. With all respect to Gene Autry, Johnny Mathis, Wham! and some of the other holiday staples, we found 10 examples of must-hear holiday standards that rarely see the light of Christmas day on 24-hour holiday radio:
10. Clarence Carter/Back Door Santa
Clarence Carter isn't singing about Christmas, actual presents or even Santa himself in this entendre-laden love-makin' anthem, so it's little surprise that the most exposure America usually gets to it comes in six-second snippets.
Back Door Santa
, which was first released on a holiday compilation album in 1968, has spent the past 24 years entering the Christmas consciousness through a sample of the song's horn section used in Run D.M.C.'s hip-hop holiday standard
Christmas In Hollis
. Aside from occasional cameos such as a featured role in the 2006 Christmas episode of the CBS sitcom
How I Met Your Mother
Back Door Santa
is usually reserved for naughtier party playlists and holiday guests with a somewhat sophomoric sense of humor or an appreciation for holiday soul.
Besides high horns and a deep baseline, "Back Door Santa" offers harried moms and dads some sage advice for the season: Bribery is the best way to get the kids in bed early and give Santa and his sidekick of choice some alone time.
9. Tom Waits/Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minnesota
Not much for cheer or holiday spirit, Tom Waits turns this holiday tune over to a hooker who tells a guy named Charlie about her pregnancy, newfound sobriety and new jazz-playing beau who's going to take care of her and her new child.
It all sounds lovely enough: She has his mother's ring, they go out dancing every night. If that's how the holiday correspondence ended, that would have been just fine, but the lie starts to unravel with the admission that she still has a Little Anthony and The Imperials record Charlie gave her and thinks about him often. "Everyone I know is either dead or in prison," she says, the latter of which we later find out includes herself as the song turns into a desperate plea for money to pay legal fees.
Somehow, we get the feeling that Charlie isn't exactly thrilled with her claim that she'll be paroled on Valentine's Day, but that's perhaps the most cheerful portion of the song. Not because the hooker will be free, mind you, but because she's in the joint this holiday and the listener isn't.
Canadian folk rocker Neko Case took a swing at this one back in 2002, but not even her lithe tones and lighter delivery could wipe away this song's inherent grit. From Waits' growl and gargle to the narrator's obvious grief, this song is about as dark as a holiday tune gets.
8. Sarah Silverman/Give The Jew Girl Toys
What not to give Sarah Silverman as a holiday present: Sacred eggs that she's just going to egg your house with later.
Comedian and professional provocateur Silverman isn't one for subtlety, so calling Saint Nick both a feminine hygiene product and a male appendage in the same song is about par for the course. In a multipronged attempt to get Santa to show some love to overlooked Jewish kids, Silverman offers religious arguments ("what would Jesus do") and borderline prostitution in exchange for presents under the tree.
When that fails, she insinuates that Santa's name sounds German (it's Dutch) and that he may have ties to the Third Reich. By the end, you get the feeling that if Silverman saw mommy kissing Santa Claus, she'd have him hauled off for assault. After hearing Christmas music in mid-October, seeing holiday sales and decorations in early November and feeling left out every December, even those filled with holiday spirit may take comfort in Silverman's hostility.
7. Spinal Tap/Christmas With The Devil
"The elves are dressed in leather and the reindeer are in chains/The sugar plums are rancid and the stockings are in flames"
Sometimes it takes a fake band to stir up some real fears about the "War On Christmas." Michael McKean's David St. Hubbins, Christopher Guest's Nigel Tufnel and Harry Shearer's Derek Smalls -- the faux-British band built for the 1984 mocumentary
This Is Spinal Tap
-- dove right into mainstream America's greatest fears about satanic heavy metal and ran with it in this 1984 heavy holiday tune.
Though as much an '80s holiday period piece as Wham!'s
Do They Know It's Christmas
, holiday-only radio has shown time and again that it only has room for one fake metal band -- and Trans-Siberian Orchestra is it. Spinal Tap lyrics that suggest "There's someone up the chimney hole and Satan is his name" still don't pass adult-contemporary stations' present-opening test, no matter how firmly the band's tongues are pressed into their cheeks.
6. The Vandals/Oi To The World
Every once in a while this little 1996 holiday ditty about racism, drunken brawling and swordplay cracks the playlist on a modern rock station, but only because of Gwen Stefani.
Jingling bells and chestnuts roasting on open fires get bucked off the sleigh ride once this California punk band's tale begins. Within the first minute, a turban-wearing "Oi" punk enthusiast named Haji gets roughed up by a bunch of skinheads and has his turban unwound by a jackbooted thug named Trevor. "Bloodied but unbowed," Haji challenges Trevor to a rooftop fight on Christmas Day.
The first holiday lesson we get: Never bring nunchuks to a Christmas swordfight. Though Haji's giant sword like that wielded "by the guy from Indiana Jones" reduces Trevor to a bloody, dying pile, both his band and Trevor's skinheads abandon them. Catching sight of the North Star, Haji has a change of heart and tends to Trevor with bandages made from his turban and some bourbon from the local pub.
Even though it sounds a bit sweeter when sung by a ska girl-turned-fashion icon,
Oi To The World
West Side Story
for general consumption. Holiday radio is reserved for far more subtle cruelties: Like laughing at things that are different and calling them names or waking up infants who've had to sleep on hay for days with a loud drum because you're a cheapskate.
5. John Denver/Please Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas)
Aside from palling around with Frank Zappa and Twisted Sister's Dee Snider during Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center in the mid-'80s, John Denver's seldom been known to do anything to offend the nation's delicate sensibilities.
This 1973 honky-tonk gem may be the one exception. Written from the perspective of a 7-year-old who had to endure watching his father fall down drunk beneath the Christmas tree,
has since been relegated to roots-country holiday playlists on certain free-form radio stations and the occasional holiday blog entry on music sites.
Why? Because short of Shane MacGowan's jailhouse drunk and his lady in the Pogues'
Fairytale of New York
, drunken guys and their despondent loved ones don't sell holiday spirit or spirits. It's a shame, as the simple strum and Denver's dulcet tones make for lovely holiday dinner listening despite the downer content. If that's right in your wheelhouse this holiday season, may we and adult contemporary radio in general suggest Denver with a side of Muppets?
4. Clyde Lassley & The Cadillac Baby Specials/Santa Came Home Drunk
This 1960 blues relic is less a Christmas song and more a hobo's guide to whiskey.
Aside from a brief mention of Santa drinking good gin, getting drunk and having an entire bar try to throw him out and background vocalists singing "Santa's drunk again," this song is basically Lassley's excuse to name as many flask-sized whiskies as possible.
Apparently, Santa's drinking itinerary included Old Grandad, Mr. Boston, Mellow Breeze, Old Drum, White Horse, Johnny Walker, Three Rivers, Canadian Club, Old Crow, Redbird, Four Roses, White Swan, Green River and more than a few other holiday spirits past and present. We're not quite sure how Santa's liver withstood such an assault, but we're guessing that in a world where reindeer fly, obese men crawl up and down chimneys with ease and simple felt sacks hold billions of toys, medicine as we know it doesn't apply.
At least he has a year to sleep off the hangover before going back to work. "Poor old Santa" indeed.
3. The Lonely Planet/D--- In A Box
How do you keep a Justin Timberlake Christmas song off holiday radio? Step one: Cut a hole in the box ...
It's been five years since Justin Timberlake and
Saturday Night Live
cast member Andy Samberg did their best Color Me Badd impressions and wrapped a little early-'90s New Jack Swing around a genital joke, and the clip keeps raking in the holiday hits for Hulu. Though NBC censored mentions of the offending appendage 16 times when the clip first aired in December 2006, the uncensored version went on to win an Emmy for outstanding original music the next year.
Seeing the video again today, the most impressive part of this Christmas comedic masterpiece is not Timberlake's faux Cross Colours wardrobe and Jodeci falsetto or Samberg's spot-on blue-eyed R&B facial hair but the present's recipient -- Maya Rudolph. Without singing a note or speaking a word of dialogue, the
Up All Night
co-star sells every moment of this exchange as if it were an Al B. Sure video she'd ordered on The Box in 1988.
Even without the euphemism for the male member, the song may be a bit too risque for all-holiday radio. Consider that only one version of Frank Loesser's standard
Baby It's Cold Outside
-- a song where one half of the duo singing basically responds to the other's concerns about being tipsy with "shut up and take off your pants" -- managed to crack the holiday Top 100 last year. Dean Martin's posthumous duet with Martina McBride in 2006 managed 4,242 plays in 2010, but everyone's nether regions manage to stay safely ensconced in fabric and never once come in contact with wrapping paper or corrugated cardboard.
2. Fear/F--- Christmas
Lee Ving feels ways about Christmas.
But you want to hear them, you'll have to follow
Before he was known as the strip club owner in
or the dead body in the film version of
, Ving was the singer and prime antagonist for New York punk band Fear. He's the guy picking a fight with everyone in Penelope Spheeris' punk documentary
The Decline of Western Civilization
. He was a pal of John Belushi's and introduced America to moshing when Belushi invited Fear onto
Saturday Night Live
and Ving's buddies Ian McKaye from Minor Threat and Harley Flanagan and John Joseph of the Cro-Mags decided to make a pit and stage dive.
For holiday purposes, however, Ving only became relevant when he weighed in on the topic for 44 seconds during the recording session for Fear's 1982 album
. The bulk of the song is 33 words about how happy kids are at Christmas and how "not so great" the holiday is for Ving, but the clincher is Ving screaming title louder and louder until Mrs. Claus cries.
Monty Python's Eric Idle may have used a song of the same name to
but even in cursing the holiday Ving was more true to the core tenets of any good Christmas song: Make your point, repeat it often and do it all in three minutes or less.
1. Robert Earl Keen/Merry Christmas From The Family
It's a tough find outside of Texas, but Robert Earl Keen's rough-edged take on the good old fashioned family Christmas hits close to home for a lot of crazy-but-close-knit American families.
"Mom got drunk and dad got drunk at our Christmas party" gives the whole affair an inauspicious start, but when it's clear that they're not hurting anyone, leaving the house or making people cry, that's when the fun begins. From breaking in unexpected visiting boyfriends to keeping all the kids from a brother's various marriages straight and putting up with his newest AA-attending, chain-smoking wife, Keen opens the door to a holiday household where "family" has no standard definition and few details go as smoothly as they do in the holiday standards.
The egg nog runs out, the Christmas lights trip the circuit breaker and someone inevitably has to go out and pick up odds and ends, from ice and bean dip to tampons and cigarettes. It sounds like a mess, but replacement margaritas do just as well with cream and rum, a cousin who knows his way around an electric box can get the lights back on and unexpected guests still end up with full plates.
It's not pretty, tidy or necessarily jolly, but Keen's ode to the perfect imperfect holiday dinner rings truer than silver bells to anyone who's ever had to make the ice run, fix the minor disasters or ask a spouse or parent exactly who their uncle is married to now. It's not soaring to the top of all-holiday playlists, but for many listeners it's as home for the holidays as the radio gets.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.