Revisited: Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas

As timeless a classic as we remember? Or completely overshadowed by what's surely the greatest Christmas song not written by Wham?

It was November 1994, and holiday albums were ruling the roost on the American Billboard charts: Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas and Kenny G’s Miracle: The Holiday Album both went multi-platinum, and Natalie Cole’s Holly & Ivy and Neil Diamond’s The Christmas Album 2 went gold. What a time to be alive.

Earlier this week, Mariah’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ returned to the ARIA singles chart (sure, it’s peaked at No. 50, but that’s pretty impressive for a song that’s been around for 19 years), and sparked some impassioned think-pieces online. It’s time to properly revisit the album that gave birth to that most immortal of modern Christmas classics.

‘Silent Night’

Merry Christmas featured a pretty conservative beginning. There are no tricked-out beats or prolonged notes — and Mariah’s famous seven-octave ‘whistle register’ gets a warming up if not an outright belting — but Carey’s rendition of the popular 1818 carol by Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr is certainly a respectable start.

‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’

Curly-haired saxophonist Kenny G may have had the higher-selling of the two competing Christmas albums, but the then 24-year-old Mariah got the last laugh (certainly none of Kenny G’s Xmas tunes reached the pop charts then, nor any other year). In 2011, ‘All I Want For Christmas’ experienced 60 weeks on the UK singles chart and was the world’s first double-platinum holiday ringtone. It has been remixed, re-recorded by Mariah herself, and covered by Shania Twain, Michael Buble, Lady Antebellum, Jessica Mauboy and Love Actually, as well as a duet between Carey and Justin Bieber that is several different kinds of wrong.

It’s a modern classic to be sure, and a definitive part of my youth. Do you remember the interactive board game, Nightmare? It involved getting abused by a crypt-keeper and admitting your greatest fears. Once, when playing the game with my brother, I wrote my greatest fear as “bees” (a natural choice, surely). My brother? “Glenn singing ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’.” 20-odd years later, and nothing’s changed.

‘O Holy Night’

Never let it be said that Mariah doesn’t take any opportunity she can get to put that voice to effective use. Her version of Adolphe Adams’ 1847 carol starts restrained (or as restrained as she can get), before the choir kicks in and Mariah’s voice enters the stratosphere. This certainly isn’t the rendition you’d sit around a fireplace and sing along to if you can’t hold a note, but props to anybody who tries.

‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’

My love for Mariah is huge, but even she knows that it’s foolhardy to tinker with a Darlene Love and Phil Spector classic. It was originally recorded for the greatest ever Christmas album, A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector (1963), which had the distinct misfortune of being released on the day of JFK’s assassination (what an unfortunately-titled gift!). Carey changes very little apart from making it louder, which is appropriate given it was voted by Rolling Stone as ‘the greatest rock and roll Christmas song of all time‘.

‘Miss You Most (At Christmas Time)’

Lightning most certainly did not strike a second time here (well, except for the expert use of parentheses). Mariah and her festive collaborator Walter Afanasieff attempted another original tune, but must have wrung every drop of awesome onto the pages of ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’. This song is dull, and only enlivened by Carey’s vocal acrobatics that are truly an Olympian effort.

‘Joy To The World’

In 1994, Entertainment Weekly hailed this mash-up of the 1839 Lowell Mason arrangement with Three Dog Night’s hit song of the same name as “one of the year’s unintentional camp classics”. It’s hard not to agree, what with its dance-pop beat and epic nightclub remix. Carey sure does give her vocals a work-out, but in the battle of the ‘90s divas, I prefer Whitney Houston’s gospel rendition from her film The Preacher’s Wife (1996) and her own Christmas album, One Wish: The Holiday Album (2003).

‘Jesus Born On This Day’

This was another original from Carey. While it’s a marked improvement on ‘Miss You Most (At Christmas Time)’, it’s still slightly disappointing compared to the album’s popular high-point. For what it’s worth, it wasn’t until researching this article that I realised it was an original, so at least it sounds authentic? I could have done without the queasy children’s choir, but by the end it’s become a rousing, if sickly, addition to the modern Christmas lexicon.

‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’

Eddie Cantor’s 1934 hit single became a quick perennial for its kid-friendly lyrics and uplifting spirit. Mariah’s famed belting vocals are well-served by the song’s joyful, piano and jingle bell beat. It’s hard to not get excited about a fictional fat man when being performed with such joie de vivre, wouldn’t you agree? Santa is real for all three minutes and 24 seconds this song plays, at least.

‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ / ‘Gloria (In Excelsis Deo)’

But then it all comes crushing back down to Earth with this unfortunate medley. Written by Charles Wesley and George Whitefield in the 1700s and adapted by Felix Mendelssohn and William H. Cummings in 1840 into the version we know today, there’s little here that can’t be heard at ‘Carols In The Domain’.

‘Jesus Oh What A Wonderful Child’

I like that Mariah kept Merry Christmas at a nice balance of religious-themed carols and those that are about wanting to cuddle under the sheets as the snow falls outside. This is obviously one of the former, but its traditional roots are transported to gospel. In the second half, Carey attempts to breaks a record for performance ad-libs. It’s a fittingly celebratory closer to the album, and will make even the grumpiest Grinch want to dance. Just don’t listen while preparing Christmas dinner, as you’ll be likely to chop something by accident amidst all the merriment.

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer and film critic from Melbourne, and currently based in New York City. His work has been seen online (Onya Magazine, Quickflix), in print (The Big Issue, Metro Magazine, Intellect Books Ltd’s World Film Locations: Melbourne), as well as heard on Joy 94.9.