P1 Media Group has published its list of the 40 top-testing Christmas records for 2018. The document, which you can see here, is pretty interesting. Records were tested for familiarity and love it-or-hate-it across various age groups and both genders to yield “appeal scores.” Radio stations can use the data to tweak their Christmas libraries for the season. The most appealing for 2018 is . . . “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms, a record first heard 61 years ago.
We can safely say that “Jingle Bell Rock” is one of the most incredible success stories in pop music history. In 1957, it made #6 in Billboard and #13 country, and it returned to the Hot 100 in 1958, 1960, 1961, and 1962. It appeared on Billboard‘s Christmas chart fron 1963 through 1973, with the exception of 1971. It hit #1 on that chart only once, in 1969, a year in which there were two versions of it in stores, the 1957 original and a 1965 re-recording. When Billboard briefly revived the Christmas chart in the mid 80s, it never missed. After it was featured in the 1996 movie Jingle All the Way, it returned to the Hot 100, country, and AC charts. As recently as 2016, it made the Hot 100 again.
On the local charts at ARSA, “Jingle Bell Rock” was #1 in Baltimore, Toronto, and Springfield, Massachusetts in 1957, and it appears on a handful of local charts in 1958, ’59, ’60 and ’61. (A station in Spokane, Washington, charted it at #1 in 1961.) It disappears from local charts after 1963, except for one listing in 1968, 1971, and 1974. By then, its place in the holiday pantheon was secure.
Why Bobby Helms? It’s not like he was as big as Elvis. He was a 24-year-old Indiana native whose first two hits, “Fraulein” and “My Special Angel,” had each topped the country charts for a month earlier in 1957. “My Special Angel” had crossed to the pop Top 10, peaking in November just as “Jingle Bell Rock” was getting traction. So it’s easy to figure why it became a significant hit in 1957. That success brought it back the next year, and the year after that, and after a few years, it apparently became impossible for listeners to imagine the holiday season without it.
A second version of “Jingle Bell Rock” appears in P1 Media Group’s Top 10: the one by Hall and Oates. It was first released in 1983, although P1 Media Group shows its debut year as 1984. On the original single, Daryl Hall sang it on one side and John Oates on the other. And although I was doing pop-music radio in the 80s, I don’t remember hearing it until sometime in the new millennium. H&O did a version on their 2006 album Home for Christmas, and I think that’s the version you hear most often today, but I could be wrong about that. It’s pleasant enough, although it lacks the indefinable something that puts the Bobby Helms original into a completely different league.
As for the rest of the P1 Media Group list, you can look it over and see for yourself. The newest record on it is Taylor Swift’s cover of “Last Christmas,” which came out in 2007. It is one of only four records on the list to be released in the new millennium. The oldest is Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” from 1942. And so it confirms what we already know: the American Christmas canon is largely set in stone and has been for a long damn time.
Some radio stations won’t dip into the Christmas library even a little bit until today, but across the country, others have been flipping to all-Christmas since approximately Halloween. Such early flips are traditional now, a tradition that is accompanied by people bitching about it. I have seen people online confidently proclaiming that such stations have no idea what they’re doing and that nobody wants to hear Christmas music so early. Which is wrong. Stations going all-Christmas often see huge ratings jumps for the fall ratings period—double, triple, even quadruple their numbers during the other three quarters of the year. That’s why they do it. A station in the Philippines went all-Christmas in September, and I suspect that if it weren’t for the presence of Halloween, many American stations would flip even earlier.
The enduring popularity of Christmas music on the radio—and the same music year after year besides—is a good reminder of how regular people (as opposed to music nerds or radio nerds) listen to the radio. They’re looking for something familiar to enhance or elevate their mood in the moment. For many, Christmas music does it, even the same old warhorses, even if it’s not Thanksgiving yet.