The best new Christmas songs of 2021: from Ed Sheeran and Elton John to Abba

Which songs are memorable enough to make it on to 2022's playlist?

Ed Sheeran, left, and Elton John have collaborated on an upbeat new Christmas tune for 2021. Kevin Winter/WireImage
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It’s an annual muso moan that there are “no new Christmas songs” getting heard – a myth seemingly hammered home by Mariah Carrey’s perky perennial, All I Want for Christmas, by far the youngest festive favourite regularly heard on rotation – and first to turn diamond, after clocking 10 million in sales this month, about 27 years after release.

But it’s sure not for a lack of effort – every year dozens of hopefuls, from wannabe pop idols to unlikely genre masters, attempt to cash in on the holiday cheer (we’re looking at you, Snoop Dogg Presents Christmas in tha Dogg House). We simply forget them come January and whip out the same outdated compilations next time the tinsel comes out.

Could something change in 2021? Perhaps we’re being too reckless in our much-needed optimism, but in recent weeks, we’ve clocked a stocking full of fresh holiday tunes flooding our playlists and social feeds, many from actual relevant acts digging deep to share some timely holiday vibes – because after the year we’ve had, we could use an extra dose of joy right now.

So from vintage pop troupe Abba’s unlikely return, to Kelly Clarkson’s surprise Christmas gem and ever-merry troubadour Ed Sheeran’s first festive foray, let’s take a closer look at 2021’s top candidates for the Chrimbo canon, and playfully rate their chances of being remembered this time next year.

Ed Sheeran and Elton John – ‘Merry Christmas’

If anyone can put a fresh Gen Z sheen on the holiday song tradition … it’s probably not cheesemonger-in-chief Ed Sheeran and his favourite celebrity uncle Elton John. The unlikely buddy duo have penned what has already emerged as the season’s only sure musical takeaway, brimming with the kind of cliches you’d probably hope the pair might sidestep – copious sleigh bells, a children’s choir and repeated invitations to canoodle “under the mistletoe” – as well as squeezing in a timely pandemic-era nod to “the ones who have gone”.

It would take a real Grinch not to smile at the tightly wrapped, neatly bowed package, though. Joyfully hamming it to the max, Sheeran somehow prances between self-conscious showboating and tongue-in-cheek high jinks, while a barrel-housing John channels Meat Loaf coming down from a turkey feast with dashing aplomb.

Memorability rating: 8/10 – it’s just about silly enough, and certainly cheesy enough, to be embraced into the holiday canon forevermore.

Abba – ‘Little Things’

OK, at this point in 2021, we’ve all computed the bizarre return of Abba into our musical landscape, and likely formed an opinion. What perhaps only true converts of the Swedish quartet’s brand of super-shiny pop smarts might have clocked is that November’s comeback album Voyage – the group’s first new material in 40 years – contained a sweetly surreal holiday tune in its midst.

Tracked to a Disney-esque piano, strings and woodwind, this short vignette is deeply dreamy and squeamishly nostalgic in its evocation of “tiny little elves” and “Christmas stockings full of nice little things”, climaxing in a – here we go again – children’s choir and glockenspiel. It’s also completely unmemorable.

Memorability rating: 4/10 – it’s still back-from-the-ether Abba, after all, so chances of a 2022 showing remain.

Mariah Carey, Khalid and Kirk Franklin – ‘Fall in Love at Christmas’

Say what you want about Mariah Carey, she doesn’t let her self-claimed “Queen of Christmas” crown gather dust. Since shifting 15 million copies of her 1994 Merry Christmas LP (home of you know what tune), Carey has released two more complete festive albums (Merry Christmas II You, 2010, and last year’s Mariah Carey's Magical Christmas Special), and kept up the momentum with this year’s sensual R&B slow burn Fall in Love at Christmas. Maybe it’s cold outside, baby, but Carey and Khalid spend an awful lot of the music video’s five-minute sprawl crooning at each other on a sofa, while choir leader Kirk Franklin sits awkwardly at a piano to the side. We have reservations about the gospel-funk outro, too, but hey – it’s Christmas.

Memorability rating: 5/10 – it may be Mariah, but there’s plenty of shorter, sharper and faster festive tunes already in her repertoire better suited to your seasonal playlist.

Kelly Clarkson – ‘Christmas Isn’t Cancelled (Just You)’

Hallelujah for Kelly Clarkson, who has somehow managed to inject a dose of personality and a dash of 2021 into the most tired of genres. Sure, the feel-good, big band treatment she offers is as hackneyed as it is (thankfully) well-executed, but the lyrical flair more than makes the ears perk up when she sharply puts down a lover who “ruined all my favourite things, but … won't take Christmas from me”, before unleashing the bitingly contemporary title catchphrase. It feels like the first time since Wham!’s Last Christmas that anyone has pulled off the trick of a festive break-up song capable of filling a dance floor.

Arriving hand-in-hand with Ariana Grande collaboration Santa, Can’t You Hear Me, this is the most memorable (if less popular) of two fresh festive singles, both drawn from Clarkson’s second holiday album When Christmas Comes Around … – no wonder the first American Idol winner is already earning calls that (look away Mariah) there’s a new “Queen of Christmas” in town.

Memorability rating: 9/10 – we’re really rooting for this one.

James Arthur – ‘Christmas Bells’

Ah, the Christmas weeper – often the preserve of the “serious artist” too earnest to indulge in festive frivolity, but swayed in the general direction by the seasonal dollar. Here, troubled The X Factor alumnus James Arthur offers a tender, bleak but believable acoustic portrait of a troubled gent pining over an ex, “blazing memories” and bemoaning the “radio playing that old song by Slade”. Last Christmas, this is not.

Memorability rating: 1/10 – no one really wants a blue Christmas.

Sigrid – ‘Home To You (This Christmas)’

Well, there’s something slightly cynical about taking your surprise summer Olympics hit, originally from 2019, and reworking it with a seasonal parenthesis … and yet Sigrid’s timely re-take on Home To You melts our hearts every time. With snuck-in references to “Christmas lights” and “snow … all around”, sailing delicately over chiming piano chords and soaring strings, the Norwegian pop princess just might have penned an anthem that will endure.

Memorability rating: 6/10 – canny timing indeed.

McFly – ‘Walking In The Air’

You’d be forgiven for missing this amid the noise and mistletoe, but we were pleasantly surprised to discover pop-punk boy band has-beens McFly’s unapologetically emo-tinged take on the best-known tune from the soundtrack of The Snowman. Just imagine the story’s cute blond boy as a teenager: all grown up, depressed and plugged deep into his headphones as he nihilistically circles the night sky, utterly embarrassed by the liquid-based companion dutifully holding his hand.

Memorability rating: 2/10 – great effort, but not a chance we’ll be hearing this around the fireplace next year, lads.

Updated: December 14, 2021, 8:31 AM
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