Mariah Carey v Wham! – who should finally get their festive No 1?

All I Want for Christmas Is You and Last Christmas have never topped the UK chart, but one is likely to finally triumph today. The Guardian’s music editors debate which deserves to win

Story of the song

All I Want for Christmas Is You

Mariah Carey’s 1994 hit sounds as if it was blessed with the twinkling stardust that seems to be falling in its opening notes: after decorating her home with Christmas decorations in the height of summer, it was written in just 15 minutes. That’s perhaps a bit of myth-making – co-writer Walter Afanasieff has said the core melody and chords took an hour, and they actually carried on tinkering with it for a couple of weeks before recording it – but much like Father Christmas himself, it’s something you want to believe in.

Afanasieff was riffing with a one-handed boogie-woogie piano line, and Mariah started singing over the top. He was initially horrified, thinking her rising and falling melody sounded like scales you’d give a vocalist to practice with, but their vision cohered: a 1960s-style song made for the slick 1990s. It wasn’t eligible as a single in the US on release, but after various rule changes and the arrival of streaming, it finally reached No 1 last year, making it the slowest journey to the top ever. Can it repeat the trick this year in the UK? Ben Beaumont-Thomas

Last Christmas

Sure, Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine, but George Michael wrote Last Christmas in the time it took Andrew Ridgeley to watch an episode of Match of the Day. It is an expedient masterpiece, albeit one that George played every painstaking note of once he got to Advision Studios, to the irritation of engineer Chris Porter. It was the opposite to the bloated, bouffant-heavy recording session for Band Aid – George’s own estimable bouffant among the hairsprayed throng – and his meticulousness was no match for Bob Geldof’s gauche charity celeb beast, which claimed the 1984 Christmas No 1 spot.

Unlike Do They Know It’s Christmas, however, Last Christmas’s reputation is unimpeachable: not just a festive classic, but a high watermark of mid-80s British synthpop songcraft, before slick technology killed sincerity a bit. George died on Christmas Day 2016, which prompted a concerted effort to get Last Christmas to No 1 the following year – a battle it lost to Ed Sheeran. Now’s the chance to right its final festive indignity. Laura Snapes

Narrative strength

All I Want for Christmas Is You

Mariah rejects all of the trappings of Christmas – stockings, toys – in favour of a single present: you. It does sound a bit like a death-or-glory tactic taken by a hapless girlfriend who’s forgotten to buy her partner anything. Moreover, as one Chris Scott noted in a tweet that went viral: “Mariah Carey beginning with ‘I don’t want a lot for Christmas’ and then revealing she wants ‘you’ is such a good burn.” Such humbuggery is not in the spirit of the season, though: Mariah is actually an anti-consumerist ascetic (admittedly one often dressed in shimmering gold), reminding us that the true meaning of Christmas is the people around us. BBT

Last Christmas

George didn’t get the memo about Christmas being a season of goodwill to all men, a time for forgiveness and so on. Last Christmas starts wounded, as he wallows in the memory of his sweetheart betraying him the previous year, and only hardens from there. Soon we’re in “a crowded room, friends with tired eyes / I’m hiding from you and your soul of ice”. Soul of ice! While his bitterness is tinged with hope, his promise of generosity to a new lover is tainted by his enduring infatuation for last year’s model, who he admits he’d still snog given half a chance. It’s a rich text, albeit one interpreted too literally by director Paul Feig and writer Emma Thompson in the charmingly rubbish 2019 romcom, Last Christmas, which involves actual heart donation. But don’t hold that against it. LS

Karaoke power

All I Want for Christmas Is You

George’s tale of woe maybe has the edge in the narrative stakes, but let’s take this fight to the karaoke booth, with a bucket of alcopops at six for £10 because they’re near their sell-by date, and let battle truly commence. The introduction is made for earnest showboating, the prominent backing vocals mean your pals can get involved, and the 150bpm tempo ensures energy levels stay high. And when everyone goes for the top note at the end en masse, there’s such powerful kinship in all being so discordantly average together. BBT

Mariah Carey performing in 2016.
Mariah Carey performing in 2016. Photograph: Gregory Pace/REX/Shutterstock

Last Christmas

George’s vocal range is a lot more accessible than Mariah’s – at least to the average Christmas party belter – and the hurt in the verses provides ample opportunity for theatrical pouting. That said, Last Christmas is the sort of song that seems like a great karaoke choice, but one you almost immediately regret: the chorus repeats so many times, you’re stuck in karaoke purgatory, your friends’ appreciation of your efforts becoming less convincing by the second. Scarred from once selecting Don’t You Want Me at karaoke, its emotional showdown sounding punier with every seemingly unending go around, I’m handing this one to Mariah. LS

Festive promise

All I Want for Christmas Is You

Last Christmas uses its sleigh bells sparingly, merely as a cheap signifier – but once the beat kicks in, Mariah has hers playing all the way through, as if by a child who has nailed the one job they’ve been given. There’s something so profoundly Christmassy about the entire endeavour, though: the string fanfare is like Santa cracking his whip, with the subsequent melody careening like his magical sleigh across the hillsides. BBT

Last Christmas

There are three defining eras of Christmas single: Spector, glam and synthpop. Mariah simply revamps the former. George pretty much invented the latter (via the Roland Juno-60), and his scrunched strings became synonymous with a season of knowing artifice and glued-on glitter. He’s not just original, but astute: he understands how the rictus-faced joy of Christmas magnifies loneliness, and dials his hurt up to 11. It’s bitter yet hopeful: there is always next year. LS

The artwork for Last Christmas.

Renewed 2020 resonance

All I Want for Christmas Is You

For anyone having to self-isolate, the poignancy of the title may be too bitter to stomach, but for those of us dashing in and out of the government-mandated window of time to spend with their families, All I Want for Christmas Is You will be powerfully uplifting. After a year of frequently being kept apart, few minds will be on presents – all we now want is whichever “you” we’ve not been able to see, and the facelessness of the person Carey is longing for means that it can stand for anyone. That universal, countrywide sentiment is why it deserves to be No 1 in this year of all years. BBT

Last Christmas

George’s death on Christmas Day in 2016 made a festive staple into a memorial to one of Britain’s greatest ever pop stars. His passing also prompted the revelation that throughout his career he had been a staunch and quiet supporter of the NHS, cancer and Aids charities, homeless shelters, Childline and individual causes that moved him – a legacy of generosity and feeling for fellow man that has resonated in the strength of mutual aid this year, and one that the government might heed. Plus, this Christmas might be a lonely write-off for many shielders, making the promise of time with someone special next year especially potent. LS

• Who do you want to see claim the No 1 spot first? Argue your case in the comments below.

Contributors

Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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