This is the best-selling holiday song ever by a female artist, and one of only a dozen or so records to sell more than 15 million copies. But it’s also quite a curious production. For a start, I can’t immediately think of any other big hit which combines both ballad and uptempo versions of the same song ilke this. About the closest thing I can come up with off the top of my head are Gloria Gaynor’s 'I Will Survive' and ABBA’s ‘Chiquitita’, although in both cases the lower-energy introduction still has much more of a sense of rhythmic groove than ‘All I Want For Christmas’ does. It also contains one of the very few backing-vocal countermelodies that can genuinely boast singalong status amongst the general public (that “and I” first heard at 1:03) – up there for me with the verse vocals in The Beatles' ‘Help!’ and the chorus BVs entry in Shania Twain’s 'You're Still The One'.
Now I’ll grant you that the instrumentation is a bit of a festive cheesequake, with its bell chimes, layered sleighbells, cymbal rolls, piano glissandos, and timpani fills, but I liked the way the main rhythmic piano figuration adopts a rather less conventional oscillating hemiola pattern. The subtle change to the first verse’s rising quarter-note line at 1:01 when it recurs a 1:46 also catches the ear in a nice subliminal kind of way. Also, it’s unusual that the entire uptempo section of the song uses a double-tracked lead-vocal texture. Or maybe it’s an LCR-panned triple-tracked texture – I can’t quite make up my mind! Either way, though, this kind of thing is actually a bit of a gamble with a A-list diva, because layering tends to smooth away the timbral and phrasing nuances that make a lead singer’s personality most recognisable and allow her to create the most direct emotional connection with the listener. However, it’s a testament to Mariah Carey’s vocal stylings and general performance commitment (as well as her ability to tightly triple-track all those little curlicues without any apparent loss of enthusiasm!) that the result remains as engaging as it does – and, of course, the song’s single-voice introductory section helps here too!
The low end of the mix is another striking feature, because even though the arrangement as a whole suggests something of a 60s ‘wall of sound’, if you low-pass the mix at around 150Hz play_arrow | get_app, you’ll hear that the bass guitar is absolutely lionising the balance down there – the only other things that get a look-in are the kick and occasional low-tom or timpani features. I think this is very canny production on a number of levels. Firstly, because so much space is given to the bass in the mix balance, it makes the harmonic progressions crystal clear and easy for the listener to follow, despite the speed of some of the chord changes and the judicious use of ninths, elevenths, and thirteeths. Secondly, because the bass makes the chords so clear, the other backing parts don’t actually have to be that loud, giving the vocals more room to manoeuvre in the mix. And, thirdly, the excellent low-end clarity allows the bass guitar’s beautifully-articulated quarter notes and fastidiously spot-on timing to drive the song’s groove powerfully on its own, without the drums having to be too loud or aggressive in the mix. Props to the bass player (and also co-writer and producer) Walter Afanasieff on that one!
I think the song’s harmony is quite clever too, specifically in the way it builds and then subverts harmonic expectation through cycle-of-fifths progressions. So in the chorus at 1:22, for instance, the initial tonic G chord is followed by a B-E-A-D falling-fifths root progression, with the diminished A chord in second inversion (so as to avoid a tritone dissonance against the bass note) and a 9-6-4 suspension of D major (which you might write more conveniently as Em7/D). But instead of resolving the suspended fourth downwards to F# in anticipation of a perfect cadence onto the home chord of G major, that fourth rises chromatically to G# to form part of an E major secondary dominant at 1:30, starting a second E-A-D cycle-of-fifths pattern (this time with a regular root-position Am chord) leading to the actual V-I cadence into the chorus coda at 1:35. Now, introducing a chromatic G# in G major will inherently draw the ear a little, but in this instance its impact is significantly enhanced both by it thwarting the resolution of the D chord’s 4-3 suspension, and by interrupting the trajectory of the B-E-A-D cycle-of-fifths root pattern. As I said, quite clever! And there’s something quite similar at the start of the middle section too, where the chorus coda’s more straightforward E-A-D fifths cycle is again derailed before reaching the home chord of G major, but this time with a B major chord.
And, seeing as we’re talking about the middle section, notice that although this pretty much just copies the chorus’s chord progression, it’s been freshened up by just pacing the chords in a different way. So here’s the chorus pattern, with the chords I’m talking about marked in blue:
¦ G - - - ¦ - - B - ¦ Em - - - ¦ - - Adim7/Eb - ¦ Em7/D - - - ¦ E - - - ¦ Am7 - - - ¦ D11b9 - - - ¦
And here’s the middle section, which stretches pretty much exactly that same chord progression over twice as many bars by repeating the first couple of chords, and then adjusting the pacing of the remainder:¦ B - - - ¦ - - - - ¦ Em - - - ¦ - - - - ¦ B - - - ¦ - - - - ¦ Em - - - ¦ - - - - ¦ Adim7/Eb - - - ¦ - - - - ¦ Em7/D - - - ¦ Em7 - - - ¦ Am9 - - - ¦ - - - - ¦ D13 - - - ¦ - - - - ¦
Altogether a very smart and efficient bit of songwriting. What more could I want for Christmas?