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Why do artists keep making holiday albums? Because they still sell lots of copies.

Mariah Carey, a voice of Christmas
Mariah Carey, a voice of Christmas
James Devaney/Getty

Christmas music has been playing since sometime in November — and maybe even before that.

As you put up the tree, traditional Christmas carols rang out. When you shopped for presents at the mall, Mariah Carey's voice rang in your ears. The soundtrack of the past month has been the same songs on an endless loop. Maybe you're still excited about hearing "Jingle Bells" sung by a school choir. But more likely than not, you're getting sick of them. You're starting to remember why you hated them so much last year because it seems like Christmas music is everywhere.

But why are there so many holiday albums? Why is Christmas music such a perennial seller? Here's everything you need to know.

1) When are holiday albums released?

Most holiday albums are actually released long before the holiday season so that they have time to pick up popularity, airplay, and even a few early sales. A popular holiday album can come out anywhere from early October to the first week of December and still do moderately well on the charts.

In the wake of her "Let it Go" sensation, Idina Menzel released a holiday album this year on October 14. She told Time that she thought the release was too early, saying, "I don’t understand. I’ve been asking the label to tell me why. Apparently, that’s when people start buying stuff for Christmas."

Menzel hits on an important point here. Holiday albums aren't released due to anything having to do with the holidays themselves. Instead, they're released at the time the record label thinks will optimize their sales and plays. It might seem odd to you — and Idina Menzel — to find her album on the shelves before Halloween, but her label knows that album needs time to build momentum.

But not everyone counts on that sort of slow growth. Tiny, demon-loving pop sensation Ariana Grande released her holiday song, "Santa Tell Me," on November 24:

2) Why do artists make holiday albums?

Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey performs a Christmas concert (Paul Morigi/Getty)

Some artists genuinely love Christmas music. Many, when asked why they chose to create a holiday album, will respond with something about their great love for Christmas music and how great nostalgia is.

But for most artists (and probably even those who genuinely love this music), making a holiday album is about money. Making a holiday album is a great way to pull in some extra cash in a year when an artist hasn't created a plethora of new, personal work.

Because holiday songs are classics, the copyrights for composition rights often have lapsed, are owned by the public, or never existed at all. That means that when an artist performs a Christmas song, instead of both the copyright holder and the performer needing to be paid, only they (the performer) get any revenue from of the song, which in turn means more money. Creating a holiday album composed of only classics (as Mariah Carey did) can be a very lucrative career move.

And if you can somehow write a new holiday classic — though this is very tough — you could be raking in earnings for decades to come, as your song becomes a standard and more and more artists cover it.

3) What are the most lucrative Christmas albums of all time?

Most album sales rankings are made by Nielsen Soundscan. But, because Soundscan only began keeping track in 1991, some of the most popular Christmas albums of all time are excluded from that list.

A better way to rank holiday albums is to use RIAA record sales, which include the Soundscan rankings and albums released before that (albeit with less exact data than Soundscan has provided).

Here are the top 10 holiday albums in recorded history:

  1. Elvis' Christmas Album by Elvis (1970)
  2. Miracles: The Holiday Album by Kenny G (1994)
  3. Now That's What I Call Christmas! by various artists (2001)
  4. A Fresh Aire Christmas by Mannheim Steamroller (1988)
  5. Mannheim Steamroller Christmas by Mannheim Steamroller ( 1984)
  6. The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole (1963)
  7. Noël by Josh Grobin (2007)
  8. These are Special Times by Celine Dion (1998)
  9. Merry Christmas by Mariah Carey (1994)
  10. A Christmas Album by Barbara Streisand (1967)

4) Can I hear Elvis sing one of his Christmas songs?

Of course. Elvis's holiday album went diamond on the RIAA charts, selling more than 10 million copies. There's probably a copy in your parent's house somewhere that you could dig out right now, but here's an embed of the whole thing:

5) Do Christmas albums still sell, even though album sales are down across the board?

There's a lot of talk this year about album sales and the future of the music industry, because album sales across the board are down 14 percent. When we look at album sales since 1991, there is an obvious peak in sales around the time the CD took over (1999) and before iTunes entered the market (2002). Of the 19 albums that sold 1 million copies in their first week, 10 were released in that time period.

But with Christmas album sales, there's a little more room to be optimistic. In 2007, Josh Grobin's Noël went five times platinum. In 2009, Andrea Boccelli's My Christmas went platinum twice, and in 2010 Susan Boyle's The Gift went platinum thrice. Holiday albums, after all, make great gifts for those you're not sure what to buy for, and that means they have a good shot at being perennial sellers.

That said, it's telling that there hasn't been a top selling holiday album in the last four years. Idina Menzel's October release only sold around 21,000 copies, which is very bad for an album released by a star. Here's hoping her label was right about building momentum through New Year's Day.

6) Are Christmas albums exclusively made by people who celebrate Christmas?


Barbara Stresiand has a full Christmas album! (Kevin Winter/Getty)

Nope. Barbara Streisand, who is Jewish, made one of the top 10 selling Christmas albums of all time. As the also Jewish Idina Menzel told Time:

"Most of them were songs that I’ve always wanted to sing. 'Do You Hear What I Hear?' is a song Whitney Houston sang back in the ‘80s. Her version is incredible. I’ve always loved that song. If Barbra Streisand can make a Christmas album, I can."

7) When is an appropriate time to start listening to Holiday music?

This is a hotly contested issue, and one that shouldn't be taken lightly. If holiday music is played too early, it can make the Grinches among us sad and disgruntled. If played too late, an opportunity for joy can be missed entirely. The best time to start listening to holiday music is the day after Thanksgiving. Let Thanksgiving be its own thing, then haul out your battered copies of Elvis and Kenny G.

8) Do you have any good holiday album recommendations?

Yes. Of course we do. You already know the top 10 big sellers, so here are 5 you might not have heard of:

  • James Brown recorded three Christmas albums before he died in 2008. The best of each is added to James Brown's Funky Christmas, an album full of classics like "Merry Christmas Baby" and some of Brown's own concoctions such as "Santa Claus Goes to the Ghetto" and "Go Power at Christmas Time."
  • If you like your Christmas albums full of superstars, A Motown Christmas is a perfect holiday jam. Released in 1973, the album features songs by Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, and Stevie Wonder.
  • A Christmas Gift for you From Phil Spector is another great compilation album featuring some great 1960s voices performing classic songs. You want Darlene Love singing "White Christmas." Trust us.
  • For the indie-rocker, soft-sound lovers among you, there's not much better than Sufjan Steven's Songs for Christmas, a four part album with pretty much every famous Christmas song sung in Steven's gravely voice.
  • Kate and Anna McGarrigle created one a voice driven album full of historic Christmas hymns in their album The McGarrigle Christmas Hour. The songs are eerie, and soothing, and absolutely beatuiful.

9) What if I want to listen to months worth of Christmas music?

Here's a playlist of enough Christmas songs to get you from now until probably Valentine's Day, if that's your jam.

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