How much Christmas spirit does Neil Diamond have? His cheer is bottomless, apparently. This fall, the singer-songwriter released his fifth Christmas album, a mix of originals and holiday standards titled Acoustic Christmas. Diamond is generally prolific—he has put out 34 studio albums over the past 50 years, not including a list of live recordings and compilations—but still, holiday season after holiday season, he returns to beloved classics like “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bell Rock.”
Diamond isn’t the only repeat purveyor of warm vibes this year: Artists of all stripes—Jimmy Buffett, Sarah McLachlan, Hanson—are coming out with follow-up holiday albums. Then there are first-timers, like R. Kelly, who announced his debut seasonal release, 12 Nights of Christmas, on Instagram in September. Kelly teased the project years ago: “I started it [in 2012] actually, but I don’t believe in putting out a Christmas album just to sell records,” he explained in a 2013 Rap-Up interview. If he was going to put out a Christmas record, it would need to be nurtured- until just the right moment.
Country singer Kacey Musgraves announced her own holiday debut, A Very Kacey Christmas, with similar sentiments, saying, “I really wanted to create a whimsical throwback holiday record, one that evokes feelings of nostalgia and simpler times.”
The nice thing about classics is they don’t have to be flashy. They’re crowd pleasers, no artistic embellishment needed. As the name suggests, Diamond’s Acoustic Christmas keeps it simple. The emphasis is not on performance, but on having a kind of sing-along with the listener. For artists and their audiences alike, the songs are musical comfort food: They represent coziness in a turbulent world.
In an age of surprise releases and streaming services, the promise of album sales is a shaky one. In July, Billboard singled out 2016 as the worst year for music sales since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking them in 1991. Compact disc and digital album sales fell 11.6 percent and 18.44 percent, respectively; the albums hit hardest were new releases, which crashed 20.2 percent. In other words, artists can’t assume a release date will equal sales.
What artists can rely on, however, is moving music during the most wonderful time of the year. In 2014, according to Billboard and Nielsen Music, by the week of December 14, overall album sales had shot up by about 12.5 percent, and holiday albums accounted for 19 percent of those sales. That’s because, despite the waning power of release dates, the holiday season remains a time of conspicuous consumption, and CDs are the perfect size to cram into a stocking.
For many artists, holiday albums are really the gifts that keep on giving. In 1994, Mariah Carey released Merry Christmas, which included the hit “All I Want For Christmas.” Twenty-two years later, that song still dominates the Billboard 100 Holiday Chart—and, sometimes, the Billboard 100 as well: Last December, Mariah’s old yuletide favorite outsold new non-seasonal hits by Adele, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift. Regardless of what else is hot that year, December means Christmas tunes and a side of nostalgia, providing musicians a reliable end-of-year bonus.
Fun fact: While chart-topping holiday albums are, almost exclusively, Christmas albums, a healthy percentage of them have been recorded by non-Christian artists: Carole King, Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand have all released yuletide records. In a nod to the King’s own best-selling holiday caroling, Diamond has even been nicknamed the “Jewish Elvis.” The point is, Christmas albums do well; but in the spirit of the season, perhaps they have worth beyond being schmaltz for the goyim. Another semi-famously Jewish singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan, released his holiday album, Christmas in the Heart, in 2009. In an interview that year, Dylan said: “These songs are a part of my life, just like folk songs. You have to play them straight too.” Like those old folk tunes, Christmas music is a chance for artists of all genres to get back to basics—perhaps the rarest gift of all.