I’m loving mangers instead: why are there no wintry pop ballads any more?

<span>Photograph: Lehtikuva/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Lehtikuva/Shutterstock

Ahead of the announcement of the Christmas No 1 on 22 December, the halls of the UK Top 10 are decked with festive classics by Wham!, Mariah Carey, Elton John and others, which now get snowed in for weeks every year thanks to their popularity on streaming. But nestled among them is Jorja Smith’s cover of East 17’s Stay Another Day: the ultimate example of a type of pop song that has otherwise all but melted away.

Once upon a time, December wasn’t just a time for Christmas albums. We could depend on the pop act du jour to don some layers, head out into a chilly landscape, and slow the pace down in a bid to reach the Top 10 with a wintry but not necessarily Christmassy ballad.

Examples are plentiful. Stay Another Day, written by Tony Mortimer – and not mentioning Christmas once – was included on East 17’s LP Steam, released October 1994. “The record company heard it and said: ‘This is a good song – it could be the Christmas No 1,’” Mortimer told Time Out in 2019. “So the producer stuck some bells on it.”

Robbie Williams had the career-rescuing Angels, Blue had Guilty, Liberty X had Holding on for You, and there were even some classic Britpop examples: Oasis’s Whatever and Blur’s The Universal. Of course, the Spice Girls had 2 Become 1, and Too Much, and Goodbye: a trio of back-to-back Christmas No 1s between 1996 and 1998.

These are not the kind of acts whose sole purpose seemed to be churning out balladry all the live-long year – your Westlifes, Boyzones, Robsons & Jeromes. Instead it was generally upbeat acts becoming more melancholy and reflective; the song had probably been on the album for a while, but they released it as a single for Christmas, when sales were dependably high. “The winter ballad was a good way of convincing parents to invest their £13 in a pop album for their kids,” observes Michael Cragg, author of Reach for the Stars: 1996–2006: Fame, Fallout and Pop’s Final Party.

The last tangible examples of this time-honoured tradition are both X Factor-related. First and most obviously, One Direction’s Night Changes. Introspective lyrics? Check. Long coats? Check. Some kind of wintry backdrop? Check. Then, there’s Labrinth’s Beneath Your Beautiful in 2012: a slowed down song for an artist associated with bangers, a commercially viable collaboration (with Emile Sandé), and, crucially, an X Factor appearance just in time for Christmas.

Yet, at some point the winter ballad died, with memories of Take That’s Babe or B*Witched’s To You I Belong lingering only in the nostalgic, ageing brains of millennials. “The charts every December are now largely dominated by Christmas classics,” says Gennaro Castaldo from the British Phonographic Industry, “and there’s probably an awareness among other artists that if you were to release a new song at this time, it could be overshadowed.”

The X Factor was the last mass-market platform on which to tout your new single, and once Rage Against the Machine beat Joe McElderry to No 1, the writing was on the wall: listeners were tired of manufactured power ballads, and Little Mix didn’t even bother with one. “Rather than doing a big pop banger, album, second single bop, and then a wintery ballad to shift CDs for Christmas, acts now have to chuck all their singles out ahead of time and take fewer risks,” says Cragg. “The ballad gets automatically sidelined. Unless you’re Adele, who often seems to work outside the rules of the music industry and has made two big ballads – Hello and Easy on Me – in recent-ish years, that fit the winter ballad remit. Hello even has a windswept black and white video.”

Given all the factors – streaming, TikTok, the lack of a TV showcase – is there a way back? “I think you could see it happen occasionally,” says Cragg, “but it won’t be the same as a slightly shonky pop act chucking out a ballad as a third single and ending up in the Top 10. I think those days are gone.” Castaldo has a slightly more positive outlook. “You can never rule out a return for that style of song. You only need one big global hit, and songwriters and artists will see the opportunity and respond accordingly.”

Either way, we will always have that era when acoustic guitars, lyrics about missing someone, sweeping orchestras, cosy coats, and a snowy video (filmed sometime the previous July) ruled the winter charts. We may never again experience the likes of the sweeping wintry majesty contained in S Club 7’s Never Had a Dream Come True – “gorgeous vocals, lovely melodies, exceptional coats”, says Cragg – but as the septet sang themselves, there’s no use looking back or wondering.