While Mariah Carey’s quarter-century-old “All I Want for Christmas Is You” continues to top the singles charts in America, in Europe a very different holiday anthem has made that ascension to No. 1 — Ellie Goulding’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” a song about having a blue Christmas.
And with that, the artist to whom Variety gave its Decade Award at a Hitmakers celebration earlier in December has unexpectedly ended up being the UK’s final chart-topper of the decade.
Carey’s perennial was not being ignored across the pond. Actually, Christmas songs claimed the top four slots in the final BBC chart of the year and decade. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” came in at No. 2, followed by Wham!’s “Last Christmas” at No. 3 and the Pogues’ and Kirsty Maccoll’s “Fairytale of New York” at No. 4.
Goulding’s “River” was the only newly recorded song to land in that top quartet. That it made it to No. 1 on the Dec. 27 chart was perhaps more remarkable in that it wasn’t available on Spotify or most of the usual digital services, being an Amazon Music exclusive, although the video could also be viewed on YouTube.
In a statement published by OfficialCharts, Goulding said, “I’m so over the moon that I got the chance to sing such a beautiful song so close to my heart by one of the best songwriters of all time – someone who inspired me greatly for the next album — and it makes me so happy that people have also become new Joni fans as a result. It’s been a rollercoaster of a year, but can’t think of a better birthday present than being the last No. 1 of the decade.” (Goulding’s birthday is Dec. 30.)
The “River” video carries an ecological theme, with Goulding and friends picking up discarded plastic on the beaches of Dungeness and using the litter to make a zero-waste Christmas tree. Goulding reminded fans that “every single piece of plastic ever made is still on this planet. It’s a material that will last for hundreds of years, so we need to have a plan. We wanted to show something different and to incorporate a different type of Christmas message while creating something reusable and beautiful.”
“River” first appeared on Mitchell’s classic album “Blue” in 1971, and was never released as a single at the time. For decades, it was rarely thought of as a Christmas song, despite having the opening line “It’s coming on Christmas,” perhaps because of its melancholy theme or the lack of a holiday reference in the title. But it gained popularity as a carol starting around the turn of the century, and has become Mitchell’s second most covered song, with interpretations by James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Barry Manilow, Sarah McLachlan, Idina Menzel, the “Glee” cast and dozens of others.
“River” is Goulding’s third song to top the UK chart, following “Burn” in 2013 and “Love Me Like You Do” in 2015.
In pure streaming numbers, neither the Goulding nor Carey songs were on top in the UK for the week. That honor goes to Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” which was streamed 17.1 million times, a figure that beat a record previously held by Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings.”
On the UK albums chart, holiday collections claimed two of the top four spots, with Michael Buble’s resurgent “Christmas” at No. 2 and Robbie Williams’ new “The Christmas Present” at No. 4. But the top spot on the albums chart was taken by a Rod Stewart collection of orchestrated greatest hits.
Goulding has not released a new album since “Delirium” in 2015, but has been working on a fourth full-length collection for some time, and said in her statement that she “can’t wait for you to hear the album early next year.”