Every December, there seems to be only a handful of holiday songs, but a multitude of versions of each. This year, we’re throwing down in a Christmas Carol Cage Match to decide the definitive version of some of the most common seasonal cuts. Two of our writers will make a case for either side, but we’re leaving it up to you to decide the winner in our online poll. Check Twitter tomorrow for the results.
The carol: “Last Christmas”
Who could have predicted that Wham! would give us one of the only Christmas standards to emerge during the ’80s, decades after most classics had been established? A pop-heavy British duo that first erupted in the U.S. with the perky “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” Wham!, featuring George Michael’s frequently anguished vocals, went on to become the torch duo the ’80s needed. “Careless Whisper,” “Father Figure,” “Everything She Wants”: The majority of Wham!’s subsequent hits were emotional droners. In that context, it makes sense that Wham!’s contribution to the Christmas canon would be another sob story, with thoughts of a happier holiday just a year prior.
“Last Christmas” has become so popular it has been covered by Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, the cast of Glee, and many others (see below), but none can compare to the version by the song’s author. As with all of the songs listed above, Michael opens a vocal vein, ruminating about how he was devastated by getting dumped the day after Christmas the previous year. But as he is so often, Michael is still hopeful, with thoughts of giving his heart “to someone special” this year, and sleigh bells in the background attempting to lift his spirit. It’s hard to define that quality that made Michael the Judy Garland of ’80s pop music, except that he also possessed an impressive, open emotionality that helped to push his songs across. Maybe it’s because he wrote it (or possibly lived it), but it gives his version of “Last Christmas” a quality that no one else can even touch. [Gwen Ihnat]
Contender: Jimmy Eat World
In 2001, Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American garnered far more attention for its title than for the quality of its songs, earworms notwithstanding. The album’s title was deemed to be in questionable, un-American taste after the 9/11 attacks (although it was released two months prior), and it was renamed Jimmy Eat World, making it the band’s third self-titled release in as many years. Perhaps in an effort to make their patriotism known, the band followed up that eponymous do-over with a cover of Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” because nothing brings Americans together like a little commercialism.
But whatever its origins, the cover fits seamlessly into the band’s oeuvre. “Last Christmas” was an emo song before that genre existed, what with its confession of being dumped over the holidays, probably in front of your whole family and everything. But, just as Jimmy Eat World eventually gave up on moping, its updated tune doesn’t remain mired in gloom. George Michael’s lyrics are right at home on Jim Adkins’ lips, whose vocals are similarly airy but sound just a tad more hopeful than the Wham! frontman’s. But where Michael sounds like he might be protesting too much—especially when he sings “But if you kissed me now / I know you’d fool me again”—Adkins sounds like he’s ready to move on in earnest. And, nothing against the original’s keyboards, but the bouncier tempo of the 2001 cover sells the singer’s optimism. In Jimmy Eat World’s hands, “Last Christmas” takes on a newer meaning—that last year’s ruined holiday really was the last one—and edges out the original. [Danette Chavez]