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: “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”
Contender: Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen’s concerts are legendary for a reason: Well into his 60s now, the man is a bundle of live-wire energy, bringing his shows an insanely lively vigor. His “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”—performed in concert sometime before 1985—sees a young, early-fame Springsteen bring his signature spirit to the holidays, incorporating some rock ’n’ roll to a Christmas staple. His banter with the band and with the audience (“Hey band! You guys know what time of year it is? What? What? Oh! Christmastime!”) rolls smoothly into a rollicking “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” the energy mounting with pattering drums and jangling piano and peaking with a great sax solo from Clarence Clemons, who also lends his low voice to the part of Santa. The song—and the relationship between the Springsteen and Clemons—is so genuinely joyful that Springsteen can’t contain himself, laughing as Clemons breaks out the rolling belly “ho ho ho.” It’s an infectious outbreak of holiday cheer; the spontaneous laughter when he should be singing is something that can never be manufactured. So while The Jackson 5’s rendition is great, it’s not spontaneous-joyful-laughing great. It’s an exuberantly slick studio production with a forced joyfulness that can’t match Springsteen and his E Street Band’s off-the-cuff delight. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]
Contender: The Jackson 5
The Jackson 5 gets right to it—none of this bell-ringing and forced merry-making that goes on for nearly a full minute—with 12-year-old Michael Jackson’s clear, sweet voice proclaiming, “Santa Claus is comin’ to town!” It’s rare that a secular Christmas standard has any real soul to begin with—and were it not for this version, it would seem that this song was no different—and it’s rarer still that a child can plumb its depths to emerge toe-tapping and triumphant with only a chorus of “Santa Claus is comin’ to town!” to work with. The Jackson 5 is the antithesis of a straight-backed children’s chorus that repeats words and matches notes: The brothers’ spare, syncopated backup hits just the right groove to foreground Michael’s voice, and though they were surely forced to practice this into oblivion, their talent is so mighty that it feels fresh even after repeated listens. And only the Jackson brothers could take lyrics like “rooty toot toot and rummy tum tums” and make you want to sing along. At two and a half minutes, the Jacksons strip the song down to a soulful core, amplify it with Michael’s voice, and leave all those extra verses and jingling bells to the wayside, where they belong. You don’t even have to be filled with Christmas spirit to find joy here—this is one of the few Christmas songs that has enough soul for the entire year. [Laura M. Browning]