Merry almost-Christmas, friends! It’s that time of year when more and more radio airplay is filled with the holiday classics we have come to know and love…or despise, in some cases. (Truth be told, “Christmas music season” started on November 1st, so we are more than halfway through it!)
While I’ve discussed in past blog posts the Christmas songs I love, hate, and maybe hate that I love, this year (to save me some tears) I thought I’d try something a little different.
So here’s my “Terrible-to-Bearable” List*–five songs that have been moved from the Naughty List to the Nice List (barely)**, thanks to a cover/remake that salvages them from the coal bin. They’re not necessarily my least favorite Christmas songs of all time, but they certainly could be considered “skip-worthy” when they come up on Pandora.
Hope you enjoy these recovered classics–or at least hate them a little bit less now!
Honorable Mention: “Donde Esta Santa Claus?” by Guster
I’m not putting this on the list officially because I was first exposed to the song via this version, which I find oddly charming. The original was sung by 12-year-old Augie Rios back in 1958–and I’ve discovered that I usually don’t enjoy Christmas music sung by any child not named Macaulay Culkin. The other reason this one doesn’t make the cut is that the song is essentially unchanged–it’s just sung by adults.
Honorable Mention: “Wonderful Christmastime” by Jars of Clay
I almost didn’t include this track; it made my “eggnog” list from 2014 specifically because of this version. I’ll admit, I’m even coming around on Paul McCartney’s trippy original (have you seen the original music video? Yikes…), but for a while there, I hated it, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. So this Jars of Clay cover demonstrates that the bones of a really nice (non-partisan wintery) song are there, if you strip away the synthesizers.
#5: “I’m Getting Nuttin’ For Christmas” by Relient K
The best way to fix annoying jokey Christmas songs sung by children is apparently to speed them up to a pop-punk beat and shout them into the microphone. Because as grating as the original is, I can’t help but bop along to this one.
#4: “The Chipmunk Song” by Hawk Nelson
Again, speeding it up (and not being chipmunks) makes this a bit more enjoyable. This high-energy pop-rock cover removes the tedious waltz-rhythm of the original, so that the whole thing is done in 2 minutes without the “Aaaaaaaaaaalllllvvvvviiiiiiinnnnn!” discussion after each chorus. Definitely an improvement.
#3: “Little Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth” by Bing Crosby and David Bowie
Okay, folks, this is a safe place here, so let’s be honest: “Little Drummer Boy” is a song that gets tiresome REALLY quickly. (Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum) It doesn’t have a lot to say in terms of the story. (Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum) I mean, it’s nice that there’s a message of bringing your best to Jesus, whatever it is. (Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum) But I don’t know if it’s worth dragging each line out to get there. (Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum) (Rum-pum-pum-pum.) (Rum-pum-pum-pum.) So how do you improve on a Christmas classic that isn’t going anywhere soon (or fast)? You have two amazing vocalists duet in counter-point to each other, in a one-of-a-kind performance that is gently arresting.
#2: “All I Want For Christmas Is You” by Jamie Cullum
A surprise entry to the list (it was just released today!). Yes, the original song also made my 2014 “Eggnog” list, due to sentimental reasons, but man oh man, it has become ubiquitous. Not even watching my 1-year-old dancing around to it a few weeks ago could redeem it in my mind. It’s over-played, and everyone thinks they can sing it well (though not one of us can). But then in walks Jamie Cullum and the magic returns. If you’re not familiar with Cullum, you should check him out. He’s like a better and less-well-known Buble, with a dash of Scott Bradlee and Billy Joel. And he brings a fresh energy to this track (which he learned and recorded in an hour?!?). Great cover.
Before we get to my Number One Terrible-to-Bearable pick, a few extra links and comments :
Okay, okay, let’s get to it. My Number One “Terrible-to-Bearable” Christmas cover is…
#1: “Christmas Shoes” by FM Static
I think I’ve gone on record enough with my intense dislike of “Christmas Shoes.” It’s shamelessly manipulative, cloying, and cliched. At times, it has made me viscerally angry. So, as I was researching this post, I thought, there’s no way that this, the most despicable of schlocky Christmas tunes, could be ameliorated by a cover version. That would be like finding a unicorn–discovering a mythical creature, imagined but never realized.
I think I was wrong, folks.
Is the FM Static version of the song actually better? Lyrically, no. It’s still terrible. It’s still manipulative and corny and syrupy. But I realized as I have listened to this version that FM Static eliminates two of the main elements that make the Newsong version so awful in my opinion:
- Newsong. That sounds mean, doesn’t it? Too bad, because it’s true. The overwrought, growly vocals of the original artist are ridiculous. While FM Static’s knock-off-Rivers-Cuomo vocals in the verses aren’t the greatest, it’s still a VAST improvement over Russ Lee’s emoting.
- Children singing. This is definitely a thing for me; apparently, I can’t stand children singing in Christmas music. When the original song brings in the children’s choir to sing the reprised chorus and then the twee little urchin sings the last line about his dying mother, the producers are trying their best to wring out your tears. Well, Mr. Producer, you have failed. I will not give you a single tear. I refuse.
Instead of leaning on emotional manipulation, FM Static goes to the other extreme. There is no sentimentality in their cover. Not to say it isn’t sincere and played straight; there is not snark or cynicism in their approach. What’s fascinating is that the actual melodic line of the song becomes clearer and cleaner, and I’m able to appreciate that it’s not a bad song and it has a pretty good hook to the chorus. I even (and I hate to admit this) caught myself humming the chorus yesterday. No other proof is needed, I feel. Well done, FM Static. Well done.
There you go, folks. Five (okay, seven) songs that are improved to one degree or another by a cover or remake. Did I miss any of your favorites? Want to argue my picks? You can comment below!
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*I almost called this the “Toothless Bumble List” in honor of the Abominable Snow Monster in “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” that chills out after a round of non-consensual dentistry–but I figured the reference was a bit too esoteric. Nevertheless, I share it now with you, the loyal footnote-reader. Buon Natale and Meli Kalikimaka.
**My alternative title was “Terrible to Tolerable” but I decided to go with the rhyme instead of the alliteration. These are the pointless decisions I wrestle with, as I write this blog. *shrug*