You need to watch the video in its entirety for this to make sense.
This song landed on my “Eggnog” list when I went through my top-five beloved, hated, “eggnog” (guilty pleasure), and “terrible to bearable” lists of Christmas songs back in 2014.
The original is still on my “Eggnog” list. It’s weird but I kinda love it. If there were an Island of Misfit Christmas Songs, this track would be voted President for Life.
Where to begin? The juxtaposition of Doctor Who-style synthesizer with jingle bells? The weird constellation person? The fact that the constellation person suddenly summoned a party of people dancing and drinking and singing along with a charismatic central figure who’s the focus of the…
This is “Must Be Santa” all over again, isn’t it?
Paul McCartney appears via cosmic magic (?) and starts the party in that older couple’s living room. Everyone’s going nuts, including the previously staid house owners. As he’s singing, suddenly you see that Paul (or his doppelganger!) is singing simultaneously on the television, and we are transported to that jam session. Everyone’s face is stretched with a sort of manic glee. It’s clearly sorcery.
So the question we must ask: Are Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan both Christmas wizards? Are they aware of each other? Are they IN LEAGUE with each other? Are they different classes/degrees of wizard, like Gandalf and Radagast? Or is it more like Gandalf and Saruman, since Dylan seems more chaotic and reckless, while McCartney is more playful?
Also, SPACE KEYBOARD HANDS! STAR PEOPLE SINGING! FLYING LIGHT ORBS! A HORSE! IN SPACE!
I mean, the revelers are dancing around a bonfire singing, and at one point, Paul is singing back and forth with a doppelganger. There are angels leaving Christmas graffiti on walls. It’s pretty much a fever dream. (Come to think of it, the pre-roll ad that YT assigned to this song was for a chewable supplement that was made using that wacky tobaccky, so draw your own conclusions.)
I gotta admit, though, Paul’s bowler-and-scarf combo are pretty snazzy (and vaguely Tom-Baker-ish).
Bottomline: The video is wild, the song is an inane puff of peppermint cotton candy, and I don’t care. I’m simply having a wonderful Christmastime, too.
All of that said, here’s a fantastic version of the song, featuring another great scarf:
Let’s start off with the baseline: on its own, when performed in a traditional, choral way, this song gets on my nerves.
The droning bass part of either “Drum, drum, drum, drum” or “pum, pum, pum, pum.” The dragging tempo. The tediousness of the lyric. I just don’t care for it in its basic/classic form.
That said, I don’t hate the idea of the song, so I’m down with versions that change things up. So, here are some of the versions I enjoy the most or have discovered recently that I dig:
Bowie and Bing’s Duet is classic TV and I don’t acknowledge the parody
The pre-song patter is sometimes considered cheesy and unnecessary, but it seems fitting for an era of musical/variety television, so it’s a nice time-capsule of that moment. And I legitimately love the weaving of the two melodies by two master vocalists. I’ll find myself suddenly humming the Bowie part as I’m going through my day. This clip is wholesome and I love it.
For King And Country, because of course
It’s a song about a drummer. It’s practically an international crime not to include these drum-centric songsters. The cinematic nature of the music video is also pretty rad.
Johnny Cash sets his own tempo, you hear me?
It’s so strange, but I still dig it. All the extraneous “pa-rum-pum-pums” are gone, the whole thing’s a little off-kilter, and the image of the little drummer boy opening his mouth to speak and Cash’s voice coming out is just bonkers, and I love it.
ETW – Drummer Boy (from Yo Ho Ho)
Okay, here’s the deal: I love this track for many reasons, but 3 come to mind immediately: 1) You have that nice harmony on the initial chorus, giving you a little Boyz II Men throwback vibe; 2) Once the beat drops, you can clearly hear some Run-DMC influence; and 3) there are a ton of samples from my favorite (and arguably, the best) Christmas movie of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life. While the title track of the album is a lot of fun, I think this one is actually the star at the top of the early-90’s CHH tree.
Sometimes the #ChristmasSongbook selections will be about personal memories or spiritual reflections. Other times, they will be discussions of the inexplicable weirdness of cultural Christmas artifacts or just a celebration of the silly and fun traditions of the holiday season.
Today is squarely in that second category.
First, the song itself: “Must Be Santa” was originally written and recorded in 1960 and has been a well-known Christmas tune ever since. It’s actually a riff on the classic German-American tune “Schnitzelbank” (which folks of my generation may know better as “The International Friendship Song” thanks to Animaniacs). “Must Be Santa” has been covered multiple times over the last 60 years, but never quite like Bob Dylan did it in 2010 for his album Christmas in the Heart. In this version, you obviously get later-years Dylan who has started sounding more and more like Tom Waits (someone get this man a throat lozenge, please?). The tempo is flying, and it’s clear that the normally laid-back Dylan is barely hanging onto it with white knuckles. It’s a short little ditty (under 3 minutes), and it’s a harmless piece of fluff. If Dylan’s voice doesn’t grate on you too much, it’s not something that would make you turn the radio dial on your family roadtrip; you’d probably just join in on the song.
But this video. Uffda.
I’m simultaneously baffled and entranced by this frenetic visual collage. If you will permit me, I’ll address my main thoughts in a series of bullets.
The opening counter is a bit cheeky with its retro look. It sets you up to expect something staid and classic like Andy Williams or Bing Crosby. Not “Twas the Polka Rave before Christmas.”
The frame irises in, revealing the accordion player, and we’re off to the races. The iris effect is interesting in retrospect, because it visually indicates this is a performance, a play–it’s hyper-reality.
Bobby Dylan is wearing a black smoking jacket and a white top hat, his stringy hair hanging down over his face as he mouths the words while looking somewhat distracted and befuddled. Also, he’s clearly a wizard, because in this video that is shot and edited to look like a long serious of single-takes, he seems to teleport around the house.
Now, I think we’d have to classify Bobby the White as a “chaotic-neutral” character in this scene. He doesn’t really help anyone in his vicinity; he just sort of looks around bemusedly and occasionally pulls out booze or a cigar. He also does things like throwing lit matches onto the floor in the middle of the entryway. I mean, we can’t assume this is his house, just because he’s one of the oldest people in the building. It is possible he’s the Gatsby of this particular festive fete, but it’s equally possible he’s the wild card, a renegade guest tagging along with the younger crowd’s party and creating just a little extra trouble as he goes.
Of course, another point in the column for our “Dylan is a chaotic wizard” argument is that he is clearly leading the song, providing the “call” for everyone to “answer”–and I do mean everyone. Until one key moment in the video, everyone in the building is singing and/or dancing to his tune. What is this enchantment that Robertus Dylanus is weaving over the house party? To what nefarious ends might such a spell be used?
Suddenly, the Christmas enchanter is dancing with ease among the crowd–moving so sprightly, I might add, that I’m half-convinced that he’s not so much teleporting as creating magical doppelgangers that appear throughout the house and can move much more gracefully than he can. Obviously, the doubles are corporeal enough to grab the hands of the other dancers. Oh, this Dylan’s powers are formidable indeed!
At around the 1:50 mark, the story of the video shifts abruptly as a man in a black suit is being chased through the second-floor hallway and down the flight of stairs by at least two men. The man in black pushes people out of the way, leaps over tables, scales a bookshelf to use its tchotchkes as defensive projectiles. He runs from room to room, evading his pursuers, swinging on chandeliers, jumping through a picture window, and finally escaping into the night. What is his story? I actually watched the video a few times to see if there is a backstory seeded in the crowd scenes, but I couldn’t find it. Did the man in black kiss someone else’s lady? Did he owe someone money? Was the conflict caused by drink and rowdy jostling in the crowded hallways of the party house? The world may never know. It remains forever a Christmas mystery.
The final shot is Dylan the White look in the direction of the escaped party-goer, standing next to the Jolly Old Elf himself in full Coca-Cola glory. They exchange a knowing glance and half-shrug as the frame irises out with the final image being Bobby D, the Puck of the party. He’s obviously not the real Santa, but they seem to know each other. So who is he? An elf? Jack Frost? A less-scary version of Krampus? It’s unclear. What can be clearly ascertained from this video is that Bob Dylan is a chaotic wizard who can mind-control large crowds of people while creating corporeal dopplegangers of himself to do his bidding, so we all should be on our guard. He’s obviously persuaded Santa Claus to join his side, which means no one is safe.
All in all, this song is a goof, and the video is a lark. How can such magical silliness still exist in our all-too-serious world full of pedantic works of art that cannot be released unless they contain Big, Important Ideas?
Growing up, my family never had any “Advent” traditions. We never went to churches that celebrated or even really acknowledged the season of Advent (other than the pun of “The Christmas ADVENTure” children’s activity event a week or so before Christmas). While my current church doesn’t have any set Advent teaching or programming, we have been singing Christmas songs more regularly during worship over the last month, but that’s about it.
I haven’t been in much of a Christmas mood this year, to be honest. I know the day is just around the corner, but it just hasn’t felt Christmas-y. We hardly decorated around the house this year, and it’s just…I don’t know. We’re busy. Tired. Fighting off winter illnesses. We even missed going to our church’s “Christmas celebration service” because the kiddo was sick and my wife and I were both wiped out as well. On top of that, work has been a bear this season, and it’s just… *shrug* Anyway. No matter how much “holly jolly” music I listen to in the car or around the house, I haven’t felt all that merry and bright–with one exception.
A few weeks ago, we sang “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in church. As soon as I uttered that first line, my heart thrilled and I felt chills up and down my spine. My spirit resonated with that longing. I felt that ache. No, I haven’t suffered under the cruelty of foreign occupation or strained against economic oppression. The circumstances of my life are extremely blessed, and I have it very easy in many respects. But nevertheless, my heart feels weary this year. My mind is taxed. I am longing for the Kingdom of God and the end of the darkness.
The Kingdom is here. Now. The wriggling form of a baby in a manger, the agonized moans of an innocent man nailed to a wooden cross, the charged and energized stillness of an empty garden tomb are all evidence of this good news.
The Kingdom invaded earth. The revolution has already begun. And the petty little conflicts I face every day are actually part of a war against the darkness that has already been won, as the Champion of Heaven has slain the bloody giant and redeemed for Himself a people for His own possession.
The good news that I have been given the privilege to proclaim is that God-with-us has ransomed us. Unholy rebels who have sinned against their Creator have been offered forgiveness and adoption as sons and daughters. Because of the great love of God, we who deserve destruction may instead have life.
Sometimes, that proclamation begins by reminding the man in my mirror that there is hope. There is hope. There is hope.
We are not alone. God is with us.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel has ransomed you, sons and daughters of the true Israel.
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!
Thanks for reading! Be sure to “like” the post if you enjoyed it, share it on your favorite social platforms, and subscribe in the box on the right (or below) if you’re not following already. I’ll see you next week!
*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*
A few weeks ago, I was curious about your most and least favorite Christmas songs/carols, and the results were…let’s say “mixed.”
Your picks for most-loved Christmas songs:
O Come, O Come Emmanuel (7 votes)
O Holy Night (6 votes)
a 5-way tie between I’ll be Home For Christmas, Carol of the Bells, Breath of Heaven, The Christmas Song, and It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (2 votes each)
Your picks for most-hated Christmas songs:
Springsteen Santa Claus is Coming to Town ” (7 votes)
Christmas Shoes (5 votes)
(tie) Grandma, Santa Baby, Feliz, Wonderful Christmastime, Happy Birthday Jesus (3 votes each)
What was surprising about the poll was the crossover songs: songs that charted on both the “Fa La La” and “Bah Humbug” lists:
Happy Birthday Jesus
Mary Did you Know?
The Christmas Song
People’s reactions to Christmas music are interesting to me. Some love getting in the spirit of the season. Others (usually those who work in retail and are subjected to piped-in generic holiday music and evil customer behavior) struggle to enjoy Christmas music. And that makes sense to me.
As for me, I grew up in a house that relished Christmas music. From the moment it started on November 1st on the local FM radio station, Christmas music was non-stop until the lights went out on December 25th, and sometimes a few days later. As a reaction to this (and a symptom of the crippling cynicism I was infected with during my college years), I stopped listening to Christmas music unless I was mocking it. I stated for several years that my favorite Christmas carol was “You’re a Mean One, Mister Grinch.” (Though, to be fair, this version is pretty fun.)
Thankfully, I grew out of my college side-eye days, and have begun to enjoy Christmas music again…mostly. There are exceptions. (We’ll get to those tomorrow.) But on the whole, I do enjoy Christmas music, I’m thankful for it, and I say God bless it.
So, on this eve of the blessed day, I say to you, Merry Christmas, readers. Take some time to enjoy some great Christmas music and meditate on the baby in the manger, born to be the Savior on the Cross, who stands now as the Risen Lord and Returning King.
I’ll leave you with a song that is not often played as a Christmas carol, but one that I think keeps our focus on the Person who matters.