5 Christmas Covers to Get You in the Spirit

Nov 30, 2016

blog - 5 Christmas Covers to Get you in the Spirit

In last week’s entry, we honoured the memory of the late Leonard Cohen with a discussion of cover songs, inspired by the hundreds of versions of Mr. Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that have been recorded and performed over the years. Cover songs are a pretty big part of our musical culture, even if the average person doesn’t think about them very much throughout the year. But there is one time of year where cover songs actually take more of the spotlight, and we as an audience take more notice of how different artists give their own take on classics: the Christmas season.

Sometimes it seems like all the great Christmas songs have already been written. And while that may mean that we have to suffer through poor new attempts to create holiday magic every year, it also means we get to experience the classics in brand news ways with every winter season. Sometimes they’re cross genre toe-tappers, other times they’re beautiful and faithful homages to the original. Either way, Christmas is the season for covers, so here’s five of our favourites to get you in the spirit!

“Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” – Bruce Springsteen

Written by John Frederick Coots & Haven Gillespie – 1934

Originally written in the early 30s, and first recorded by Harry Reser and his band in 1934, this Christmas classic became an instant hit. In fact, 100,000 copies of the sheet music, and over 30,000 records sold within the first 24 hours of it being performed on the radio for the first time.

Having been covered countless times by a massive array of artists, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Dolly Parton, George Strait, Michael Bublé, and more recently, Justin Bieber, it’s clearly a holiday favourite among performers.

The version by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band ranks near the top of this prestigious list, if for no other reason than the obvious joy the band gets from performing it, and encouraging the crown to join in the singing!

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – Coldplay

Written by Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane – 1943

Originally appearing in the 1944 Judy Garland film “Meet Me in St. Louis,” this little tune quickly became one of the most popular Christmas songs ever written. Though the song can often come across as a little depressing, it could have been worse. Before it made it into the film score, some lines were revised to make it a little more cheerful. In 1957 Frank Sinatra asked writer Hugh Martin to revise it further, changing the line “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow “ to “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”

In 2007 the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers named “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” the 3rd most performed Christmas song between 2002 and 2007. It’s not hard to imagine that streak continuing.

Coldplay’s version of this classic Christmas standard stands out from past recordings as a somber and sort of melancholic ode to the season and to Martin’s original.

“Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” – Bing Crosby & David Bowie

Written by Katherine Kennicott Davis – 1941

No list of Christmas cover songs is complete without Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy.” The original was titled “Carol of the Drum” and was based on a tradition Czech carol. Written by classical music composer and teacher Katherine Kennicott Davis as material for amateur and girl’s choirs, the song quickly took on a life of its own. Since its earliest recordings it has been covered over 220 times in seven different languages.

The Bing Crosby/David Bowie duet stands out because of the “Peace on Earth” lyrics added for Bowie. The story goes that he didn’t want to sing “Little Drummer Boy,” so a new tune was added to appease him. Whatever the reason, a Christmas classic was born.

“I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” – Anya Maria

Written by John Rox – 1953

Performed first by Gayla Peevey in 1953 at 10 years old, this fun and silly novelty song has been a favourite of many comedy acts and children’s performers, including the Three Stooges and Big Bird from Sesame Street. A popular legend claims that the original hit was recorded as part of a fundraiser to bring the Ponca City, Oklahoma zoo (Peevey’s hometown) a hippo. In fact, that was not the original intent, but a local promoter did pick up on the song’s popularity, and launched a campaign to give Peevey a hippo on Christmas. Amazingly, the campaign succeeded, and Ms. Peevey donated Matilda the Hippo to the Ponca City Zoo, where she lived for nearly 50 years.

Anya Maria’s version reminds us of the original’s whimsy, and a child’s wonder during the season.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” – Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Lady Gaga

Written by Frank Loesser – 1944

Yet another classic that contemporary artists love to cover, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was written as a call and response duet for writer Frank Loesser and his wife Lynn Garland. The pair first performed the number at their Navarro Hotel in New York housewarming party. The duet was performed near the end of the night, letting their guests know it was nearly time to leave.

The story the lyrics tell has come under controversy on more than one occasion, but it is this very controversy that sets this version by Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt apart. In every recording since it was first written in 1944, the story has been of the man (or “wolf” as he is called on the printed score) trying to convince his date (the so-called “mouse,” also according to the score) to stay a little later. In this performance, however, they script is reversed, allowing the woman to be the “wolf” for the very first time. There is no question that this brings a modern feel, and whole new playfulness to a classic favourite.

So there you have it, five of our favourite Christmas covers! I’m absolutely sure we missed some amazing songs; with so many new covers being recorded every year by new artists, there’s no way we could cover all the amazing homages made during the holiday season. What are some of your favourite Christmas tunes to get you in the holiday spirit? Let us know in the comments!