Who Sang It Best? "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town"
From Kiddie Song to Christmas Favorite
"Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" celebrates the child in all of us who yearns to believe in the magic of Santa. However, this perennial Christmas favorite was almost never recorded because it was considered too juvenile.
In 1934, songwriter Haven Gillespie penned the lyrics in about 15 minutes, then composer J. Fred Coots wrote the basic melody in another 10 minutes or so. The upbeat number features a narrator cautioning kids to be on their best behavior in the time leading up to Christmas. That's because Santa Claus is watching and taking notes on whether to assign them to the good list or the naughty one.
After the seasonal ditty was rejected by their music publisher, the pair offered it to Eddie Cantor, a singer and performer who hosted a top-rated radio show. He would have passed on the song, too, had it not been for his wife, Ida. Fortunately, the missus convinced Cantor to reconsider the Christmas carol as one that would genuinely appeal to all ages.
Cantor thus sang the holiday song during his Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade radio broadcast in November 1934. There was nothing juvenile about the success that followed. The song became an instant sensation, selling 30,000 records and 100,000 copies of sheet music the following day. By Christmas, nearly half a million copies of the sheet music had flown off the shelves.
In the decades since, "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" has become one of the highest-earning holiday songs of all time. Sadly, however, Coots transferred his copyright to a music publisher in 1981, several years before his death, agreeing to a lowball figure of $100,000 for the rights to the popular song. In 2016, the songwriter's family finally won back Coots' rights to the Christmas tune, now valued at nearly $3 million.
"Who Sang It Best?": Here's How It Works
With many artists singing the same Christmas tunes, the sleigh has become overloaded. Let's rank them and cross some off the list.
In the "Who Sang It Best?" series, we start with the original (or earliest charting) version of popular songs that have been covered multiple times. Then we present a set of contenders, artists who have released cover versions in any genre. Some cover versions honor the original artist's style while others are reinterpretations.
Since the original song version is typically considered "the standard," we don't include it in our overall rankings. Instead, we display it first for comparison, with up to 14 contenders presented next in ranked order. Vote on your preferences:
- Do you prefer the original song or a cover version?
- Which of the cover versions do you prefer?
The Classic Song
"Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters (1947)
Bing Crosby was the most popular artist of his time—an Academy Award winning actor, a singer known for belting out his vocals, a radio host, and a television star. By the time he released this early rendition of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" and saw it make the Billboard charts, Crosby had already recorded "White Christmas" (still the best-selling single of all time). A year later, in 1948, he was voted "the most admired man alive," ahead of both Jackie Robinson and the Pope. Now that is a superstar!
As multi-talented as Bing Crosby was, let's acknowledge, however, that no one is perfect. Not every artist can blow the competition away with every song they sing. That may sound sacrilegious to true Crosby devotees, but when it comes to this song, more recent artists have sung it better.
Although I like the big band vibe here, Crosby's voice lacks strength, and it is overshadowed at points by the squeaky-high vocals of The Andrews Sisters. Although the sound of those three sisters was intended to balance him out, their vocals are so buoyant that the effect borders on ridiculous. It's as if the girls have been inhaling helium.
Crosby was a frequent collaborator with The Andrews Sisters, and they were popular in their own right, recording songs such as "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." This version of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" peaked at #22 on the Billboard chart. Listen to various artists who later covered the song and then decide: Who sang it best?
Which version would you rather listen to -- the one by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters or your favorite cover version?
Cover Versions in Ranked Order
1. "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" by Mariah Carey (1994)
This rip roarin' version of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" starts off deceptively mild with several bars of the melody from Brahms's Lullaby (which you might know as "Go to Sleep Little Baby"). But then put on your seatbelt because Mariah Carey quickly segues to a revved up Christmas number.
Carey is full of seasonal vim and vigor, celebrating Santa's impending arrival at full tilt. She adds the following stanza that isn't in the original version:
The kids in girl and boy land
Will have a jubilee
They're gonna build a toy land
All around the Christmas tree.
The pop diva sings to the back of the stadium, and her notes hit the rafters. Referred to as the "Songbird Supreme," Carey holds nothing back with this tune. Both the background music and the supporting chorus back her expertly rather than competing with the superstar Grammy Award-winner. This is definitely the version to beat in my book!
2. "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" by The Crystals (1963)
One of the defining sounds of the 1960s, The Crystals was a top-tier girl group. Their song "Da Doo Ron Ron (When He Walked Me Home)" was named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. By lending their distinctive style to "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," this iconic group influenced how later pop and rock artists interpreted the holiday song. The Crystals' emphasis on "Santa" in "Santa Claus is comin' to town" is especially memorable.
This version is speedy, high spirited, and nostalgically 1960s. Admittedly, The Crystals' lengthy spoken introduction adds little and doesn't match the tempo of the remainder of the song. However, that's the only part of this version that I don't absolutely love. Note that Mariah Carey's extra stanza about the kids building a toyland around the Christmas tree is based on The Crystals' version. This is a whirlwind of a cover song that you'll want to play again and again.
3. "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" by The Jackson 5 (1970)
Get ready for the high voltage vocals of a youthful Michael Jackson as he gleefully hits the high notes. The adolescent singer barely contains his enthusiasm as he looks forward to Santa's visit. A British survey in 2012 named "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" by The Jackson 5 as one of top 10 cringeworthy Christmas songs around. I say they must be Scrooges. (What's wrong with them?)
You'll probably notice that this cover features a stanza that many others do not—one that was borrowed from the version by Bing Crosby and The Andrew Sisters (or Johnny Mercer and The Pied Pipers, if you prefer). It adds here to the juvenile effect:
Little tin horns, and little toy drums
Rooty-toot-toot, and rump-a-tum-tums
Curly-haired dolls, that tootle and coo
Elephants, boats, and kiddie cars too.
Although the 11-year-old singer and his brothers perform as The Jackson 5, MJ is the real star, as his energetic vocals clearly outshine the rest. This rendition captures a bittersweet time in our culture that we'll never get back. It predates his phenomenal solo career, the rumors and scandals, and all of his plastic surgery. If we could only go back.
4. "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" by Jessie J (2018)
This cover version begins in a breathy, almost sultry manner. Then it takes a hard right turn as jazz-infused music cuts in. The vibrant, creative side of the singer steps forward and gets toes tapping.
Jessie J approaches the Christmas tune with the skill and verve of the international pop star that she is, providing a light, fun treatment of the song. Rather than stick exclusively with the original lyrics, there is some improvisation with the song's bridge, but it does not detract:
Here comes old Santa Claus
Here comes Santa
He's coming and it won't be long
It won't be long
Here comes old Santa Claus
In his red suit
He's coming and it won't be long... .
5. "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band (1981)
Bruce Springstten has been treating concert goers to this rock version of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" since 1978. He re-released his 1981 rendition of the holiday song in 2007. His voice is raspy and off-key in some places, and he scream-sings through parts and laughs through others. However, he's iconically, irreplaceably The Boss. It's a lively, albeit imperfect rendition.
6. "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" by Frank Sinatra (1948)
Here is both ear candy and eye candy too—Ol' Blue Eyes rendering a suave, snappy version of this Christmas classic during his early years. My God, the man was something to behold. But I digress. Frank Sinatra released this cover at age 33, in the decades before his drinking and cigar smoking deepened his voice. Sinatra's version of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" is quick paced, classy, and jazz, of course. It is also no nonsense and informal enough to accommodate his lyrically veering off script towards the end.
The singer's warnings about Santa's naughty list may remind you how this icon of modern music was often the subject of gossip columns for his extramarital affairs and alleged ties to organized crime. Sinatra has been called "the Greatest Voice of the 20th Century." He won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in From Here to Eternity and was an 11-time Grammy winner.
7. "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" by Michael Bublé (2011)
This snazzy, jazzy, retro version is the top-downloaded cover of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" on Spotify. No offense to Michael Bublé, but I don't understand that. While the Canadian crooner offers crisp, cheeky vocals and a sophisticated vibe, his efforts impress me as overly restrained. While he seems like he's trying too hard to be clever with the phrase, "big bad man with the long white beard," that's actually lifted from the version by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters. (It didn't work for Bing either.)
Moreover, there are several points where the sudden, blaring brass instruments startle the hell out of me. Overall, there are a number of worse versions of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" but also significantly better ones.
8. "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" by Michael Bolton (2006)
Michael Bolton belts out this Santa tune, gives it some gusto, then leans into the lyrics in this swingin' jazz number. It's a strong, melodramatic performance by the Grammy Award winner and he'll have you swaying to the music. Why not use this version to wake up a slow Christmas party? It's got the right balance of sex appeal and playfulness.
9. "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" by Lonestar (2000)
If you enjoy country music, you probably remember this band for their string of number one singles from the late 1990s and early 2000s, including "No News," "Amazed" and "I'm Already There." Lonestar is still together, although we haven't heard much from them since then.
If Santa was a cowboy, this is the version he'd be blasting out of the windows of his pickup truck. However, it wouldn't be my choice, no matter how much nostalgia I have for the group. Lonestar's country version is very twangy, the introduction drags on unnecessarily, and this ostensibly Christmas tune sounds like every other Lonestar song recorded. Only the most dedicated of their fans would crank up this boot scootin' number up as they down the egg nog and try to stay on the jolly ol' elf's good list.
10. "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" by Justin Bieber (2011)
Someone needed to clue the Beebster in that this was supposed to be a holiday tune. Unfortunately, industrial sounds start this cover version off, then they're followed up with filler words such as "yeah," "hey," and "shake it, shake it." How ridiculous. Tween audiences might not mind that Justin Bieber speak-sings in places and poorly modifies his emphasis on the words, but the tune holds little appeal for adults. The song video appeared at the end of the 2011 Christmas film, Arthur Christmas.
11. Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" by Pentatonix (2014)
There are songs that a capella group Pentatonix nails, but this isn't one of them. The Grammy Award-winning group vocally underperform and suffer from the absence of a clear lead vocalist here. They also insert beatboxing and a repetitive loop of "Santa is coming to town" as empty fillers into this song in lieu of instruments. The effect here is annoying.
If you want to hear a truly superlative holiday offering by Pentatonix, try "Mary Did You Know?" or "Hallelujah." The group rose to fame after winning the third season of NBC's The Sing-Off.
12. "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" by Human Nature (2013)
It's kinda hard to call this Australian group a "boy band" since they've been around for 30 years, flying mostly under radar of international fame. By now, these boys are middle aged.
Human Nature offers this okay-sounding pop/doo wop version of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town." It is a pleasant enough seasonal cover, although plagued with its share of off-key moments and harmony that sometimes misses the mark. And the part in middle where they stop singing and just talk their way through it? Not a fan. This Human Nature version is not quite ready for prime time.
13. "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" by Andrea Bocelli (2009)
What a trainwreck! Mix the slow, operatic-like, overenunciated lyrics of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," add Andrea Bocelli's Italian accent and a sassy kid chorus that is equally out of place, and you have this mess. In addition, there are places where Bocelli seems like he's just looking for an excuse to hit a high note (e.g., "good for goodness sake" and " you better watch out"). I guess this is like a peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich—there's probably someone who likes it, but certainly not me. Bocelli should stick to more classical musical selections..
14. "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" by The Carpenters (1984)
Although the buttery quality of Karen Carpenter's buttery is as impeccable as ever, this song is a complete misfit for her. There are worse aspects to this version of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" than the lackluster chorus or the odd way the songstress emphasizes all the wrong words.
Most disastrously, it features a 1970s ambiance of intimacy and romance with a laggardly tempo and sexy saxophone solo. Eww. Applying the standard "Carpenters formula" to this Christmas ditty is straight-out weird. This easy listening cover neither generates excitement about Santa's upcoming visit nor playfully threatens the ill-behaved to tighten up to avoid the naughty list. Instead, what it offers is low-key creepiness.
Karen Carpenter died in 1983 as a consequence of her years-long battle with anorexia, and this was a posthumously released song. Her brother, Richard, took material that they had decided not to use for a 1978 Christmas album and recorded around it. Some people have criticized him as exploiting his sister after her death.
Reader Poll: Your Favorite Cover Version
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