christmas music

The 10 Best Versions of ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’

Illustration: Carolyn Figel

There’s exactly one criterion for a great performance of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”: Is it joyful? The tune is peak Christmas cheer, a song about the childlike glee the season can bring. It came at a time when the world could use it, composed during the Great Depression by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie as a song to keep up spirits. Yet it took decades to become the Christmas classic it is today, with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra both covering it in the late 1940s, Phil Spector arranging a classic take for the Crystals in 1963, and Rankin/Bass making a Claymation special around the song in 1970. Now, by some estimates, there are over a thousand versions of the track — and while listeners have coalesced around a few favorites, there’s no one definitive performance.

It’s easier to pinpoint bad takes of “Santa Claus,” which tend to feel perfunctory or one-note — in other words, lacking joy. The great ones, though, are a varied bunch. Some follow a format while others color outside the lines; some are live takes while others come from the studio; some sound like products of their eras while others go for something timeless. But when a cover truly excels, like the ten below, it’s a conduit for Christmas spirit.

10.

Joseph Spence

Everyone knows the words to Christmas standards — that’s kind of the point. That’s also what makes this impromptu 1972 performance by Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence so fun. His take on “Santa Claus” could best be described as post-lyrical with a loose, unfussy Spence mumbling through the song over some guitar picking. (Like much of the best holiday singing, the performance allegedly came after a few drinks.) Yet it’s just as entertaining as a faithful rendition, in part because it’s a rare one where you don’t know what happens next. By the time Spence gets to the title line, perhaps the only one he actually knows, you’ll be grinning.

9.

Justin Bieber

Three words that change everything: “Santa’s comin’, girl!” In his prime heartthrob days, Justin Bieber turned a song full of childhood wonder into one of teenage excitement. Bieber had some help from some other child stars for his “Santa Claus” cover — it’s actually more of a mash-up with the Jackson 5’s “ABC.” (Smartly, he stayed one degree removed from their performance of “Santa Claus.”) It works splendidly, dialing into Bieber’s early R&B influences and youthful energy, especially in the “Shake it, shake it, baby” breakdown. That spirit makes it the best 21st-century performance of “Santa Claus,” which Bieber sells as well as any of his other pop hits.

8.

Burl Ives

If you want a classic take on “Santa Claus,” skip Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, whose suave, steady deliveries don’t add much to a song that should be overflowing with enthusiasm. Leave it to Burl Ives instead. The singer best known for “A Holly Jolly Christmas” puts an equally jolly spin on “Santa Claus,” even using his voice-acting skills from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to embody the big man himself in his spoken intro. And there’s a bit of a swing in Ives’s performance, too, thanks to his non-holiday background in folk music. It all sounds instantly familiar — the definition of a timeless take.

7.

The Pointer Sisters

As we’ve already established, getting messy can be part of the fun when singing Christmas songs. The Pointer Sisters understood this with a performance of “Santa Claus” that has the energy of a last-call drunken sing-along at the office party — in the absolute best way. Their rendition, for Jimmy Iovine’s 1987 Very Special Christmas compilation, doesn’t stray far from the Crystals, but it doesn’t need to. Anita, June, and Ruth make it shine with the sort of playful bond only family can bring, belting and whooping with equal power. It sounds like they’ve never had more fun singing together.

6.

Beach Boys

As the story goes, Brian Wilson’s piano playing wasn’t up to snuff for notorious perfectionist Phil Spector when he was producing the Crystals’ cover of the song. No matter, because the following year, Wilson and the Beach Boys went on to make a version of the song only they could. It’s overstuffed with ideas: signature barbershop-esque harmonies, big-band-style orchestrations, cartoonish whistles, and xylophone in between. As a result, it lands somewhere between nostalgic and silly; there’s something in the song to please almost every sort of Christmas-music listener.

5.

Dolly Parton

When it comes to Christmas music, Dolly Parton is known for one of the best melancholy holiday songs around, “Hard Candy Christmas.” But as in her regular catalogue, she can do Christmas joy just as well. Parton’s warmth and audible smile alone would’ve been enough to make this a standout rendition of the song, but that wouldn’t be the over-the-top Parton we know. So, her “Santa Claus” also has a supremely fun fiddle solo from Jimmy Mattingly — the true musical encapsulation of cheer.

4.

The Crystals

By the time the Crystals performed “Santa Claus,” the song had been around for nearly three decades. Yet the girl group was the first to transform the song into pop music. Some of that can be credited to now-disgraced producer Phil Spector, who gave the song his signature “wall of sound” production, full of blustery brass and clanging piano (which is now nearly synonymous with Christmas music). But that would’ve meant nothing without the gleeful vocal power of the Crystals, who gifted major-key energy to a previously sleepy track. By doing so, their performance became the blueprint for “Santa Claus” covers.

3.

Mariah Carey

It’s a question of the chicken or the egg: Is Mariah Carey so good at singing “Santa Claus” because it’s one of the main inspirations for “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (specifically, once again, the Crystals version), or is “All I Want for Christmas” so good because Carey conquered “Santa Claus”? Regardless, the central truth is that Carey is damn good at singing “Santa Claus.” Her performance is even more bursting at the seams with spirit than “All I Want for Christmas” — it sounds like everyone else on the song, from the backup singers to the piano player, has to give 150 percent just to match Carey’s 100.

2.

Jackson 5

Anyone can sing “Santa Claus,” but it takes a kid to truly sell the excitement. That’s how the Jackson 5 made one of the song’s definitive performances. (Their age was also an advantage for their other popular Christmas song, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”) Michael musters all the oomph he can for the chorus, somehow making each one sound bigger than the last. Over a signature Motown groove, these kids could not sound more enthused about all the toys Santa would bring. They sounded like they believed, and for a few minutes, they could make you believe too.

1.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s invigorated 1972 live rendition of “Santa Claus” isn’t just the best version of the song — it’s one of the best examples of why Springsteen and his band are such stellar performers. The camaraderie in the band, and between them and the audience, is apparent even before the song starts from Springsteen’s now-canon joking stage banter. But then there’s the performance itself: boisterous, jubilant, and just full of life. They take a minute to ease into things before absolutely flooring it after the first verse. That’s when the tightness of the band is really apparent, from Springsteen’s singing to Clarence Clemons’s all-time sax solo to Roy Battan and Max Weinberg’s integral piano and drum pounding. That’d be an alchemical combination for a live take, but what pushes this over the top is how much fun the band is having. Clemons’s Santa Claus laughter is infectious, so much so that, by the end, Springsteen can barely get the words out himself. Nearly 50 years later, it’s still a heartwarming shot of Christmas spirit like no other.

The 10 Best Versions of ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’