The rules to The Little Drummer Boy Challenge, set down by the author Michael Alan Peck in 2010, are quite simple: Avoid, at all costs, any and all versions of ubiquitous Christmas song "The Little Drummer Boy." The challenge begins at 12:01 AM every Black Friday and runs through to midnight on December 23. Everyone is participating, even if they don't know it. There are rules about foul play—anyone who tricks you into hearing the song is themself disqualified—but if you hear "The Little Drummer Boy" playing in, say, a department store or in the middle of a movie, you have lost. The best thing you can do at that point is log your failure at the LDBC website using the official reporting form, or just register your downfall on the LDBC Facebook page, which now has over 5,000 followers. "It’s played just enough to make it challenging, but not so much that it’s impossible," Peck said in an interview in 2013. So, fair warning: I'm about to make the game a lot harder.
Beck's "The Little Drum Machine Boy," recorded for the 1996 Geffen Records comp Just Say Noël, isn't a faithful cover of Katherine Kennicott Davis's wintry, classical carol, but the updated "Blurred Lines Rule" on the LDBC website states that this version will still knock you out of contention. Although it's a seven-minute-long Hanukkah-themed funk-rap track that makes almost no sense at all, you hear a little of the original in the first verse, with Beck slurring the tune to himself:
You also hear some of the strangest, most abstract, and straight-up bizarre holiday-themed lyrics ever recorded. That almost indecipherable robot voice at the top is actually beginning a Jewish blessing—"Baruch Atah Adonei Elohenu Melech Ha Olom"—which leads Beck onto a bold declaration: "Ah yeah, that's the holiday… that's the Hanukkah robot funk! / Barumpa bump bump, barumpa bump bump, beeyach." From there, he wants to get into some "Hanukkah science," although a lot of that just involves boasting about his beat-making prowess: "I press a button, make the gentlemen cry," he raps, dropping a line that he'd pick up again "Hollywood Freaks" in 1999. "I rock a beat to make the hamburger fry / And I funk this joint and shake that holiday gear / The system boomin' strictly Pioneer."
This was Beck in the immediate aftermath of Odelay, clearly confident in his ability to pull together and absurdities over sly hip-hop beats. But this is weird even by his lofty standards. At no point on Odelay did he come close to a verse like this:
I get the shit lit like a menorah
This funk's so illegal, I think I might need a lawyer
I'm not a firestarter, but my beats gets hotter
Get 'em out like an allowance, footwear
I rock with New Balance
Hanukkah pimps on it, check
The song does, however, have all of the qualities that turned Odelay into a bizarre alt-everything masterpiece. It's freeform and funny, supple enough beneath Beck's rhymes to save itself from pure novelty status. It's obviously just an opportunity for Beck to get weird—"Droppin' science so you don't even know what hit ya / Next thing you know, you're thirteen, getting a Bar Mitzvah"—but it descends into a twisting, glitchy jam at the end, something that you can hear deteriorate bar by bar. (Beck's still shouting "Hanukkah Pimp" over it, of course.)
Though the song was stashed away on Just Say Noel, surrounded by cuts from Sonic Youth, XTC, and The Roots, it did end up with a little life of its own. Beck played it live for a while on the Odelay tour, and former Village Voice music editor Chuck Eddy even wrote in his 2016 book Terminated for Reasons of Taste that "The Little Drum Machine Boy" was Beck's finest song. It might have had an impact on the next generation of genre-altering alternative artists as well. In Lizzy Goodman's Meet Me In The Bathroom, Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig said that this was the first song he downloaded from Napster: "That was my first instinct[…] 'Wow, we can download some weird shit now.'"
"The Little Drum Machine Boy," then, is a small but important piece of indie history. Maybe that's enough to tempt you into losing this year's Little Drummer Boy Challenge. I suggest that Beck garbling "Oh my shit, sometimes this track is so poignant / Somebody please pass me some kinda ointment" is enough on its own.
Alex Robert Ross gets the shit lit like a menorah. Follow him on Twitter.