Each Holiday season, we are inundated with new releases by semi-new or washed-up artists trying to capitalize on the Holiday music phenomenon. And each year, many of these recordings either fade into the woodwork of bland reproductions of the same tired carols. But sometimes a shining star emerges and, while the entire album may not be full of hits, there is one beautifully performed number that stands out. Over time, this performance can emerge as what I like to call the “Definitive” version of that song.
Here, then, is my current list of Definitive Holiday Songs – the versions that, unlike no other, are the ones that make the song a true Holiday classic. Of course, this list is purely objective; so I encourage you to share your own personal list of Definitive Holiday Songs.
Here we go, in no particular order (links go to iTunes, unless otherwise noted):
1. The Christmas Song – Nat (King) Cole: The ultimate. Nothing can or will top this version, though many have tried. Cole’s soothing, silky baritone, coupled with the cascading strings and cool jazz band make this a holiday classic that can never be topped. One listen, and you know – it’s Christmastime.
2. O Holy Night – Johnny Mathis: As religious-themed carols go, this one is particularly majestic. Mathis’ soaring tenor, against Percy Faith’s stellar orchestra, define the beauty of this carol, yet they do it without being overly treacly or sappy. I’ve loved this version since I was a kid, and it still gives me goose bumps even today.
3. Jingle Bells – Ray Conniff and the Singers: It’s pretty simple sing-along fare, but I have yet to find a more complete version (4 verses!) of this song, and something about the arrangement just perfectly conveys the joy of jingling along in a sleigh when the snow is on the ground. Not that I’ve ever done that before, of course…
4. Silent Night – Mannheim Steamroller: The Steamroller has gotten a little rusty over the years, but this, from the first of their Christmas offerings, is probably the most moving and stunning versions of the carol I’ve ever heard.
5. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen/We Three Kings- Barenaked Ladies and Sarah MacLachlan: This bouncy, free-spirited mashup came out a couple years ago and was the big hit of the season– and there’s a good reason why. It’s melodic and catchy, and still defines for me what the songs represent. Plus the joining of BNL and MacLachlan is perfect. I wish they’d do more together.
6. Merry Christmas Darling- Carpenters: The story goes that Karen and Richard Carpenter were students of Frank Pooler in the 1960s, and he gave the lyrics to “Merry Christmas, Darling,” which he had written in the 1940s, to Richard in hopes he could write a melody that suited them. The result is a beautiful Christmas classic that has long stood the test of time and will stand for many years to come. Karen’s vocals are stunning here. Frankly, anything that can help secure the legacy of the Carpenters is a gem in my eyes.
7. Step Into Christmas- Elton John: In the mid-70s, Elton John could do no wrong… so why wouldn’t he write a Christmas song? While some parts of the songs are a tad outdated (“Hop aboard my turntable,” for instance), the song still sounds fresh and fun even today.
8. Sweet Little Jesus Boy- Mahalia Jackson: Reverent and stirring, this spiritual carol is at once sparse and yet full of joy and wonder. Ms. Jackson’s voice is rich and booming; powerful, yet soothing. The chorus behind her is a little saccharine, but Mahalia makes up for it with her power.
9. Star of Wonder- The Roches: Relatively unknown, I first heard this song when I sang it with the Windy City Slickers a few years ago. The harmonies are stunning and thrilling- reminiscent of Imogen Heap- and the melody is beautiful. This SHOULD be a Christmas classic.
10. The Little Drummer Boy- Harry Simeone Chorale: The original and best, and no matter how many times this song is covered, none will ever touch this version.
11. Sleigh Ride – Arthur Fiedler & The Boston Pops: Originally written as an instrumental by Leroy Anderson in 1948; the Boston Pops version is, and will always be, the definitive version of this song. The lyrics, written two years later in 1950, suit the song well, but I prefer to hear it without the lyrics. I get a better image of the song’s meaning that way.
12. Little St. Nick – The Beach Boys: Who would have guessed that The Beach Boys- the surfin’ guys from California- would have created such a Christmas classic? It’s one of those songs that just can’t be done by anyone else without sounding like a really bad idea.
13. Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree- Brenda Lee: This song was probably controversial and even banned when it first came out, but today it’s as much a classic as “Silent Night” or “Jingle Bells.” Which reminds me, this one is often paired with….
14. Jingle Bell Rock- Bobby Helms: Although more “Rockabilly” than “Rock,” this has become a massive classic, and has been covered by countless artists over the years, including Hall and Oates, who had a minor hit with the song in the 80’s. But nothing compares to the original.
15. Mele Kalikimaka- Bing Crosby: A Hawaiian Christmas song? Of course! I’ve always enjoyed this sweet tune, and of course, nobody sings it like Bing (with the Andrews Sisters!)
16. White Christmas- Bing Crosby: The Voice of Christmas himself still owns the title to the definitive version of “White Christmas.” Nobody else can deliver those lines with such power.
17. The Twelve Days of Christmas- John Denver with The Muppets: The first time Miss Piggy sings, “Five… Goooolden… Riiings… Badum Bum Bum…” you know you’ve got a classic on your hands. This song is dreadfully boring without the voices of Jim Henson, Frank Oz and the rest of the Muppet Crew holding it up and making it FUN again!!!
18. Christmas Time Is Here- Vince Guaraldi: A Charlie Brown Christmas and its soundtrack have become such a staple of Christmas music, it’s hard to imagine there was a time before it ever existed. Guaraldi’s jazzy, quiet arrangements and his incredible piano work are heard throughout the special and this album, and make this one of the all-time greats of Christmastime.
19. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! – Doris Day: America’s sweetheart sounds particularly sexy and sultry here… a tinkling piano and a jazzy arrangement make this holiday standard about more than just snow – it’s about romance and cuddling up with someone special. Now to find that someone special…
20. Santa Baby- Eartha Kitt: When it comes to sultry and sexy, nobody does it like Eartha Kitt… and nobody does Santa Baby like Ms. Kitt, either. The song was written for her and it shows. Growl!
And just for good measure…
21. Little Jack Frost- Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus (featuring a solo by Rick Aiello): (Amazon only) This holiday swing classic, first recorded by Frankie Carle in the 1940s, is done by CGMC with a vocal arrangement by Patrick Sinozich and a solo by some guy who writes in his blog every once in a while. 🙂
So that’s my list. There are others which could easily have made it, but I’m interested to hear what you have to say. Enjoy the music and have a Happy Holiday! 🙂