In the annals of Christmas music, one song stands out. It is the carol of carols, the benchmark of aspiring vocalists and the end-all for so many singers.
This Holy Grail of vocal gravitas is usually just about one note. And while listening ears are accustomed to wanting someone who can raise the rafters on the “-vine” of “Oh, night di-,” there are musicians who have found a backdoor via a folksy, more quirky route that is lovely because it’s unexpected.
I listened to more than 100 versions of this song, a mere fraction of what’s out there. And, exceptions noted, you will find I favor a certain genre for this perennial holiday tune. Though old-world and classic in origin, I contend “O Holy Night” is best performed in a more soulful intonation.
Of course, there should be some honorable mentions (just Google these, OK?) of performances of this piece that are truly impressive but don’t quite cut the mustard compared to my top ten—like performances by Luciano Pavorotti and Placido Domingo, Charlotte Church, Nat King Cole, Celine Deon, David Archuleta, Gladys Knight, Weezer (Yes, Weezer.), Aretha Franklin and the lovely Lisa Hannigan in her haunting ukulele rendition.
But without further ado, here are the top ten truly iconic performances of “O Holy Night”: the quintessential, non-debatable, empirical, de facto and authoritative list, according to me.
10. Patti Labelle
For its time, Labelle’s version of this song was monumental. Even now, the backbone of her soulful sound still holds an incredible amount of weight when compared to the divas of today. In this rendition she is joined by the most creative compliment of backup singers, and, well, there’s that hair.
9. Sufjan Stevens
This Brooklyn pre-hipster hipster delivers an out-of-the-box and entirely charming version of this carol with a sound of noisy childhood toys. His song evokes nostalgia of everyone singing around the family. It’s highly listenable and void of pretension. The build-up to full instrumentation gives its own musical climax that is just as rewarding as any wail on a high note other performances may have.
8. Mariah Carey
Sure her style (and vocal chords) may be a little tired in 2015, but no one can deny that her rafters’ high range and incredible momentum in this version are anything short of impressive and entirely infectious—not to mention that soulful church choir providing the perfect backdrop to shoot her voice into the stratosphere.
7. Martina McBride
While most country artists tend to make this song a snore, Martina McBride nails it. Probably because she just sings it. She focuses on the notes and preaches the words sung. Her straightforward sermon on singing essentially a really great fireside version of this hymn by simply using her God-given voice is really all this carol’s rendition needs.
6. Ella Fitzgerald
Like an old-fashioned Disney song with the sappy sounding choir, the thing here is simply that it’s Ella. The queen of song need not do one trilling run, Broadway power-belt or any affectation at all because Ella’s voice “as is” is the very best voice. Full stop. With a timbre that can melt butter delivered in a traditional church-like fashion, there is no need for a power note. The choir provides a surprising thrill anyway. But it is knowing what Ella can do with her voice and recognizing what she chooses not to do that makes the subtle beauty of this rendition really shine.