Over at Glenn Beck’s “The Blaze” someone named Chris Field offered what was audaciously headlined “These are the definitive recordings of 35 favorite Christmas carols: Don’t argue, just listen: A perfect list.”
Is it still clickbait when a link virtually screams “CLICKBAIT!”? Maybe, but if someone is going to claim that they have made a “perfect list,” he had better do a better job than this. My earlier comments today about Pauline Kael apply: some of this guy’s assessments of what is “definitive” disqualify him as a useful or credible authority. For example, Field, who reveals himself as an Ella Fitzgerald fan boy, chooses Ella’s rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” as ‘the best, saying, “If you think Garland’s rendition is better than Ella’s, you’re probably also a Liza Minnelli fan.” Well, I’m not a Liza fan; she sounded nothing like her mother, and Garland’s rendition is better, indeed the “definitive” version. Old Blue Eyes’ rendition finishes second for sure, but Judy’s tumbling scales were never more affecting or emotionally eloquent, and this is her song. Similarly, Field picks Andy Williams’ version of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” as “the best.” That’s ridiculous. I know this song especially well: I watched “The Hollywood Palace” as a kid the night Bing Crosby introduced it. I’ve written about it on Ethics Alarms, researched it, put it into a Christmas revue and staged it. Crosby’s version is the only one that manages to give the song sufficient heft and gravity: he shifts deep into his chest baritone in the final verse, and decades after hearing the song for the first time, Bing still gives me chills. Lots of male singers, including Williams, have done respectable covers, but they are all chasing Bing.
Look, anyone can have a preference for any professional version of any of the Christmas standards and carols, and there is no point arguing about it. However, if one is going to use the descriptor “definitive,” it has to involve more than personal taste. What is the singer’s connection to the song? Why is it identified with him or her, or is it? Do other singers obviously evoke that singers’ performance? Generational familiarity aside, is the version generally recognized as being definitive? Has the singer’s version become iconic? If one were describing the singer, would the song immediately come to mind?
Here’s my definitive list of the definitive versions of Christmas standards:
Bing Crosby: “White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “Silent Night,”and “Do You Hear What I Hear.”
Dean Martin: “Let It Snow,” “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” “It’s a Marshmallow World.”
Andy Williams: “It’s the Most Wonderful Time..” (Note: Andy’s other signature Christmas song, “It’s the Holiday Season” is too minor and lousy to have a “definitive” version. If there was one, it would be Andy’s)
Frank Sinatra: “The Christmas Waltz” (Note: I had to still my gorge to include this song, with it’s awful lyrics–“Santa’s on his way, he’s filled his sleigh..with THINGS..”—but Frank finishes second in many of the standards, and he does “own” this one)
Gene Autry: “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Here Comes Santa Claus”
Bruce Springstein: “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”
Mariah Carey: “All I Want For Christmas is You”
Burl Ives: “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas”
Nat King Cole: “The Christmas Song”
Bobby Helms: “Jingle Bell Rock”
Brenda Lee: “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree”
Johnny Mathis: “Sleigh Ride,” “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas,” “We Need A Little Christmas”
Jerry Vale: “Silver Bells”
Elvis Presley: “Blue Christmas”
Harry Belefonte: “Mary’s Boy Child”
Julie Andrews: “My Favorite Things” (No, I don’t think it’s a Christmas song, but the world disagrees)
(Special category) John Denver and The Muppets: “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” This was the one choice Chris Fields made that I thought was especially deft. The song itself is an annual irritant, as it is tedious, repetitious, and not melodically interesting, and it doesn’t matter who is singing it….EXCEPT the Muppets version, which is fun to see or hear, and was instantly the champ the second it was broadcast.
Eartha Kitt: “Santa Baby”
The Harry Simeone Chorale: “The Little Drummer Boy.” This was the original recording. I hate all versions, but it is still the definitive one. Field further discredited himself by this explanation of why he picked the certifiably awful duet between Bing and David Bowie: “It’s a beautiful song — it’s also the strangest Christmas song. Crosby and Bowie’s awkward video didn’t help make it less weird. But you can’t argue with the talent they brought to the studio when it was time to record.” Now he’s picking definitive versions based on the talent involved? Not only was Bing well past his vocal prime in this at-the-point-of- a-gun teaming, but Bowie’s hack counterpoint music and lyrics…
Peace on Earth, Can it be?
Years from now, perhaps we’ll see?
See the day of glory
See the day, when men of good will
Live in peace, live in peace again
Peace on Earth, Can it be?
Authentic Christmas Gibberish! Then Bing and Bowie sang this totalitarian bridge:
Every child must be made aware
Every child must be made to care
Care enough for his fellow man
To give all the love that he can
It’s not the “best” version of the song, it’s the worst version of an already bad song, and a career low for both performers. Good choice, Chris!
That’s 27 definitive versions of Christmas songs. The old carols have no definitive versions, just many fine ones that can legitimately be anybody’s favorite. Any of the big choirs can nail Adeste Fideles, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Good King Wensaslas, The Carol of the Bells, Angels We Have Heard on High, It Came Upon A Midnight Clear, O Holy Night, The Holly and the Ivy, I Wonder as I Wander, Good Bless You Merry Gentlemen, Here We Go A-Caroling, We Wish You A Merry Christmas, Joy To The World, Christmas is Coming, The First Noel, and others. Try the King’s Singers or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and you can hardly go wrong.
And no, there are no definitive versions of Paul’s “A Wonderful Christmas Time” or John’s “And So This Is Christmas,” just as there’s no definitive versions of “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.”
[Side note: I am grateful to Fields for crediting Jimmy Durante for the “definitive” “Frosty the Snowman.” My Dad loved Jimmy, and I was and am a fan as well,but the Schnoz, Nat King Cole and Gene Autry all had hits with the song. If I had to pick the definitive version, and I don’t, it would have to be Gene.]
27 thoughts on “The Last Christmas Music Post Of 2019: Regarding The “Definitive” List [UPDATED and CORRECTED]”
Being the iconoclast that I am and kind of bored with Bing Crosby “White Christmas”, I nominate Billy Mack’s “Christmas Is All Around” for a place on the list. Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” definitely deserves a place on the list although Brenda Lee’s “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree” does not. She did much better work with non Christmas songs.
That’s not the criteria, though. With that standard, her version is the one most identified with any singer, and the one others copied, like Leann Rhimes. Heck, Judy’s “Have Yourself…” didn’t even make it into her concerts. Gene Autry’s best work was as a Western singer.
I’d bet Bing got bored with “White Christmas”….
Agree on many of these, but taste between two similarly great performances shifts my list a bit. I would add an alternate cover of twelve days of Christmas with great harmonies and clever tweaking: Straight No Chaser includes riffs and comedy in a style similar to the Muppets. I especially like new takes, that keep the core of the song.
I think you’re missing a couple of key items on this list. And I have some friendly disagreements.
First, Bing is actually wildly underrepresented. With two clear exceptions, and two other possible exceptions , if Bing sang it, his is the best version. One clear exception is Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer-in which Bing is great, but a female voice does this horrible nails on a chalkboard thing in Rudolph’s voice. The other clear exception is Jerry Vale’s “Silver Bells”. I must begrudgingly admit Vale’s version is better then Bing’s. (I don’t know why I take it personally when someone is better than Bing, I just do.)
The possible exceptions are Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song”. Nat sang it first and really well, but I think I find Bing’s version more inviting. My Holiday playlist (Spotify) just includes both versions. The other possible exception, is “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”. One could reasonably prefer Louis Armstrong’s version, I believe. The voices are so different they almost feel like different songs. My Christmas playlist, again, has both.
Bing gets my nod for the songs you said and “Marshmallow World”, “Let is Snow”, “Winter Wonderland” (tied with Armstrong), “The Christmas Song”, (tied with Nat King Cole), “Sleigh Ride”, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”. This basically knocks Dean Martin out of the running for your songs-as Bing’s stuff, in my opinion, is always better.
Bing also has a couple of other classics in which his version is the only one I will bother listening to when I have a choice. “Jingle Bells,” “Frosty the Snowman”, “Here Comes Santa Clause”, “Good King Wencelas”, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman”, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and one I found this year, which I actually love- “The Holly and the Ivy”-which, at least on Spotify, can only be found on the back side of “What Child is This”.
So, let’s see Bing gets: “White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “Silent Night,” “Do You Hear What I Hear.”, “Marshmallow World”, “Jingle Bells”, “Frosty the Snowman” “Let it Snow”, “Sleigh Ride”, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”, “Here Comes Santa Clause”, “Good King Wencelas”, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman, “It Came upon a Midnight Clear,” “The Holly and the Ivy”, and versions of “Winter Wonderland” and “The Christmas Song”. Bing, therefore, has sixteen of the best Christmas songs, and also, in my opinion the best of the best: “White Christmas.” If you also count “Auld Lang Syne”, which I think we should, the man has seventeen of the best songs for the season. I could even be convinced to add “Faith of Our Fathers”, although I don’t think most remember that one. The man owns Christmas. It’s my list, so I’m including “Auld Lang Syne.” Bing has seventeen. (17)
Dean Martin gets “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, and it’s a damn seduction song, not a date rape song- you can tell because none of her objections about what she wants, but about what others may think of her. The line “Say, what’s in this drink?”, however, is an unfortunate choice given the twenty-first century fate of the song. (1)
Gene Autry gets: “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Up on the Housetop”. (2)
Jerry Vale gets “Silver Bells” (1)
Jonny Matthis gets “We Need a Little Christmas” (1)
Sinatra gets “Mistletoe and Holly”, although it barely makes my cut, to be frank. If I didn’t read this blog, I wouldn’t even had known “The Christmas Waltz” was a christmas song. I’d never heard it before this year, and only heard it when looking it up after reading one of your blog posts. I wasn’t impressed, and it doesn’t make my list. He also has the best version, I think, of “Greensleeves” or the “Bells of Christmas”. (2)
Elvis Presley gets “Blue Christmas” (1)
Judy Garland gets “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1) (I didn’t realize Bing also sang this, until I wrote this part of the reply, and don’t want to go add it to the list of exceptions to Bing being best above. Judy’s is the definitive version, although Bing’s is perfectly proficient. In fact, Bing is third on this one, with Karen Carpenter being the clear second best. I also think the song works better with a female voice.)
Eartha Kitt gets “Santa Baby” (1)
John Denver and the Muppets get the only version of “Twelve Days of Christmas” that doesn’t fully make me want to vomit. (1)
Andy Williams gets “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (1)
Perry Como gets “No Place Like Home for the Holidays” (1)
Burl Ives gets a “Holly, Jolly Christmas” (1)
Brenda Lee gets “Rocking around the Christmas Tree” (1)
Bobby Helms gets Jingle Bell Rock (1)
Louis Armstrong gets “Walking in a Winterwonderland” (tie with Bing). (1)
Elmo and Patsy get in with “Granda Got Run Over by a Reindeer”. (1)
Lou Monte gets in with “Dominick the Donkey” (1)
Both of the last two songs don’t take themselves seriously, and I think they invite folks into the Holiday (like my father-in-law) who don’t like to take everything so seriously all the time. For that reason, both of those songs make my list-especially because the songs are self aware. You know Elmo and Patsy, for instance, were absolutely setting out to make the most ridiculous Christmas song possible. It’s a joke. And it kind of works, at least for me.
Mary Carpenter gets “Merry Christmas, Darling,” a forgotten song like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You”, except, you know, actually worth listening to. (1)
Chuck Berry sneaks in (barely) with Run, Run Rudolph. (1)
Mariah Carey sneaks in (by the skin of her teeth) with “All I Want for Christmas is You” (1) Generally, this song more annoys me than gives me Christmas spirit. But others seem to really dig it.
My last song in is “Wonderful Christmastime.” I kind of like it, but I objectively recognize it’s terrible. (It’s like the Big Mac of Christmas songs.)
If I’ve done my math right, and since it’s 12:30 AM, I have no reason to believe I did, my list has 40 songs on it. I’m sure I missed a few.
My firsts songs out are: “Happy Xmas, War is Over,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” ” I Saw Three Ships on Christmas”-although if you’re going to listen to that one, Bing’s version is best, “My Favorite Things”- (I agree with you-not a Christmas song), Mele Kalikimaka, and any version of “12 Days of Christmas” that isn’t the Muppets (although, again, outside the Muppets the best version belongs to Bing.)
Finally, not that anybody asked, but a big lump of coal for anyone who sang, produced, wrote, played on the radio, or was in any other way responsible for bringing the song “Last Christmas” to audiences. It’s not a Christmas song-it’s a whiney vengeance song about a guy who lost in love, isn’t over it, and is talking to a past flame on Christmas instead of, you know, being grateful for his new love or otherwise grateful for the Holiday, his family-anything. I hate “Last Christmas”-not for just being annoying, but for completely missing the point and spirit of Christmas. Setting a crappy love song at Christmas time does not a Christmas song make. That only works for awesome action flicks. (See Die Hard)
Well, maybe folks disagree with my list. But thanks, Jack, for getting my brain thinking on this and letting me stay in the Christmas spirit just a bit longer than I might otherwise have.
Merry Christmas to all!!
Accidentally left of:
Nat King Cole gets “The Christmas Song” (tied with Bing). Nat King Cole and Bing are also neck and neck with “O Come all Ye Faithful” in my opinion-but I’m leaning towards Bing on this one too. So, I think that actually gives Bing 18. The man is the voice of Christmas-and we’re damn lucky that his voice showed up at a time when it could be preserved for ourselves and future generations. (1)
I may be at 42 now.
Good work. As you probably surmised, I agree with you on Bing, and I easily could have had his versions of 20 songs or more as definitive, like Jingle Bells. Crosby was the most influential popular singer of all time, and had an unmatched voice for range and expressiveness.
Bing did all of the songs that I awarded to Dean Martin—he introduced “Marshamallow World,” but I’ll fight for Dean, who was, of course, a Bing acolyte and imitator. Martin’s unique “I’m having fun and maybe I’m drunk” style really helps the lighter songs. It’s not a matter of craft, because Dean would have been the first one to agree that Bing was the master; it’s pure style. I was investigating “Marshamallow World” (I quoted the lyrics here last week), and though Crosby’s version is never played, it’s terrific, and indeed he introduced the song. Then I played Dean’s, which is the most played these days, and its easy to see why. It makes me smile.
I decided that “Mistletoe and Holly” had only one version that was barely endurable, and yes, it’s Frank’s, but it fell victim to the “no definitive version of a lousy song” rule. Another example like that is the Andy Williams song “It’s the Holiday Season” with its annoying “He’ll be coming down the chimney down” refrain.
(Disclaimer: I haven’t gotten through all of the comments, so please forgive if I’ve noted something already mentioned.)
I mostly agree with you, Jack. Especially about Karen Carpenter’s voice which also makes me teary.
Re Bing – I grew up with that iconic Crosby Christmas recording – the white cover with Bing’s face – so I tend to compare many versions with his from this album. (I will never be able to get Mele Kalikimaka out of my head. Ever.)
A beautiful Christmas song you didn’t include is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (which I think was covered by Bing) with its lyrics by Longfellow after the loss of his son in the war.
Regarding the religious songs – I do love The Roches verson of Good King Wenceslaus (even though it’s a Christmas song only because it takes place in winter on “the feast of Stephen,” which is the day after Christmas), with its molto ritardando on the last verse about helping the poor.
Also, I think Jeffrey Valentine meant “Karen” Carpenter, not Mary.
And last – how could you forget Chuck Berry’s “Run, Rudolph, Run”?
Honest: I gave a lot of thought to “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day.’ Like “Away in A Manger,” it has two melodies. One, the least sung, was sung by Johnny Cash, and the damn thing is stuck in my head. Bing’s version of the usual version is as good as I’ve heard. i ultimately punted, and descided that the song didn’t have a definitive version. (Karen Carpenter also has a fine one.)
I hope you and the family had a wonderful Christmas. PAW.
I adore you and there’s no way I’m going to take time to argue with you on this because it would take time out of my life I’d NEVER get back… and it just doesn’t matter that much.
I’ll just say…
It’s subjective, not objective. Most of the arguments you make could be made for another version with another persons “reasons.”
I think your list is very good. But no one, including you who I almost always agree with, can make a correct list of something’s entirely subjective.
And… Mariah Carey of course would be the best at the song she wrote… “all I want for Christmas is you.”’ Who else could?
You left off a LOT of amazing versions by amazing artists which make. E wonder if this list is for older people?
And again, good list. Can’t be proven, so makes it fun.
And Bowie and bing is iconic for so many reasons that If you have to explain why….
You Left off my original Christmas song too… 😢
You’re an amazing ethicist and lawyer. 😊
1. Now, you have to admit that it’s not entirely subjective. When one recording of a song has become the biggest selling single of all time (Like Bing’s White Christmas (and when the artist sings it in not one but two popular movies) of any song, that’s objective criteria for “definitive” status. When an artist writes a song that becomes a classic, as you argue yourself, that’s objective criteria that creates a rebuttable presumption that his or her version is “Definitive”—if the author doesn’t know the best way to do it, who does? But as with everything else, there are exceptions: Nat King Cole was just a better singer than Mel Torme..he was a better singer than almost everybody. He took “The Christmas Song” away from Mel, who wrote it. And it’s not subjective to recognize when a singer has unequivocally made a song his own, like Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time..” Isn’t “Blue Christmas” Elvis’s Christmas song? I’d guess that when that song is played, it’s his version 90% of the time.
2. Is it a list for older people? It’s a list for younger people who want perspective outside their own experience. If I make a list of the greatest baseball hitters of all time, I do it from having seen many of the players play that younger fans could not have, since they weren’t even born. But I have seen the players playing today that they think of as “the greatest.” I can make comparisons that they cannot. I’ve heard Gen Xers say that the Beatles were no big deal and over-rated. That’s objectively a moronic, uninformed opinion. It is demonstrably false.
3. Remember the premise for my post. I would never post a list of definitive anythings on an ethics blog; it has nothing to do with ethics. My post was a response to another individual’s claim of the “perfect” list of definitive versions. My post was to demonstrate that that claim was irresponsible and incompetent, and since he violated his own sloppy criteria, hypocritical and dishonest. His list also evinced biases that he should have stated up front. I wrote the post to show that his list was neither perfect nor prepared with care or integrity, and that he didn’t know waht “definitive” meant.
4. As for Bing and Bowie, there’s OBJECTIVELY no way you or anyone can excuse a song with the sinister lyrics “Every child must be made to care.” Bing would like them, because we know what kidn of father he was to family #1. Bowie was just happy not to have to sing “THe Little Drummer Boy.”
Perry Como needs more love here, Home for the Holidays, It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas, are classics.
No Peanuts gang / Vince G Hark the Herald, Skating, O Christmas Tree?
Johnny Mathis’ We Need a Little Christmas.
My two cents.
3. Johnny and the “Mame” early Christmas song made the list.
2. The Peanuts stuff is sui generis, and not really subject to a definitive verdict.
1. Yeah, I had problems with Mr. C. He would own “Home for the Holidays,” except that Karen Carpenter did it better, and her voice always makes me cry. I talked myself into ducking the issue on then theme that the song is really about THanksgiving….
I miss Karen’s voice too. So sad she’s gone.
My wife prefers Cyndi Lauper’s version of “Santa Baby”, but Kitt’s version is better. It is so Catwoman-y…buttery smooth, slinky, svelte, and ready to pounce. I bet she recorded the song in the Cat Suit.
Her cat-schtick was a trademark before anyone ever heard of Catwoman.
I don’t know how well-known it is, but Kitt did a sequel, (This Year’s) Santa Baby. It’s not bad – it surprises me that it doesn’t get airplay, as desperate as they are for material.
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town: I’d go with the Crystals singing Phil Spector’s arrangement.
My Favorite Things: I think under repetition Tony Bennett’s recorded version holds up better than Julie Andrews’ version. I think Sirius has been playing some alternate Bennett recording, and it drags.
Little Drummer Boy: I’d say that it’s seeking a definitive version. I like the Ray Charles and Johnny Cash versions quite a bit: they play as world-weary musicians musing on their own discoveries of the power of music. Neither version gets much play, so I don’t think that either could be called definitive.
Nat King Cole is my pick for about half of the “old carols”; with Mel Torme for Good King Wenceslas.
Jingle Bells: Crosby with the Andrews Sisters. It’s a wonderfully versatile little tune, I love Count Basie’s version, Lena Horne’s “Jingle All the Way,” and Pearl Bailey’s “Jingle Bells Cha-cha.”
“Marshmallow World” is a stupid throw-away — especially Bing’s ‘straight’ version. Dean Martin’s edgy, funny version is much more fun: he knows it’s a moronic song, and sings it that way. Only Dean could pull that off.
There’s a very funny version on YouTube, with Dean “in rare form” flanked by two of the Golddiggers.
Mario Lanza’s version of “O Holy Night” is probably one of the definitive ones, and we always had fun with his version of “We Three Kings” with the spoken interludes by a James Earl Jones type – i.e. “And Melchior spoke…” Andrea Bocelli owns the (relatively) new dramatic Christmas song “God Bless Us Every One,” which he originated for the 2009 animated version of “A Christmas Carol.” Robert Merrill (who was actually Jewish, born Moishe Miller) did a great version of song called “The Birthday Party of the King” which deserves to be better known. The best version of “The Holly and the Ivy” is probably the King’s College Choir of Cambridge, that’s meant to be sung by an all-male choir. The King’s Singers definitely own an old Spanish carol called “Riu, Riu Chiu” (take a listen on youtube, it’s pretty catchy). Oh, and how can we forget Harry Belafonte’s “Mary’s Boy Child?”
ARRGH! The last was supposed to be on the list! I’m fixing it, Thanks.
And it’s on the list. One of the all-time greatest renditions of any Christmas song. With all my searching of Christmas radio, I never heard it played once in 2019.
My favorite take on Christmas music; albeit from a slightly more theological perspective:
Certainly not a Christmas classic to most folks, but I always look forward to hearing Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas” blues tune.
No mention of the definitive “Sleigh Ride/Jingle Bells” medley by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans?
How could I have missed it???