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.]