If this list has shown anything, it’s that I’m partial to a good reworking of a Christmas standard – something that stands out from the hundreds of other versions.
But for “O Holy Night,” there is nothing like Berry’s simple, traditional, note-perfect version. It’s a particular favorite among golden-voiced singers like Josh Groban and Andrea Bocelli, but Berry’s is the gold standard.
Leeann’s Pick: Martina McBride
This song is meant to be powerfully sung, even belted. Who better to fulfill this requirement than Martina McBride? On my favorite Christmas song, McBride doesn’t disappoint.
Jonathan Keefe: John Berry
I have to second Sam’s mention of John Berry’s rendition of this song. Among the religious-themed Christmas standards, “O Holy Night” is far away my favorite, thanks to its flawless construction and evocative melody. The problem with the song, though, is that melody and the dramatic crescendo in the refrain both make it real, real easy to oversing. Right, Celine?
Berry, who is absolutely one of the most gifted and underrated singers in country music’s rich history of gifted and underrated singers, takes a far more low-key approach to the song, letting the purity and warmth of his vocal tone and the soulfulness of his slow vibrato convey a real sense of reverence for the song’s message and narrative.
On a song that’s too often undone by bombastic performances and arrangements, Berry’s approach is a gift that keeps on giving.
Kevin Coyne: Carrie Underwood
For the same reason Berry and McBride are mentioned above. For me, Carrie Underwood has the most powerful voice out there, able to alternate between subtlety and raw power with ease.
It seems only fitting that a talent on loan from God should sing about the birth of His son so beautifully.
Admittedly, this is a much more recent song that some of the other songs we’ve covered. But this song, written by Tex Logan, has become a standard in the bluegrass and country world. I heard this version from Peter Rowan on a Sugar Hill Christmas sampler album many years ago, and it’s still my favorite. It’s a very relaxed, low-key version, but it still captures the joy of coming home for the holidays.
Leeann’s Pick: Sammy Kershaw
There are a few fun recordings of this song, but my favorite is Sammy Kershaw’s Cajun flavored version. As the song is meant to be, it’s fun and bright and still holds up today despite not having a traditional production.
Loveless’ Bluegrass and White Snow is one of the best Christmas albums around and a staple of my holiday soundtrack. This song boasts background vocals from Jon Randall and Emmylou Harris, which proves that if you want to make a great song even better, get Emmylou to sing on it.
Leeann’s Pick: Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors
I am not familiar with Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors outside of the Christmas album on which this song can be found, but I can say that the album is a mix of fun and warmth and this song is just one example of that.
In my opinion, “Silent Night” is the most beautiful of all Christmas carols. Here, the traditional Celtic band does a lovely interpretation of it, sung in both English and Gaelic. Former lead singer Heidi Talbot has a simply stunning voice, and the Ladies’ On Christmas Night is a worthwhile purchase for anyone who likes and few jigs and reels mixed in with their Christmas standards.
Leeann’s Pick: House of Heroes
I happened upon this version thanks to Amazon’s 25 Days of free Christmas downloads, but I don’t know anything about House of Heroes beyond this song. Incidentally, however, their rendition has turned out to be my favorite version of “Silent Night” because of the relaxed vibe. Being somewhat of an audiophile, I especially appreciate the crisp separation of the vocals and instruments of the production that becomes more evident as the track builds and progresses.
Sam’s Pick: Garth Brooks – For the ultimate version of this song, it’s hard to go wrong with Bing Crosby. But Garth’s jazzy, laid-back take on “White Christmas” is pretty excellent too. Fun fact: This song loses a lot of its charm once you’ve spent a Christmas night with your heart in your throat driving home after a blizzard but before the salt trucks have come out.
Leeann’s Pick: Bing Crosby
I’ve searched high and low for a superior version, but no one can top the ultimate version of “White Christmas”. It’s beautiful, it’s calming and it’s perfect.
Jonathan Keefe: Lari White
One of the reasons I’m not crazy about Christmas music is that so much of it ends up produced in the same vanilla, tasteful-to-a-fault kind of soft rock manner, and White’s rendition does have that problem. Fortunately, it does get points for a prominent steel guitar line and for having an over-the-top, campy choir kick in during the second verse.
But, more importantly, it’s also a showcase for White’s incomparable voice: In terms of power, range, control, and richness of tone, she’s easily one of the finest singers country music has ever been lucky enough to claim. The catastrophically poor taste of the “Wild at Heart” video pretty well killed her career, but her version of this holiday standard does still score her some seasonal recurrent airplay.
When they’re not focusing on steampunk imagery and incorporating reggae interludes into their songs, Sugarland can make some quite nice music, as evidenced by this track from its Gold and Green album. Jennifer Nettles’ and Kristian Bush’s voices blend well together, particularly on a folky, banjo-driven track like this one.
Leeann’s Pick: John Berry
John Berry’s powerhouse voice singing this powerful song is pure Christmas perfection. In fact, I never even appreciated this song until I heard Berry’s version. Now, thanks to this version, not only do I appreciate many versions, it’s turned into one of two favorite Christmas songs of mine.
If there ever was a song where traditional country perfectly mixes with honky tonk blues, here it is.
This mid-tempo gem, written by Jackson and Randy Travis, showcases production that still sounds vibrant almost twenty years later. With steel guitar and honky tonk piano aplenty, “She’s Got the Rhythm (and I’ve Got the Blues)” is simply a two-and-a-half minute sonic delight.
Furthermore, the song’s concept is accentuated by its clever title and Jackson’s amusingly mournful delivery, including a pitiful “Yee haw” that ends up sounding more funny than sad, which ultimately describes the song as a whole, despite the theme of lost love.
If you’re looking for a genuinely spooky song for the Halloween season, look no further than Alan Jackson’s chilling “Midnight in Montgomery.”
From the very first strains of the downbeat acoustic guitar followed by the eerie steel intro, it’s evident that this is no typical country love song or drinking ditty. Instead, it’s set at Hank Williams’ grave at midnight whereupon the narrator, presumably Alan Jackson, sees Hank’s ghost.
The song’s story is fascinating in and of itself, but equally impressive is the recording as a whole package. Along with the ominous production and chilling story, Jackson’s performance strays from its usual smooth reliability and picks up its own haunting quality, which perfectly adds to the overall darkness of the song.
What’s more, much like a Hitchcock thriller, the parts of the song that capture this compositional masterpiece is not violence and blood, but rather, masterful storytelling that is thanks to the lyrics, production and performance that forms a psychologically thrilling listening experience rarely captured in country music.
Over jaunty acoustic guitar strums, Shania Twain reflectively sings, “Am I dreamin’ or stupid? I think I’ve been hit by Cupid, but no one needs to know right now.”
While that first stanza reasonably acknowledges that something might be amiss, Twain matter-of-factly plows ahead to reveal all the plans that she’s been making regarding the future with the special someone that she’s found, which includes the intimate details of wedding plans, kids and even pets.
The only hitch is that she’s the only one who needs to know right now; the man whose compliance is necessary in order for the plans to materialize doesn’t even need to know now. And if such a presumptuous situation isn’t amusing enough to ponder already, the added layer of the secret fantasies being real enough to keep her from being lonely at night is surely enough to seal the deal.
Written by Twain and her former producer/husband, “Mutt” Lange, this is not a song manufactured by committee, but rather, an example of a pair of songwriters who created a delightfully quirky song that, incidentally, still sounds both refreshing and even organic today thanks to a compelling scenario and a crisp acoustic production.
Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Shania Twain
Despite the dated keys, light swells of synthesizers and layered background vocals, “Can’t Be Really Gone” manages to be McGraw’s most compelling single to that point in his career both in content and performance.
Unlike “Don’t Take the Girl”, “Can’t Be Really Gone” doesn’t have to pull out any stops of overwrought heartstring pulls to pack a good punch. In fact, it straightforwardly captures the feeling of disbelief that accompanies a surreal event like having somebody in your life one minute and then the next minute trying to comprehend the knowledge that he or she is gone. In this case, little details of everything still in their places, including a book that is almost completely read, only heighten the disbelief and denial of this man’s situation.
Until this single, McGraw sang with an exaggerated twang that often threatened to sound more silly than serious. His quiet, melancholy vocal performance on this record, however, demonstrates that he is capable of properly interpreting a song when it is necessary, which is something that he gets even better at proving as his career progresses.