I know that we’d love to send each of you a Christmas card from us, but since we can’t, here is a playlist of Christmas songs to enjoy as a stand-in, which is probably better than any card we could send anyway.
These songs are hand-picked by me as songs that I find particularly relaxing, yet still entertaining, during the chaos of the Christmas season. I hope you enjoy.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from the Country Universe staff.
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.
Husband and wife Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison turn in an unusually gritty version of this sultry Christmas classic. It’s not the smoothest version that’s out there, but it’s compelling and a little different, which should only be expected by the Robisons.
Sam’s Pick: Marah (featuring Felicia Navidad)
I’ve always liked the combination of flirtation and desperation between Felicia Navidad and Marah’s Serge Bielanko. The light-heartedness between the two helps to gloss over the inherent creepiness in the song (did he really just spike her drink to keep her from leaving?).
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.
From Strait’s strongest and best Christmas album, his acoustic country version of “We Three Kings” is both beautifully arranged and reverently sung.
Sam’s Pick: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – While “We Three Kings” probably was not written with the banjo and accordion in hand, the Dirt Band does an admirable job of Americana-izing it. After falling in love with this version, I can never get used to the glacial pace of the more traditional takes of the song.
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.
To be honest, this isn’t actually one of my favorite Christmas songs. Dwight Yoakam’s rhythmic version, however, is just funky enough for me to focus without getting bored.
Sam’s Pick: Raul Malo
If there is anyone in Nashville who can wring out every drop of emotion from this most bittersweet of Christmas songs, it is Raul Malo. Armed with just his guitar and his voice, Malo’s rendition is guaranteed to touch anyone who’s spending the holidays apart from loved ones. This video was recorded as a tribute to soldiers returning from the war in Iraq, making the song even more poignant.
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.
A search of my iTunes indicates that I like many versions of this song, but the one that stands out the most to me is from a compilation called Christmas Trail by Wylie Gustafson and Kelly Willis. The mix of rootsy production, Willis’ twang and Gustafson’s Orbison-like harmony is impossible to resist.
Sam’s Pick: Ryan Shupe and the RubberBand
It’s hard to find a Christmas album that doesn’t have a version of “Away in the Manger,” but this may be the only reggae-grass version in existence. Shupe, a Utah-based musician, had a little mainstream success with an album on Capitol in 2005, but the RubberBand continues to record and tour to this day.
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.