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Who Sang It Best? "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"

We look at Judy Garland's classic tune "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and rank 14 contenders.  Who sang it best?

We look at Judy Garland's classic tune "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and rank 14 contenders. Who sang it best?

The Gloomy Beginnings of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"

If it weren't for Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" would be one bummer of a Christmas song. Songwriter Hugh Martin wrote lyrics to the Christmas song for a sad scene in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) starring Judy Garland. Draft lyrics to the holiday ditty started with these disheartening lines:

"Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past."

We're all getting older and yes, any of us could realistically drop dead at any moment. But do we need to be reminded of this, especially at Christmas? As if this wasn't enough, Martin then tossed in a line about how ultimately we're all alone. What was he thinking?

"Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us no more"

Finally, he encouraged us to simply just do the best we could to cope. That's about as uplifting as it gets:

"Someday soon we all will be together
If the Lord allows
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow."

Garland and others encouraged Martin to make the song less gloomy. Although he kept the "muddle through" line, Garland sang the original in the 1944 film, and it became a favorite with the troops serving in World War II. Then, in 1957, Frank Sinatra recorded an album named A Jolly Christmas and requested that the "muddle through" line be tweaked. It was therefore jollied up by replacing the line with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” Thanks to these two legendary artists we aren't singing a Debbie Downer Christmas song but instead one that is more hopeful, positive, and reflects the joy of the season.

With so many musicians recording, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," perhaps you wonder, "Who sang it best?" If so, then here's your chance to step up and compare their efforts.

Who Sang It Best?

With many artists singing the same Christmas tunes, the sleigh has become overloaded. Let's rank them and cross some versions off the list.

To weigh who sang it best, we begin with the original rendition of the popular song. Then we present a set of contenders, artists who have released cover versions in any genre. Some cover versions honor the original artist's style while others are reinterpretations.

Since the original song version is typically considered "the standard," we don't include it in our overall rankings. Instead, we display it first for comparison, with up to 14 contenders presented next in ranked order. Vote on your preferences:

  • Do you prefer the original song or a cover version?
  • Of all the cover versions, which do you prefer?

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by Judy Garland (1944)

Judy Garland's breathy, trademark warble takes center stage in this 1944 original as soft background music takes a supporting role. Although Garland had the songwriter change the original depressing lyrics, she was still stuck with the line, "Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow."

Overall, her original rendition still seems a bit glum for a Christmas song. Garland's quivering trill gives the effect that she is pensive and teary-eyed. Although we have her to thank for bringing us the original, she has excellent competition from other artists who have later covered the song.

1. Cover by Frank Sinatra (1957)

Wow, is this slow-paced, intimate number ever classy! In 1948, Ol' Blue Eyes released the version of this song with its original lyrics about "muddling through somehow." Considering it too much a downer, Sinatra had the lyrics recrafted, then released this rendition in 1957. It offers a female chorus that echoes his heartfelt sentiment. Sinatra's nostalgic cover of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is hard to beat.

2. Cover by Ella Fitzgerald (1960)

First Lady of Song Ella Fitzgerald sparkles in this rendition of the Christmastime favorite featuring Judy Garland's original lyrics. However, this is no sad song. Fitzgerald's is a decidedly upbeat jazz number. Her vocals are crisp and splendidly buoyant, then midway through the ditty, the band's brass section has a little party of its own.

In 1967, the legendary singer was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and subsequently appeared in a variety of popular television commercials, including those for Memorex cassette tapes ("Is it live, or is it Memorex?"), Kentucky Fried Chicken, and American Express.

3. Cover by Kelly Clarkson (2013)

Kelly Clarkson exudes a sense of warm maturity in this pop version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." It is reflective, positive and won't drag you down emotionally like some other renditions. She manages to be wispy in all the right places while also vividly reaching for the powerful high note with "highest bough."

Clarkson originally rose to fame when she won the inaugural edition of American Idol in 2002. Since then, she has become an internationally successful pop artist, a Grammy Award winner, a coach on The Voice, an actress, and a host of her own talk show.

4. Cover by Luther Vandross (1995)

Grammy Award-winner Luther Vandross dazzles with this cozy R&B version that feels like a good romantic hug. Use it for slow dancing and appreciate how Vandross' voice floats. The light piano-focused instrumentals are pleasingly festive, but it's the saxophone solo that really adds special mystique. Vandross was lauded by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the "100 Greatest Singers of All Time."

5. Cover by Daniela Andrade (2015)

Like other artists of her generation, Daniela Andrade first gained public attention thanks to YouTube, where the singer-songwriter posts both original songs and covers of Top 40 hits. Here the Canadian songstress strums her guitar while her angelic voice clearly resonates with the joy of the holidays. She conveys just the right emotional temperature for this song and does so without having her version overproduced. (And if you watch the video . . . the dog!) I have confidence that she's only going to get better.

6. Cover by Lauren Daigle (2016)

You may know Lauren Daigle from her 2018 globally successful hit, "You Say," a Christian-adult contemporary-mainstream pop crossover song. Daigle has been called the "Christian Adele," and her voice has been compared to that of Amy Winehouse.

With distinctively husky vocals, the contemporary Christian artist offers up this sophisticated and memorable jazz-tinged cover. Her rendition is slow but not depressing, as she takes her time smoothly sashaying through the tune's lyrics. The trumpet soloist then makes sure you remember this is a jazz ditty

7. Cover by Sam Smith (2014)

While Sam Smith wishes you a merry little Christmas in this song, you may want to offer them a tissue and a kind word, and think twice about leaving them alone. This is a heavier holiday cover than most other artists' renditions. Smith's version is slow, meaningful, and deeply pained, as if separated from the one they love for the holidays. The stripped-down piano instrumentals highlight the poignancy of Smith's mournful vocals, even though the lyrics are not Judy Garland's originals.

In 2019, Smith came out as non-binary. They expressed feeling as much female as male, and asked to be referred to as "they/them" as gender pronouns.

8. Cover by Dan + Shay (2013)

There is such beautiful harmony by country-pop duo Dan + Shay in this nostalgic holiday cover. The Grammy Award-winning artists provide an emotional rendition tinged with sadness, and the strength of their vocals shine exquisitely as a result of the lone piano accompaniment. In the video, you may notice one weird detail: as Shay plays the piano, Dan holds the guitar but never actually plays it. (It seems to serve only as a prop.)

9. Cover by The Carpenters (1978)

Soft orchestral music rises and falls along with Karen Carpenter's buttery voice, the quality of which is as pristine as ever. This version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is emotionally warm, filled with hope, and oozing with positivity. It's so cheerful, however, it's almost syrupy sweet.

Karen and Richard Carpenter were a Grammy Award-winning brother and sister duo who achieved wide commercial success and recorded one of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time," according to Rolling Stone magazine. Unfortunately, Karen was only 32 years old when she died in 1983 from heart failure, a complication of anorexia nervosa.

10. Cover by Michael Bublé (2011)

Canadian crooner Michael Bublé honors age-old favorite performers like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby with this version that sounds as if it could have been borrowed from the 1950s. There's nothing sharp or sudden in his cover. Rather, Bublé is suave, gliding artfully through the lyrics with tasteful orchestra music as background music. Although the Grammy Award-winning artist is more detached emotionally than other artists, this version is a relaxing, non-depressing rendition to play in the background on Christmas morning with the family as you open gifts.

11. Cover by Colbie Callait (2012)

Unusual vocal inflections give this pop version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" a modern, informal vibe. Colbie Callait begins the wistful tune in a low key. She aches for memories of yesteryear that she'll never get back while also looking forward to a future with dear friends. Callait was an unsuccessful contestant on American Idol and rose to fame through success on the social media platform MySpace. She has since earned several Grammy Awards.

12. Cover by Christina Aguilera (2000)

Boasting a four-octave vocal range plus multiple Grammy Awards, Christina Aguilera undoubtedly has the vocal finesse to completely own this Christmas favorite. So then why is she so compelled to oversing it?

Aguilera engages in so much vibrato that her performance becomes an exercise in vocal gymnastics. She starts out on a high note and swings like a skilled trapeze artist from breathy and low to belting. Aguilera sticks to the original Judy Garland lyrics, and the emotional tone of her song is nostalgic and contemplative. Rolling Stone magazine designated her as one of the "100 Greatest Singers of All Time."

13. Cover by Human Nature (2013)

The Australian quartet known as Human Nature jumps right into this perky cover song with a high pitch start, then they shooby dooby doo-wop their way through the lyrics with aplomb. While the group's vocals are masterful, the prominent finger-snapping should be dialed way back. (Like way back.) And this cover is so over-the-top gleeful that it will remind you just how ordinary your life is.

Even though there's nothing drastically wrong with their version—especially if you're a big doo-wop fan—for me, Human Nature's interpretation missed the mark. The doo-wop genre feels like a retro mismatch for this Christmastime song. It's not the worst choice of genres, however. Admittedly there are more peculiar options: yodeling, thrash metal, opera.

14. Cover by Coldplay (2001)

The vocals on this slow simple cover are both raw and imperfect. Some of lead singer Chris Martin's high notes are especially squeaky while other notes sound dull and deflated. What a rocky combination! No offense, but it sounds as if a Friday night drinking buddy has taken to the bar piano to deliver this Christmas ditty. A Grammy Award winner, Coldplay is also one of the world's best-selling musical artists.

© 2019 FlourishAnyway


FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on May 26, 2020:

MG - Thanks for stopping by. Have a wonderful week.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on May 26, 2020:

Flourish, simply lovely, Frank Sinatra is my favorite

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on May 26, 2020:

Albert Diner - Thanks for chiming in. So many people have covered this that I can only pick a few to highlight, but thank you.

sperry on May 20, 2020:

This song was written for Judy Garland and no one else has ever done it justice except for nearly 20 years later when Judy herself sang it to her own children on the Judy Garland show. 1st show --the Christmas show in 1963. Either one of those" Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" come in number 1 and number 1. The 1963 singing is just as Great and less breathy but both are one of a kind from the One and Only Hollywood Super Star Judy Garland!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on February 21, 2020:

Peggy - Really gloomy, huh? Thanks for visiting. I'm glad you enjoyed multiple versions.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 21, 2020:

I had no idea that some of the original lyrics that were written were so gloomy. I am glad that Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra changed the songwriter's mind and made it a song that we can all enjoy. As to who sang it best, it is hard to choose since I like so many of the voices.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 02, 2019:

Liz - I agree that the more positive lyrics are definitely an improvement over the Debbie Downer version! Thanks for stopping by!

Liz Westwood from UK on December 02, 2019:

I really appreciate the background you have goven to this song with the details of how the lyrics were changed. I think the positive change has contributed to its enduring popularity.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 29, 2019:

Devika - Glad you enjoyed this. Have a joyous holiday season.

Devika Primic on November 29, 2019:

I like all the versions of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas but the original is my best choice here.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 28, 2019:

Jason Behm - I'm sorry your mother has passed away and cannot be with you, particularly during the holiday season. I'm glad you enjoyed this song article nd hope you found a version you liked.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 28, 2019:

Liz - I'm glad you enjoyed this. Hope your holiday season is starting joyfully.

Jason Behm from Cebu, Philippines on November 26, 2019:

Wow thanks to this article. It made me realize about the lyrics. They were gloomy but I found it beautiful. It gave a pinch of my heart and a hug to my mother whom I can' t be with this Christmas and onwards.

Liz Westwood from UK on November 26, 2019:

Your thorough research is impressive. I had no idea that Coldplay sang it.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 26, 2019:

Linda - I'm glad you found a version you enjoyed. Don't know if you had heard them before but hope you found some new ones. Have a wonderful week!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 25, 2019:

This article is interesting and informative, like all your playlist articles. I enjoyed reading it and listening to different renditions of the song. I often find the song quite depressing, though. The Human Nature version appealed to me the most. I hope you have an enjoyable Thanksgiving, Flourish.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 25, 2019:

Heidi - The fact that Richard Carpenter couldn't make it on his own talent alone after Karen was gone is evidence that she was the brilliance in that duo. He lived off her memory and vocals for a long time. It's unfortunate that he was the favored child in the family.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving. I hope you are able to spend it with love ones and those you hold dear.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 25, 2019:

Dora - I'm so happy you enjoy this as much as I like putting it together! I appreciate you. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 25, 2019:

Mary - There is some melancholy in the song, and depending on who sings it and the lyrics, it can be a downright depressing song. I hope you have a good week.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 25, 2019:

Nithya - Thanks for chiming in!

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on November 25, 2019:

I can't not think of the Judy Garland rendition when I hear the song title. I still remember the scene from Meet Me in St. Louis which I think impressed it on my memory.

But if I had to pick a contender, for me it's the Carpenters. Let me rephrase that, Karen Carpenter.

Interesting that both of my choices, as you mentioned in comments, were sad souls. Maybe that's why singing about a heartbreaking scenario made their renditions so perfect.

If I don't get to pop into another "Who Sang It Best?" post before, Happy Thanksgiving and thanks for all your bring to our HP community!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on November 25, 2019:

It was a treat listening to some of the artists I have never heard of till now, though none of them got my vote. These articles are so entertaining. Thank you.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on November 25, 2019:

Each time I listen to this song, I will always remember the story of the original and it will always bring tears to my eyes because of ageing and people no longer there at Christmas.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2019:

Linda - Judy Garland was such a sad soul. I'm glad she was at least able to help convince the songwriter to modify the lyrics.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2019:

Kari - Many people who don't actually play the versions have pre-set notions of who they will like best, but if they give other artists a listen they may surprise themselves! Thanks for playing along!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2019:

Eric - Thank you for taking the time to play them!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2019:

Bill - I'm glad you had a chance to listen. Thanks for stopping by and comparing versions.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2019:

Devika - Thanks for stopping by.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2019:

Clive - Yes, he is!

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on November 24, 2019:

I love the Kelly Clarkson version. She has breathed new life into this song.

Albert Diner on November 24, 2019:

BARBRA STREISAND, amazed that she was left out.She's the best.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on November 24, 2019:

Judy Garland's version is so very sad, perhaps a reflection of her true feelings. If asked for a "fave" I'd have to vote for the Carpenters. Karen's voice was like that of an angel.

Clive Williams from Jamaica on November 24, 2019:

Franks the man for me with this one.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 24, 2019:

All sound good to me a Christmas song as this one would sound good on Christmas Day no matter who sang it. I like all on the list thank you.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 24, 2019:

The Carpenters is the one I think of immediately, which is weird since I've heard this song seemingly forever. There was something about the purity of Karen's voice which has always stuck with me.

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on November 24, 2019:

I liked many of the renditions and thought i was going to like The Carpenters best. However, it turned out that I liked Human Nature best. I really like this game!

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on November 24, 2019:

I am playing them, it will take a bit, be back.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2019:

Pamela - Thankfully, sometimes it's a matter of everyone pretty much singing it well. I appreciate your stopping by. Glad you enjoyed this. Happy Thanksgiving!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 24, 2019:

Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald sang this ong beautifully in my opinion. I liked those two more than Judy Garland. Having said that, I liked most of them. I can't really pick a favorite, but I liked Dan & Shay, Luther Vandross, Kelly Clarkson, The Carpenters and so on. LOL

I will say I thought Christina Aguilera and Cold Play were disappointing. This was a little more difficult to pick a favorite, Flourish.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2019:

John - Thanks for visiting. She's amazing, isn't she? Some label needs to sign her.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 24, 2019:

I like the Sinatra version and Kelly Clarkson, but my vote goes to Daniela Andrade. I think it is delightful.