Who Sang It Best? "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"
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?": Here's How It Works
With many artists singing the same Christmas tunes, the sleigh has become overloaded. Let's rank them and cross some versions off the list.
In the "Who Sang It Best?" series, we start with the original rendition of popular songs that have been covered multiple times. 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 you prefer?
The Classic Song
"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.
Which version would you rather listen to—the original song or your favorite cover version?
Cover Versions in Ranked Order
1. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by Frank Sinatra (1957)
Wow, is this slow-paced, intimate number ever classy! In 1948, Ole 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. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" 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. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" 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. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" 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. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" 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. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" 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. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" 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. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" 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. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by The Carpenters (1978)
Soft orchestral music rises and falls along with Karen Carpenters' 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. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" 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. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" 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. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" 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. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" 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. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" 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.
Readers Weigh In
So, which contender do you think sang it best?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 FlourishAnyway