Who Sang It Best? "I'll Be Home for Christmas"
Homesickness at Christmastime
Miles may stand between friends, families, and lovers during the Christmas season, but the heart transcends. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" might seem like a straightforward enough tune. The narrator of the song can't make it home for the holidays and longs for traditions and togetherness with loved ones. This song is a love letter to those he or she yearns to reconnect with. It's a dose of melancholy, memories, and forward-looking anticipation.
Since its original release in 1943, the holiday classic is one that has adapted along with time, its audience, and the artist expressing themselves. Initially, the song was intended for World War II era soldiers pining for home. Now, it encompasses all manners of situations that keep people apart during the joyful season.
Artists over the years have adapted the song's lyrics in ways both minor and substantive. Here are several examples:
- Carly Simon changed the lyrics to reflect divorce
- depending on the singer, the narrator wishes for presents "by," "under," "for," or "on" the tree and assures the listener that they can either "count" or "plan" on them
- the boy band In Real Life added a reference to Santa.
Additionally, several popular renditions of this song include a dreamlike introductory verse by the original songwriter (rather than starting with the cold open lyrics, "I'll be home for Christmas"):
I am dreaming tonight of a place I love
Even more than I usually do
And although I know it’s a long road back
I promise you.
I bet if you've never noticed these differences, you will now.
From country to pop to heavy metal, artists of various genres have recorded "I'll Be Home for Christmas" with varying degrees of success. Do you ever wonder, "Who sang it best?" Here's your chance to step up and compare their efforts on this enduring classic.
"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 off the list.
In the "Who Sang It Best?" series, we start with the original version 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?
- Which of the cover versions do you prefer?
The Classic Song
"I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Bing Crosby (1943)
After Bing Crosby hit it big with "White Christmas" in 1942, the crooner wondered how to follow up his global success. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" was the encore song he eagerly sought. It took the musical form of a letter home, authored by a wartime soldier, informing his family to prepare Christmas with all the trimmings—snow, mistletoe, and presents. Toward the end of the song, the narrator regretfully qualifies his homecoming. He'll be home alongside them perhaps in his dreams only.
This sentimental message resonated with soldiers and civilians alike who were separated from loved ones by a long and bitter Second World War. At the time, there could be no way of truly knowing how many more years the war would last and whether the Allies would prevail. The year 1943 saw the fall of Mussolini's Fascist regime in Italy and the defeat of Axis forces in North Africa. However, Hitler survived another assassination attempt.
There was certainly no guarantee at the time that soldiers would ever see another Christmas back home with their families again. For this reason, the BBC banned the song from broadcast in spite of its tremendous popularity with American troops. They thought it would deflate morale. Ultimately, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" became one of the most recorded ballads of the holiday season.
Bing Crosby's version is calming and authoritative, emotionally reserved, even if a bit stuffy. Stringed instruments softly uplift and set the stage that he's daydreaming. Consummate professional that he was, this original version of the song is hard to beat. Can any of the cover versions do it better?
Which version would you rather listen to -- Bing Crosby's original song or your favorite cover version?
Cover Versions in Ranked Order
1. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Rascal Flatts (2008)
Once you get past the unnecessary small talk in the introduction of this video (skip to 0:20), whoa, is this song ever pure bliss! Rascal Flatts is a country music powerhouse that was formed in 1999 from two second cousins (Gary LeVox and Jay DeMarcus) plus a stand-in guitarist (Joe Don Rooney). In 2006, the trio became the top-selling group in any music genre. They now boast more than a dozen number one country singles and seven Top 40 country/pop crossover hits—and counting.
In their poignant rendition of "I'll Be Home for Christmas," these three fellas don't need the distraction of instruments. They rely on the strength of their raw, emotional vocals. The voices of the three singers blend in phenomenal harmony, adding layers and texture to one another. This version is sure to make you long for loved ones you miss at the holidays.
2. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by The Carpenters (1978)
In this particularly mellow version of the song, Karen Carpenter's voice floats magically through the lyrics, taking on an ethereal quality. She is supported by a bevy of background vocalists that echo her wistful sentiments for home and give the song a yesteryear quality; it sounds much like those variety shows that were popular in the 1970s. The Carpenters include the optional introductory lyrics.
Ironically, Karen Carpenter's home life was filled with angst, as her mother considerably favored her brother, Richard. Known for their squeaky clean image, The Carpenters won three Grammy Awards and were granted a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The siblings, however, battled hidden demons that came with their success. Richard struggled with an addiction to Quaaludes, and in 1983, Karen died at 32 years old of heart failure connected to her long battle with anorexia. She was one of the first public faces of eating disorders.
3. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Home Free (2010)
Home Free is an a capella group with a country focus that was formed in 2000. Here, in their version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas," they nail just the right amount of nostalgia and yearning for home required for this tune. Rather than delivering something sappy or dour, their version is sentimental without being over-the-top either way. The lead vocals provided by Rob Lunquist are particularly angelic, with the remaining Home Free members harmonizing around him perfectly to achieve a daydream effect.
Structured like a barbershop quartet, in 2013 Home Free won the fourth season of NBC's The Sing-Off, the year after Pentatonix garnered so much attention. This holiday song was released prior to Home Free's "big break" and they, therefore, may appear less polished. However, they are at least as talented as Pentatonix. For a particularly noteworthy Christmas song by Home Free, try "Angels We Have Heard On High."
4. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Kelly Clarkson (2011)
Now this is someone who convincingly misses distant family members at the holidays. Backed by brass instruments in a jazz-influenced pop version, Kelly Clarkson provides a spirited and energetic performance. Her voice soars and she leans into the lyrics emotionally, as if she's genuinely separated from someone she loves at Christmas. You can feel the aching in her voice, yet she stays hopeful, like she'll be FaceTiming loved ones later.
5. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Pentatonix (2016)
If you want an especially perky version of this holiday classic, opt for the one by Pentatonix. It's filled with enthusiasm and hope that the narrators will be reunited with distant family and friends just in time for Christmas Eve. They probably should have dialed down the elation, considering that the lyrics emphasize "if only in my dreams."
The vocals of Pentatonix's five young members harmonize smoothly and will leave you wondering whether they truly are a capella, they're that talented. Named after the pentatonic music scale with five notes per octave, the group was formed in 2011 when they won the third season of NBC's The Sing-Off. The singers met just the day prior to auditioning for the show. Now, after billions of YouTube views and multiple Grammy Awards, they've taken minimalist vocals-only music mainstream and have completed several successful world tours.
6. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Johnny Mathis (1958)
Johnny Mathis' version is slow and dreamlike, as if the narrator is lost in thought regarding friends and family back home and all the holiday activities he's missing. He includes the introductory lyrics instead of starting with the line, "I'm be home for Christmas."
The orchestra makes this rendition sound dainty, almost like the theme from Bambi. Although his words aren't 100% clear in places ("And presents on the tree"), Johnny Mathis registers a more than adequate effort at this wistful Christmas song.
7. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Michael Bublé (2003)
Not everyone can make it home for the holidays, but the way Michael Bublé executes this song will pique your concern for his mental health. I mean, is it is safe to leave him alone on Christmas?
On the positive side, the quality of his voice is solid, he enunciates his words, and he adeptly shifts from low to high notes. However, his version is somber and a little sleepy. It drags and suggests images of holiday depression. You can easily envision the narrator drinking his Christmas Day away in bed. Having no presents or holiday decorations, he pulls up the covers and perhaps wakes only to eat Chinese takeout. What a bummer.
8. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Lady Antebellum (2012)
Lady Antebellum offers a standard take on this Christmas classic with no real creative twists, so you get what you're accustomed to hearing with no surprises. But don't get me wrong, as I'm not knocking predictable.
Although the lead vocals are a little flat in places and there's an occasional pained high note, the heavenly harmony of the vocal duo more than compensates. The Grammy Award-winning group has been popular with country audiences, and Lady Antebellum has also seen its music cross over to pop charts in recent years (e.g., "I Need You Now," "Just a Kiss").
9. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Elvis Presley (1957)
The King of Rock and Roll gives this Christmas classic a hubba hubba quality, much like he does with "Blue Christmas." He sings of "snew" and "mess-EL-toe" using unusual voice inflections. Then he garbles the following lines so that they are indistinguishable:
Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light leads.
His voice was a superb instrument, but Elvis recorded this Yuletide number early in his career and it's obvious that he was still trying to harness the unusual power of his gift.
10. I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Doris Day (1964)
With a simple sweetness and girl-next-door aura to her, Doris Day sings of missing home. True, she was in her early 40s when this was released, and in the 1960s when she recorded this song her reputation as a wholesome all-American girl became that of America's oldest virgin.
In "I'll Be Home for Christmas," Day retains the happiness to her voice even in the face of being separated from loved ones at Christmas. Her volume, however, trails off considerably with the line, "If only in my dreams." I found the song to be overproduced and lacking somewhat in spontaneity and emotional depth. If you're looking for a superior Doris Day Christmas song, consider instead "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" or "Silver Bells."
11. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Al Green (1983)
You can sing "I'll Be Home for Christmas" a lot of different ways, but Al Green manages to accomplish what few others have. He sexualizes it as an R&B tune. The man has been lauded as having a "basic animal appeal to women," and perhaps he just can't help himself. You be the judge.
Al Green starts off with the additional lyrics and adopts a special anguish to his voice to convey it's his main squeeze he's missing—certainly not family or a platonic friend. Although the narrator is certainly in a degree of pain, you can be sure he's undressing her in his mind. In spite of being a holiday song, this version has a bit of bow chicka wow wow vibe to it that will make you feel um, . . . a bit naughty.
Al Green was once a pop and soul superstar with hits like "Let's Stay Together." In 1974, at the height of his success, a married girlfriend burst into the bathroom at his residence while the singer was in the tub. She threw hot grits on him then used his gun to die by suicide. Green took this tragic incident as a wake-up call to change his life, increasingly concentrating on his religious life and gospel music.
12. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Whitney Houston (2003)
Whitney Houston was a talented songbird with a four-octave range, but this holiday ditty is not her best work. After suffering a career decline and struggling with drugs and alcohol, Houston released a Christmas album to mixed reviews. Sadly, this tune showcases a pop superstar past her prime. The songstress begins with the additional verse but fails to enunciate some words (e.g., "Chrizzmus") as she floods this rendition with so much vibrato it distracts the listener. Listen to how she draws out "if only" in this song.
Vocally and personally, her Christmas album seemed to be a beginning of the end for her. She accidentally drowned in a bathtub in 2012, with cocaine and heart disease as contributing factors.
13. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Twisted Sister (2006)
They took a creative risk. Dare to be different with this 2006 heavy metal number from Twister Sister's holiday album, A Twisted Christmas. While it's not terrible, it is heavy on blaring electric guitars, but what do you expect from the band that gave us "We're Not Gonna Take It" back in their 1980s heyday? (Decades later, I still consider that jam freaking awesome.)
Twisted Sister's version of this song may not be traditional, but I bet not all of your family members are either. Am I right?
14. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by She Him
You can rename this version, "Debbie Downer sings 'I'll Be Home for Christmas.'" There is absolutely nothing festive about it. It's as if the narrator is mentally skipping forward to the bleak days of January to ruminate about bills and bad dietary habits.
Zooey Deschanel trudges through her vocals with such a somber heart that she almost sounds like she's singing in slow-mo. You can sadly yearn to be with a significant other who is miles away this Christmas, but is sounding this emotionally miserable necessary? Just don't. It'll only make you feel worse.
Readers Weigh In
Reader Poll: Your Favorite Cover Version
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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.
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