Who Sang It Best? "Silent Night"
A Christmas Carol That Unites
Few Christmas songs have the power to unite and inspire like "Silent Night." The song describes a newborn Jesus resting calmly in the manger, where all is right with the world. The tune gently settles the Christ child to sleep with sweet reassurances, ringing in peace to a world forever changed by His birth.
In 1816, Roman Catholic priest Joseph Mohr wrote a six-stanza poem that would become this momentous Christmas carol. Mohr's life saw desolate and impoverished beginnings. He was one of three sons born to a single mother, and his godfather was the town executioner. Exceptionally poor, he was taken in as a foster child by the church which offered Mohr stability as well as spiritual nourishment.
In 1918, in the small Austrian town of Oberndorf, Father Mohr found himself needing a song for Christmas Eve mass. Thus, he dusted off "Stille Nacht," his German-language poem from two years prior. The priest subsequently consulted his friend, composer Franz Gruber, for help with a melody. Gruber was a schoolteacher who was also the organist at Old St. Nicholas Church. Gruber penned a simple melody with a guitar accompaniment. "Silent Night" was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818 just hours after it was written, with Father Mohn on his guitar and the choir repeating the last two lines of every verse.
Discredited legends allege that the church organ had been damaged by a mouse or recent floods. These explanations were offered for why the song was written as a guitar accompaniment rather than for the organ. Although clever and sentimental, the broken organ myths can be traced to a 1930s fictional story published in the US. Additionally, the carol has been incorrectly attributed to a variety of composers, including Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Thankfully, a handwritten manuscript of the original song was found in 1995 that listed Mohr as the lyricist and Gruber as the composer.
"Silent Night" is a song that paints a picture of hope for ordinary people and peace for all. Out of all the Christmas carols, this is one that soothes and unites. Famously, during the Christmas Truce of 1914, German and British troops initiated an unauthorized, impromptu ceasefire sporadically in the days leading up to Christmas, singing "Silent Night" across enemy lines.
Whatever the song means to you, chances are you have strong opinions about how the classic Christmas tune should be rendered. When it comes to this holiday favorite, do you prefer a traditional choir or a popular artist? Suspend judgment for a few minutes while you listen to a variety of approaches, artists, and genres. Then, weigh in and tell us who you think sang it best!
"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 either a traditional choir rendition or the original, recorded version of a popular Christmas song that has 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 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, then present up to 14 contenders in ranked order. Vote on your preferences:
Do you prefer the traditional choir version of the song or a cover by a popular artist?
Of all the cover versions, which you prefer?
The Traditional Song
Traditional Choir Version
"Silent Night" by Winchester Cathedral Choir (2010)
I never pictured "Silent Night" as an emotionally haunting song. That was before hearing this famed choir version. The lyrics aren't crisply enunciated and the pace is languorous, like how you feel after a big meal. I get that the newborn King is being shushed to sleep, but what about the rest of us? There are points where the vocals seem to venture off, making unplanned wanderings. The choir went a little "extra" with their creative interpretation of this Christmas carol.
With a history dating back to the 14th century, Winchester Cathedral Choir is a group primarily comprised of children, although some adult members are included as well. They are associated with one of the largest cathedrals in Europe, the Winchester Cathedral, located in the town of Hamshire, England. Having toured internationally, the choir concentrates on traditional music.
Choir music isn't everyone's taste, and it's not the best choice for every song. Many individual artists and popular bands take creative chances with hymns. With so many options available for "Silent Night," who sang it best? Let's take a look!
Which version of "Silent Night" would you rather listen to -- a traditional choir version or your favorite cover version by a popular artist?
Popular Artists' Cover Versions in Ranked Order
1. "Silent Night" by Tori Kelly (2014)
Get ready to be spiritually moved by this achingly beautiful version of "Silent Night." The a capella style of Tory Kelly in this cover song accents its worshipful nature and raw emotionality. The tempo is slow, but the 2011 American Idol semi-finalist injects into this rendition just enough energy and variation in pitch to keep her audience mesmerized until the very end. Kelly is an award-winning Grammy gospel artist.
2. "Silent Night" by Elvis Presley (1957)
When Elvis released this song in 1957 as a part of Elvis' Christmas Album, it was initially controversial. Traditionalists disapproved of the hip-swiveling rock-n-roll phenom lending his voice to religious music. Their concerns were unfounded, however, as Elvis eventually became respected for both his gospel-influenced numbers as well as his rock music.
Supported by the muffled vocals of background singers, the King delivers this classic carol in a manner that is low, delicate, and comforting. One can easily imagine him soothing infant Jesus to sleep. Elvis' rendition is the quintessential Christmas lullaby.
3. "Silent Night" by Justin Bieber (2011)
Regardless of what you may think of Justin Bieber's pop music or tabloid-worthy behavior, here, he is choir boy perfect. The singer was only 17 years old when he released this song, and his vocals are soft and cherubic. His version is slow, calming, and reverent. Although Bieber doesn't have the masterful timing of a more experienced, disciplined singer, the young star convincingly transmits purity and light. I hope you have an open mind because the Beebs absolutely aces this tune.
4. "Silent Night" by Sinéad O'Connor (1991)
This doesn't seem like the same Sinéad O'Connor who tore up her mother's photo of the Pope on live television just one year later, as she implored the audience to "fight the real enemy." In this awe-filled rendition of "Silent Night," the Irish singer convincingly tiptoes through the Christmas lyrics. (And I like her with hair.)
Whereas some other artists obliquely refer to Jesus as the "holy infant," O'Connor's version explicitly references "Jesus, Lord at Thy birth" and includes the exaltation, "Christ the Savior is born!" She offers an otherworldly performance that is faint in volume—just above a whisper—yet divinely inspired.
O'Connor is the only artist in history to reject a Grammy Award. Raised Catholic, she became Muslim in 2018. In recent years, she has twice changed her name. The singer has struggled with mental illness for years.
5. "Silent Night" by Bing Crosby (1935)
Bing Crosby was the first popular singer in America to record Christmas tunes, but have you noticed that he primarily sang non-religious songs? While his 1942 release of "White Christmas" is still the best-selling single of all time, his pioneering cover of "Silent Night," almost didn't happen.
Crosby was a devout Catholic who must have scored bonus points for guilt when he initially refused to record "Silent Night." Crosby feared that doing so would be exploitative, "like cashing in on the church or the Bible." Seeking moral vindication, Crosby met with a priest who was attempting to raise funds for overseas missions. The popular singer arranged to donate his royalties of "Silent Night" to the religious cause. Even when the priest died in a car accident later that year, Crosby honored the spirit of his commitment by contributing to several charities in the US and abroad.
Although Crosby's moral compass was all abuzz with this song, this performance lacks emotional intensity. This rendition is a fairly standard, stripped-down version that focuses on the crooner's voice without other vocalists or too many instrumentals competing for his limelight. If you love Bing Crosby, then you probably won't notice (or care) how stiff and "stuffy" he sounds here. Regardless, his version of "Silent Night" is one of the best-selling singles of all time.
6. "Silent Night" by The Temptations (1968)
This lengthy, non-traditional version of "Silent Night" launches with the melody of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," followed by the spoken first stanza of the poem, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." If it sounds a bit too much, it is. Thankfully, however, the song then segues into a satisfying, soul-infused elixir of spiritual awe and holiday joy. During the late 1960s, the group was beginning to shift away from the classic Motown sound in favor of a more soul-intensive sound.
Whereas other artists truncate this Christmas carol by eliminating one or more stanzas, The Temptations treat us to the long version. Their jubilant rendition of "Silent Night" features splendid harmony and high notes so serene that you'll swear someone is wearing wings. Especially noteworthy is the emotion that the group pours into this song. With gospel-like reverence, The Temptations make clear that it's the Son of God in that manger. I have mixed feelings about whether deep bass vocals are helpful in this song, but they do provide contrast to the high notes.
Rolling Stone magazine designated The Temptations as one of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time" and selected several of their hit songs for their list of "500 Songs That Shaped Rock 'n Roll." Additionally, in 2013 they were honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
7. "Silent Night" by Mariah Carey (1994)
Yep, she'll take you to church with this song. With a five-octave vocal range, Mimi is a songbird who is certainly strong enough to carry this tune herself without leaning on a choir for effect. For a gospel-like sound, however, Mariah Carey turns to backup vocalists for support. Sure, Carey oversings it, adding "mmms" and "ooohs" as well as a lot of vibrato. But overdoing it is the diva way, darling. You'll just have to deal.
8. "Silent Night" by Olivia Newton-John (2001)
The sweet vocals of Olivia Newton-John are so mellow that they flutter through the lyrics of her pop-tinged version of "Silent Night." While the Grammy Award-winning artist doesn't knock this out of the park, she does convey an appropriate level of warmth and reverence regarding Jesus' birth—a steady sense of wonder rather than "double rainbow" elation. Although a minor point, she does have a habit of over articulating the "t" at the end of words. (Now that I've said something you won't be able to ignore it.)
9. "Silent Night" by Michael Bublé (2011)
The Canadian crooner is smooth and hits most of his marks, but he does it without much charisma or individual creativity. Bublé sounds like he stepped right out of the 1940s rather than building on the Bing Crosby style he obviously emulates. He teams up with the Libera boys choir, but unfortunately, they fail to add any excitement. More cowbell, we need more cowbell.
10. "Silent Night" by Stevie Nicks (featuring Robbie Nevil) (1987)
Stevie Nicks has previously described "Silent Night" as her favorite Christmas song, and she delivers here a dreamy rendition with her distinctively husky voice. But whoa! This is not simply Nicks' song. The Grammy Award winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee enjoys some strong competition for the spotlight, and I'm not talking about that loud flute that threatens to overshadow the vocals.
Singer Robbie Nevil rocks his lyrics, totally oversinging his part as he echoes Nicks' lead vocals. Nevil is best known for the 1986 pop tune, "C'est La Vie." No one knows why Nevil is leaning into his part so hard, but perhaps he's trying to ensure that the listener doesn't notice they omitted the line, "Christ the Savior is born!" (It worked, didn't it?)
11. "Silent Night" by Pentatonix (2014)
In this version of "Silent Night," it's the harmony that falls short rather than the quality of Pentatonix's individual voices. There is an unspoken tug-of-war between higher notes and lower ones, and the result is this meandering, atypical offering of the Christmas carol. Religious listeners will likely note the absence of the traditional line, "Christ the Savior is born!" Pentatonix instead uses a refrain that consists of, "Oh, sleep, sleep, sleep" and "Silent night, holy night."
Neither bad nor stellar, the Pentatonix version drifts into the no man's land of "coulda done better." Unfortunately, the vocalists' emotion is so blunted that they risk lulling (or boring) themselves to sleep at points. On the positive side, Pentatonix did skip the beatboxing, that overused drum-like sound that a capella singers make with their mouths. Pentatonix is an a capella group that initially found fame in 2011 when they won the third season of NBC's show The Sing-Off.
12. "Silent Night" by Kelly Clarkson (featuring Trisha Yearwood and Reba McEntire) (2013)
The lead vocals by Kelly Clarkson are strong, and with three big names contributing to this cover version of "Silent Night," you might initially think you're getting a three-for-one deal. But not so fast!
Clarkson would have been better off without the star-powered assistance from her gal pals. Her voice is full and layered, and she simply outshines Trisha Yearwood's lower vocals. In addition, sadly, Reba McEntire's vocals are comparatively "off." They sound flat, almost slurred and at points, they are challenging to discern, like when she fumbles through the line, "Jesus, Lord, at thy birth." Although the trio has some pleasant harmonies, this version of the holiday song started off with promise then disappointed.
Clarkson rose to fame in 2002 when she won the first season of American Idol. The Grammy Award-winner is married to the son of Reba McEntire's ex-husband. That technically makes Reba her mother-in-law. Meanwhile, McEntire and Yearwood have been friends for years. The three stars have intermittently collaborated over the years, lending vocal support to each others' songs.
13. "Silent Night" by Josh Groban (2007)
In this rendition of "Silent Night," Josh Groban brings his formal-sounding operatic pop style to the holiday tune and comes across as someone who takes himself very seriously. The song features soaring high notes and a choir that pushes the exhilaration higher. Groban then lifts the song to an emotional denouement. While his vocals are impeccable, the effect may not be appropriate for "Silent Night"—too stiff.
The singer first rose to fame in 1998 when he stood in for Andrea Bocelli during a Grammy rehearsal duet with Celine Dion. Rosie O'Donnell then immediately booked Groban on her talk show, he performed at the 1999 California governor's inauguration, and went on to sell 25 million records.
14. "Silent Night" by Manowar (2007)
If you've ever heard any song by Manowar, then their choice to cover "Silent Night" may seem unusual. You may consider it an almost obscene move.
That's because typically, the group sings in a blaring and frenzied manner regarding topics such as swords, sorcery, and mythology. Example song titles include "House of Death," "Hand of Doom," and "Blood of My Enemies." In 1984, the Guinness Book of World Records credited them with the world's loudest musical performance, a record which they subsequently topped twice.
In light of this information, you might think you know what to expect from Manowar's version of "Silent Night." However, you'd be wrong. The band actually plays this Christmas ditty straight. They demonstrate their vocal chops as they lean into the lyrics—too dramatically, but still. Midway through this song, there is a point at which Manowar goes in for the power boost using reverberating bells and harmony, eventually reaching a crescendo (lst you forget who is covering this holiday favorite). Far from offensive, the worst thing about this cover is perhaps the over-enunciation of certain words.
Readers Weigh In
Reader Poll: Your Favorite Cover Version
So which CONTENDER do YOU think sang it best?
Questions & Answers
© 2019 FlourishAnyway