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Who Sang It Best? "Joy to the World"

Music enthusiast FlourishAnyway introduces some fun competition into the holidays by ranking cover versions of popular Christmas songs.

Some of the best known Christmas songs have been covered by a variety of artists. We look at the classic carol, "Joy to the World," and compare the traditional church choir version with performances by 14 popular singers. Who do you prefer?

Some of the best known Christmas songs have been covered by a variety of artists. We look at the classic carol, "Joy to the World," and compare the traditional church choir version with performances by 14 popular singers. Who do you prefer?

The Meaning of "Joy to the World"

With so many other holiday songs about the nativity, you'd probably assume "Joy to the World" is likewise about the Savior's birth. You'd be wrong. There is no manger scene, absolutely no angels, and certainly, there is no sleeping baby Jesus in this cherished Christmas song.

Surprised? The most-published hymn in North America was never intended to be a song about the birth of Christ (or a hymn at all). Rather, it was intended to be a forward-looking poem about the Messiah's second coming.

Isaac Watts was a prolific English hymn writer who was known as "The Father of Hymns." Inspired primarily by Psalm 98, 96:11-12, in 1719, Watts published a poem about the King of Creation's return to earth in his book of poems, The Psalms of David: Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. This poem proclaimed the wonder and glory of God, and it encouraged unfettered celebration of heaven and earth at the second coming of the King.

Watts, a Calvinist who believed in total depravity, also based one of the poem's stanzas on his interpretation of Genesis 3:17-18. Note that artists often omit this verse of "Joy to the World":

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

Watts never knew that the praise poem would become a beloved Christmas hymn.

More than a century later, in 1839, Lowell Mason (the hymn composer who gave us the tune to "Mary Had a Little Lamb") set "Joy to the World" to music. He likely lifted a few notes from the work of Baroque master composer George Frideric Handel's "Messiah". As a result, many people have mistakenly assumed that Handel wrote the tune for "Joy to the World."

No one knows why or when people started to confuse "Joy to the World" as a Christmas carol rather than a song to be sung all year round. However, if you enjoy this favorite holiday classic, listen to both a choir and popular artists cover the song, then decide...who sang it best?

11 Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof.

12 Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein: then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice.

— Psalm 98, 96:11–12, King James Version of the Bible

"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 the 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 original or a cover by a popular artist?
  • Of all the cover versions, which do you prefer?

"Joy to the World" by The Mormon Tabernacle Choir (2006)

This transcendent version of "Joy to the World" is so dramatic, brisk, and full of energy that you'll pinch yourself, wondering if the gates of heaven have opened up so that all of creation can celebrate Christ's arrival. The internationally acclaimed Mormon Tabernacle Choir jubilantly proclaims the glory of God using skyrocketing crescendos, the strong backing of an orchestra, and the dramatic impact of a large group. (The all-volunteer performance group includes 360 chorus members and 110 orchestra members.)

Founded in 1847, this choir is part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). Its name was changed to The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square in 2018. The choir has appeared at several U.S. Presidential inaugurations, including those of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump. Additionally, in 2020, the prestigious BBC Music Magazine recognized The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square as one of the “Best 10 Choirs in the World."

If there's anything imperfect about this version, it is only that the group's strength—its size—is also a double-edged sword. The downside of having such a large chorus is that sometimes the listener can't distinguish the words they're singing. Sure, we should expect cleaner articulation, but come on, it feels like we're rubbing elbows with angels here.

Reader Poll

1. "Joy to the World" by Mariah Carey (1994)

Famous for her five-octave range, diva songbird Mariah Carey takes us to church with her rendition of "Joy to the World." Instead of launching right into high caliber exaltation, the R&B and pop superstar begins with slow breathiness, really feeling it down deep. Get ready folks, this girl is just winding up.

The backing choir subsequently reveals itself, whereupon unbridled revelry erupts as a true shout-out to Jesus, with Carey demonstrating the stunning agility of her vocal God-given gift. Like many artists, she drops the original third verse (the one that begins, "No more let sins and sorrows grow"), replacing it with a new verse based heavily on—Wait! What?—yes, the secular Three Dog Night song by the same name. The Three Dog Night song was a chart-topping, 1971 non-holiday rock tune. Carey's inserted verse updates the classic hymn and gives it a pop song feel:

Joy to the world
All the boys and girls
Joy to the people everywhere you see
Joy to you and me.

2. "Joy to the World" by Whitney Houston (featuring The Georgia Mass Choir) (1996)

Whitney Houston was known for never singing anything the same way twice. Here, she interprets "Joy to the World" differently from other artists, departing significantly from its original lyrics. This frenetic 1996 version was recorded for the major motion picture soundtrack, The Preacher's Wife. Houston starred in the movie alongside Denzel Washington.

The song commences like a slow, soft blessing. Then, as backing vocalists The Georgia Mass Choir join in, they together launch into a high-spirited heavenly party. Houston's voice dances, leaps, and twirls through lyrics that do not mirror the traditional song. Although this hardly feels like a Christmas tune, the R&B songstress specifically references Jesus' birth several times in the lyrics. In addition, Houston encourages all of the world to sing God's praises:

Join the triumph of the skies
With angelic hosts proclaim
Glory to the King, while the angels sing
Sing joy to the world

While Houston's vocals are impressive—she's the most awarded female artist of all time for good reason—traditionalists may nevertheless desire a version of "Joy to the World" that doesn't take so many creative liberties with either the lyrics or the melody.

3. "Joy to the World/Joyful, Joyful" by Tori Kelly (2020)

Tori Kelly not only channels her inner Mariah Carey but also gives a contemporary twist to this version of "Joy to the World." The Grammy Award-winning pop and gospel songstress mashes it up with a verse from "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee (The Hymn of Joy)" by Henry van Dyke.

This is not the first time Kelly has been involved in such a creative venture. In 2014, she was featured on a Pentatonix mashup of "Winter Wonderland" and "Don't Worry Be Happy." In so doing, she garnered significant attention. Kelly first made a name for herself by appearing on American Idol in 2010 (although she didn't win), then by becoming a teen YouTube phenomenon.

Slowly and with reverence Kelly begins "Joy to the World," but then the dazzling diva-in-waiting allows her voice to take flight. It soars nearly as high as Heaven itself, tickling the whistle register, before dipping back down to earthly lows. Backing vocalists lend support rather than stealing the show (just as they should), as Kelly's voice takes front and center in this holiday worship song.

4. "Joy to the World" by Orion's Reign & Minniva (2018)

If you think metal music and Christmas carols don't play well together, you're in for a real treat. Set aside any preconceived notions about metal music, and open up your mind. Far from being dark and brooding, angry and violent, this symphonic power metal version of "Joy to the World" is a remarkable musical salute announcing Jesus' arrival.

This avant-garde version packs a punch of positive energy, power, and deep emotion. Shining with talent and love of God from the inside out, Marit "Minniva" Børresen, a Norweigan rock/metal singer, unleashes her vibrancy and jubilation for Jesus against an exciting backdrop of pounding drums and an electric guitar by Orion's Reign. The song includes additional verses and a short spoken passage before ending on an enthusiastic high note:

Christmas time is here
Christmas time is here
Come along and raise your voice
Keep your spirit bright
Keep your spirit bright
And let us all rejoice

On this night
Filled with light
Feel the magic in the air
Open up
Free your heart
There is love to share.

5. "Joy to the World" by For KING & COUNTRY (2020)

In this zippy version of the holiday song, the Christian pop duo For KING & COUNTRY offers forth driving drum beats, surging vocals, and shouts of unbridled glee ("Sing joy to the world, every boy, every girl!"). This version feels like more than just another holiday tune—it is a personal testament to the glory of God.

Dubbed "Australia's answer to Coldplay," For KING & COUNTRY covers three of the four original verses, omitting the pesky third verse about sins and sorrows. They also create a new verse centered around the significant repetition of "wonders of His love."

Although their tune ends too abruptly, For KING & COUNTRY deserves bonus points because the singers clearly enunciate the lyrics. Words of worship should be clear if they are to be convincing.

6. "Joy to the World" by Aretha Franklin (2006)

Aretha Franklin's rendition of "Joy to the World" is so animated and merry it just might convert the faithless. The Queen of Soul doesn't simply sing this holiday praise music. She kicks off a vocal God celebration. Franklin, who grew up singing in church where her father was a minister, engages in a holy revelry of the best kind in this Christmas tune, and she is backed by an enthusiastic choir, complete with hand clapping.

There's no warm-up needed for Franklin. The legendary singer suddenly jumps right in and unleashes her powerful vocals, adding emotional interjections (e.g., "Yes sir! Joy!) and ad-libbing about joy to teachers, children, and "you and me." Franklin covers three out of four of the original song's verses. The Queen of Soul died in 2018, and I can imagine that she now leads the celestial choir with more verve and vigor than it has ever experienced before.

7. "Joy to the World" by Phil Wickam (2019)

This okayish rendition has a pulsating electronica backbeat that updates the classic Christmas tune. Although Contemporary Christian musician Phil Wickam is trying hard (too hard?), the harsh reality is that he's flat, not terribly exciting, and tends to sing through his nose. I'm not impressed.

All of the arm-waving in the video seems to be an attempt to make the listener overlook that his voice is too subtle and low in pitch to do this song justice. Wickam's conventional version is a combination of the original lyrics (except for the third verse), ad hoc filler lyrics, and several lines from "Joyful, Joyful."

8. "Joy to the World" by Pentatonix (2015)

This rendition of "Joy to the World" opens with the solemn, dignified chiming of church bells. Regrettably, that is the song's high watermark. For those looking for a rapid, rushed, and modern feel to "Joy to the World," then Pentatonix's contribution nails it.

Although the a capella quintet has the talent to deliver, in reality, they take a beautiful piece of music and wreck it with too many creative flourishes that fall short. This version omits the original third verse, replacing it with ad hoc lyrical fluff filler.

Pentatonix's version of "Joy to the World" disappoints for several reasons. First, because of the way this group chooses to emphasize the repeated phrase, "Joy to the world," they approximate upspeak. It's as if they're asking whether this is joy.

Additionally, the quintet tends to camp out in the lower vocal registers, primarily because there is only one female member, mezzo-soprano Kirstin Maldonado. It's the lesser-explored higher pitches that could make this song so impressive. Finally, the "tschtch tschtch tschtch" mouth sounds (i.e., beatboxing) are odd, don't fit this Christmas hymn, and only add to the hurried effect. Even dedicated Pentatonix fans would agree this is not their best work.

Pentatonix is a Grammy Award-winning performance group that has received significant international attention for their secular and religious music, both seasonal and year-round. The group was formed in 2011 and won the third season of NBC's a capella competition, The Sing Off. Examples of their success include their cover of the Leonard Cohen song, "Hallelujah" (2016) and "Mary Did You Know?" (2014).

9. "Joy to the World" by David Archuleta (2009)

David Archuleta offers up this rather garden variety rendition of "Joy to the World" and sprinkles it with some love-bombed improvisational lyrics. His emphasis on God's love replaces the traditional third verse referencing sins, sorrows, and thorns. In spite of some unusual and distracting intonations, Archuleta's contribution is on balance serene and sincerely executed. Unfortunately, it's just not particularly special.

10. "Joy to the World" by Hillsong Worship (2009)

Even God Himself is probably underwhelmed with this performance of "Joy to the World." When an artist cannot reliably hit the high notes, then the next-best option is to offer the listener the distraction of a resounding beat. That's the path that Hillsong Worship chooses.

Hillsong Worship provides a modern feel to the traditional carol, dropping the third verse and adding a chorus of, "We will sing joy." There is not as much genuine rejoicing here as there is drum thumping, however. The mediocre version is generally fairly peppy, but at points, it is inexplicably flat and drags. Then, towards the end, it sounds like Hillsong invites a crowd of congregants to join in, whereupon the song dissolves into meaningless chatter instead of ending cleanly.

With all of the talent supposedly available to Hillsong, why not include someone who can belt out high notes in true adoration of the Savior? Hillsong Worship is one of three musical arms of the global evangelical church conglomerate, Hillsong Church. The controversial charismatic megachurch was founded in Australia in 1983. It now lays claim to congregations on six continents, with a total membership claimed to be 150,000.

11. "Joy to the World" by Boney M (1984)

In this buoyant cover of "Joy to the World," Boney M provides audiences a carol with a Caribbean flair. However, the Euro-Caribbean group known for its 1978 seasonal song, "Mary's Boy Child" delivers an emotionally shallow performance here. Their version doesn't feel like worship or Christmas music. They don't lean into the song hard enough. The group instead tends to rely on an effortless "sing-song" cadence, and they only use the first two verses, making their performance of "Joy to the World" brief and forgettable.

12. "Joy to the World" by Train (2012)

This rendition by Train reminds me of Christmas fruitcake. Someone must surely like it, but not me. Pat Monahan, the rock band's lead singer, blasts listeners with a solo that is dotted with unusual word inflections. The way his voice fluctuates from one shrill note to another, you'll be glad this is a one-of-a-kind performance.

Train drops the traditional third verse but adds a refrain from the group's 2003 hit rock song, "Calling All Angels." As a result, don't be surprised if you're caught off guard, wondering what the hell is going on in this song. (For Christ's sake, isn't this "Joy to the World?") Finally, if you're still listening by the time the late middle part of the song rolls around, there is a repetitive electric guitar chord that will have you begging for mercy.

13. "Joy to the World" by Chris Tomlin (2009)

Chris Tomlin is a Grammy Award-winning Contemporary Christian artist and boasts more than two dozen Dove Awards wins from the Gospel Music Association (GMA). Moreover, TIME magazine has surmised that he may be the "most often sung artist anywhere."

However, enjoying popularity and actually being pleasing to the ear on any song you sing are two separate entities. As I previewed Tomlin's rendition, two family members asked me what that awful music was (at separate junctures). No joke. Even the angels are plugging their ears to this one.

From the outset, Tomlin's cover does not sound like a Christmas song at all. His hastily executed, pop-infused version of "Joy to the World" entails spontaneous exhortations of, "Here we go!" along with ad-libbed (or poorly written) lines describing his barely contained religious fervor:

Joy, unspeakable joy
An overflowing well
No tongue can tell
Joy, unspeakable joy
Rises in my soul, never lets me go.

14. "Joy to the World" by Toby Keith (2007)

Nobody's saying that Toby Keith is serving up hot garbage here, but it's at least lukewarm. He's the country singer who brought us hits like, "How Do You Like Me Now!?" (1999), Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (2002), and "As Good As I Once Was" (2005).

Even as Keith offers up this holiday tribute to Jesus, there's an undercurrent of his usual trailer-dwelling, gonna-kick-yer-ass vibe here. The dude's bravado isn't easily shed. Mercifully, this rendition is brief, covering only the first two verses of the original song, along with an enjoyable but out-of-place fiddle interlude. You can't win 'em all.

© 2020 FlourishAnyway


FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 20, 2020:

Lora - Thanks for stopping by. Sometimes choirs do perform it better! I appreciate your weighing in. Have a Merry Christmas!

Lora Hollings on December 18, 2020:

Although, I enjoyed your awesome list of artists who really put much life into this wonderful carol, I would have to say that I prefer the version with The Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I love the sound of a choir and the orchestra in the background. Their performance is exhilarating! Great job on this list, Flourish.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 18, 2020:

MG - I appreciate your kind comment. Have a wonderful holiday season.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on December 18, 2020:

Flourish, music is universal though I never go to church. Nice selection

George Xu from Philippines on December 16, 2020:

@Flourish- ^^ You're right! My mistake. It is Matt Redman. Joyful Holidays!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 16, 2020:

George - I think Matt Redman sang "10,000 Reasons." Thanks for stopping by. I hope you are doing well. Happy Holidays!

George Xu from Philippines on December 14, 2020:

I enjoy your song history! If Jesus is the Lamb of GOD, then doesn't "Mary Had a Little Lamb"? I knew the song is a Xmas song! :D

Kidding aside, listening to the alts, I would say I prefer the traditional choir version. Isn't this Chris Tomlin the one with "10 000 Reasons (Bless the LORD)"? I'm surprised his "Joy to the World" didn't do well.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 10, 2020:

Adrienne - Thanks for chiming in. I'm glad you enjoyed this. Merry Christmas.

Adrienne Farricelli on December 10, 2020:

It's very nice to see so many different versions of a song. Each singer gives it a personal touch.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 10, 2020:

emge - I appreciate your visit.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on December 10, 2020:

Another wonderful selection. I make it a point to listen to your recommended songs.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 10, 2020:

Peggy - I always assumed that it was about baby Jesus. I sure do learn a lot from this research! Hope you're having a wonderful holiday season.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 10, 2020:

emge - Thanks for your comment.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 09, 2020:

You continue to educate us about songs, and this one about the meaning of "Joy to the World" was amazing. I would only have thought of it as a Christmas song before reading this. The Mormon Tabernacle choir gets my top vote.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on December 09, 2020:

Lovely article Flourish and a good selection of songs. Will have to listen some time.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 09, 2020:

gyanendra mocktan - Thank you for sharing some of your experience. I hope you found a version you liked. Merry Christmas!

gyanendra mocktan from Kathmandu,Nepal on December 09, 2020:

I used to sing this with the choir in St. Don Bosco Cathedral, Tezpur in my school days.

I have taught this song in a company to celebrate the X'mas in 2007. Thank you.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 09, 2020:

Linda - I appreciate you stopping by and hope you have a happy holiday season.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 09, 2020:

Linda - When it comes to this song it's essential that it be sung high and mighty soprano so I don't know why some of these artists attempted it, especially in the way that they did (not including any sopranos). The choir was amazing. I appreciate your compliment. I wonder if I'm a little too honest in my opinions but oh well.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 09, 2020:

Mary - This was one where I loved the choir version best too. Thanks for listening and reading along. Have a wonderful week!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 09, 2020:

Devika - Feel free to offer up whoever you believe sounds better.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 09, 2020:

Nell - I was blown away by their version, having never heard symphonic metal. Each time I played it I liked it even more! It was extremely joyful, a real surprise. If people suspend their judgment they may find they like new things!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 09, 2020:

Pamela - I often learn so much with the research. I'm glad you enjoyed this. Have a wonderful week!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 09, 2020:

Heidi - This was one where the choir version just stood out for me too! It's neat to know your dad was a choir director. I bet you can carry a tune!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 09, 2020:

Bill - Yeah, you're right it is another song but it is sampled in one of the versions, oddly enough!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on December 08, 2020:

I love this song, especially when it's sung by a choir. I enjoyed the Mormon Tabernacle Choir version very much. I'll return to the article soon to listen to the other versions. I think it's going to be a lovely way to celebrate the approach of Christmas.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on December 08, 2020:

Flourish, have I ever told you how much I enjoy your writeups? Even more than the music itself. You should do stand-up. But seriously, I can't get excited by anything other than the traditional version by the MTC. At least they can hit those high notes, enunciate, stick to the lyrics, and don't need a syncopated beat or auto-tune to get the message across.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on December 08, 2020:

I'm still a fan of the Tabernacle version of Joy to the World. I enjoy the fun and the holy meaning of the song.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on December 08, 2020:

FlourishAnyway this is a great idea for a list of songs. The original sounds great but a lot of others sound similar or better. Interesting thoughts about this song.

Nell Rose from England on December 08, 2020:

My favourite has to be Orions metal version. But then again I am a metalhead, lol! I couldn't see the Boney M one as it didn't show over here. But I think I have heard it before, and they were awesome. Great article and I love the music!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 08, 2020:

I enjoyed reading the history of this song. I like traditional versions of the song, so I didn't like several of the versions by artists I usually like. I suppose Mariah Carey would be my pThanks for a good article, Flourish.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on December 08, 2020:

Maybe because my dad was a choir director, but the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is the one that stands out for me.

And as an alternative, we could also consider Three Dog Night's "Joy to World." "Jeremiah was bullfrog..." :-D That's more my speed.

Thanks for the joy!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 08, 2020:

All I could think about was the song by Three Dog Night, which as nothing to do with this article. :) Okay, I'll vote for Whitney's version, but it's really a toss-up for me on this one.