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Who Sang It Best? "O Little Town of Bethlehem"

FlourishAnyway believes there is a playlist for just about any situation and is on a mission to unite and entertain the world through song.

Some of the best known Christmas songs have been covered by a variety of popular artists. We look at the classic tune, "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and rank 14 contenders. Which do you prefer?

Some of the best known Christmas songs have been covered by a variety of popular artists. We look at the classic tune, "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and rank 14 contenders. Which do you prefer?

A Song of Many Options

The setting is Bethlehem, and angels salute the miraculous birth of the Son of God. He dozes softly as Mary looks on. Episcopal preacher Phillips Brooks journeyed from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on horseback in 1865 and was so inspired by what he experienced in the Holyland that he wrote a poem to share with his congregation.

Brooks dawdled before doing anything with his holiday poem, however. Then, as Christmas 1868 approached, he urgently asked church organist Lewis Redner to compose a melody for the poem in just two days. Talk about time pressure! Although neither imagined that their collaborative result would persist beyond the Sunday service, "O Little Town of Bethlehem" has become a lasting holiday favorite.

You may think you know this song. But did you know that the hymn has two different melodies and two sets of lyrics? Redner's original melody, referred to simply as the "St. Louis" version, is the one typically heard in the United States, while in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, the song is set to the English hymn tune, "Forest Green." Accordingly, because "Forest Green" is a longer piece, its lyrics include an extra fifth verse.

Adding to the song's complexity is this: popular artists who cover it typically don't include all four verses from the original song. Instead, they may cover just a few verses, may cover the verses out of order, use the lyrics in a medley, or add a variety of their own creative touches, including improvisational words and phrases. Many artists also struggle with how to end this song — with a bang or a mere whimper.

"O Little Town of Bethlehem" is thus a simple song with a multitude of options for singers. Listen to the wide range of ways that artists have chosen to cover the song. Then decide who 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 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 do you prefer?

"O Little Town of Bethlehem" by The Mormon Tabernacle Choir (2012)

Backed by an orchestra, the angelic voices in this historic choir begin slowly, daintily. They transport the listener to the still night in Bethlehem where the newborn King of Kings sleeps nearby. Then, with fuller vocals, celebration infiltrates the dreamy carol as they sing His praises.

Formerly known as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square was founded in 1847 and is part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). The all-volunteer performance group includes 360 chorus members and 110 orchestra members.

This version includes only the first two of the four song verses. The downside of having such a large group sing in unison is that there are points that sound unclear. Thus, if you don't already know the words, you may be a bit hard-pressed to decipher them.

As heavenly as this is choir version is, in my book there are popular recording artists who capture the splendor and awe of the holy setting without sounding quite as busy and choreographed. Suspend your judgment for a moment, listen to contenders, then cast your vote on who sang it best.

Reader Poll

1. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" by Nat King Cole (1960)

Pop and jazz musician Nat King Cole was once proclaimed "the best friend a song ever had," and in this serene lullaby for the infant Jesus, he showcases his talents masterfully. Cole's crisp, commanding vocals take on an air of awe and adoration, thereby drawing warm attention to the Christmas carol's lyrics and their meaning. His version includes only the first and second verses of the original song.

The simple violin and cherubic chirping of backup vocalists recreate the holy birth setting as Cole's voice twinkles reverently throughout. Except for his discernable mispronunciation of "Beth-le-HAM" this rendition may well be perfect.

2. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" by Sarah MacLachlan (2006)

Canadian pop songstress Sarah MacLachlan shines in this particularly emotional, achingly beautiful rendition. Relying only upon her guitar and cherubic vocals, she makes the song personal and uniquely her own by adding emphasis in nontraditional places. MacLachlan omits the song's second verse and allows her gossamer voice to waltz delicately through the other three verses. It floats upward at will as if it powered by wings. How truly inspired!

3. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" by Frank Sinatra (1948)

Frank Sinatra was a fresh-faced 33-year-old crooner when he recorded this Christmas song. Slow, wistful, and unpretentious, his version is marked by careful word articulation so that the listener can contemplate the worshipful lyrics. (Sinatra was known for his perfectionism.) He holds back emotionally regarding the miraculous birth of the Christ child, but both his clarity of song execution and self-restrained reverence for the subject matter more than compensate.

Only the first and third verses of the traditional song appear in this rendition. They are separated by a brief instrumental interlude, then Sinatra ends with a simple "Amen," a classy and appropriate touch.

4. "O Little Town of Bethlehem/The Little Drummer Boy Medley" by Mariah Carey (2010)

The whispy, breathy voice of pop and R&B diva Mariah Carey floats through the first two verses of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" in this amazing medley. In a creative twist, the Grammy-winning songstress also integrates elements of "The Little Drum (Carol of the Drums)" — namely, by using lots of "rum, pa, pum, pum" as vocal filler. The only real lyrics from the latter song are "then he smiled at me." Carey's vibrato-strong vocals are stunning in their own right and don't require artistic gimmicks to impress, but if you're going to merge holiday songs, then this is how you do it.

5. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" by Elvis Presley (1957)

Most people know Elvis Presley as the King of Rock and Roll, but he could really lay down a gospel track too. His contributions to religiously themed music were substantial enough to garner him entry to the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

Elvis' rendition of this classic carol is from his first holiday album, Elvis' Christmas Album, which is still the world's best-selling Christmas album of all time. Accompanied by an organ, the singer's voice slightly quavers. He barely takes a breath as he sails through the first two verses then returns to repeat the first verse.

Elvis' version is understated and hushed, containing Elvis' trademark "hubba hubba" quality, and the background singers merely add dramatic "ooooo" sounds for a bit of variety. While not the most creative or spiritually inspiring, this track by the King of Rock and Roll represents is a solid, classic performance.

6. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" by Natalie Grant (2005)

In this version of the holiday song, Natalie Grant's vocals take on a floaty, almost eerie quality reminiscent of Celine Dion's voice. Her extra slow version of this song incorporates an orchestra.

As she emotionally tiptoes and whirls through its lyrics, she does so with so much love of God that it almost seems to hurt. Then, perplexingly, the song simply ends without much ado, petering right out. Grant won the Gospel Music Association's Dove Award for Female Vocalist of the Year several times.

7. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" by Anne Murray (2001)

Usually, songs offered by Canadian adult contemporary artist Anne Murray are pretty magical given her divine voice and crossover appeal. However, this version of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" unfortunately falls short. Consisting of verses one and two of the original Christmas carol, this version overdoes the solemnity and misses out on celebrating Jesus' birth. In an unusual miss for Murray, the mediocre tune plods away as if she is carrying a heavy sack uphill.

8. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" by Kenny Chesney (2003)

Country music star Kenny Chesney puts the brakes on the tempo, rendering a very slow-motion version that could easily lull you to sleep. Neither exceptionally bad nor good, his is a mellow cover that runs through verses one, two, and four of the original song. An opportunity exists for a country artist to release a reverent, emotional version of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" with soaring lyrics.

9. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" by Voice Play (2016)

In this version of the holiday song, there's a delicate harmony and a unique method of pausing to emphasize the important word, "hope." The very deep bass vocals are also notable (how low can you go?).

A capella group Voice Play ushers in the birth of baby Jesus by running through verses one, four, and two in that jumbled order. Further, their transition with the final verse involves some improv and comes off as awkward, thereby adding to the confusion of the rearranged lyrics. The group gained national attention after appearing as contestants on NBC's 2013 season of The Sing-Off, a competitive a capella contest program.

10. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" by Gaither Vocal Band (2008)

The five members of this southern gospel group launch this a capella version with splendid harmony. As they buoyantly proceed through verses one, three, and four of the original song, their intonations get more creative until in the last verse their combined effort careens out of control. The ending is completely unwieldy, like a runaway horse.

11. "O Little Town of Bethlehem (Little Town)" by Amy Grant (1983)

This rendition is a dumpster fire of a Christmas ditty. Between the unusual melody and scrambled lyrics, you'll spend your time trying to figure out if this is the song you think it is. In 1982, British rocker Cliff Richard originally recorded the perplexing version. Here, Contemporary Christian singer Amy Grant follows up with a cover of it, feverishly stepping up the pep. Cut the pill in half.

"Little Town" borrows lyrics from "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and sets them to a modern melody with a quick tempo. The song incorporates the traditional first verse of the carol then continues with a hybridization and rearrangement of verses three and four. The effect is dramatic, and not in a good way.

I don't know about you, but I can sense Mother Mary's sighs and eye rolls from here. The Wise Men and angels are also grumbling. Surely, the Christian songstress will wake the sleeping baby Jesus with this resoundingly energetic song's banging piano beat. Grant is decidedly upbeat—punchy even—and all too loud in her exuberance.

12. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" by Annie Lennox (2010)

If you're looking for a version of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" that features all four verses, then this one by rocker Annie Lennox delivers. However, there's a price to be paid for her thoroughness.

Lennox sounds mechanical and joyless in her delivery, as though someone is withholding her Christmas dinner until she's finished. This dry, monotonous rendition does a complete disservice to the meaning of the season. Lennox might as well be singing her grocery list or the days of the week. She's not doing the baby Jesus any honors with this song.

13. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" by Jewel (1999)

There's an out-of-place Arabic instrumental vibe throughout this rendition to invoke drama and, I suppose, remind us that Jesus wasn't born in America. Unfortunately, however, this creative element is over the top and feels out of place in a Christmas song. I found the combination weird.

Jewel's version of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" covers verses one, two, and four of the original song, but her vocals ring flat and hollow, as if she's emotionally depressed. Where is the barely contained elation? After all, the Savior has just been born, and He sleeps nearby! Jewel misses the mark emotionally here. Nope, make that artistically.

14. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" by Andy Horace

The idea of releasing a reggae-infused version of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" seems achievable enough. Jamaican musician Andy Horace didn't convincingly pull it off, however.

There are two big reasons why his rendition failed. Horace's jerky, tenor vocals sound like he has just taken a deep breath of helium, and the Jamaican backtempo, a blend of reggae and electronica, overwhelms. Taken together, the listener may experience a bit of an "Is this thing for real?" reaction when listening to this song. With little inflection or emotion, Horace covers the first, second, and fourth verses from the original song.

Reader Poll: Your Favorite Cover Version

© 2020 FlourishAnyway

Comments

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 28, 2020:

Linda - That's so interesting to get a different perspective, one from someone having lived in Briain and accustomed to that version! Thanks for sharing your experience.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 28, 2020:

Devika - Thanks for chiming in. I love this time of year, and with the pandemic, this year it means more than anything. I wish you peace, joy, and happiness with loved ones. Be safe and healthy.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 27, 2020:

I've always enjoyed this song. I remember when I came to Canada after living in Britain and was so disappointed to hear the lyrics sung to to a different tune. I like both tunes now, though. Thanks for sharing the versions performed by different artists, Flourish.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 27, 2020:

FlourishAnyway It is that time of year again. These songs are incredible! I always prefer the original of a song. Others sang it well,but nothing compares to the original. I like your list of Who Sang it Best.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2020:

Dora - It's so good to see you. Thanks for chiming in. Have a wonderful week and stay safe and well in these difficult times.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2020:

Nithya - Very interesting choice! Thanks for chiming in. Have a wonderful week!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2020:

Bill - He sure is unforgettable! Thanks for commenting. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2020:

Linda - I sure wish you had an opportunity to sing with a choir like that. Be happy and well. Thanks for taking the extra time and effort to find this.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2020:

Ann - I'm pleased that you enjoyed this. Given that I'm on voluntary lockdown for fear of getting this virus, I am celebrating Christmas early. Might as well! I hope you are safe, happy, and feeling joyful even in the midst of difficult pandemic times. Lean on joyful holiday music and memories.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2020:

Peggy - Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas to you too! Both melodies and sets of lyrics are beautiful. The longer (British) song involves a fifth verse which to me is a strange choice since a lot of the popular artists in America don't even cover the four in the American version. This song seems like one you could never bank on singing along to because who can tell what version you're listening to? Thanks for stopping by.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2020:

Eric - I agree with you. We weren't real religious growing up but my mother wanted to expose us to church at the holidays. We went to midnight services on Christmas Eve and heard the choir. This song reminds me of that.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2020:

Mary - I'm glad you found this peaceful. Take care of yourself and be well in this really trying time. Better days are ahead.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2020:

Louise - That's great that you liked that many versions! You're right that Mariah is a diva, but I don't hold that against her. She does have a really beautiful voice. I liked your comment.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2020:

Heidi - Snow already! Yikes! We are still raking leaves here -- well, not me but my husband and daughter. Thanks for chiming in regarding Bing Crosby. I wonder how many Gen Zers have heard of him, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, and some of the old-timers who are often associated with Christmas carols?

I'm excited about listening to Christmas music and already have my holiday decorations up. Pressing fast forward right through Thanksgiving to Christmas.

Happy Thanksgiving to you too!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2020:

Liz - Thanks for the kind kudos. It's hard to believe that it's that time of year already. 2020 has been a tough year. I'm decorating early for Christmas and ready to usher in the holidays and a new, better year ahead. Thanks for stopping by.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on November 24, 2020:

Haven't heard them all, but I really love the Gaither Vocal Band Sound. I prefer the groups to the solos and I think they'd be hard to beat. Thanks for the selections.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on November 24, 2020:

All beautiful renditions of this wonderful song. My favorite is “O Little Town of Bethlehem" by Annie Lennox (2010).

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 24, 2020:

Nat King Cole will always get my vote, but then I'm a traditionalist when it comes to classic music, so there you go. I'm sure the other covers are excellent (maybe not Sinatra's), but I love Cole's voice and rendition.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on November 24, 2020:

Flourish, this is one of my favorite Christmas songs. Of course, I gravitate to the MTC with the lush instrumentation (how I would LOVE to sing in a choir like that). But, if I must select a cover, it's Nat King Cole all the way. His voice is so soothing. (He could probably sing the phone book and it would sound wonderful).

Thanks for putting this together (and I'm glad I found it before HP whisked it away!).

Ann Carr from SW England on November 24, 2020:

Apart from just singing it in church or with a school assembly, I'd go for Nat King Cole any day. His rich, melodic voice suits this down to the ground. He had a way of delivering the emotion to suit any song.

Interesting variety here, many of which I didn't know.

It seems that many hymns are set to several variations of music and also differ in some of the verses. I suppose it depends on the area or even the country, as you say.

This brings Christmas a little closer, so thank you for that Flourish!

Ann

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 24, 2020:

I had no idea that there were two different melodies and two sets of lyrics of this beloved song. Not only do we get to listen to wonderful versions in the many videos, but we always learn something new by reading your articles. Let me be the first to wish you a Merry Christmas!

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on November 24, 2020:

A wonderful list. hopefully I can hear more through the day. Nat King Cole is going to be hard to beat -- Elvis is close. I think my favs remind me of Christmas as a child.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on November 24, 2020:

This song calms me down in the midst of all the Christmas happenings. Thanks for placing this here.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on November 24, 2020:

It was hard for me to choose the best version. It was a toss up between Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley & the Gaither Vocal Band. Mariah Carey is at the bottom of my list though. She's a good singer, but SUCH a diva!

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on November 24, 2020:

My pick is Bing Crosby, probably because it was on a played-to-death Christmas record when I was little. That's the rendition that sticks in my mind.

It's snowing, actually it's slush, here in Chicago. So we're beginning to look a lot like Christmas (another Bing Crosby classic). Happy Thanksgiving!

Liz Westwood from UK on November 24, 2020:

I had no idea that this had been covered so many times. Great research. I think of this as often being the opening carol at traditional Christmas carol services in the UK.