Who Sang It Best? "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)"?
The Christmas Carol with Three Titles
In the searing heat of summer 1945, songwriter Robert Wells didn't realize he was writing a song. Instead, he was simply attempting to use the power of thought to cool himself down. (Air conditioning wasn't widely available until the 1950s.) Wells jotted down a few lines that began with, "Chestnuts roasting..., Jack Frost nipping..., Yuletide carols..., Folks dressed up like Eskimos."
We don't know whether Wells felt any cooler, but his words evoked festive images of Christmas togetherness. His friend, jazz composer Mel Tormé, saw the notepad and helped to complete the lyrics then wrote the music in 40 minutes. Their song became the most-performed Christmas carol in the broadcast music industry. You may know it by any of its three names:
- "The Christmas Song," its formal title
- "Merry Christmas to You," its original subtitle
- "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," its more common subtitle.
Nat King Cole was the first artist to record this holiday tune, but hundreds of others have followed in his footsteps, including co-writer Mel Tormé. Each singer made the song individually theirs by adding a stanza and ad libs, adjusting the tempo, including a full orchestra or just going a capella. With so many options out there, do you wonder, who sang "The Christmas Song" 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 you prefer?
The Classic Song
"Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" by Nat King Cole (1946)
Now this sounds like Christmas! The jazz-tinged original of "The Christmas Song" by Nat King Cole profiles family togetherness, seasonal anticipation, and all things festive. Contrasted against understated background music, Nat King Cole's voice is simply sublime. No wonder it has such staying power decades after its original release.
Cole dazzles us with the way he pauses briefly in all the right places and achieves warm sentimentality without being sappy. He recorded the song three times, modifying the instrumentals with each. His hit 1946 original was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame while the 1962 rendering is the one that most people know. (The other version was in 1954.) Cole was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Jazz Hall of Fame. He was also the first African American male to host a television show, The Nat King Cole Show.
In the seven decades since the song was first released, "The Christmas Song" has endured in popularity as one of the most popular holiday tunes. But with all of the versions out there, can anyone match or even surpass the original song by Nat King Cole? Listen and then you be the judge!
Which version would you rather listen to -- Nat King Cole's original song or your favorite cover version?
Cover Versions in Ranked Order
1. "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" by The Carpenters (1978)
Karen Carpenter is at her best in this version of "The Christmas Song." What a timeless offering of the holiday classic—simple yet elegant. It sounds like she's right in the middle of the Christmastime rush and relishing every minute. Carpenter's voice is resplendent, and she hits those high notes deftly. Further, the background vocals highlight but don't interfere, precisely as you'd want. Notice, too, that she includes an introductory stanza that you don't hear with most other versions.
Carpenter was selected by Rolling Stone as one of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. The Grammy Award-winning artist died at age 32 as a result of heart failure brought on by years of an eating disorder.
2. "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" by Lauren Daigle (2018)
Lauren Daigle competed on American Idol in the years 2010-2012 and failed to place in the top 24, but oh, what a few years can do! She has now become a Grammy Award-winner artist, having achieved worldwide success. And her career is just beginning.
Daigle is a contemporary Christian artist with a breathy, raspy voice who has been called the "Christian Adele." Critics have additionally compared Daigle's voice to that of Amy Winehouse and expressed confidence that she could be the new Amy Grant. Those are huge expectations. However, if her wildly successful 2018 Christian/pop crossover song, "You Say" is any indication, then Daigle certainly is on the path to fulfilling them.
Daigle's version of "The Christmas Song" is a follow-up to her hit 2016 Christmas album. It's emotionally evocative, slow, and soulful. A soft piano background provides a bluesy flavor as the songbird pulls out all the stops with her smoky vocals. Her sound is raspy and serves as a unique way to update this classic song.
3. "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" by Peter Hollens (2011)
There's no way you can accuse Peter Hollens of not feeling this tune. Just look at that face as he sings this a capella cover of "The Christmas Song."
With a voice so warm it could melt butter, he hits the high notes with ease and is joined by rich background harmonies. Hollens appeared on NBC's The Sing-Off in 2010. Then in 2011, he launched a YouTube channel that features his a capella covers of popular songs, and he has racked up over a billion views. If you want to hear more of Peter Hollens' ethereal voice, I strongly recommend "Mary Did You Know?".
4. "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" by Michael Bublé (2012)
Known for his retro jazz style, Canadian crooner Michael Bublé offers up this lackluster rendition as an additional track to his Christmas album. While an aura of nostalgia emanates from the lyrics, his version is not as warm as versions by other artists. It's a bit stiff, formal, and lacks the requisite emotion for the topic Bublé is covering—treasured Christmastime moments with the family, from chestnuts roasting to toddlers awaiting Santa. I found it especially disappointing how he didn't use timing to his advantage but rather tended to barrel through his lyrics.
5. "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" by Céline Dion (1998)
The delicate high pitch of Grammy Award-winning singer Céline Dion will strike you immediately with this version of "The Christmas Song." While Dion reasonably hits her marks, the overall effect feels a bit stilted and lacking in genuine warmth. No doubt the high key she chose to sing in plays a role. However, the orchestral background music has a formal feel and may also add to the song's impersonal quality.
This rendition is best reserved for a gathering of acquaintances rather than a cozy family setting. The song is from Dion's first English-language Christmas album, one of the best-selling Christmas albums of all time. Dion has been dubbed the Queen of Adult Contemporary and is regarded as one of the most influential voices in pop music.
6. "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" by Mary J. Blige (2013)
Listen to the smoky tones of the Queen of Hip Hop Soul as she serves up this better than standard R&B rendition of "The Christmas Song." The husky texture of her voice accentuates the meaning and nostalgia of the song's lyrics. Adeptly she swings from low to high notes. Blige is unique in that she has won Grammy Awards in the gospel, R&B, and hip hop categories.
7. "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" by Christina Aguilera (2000)
"Merry Christmas to you, ooh oh yeah, ooh oh yeah." Christina Aguilera, former celebrity judge on NBC's show The Voice, spins this version of "The Christmas Song" extra-sentimental, or at least she tries to. Describing how Santa's on his wa-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay, Xtina overplays her part, and the result is both an awkward and tiresome display of vocal gymnastics more than the sweet conveyance of stirring holiday memories.
8. "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" by Luther Vandross (1995)
Enjoy dinner by candlelight then get cozy by the fire. Luther Vandross, the man with the velvet voice, gives us the lovemaking version of "The Christmas Song." Who knew? His voice is smooth and soulful as he wishes us a "very very merry, merry Merry Christmas" against a conspicuous beat and saxophone-accented instrumentals. His R&B version stands alone.
Vandross was a Grammy Award-winning artist designated by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. He was a background singer and sang commercial jingles for Mountain Dew, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King, and other corporations before becoming a solo recording artist.
9. "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" by Pentatonix (2014)
Pentatonix's a capella rendition is bouncy, youthful, and catchy, yet it suffers a significant shortcoming. In lieu of background instrumentals, there is a prominent loop of "doo-doo-doo-doo" and finger-snapping, and the support vocals step forward to compete with the lyrics—too much and too often. The lead vocals are strong enough to stand on their own, except for perhaps a faulty high note. The background vocalists need to turn down their volume and allow the lead singer to shine in the spotlight.
Pentatonix is a five-person a capella vocal ensemble that was formed in 2011 and won the third season of NBC's The Sing-Off.
10. "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" by Jackson 5 (1970)
When the Jackson 5 released this holiday ditty, Michael hadn't yet turned 12 and the Jackson brothers—Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael Jackson—were already a global phenomenon. Although young MJ had been proclaimed by Rolling Stone to be a child prodigy, he and Jermaine rotated the role of lead vocalist. Jermaine takes the lead here in singing "The Christmas Song" and registers an unremarkable performance but does so with enthusiasm. Simply put, the real flaw is that he is not Michael.
If you like the Jackson 5, try a better Christmas song by the group: Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town.
11. "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" by John Legend (2018)
John Legend doesn't sound like himself in this version of "The Christmas Song." Instead, this is more like Legend imitating Michael Bublé who in turn is doing a Bing Crosby throwback. His vibe isn't authentically his own.
While the band provides a classy backdrop, Legend launches this tune with an unfamiliar stanza used by only a handful of others (including The Carpenters and Sammy Davis Jr.):
All through the year we've waited
Waited through spring and fall
To hear silver bells ringing
And wintertime bringing the happiest season of all.
Legend's vocals are noncommital and disappointing. Rather than belting out his lyrics he merely flirts with the possibility. While the singer-songwriter is clearly talented, he doesn't fully showcase his gift here. Legend is one of the few artists ever to have achieved an EGOT—that is, he has won one or more top awards across multiple industries in the arts:
- Emmy - television
- Grammy - music
- Oscar - film
- Tony - Broadway theater.
12. "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" by Justin Bieber (featuring Usher) (2011)
Assign two men to do a one man job and this cover version of "The Christmas Song" is what you get. Rather than singing this holiday tune straight, Justin Bieber goes all extra, adding a lot of vibrato, distracting hand clapping and finger snapping. He doesn't consistently hit the high notes then uses electric guitars for rockin' background music. Cheesy. Then he adds Usher to this whole dumpster fire. This is already an emotional song so less is more.
With enough focus, either artist could have done the song justice individually. Bieber's rendition of "Silent Night," for example, demonstrates that he has the vocal forte to ace a favorite Christmas song. Just not this time.
13. "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" by Toni Braxton (2001)
In a subpar R&B cover of the Christmas favorite, Grammy-winning singer Toni Braxton amps up her sultry voice. She goes full drama queen with so much breathiness and vibrato that you'd suspect someone is chasing her. (Let her stop and catch her breath.) Her voice actually trembles unpleasantly in a number of places. It's unfortunate that Braxton chose to oversing this because the Grammy Award-winning singer arguably could have executed a substantially better version.
14. "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" by NSYNC (1998)
This fast-tempo version of "The Christmas Song" is like an unwanted gift that's all wrong for the recipient. NSYNC was the boy band that was all the rage of the 1990s and early 2000s, but their vocals here are flat, dull, and lacking in conviction. They have no business singing this tender song—not if they're going to sing it like this.
The background vocalists clap their hands and even "shoo-be-doo-bop" to unconvincingly jam to this tune as the lead vocalist struggles to reach the high notes. (Cue slow cringe.) He doesn't have good vocal control, especially towards the end . . . which cannot come soon enough.
Readers Weigh In
Reader Poll: Your Favorite Cover Version
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.
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