Music enthusiast FlourishAnyway introduces some fun competition into the holidays by ranking cover versions of popular Christmas songs.
How Many Fa-La-Las Does It Take You?
Within one or two "fa-la-las," nearly everyone can name this upbeat tune. How many fa-la-las does it take you? And did you know that "Deck the Halls" is a traditional secular Christmas carol that hasn't always been connected with Christmas?
The holiday tune known for its repeated use of "fa-la-las" enjoys a melody that is originally from a Welsh winter song called "Nos Galan" (New Year's Eve) about laughing, the quick passage of time, and joyously looking forward to the year ahead.
Use of such nonsense "fa-la-la" syllables (called "non-lexical vocables") date back to the madrigals of the 16th century. Rather than being useless verbal filler, they are actually an important technique in advancing a song.
In 1862, "Deck the Halls" was first published with English lyrics in Welsh Melodies, Vol. 2. Known for interpolating foreign songs into English, Scottish songwriter Thomas Oliphant contributed the English lyrics. In addition to translating, he often added his own twist to foreign lyrics. That's precisely what happened with this little winter ditty. Note that the song was initially titled "Deck the Hall" (singular).
Whereas the Welsh tune ponders love, the cold, and the impending winter, Oliphant's adaptation pertains to seasonal decorating and merrymaking. He turns the clock back from New Year's Eve to Christmastime with allusions to "boughs of holly" and "Yuletide carol." (note that "Yuletide" is an archaic word for Christmas.) Oliphant's version also references drinking. When the song jumps the pond and is published in America in 1877, however, such references to libations are removed. The alcohol-free version is typically still sung today.
Over the years, "Deck the Halls" has become an enduring holiday favorite, with both choirs and popular singers. This isn't always an easy one to sing along to because lyrics vary considerably, particularly beginning midway in the song. Listen to multiple versions and decide on a favorite so that we finally know, "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 off the list.
In the "Who Sang It Best?" series, we start with the traditional choir version (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 renditions honor the original style while others are reinterpretations.
Since the traditional choir version is typically considered "the standard," we don't include it in our overall rankings. We instead present it first for comparison, then highlight up to 14 contenders in ranked order. Vote on your preferences to determine who sang it best:
- Do you prefer the traditional song or a cover version?
- Which of the cover versions is your favorite?
"Deck the Halls" by The Mormon Tabernacle Choir (2012)
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir (now called The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square) gives a performance that is so full of zest that the anxiety prone among us should beware. The choir is off to the races at such a clip that the group completes the song in only a minute and 45 seconds in full dramatic fashion, and that includes the brief instrumental interludes. For me, this was too fast, and the performance was too much. Perhaps during Christmas season, stores can play this beautiful rendition on repeat ten minutes before closing time when they need shoppers to make their final decisions in a speedy fashion so everyone can go home (rush rush, good bye!).
The vocals and orchestra in this rendition of "Deck the Halls" are top notch, although certainly, that's what you'd expect from one of the Top 10 choirs in the world. For over a century, the 360-member all-volunteer choir of men and women have entertained and inspired audiences around the globe, including World Fairs and expositions and U.S. presidential inaugurations.
1. "Deck the Halls" by Tenth Avenue North (2012)
Upbeat, exuberant, and even a tad goofy, this version of "Deck the Halls" is a rockin' good time. Although I'm not usually a fan of contemporary Christian music, this is four minutes of awesome.
The band nails the celebratory spirit of the holiday season at a pace that is neither too brisk nor too slow. Banging piano chords, hearty instrumentals, and even finger snapping back up lively, happy-go-lucky vocals. These vocals include ad libbing and gleeful exhortations ("e.g., come on deck the halls; it's Christmas time baby"). The band also artfully name drops the Holy Spirit by inserting this catchy stanza after the "Yuletide treasure" stanza:
Oh, Christmas time is my favorite time of year
Deck the halls with holiday cheer
Watch our troubles fade out of sight
As we celebrate the birth of Jesus tonight (Jesus tonight).
Hey, nice Jesus shout out! After singing what is traditionally the last stanza, they repeat a modified version of their Jesus stanza, then end their song with a lot of upbeat, ad libbed positivity about celebration and how everything will be alright.
Although nonreligious, I wish this group hadn't disbanded in 2020 because this is the kind of music that one could decorate the whole house to. Tenth Avenue North is the only artist on the list to turn this secular song into one that could be considered religious.
2. "Deck the Halls" by Nat King Cole (1960)
Known for his unforgettable, liquid smooth vocals, the iconic Nat King Cole treats audiences to this rapid, one-minute version of "Deck the Halls." Speedy isn't even the word as he races through this lively song, backed by a giddy chorus.
Inexplicably, the legend stops short and doesn't sing the last stanza (the one that traditionally begins, "Fast away the old year passes"). He replaces it instead with a stanza of "fa-la-la's" sung by his background singers. Cole then adds an extra line of "fa-la-la's" at the end for good measure. Although I wish the song were longer, this man's voice is timeless.
The recipient of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Cole was a jazz pianist and prolific singer-songwriter of over 100 tunes that became successful pop hits. Additionally, he was an actor on both the small and large screen, as well as on Broadway. Notably, Cole was the first African-American man to host an American television series.
3. "Deck the Halls" by Minniva (Featuring Orion's Reign) (2016)
Whoa, metal and Christmas actually music do mix after all! This rendition of "Deck the Halls" is proof of it!
Minniva is a Norwegian rock and heavy metal vocalist who graces this holiday standard with her triumphant, almost operatic vocals. She is joined by Orion's Reign, a symphonic power metal band hailing from Athens, Greece. The guitar solo is a true standout. With the gleeful laughing, vibrant vocals, and celebratory spirit, you can imagine someone merrily decorating their home and dancing about cheerfully.
There is less "fa-la-la-ing" throughout this song from the very first, but you won't miss it. Lyrics to the first stanza are first sung without the non-lexical vocables, then the stanza is repeated with the "fa-la-la's."
The verse that traditionally begins with, "See the blazing yule before us" is omitted and replaced with another set of lyrics that are so faint that they can barely be discerned. The new lyrics end with "Mommy, Daddy, come look." This part of the song doesn't work well. I wish the group had either stuck with the traditional lyrics or at least allowed the audience to better hear the vocals.
Afterwards, however, Minniva and her crew are right back on track for the remainder of this metal gem that lasts 2 minutes 20 seconds. Don't automatically discount the unfamiliar!
4. "Deck the Halls" by Bing Crosby (1945)
Aww, c'mon Bing, you're shortchanging us! Bing Crosby, the man with the smooth, buttery voice, teases us with his ever-so-brief offering of "Deck the Halls." In this quick-paced, nostalgic rendition that is only one minute and 10 seconds long, the classic crooner completely drops the traditional middle stanza that begins with, "See the blazing yule before us." Instead Bing substitutes an instrumental interlude by the band.
Crosby, with success in singing, television, and motion pictures, is known as the first multimedia star. He was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Golden Globe Award, and an Academy Award. Additionally, his song, "White Christmas" (1942) has the distinction of being the worldwide best-selling single of all time.
5. "Deck the Halls" by The Johnny Mann Singers (1967)
This chripy, brisk paced number by The Johnny Mann Singers is as festive as a sleigh full of elves. The tune captures both the positive energy and jubilation of the holidays while sticking to traditional lyrics. There are so many "fa-la-la's" on top of "fa-la-la's" in the campy little two-minute cover that you won't know whether you're coming or going (much like the peak of the holiday season). Those non-lexical vocables are used en bloc both as an introduction and before the last verse.
With Johnny Mann as their conductor and arranger, this small troupe of easy-listening vocalists generated covers of Christmas and patriotic songs, popular hits, and time-honored tunes from many eras. Vicki Lawrence is their most well-known alumna.
6. "Deck the Halls" by James Taylor (2004)
James Taylor's gentle, slightly depressive vocals are like a warm breeze in this rendition of "Deck the Halls." Given the topic of the song, however, I wish he had dialed up the happy just a bit.
The Grammy Award-winning artist is accompanied by easy guitar strumming and accents of flute, tambourine, and other instruments that are easy on the ears. He adds one extra line of "fa-la-la's" on the tail end of the song in this mellow rendering of the Christmas classic that registers at just over 2 minutes 30 seconds. It is a pleasure to listen to. While Taylor's offering may not be festive enough for everyone, it is understated and easygoing, if that's what you're looking for.
7. "Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly" Doris Day (1964)
Legendary actress and singer Doris Day offers up gaiety and bounciness in this pleasant but unextraordinary version with the elongated title. Her enunciation is also clear and perfect throughout the minute and a half. She sticks precisely to the song's traditional lyrics and comes off as if she is an eager, oversinging school music teacher who is demonstrating how to sing the song for the class. (Maybe she is channeling her mother, who was a music teacher.)
Day was at the pinnacle of her career in the 1950s and 60s. You may be familiar with her song, "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)." Known for her all-American girl image, Day was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and an American Comedy Lifetime Achievement Award. She was also a Golden Globe winner.
Throughout her life, Day was well-known as a champion of animal rights. When she died in 2019 at the age of 97, the singer and actress left the bulk of her estate to her charity, the Doris Day Animal Foundation.
8. "Deck the Halls" by SheDAISY (2000)
This country jammin' version of "Deck the Halls" kicks off with church bells as these gals veer off script, combining new lyrics with old. Their vocal inflections vary from standard outputs, as this group of three sisters seems to reimagine the song. SheDAISY's name is derived from the Navajo term for "my little sister."
There is a lot of line repetition throughout this middling 3 minute and 40 second rendition, especially in the beginning, and SheDAISY seems so concerned about your holiday that they insert wishes for a very merry Christmas 11 times. Their vocals sound so sincere that they are almost pained. The group omits the stanza that usually begins, "Fast away the old year passes," and they note at the end, "Jingle, jangle, Santa's got a brand new bag." A sassy and memorable finale.
9. "Deck the Halls" by George Strait (2006)
Put your boots on and pass the grits and gravy because this is a very countrified rendition of "Deck the Halls" by the King of Country Music, George Strait. Throughout the one minute and 50 seconds of this version, the neotraditional country singer is full of down home seasonal joy. Unfortunately, his folksy mirth may be over-the-top for those who are not in love with neotraditional country music—which is a good many people. I won't judge you for that.
King George's twangy Southern accent delightfully pokes through ("'dawn' we now our gay apparel"), and from the sound of those fiddles you can be sure he ain't no city slicker. The instrumental interludes are especially pleasing in a Texas kinda way.
Except for adding an extra "fa-la-la" line at the end, Strait sticks to the traditional lyrics because he's a real traditional guy. This legend has a record 60 career number one country singles and has been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Although this version of "Deck the Halls" may be just okayish, when it comes to country music, George Strait is a real big deal.
10. "Deck the Halls" by Loretta Lynn (1994)
Loretta Lynn cuts loose in this three-minute, exceedingly country version that is heavy on the fiddles, but what do you expect from The Queen of Country Music? Count on Loretta for effervescent energy and optimism, although her enunciation isn't consistently clean in this song (e.g., "app-ear-il") and her voice suffers on the high notes.
She honors the traditional lyrics until she does away with the last stanza. In its place the legendary singer opts to repeat the first verse and adopt some extra "fa-la-la's." Overall, it's a fair to midland rendering of this Christmas carol.
11. "Deck the Halls" by Peter Cetera (Featuring Alison Krauss)
This fairly un-Christmasy cover is filled with odd intonations. The 2004 duet is strongly reminiscent of the rock love ballads that pervaded the 1980s. That's because Peter Cetera, lead singer of the group Chicago for almost two decades, seems so strongly entrenched in a certain style of singing that he cannot seem to abandon it—even for Christmas music.
In spite of the Celtic flute-like intro and the instrumental interlude, this alleged holiday jingle sounds eerily familiar. Think: "Hard Habit to Break" (1984), "You're the Inspiration" (1984), and "Will You Still Love Me?" (1986). These were all big hits and shared the same cookie cutter Chicago sound. Cetera breathes that sound back to life in "Deck the Halls" and the effect is unusual.
Cetera follows the song's traditional lyrics without most of the festive "fa-la-la's." The relative absence of these non-lexical vocables—albeit that's what the song is usually known for—adds to the perception that the tune is just a repackaged Chicago rock love ballad set to "Deck the Halls" lyrics.
Unfortunately, Cetera also fails to fully utilize the cherubic vocals of country and bluegrass songbird Alison Krauss. As a featured artist, the Grammy Award-winning singer chimes in during the last verse, but Cetera's the star of the show. It was a missed opportunity. The song is about three minutes long.
12. "Deck the Halls" by Relient K (2003)
This subpar alt-rock version sounds every bit the late 1990s and early '00s, and in a minute it's history. Let's break that hot minute down. There are 20 seconds of instrumental introduction that reminded me faintly of the theme song from Friends, "I'll Be There for You" by The Rembrants (1995).
Thereafter came just one, 20-second stanza of lyrics that the alt-rock group sang almost in a shout-like manner, followed by "fa-la-la-ing" and musical outro for the final 20 seconds. When it comes to this Christmas carol, the group simply mails in their effort.
13. "Deck the Halls" by Twisted Sister (2006)
Listen to this for kicks, '80s nostalgia, or because you've had too much to drink—but not necessarily to get in the holiday spirit. One-hit wonder Twisted Sister, known for their rebellious 1984 hit, "We're Not Gonna Take It," eagerly scream-sings this rambunctious Christmas carol, sticking to the traditional lyrics.
Throughout the two minutes and 45 seconds of this ditty, they inject the song with heavy metal by relying on a blaring guitar and a boisterous chorus calling out the "fa-la-la's." They sound like they are having a lot of fun.
After completing the traditional lyrics, Twisted Circle circles back to the start of the song to tack on an extra verse, repeating the initial stanza. Although I like their creativity in blending metal and Christmas music, the band's version is a little too twisted for my Christmas playlist.
14. "Deck the Halls" by Pentatonix (2017)
This dumpster fire version of "Deck the Halls" neither honors the song itself nor does credit to the singers. Pentatonix is a pop-style a capella group that has won several Grammy Awards after having first risen to fame in 2011 when they won the third season of NBC's The Sing-Off."
But what the hell are they thinking here? In the first part of this tune, Pentatonix themselves say it best with some extra lyrics, "Oh, no no."
In this cover version, the quintet crams four times the number of "fa-la-la's" as in the original lyrics. Moreover, they add sudden intonations, beatboxing (those annoying vocal sounds that imitate percussion sounds), plus quirky offshoots into musical oddness. Diehard fans probably overlook their creative flourishes in this song, but the group kinda wrecks this holiday tune with all of this weirdness.
Someone exclaims, "Come on!" and "Hey!" like they cannot control their verbal tics, and the mishmash of their individual voices collide to sound not like harmony but instead like everyone is just vocally tripping over one another. The tune is fast-paced, and the group repeats the first stanza at the end.
If you listened all the way to the conclusion, it's approximately 3 minutes of your life that you'll never get back. Listen instead to "Mary, Did You Know?" (2014) if you're looking for a good Christmas carol by Pentatonix.
© 2022 FlourishAnyway