Music enthusiast FlourishAnyway introduces some fun competition into the holidays by ranking cover versions of popular Christmas songs.
Headed Home for Christmas
Each year during the holidays millions of us load up the family and the gifts in the SUV and brave the busy interstate traffic to travel back home. Traditionally, anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of people spend the time between Christmas and New Years on the road.
This upbeat Christmas carol, "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays," is a reminder that especially during this most joyful season, it's important to surround yourself with the friendly, smiling faces of people who love you (or at least put up with your nonsense). Home symbolizes comfort, familiarity, and acceptance.
As the song protagonist travels long distances over the road, he meets strangers who are in transit to reunite with their extended families on opposite ends of the country. Thus, he perceives that their holiday homegoings are proof that true happiness can be uncovered in many ways by returning to the warm nurturance of home.
The music was arranged by Robert Allen, and lyrics were written by Al Stillman who is famous for also writing Johnny Mathis' "Chances Are" (1957). Stillman and Allen wrote a number of popular songs together for Perry Como.
"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?
"(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" by Perry Como (1954)
Dust the lonely cobwebs from your vinyl as Perry Como—actor, singer, and radio star of a bygone era—skates confidently through the lyrics of this original holiday tune. This evocative holiday song about merrily traveling home to celebrate Christmas with family will help you get your joy on. Although the original is nearly seven decades old and sounds like an old Disney movie tune in places, it's an oldie but seasonal goody.
With his "Mr. Nice Guy" image, Como is supported by the floaty background music of Mitchell Ayres' Orchestra and the vibrant backing vocals of the 12 men and 8 women who comprise the Ray Charles Singers (no, not the blind Ray Charles). The group definitely should have stepped more into the background, as it felt like they were competing with Como for the limelight. Do they need a reminder that he is the star here?
The original version reached the Billboard Top 20 charts and was furthered popularized as it became featured on a variety of compilation albums at the time. Como recorded the Christmas ditty again, in 1959. The follow-up version includes an additional stanza which is rarely heard in cover renditions:
Take a bus, take a train
Go and hop an aeroplane
Put the wife and kiddies in the family car
For the pleasure that you bring
When you make that doorbell ring
No trip could be too far.
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Many artists have since released this song, and there is considerable variation in their musical styles and the quality of their efforts. If you've ever wondered, "Who sang it best?" then here's your chance to step up and compare their efforts. Opportunity is ripe for someone to come along and nail this number with a refined, updated cover in the style of the original. (We're calling on you, Michael Bublé.)
1. "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" by The Carpenters (1984)
Karen Carpenter spreads her homespun charm as thick as peanut butter in this dreamy, posthumously released Christmas song. Her lush, nuanced voice is irrefutably one-of-a-kind. She sticks with the original lyrics, except for swapping out a single word (e.g., "pine for the sunshine" becomes "long for the sunshine").
Carpenter died in 1983 at age 32 of heart failure, a complication of her protracted struggle with anorexia. Shortly following her death, her brother released a Christmas album, An Old Fashioned Christmas, by recording new material around extra tracks from a prior album. This tune was among the songs on that album.
The Carpenters' iconic version of "Home for the Holidays" is rich and chirpy, and as if Karen's shiny voice isn't campy enough, there is a squad of cherubic female backups to support her girl-next-door vocals. But it's all so extra sweet that this version comes off as schmaltzy. (It's certainly not the only song by The Carpenters to be guilty of that.) Perhaps, however, that's what folks need to get them revved up enough to brave the traffic as they pile the family into the SUV for the annual pilgrimage home.
The buoyant positivity in The Carpenters' version can prompt us all to momentarily forget the cringeworthy truth of holiday get-togethers. Once home for the holidays the reality of home and family dysfunction quickly sets in as your brother-in-law burps at the table, your uncle talks non-stop politics, and your sister's kids run wild until something gets broken or someone cries (or both). It's then that you are reminded that there's not enough syrupy songs in the world to make you move back home.
2. "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" by Mandy Barnett (2010)
Few people look at a roadtrip and family homecoming with such zest—or more accurately, raw, unbridled giddiness. Barnett's energy is magnetic and will leave you toe-tapping. This peppy country version is delivered with such convincing alacrity that you may wonder whether this singer is on happy pills. Play it a few times and you might feel like you've taken one yourself. Unfortunately, her perkiness was a bit too much for me. Cut the pill in half.
3. "(No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" by Mighty Sparrow (1964)
The most famous calypso singer in the world, Slinger Francisco (aka Mighty Sparrow) offers smooth international flair to this Christmas classic. Unrushed, carefree, and joyous, this is a classy rendition that is neither overdone nor overly sentimental. He has a nice classic sound.
It is understandable that the Trinidadian singer has altered the lyrics to reflect different geographical reference points, all in the Caribbean:
I met a man who lives in Port of Spain
And he was a-headin' for
San Fernando, and some home made pumpkin pie
From San Fernando, folks are travelin' up
To Maracas Bay for sure
To a lovely moonlight picnic
Man that traffic is terrific!
But wait. Do they actually eat pumpkin pie in Trinidad and Tobago?
4. "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" by Garth Brooks (1999)
Heavy on the brass and full of country pizazz, a young Garth Brooks is joined by a jazzy band and enthusiastic backup singers in this upbeat countrified cover. His version is full of energy and informality with Brooks racing right through the lyrics at a fast clip, like someone who cannot wait to get home to Mama's good home cooking (especially that pumpkin pie).
While this rendition lacks the ooey-gooey sincerity of some versions of "Home for the Holidays," the country megastar seems to realize that there is still room for fun amidst all of the mellow sentimentality. It's a rock solid alternative, especially if sappy holiday songs aren't your thing.
5. "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" by Robert Goulet (1972)
The booming, commanding voice of Broadway legend Robert Goulet muscles out the bouncy, playful background music in this fine quality version. The man known for his moustache delivers this festive version colored with suave intonations. The sound is just right, but then something happens.
Towards the end of this song, the wheels start to come off the bus of his debonair aura as he peters out, unsure how to end the song. Goulet generates some weird ad libbing:
Hey, mama, make that pumpkin pie
I'll have a little pot of chicken in the sky
There's somethin' in my eye
Mama, please keep me dry, oh.
There's no wrapping your head around that.
6. "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" by Olivia Newton-John (Featuring Vince Gill) (2005)
The angelic vocals of Olivia Newton-John coast easily across both high and low notes in this leisurely-paced rendition, as if she's traveling cross-country to return home for the holidays. The inviting smile that fills her peppy, cheerful voice is a real treat. Meanwhile, the backup singers exude old-fashion folksiness, and the London Symphony Orchestra provide a swirl of sophistication.
Although Newton-John and country singer Vince Gill harmonize amicably, it is abundantly clear that the British-Australian songbird outshines him. Gill's voice is disappointingly weak and barely there, as if perhaps he wasn't feeling well. Then when he hit those sour notes with the "Dixie's sunny shore" lyrics, he just about ruined it for everyone. Ultimately, this didn't need to be a duet.
7. "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" by Pentatonix (2021)
While the harmony is so on point in this a capella rendition that Pentatonix will have you truly believing "the traffic is terrific," I can do without their superfluous ad libs. Without any introductory music like many of the other versions, this instrument-free offering was already one of the most abbreviated covers before the group decided to talk through the intro with this nonsense garbage as verbal filler:
Bring us in, Matt
Come on, Kevin
If the Grammy Award-winning ensemble needed to do include this junk on a recording, then they should have practiced more. We could have waited. There's another part where the female "la de dah"s come off as hammy, but overall their performance is more than ample. Even Pentatonix seems to realize it's not their best work because they don't expend the resources to do a custom video. The five-member group rose to fame after winning the NBC reality singing competition, The Sing-Off.
8. "(No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" by Martina McBride (2018)
Martina McBride is known for her soaring soprano voice and country pop hits such as "Independence Day" (1994), "Broken Wing" (1997), and "This One's for the Girls" (2003). I've always said that this country music dynamo could sing the back of a cereal box and she'd sound magical.
In this unremarkable swing-styled rendition of "Home for the Holidays," she demonstrates that that is no longer accurate. McBride's vocals aren't as pristine as usual and make me question if something is a little off. This version feels constrained, like she's afraid to really reach for those high notes in the way we're used to hearing from her. Although I cannot explain it, perhaps the singer can.
In 2017, the songbird confided to Billboard magazine that she had picked up some bad vocal habits when she toured with bronchitis and as a result was working with a voice coach to correct the problems. Additionally, the vocal chords consist of two bands of muscle in the larynx. Like all other muscles, they naturally change with age.
9. "Home for the Holidays" by Brian McKnight (1998)
Damn, is this ever headshakingly creative, but maybe not in a good way, you know?
Brian McKnight completely reimagines the uptempo Christmas song by inserting a prominent beat and substituting many of the lyrics so that the classic song is barely recognizable. The snappy, fast-paced R&B number is a "kitchen sink" version in that it borrows a number of holiday elements. Examples include references to "Joy to the World," grandma in the kitchen, "Silent Night," presents under the tree, and kids looking for reindeer. Look out for this musical hot mess.
The only lyrics that the singer includes from the original "Home for the Holidays" are, "There's no place like home for the holidays." McKnight is known for the large number of Grammy nominations without winnining—third only to rapper Snoop Dogg and classical conductor Zubin Mehta.
10. "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" by Leon Redbone (1989)
The uniqueness of this rendition could balance out the rest of your playlist and add variety, if that's what you are after, but there are better ways to achieve that effect. Leon Redbone's specialty was ragtime, vaudeville, and Tin Pan Alley music. Both that and his nasal singing are an acquired taste. This rendition sounds to me like it's straight out of old time Kentucky which is where ragtime music began. That's not the pinnacle of holiday musicmaking for me. Maybe it is for you.
11. "There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays by Barry Manilow (2002)
This histrionic rendition is so over the top that it will leave you drained. It has a big band feel and features Manilow over-singing his way home for the holidays. This is particularly true in the latter half of the song and continues right down to the exaggerated denouement. While his performance is dramatic, it is unnecessarily so. Think of like eye makeup; more is not always better.
Barry Manilow was a powerhouse entertainer who hit his stride in 1970s and 80s. Churning out hits like "Mandy" (1974), "Can't Smile Without You" (1977), and "I Made It Through the Rain" (1980), he became one of the best selling recording artists of all time.
12. "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" by Randy Travis (2007)
Zoinks. Complete with fiddles and jammin' country guitar riffs, this hokey down home rendition doesn't sound much like Christmas to me, but it is nevertheless supplied by Country Music Hall of Famer Randy Travis. The "Diggin' Up Bones" (1986) artist is famous for his nasal tone and neotraditional country vibe. He executes this holiday song using in an overly controlled and unconvincing manner with occasionally quavery vocals that are almost like nails on a chalkboard, unless you're partial to that kind of thing.
Sadly, the Grammy Award-winning artist has experienced significant difficulties in his life. In 2012, he was arrested after crashing his car and showing up at a convenience store to buy cigarettes, naked, drunk, and belligerent. Travis later described the unfortunate incident as the result of consuming two glasses of wine and taking Ambien.
Then, in 2013, the iconic country musician tragically experienced a massive stroke. It severely impacted his walking and speech abilities and permanently damaged his right hand. In the years that followed, the country crooner has worked hard to relearn how to play the guitar, to walk, and to speak. Thus, remember that it's all about perspective. One's vocal execution may be imperfect whether you're a famous musician or just sing in the shower, but we should all feel lucky simply to be able to let our words flow.
13. "Home for the Holidays" by Cyndi Lauper and Norah Jones (2011)
Get ready to have your toenails curled by this musical odd couple and their dumpster fire of a version of "Home for the Holidays." The quick-paced electronica in the background clashes with the folksy lyrics about meeting a man down in Tennessee heading to Pennsylvania for pumpkin pie. Perhaps it's an attempt to rush these gals along.
There is nothing festive or Christmaslike about this embarrassing contribution, but the speaking part about taking a bus, a train, or an aeroplane was a high water mark as was the "home sweet home" that these two sang in union at the end. I can't believe someone didn't stop them from releasing this.
© 2021 FlourishAnyway