5. Kim Burrell
To listen to one of Kim Burrell’s trill-tastic runs is to feel what music can do to the deepest part of your spine as you close your eyes and absorb its sound. Her trills never come when you expect and each has a breath of spontaneous ease. Burrell’s fantastic, if a little ambitious, version starts shy at first, but warms up as she digs in with her sultry, smoky voice. To the full extent of what Ella could have done but didn’t, Kim goes there. And she goes all the way there. The result, though a bit exhausting, is also adamantly mesmerizing. It feels like the very best of soul and gospel sent through an amplifier on slight distortion, and it thrills, quite literally, like a shiver through your bones.
4. Kelly Clarkson
Sure everyone knew the first winner of American Idol could sing, but while other winners fall by the wayside, her legacy endures. What is surprising here is Kelly’s rendition is a cappella. Then, halfway through the first verse she has a choir simply “ooh” and “ahh” in punctuated chords, adding a complex and creative back drop to her trills, which are too tempting for most talented singers like Clarkson to leave alone in this song (unless of course you’re Ella Fitzgerald).
3. David Phelps
Literally out of left—make that right field (because how many people follow the evangelical Christian mega church music scene?)—David Phelps has a voice that will leave your jaw on the ground. This is that voice that can sing the infamous high note this carol is known for with seemingly all the ease in the world. So David Phelps sings in a church where old white people sway awkwardly with a single arm in the air; so what? His voice is on point, and he isn’t afraid to embrace, embody and TELL the message of the song—an important trait for a singer to do with every song but especially with this king of carols.
2. Jerry Butler
From the vocal depths of a true baritone comes this gold standard from a bygone era. When Jerry sings, “Can you hear the angel voices?” I’m fairly certain he’s referring to his own voice. Other gems found in this version are the way he inflects a slight vocal fry when he sings “Christ,” and the three-note lift at the end of “night” reminiscent of something mid-career Elvis would do. It’s classic, thoughtful and compulsively listenable again and again.
1. Jennifer Hudson
The ease with which Jennifer Hudson sings is matched only by her ability to give every note the weight, meaning and reverence it deserves. In short, she tells a story; she just happens to be singing while telling it, and she’s just as much fun to watch as to hear. Her version is not only rooted in a cultural context of black gospel music, but it’s also one of the strongest vocal performances of this or any Christmas carol.
Grand Prize: Mahalia Jackson
Oops, I snuck one in. But of a truth, this is **the** definitive version of this carol. It’s almost as if the song didn’t exist until Mahalia came along to imbue it with new life. Independent of this list, this is the version that rises above all other renditions. Even if you don’t believe in Christmas the way she did, there is absolutely no denying that her passion for this song—delivered through the power of her lungs and laced with the delicacy of her spirit—is enough to convert even the most callous of unbelievers.
To that end, Mahalia Jackson’s song should not only be heard, but it should also become a staple track on every holiday playlist (Still, to mix it up, so should Weezer’s version.).