I'm not sure when it was that I decided I really liked the song, "O Holy Night." I think growing up, I really didn't like it -- just a christmas song you couldn't sing along with.
Somewhere along the way in my actual vocal training, I came to respect what it took to nail those high notes, and when the song is done right, it's a special song. And yet, forgive the weird metaphor, there's something in it that's like one of those Japanese obstacle course game shows. When singers get through it in tact and on their feet, it's really impressive. And then there's times when people who clearly shouldn't be out there try it, and it's just painful. And best of all, there's the in-between, when things go wrong in terrible ways that just can't help but be funny.
The impetus for this came from a version on an otherwise excellent Chieftans album where someone by the name of Rickie Lee Jones absolutely murders the poor tune (see below). Things like that need to come with a warning label, and preferably with a guide to where you can find something better.
That's why I'm trying, as Dec 25, 2009 draws to a close, to provide my guide the most O Holy Night versions out there. Don't thank me, it's just my job. As a blogger. Kinda.
I mean really, this is their department. Showing off the pipes, with a big finish of syrupy pathos. Not saying this is the only way O Holy Night can be done, but it's the classic way. Start to lay it down at, "Fall on your knees," and head for the peaks with authority and gusto. No room for cowards here -- if you can't make it, get off the bus -- nor anything fancy or too jazzy. Surprisingly you don't see a lot of going for the extra octave on a reprise.
Bing Crosby: Let's just call this the baseline. Solid from start to finish, with the standard issue violin swells and echoes from the background singers. Bing's got the power and steadiness to pull this off. Nothing to write home about, just good ol' Mom and Apple Pie. Rating: Good
Nat King Cole: Right along the same lines with Crosby, but just up a notch. A little too much rhythmic improvising at the beginning for my tastes, but this is the crooners section, right? You know from the very first phrase exactly what's coming, and what's coming is, frankly, really very Good. In fact, it's so good, it gets the Best in Class award.
Perry Como: Hard to listen to this one without suddenly thinking you fell asleep and woke up in a Piccadilly Cafeteria on Dec. 19, 1983. Okay, maybe that's just me. This is the standard of "easy listening" radio stations who've gone all Christmas, all the time. Perfectly fine, but again, no extra octave at the end. Pedestrian, but, well, I guess Good, although the constant warblies throughout make it just a little Hilarious.
Harry Connick, Jr.: I had high hopes for this one. He starts out nice and clean, right up the Nat King Cole alley. Bonus points for going the full four verses,and at the end, he does go for the big glory on the high note. But what the heck is going on with all this orchestral silliness, complete with multiple minor chord stings stuck in the middle for no apparent reason? The baroque goofing around with the full symphony ranks it a Hilarious, but you hit the high note good and strong, you still get a Good too.
Lou Rawls: Come on, man, Ol' Blue Eyes said you had the "silkiest chops in the singing game." So use them for good, man. Way too much wavering around with the rhythm here. Rawls even shows off his range and ease by easily covering the high notes, but decides to throw them in at different times than normal. Weird. Can't believe it, but the guy's got to get a Bad for this one.
Johnny Mathis: As a crooner, you're allowed to waiver and simper, provided you go for the power at some point. Never happens here. What, Tiny Tim wasn't available? Bad.
Andy Williams: No, don't worry, I didn't pay good money for this. You just need to hear about 10 seconds of the preview to know, this is where you cross the line, where the syrup gets too thick. Keep this around for diabetics going into insulin shock, but otherwise, Bad.
The Opera Singers
This is a land fraught with opportunity and peril. I mean, sure, these are the biggest voices in the world, so no problem cruising through this little ditty designed to show off range and power, right? Yeah, well, there's the "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" phenomenon to take into account. I'm speaking, of course, of the original Three Tenors concert (Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras) where they decided it would be a good idea to sing the seventh-inning stretch standard, with predictably bad results. There's way too much risk here for the "fall-a on-a your knees-a" syndrome. Not only that, this little number is about the feeling you manage to put into the lines, which just doesn't show up some times. And so onward we go:
Charlotte Church: Not to pick on her, but this is the problem with child prodigy musicians. The teen phenom soprano easily has the range and strength to do this, but there's just no depth whatsoever here, no dynamic contrast, no builds. Sorry, not what we're here for. Bad.
Kathleen Battle: Meh. More sophistication than Charlotte Church, but still just a lot of showy virtuosity without much punch. Not much of anything really. I can't bring myself to call it good, and there's nothing particularly humorous about it. It's just no there. So, I guess, um, Bad.
Three Irish Tenors: So, I don't know who these guys are, and they get a bit of a demerit for riding out the whole "Three <something> Tenors" gig that PBS milked for donations for years. But lets give these guys their due, they take it four verses (one each, then the last together), take it seriously, pronounce the words well, have a rock solid orchestra behind them, and harmonize really well in the reprise, with a fully satisfying climax. Very Good, and would have gotten the best in class except for the guy hiding just below.
Luciano Pavarotti: Okay, it's true, the TMOTTBG effect discussed above is fully present here -- he starts out, quite seriously, with "the stars-a are-a brightly shining-a," which certainly qualifies this for a measure of Hilarious. But let's review -- this is a song which calls for range, power, and emotion, and Luciano Pavarotti has stepped to the mic. To top it off, he wisely switches to Italian for the second verse, and stays there for the high stuff in the reprise. This means it's going to be not just Good, but pretty freakin' awesome. Gotta give him Best in Class here too.
So now the real fun begins. We have relatively successful musical artists who decide they want to do a Christmas album to cash in, and hey, O Holy Night's a great song, right? Yeah, let's see you try. Sometimes this works. Sometimes, well, let's get started.
Jewel: Dear Jewel, you've made your career on somewhat above average poetry set to music that you sing with really interesting vocal inflections and character. This does not translate to being able to hit high notes with authority. Also, the weird synth music in the background went out in the early 80's. Bad.
Aaron Neville: No, he didn't. OH YES HE DID! Just spend three seconds trying to imagine Aaron Neville singing O Holy Night and you've got it - the recording is exactly what you expect. Dear friends, it is versions like this that made me create the Hilarious category. O, the vibrato!
Celtic Women: I'm not really sure who these people are, but they're combining overly simpering vocal stylings with ploinky harp music. This is not the way to my heart. Bad.
Tracy Chapman: This one had me really nervous. I tend to like her stuff more often than not, but vocal power is really not her strong suit. I winced as she started, expecting a total meltdown once she got to the peaks. What a pleasant surprise -- she stays within herself and plays to her strong suits, which are soft, rhythmic guitar work, subtle emotional inflection, and very nice harmonies. I really don't care that she inverts the melody in the end of the verse, to pull it down into her range, because the total effect is incredibly peaceful and pleasant. Not just Good, but easily Best in Class.
The Pop Stars
Same story as the folkies, but usually with bigger ambitions, and hence greater potential for pain and/or laughter.
Michael Bolton: Let's not pretend there's any suspense here. You know it's Bad. The only question is, does the camp struggle through the badness to provide sufficient comedy? Sadly, it tries, but fails. There is too much bad emotiveness here for the humor to make it through.
Avril Lavigne: <sigh> There's no joy in this for me. She clearly tries to stay within herself, do it straight up, not try to cover up with frills or gimmicks. But she just doesn't have the power to make it hold. By my own rules, I have to give it a ranking, and it's Bad.
Al Green: It's really a bit out of his normal style range, and his voice always gets thin at the high range. Still, he does it his way, nothing wrong with that, and nothing to be embarrassed over here. Good.
Clay Aiken: It's not all that great, but it's not bad either. But because it's Clay Aiken, it is just a little Hilarious.
Celine Dion: Yes, it exists. Yes, it is extremely Bad. Yes, it is most definitely Hilarious. Moving on.
Destiny's Child: You'd think this would be better. You'd be wrong. Beyonce is missing here, and it's Michelle carrying the weight, or rather, failing to. The extreme alteration of the rhythm and bad drum machine make it particularly Bad.
Donna Summer: Okay, I admit. I think Donna Summer, I think "Queen of Disco." I was expecting something with wocka-chicka-wocka and a bad drum machine. Biggest pleasant surprise of the whole lot -- she returns, quite successfully to her gospel roots, and shows off a voice that, I'm ashamed to admit, I had no idea she had. I'm not even a fan of slow gospel, but this is just really compelling stuff. Astonishingly Good. Best in Class.
Ella Fitzgerald: I know this is heresy, but I've never been a huge fan of Ella's style. Well, whatever, if you like O Holy Night (and clearly at this point, I do), there's nothing not to like here. Solid, old school version, and she's definitely not afraid of any notes. Good.
Mariah Carey: I was all set to snigger at this one, but while I don't like all the ornamentals she puts all over the piece, it's a reminder that before all of the slinky dresses and massive hair-do's, the reason she got famous was on the strength of her voice. Not my favorite, but I still gotta call it Good.
The Temptations: Oh, this is just sad. Clearly from the period after much of the original talent had left the group, this is a really feeble high tenor version with a bit of a soul edge. Oy. Not the worst, but still Bad.
NSYNC: Hee hee hee. It's . . . oh, man. It's just.... I got nothing. (Hilarious)
Rickie Lee Jones with the Chieftans: I don't really know who Rickie Lee Jones is, and this version certainly doesn't want to make me find out. On an otherwise outstanding Bells of Dublin album, this is, well, how not to do it. Slide into all your notes, simper into the microphone, and try to be sultry about it. Oy. Make it stop. Yes, she goes for the big finish, and eventually finds the note, after a second of wavering. Backed up with arhythmic harp, this is one of those awful, "what were they thinking?" Chieftans mashups, which they have an unfortunate number of. (See also Jagger, Mick.) Bad.
Jessica Simpson: Don't ask me why, I don't know. But it is, by nature and by actuality, pretty Hilarious.
Well, you know there will be twang. The calculus here, for me, is simpler -- does the twang detract, or does it add?
Faith Hill: Well, she's got the voice for it, but taking at about half the tempo it really should be, and filling in the gaps with way too much vibrato isn't the way to go here. I won't call it bad, so with all the quavering, let's just call it mildly Hilarious.
LeAnn Rimes: I really thought it was going to go off the rails in the early bits, with her sliding around and putting way too much in the way of ornamental forms on the notes. Thankfully, when the swells started to come, it straightened out some of the nonsense (though not all). The guitar accompaniment is nice, although the lap steel is definitely a bit out of place. But there's no doubting the big sustain on the reprise, and that's really where you make your money. Good.
Martina McBride: Yes. YES. By all means, yes. If you're going to do a country version of O Holy Night, this is what you're looking for. The twang is there, but not obtrusive, and just adds a touch of folksiness without weighing it down. She's in full form by "fall on your knees," and gets busy from there on out. The freestyling and syncopation is muted, and adds rather than detracting. Could have stood a different verse on the repeat, rather than just a slightly more jazzed version, but this one booms where it should and swells where it needs to. The big "divine" in the reprise is nailed exactly as it's supposed to be, the kind that makes you say, "hell, yeah!" This is what it's all about. Not just Good, but Best in Class.
Reba McEntire: Hard to follow after listing to Martina nail that thing, but Reba puts in a solid effort here. The power isn't there all the way through, but like Tracy Chapman, she's playing to her strengths. Not a Top 10 for me, but perfectly fine. Good.
Vince Gill: Decent vocal work, but way too much schmaltz. Bad.
The Judds/Wynnona Judd: Dual entry here, one with Naomi, one without. Neither one is particularly fantastic, but with both of them together, the harmony puts it solidly in Good. Without her, Wynnona has just a bit more of a hard time carrying it. It's Christmas, so let's just leaving them with the above ranking.
Really Changing It
There are a few out there worth mentioning that really deserve their own category, simply because they depart from script so much it's verging on a rewrite. Without further ado,Wheezer: Simple formula -- take Christmas vocal standard, add heavy distortion. It works surprisingly well. I wouldn't say I'd sit around and listen to it. The guys keep the vocals pretty well under control, and while they're not making Luciano nervous up there, that's clearly not the point. All fine and Good, carry on.
Sara Groves: Aieee! What the hell is this? Someone combined a mediocre college-aged singer-songwriter with a praise music composer and decided to go to work on O Holy Night. No. No no no no no no no. Um, No? No. (Bad! No Biscuit!)
Reggae All Stars: Okay, I confess, I'm pulling almost all of these out of the iTunes store, and this one looked weird enough to review. I thought there could be something interesting here. Sadly, it's basically just O Holy Night sung with a Jamaican accent and a reggae chug underneath. Ah, well. It was Bad, but it was at least a change of pace.