12 Christmas Songs Where the 'Soul' Cover Is the Superior Version

12 Christmas Songs Where the 'Soul' Cover Is the Superior Version

Illustration for article titled 12 Christmas Songs Where the 'Soul' Cover Is the Superior Version
Image: Pixel-Shot (Shutterstock)

When it comes to holiday classics and their covers, any song sung by Whitney Houston, Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, or John Legend is going to be an improvement on the original. With these tried and true standards, black artists take holiday song traditions—remixing and redoing them—and create new classics out of something old and staid.

Whether through Motown’s Northern Soul or putting the funk in a holiday function, Black artists are known for taking these standards and making new soulful traditions. From The Temptations to the Jackson 5, there is so much jazz and R&B influence in each rendition that no matter how many times you listen to them you’re always going to find something to love. You can bump the “classics” as much as you like, but it’s undeniable that these 12 recreations blow them out of the water.

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“Joy To The World (with Georgia Mass Choir),” Whitney Houston and The Georgia Mass Choir

“Joy To The World (with Georgia Mass Choir),” Whitney Houston and The Georgia Mass Choir

“Joy To The World” is not a song that I would normally associate with dancing. It’s more of a swaying type of church song, and not the gospel genius that Whitney Houston creates in her rendition. This song is the superior version because of the way she uses funk and soul while also maintaining the midnight mass feel. The breathy opening before the first beat drop could make anyone skeptical of what was to come, but it quickly becomes a gospel ballad that makes you want to get up and dance.

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“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” Ella Fitzgerald

“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald makes this rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” feel like a jazzy hug. Judy Garland’s original in Meet Me In St. Louis (one of my favorite movies), is full of longing and disappointment like it’s a sad song. Fitzgerald’s version is one you could put on in any festive setting and hum along with the words as they danced through the air. Unlike other Christmas songs, whether they be originals or covers, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” doesn’t rely on excessive use of sleigh bells or other percussion and we as listeners know that this is a Christmas song based on lyrics alone.

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“White Christmas,” The Supremes

“White Christmas,” The Supremes

When “White Christmas” opens and the first notes roll out, the melody is so comforting and the sultry yet somehow innocent voices pull the listener further in. It feels like the song is giving you a hug and then wrapped it in a pretty bow. There is no sense of urgency in this song. The slow melody, rhythm, and lyrics make it feel exactly like what Christmas is supposed to be. The Supremes end the bridge with harmonizing notes and bring back the chorus in a slow and almost faded tone. The fact that it still instills the spirit of other renditions within the song while still standing out as something of its own.

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“Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” The Temptations

“Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” The Temptations

So I might be the most biased person here because “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” is my favorite Christmas song ever. I first heard this song when I was about eight years old. My dad would play it on a record he had and would yell out “Hey Rudolph!” at any and all opportunity, continuing even after the song had ended. It’s also the definition of throwing a party. There’s nothing holding you back from dancing like a fool. It reigns supreme because no matter what part you pay attention to, you’re going to find something that makes you smile. Can you seriously say that you don’t want to punch the air with glee at each “Hey Rudolph?”

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“Silver Bells,” Stevie Wonder

“Silver Bells,” Stevie Wonder

Sixty’s era Stevie Wonder brings soul to the table regardless of what he’s singing. From originals to “Silver Bells,” he just can do no wrong. With that in mind, this rendition of “Silver Bells” is just straight soul from the strings to the high-hat beat. I had never really paid attention to the lyrics of the song until I heard this version. It feels similar to that of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” because it could be played in the background and hummed along to or belted out with those around. I’m not sure what it is about Christmas music that when the lyrics and rhythm are slowed down makes it feel more like the artist is singing to the listener.

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“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” The Jackson 5

“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” The Jackson 5

My whole childhood—before my father told me he was “soul brother Santa”—I was reminded every day that Santa was going to come and if I wasn’t nice I wouldn’t get any presents. Which as one could imagine, caused an uproar in a house of three girls. At this point, it feels like The Jackson 5 are the ambassadors of falsetto Christmas music. Regardless, this song ranks miles above the rest of the renditions because of the undeniable catchiness, powerful chorus, and danceable qualities.

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“Jingle Bells,” Smokey Robinson & The Miracles

“Jingle Bells,” Smokey Robinson & The Miracles

The beginning of this song sounds like the opening of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” but Smokey Robinson’s voice cuts through the noise of some of the other renditions. The original tune is so damn catchy that sometimes I start singing it randomly in July and wonder what the hell is wrong with me. This version doesn’t do that to me, in fact, it makes singing it and listening to it an enjoyable experience because of its originality. Usually, I tune out the second verse of the song if I am not listening to this version because it doesn’t matter to me. However, I actually know the words to this one because there is nothing more satisfying than being able to sing a whole song from beginning to end, especially if it’s really good.

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“Silent Night,” Mariah Carey

“Silent Night,” Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey practically owns Christmas, that’s just a fact. I associate some renditions of “Silent Night” with parts of Hallmark movies where the main character has some sort of epiphany or when my grandmother would take me to midnight mass in St. Louis. But this song feels like a slow burn R&B version of a Christmas song and Carey seems to be transitioning into more of an R&B singer as she becomes less of a pop-star. Keeping in mind that this version was originally released in 1993, Carey somehow makes it still exude sexy-Auntie-Claus energy in 2020.

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“My Favorite Things,” John Legend

“My Favorite Things,” John Legend

As someone who grew up in the early 2000s and lived in the beginning of the Instagram era, I, for a very brief second, forgot that John Legend had a career outside of being Chrissy Teigen’s husband. I associate “My Favorite Things,” with that scene in The Sound Of Music. Part of me does wonder why this is a Christmas song. Other than the fact that it talks about the things that the person wants, all it really does, for me at least, is bring me back to a soaking wet Julie Andrews. But because it is a Christmas song, it ranks at the top of the list of renditions because of Legend’s jazzy tones morphed into his 2019 pop transformation in 2018.

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“Frosty The Snowman,” Nat King Cole

“Frosty The Snowman,” Nat King Cole

This song is the epitome of fun, children’s Christmas songs, and Cole does a fantastic job at delivering. It opens with pitched-up voices that weave their way back into the song during the chorus, giving a throughline of childlike joy. Cole’s voice is light and airy as if you could see him smiling while recording. His use of big brass instruments like trumpets and tubas emphasizes the movements of Frosty. It’s brilliant.

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“It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas,” Johnny Mathis

“It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas,” Johnny Mathis

This version “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” has always made me feel like I was the main character in a Christmas movie. I can see and feel and hear the holly on the doorstep of my non-existent house. If you close your eyes and listen, everywhere really does look like Christmas in Mathis’s rendition. This year has been difficult in getting into the holiday spirit. There isn’t much walking around and gazing at the lights for fear of spreading or catching Miss Rona. But, if we can’t walk around and actually see how it actually looks a lot like Christmas, we can at least close our eyes, listen to this song and pretend.

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“Winter Wonderland,” Louis Armstrong

“Winter Wonderland,” Louis Armstrong

Anything that Louis Armstrong does is at the top of a list, especially “Winter Wonderland.” One of the most recognizable things about this song is how easy it is to harmonize with it. It is comparable to Ella Fitzgerald’s version of the song, but it has a deeper and almost comical twist to it because of his unique voice and cadence. His voice beautifully melds with the repetitive melody in the background and new layers are added at each new verse and chorus. Armstrong is able to take a very upbeat and almost pop-like song and turn it into a smooth jazz Christmas tune.

 

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