There really is no competition, as far as I'm concerned, for the best or most beautiful Christmas song. Far and away, that vote goes to "Silent Night". By the same token, there's no race for second place, either. That one is "O Holy Night", which is well above all the others, apart from the one at # 1.
Here are two unusual versions of "O Holy Night", both of which I love. First up, The Christmas Jug Band. I've enjoyed several tracks by this group, more often than not, because of the involvement of Dan Hicks, surely one of the greatest singers I've heard. But here, in my favorite of their tracks, it's not Hicks' singing on display. And anyway, in any version of this song, the song itself needs to be the focus, as it surely is here.
And what a singularly marvelous piece of work this is. Start with this great song, and apply a wonderfully loose, folky arrangement, with altered (but still wholly appropriate) lyrics here and there, sung by a cadre of folks who sound like they might be trying out this arrangement for the first time. It’s just that free and joyful. And then there’s a perfect recorder solo, and when the vocals come back, there are two magical moments on the word “divine”, where the three main singers hit a major triad as if the whole song had been waiting for them to get there. This is on my very short list of the best Christmas records ever made, and one I’ll never get tired of.
In a completely different direction, I offer up Ellis Chadbourne, a singer I was introduced to by my friend Citizen Kafka, a man I have subsequently lost touch with. Also offering up rewritten text, in this case significantly so, to remove all Christian references, Mr. Chadbourne instead is seeking for a Holy Night in which the Bomb has been banned, and peace reigns over the Earth.
This (and all of Mr. Chadbourne's work) tends to be quite divisive - either you "get it" or you don't. It was a early moment of bonding between me and Citizen Kafka when I focused in on Chadbourne's material as the real heart, the key material within what he had shared with me.
Yes, some say he can't sing, and/or even that this is painful to listen to. I won't disagree with anyone about taste, and I recognize that there is one howler of a note here.
But I will disagree (and have, quite forcefully) with those who have said there is nothing to "get" - there is a passion, a life-affirming spirit captured in Ellis Chadbourne's records, particularly this one, which gives me chills. When he gets to "O Night Divine", and seems at the very top of his range, it takes my breath away - and yet then, I realize there is a higher note yet to come - will he make it? When he reaches that note, just at the end, I feel I am hearing a man singing directly to God, and I rarely can hear this track without tearing up.