Welcome to the second installment of “My Seven Favorite Versions” of classic Christmas songs. My first installment focused on a slightly divisive Christmas song, “Little Drummer Boy.” This year, I’m going to tackle a song that is hopefully a little less controversial – “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
If we are being specific, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is more of an Advent song than strictly a Christmas song, but these are so closely intertwined that I think we can overlook that technicality. The song speaks to a longing for the coming of the Messiah, fulfilled by the birth of Jesus. Lyrically and melodically, the song is filled with deep emotion, yearning, and hope. It has become my favorite Christmas song over the last few years, supplanting “O Holy Night” for that top spot.
That is enough preamble. Let’s get to the list! One final note before we dive in. This list is not in order and it’s not comprehensive. There are many other versions of this beautiful song that I love.
The Piano Guys
I’ll start things off with a bit of a curve ball. Lyrically, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is one of the best Christmas songs. It’s bold, striking, and theologically rich. So, of course, I would choose to start my list with an instrumental version! (Just keeping you on your toes.) It’s a theme I will revisit a number of times, but the melody of this song is so good that even without the great lyrics, the song works.
Future of Forestry
If you read my “Little Drummer Boy” article from a few years ago, you shouldn’t be surprised to see Future of Forestry show up again. They have created some of my favorite Christmas music of the last decade or so. And this is one of my favorites of theirs. It starts out reverent and contemplative yet slowly builds to a powerful climax.
I love Enya’s music. It’s otherworldly in all the best ways. The layered, haunting vocals. The ethereal musical arrangements. I love all of it. Her version of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is overflowing with every single one of those elements. Bonus: She includes some of the original Latin. “Dead language” my foot!
Sufjan brings his trademark sound to the party. His version of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is all whispery vocals and clangy banjos. And I’m here for all of it.
This is a very traditional interpretation of the song that rests on the power of the vocals. And they do not disappoint. This is why “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is my favorite Christmas song of all time: the melody is so powerful and evocative, it requires no innovation or reimagining to make it work. Tight harmonies, strings, and piano. That’s all the song really needs. Did I mention tight harmonies? Holy cow!
The Gray Havens
Nothing too fancy here by The Gray Havens but they get all the elements right. They opt for quality and simplicity. The acoustic guitar and the string arrangement really make this one stick. This recently released song has quickly imprinted itself on my soul and is quickly moving to the top of my list.
For King and Country
This isn’t the exuberant and energetic arrangement like their version of “Little Drummer Boy”, yet it is nearly as memorable. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is most effective when the correct mood is captured – and For King and Country knock that out of the park with a little help of one of my favorite bands, NEEDTOBREATHE.
I would love to hear some of your favorite versions of this amazing song. Please post them in the comments or share them in any of our social media accounts. Thanks for reading and listening!