Arguably one of the best Christmas recordings we ever got from Aretha was her jubilant take on “Joy To The World” in 1994, for the soundtrack to the remake of Miracle on 34th Street, released that same year.
Almost every version of “Joy To The World” possesses a sense of jubilance, it’s the point of the hymn. From Nat King Cole to Mariah Carey, the song describes itself. While every version isn’t as vibrant as Mariah Carey’s marriage of gospel and house (released the same year), or as jubilant as Nat King Cole’s there’s always a sense of celebration. Aretha takes that sentiment and runs with it, right to church where the song originated.
Aretha goes gospel here, but not like Mahalia Jackson, who’s version teeters on organ driven hymn. No, Aretha cranks things into high gear, and goes full gospel revival. Accompanied by members of the FAME Freedom Choir, Aretha declares joy over the accelerated tempo, and with the combination of guitar, piano, choir, and highs of the organ striking, all backing Aretha’s newly strengthened voice, it’s hard to not tap a foot or clap hands. There’s even a key change mid-song that further heightens the mood.
In 2009 she performed the song at the annual Christmas Tree lighting at Rockefeller Center, covered in fur, lip syncing her way through to the original track. It’s such a spirited performance, and one of the few performances in her career when she didn’t give a live vocal. She did a similar performance at one of her Christmas parties in 1994.
In 2013 she brought the song back into her repertoire for one night, at the National Christmas Tree lighting in Washington DC. Again, she didn’t sing live, but she did bring a fresh, updated vocal track and new arrangement (that harkened back to the 1994 version) while performing.
Listen to Aretha’s jubilant “Joy To The World”: