As we head into Super Bowl L1 weekend, when Luke Bryan will become the first male artist to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl since 2007’s Billy Joel (and first country artist since 2010’s Carrie Underwood), let’s pause to remember some of the singers whose renditions have roused our love of country and melisma. Here are some of the standouts.
11. Maya Rudolph
This one is a bit of a cheat: Rudolph is so great because she’s so perfectly terrible in her comedic impression of everyone who ever oversang the anthem. This Saturday Night Live sketch could serve as a cautionary video for Christina to watch before the Bowl.
10. Lady Gaga/strong>
Let’s hope Miss Germanotta’s stunning tour de force at last year’s Super Bowl is a sign of the greatness to come when she headlines this year’s halftime show.
9. Carrie Underwood
It’s almost too predictable how well she’s going to be able to nail it, but that won’t stop us from admiring anyone who can pull the anthem off so nicely a cappella.
8. Kelly Clarkson
Ditto to the a cappella factor mentioned about Underwood, above. And extra props for the restraint that Clarkson shows on the melisma until the final stretch, when she can’t help but bust out those Idol-making extra notes.
7. Faith Hill
We don’t honestly know what the Scottish bagpipers are doing here, but it’s still a swell arrangement, well delivered by the country-pop chanteuse.
This 2006 Super Bowl appearance represents the gold standard of the second half of the last decade. What ballplayer would not be inspired to go kick some oppositional butt after this ridiculously rousing rendition? Seriously — how could either team lose?
5. Josh Groban with Flea
This might be most controversial among the “bests,” since some observers at the time groused that a neo-classical singer hooking up with a Red Hot Chili Pepper was a twain that never should have met. But the mixture of Groban’s ultra-traditional voice with slightly non-traditional accompaniment — especially that drum corps, even more than whatever Flea is doing on the bass — was adventurous and, also, pure class.
4. Marvin Gaye/strong>
This is probably what R. Kelly was trying for (see him on our “Worst” list, here). Gaye does an R&B version of the anthem against nothing but a drum backing, and adapting it to a syncopated meter doesn’t always work perfectly. But the spontaneity of the moment — and the expertise and effortlessness of Gaye’s every syllable—add up to a legendary performance that’s still well remembered 28 years later.
3. Jimi Hendrix
The anthem rendered as a sort of free jazz, as mind-bending as it is string-bending. For a generation or three of serious rock ‘n’ roll fans, the only version that matters.
2. Whitney Houston
Dated fashion sensibility aside, this pre-Super Bowl performance hasn’t aged. It may remain the most highly regarded version of our lifetimes, being the rendition that instantly became a smash as a single the week after the Bowl. Yes, it was pre-recorded, like most modern versions of the anthem, but that doesn’t really take away from the genius of the moment that made Francis Scott Key a key figure in contemporary pop music. Here’s the Houston we miss so much.
1. The Dixie Chicks
You might say this top slot sensibly belongs to Whitney, and maybe you’d be right. But we rarely hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” attempted in three-part harmony, let alone pulled off so brilliantly as by the Chicks at the 2003 Super Bowl. It’s ironic now to watch them admired by saluting veterans, just a couple of months before they publicly dissed President Bush’s war plans and became the pariahs of much of the patriotic right. But this is a rendition that crosses all preconceptions and political boundaries — and we swear it’d turn Toby Keith into a Natalie-lover if he watched it again.