Idina Menzel — “River” (from Holiday Wishes) —
Robert Downey Jr. (with Vonda Shepard) — “River”
(from Ally McBeal: A Very Ally Christmas) —
Joni Mitchell — “River” (from Hits) —
Miss Idina landed a knockout blow last night on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, with a beautifully restrained take on one of the Buzz’s all-time favorite Christmas chestnuts: Joni Mitchell’s wrenching “River,” the obligatory sad song of choice for many a holiday mixtape, you can be sure. Despite her booming voice and soaring range (and despite the fact that she was ostensibly on the program to sell some records), Menzel gets beaucoup bonus points for choosing, largely, to undersing the song, allowing the tune’s simple elegance to emerge by not overloading the lyric with thrills and trills. (Much as I love her, you can bet neither Celine Dion nor any other diva of her caliber would be so moderate in her approach.) My favorite cover of this Joni classic remains Robert Downey Jr.’s gorgeously gruff version — which he performed on Fox’s one-time signature series Ally McBeal when he was a member of its cast in one of its misbegotten, past-its-prime later seasons — but last night’s staggering performance (which you can check out in the video embedded below) instantly makes Idina’s effort a riveting runner-up.
(PS: As for Queen Joni, she’s creating a stir all her own this season with Love Has Many Faces, a spankin’-new four-disc box set of hits and favorites from her forty-year career, including “River” and “A Case of You” (the latter of which would easily in the upper echelon of my list of the greatest songs in the history of ever), all stunningly remastered for the first time in years. If this thing isn’t at the very top of your Christmas list this year, joo are a fool.)