Table of Contents
I’m not sure anything quite inspires patriotic feelings like a strong performance of the National Anthem, especially at the Big Game. The magnitude of the Super Bowl does two things here.
In the first place, it attracts better singers who give their best effort.
Secondly, it adds dramatic weight to the singer’s performance. This is intensified by the sight of players crying, as they are impacted both by the song and the emotional valence of the fact that they are about to play the biggest game in their lives.
So which ones are the best National Anthem renditions of all time?
To make sense of the best ones, I think it is important to discuss others that did not work out so well.
Why Some Performances Don’t Make The Top Five
While these rankings are inevitably subjective, they do reflect conceptions of what a good National Anthem is that many people share.
To develop these conceptions in a way that makes sense of my rankings, let’s discuss some lower-quality National Anthem performances first before we move into the top 5.
Choir of the Armed Forces (2005)
The choir sounds sort of robotic. The lack of passion and human emotion made it feel like a funeral.
While I like the insertion of female voices – the song transitions nicely to a different group of singers – and it does have some power to it, it is just not nearly enough power for me.
The robot voices do not do justice to the National Anthem, which should be an emotionally forceful song that tells a very important story about the founding of our nation.
Kelly Clarkson (2012)
I dislike the very beginning of Kelly Clarkson’s performance. The distribution of syllabic emphasis seems off here, as it does at other points in the song.
Her voice seemed off for a bit at the articulation of “were.” While the choir is a creative move, I just found it distracting.
Mariah Carey (2002)
It sounds too much like Mariah Carey is whispering.
For example, her articulation of “ramparts” seems so quiet that it almost sounds hoarse in a way.
In a different way, I feel like she messes up “air.” The song does pick up. But then it gets to be too much.
Worst of all, “brave” is overdone and veers into the ridiculous. She needed to have more modesty here – after all, the song is not about her but about our beautiful country!
Lady Gaga (2016)
Personally, I don’t like her voice too much, especially in the beginning. This is just a matter of taste, but it’s how I feel about her performance.
Her pronunciation of “air” seems odd. Also, does she say “woah” instead of “oh”? I think that changing the lyrics of the song is intolerable and automatically disqualifies the singer from top five consideration. How dare somebody change the words of the National Anthem!
Her performance is powerful when it needs to be.
It is nice, overall, with solemn undertones that convey the significance of the song without being solemn in a funereal sense like the 2005 performance from the Choir of the Armed Forces.
Beyonce is somewhat conservative in her delivery. She is not very passionate here.
This is just your run-of-the-mill good performance.
So What Makes An Anthem Rendition Bad?
An anthem performance is bad when it lacks passion or otherwise fails to convey the significance of the song.
But it is also a bad performance when the singer puts him or herself above the song, changing the lyrics or going over the top.
So What Makes An Anthem Rendition Good?
Now that we understand what makes an Anthem rendition poor – or, at least, not so great – we can appreciate the singers who got it right.
5. Luther Vandross (1997)
I’m not going to hide my bias here, I’m sorry, but I just love this man’s voice!
I think he nails this performance. It’s simple and modest but also beautiful and elegant. Despite its simplicity, his rendition never gets boring, and it still conveys the meaningfulness of the song.
It’s just a nice performance to listen to.
4. Whitney Houston (1991)
People will commonly say that Whitney’s performance is number one. But I think they are overhyping her performance a bit.
I will say that I do agree that historical context matters. She sang this in the context of the Persian Gulf Wars. Her performance really appeals to the patriotic fervor that pervaded American society at this time.
But considering the performance itself, it is not without its flaws.
I don’t like how her voice deepens sometimes when it lowers, although she does sound so beautiful when she sings gently without making her voice deeper.
3. Faith Hill (2000)
This is a goosebumps-generating performance. It is very beautiful from the beginning.
Her performance is somewhat simple, but she also owns her performance.
The way her voice sounds on “stars” just sounds so nice. It is amazing how she can increase her emotional impact on the audience while she softens her voice.
She also shows impressive power as she hits the louder notes.
2. Jennifer Hudson (2009)
Her vocals are incredible. They sound so clean.
The one imperfection, I find, is that I don’t like how she emphasizes the “ah” syllable in “at.” It sounds here like her emotion is forced.
On top of her amazing voice, I think her hand gestures help convey the dramatic nature of the story told by the Anthem.
1. Chris Stapleton (2023)
Stapleton’s voice gives me goosebumps.
I am impressed by how easily his voice goes from zero-60: his voice becomes booming, but in a pleasant and profound-sounding way.
The soft guitar sounds add a nice touch, especially the deeper chords later in the song. At the end, he nails “brave.” It is so fluid.
There is a good reason why coaches and players were crying during this performance. It is the most beautiful and the best performance of all time.