One peculiarity of “holiday” music is the celebration of snow and ice winter wonderland. This kind of infuriates me for a few reasons. Firstly – I live in Portland. I’m looking out the window right now and there’s nothing but dry asphalt on the road. Sure – it’s cold, but there is no snow! We might get some snow later on in the winter (usually January or even February), but almost never in December.
Ok, ok, so we did have snow last Christmas – but that was a fluke! The point is – the whole “walking in a winter wonderland” = The holidays thing is totally stupid as so many of the “holiday” celebrating people of the world don’t even see snow during the holidays.
Still – winter songs have become a staple of our holiday music repertoire. Heck – I even included a melody of wintery songs in my Christmas Playlist. I will admit, these songs are kind of fun. There’s “Let it Snow,” there’s “A Marshmallow World,” there’s “Sleigh Ride.” My favorite winter song, however, has to be Winter Wonderland. One thing I love about this specific song, is that Winter Wonderland can be sung in just about any genre. Sure – some versions are dull and boring – but some versions are exciting and eccentric! So…walk with me as I explore several versions of this odd holiday classic.
Bing Crosby (1959)
Let’s start with a classic, crooner version. Bing gives us a version that one could easily sip cocktails to. One wonders if they’re in a Las Vegas casino – and what kind of winter wonderland one might find in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Regardless – how can we resist the amazing baritone blues Bing brings?
Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga (2014)
This version feels similar to Bing’s version – but we have a lot more horns! Oh, and this version is a duet. Lady Gaga does an amazing job on the female vocals. This version of “Winter Wonderland” really made me see her as more than just a top 40 musician actually. Lady Gaga earned my respect for her talent by not only pairing up with Tony Bennett, but also stepping out of the modern pop genres she was known for when they recorded this song.
Oh – and Tony Bennett is pretty good too, but that goes without saying.
Darlene Love (1963)
Love’s version of Winter Wonderland reminds me of childhood. My parents listened to a lot of oldies radio – and I have vague memories of my mom dancing around to this version. Love’s “Winter Wonderland is a basic early 60s girl R&B group version – but then again, can you really apply the monicor of “basic” to anything Darlene Love sings?
With the Eurythmics version of Winter Wonderland, we get an ethereal trip down a rabbit hole, only to emerge in a candy coated chorus. Seriously – the first part of Winter Wonderland, the part that so many versions omit, sounds kind of spooky. I legitimately get the sense of dread while listening.
And then there’s relief. There’s the mellow parts of the song we all know and love. We feel like we’re in a big cloud of happiness. Maybe that’s the reason for the first part – maybe the sense of dread adds to the pleasure we receive as we emerge into the song.
Steve Taylor (1988)
Steve Taylor did a mariachi version of Winter Wonderland. We’re not sure why – but the official lore says he found the backing band in the yellow pages at the last minute. This was actually the last song he recorded before his first retirement as a solo artist.
Why he chose Mariachi, no one really knows. Those of us who know Steve’s music were not surprised – but still bewildered. All in all – Winter Wonderland works surprisingly well as a Mariachi version. So who cares about the whys and wherefores?
Surprisingly – the only hard rock/metal version of Winter Wonderland I can find is Stryper’s. You would think that Twisted Sister would have one on their Christmas album – nope!
Regardless – Stryper has a lot of fun with Winter Wonderland. Lead vocalist Michael Sweet tries to get the rest of the band involved – and they refuse. So – he responds with “Stun you guys, I’ll do it myself.” I have no idea what “stun you guys means,” but this might be the best insult I’ve heard in quite some time.
Eventually Sweet coherses the rest of the band to go along with the Winter Wonderland fun because he can’t do it alone. And there’s the thesis of the song – we can’t do it on our own. Or maybe it’s just an 80s hair metal band doing a fun Christmas song.
Brad Paisley (2006)
Of course there’s a country version or two of Winter Wonderland, and Brad Paisley’s version might be the most country sounding Christmas song ever. Twangy singing, steel guitars, a fiddle or two – it’s all there.
I really dig the instrumental section in the middle of the song – specifically the tone lic and then the almost Hawaiian sounding guitars. Another noteworthy feature of this version of this version of Winter Wonderland – Paisley changes the second verse. The circus clown becomes country legend Jimmy Brown. Paisley then proceeds to sing “Pop a Top” with this pretend Jimmy Brown.
So yeah – Paisley alludes to a depressing, lonely beer drinking song in one of the jolliest, winter fun songs ever created. Hmm.
Fleming and John (2012)
You might wonder if I have a favorite version of Winter Wonderland. Yes….yes I do! And it’s the Fleming and John version.
We start out with a nice, slow female vocal…..and then the electric guitars come. We hear a tune we recognize – but it isn’t Winter Wonderland – it’s “Misty Mountain Hop!” Yes – Fleming and John put the lyrics of Winter Wonderland to the tune of a Led Zepplin song.
Fleming’s screams the lyrics with her signature flaming vocals. John plays the hell out of – pretty much every instrument on the track! And at the end, when you think there’s nothing left to surprise us, Fleming yells (to the tune of “Black Dog“), “Hey hey Rudolph with your nose so bright, say won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”
From this song, we can guess Fleming and John really love snow – and Led Zeppelin.
Charlotte Church (2000)
Charlotte Church, like the Eurythmics, includes the often times forgotten beginning of Winter Wonderland. Church’s version, however, builds hopeful anticipation instead of dread. Of course this anticipation pays off as we reach the meat of the song – as Church’s soprano vocals gives us a feeling of wonder and beauty. Add the cheery instrumentals, and you get a really fun song. Even if you don’t like operatic sopranos.
Snoop Dogg / Anna Kendrick (2015)
This was a track done for the movie “Pitch Perfect 2.” The scene from the movie plays out like this: Snoop Dogg is trying to record a Christmas album, his producer doesn’t like what he hears – Anna Kendrick’s character walks in and harmonizes “Here Comes Santa Claus” with Snoop Dogg’s “Winter Wonderland.”
Somehow it works. I’m not saying Kendrick’s vocals are good – they’re kind of nasally (she usually sings a little better). Still – we find ourselves wanting to forgive said nasally vocals – because what we get is a song that’s more than just the sum of its parts. We get a song that makes us smile.
And hey – inserting “Here Comes Santa Claus” into the mix makes a winter song into a Christmas song. So there’s that at least.
She & Him (2016)
Firstly – the video for the She & Him version of Winter Wonderland is one of the most adorable things you’ll ever watch. Pugs dressed in cute costumes, frolicking in the snow. Awww….so adorable!
Secondly – Zooey Deschanel’s vocals melt my heart. And M. Ward’s guitars backing – yeah. I’m glad the pair team up for this semi supergroup, and I’m really glad they did a Christmas album. But I’m extra extra glad they did “Winter Wonderland.” It’s just like a warm sweater and a hot cup of cocoa. So inviting and so comfortable.
Is there a best version of Winter Wonderland?
I’ve already said which version of Winter Wonderland I favor, but maybe there’s one version that objectively better than all the rest? To be blunt – nope! That’s kind of missing the point, as Winter Wonderland celebrates the diversity of all our tastes in music. From the classic vocals of Bing Crosby to the classic rock inspirations of Fleming and John. From the country twangs of Brad Paisley to the hip hop stylings of Snoop Dogg. Winter Wonderland is everyone’s song.
I’ve only listed a handful of the literal hundreds, perhaps thousands of versions of Winter Wonderland. Every artist who does Winter Wonderland has their own spin to the song. Some have a more subtle spin, some change the song in significant ways. Regardless – Winter Wonderland is a song that begs the artist to celebrate what they view as important. That – my dear friends – is what makes Winter Wonderland a holiday song.
Winter Wonderland knows we all have our different traditions and celebrations and styles – Winter Wonderland also knows we don’t all share the same climate. Winter Wonderland doesn’t care. The song just reminds us to think of fun times we had as kids. Maybe that’s building a snowman, maybe it’s pretending to marry someone and playing house. Maybe it’s going to the circus and laughing at funny clowns, or maybe it’s just sitting by a warm fire, daydreaming.
Winter Wonderland brings us the hope, joy, and peace of childhood memories. If that isn’t the spirit of the holidays, I don’t know what is!