Last year, I did a “snowball fight to find the best version of Winter Wonderland. I sampled several versions from different genres, and I also asked “why is this a Christmas song.” After all, Winter Wonderland does not even mention Christmas. Well…here’s the thing…Winter Wonderland is far from the only “Christmas” song that is actually about winter. In fact, a great deal of songs we sing this time of year do NOT celebrate Christmas, but rather winter in general. Take for instance, the song Sleigh Ride. The original (sans lyrics) version of Sleigh Ride was composed during a heat wave in July! Originally an instrumental, Sleigh Ride has become synonymous with Christmas, when it really has nothing to do with Christmas. Yet….a Christmas song it has become.
According to Composer Leroy Anderson’s biography, Sleigh Ride “has been performed and recorded by a wider array of musical artists than any other piece in the history of Western music.” With all those versions of Sleigh Ride out there….why….this sounds like a great piece to our next snowball fight! Which genre will come out on top? Which version of Sleigh Ride can throw the best punch? Get read, this is Snowball Fight 2019: Sleigh Ride!
Leroy Anderson (Performed by the Boston Pops) (1949)
The original version of Sleigh Ride comes with no lyrics those were added a year later by Mitchell Parish. Instead, we hear the Boston Pops Orchestra playing a purely instrumental version. Oh sure, the song certainly hints at a sleigh ride. You hear clopping percusion to mimic a horse. You hear a whipping sound. You even hear the neigh of the horse towards the end. But is it even winter? Is there even snow on the ground? The answer – who freaking cares? Composer Leroy Anderson didn’t – as he embraced the lyrics, even recording a version with the lyrics.
Regardless, Sleigh Ride with or without the lyrics just exhumes fun and smiles. Written in G Major, and usually performed at a tempo of 104 BPM, Sleigh Ride gives us an upbeat and fast ride of a song. Try not to be happy while listening to the Leroy Anderson arrangement of Sleigh Ride. I dare you!
Ella Fitzgerald (1960)
Ella Fitzgerald sings a slower version of Sleigh Ride, but it’s every bit as fun as the original. Ella uses a more appropriate tempo for a Jazz club. The accompanying horns, piano, and upright bass makes your mind imagine an out of the way club, circa the early 60s. You just imagine yourself, through Ella’s Sleigh Ride, sitting at your table, sipping your drink, and dropping your jaw at the singer’s voice. Oh sure, Ella usually performed in much larger venues than a nightclub, but that’s not the picture she paints with her vocals. That’s what made her singing so special. Ella knew how to make her voice an intimate invitation. You feel close to Ella when you hear her sing. You feel like the one Ella wants to take that Sleigh Ride with.
The Ronettes (1963)
One of my all time favorite versions of Sleigh Ride, The Ronettes truly show us the versatility of Sleigh Ride. Combining pre-British invasion rock with the orchestration of the original Sleigh Ride, and….of course, the amazing singing of Ronnie Spector, we can’t not love this damned song. Everytime I hear the Ronettes version of Sleigh Ride, I just want to decorate a tree and sip hot cocoa. Be it Christmas, the holidays, or just winter – the Ronettes version of Sleigh Ride makes me ready for the season, and makes me happy.
Andy Williams (1965)
The most distinguishing feature of Andy Williams version of Sleigh Ride are the constant key changes. Particularly noteworthy, are the transposing to a higher octave during the chorus. Williams does this so much, it almost becomes a gimmick. You wonder how high will Williams go. Yet….it works. The constant modulation makes for a fun, upbeat version of an already fun and upbeat song. Perfect for bopping your head while on the go during the holiday season.
The Carpenters (1978)
When my mom and grandma watched The Karen Carpenter Story with 9 year old me in the room, they weren’t thinking. That movie, and the tragic story of Karen Carpenter makes me cry everytime I hear her smooth, silky voice. Yet, I push through the tears everytime I hear The Carpenters version of Sleigh Ride. Rivaled only by the Ronettes version in my mind, I just can’t get enough of Sleigh Ride by the Carpenters. The very same voice that makes me cry everytime I hear “Close to You,” “Top of the World,” and “Sing a Song,” makes me infinitely happy everytime I hear Sleigh Ride. Yes,the Carpenters Sleigh Ride sounds cheesy and full of late 70s kitsch, but come on…what’s the holiday season without a bit of kitsch? Oh, and what about Richard’s harmonizing during the Farmer Grey portion of the song? This makes a good song great!
Amy Grant (1983)
Fairly early in Amy Grant’s career, she released her first Christmas album. The gem of this album was, of course, her version of Sleigh Ride. Grant’s version of Sleigh Ride paints a carefree portrait of wholesome fun. Grant doesn’t add too much mind you. Her voice doesn’t match the silkiness of the Karen Carpenter’s voice. The instrumentation feels rather vanilla. Still….we get the feeling Grant has a LOT of fun while recording Sleigh Ride. That’s the most important thing. And that cry of “Yooohooo!” melts my heart.
Air Supply (1987)
I wish more 80s bands did Sleigh Ride, but somehow one of the most recorded songs of all time was never recorded by the likes of Michael Jackson, Hall and Oates, Bruce Springsteen, or any other quintessential 80s artist. The only version on the “A Very Special Christmas” series comes from volume 2 and was done by Debbie freaking Gibson. So, all that to say, good thing Air Supply did a version of Sleigh Ride.
Sure, Air Supply’s version of Sleigh Ride sounds a bit vanilla. Sure, the child choral sections sound like ants singing holiday classics. That doesn’t make it a bad version at all. Granted, I don’t want a steady diet of this version, but if there’s one thing I’ve hinted at: a good version of Sleigh Ride makes us feel like fun. And the Air Supply version feels like fun.
I did not care for the TLC version of Sleigh Ride in 1992, and I don’t much care for it in 2019. Still, a lot of people really love the TLC version – so in fairness, I’m presenting it! I will say, I respect that TLC added a great deal of content to their version. TLC even ties in Christmas to the song. Oh, and that chorus? Insanely catchy. Hmmm, maybe the TLC version of Sleigh Ride is growing on me after all.
Sufjan Stevens (2009)
Sufjan Stevens’ Sleigh Ride shows us the fun of Christmas past, especially for those of us who grew up in the 80s. The first thing we hear is what appears to be an 80s keyboard, with cheesy effects and all! That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it gives us a warm feeling of nostalgia. Stevens never gets too complex with Sleigh Ride. The vocals are fairly straightforward (although sung with a small chorus). Still, the harmonies emulate some of the instrumentation parts in the original version of Sleigh ride. Essentially the effect we get is a bunch of friends, singing a fun song on a cold winter’s day.
She & Him (2011)
She & Him starts out Sleigh Ride with the trademark strumming of M. Ward’s almost Polynesian sounding guitar. The tempo is slow and sultry, and the mood is relaxing. While we never lose that relaxing mood, the tempo picks up as soon as Zooey Deschanel sings. Her voice really sounds fun. Of course, the She & Him version of Sleigh Ride might not add anything innovative, that’s fine! It’s worked in other versions, and it works in this version.
Barenaked Ladies (2014)
Barenaked Ladies chooses to skip the lyrics entirely, instead singing mouth noises like “ya ba da da ba da ba da da” the entire song. Meanwhile, we hear Jim Creeggan strumming his upright bass while Ed Robertson plucks at a ukulele. The whole song lasts less than a minute, but it’s all laughs the entire way.
Runaway June (2018)
A severely underrepresented genre in Sleigh Ride is the country version. That’s tragic! The best I could find was a Dolly Parton Melody (along with Winter Wonderland). Still, country vocal group Runaway June tries to right this wrong with their version of Sleigh Ride. The highlights of Runaway June’s Sleigh Ride comes from the harmonies. Runaway June’s harmonies build off of what The Ronettes did 55 years ago. No wonder I like this version. Regardless, there needs to be more country versions of Sleigh Ride. Now!
Is there a “best” version of Sleigh Ride?
Folks….we all have our own preferences. To say there is a best version of Sleigh Ride, is to say there is a best tasting food. We all have our own personal choices, and dangit, as long as whatever version has fun, I don’t care. So, what Sleigh Ride version do you like the best? Is there one I missed? I would have loved to hear a metal version, as well as a couple decent country versions. Vote for your favorite version. This snowball fight is ongoing! Who will wins depends entirely on you!