Who Sang It Best? "Winter Wonderland"
The Sad Origins of "Winter Wonderland"
Young Richard B. Smith suffered from several bouts of tuberculosis in the early 1930s. Tuberculosis, also called "consumption," was a devastating and highly contagious disease that caused symptoms of weakness, fever, a blood-stained cough, and wasting away.
As the Honesdale, Pennsylvania, man sat holed up in his West Mountain Sanitarium room, he watched children playing gleefully in the snow below. Smith started to daydream about life beyond the walls of the hospital where he was confined. His musings inspired him to write a poem that was eventually set to music.
Smith died from his tuberculosis in 1935, just a day before his thirty-fourth birthday. However, the young man left behind a musical legacy that he was little aware of—this holiday classic, "Winter Wonderland." Many artists have since released the song, and musical styles and levels of quality have varied considerably. Thus, do you ever wonder, "Who sang it best?" Here's your chance to step up and compare their efforts.
"Who Sang It Best?": Here's How It Works
With many artists singing the same Christmas tunes, the sleigh has become overloaded. Let's rank them and cross some versions off the list.
In the "Who Sang It Best?" series, we start with the original rendition of popular songs that have been covered multiple times. Then we present a set of contenders, artists who have released cover versions in any genre. Some cover versions honor the original artist's style while others are reinterpretations.
Since the original song version is typically considered "the standard," we don't include it in our overall rankings. Instead, we display it first for comparison, with up to 14 contenders presented next in ranked order. Vote on your preferences:
Do you prefer the original song or a cover version?
Of all the cover versions, which you prefer?
The Classic Song
"Winter Wonderland" by Johnny Mercer & The Pied Pipers (1946)
"Winter Wonderland" is another holiday favorite that ironically doesn't mention Christmas, but it's festive just the same. (Or at least it was intended to be.) The song depicts a couple taking a gleeful stroll in the snow together. The man sings a love song to his partner. They frolic in the snow together and build a snowman. Then they pretend that the snowman is a nondenominational preacher who will pronounce them husband and wife. Later, the couple relaxes by a fire and discuss their shared future.
More than 200 different artists—including Elvis, Perry Como, and Radiohead—have covered "Winter Wonderland" since it was first released in 1934 by bandleader Richard Himber. We're using the 1946 rendition by Johnny Mercer & The Pied Pipers to represent the classic version of the song. It climbed to #4 on the Billboard charts.
Johnny Mercer was a popular singer-songwriter, Broadway composer, and co-founder of Capitol Records. The Pied Pipers performed both on their own and in association with artists like Frank Sinatra. The group is still active today.
Together Mercer and his gaggle of backup singers deliver the most depressing version of "Winter Wonderland" I've ever encountered. Their blunted emotion makes me question the happiness of the couple, the setting, and the winter wonderland altogether. Should they be breaking up instead?
Their execution of this classic is unusual in that nearly any cover version can beat it. The song drags unnecessarily, as if Johnny Mercer & The Pied Pipers were channeling the bleakness of a dying Richard B. Smith, the writer of the song who was confined in a tuberculosis ward for four years. I attribute the joyless singing more to The Pied Pipers than to Johnny Mercer, however. He proved how effectively he could let his personality shine through in songs like Baby It's Cold Outside.
This Christmas class will be easy to beat with any cover version you choose. Just pick one.
Which version would you rather listen to -- the original song or your favorite cover version?
Cover Versions in Ranked Order
1. "Winter Wonderland" by Dean Martin (1957)
Cozy up the fire with your loved one as you listen to this flirty version. Confident Rat Packer Dean Martin delivers in his rendition of this enduring classic.
Known for his suave manner, the actor, singer, and comedian was awarded three stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. Martin was regarded as "The King of Cool" because of his charm. He was awarded a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2007).
2. "Winter Wonderland" by Lauren Daigle (2016)
Some critics describe contemporary Christian artist Lauren Daigle as the next Adele or Amy Winehouse. I doubted that was within reason until I heard Daigle in this jazz rendition of "Winter Wonderland." It's classy and laid back with a sophisticated retro vibe. Watch Daigle's Christmas songs to become a new generation of classics. You go, girl.
3. "Winter Wonderland/Don't Worry Be Happy" by Pentatonix (featuring Tori Kelly) (2014)
Wait, what's going on here? Is this a musical mashup of two songs?
Yes, "Don't Worry, Be Happy" by Bobby McFarlane (1988) has melted into "Winter Wonderland," and the merger magically works, although I didn't imagine it would. (I thought there would be just too much going on lyrically.)
However, the combination song employs a simple beat, instrumental minimalism and the magical, diverse voices that make Pentatonix so popular. Well known for their a capella renditions of pop favorites, the group has won both Grammy and YouTube Awards and has garnered more than 3.6 billion YouTube views.
4. "Winter Wonderland" by Darlene Love (1974)
In an energetic, enthusiastic rendition of "Winter Wonderland" reflective of the 1960s girl groups, Darlene Love delivers this hand-clapping favorite. (Yes, there is hand-clapping in there, but don't knock what works.)
It's no wonder that Rolling Stone named Love to their list of "100 Greatest Singers of All Time." Listen for the altered lyrics (now a standard option) and "wo-oh-ohs" that make that make her a distinctive force in music:
In the meadow, we can build a snowman
And pretend that he's a circus clown
We'll have lots of fun with Mr. Snowman
Until the other kiddies knock him down
When it snows, ain't it thrillin'
Though you know, kids are chillin'
We'll frolic and play, the Eskimo way
Walking in a Winter Wonderland (wo oh oh ...)
5. "Winter Wonderland" by Leona Lewis (2013)
Low key this cover is decidedly NOT! I love this upbeat, Motown-inspired rendition of "Winter Wonderland" with Leona Lewis' soaring vocals. Lewis is a classically trained British singer-songwriter who was catapulted to fame when she won the third season of The X Factor.
Rather than tiptoeing around this song, Lewis gives it a big ole bear hug and sings it loud and proud. If you're feeling rundown from all the holiday shopping, grab some of your favorite Christmas cookies and put this song cover on "loop" until you feel better. It shouldn't take long!
6. Winter Wonderland" by Amy Grant (1992)
In this light, airy cover of "Winter Wonderland," Amy Grant's voice is the focal point. Rather than hide behind overpowering instrumentals, she showcases her talent by adding her own creative intonations to the lyrics, thus making the song truly hers.
Grant became famous as "The Queen of Christian Pop" then achieved mainstream crossover success, earning a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She attended Vanderbilt University, the same university I graduated from, and for many years she has held annual events for Christian students at Vandy, as well as community fundraiser benefits at her farm outside Nashville. The Grammy and Dove Award-winning star is married to prominent country music singer Vince Gill.
7. "Winter Wonderland" by Michael Bublé (2011)
If you like the peppiness of the big band sound, then this cover version delivers strong. Michael Bublé offers charismatic vocals in the style of yesteryear's crooners. Three-quarters of the way through this song he really gets down, adding his own personality and creativity in executing the lyrics.
The Canadian singer is a multiple Grammy winner known for his Sinatraesque style. If you're a Bublé devotee, also check out his duet with Rod Stewart from his 2012 "NBC Home for Holidays" special, as Bublé demonstrates how he can musically hold his own singing with the living rock legend.
As a youngster, Bublé used to pray to become a professional hockey player for the Vancouver Canucks. There's a lesson in there about unanswered prayers!
8. "Winter Wonderland" by Johnny Mathis (1958)
Johnny Mathis' voice floats and flutters in this beautiful rendition of "Winter Wonderland" while the background instrumentals provide a dreamy, nostalgic air. The Grammy Hall of Fame artist is particularly noted as a voice of romance. This cover is far superior to Mathis' 2006 collaboration with Bette Midler.
9. "Winter Wonderland" by Sugarland (2009)
This cover is twangier than most with its jammin' guitars and Jennifer Nettles' raspy Southern drawl. If you enjoy country music as I do, then you'll want to grab a partner and boot scoot to this particularly cheerful rendition of "Winter Wonderland." You'll be happily "rocking all the way to Sugarland." Sugarland is a Grammy Award-winning duo known for its series of mainstream crossover successes.
10. "Winter Wonderland" by Gwen Stefani (2017)
Gwen Stefani isn't typically vocally restrained, but in this cover of "Winter Wonderland" she holds back her voice and doesn't fully belt it out. Why do that? As she zoop-zoops her way through this holiday favorite, Stefani allows the dramatic music to take precedence over her vocals, and that's a real shame.
While this cover version is not bad, it is also unremarkable. If it had been released by a less prominent artist, then it would have easily disappeared from radio play before Santa loaded his sleigh.
11. "Winter Wonderland" by Brad Paisley (2006)
Full of playfulness, this cover is a fun country rendering of the Christmas classic, "Winter Wonderland." Brad Paisley alters the lyrics somewhat to give a nod to a Country Music Hall of Famer, Jim Ed Brown, famous for the song, "Pop a Top" (which Alan Jackson rerecorded in 1999.)
Here's how Paisley altered "Winter Wonderland's" lyrics to honor the late Hall of Famer:
In the meadow, we can build a snowman
And pretend that he is Jim Ed Brown
We'll sing "Pop a Top" with Mr. Snowman
When chapel bells are ringing all around.
Brad Paisley is a Grammy Award-winning country singer-songwriter known for his musical versatility—from humorous songs like "Ticks" (2007) to those that are tragic and sentimental like "Whiskey Lullaby (2004)". He is the long-standing co-host of the annual Country Music Association Awards, along with Carrie Underwood.
12. "Winter Wonderland" by Selena Gomez and The Scene (2009)
Selena Gomez has come a long was since the one-time Disney princess left The Scene behind. They were a recurring teen favorite back in their day, and this cover song accordingly reflects it.
The cover has a very teen vibe, hard-driving background instrumentals, and several inexplicable exhortations of "Oww!" Even though Gomez is singing "Walking in a winter wonderland," I swear I think I hear, "Rocking in a winter wonderland." Maybe it's my old ears?
13. "Winter Wonderland" by Eurythmics (1987)
If you're not aware that the Eurythmics' cover has a different intro, you might think you have the wrong song playing. The first two stanzas don't seem to be a stylistic match for the rest of the song, albeit the theme is consistent:
Over the ground lies a mantle of white
A heaven of diamonds shines out through the night
Two hearts a-thrilling
In spite of the chilling weather
Love knows no season, love knows no clime
Romance can blossom any old time
Here in the open
We're walking and hopin' together ... .
I'm not fond of this reimagination of the original song. Nor am I enamored with the prominent electronic background instrumentals in this 80s cover of "Winter Wonderland." They threaten to overpower Annie Lenox's vocals, and that's hard to do. (Dial it down and let us hear her sing.) Eurythmics was a Grammy Award-winning duo that sold an estimated 75 million records globally during their career.
14. "Winter Wonderland" by Jason Mraz
Singer-songwriter Jason Mraz wandered way off the musical script with this cover. Granted, the "I'm Yours" singer to do something different. But it didn't work, at least not in my book. Mraz oversings his lyrics in key parts, offers up meandering "bop-de-bop" improvisational lyrics (yuck), and allows a background singer to echo him. His copycat echo singer comes across like a lady heckler, and the effect is distracting. Do yourself a favor and skip this rendition.
Mraz is a Grammy Award winner and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (2009).
Readers Weigh In
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Questions & Answers
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