Battle of the Christmas Classic
Who performed the best take on the chestnut Winter Wonderland? My favorite three takes.
ORIGINALLY COMPOSED IN 1934 by Felix Bernard and lyricist Richard Bernhard Smith, there are over 4.8 million recorded versions of Winter Wonderland.
The song’s lighthearted narrative has a downbeat origin. Bernhard Smith, a native of Honesdale, Pennsylvania, was inspired to write the lyrics after seeing the city’s Central Park covered in snow while being treated for tuberculosis in a sanitarium.
Anyway—[cough]—here are my top three favorites and why I consider Amy Grant’s the most engaging. (Yes, Amy Grant—STFU).
Though first, two other excellent arrangements:
• Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart's dead-zone electronica version, from the very first A Very Special Christmas album, is beguiling. Super spooky and disconcerting when it debuted in 1987. I recall my grandmother hearing it and declaring, “Something’s wrong. This just isn’t right.”
Oh, but yes it was. Smartly, Lennox preserves the song’s charming pre-amble (“romance can blossom any ole time…”), while eerie synths start to churn, whip-snap, and spit—morphing into a blunt but catchy backbeat (very Tim Burton meets Kraftwerk.) The perfect tune for your very first Dimethyltryptamine Xmas.
• And then there's Darlene Love’s romp from Phil Spector’s album A Christmas Gift for You (the entire project is a rare, instant classic within the holiday music hall of fame).
This is a toss-up for me, between Peggy Lee's taut, super-cool jazzanova and Darlene’s Hullaballoo-inspired tarantella.
But I always go with the Love.
The song kicks off like a garden-variety Mitch Miller treacle, but then some brisk descending chords push you straight into Phil’s looming Wall of Sound. Pounding drums, itchy maracas, and, best of all, what sounds like hijacked snippets from Tchaikovsky (a genius flourish). And of course mega-volumes of fat-making echo.
This is a 1960s version of swing and Love's vocals are all teenage wishin’ hopin’ and prayin’. It can’t get much better. Or corny.
• Amy Grant recorded the song twice, and it’s her first take, from the Home For Christmas disc that moves me. Oddly, her second attempt, years later, pounds the song into pulp with the big band affectation.
Not a powerful vocalist, Grant can still deliver dry, clear vocals, and like Karen Carpenter, her enunciation has a beguiling innocence about it. It’s a natural sounding stratum of the feminine spirit that, oddly, very few female vocalists generate nowadays.
Speaking of the Carpenters, the song’s arrangement is a bouncy, faux jazz extravaganza, glittery and gentle—similar to something Richard would have concocted for his sister; which means, eventually, the whole affair skirts the edge of kitsch.
But then that’s in keeping with what Winter Wonderland is all about.
We’ve heard the song so many times that we take for granted that it’s one of Christmas time’s most romantically hopeful declarations. A snowy dream field come to life. A perfect holiday crush.