In honor of our first snowfall yesterday afternoon, I’ve decided to compile a list of 10 albums to make the transition from fall to winter a little easier. Every great album has its preferred season, from the Beach Boys’ Today in the summertime, to the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society in the spring, and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks during autumn. However, winter albums are a unique sort of breed. It’s hard to escape from the idea of a winter album as a haven for sad bastards. And truth be told, a lot of the albums we love most from December to March are pretty much the saddest of the them all. But some of them are austere and elegant. Some of them are gentle and fuzzy. And some of them are downright harsh and terrifying. So there’s a lot of range going on here. All in all, I hope these albums make the unbearable Buffalo winter a little easier on you, and if it’s another Polar Vortex year….well… See you in Miami.
10. RadioHead – KID A
Perhaps this is a case of reading too much into the giant, snow-capped mountains on the cover of Radiohead’s Kid A, or perhaps it’s the fact that the winter of my freshman year of high school, I listened to Kid A pretty damn regularly. Or perhaps it’s just that Kid A is so atmospheric and isolated, paranoid and eerie, there’s just no untangling it from winter at its harshest. Kid A always seemed to paint the perfect picture of pink skies illuminating through falling snowflakes. Whether the bizarre robotic twinkles of the title track, the hypnotic awakening of mesmerizing opening song “Everything In Its Right Place,” or the weeping progression of waltzing ballad “How to Disappear Completely.” At times, playing Kid A felt as if a winter storm was always imminent, even when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, which is saying a lot. Such is Radiohead’s uniquely chilling talent.
9. Nick Drake – Pink Moon
In his brief career, English troubadour Nick Drake never recorded anything close to a summertime album — not by a long shot. Pink Moon, stripped to the stark production of just Drake’s voice and gentle acoustic guitar, is as wintry and melancholy as they come. “Things Behind the Sun” is the sort of song that’s best heard with only the light of flickering candles. And “Know” and “Parasite” each have a somber bareness about them, as if to mirror trees stripped of their leaves. It’s an achingly beautiful album, and one that ends entirely too soon, but its soft tones and soothing sound make it a source of comfort in the most severe weather.
8. Björk – Homogenic
When Björk began her solo career after splitting with the Sugarcubes, she arrived with a vibrant and bouncy collection of club pop that started her on an experimental and artful path. But it also only hinted at the broad orchestral electronic pop sounds she would ultimately come to embrace. I’ve always associated Björk’s music with winter, but I probably need to clarify that statement a bit. It’s essentially from Homogenic on that is truly the case. With Vespertine, Biophilia and Medulla, she certainly tapped into an alluring, abstract chill. Homogenic, is the one most connected to winter in my mind, an album that finds its soul both in intimate, atmospheric spaces and in soaring pieces of mesmerizing ambition. Maybe it’s second nature to the Icelandic (see also: #6), but Björk has a particular knack for making winter soundtracks.
7. Explosions in the Sky – The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place
I don’t know what it is, but there’s something seasonal about instrumental music: funk is for the springtime, jam bands capture summer, jazz is autumnal, and post-rock perfectly encapsulates the winter. And no post-rock album represents wintertime more than Explosions in the Sky’s acclaimed third album, The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place. The album’s forty-five minutes of instrumental music turn winter numbness into romance, optimism, and ecstasy – and the way this band communicate such strong emotions without using lyrics shows what incredible musicians they are, especially as the only linguistic guidance we have lies in the song titles. While it was released over ten years ago, The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place remains timeless, and I cannot think of a better record to more perfectly soundtrack your transition into our 5 month winter.
6. Sigor Rós – Agaetis Byrjun
Maybe it’s their Icelandic roots, or perhaps it’s their tendency to play slow, epic post-rock dirges strewn with reverb and bowed guitars, but Sigur Rós is practically synonymous with the coldest months of the year. Listening to the band’s breakthrough album, 2000’s Agaetis Byrjun, is akin to watching the sun rise from the edge of the world. Its lengthy tracks creep like ice floes in a polar sea, with standouts like “Sven-G-Englar” and “Ny Batteri” moving gradually, gracefully toward a mighty climax. Agaetis isn’t so much a bitter snowstorm as the lone bonfire on a desolate and frozen stretch of continent.
5. Bon Iver – For Emma
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon spent the winter of 2007 holed up in rural Wisconsin with his guitars, some recording equipment, and a broken heart. When the snow melted, he returned with ten sparse, searching songs that gorgeously evoke the desolate beauty of those surroundings. Vernon’s voice — delicately layered and yearning — gives standouts “Skinny Love” and “Flume” their stunningly direct emotional impact, but his sturdy folk chords, earthy melodies, and plainspoken, pastoral lyrics prevent the album from descending into self-pity. Play Emma when your fire burns low. It’ll help keep you warm.
4. Smashing Pumpkins – Pisces Iscariot
I remember driving home from Washington D.C. over some random weekend in January while listening to this album. It happened as soon as I hit Erie, Pennsylvania. I was hit with a massive snow storm and forced to pull over on the side of the highway for close to 2 hours. I reclined my seat and closed my eyes after I put this record into the 6 disc CD player of my old 2004 Ford Taurus. This collection of B-sides and demos is easily one of the Pumpkins’ most overlooked albums. It also fits in nicely with the winter theme, especially Billy Corgan’s cover of “Landslide.” Corgan is all too familiar with Chicago winters and it shows in this album. It’s loaded with angst and sadness, and speckled with hope. The Pumpkins’ Ava Adore could easily be on this list too.
3. The National – High Violet
In between patches of obtuse imagery, singer Matt Berninger sounds increasingly self-destructive. The record’s upbeat numbers don’t cheer him up so much as commiserate with him. All of this makes High Violet a dark affair, even for a band with a reputation for sad-bastard melodrama. The National have never sounded triumphant, but they can still be reassuring, with Berninger’s lyrics acting as salves for our own neuroses. By March, you’ll be looking for almost any excuse to snap out of your ‘winter funk.’ We all know how it goes… We all know how it goes… Six drinks in, tired of your coworkers, wishing you could just go home and laugh at sitcoms with someone? The National’s got your back. (Just me?….Looks like going to be a long 5 months.)
2. Death Cab For Cutie – Narrow Stairs
Love isn’t watching someone die, contrary to what Ben Gibbard memorably sang on Death Cab for Cutie’s major-label debut. No, love is watching someone grow and change and still staying with them– whether we’re talking about family, friends, romantic interests, or a little college-town indie rock band from about an hour-and-a-half outside Seattle. Death is just the dénouement. In the three years since their platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated Plans, Gibbard and Death Cab producer/guitarist Chris Walla have both entered their thirties, coming off a wave of successes that included 2003’s Transatlanticism going gold and the debut by Gibbard side project the Postal Service becoming Sub Pop’s best-selling disc since Nirvana. That’s a whole lotta love. It goes without saying that Death Cab has a firm grip on melancholy. Just about every one of their albums makes me think of cold, dark winters – especially Narrow Stairs. But for some reason it’s a feeling of warmth in an otherwise cold place. Death Cab is interesting in that the songs can be depressing yet oddly transcending, taking you wherever you want to go.
1. Band of Horses – Cease to Begin
The first approach when picking an album for this bleak midwinter is to look for something that meets you in the snow, something with a chilliness that reflects the dystopian tundra of the world outside your window—we’ll call this the ‘Kid A’ route. (See back to #10) Of course, the other option is to pick something that warms you up—the “Find Your Beach” route, if you will. That’s where you throw on the old stuff (or the stuff that sounds old), the kind with guitars and riffs and super-obvious choruses, with harmonies that fall strictly into major keys. These two roads diverged in a winter-album wood and made things difficult, but I found an album that does both: Band of Horses’ Cease to Begin is a cup of iced liquor, hitting your mouth in a freezing burst, but giving your cheeks a flush just the same. Being one of the more boilerplate semi-southern-rock bands of mid-2000s indie lore (which is not an insult), a summery sound could reasonably be expected from Ben Bridwell’s crew, and it was there to an extent on Band of Horses’ debut, Everything All the Time. But whether they planned a specific departure or I’m just a slave to subconscious associations with the album’s artwork, Cease to Begin wields a guitar-tone and produced sheen that’s the aural equivalent of cold steel on bare skin. Cease to Begin has been called soft, so maybe I’ve spent too much time trying to mount a defense. Probably, the real message should’ve just been this: Lay back and drink that.