This was first published in 2011, but winter’s come again so why not?
As much as I enjoy all of the seasons, I’m glad to see the last flickers of autumnal warmth snuffed out by the cold. I enjoy watching trees shake themselves free of leaves. I like watching my breath roll away as I walk to work. I enjoy hearing the crunch of snow under boot. And I also enjoy the wood crackling in a fire, baking Christmas cookies, and noticing the first snow of the season dancing to the ground.
But what I really love is winter music. Not Christmas music—I do enjoy that too, but I consider “winter music” to be something different. My favorite winter music comes in two flavors: textured slabs of drone (guitar-based or not) or crystalline, atmospheric folk. (As much as I like other genres like jazz and R&B, I haven’t really found many examples that fit the bill here.)
There are many other albums that fall into this category, but for the sake of brevity, I only picked a few to highlight. I wrap up the article with an extended list. It’s not exhaustive (I could add any album by Mogwai there), but it covers some of my favorites.
Hum — Downward is Heavenward (1998, RCA)
Even though their indefinite hiatus as a band is interrupted by reunion shows every few years, Hum put their music career on standby after the release of Downward is Heavenward. What a note to go out on. Hum’s music was dense: waves of feedback and guitar effects coalesced into something quite melodic, and vocalist Matt Talbott’s quiet delivery of cryptic sci-fi poetry barely surfaced in the ocean of noise. Hum seemed equally indebted to the ‘90s shoe-gazer bands, prog metal, and Polish author Stanislaw Lem, and it’s a combination that worked perfectly for them. And I’ll repeat how thick their music sounds.
Though practically overlooked upon its release, Downward is Heavenward has gathered an incredibly positive reputation over the past decade. I think it’s deserved: the album shifts between complex, shimmering epics (“Afternoon With the Axolotls”), space-bound pop rock (“Ms. Lazarus”) and tunes that are somewhere in between (“If You Are To Bloom”). While it’s a warm, rich, loud album, there’s nothing summery about it.
Son Lux — At War With Walls and Mazes (2007, Anticon Records)
Son Lux is one man (Ryan Lott), a handful of repeated lyrical fragments, and thousands of short samples arranged into something magnificent. The album has elements of trip hop and neo-classical music, both resting on a wonderfully ambient shelf. Lott uses sampled tones from opera singers, keyboard drones, string quartets, breakneck drums, and a host more; it’s meticulously constructed and wonderfully downbeat, despite the moments of musical euphoria throughout.
Lott’s brittle voice chimes in from time to time, using lyrical riffs to set the mood. There’s a meditative, monastic aspect to how he pauses between verses, eventually repeating a variation and then repeating it again. “Tell me anything you want to tell me, I have nothing to say,” he sings on “Tell.” He follows it up with “I have nothing to say to you / But you have everything to say to me.” It’s simple, but has impact. That the song is permeated by mournful slide guitar and pulsating samples only heightens this. It’s a chilly album, but there’s a lot of warmth sheltered in the ice.
Idaho — Hearts of Palm (2000, Idaho Music)
Jeff Martin’s music project Idaho started moving away from a full-band rock sound almost immediately after they released their first album in the mid-’90s, but the drift to ambient soundscapes didn’t really register until Hearts of Palm. Martin uses piano and tenor guitar to create frozen skeletons of songs, only sometimes fleshing the music out with drums, bass or additional keyboards. The resulting songs, like “To Be the One” and “Alta Dena,” are hummable without being cloying, pensive without sliding into depressing.
My favorite cut on Hearts of Palm is also my favorite winter song, “This Cloud We’re On.” The warm, fuzzy guitars and shuffling drums part to let in fragile female backing vocals and stark piano. It’s like watching sun briefly cut through the cloud cover on a December day.
Other wintery suggestions:
The Cure — Disintegration
Elliott Smith — Either/Or,
Okkervil River — Black Sheep Boy
Castor — Tracking Sounds Alone
The Twilight Sad — Forget the Night Ahead
Red House Painters — Red House Painters (Rollercoaster)
Eric Bachmann — To the Races
Mogwai — Mr. Beast
Urge Overkill — Exit the Dragon.