After several days of respite (and 50 degree temperatures), Mother Nature saw fit to bring winter back with a vengeance and plunged Lincoln back into freezing temperatures. So of course, my mind immediately turned to soundtracking this weather, getting in a wintry frame of mind, and hopefully, making it through the long winter nights in one piece.
Some of these albums will put you right in the thick of harsh winter storms. Others are better-suited for gazing out the window while wrapped in a comfy blanket, warm beverage in hand. But all of them are albums that I tend to gravitate towards once the skies turn grey, the mercury drops, and the snow begins to fall.
No Solace in Sleep by Aarktica
Aarktica’s 2000 debut set the bar high for all of his subsequent albums, due to its stirring guitar drones and atmospherics. After Jon DeRosa lost all hearing in his right ear, he turned to music as an attempt to replicate the aural hallucinations he experienced on a regular basis. As such, No Solace in Sleep is very dreamlike, somber, otherworldly, ethereal, mysterious… and on go the adjectives.
While not necessarily a winter-themed album, it’s difficult to listen to “Indie” with its echoing and reverberating notes, and not see sunlight glinting off the ice. On a darker note, “Inebria” is DeRosa at his most hallucinatory, creating howling, swirling drones that sweep through the listener’s ear like winter winds rattle the windows.
No Solace in Sleep ends with the harrowing “I Remember Life Above the Surface,” which finds DeRosa whipping his guitar sounds into a blizzard-like frenzy and unleashing them on the unsuspecting listener. It’s not the prettiest song DeRosa’s ever written, but it is one of the most bracing.
50 Words for Snow by Kate Bush
Released in 2011, 50 Words for Snow opens with “Snowflake,” a ballad that’s sung partially from a snowflake’s perspective as it muses on its existence and purpose. Later, in “Misty,” Bush sings about a torrid love affair with a snowman. As such, I don’t blame you if you want to dismiss Kate Bush as eccentric and whimsical.
But tossing around such adjectives does nothing to diminish the beauty that flows through her lush, dreamy music. “Snowflake,” for example, becomes a haunting treatise on life’s ephemerality as Bush weaves together solemn piano, clattering drums, and delicate strings. Likewise, the album ends with “Among Angels,” a haunting piano ballad during which Bush bids farewell to a dearly departed loved one.
But the album’s highlight is “Snowed In at Wheeler Street,” a duet with Elton John about two immortal lovers who find themselves unstuck in time, doomed to be reunited only during great tragedies (e.g., World War 2, 9/11, the burning of Rome). The song is filled with grief, longing, and tension that’s aided by the pulsing electronics; when John cries out “I don’t want to lose you again,” it’s absolutely heart-wrenching.
Victorialand by Cocteau Twins
While bassist Simon Raymonde was working on This Mortal Coil, remaining Cocteau Twins Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie set to work on their fourth album. The result wasn’t just the most atmospheric album in the Cocteau Twins’ catalog, but also an album of singular beauty. Victorialand — which takes its name from Antarctica’s Victoria Land region — is a dreampop album par excellence, emphasis on the “dream” part.
The album opens with the aptly titled “Lazy Calm,” its languid (and heavily processed) acoustic guitars and woozy saxophone (courtesy of Dif Juz’s Richard Thomas) eventually giving way to Fraser’s angelic voice. When her voice rings out, it’s the music equivalent of an aurora unfolding in the skies above. “Whales Tails” has a similar effect, as Fraser sings and sighs against a cascade of shimmering notes.
“Throughout the Dark Months of April and May” is more somber thanks to Guthrie’s acoustic guitar and Fraser’s pensive tone, and “The Thinner the Air” ends the album on a dark, mysterious note. No mere mortal will ever be able to decipher Fraser’s glossolalia, but the effect is haunting as Fraser wails like she’s watching the long Antarctic winter slowly creep in.
Cold House by Hood
Hood’s Rustic Houses, Forlorn Valleys and The Cycle of Days and Seasons are excellent pieces of pastoral post-rock. They take the experimentation of Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock and fuse it with an autumnal-ness that makes you want to don a jacket and take a meandering walk through the English countryside on a crisp September day.
2001’s Cold House finds the group returning to that same countryside, only to find it locked in the depths of winter. The arrangements are sparser and more fragile (e.g., “Enemy of Time“‘s haunting piano melody) and the lyrics, when decipherable, create a sense of grief and loss. What really brings in the chill, though, is the group’s growing reliance on glitchy electronic sounds. Listening to the brittle textures of “The Winter Hit Hard,” it’s easy to imagine your speakers slowing becoming encased in ice. Elsewhere, the twisting electronic grooves on “This Is What We Do to Sell Out(s)” suggest an Autechre recording session somewhere in the middle of the Arctic tundra.
To Hood’s credit, such elements never seem gimmicky or detract from the music’s overall emotional effect. Cold House, like all other Hood albums, makes you yearn to meander through the countryside. Only this time, you’ll need something a lot warmer than a jacket.
Tiefe Berge by Emil Klotzsch
In the early ‘00s, Emil Klotzsch travelled to the remote Scottish highlands “to create a sonic exploration of this cinematic area of the world” utilizing field recordings of the natural sounds, e.g., streams, wind, birds, distant rainstorms. At their best, field recordings can place you right in the middle of an environment without you ever removing your headphones or leaving your seat.
Tiefe Berge is a very fine example of this. You might find yourself shivering at the oncoming rain or even see visions of the craggy highlands overlaying the real world. As Klotzsch puts it, “you just feel that much smaller” hiking through the highlands, and to his credit, listening to Tiefe Berge creates a similar feeling. Everything around you seems to fade away until you feel as if you’re there on your own, in solitude surrounded by the black lakes.
So what makes this a good winter release? Winter is the most isolating season, even if you’re in your own house with loved ones. The snow and cold cuts you off from the outside world; even in a city, it’s easy to feel like you’re on your own. But the majestic environs conjured up by Tiefe Berge prove that solitude needn’t be isolating only. It can be sublime and transcendent, as well.
Permafrost by Thomas Köner
While many of the albums on this list get a bit dark and ominous, those qualities are frequently offset by moments of beauty and light. After all, winter can be a very beautiful season, what with the purity and tranquility of newly fallen snow. However, there’s no such light to be found in Thomas Köner’s Permafrost.
Winter’s beautiful but there does come a time when it seems like it will never end, like the ice and snow and cold will never give way to spring but instead, continue on forever. Consisting entirely of deep, ominous drones — all created with gongs and homemade wind instruments — Permafrost lives up to its title, conjuring up a land forever trapped in the cold, never to know warmth again.
Köner’s ability to sculpt drifts of pure sound into compositions whose depth and darkness are as fascinating as they are harrowing (e.g., the cavernous sounds on “Firn”) is second to none. If you’ve ever found yourself wrestling with seasonal affective disorder and feeling yourself go mad at the thought of even one more day of winter, then you might appreciate Permafrost’s claustrophobic sounds.
Labradford by Labradford
Labradford’s 1995 self-titled album begins with the sound of chains dragged over a metal canister. Which seems random, but there’s something about those metallic sounds, as well as the ominous tones and muffled rhythms that slowly begin massing, that’ll lower your room’s temperature by a good ten degrees. By the time the album segues into “Mid-Range“‘s languid guitars and whispered vocals, you can practically see your breath in the air.
Arguably the Virginia trio’s finest album, Labradford packs a lot of atmosphere into its 40 minutes, thanks largely to Carter Brown’s keyboards and Chris Johnston’s violin. And while all of Labradford’s albums possess a cinematic vastness à la Ennio Morricone, songs like “Pico” and “Scenic Recovery” possess a sense of intimacy that sets Labradford apart from the rest.
It all leads up to “Battered,” one of Labradford’s best songs. It starts off slowly with plucked guitar sounds, organ drone, and satellite beeps, while Mark Nelson’s whisper intones cryptically on the periphery. But then the trio begin jamming: Robert Donne’s bass moves in unpredictable ways, Nelson’s guitar sweeps in on waves of reverb, and Brown’s organ noodling trips high overhead. The song induces a sense of wintery wanderlust; you want it as the soundtrack for the next time you head down some abandoned highway on a frozen January night.
Memories Fade Under a Shallow Autumn Snow by Language Of Landscape
Each soft piano note, hovering guitar texture, and sample that drifts and settles throughout Memories Fade Under a Shallow Autumn Snow does so with the fragility and impact of a snowflake. By itself, a single snowflake isn’t much. But their cumulative effect can have a transformative effect, turning even plain and drab places into sublime and beautiful sights. Similarly, Language of Landscape’s 2010 debut seems minimal at first, but the songs’ cumulative effect is powerful.
The duo of Cory Zaradur and Chris Tenz (who, sadly, committed suicide in 2016) craft music so delicate and fragile that you’re afraid to take a breath, for fear that you might break the spell. This is especially true during “And the Rain Embraced Our Closing Words,” a sparse piece that recalls Arvo Pärt’s exquisite compositions, and is bound to get you feeling quite contemplative during its fifteen minutes — perfect for when it’s too cold to go outside.
I Could Live in Hope by Low
Low dislike the term “slowcore” used to describe their music. But when you create the prototypical slowcore release with your debut album, as they did with 1994’s I Could Live in Hope, you’d probably feel its usage is unnecessary, too. Together with bassist John Nichols (who went on to form the sadly overlooked Best Boy Electric), Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker crafted an absolutely captivating album.
The songs on I Could Live in Hope are slow, no doubt about it, moving and developing at a glacial pace. Each note that Sparhawk coaxes from his Telecaster or Nichols from his bass, each brush of Parker’s snare — they’re all deliberate. Nothing is rushed, but neither is anything wasted; each song unfolds deliberately, carefully, inexorably.
You’ll either find the trio’s minimalist aesthetic unbearable, or you’ll sit there completely transfixed. But I suspect that once you hear Sparhawk and Parker’s sublime vocal harmonies, particularly on “Words,” it’ll be the latter.
Cold by Lycia
Lycia’s early albums, including Ionia and A Day in the Stark Corner, were heavily influenced by the barren desert landscapes surrounding Mike VanPortfleet’s Arizona home. But when he moved to Ohio, he found inspiration in a new type of barren landscape. Or as he put it in a 2013 interview, “We recorded in winter, and the snow and the cold and the sense of isolation really found its way into the music.”
Boy, did it ever. Lycia’s Cold more than lives up to its name. Veins of ice flow through each one of its nine songs, from the brittle guitars and inexorable rhythms to VanPortfleet’s chilled whispers and Tara Vanflower’s crystalline voice. It’s a daunting album, and arguably Lycia’s finest album to date (even VanPortfleet thinks so).
As with all of Lycia’s catalog, it’s tempting to dismiss Cold as something for goths only. And no doubt, many a goth has donned the black to sway and spin to this album. But songs like “Bare,” “Baltica,” and “Drifting” possess an elegance that, like their forebears in Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance, allow Lycia to transcend any such obvious and easy classifications.
Memories of a Color by Stina Nordenstam
On her 1991 debut, Swedish singer/songwriter Stina Nordenstam is by turns cloying and coquettish, poignant and sentimental. Much of that is due to her childlike voice, which can be an acquired taste à la Björk and Cranes’ Alison Shaw. Musically, the album veers from jazzy pop (“Memories of a Color”) to plaintive ballads (“His Song”). But even at its most upbeat, the album has a melancholy undercurrent that makes you want to stare pensively out the window at night, watching the snow settle on the ground, illuminated only by the streetlights.
The album’s emotional crux arrives in “Alone at Night,” a shadowy torchsong with Nordenstam backed by a ghostly choir of her own vocals and sparse string arrangements, and “Soon After Christmas,” a piano-based ballad that would be sappy and mawkish if not for the tenderness and longing in Nordenstam’s vocals and lyrics.