December is here, which inspired the following question from A.V. Club editor Kelsey J. Waite:
What’s your favorite winter music?
As this is still America (for now, anyway, am I right, folks?), I associate winter songs only and exclusively with Christmas. And while I have my favorites in the new yuletide canon, the only traditional holiday song that isn’t absolute garbage is the darkest one there is, “Carol Of The Bells.” You can spare me your Trans-Siberian Orchestras or your heavy metal covers of the Mykola Leontovych classic, though, because “COTB” is already fundamentally metal as hell, a minor-key ode to the cold, ominous brutality of winter (no matter how many cheery lyrics people stick on it). Any Christmas carol that wouldn’t sound out of place as the final boss theme for a video game is exactly what I want when the chill sets in.
For me, nothing evokes winter quite like sparse, acoustic folk music. In my head, it’s pretty much the aural equivalent of snow-dusted trees and a quiet night in front of a fireplace. There are countless albums and artists that would fit the bill, but the one that immediately comes to mind is Bon Iver’s debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. Justin Vernon actually recorded most of it alone in a remote cabin, and that sense of frigid isolation permeates every second of it. But, and this is the key to good wintry music, there’s a gentle warmth to it, too. It’s there in Vernon’s quiet, ever-present falsetto and the joyous one-man hootenanny of “Skinny Love,” in the buzzing guitars of “Flume” and the dynamic peaks and valleys of “Creature Fear.” I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that Vernon’s music, at least his earliest work under the Bon Iver moniker, is such perfect winter-time listening. The name is literally just a bastardized translation of the French phrase for “good winter.”
It’s finally started to snow in Chicago, which means that it’s time for me to add El Arpa De Gonzalo Castro Con El Conjunto Los Gatos—a lovely, little-known, vaguely yuletide-sounding LP by the Ecuadorian harpist Gonzalo Castro—back to my regular listening rotation. I’m not sure where I first came across this gem; it was probably on of one of those rare-album-rip blogs that proliferated in the mid-2000s-to-early-2010s heyday of RapidShare and Megaupload. This is the music I reach for when I’m writing, cooking, or cleaning in the dark winter months. After a decade of listening, it’s only grown cozier for me. Hopefully, it’ll charm you, too, dear reader.
For me, winter music has to have an aura of loneliness to match the barren trees and biting wind, and Lucinda Williams writes some of the loneliest songs out there. Much of Williams’ music is influenced by her native Louisiana, but “Minneapolis,” the ninth song off of Williams’ characteristically aching 2003 album World Without Tears, brings her sensibility to the Upper Midwest. Frozen in their sorrow like a blackened tree branch encased in ice, the narrator waits for a lost love who appears to be gone forever. Williams uses the gray chill of a Minnesota winter to evoke the numbness of waiting for that which will probably never arrive: The lyrics “Dead leaves of December / Thin-skinned and splintered” could apply to the bone-chilling cold outside the singer’s window or to their brittle emotional state. It’s a sad song, perfect for staring out a frost-covered train window in mid-February, watching the silent, snow-covered city below.
Maybe because I grew up in a place where winters are brief and mild, I never thought about cold-weather music beyond Christmas songs. I still don’t, even though I’ve managed to live for two decades in a place infamous for its winters. Chicago’s winters feel endless, so “winter music” is basically “music.” That said, “Cold Enough To Break” by Knapsack captures a wintry mood, and it’s not just because of the sleigh bells ringing on the quarter notes. Knapsack made its name with loud guitars in the second wave of emo, but “Cold Enough To Break” is all about quiet restraint: an undistorted guitar, singer-guitarist Blair Shehan’s breathy vocals, strings, the occasional beat on a tom. Profound regret adds to the mood as Shehan sings, “It’s cold enough to break / Beneath the weight of this mistake / And no one can tell me it’s all right.” Sleigh bells never sounded so mournful.
I own everything by Grouper, but all of those records, like my heaviest boots, stay stored away until the first snowfall. Liz Harris makes the kind of ambient, ethereal pop that only makes sense when paired with a freezing wind rattling through bare trees. Put it on even a month earlier, when there’s still sunlight and vegetation, and it just evaporates; it needs the cold weight of the surrounding world to bring out its stark, gray beauty. Harris’ gorgeous, multi-tracked voice—often barely rising above a murmur—combines with the low crackling hum of synth drone, finger-picked guitar shimmers, and pianos that evoke empty rooms, forming the ideal soundtrack for another bleak Chicago winter where the city feels like one big abandoned house.
I was raised in long johns and parkas, gliding across ice rinks and down snowy hills, but none of that prepared me for all the times I’d drag my near-frozen carcass from one end of Michigan State University’s campus to the other in the early months of 2004. Those treks—which felt endless at the time but now look laughably short on Google Maps—gave me the time to become intimately familiar with a handful of CDs, none of which were suited to the task like a lovingly Sharpied bootleg of The Execution Of All Things by Rilo Kiley. Recorded by a bunch of Angelenos shivering through the Nebraskan cold, the LP made the perfect complement to this deep immersion into winter, just as the chilly environs of Execution Of All Things’ recording sessions were a fitting backdrop for Rilo Kiley’s songs about heartbreak, isolation, and quarter-life crises. My long walks with “All The Good That Won’t Come Out” (“It’s such a big mistake / Standing here on this frozen lake”) and “Capturing Moods” (“There’s life and work up where the clouds meet the snow”) have in some respect trapped my musical tastes in a block of ice, rendering me a frozen caveman listener who’s always going to be a sucker for a chiming guitar and Sprechgesang vocals that hide the feelings they’re speak-singing. But then the days get shorter, the temperatures dip back into my frosty comfort zone, and I’m once more pumping The Execution Of All Things into my headphones-cum-ear muffs.
I get nostalgic as the weather gets colder, which leads me toward familiar, comforting vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, and Judy Garland. Granted, there’s a lot of holiday music in the mix, but Frank Sinatra’s Songs For Swingin’ Lovers fits the bill all the way through until March. His previous album, 1955’s In The Wee Small Hours, is most definitely rainy day music, as Frank morosely struggled to get over his breakup with Ava Gardner—a greater album for wallowing you will never find. By 1956, their divorce still wasn’t final, but at least Sinatra’s career was flourishing, and Frank was bouncing back. That year’s Swingin’ Lovers features some Cole Porter and Gershwin brothers classics, with a trying-to-sound-secure-again Sinatra selling “Anything Goes” and “Our Love Is Here To Stay.” He even ends with the cheeky, lighthearted query “How About You?,” concluding the perfect indoor soundtrack to keep cheeriness intact until we Chicagoans can venture outside again.
If you google “Vespertine” today, you get a bunch of recent articles of food critics dunking on some pretentious L.A. eatery. For me, though, the word is forever connected with Björk’s fifth album. It’s not her best (that’d be Homogenic), nor is it even particularly her warmest (that’d be the recent Utopia), but it is the most interior—something warm and glowing amid a wintry wild. It recalls that much-maligned notion of “hygge,” a Danish term that came in vogue last year and which encapsulates the coziness and comfort one finds indoors during winter. Vespertine employed audio Björk recorded around her home, as well as ethereal electronic choruses that seem to recreate the feeling of a day comfortably spent indoors, deep inside a book. There’s something idyllic about the entire vision, but I associate it just as much with long drives through Ohio winters, as well as trudges through the snow in Chicago. When the majesty of winter fades, and everything turns to slush, and I’m furiously scraping ice off a windshield, I return to Vespertine to briefly remember why I put up with it all.
It looks like I’m far from alone in finding the muffled atmosphere of a frozen winter day to be the ideal situation for spare, ethereal music. Naturally, as a Minnesotan in spirit if not by birthplace, that’s why I turn to Low during the cold months between Thanksgiving and Easter; the band’s minimalist aesthetic and gorgeous, languid music has kept me company through many a frigid, sunless day, the perfect accompaniment to an environment that looks shut down on the surface while thriving behind the scenes. Did I move back to the Midwest so I would be driven to listen to more Low, or do I listen to more Low so that I’ll stay? I may never know.