In the past couple of years, no album has come close that delivers the devastating emotional blow that Hospice delivers. In fact, it was our album of the year back in 2009. The narrative of the concept album centers on the relationship between a hospice worker and a terminally-ill patient, while hitting upon themes of depression that are not detailed explicitly but rather symbolically. I couldn’t imagine another vocalist singing these lyrics than Peter Silberman, whose yearning, delicate falsettos add more dynamic to the emotional delicacy of the songs. The lo-fi production combined with the lush instrumentation that includes hazy guitars and hollow drums that leave the album feeling isolated from the world. This allows the focus to solely be on the characters and their story. Everything I’ve mentioned has nothing to do with winter in a literal sense, but metaphorically, Hospice is chilling enough that it can weather up its own heart-breaking blizzard.
Winter is all over Band Of Horses’ 2007 sophomore LP Cease To Begin. From the album cover that depicts a moon shining over the darkened water to the opening barnstorming anthem of “Is There A Ghost?,” which uses spare lyrics to touch on the cold weather themes of death, loneliness, exhaustion, and isolation. Even when the album is at its sunniest, the harmonizing hoedown of “The General Specific,” the light atmosphere it betrayed by lyrics that reveal it’s “80 degrees, the end of December was comin’ on.” Here in Los Angeles, it really has been 80 degrees throughout the winter and Band Of Horses’ under-appreciated release can seem like a perfect soundtrack, with a mix of sweetly delicate confessionals like “No One’s Gonna Love You,” slowed-down country swooners like “Marry Song,” and straight-ahead rockers like “Islands On The Coast,” reminding that winter doesn’t always have to be cold, and it doesn’t always have to be quiet, but the spirit of the season remains no matter what climate you come from.
– Philip Cosores
“Is There A Ghost?”
Click here to listen to Cease to Begin on Spotify.
[Sub Pop; 2010]
It seems ironic that I would choose a band called Beach House for a winter soundtrack. The name makes me think of seagulls cawing, the horrible feeling of sand in between your toes and the pain of walking across a stony beach in bare feet. Teen Dream is far from this, evoking imagery of the joy of snow falling whilst watching it from inside. With Victoria LeGrand’s crisp, breathy vocals and warm harmonies from Alex Scally provide the perfect balance between the unbearable cold journeys out during winter and the relief of warmth when you reach your destination.
Thank the Icelandic gods that Björk fell in love with artist Matthew Barney, for their union was one of the greatest things to happen to music. Björk’s once-in-a-lifetime fount of inspiration produced Vespertine, an album designed to evoke the concept of being cooped up with your lover during the winter months. Of course, skeptics might say Björk has perpetuated the Vespertine-as-winter-album mythology so much that we listeners cannot divorce ourselves from the association. That may be true, but you have to concede that the production on Vespertine is meticulously engineered to embody the sounds of the frigid Icelandic tundra, such as the deeply textured microbeats which evoke footsteps on the frozen ground. As if that wasn’t enough winter, she had a music box specially made for the album, requesting that it sound as tinny and twinkling as possible in order to maximize the delicate, snowy soundscapes. What would winter be without the occasional Vespertine spin? I don’t even dare imagine.
Sure, the Blood Bank cover art makes this extended play a dead giveaway to make our list. But well beyond the most cosmetic of surfaces lies a group of songs perfect for the winter season: “Blood Bank” is in part about becoming trapped in fresh snowfall, “Beach Baby” and “Babys” may be more sprightly in nature, but deal equally with somber narratives that seem so much more vivid amid the backdrop of the season, and the minimalist “Woods” crawls at a pace best suited for those cold months where time, not just nature, has a tendency to feel frozen.
Justin Vernon has been hailed for his solo work, leaving Blood Bank lost somewhere in the shuffle. But the songs that make up this EP represent some of the best songwriting of Vernon’s young career. The title track and “Beach Baby” read like poetic confessionals, with the former staking a decent claim to the throne of best single Bon Iver track yet.
It’s in the name and it’s all over El-P’s dystopic futuristic production: this is a cold record. For my money, The Cold Vein is the most atmospheric hip-hop record ever recorded. Jaime Meline has never since reached the heights or cohesion of The Cold Vein‘s icy psychedelia and MCs Vast Aire and Vordul Mega have never sounded so deliciously prophetic and paranoid. The Cold Vein feels like Manhattan beneath a grey nuclear winter, still crippled in post-apocalypse by everyday socioeconomic struggles. Of course, the perpetual season is more a canvas and a feeling than a reality, but the trio create a thick atmosphere of oppressive displacement and doom only to find cathartic release on the one-two closer of “Pigeon”/”Scream Phoenix.”
– Will Ryan
“Straight Off the D.I.C.”
Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon
Although Devendra Banhart and his usual collaborators recorded Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon in sunny Southern California’s Laurel Canyon, it is far from what I would consider light. Banhart recorded this album after his relationship with Brazilian singer Cibelle shattered and heartache can be felt throughout the 2007 release. The raw emotion is perfect for a contemplative winter night.
Banhart’s sorrow and pain is interspersed among strange and trippy songs like “Shabop Shalom” and “The Other Woman.” “Seahorse,” the album’s gem, focuses on the uncertainty of life and what lies in wait after death. Banhart sings “I know it ain’t easy / Being left on your own / Why did you leave me / Well I don’t really know / And why wait another day / When a day won’t change a thing” on the track “Bad Girl.” The melancholic call for freedom on “Freely” washes over the listener like the imminent destruction of a wave as it crashes onto the shore. Album closer “My Dearest Friend” shows a vulnerable human being, certain he’ll die of loneliness.
Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon switches between acoustic folk songs like “So Long Old Bean,” funky rock songs like “Carmensita” and strange numbers like “Tonada Yanomaminista.” It’s not the most accessible Banhart album, but it’s certainly the most heartfelt.
– Nicholas Preciado
Click here to listen to Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon on Spotify.
The Coldest Season
[Modern Love; 2007]
Perhaps it’s a bit on the nose, but the first record from Echospace, the collaboration between Deepchord’s Rod Modell and Stephen Hitchell, captures winter so thoroughly that it couldn’t be left off this list. Working within the realm of cavernous Deepchord dub techno and infinite analog reverberation, the duo build a swirling hour and twenty minute alpine journey. Shuttering synths arc in tangled waves while gusts of cold wind rise and fall around the tightly woven dance grooves and 4/4 kick. Despite The Coldest Season being an ode to winter, the record is surprisingly cozy. When the warm and immediate hooks land it’s like that first brush of warmth coming inside after being caught in a subzero snowstorm.
– Will Ryan
“First Point of Aries”
Winter’s association with death needs no explaining, and no one tackles death quite like Eels did with their 1998 album Electo-Shock Blues. The album surrounds lead singer Mark Oliver Everett (or “E”) as he comes to terms with both his sister’s suicide and his mother’s death from lung cancer. It’s a tough, emotional listen, with tracks like “Dead Of Winter,” which pulls no punches in discussing the details of dying from cancer, finding resonance whether you have dealt directly with the issues at hand or not. Musically, the album (which received arrangement help from noted artists Jon Brion and T-Bone Burnett) can embrace the bleak reality that is ever-present, as on “Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor” or “Going To Your Funeral Part 1,” or they can juxtapose the themes with bright, sparkling instrumentation, as on “Last Stop: This Town.” Ultimately, Electo-Shock Blues is a strange album, in that it is far ahead of anything in terms of quality that Eels have ever recorded, and it took such head-on public coping to create such profound art. As it closes, E leaves the listener with the final realization that “maybe it’s time to live”; an encouragement that makes the most sense when things are at their chilly worst.
– Philip Cosores
“Dead of Winter”
“Last Stop: This Town”
Click here to listen to Electro-shock Blues on Spotify.
Explosions in the Sky
The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place
[Temporary Residence; 2003]
Though the title of this album may seem ironic to the feature, this instrumental masterpiece is everything but. As with all instrumental bands, they communicate their narrative through their music, and most of the time, their song titles. “The Only Moment When We Were Alone” and “Your Hand in Mine” provide themes of joy and love, while “Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean” and “Memorial” are of desolation and despair. Keeping those titles in mind, they can probably trigger memories that relate to those titles. The beauty of instrumental music is that it encourages you to form your own narrative of the music, or brings upon reflection of the self or the world around you. This internalization is the kind of thing people do during the winter since they tend to stay indoors and this album is certainly a mood-setter. The weaving guitars and precise drumming intertwine to form brooding melodies and beautiful crescendos that crash together in a cold climax. The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place essentially symbolizes the winter season. There are moments of cold weather that lead to subtle hints of snow. Before you know it, a blizzard arrives without any hint of warning.
– Ace Ubas
“The Only Moment When We Were Alone”
Click here to listen to The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place on Spotify.