What makes an album suited for winter? Should it be the type of record that encourages you to dig in for the season, fortify yourself with blankets and heavily spiked cider, call December through February a wash, and pick things up in March? Or should it be an album to help warm you up, get you moving again, and distract you from all that disgusting brown snow piled up by the side of the road? Whatever your instincts—fight or flight—here are five albums to help you through if you run out of mulled wine.
Before he was 2011’s breakout indie success story, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon made a quiet record in the woods of Wisconsin. He recorded For Emma alone in a small cabin, released it himself, and saw this intimate, intensely personal album slowly gain a devoted following. Rightfully so—For Emma is that strange animal, a break-up album that at once rings true in its depiction of loss while simultaneously soothing those wounds. It’s IcyHot, basically (perfect metaphor, nailed it, etc). In another songwriter’s hands, For Emma might have been cloying or self-indulgent. “Flume” opens the album with a plaintive acoustic guitar, the muse of a million whining sophomores with errant rings in their lips or eyebrows. But once Vernon starts to sing—it’s over. His voice, a falsetto that was somehow blessed with heft underneath its choirboy register, weaves itself into his ghostly compositions like a surgeon’s needle and threat, indelible and permanently affecting. Listening to For Emma, you wonder why anyone would ever want the temperature to climb back above freezing.
Moving from the country to the city, Burial’s Untrue is a headphones album for anyone familiar with the way a concrete jungle transforms itself into a blasted, sterile heath once the first ice starts to freeze on the sidewalks. The UK dubstep pioneer was wobbling basslines back when “Skrillex” just sounded like an overpriced set of Made-for-TV titanium cookware. Put this record on at your next kegger, and you’re likely to be sent straight to your frat’s disciplinary board (they have those, right? Perfect, loved college, carry on). Put it on your iPod while you slide your way across black ice to pick up some milk and rolling papers at the corner shop, though, and you’ll be on a different planet. “Etched Headplate” or “Shell of Light” won’t make the frozen apartment blocks seem charming, per se, but they’ll help bring a gritty, melancholy prettiness to them.
You’re snowed in—what better time to dedicate yourself to unraveling Joanna Newsom’s lyrical contortions? Less immediately beguiling than her debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004), but more approachable (seriously) than her triple-disc opus, Have One on Me (2010), Ys is Newsom’s strongest, most visceral work. Strange, I know, to use that last adjective when describing an album full of Van Dyke Parks’s orchestral wizardry and SAT-friendly Newsomisms like “hydrocephalitic” and “asterisms”. But Ys hits with an emotional force strong enough to push past those multisyllabic tripwires, buoyed by melodies as graceful as anything in your church hymnal. Newsom, more than any other lyricist writing today, creates images as transportive as a rocket and as vivid as an Ansel Adams print the size of a bay window. A track like “Emily” or the heartrending “Sawdust & Diamonds” proves more immersive than any “eye-popping” 3D dreck at your local theater—and a lot cheaper, too. “There’s a rusty light on the pines tonight,” Newsom sings (and she really does sing; ignore your friends who complain about her voice, so much improved from her early material), “Sun pouring wine, Lord, or marrow / Down into the bones of the birches / And the spires of the churches / Jutting out from the shadows.” In other words, your winter window’s view.
How many times has the word “glacial” been used in a Sigur Rós review? Is it every time? Impossible to say. (It’s every time.) But for good reason. The Icelandic post-post-rock group begs for pretentious, wide-lends descriptors: epic, soundscape, panoramic. Blame us, the critics, not them. Sigur Rós makes music designed to inflate your sense of self-importance—try not feeling like you’re a movie star in your own biopic while listening to the group’s songs. Buying arugula at the grocery store? Cinematic. Scrubbing at that Merlot stain on your carpet? Poignant. Shaving your neck? Heartfelt. ( ), the somewhat more minimal follow-up to the band’s breakout record, the symphonic Ágætis byrjun (1999), is dark and moody, but it can chase away your Seasonal Affective Disorder by sheer virtue of making you feel like the cameras are rolling, the lights are shining, and the world wants you, you, you.
And here’s an album for the thaw. The Very Best, comprised of DJ duo Radioclit and honey-voiced vocalist Esau Mwamwaya, put epicurean tastes toward undeniable results. Equal parts hip-hop, Afropop, and a stew of club music, Warm Heart of Africa is one of the most effusive, thoroughly warming records of the last decade. Mwamwaya, born in Malawi, mostly sings in his native Chichewa, and (like Sigur Rós) he uses this foreign tongue to transform—for his English-speaking listeners, anyway—his voice into more of an instrument than a directly communicative tool. You might not know what he’s saying, but his preternatural gift for melody does well enough to supply you with the proper feeling. And that feeling, more times than not, is sheer joy. When all the snow and chapped skin and relentless grey just gets to be too much, give Warm Heart of Africa a spin and let the Very Best bring summer your way.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.