What does winter sound like? Is it best soundtracked by warm, cozy sonics that fit themselves snuggly into our ears like a child curled near a crackling fireplace? Or do angular, glacial sounds better match the cold and isolation the season often brings?
Ink’s music writers have been reflecting on this dichotomy as VCU’s campus plunges into the winter. In this collaborative piece, they recommend their go-to winter albums representing the two dueling sides of the season.
Listen to the playlist extension of this piece on Ink’s Spotify –
“Admiral Fell Promises” by Sun Kil Moon encapsulates the cold and apathetic nature of a rainy, overcast winter. The album’s slow, melancholic melodies evoke a sense of loneliness and sadness, feelings synonymous with the dreary season. Each track rambles on meditatively in a way that becomes dissociatively delicious.
Two of the tracks particularly embody this sentiment. The first, “Alesund,” begins with soft acoustic guitar notes that turn into a complex, finger-picking riff, becoming the song’s mantra. The desolate combination of despairing chords combined with Mark Kozelek’s layered vocals creates a dramatically sorrowful tone that endures for the rest of the song. He sings, “Your calm hypnotic eyes/Your Scandinavian glow/I felt them like a flame/Kindlin’ my cold bones.” This lyric shows the apathy and dullness one feels in the depths of winter, and the beauty that can come along with that feeling. It perfectly illustrates the dismal yet delightful feeling of a long winter and the comfort that one can have in stagnation.
The second track on the album, “Half Moon Bay,” begins much like “Alesund,” with a fingerstyle riff that sets the mood for the rest of the song. Many lyrics repeat again immediately after they are said (multiple times in the track), which adds to the pensive and static quality of the song. This track feels like waking to overcast weather and a slight drizzle for the third week in a row in the dead of winter. The lyrics go, “And nothing clears these stains/Not the January rains/Rising in the streets.” These ruminations, in both imagery and sentiment, bring to mind the emotions that come along with the bleak iciness of winter.
“Depression Cherry” by Beach House embodies all of the cheerful feelings associated with a winter filled with tenderness, coziness, and ardency. Instead of focusing on the chilling nature of the season, the album favors the warmth that comes along with sitting by a fireplace with a full belly or ice skating with a lover. “Depression Cherry” is filled to the brim with love. The album’s sixth song, “PPP,” starts with a repetitive, tonally descending riff as the only instrumental in the song, and it’s heartbreaking. The riff continues in different variations throughout the song and contributes a meditative and hypnotic feeling that makes the listener get lost in the music. Layered over the riff are Victoria Legrand’s heavenly vocals, which sing, “Like tracing figure eights on ice in skates/Oh, well.” These lyrics display a feeling of being okay with the precariousness of life and seeing the beauty within it. Skating on thin ice may be dangerous, but aren’t figure eights so beautiful? The song ends with a full two minutes of variations on the track’s main riff, indicating the cyclical nature of trust and drawing a parallel between the lyrics referencing making figure eights while skating, which conjures up the feeling of love in winter. “Days of Candy,” the last song on the album, begins with a choir building part by part, joining to sing in one big group. The voices rise and fall, singing different holiday-reminiscent chords. This brings to mind carolers singing together in the snow. One voice shines through, singing, “I know it comes too soon/I know it stays for nobody.” These lyrics bring to mind the idea of something ending, much like how winter is the end of another year. These words could mean that the year comes and goes too soon, and its bookend is winter. Ultimately, this signifies that one should appreciate the time they have and reflect on it as something good that they had, not mourn the time they are losing. This all culminates with the winter season’s beginning, as a reflection of the year that has passed and the time we will never get back, but also as a time to remember all of the good things that happened that year.
– Marian Dress
The winter has always made me feel bittersweet. Every year when it starts encroaching on Virginia, stripping tree branches bare and coating car windows with frost, I can’t help but feel an almost primal sense of desolation and dread. This sense conflicts sharply with the most potent memories I associate with the season: Convivial family get-togethers, the warmth radiating off a mug of hot chocolate onto my fingers, and the peace of a brief reprieve from the pressures of work and school. As winter approaches, I’m drawn to albums that reflect its conflicting auras.
“Personal Best,” the debut album of queercore pioneers Team Dresch, is my go-to listen on a blustery day. The group’s trademark blend of brash riot grrl influences and grungy perturbation is center stage on this LP. Tracks like “Hate The Christian Right!” and “#1 Chance Pirate TV” feature insistent, distortion-drenched guitar riffs that crackle over warm bass tones and lightning fast drum fills. Lyrical themes of queer loneliness and social disillusionment pepper the record. On its sixth song, “Fake Fight,” vocalist Jody Blyele sings “Well I looked into the distance/ You said all I know is what I see/ Sincerity not guessing at our own humanity/ But I’m still driving up and down I-5 figuring what’s f*****/ Counting on the distance between underground justice and handmade luck.” The project isn’t without its moments of warmth and levity. Songs like “She’s Amazing” and “Freewheel” trade grunge-heavy sonics for clean guitar tones and carefree melodies. Overall, this record provides the perfect soundtrack for a chilly walk or a drive through the snow.
Another album I’d like to highlight is “Things Take Time, Take Time” by Courtney Barnett. This 2021 release was written mostly during the pandemic, contributing to its contemplative yet isolated musings and cozy sound. Barnett uses plodding instrumentals and muted sonics throughout the project that make for a listening experience that feels intimate, like you’re in her living room hearing her flesh out the arrangements with a small live band. The warm, chorus laden guitar lines that stretch through tracks like “Rae Street” and “Here’s the Thing” blend effortlessly with reserved percussion; No instrumental aspects of the songs feel like they’re being played too far away from each other. To me, this record sounds the way a warm rush of air feels, so I find myself drawn to it as the days get colder.
– Julianne Lane
If there’s one thing that reminds me of winter, it’s the nihilistic knowledge that capitalism and greed will consume and kill us all. If there’s a second thing that reminds me of winter, it’s an overwhelming barrage of desire to stab my girlfriend. It’s a good thing that I can then find relatable content in both of the records I wanna talk about here, “F♯ A♯ ∞” by Godspeed You! Black Emperor and “Blood Visions” by Jay Reatard.
From the first crisp rim hits on the title song and album opener, “Blood Visions” kicks down the door with an energy that might, on the surface, disqualify it as a winter record. After all, the cold months are a time for lethargic affairs, like snuggling underneath a blanket with hot cocoa and hibernating. But Jay instead rips us into the other side of winter; the rapid, back-and-forth palm muted guitar lines on “My Shadow” sound like rounds being exchanged in a snowball fight, while the following track “My Family” is a distorted wintertime road trip for the obligatory Christmas celebration. I’m kind of reaching here, mostly because what makes this such a good winter album isn’t its lyrical content, it’s the production of the record. Self-written and — for the most part — entirely produced and performed by him, this record just sounds cold. Jay’s guitars sound crunchy and brittle, his drum kit is right up in your face, but it all sounds like it’s behind a pane of ice frosting over.
Essentially, the opposite is true for “F♯ A♯ ∞,” a three-track, hour long post-rock record. It shares a similar coldness production wise to Blood Visions, but while that one exhibited frenetic youth, GY!BE have created the perfect soundtrack for your “Oh god it’s dark at 5 p.m.” freakout sessions. The opener “The Dead Flag Blues” begins with the phrase, “The car is on fire, and there’s no driver at the wheel,” a perfect tonesetter for the Canadian group to lay down unsettling ambiance, funeral dirge violins, and an ungodly instrument wail. This record sounds like the last cries of a rabbit plucked by a snow owl, like a car skidding on black ice, like Jack London’s “To Build A Fire.” The quality of coldness here comes not from content or from production but from the truth. It’s the coldness of having a parent breakdown on Christmas morning because they couldn’t call out for the day. I’m not sure if it’s an experience you’ll like, necessarily, but it’s one you should absolutely have.
– Mason Rowley
If you’re anything like me, then the icy breeze and dead leaves of winter always bring a depressing feeling that could last for a few months. So, what better way to romanticize your melancholic solitude than with a few albums as cool and cozy as the weather outside – and who better to look to than Bill Evans, one of Jazz’s most heartbreaking characters. Specifically, his eight-track album “Undercurrent” will make you so chilly you’ll think you accidentally left a window open. Each song is sentimental, carrying you through the playful and remorseful mind of Evans, opening with the faster tune “My Funny Valentine” and then carrying you through these almost personal, therapeutic melodies like “Skating in central park,” that make you feel like you’re in a small dimly lit bar with just you and Evans, watching in awe. Few albums reach such a level of personal touch with the listener like “Undercurrent” does, and what else can you do during the hibernating seasons?
Another, more hopeful, album for the cold seasons is Lianne La Havas’ self titled 2020 record. It being her 3rd studio album, Havas left a lot of time between it and her previous one in order to make something she would consider “perfect.” Running at 11 tracks (with one cover) Havas’ beautifully dim vocals, muted instruments and slow, long tracks provide beautiful imagery for the listener. The opening track “bittersweet” is exactly as the name suggests. It acts as a rebirth for Havas, setting a sappy yet chilly tone for the record. With most tracks on this album following this theme of Havas telling people off. Each song gives a feeling of being about a different, deeply personal experience between Havas and her past life and human connections. Songs like“Read my Mind” and “Seven Times” especially stick out, stepping into a realm by Havas where you feel as though you’re watching exactly what she lived out, and it feels like that’s what she wants from you.
Throughout the lifelong evolution of my music taste, the one consistency has always been music that’s emotionally evocative. So when the idea of “winter music” is brought up, of course I immediately think of melancholic sadness. But I don’t think that’s all that winter has to be. I love sad music, but our seasons can be more than that. We should give ourselves space to be happy, sing, dance and experience love, no matter the season. So today, I bring you two of my favorite albums of all time. And don’t get me wrong, they are heartbreaking in their own ways. But they’ve made me laugh as well as cry, and relive the things I love about life every time I hear them.
The Divine Feminine by Mac Miller offers an unfiltered, dreamlike portrayal of love that completely influenced my perception of love when I first heard it. Miller aims to take us on the life-changing experience that is “The Divine Feminine.” The heartbreaking introductory track “Congratulations” opens with an angelic chorus welcoming us to the album, followed by soft, comforting piano chords. Serving as an introduction to the experience that is the divine feminine. He raps about his fears surrounding love, making it known that this is a place of vulnerability for him. The album’s pace changes frequently. We’re given upbeat anthems like “Dang!” and “Stay,” along with slow, sensual songs like “Skin” and “Planet God Damn.” My favorite tracks on the album, “Soulmate” and “Cinderella,” echo the vulnerability we heard in the opening track. Showing us how deeply he treasures the love that he’s experienced in his life. The closing track ends with a monologue from Miller’s grandmother: She speaks about the love of her life and how grateful she is to experience love like him. This album highlights all the things we crave about love in our lowest moments. Its melancholic nostalgia qualifies it as winter to me, because looking back on things happily is still looking back.
Blonde by Frank Ocean is an album that I always end up coming back to. It hits many themes but one of the most prominent is the personal heartbreak of growing up. And even further, growing away from a person you once loved. Blonde is also a project with diverse pacing; with slower, touching songs like “White Ferrari” and “Godspeed” being mixed in with more upbeat tracks like “Pink and White” and “Ivy,” where he expresses the beauty of being young and in love; as well as more experimental “filler” tracks like “Be yourself,” which is a voicemail left by Ocean’s mother, where she expresses how important it is to stay true to who you are, intensifying the sad nostalgia of growing up. “Blonde” highlights the beauty of life and all our experiences while acknowledging how painful it is to exist at all. The duality of those ideas is more winter to me than anything.
– Zoya Durrani Javaid
Graphics by Marty Alexeenko