My senior year in college brought with it the “Snowpocalypse” – a beautiful week when over a foot of snow descended upon campus, trapping 20,000 students, sustained only by cheap beer and frozen pizza, in a winter wonderland. My friends and I spent this glorious reprieve from our hallowed academic pursuits sledding and making music videos to “Ludacrismas” and trying to build an igloo but getting tired like a third of the way through.
As much as I can’t wait to one day tell my grandkids about that week – once they’re old enough to know what Busch Light™ and its many documented health benefits are – I also have a different, quieter memory from that time that is equally resonant. Somewhere around Hour 120 of the Snowpocalypse, when all entertainment opportunities had been exhausted and my housemates and I were starting to resemble a particularly combative Real World cast, I decided to make a Balto-like trek across the Fayetteville tundra where a separate group of friends promised a new and exciting venue at which to drink Busch Light™.
During this journey, I walked across a nearly empty campus muted by a thick blanket of snow, headphones blasting some of my favorite wintry music – Horse Feathers’ austere folk, Sufjan Stevens’ just-released sprawl of an album, “The Age of Adz,” and Arcade Fire’s orchestral tales of a paralleled town buried in snow. Winter, as far as seasons go, gets short shrift. Fall and Spring are the show offs, flaunting their pretty leaves and sprouting flowers. Summer has the unfair advantage of being associated with a school-free existence. Winter, however, is understated – its beautiful blankness and stillness generally unnoticed.
I find that the music I most enjoy listening to during the winter months is similarly understated. There’s something about echoey electronic blips or lo-fi guitar plucking that pair perfectly with brutal winds and freezing temperatures. Below you’ll find some selections from a Spotify playlist (linked at the bottom of this post) designed to be listened to during these oft maligned and underrated winter months. Bundle up and get to listening:
“The Temptation of Adam” by Josh RitterJosh Ritter, an Idaho-born singer-songwriter and child of neuroscientists, channels those genetic smarts through brilliantly written vignettes that manage to somehow, within four minutes of acoustic excellence, create three dimensional characters you about whom you care deeply. This one in particular, with its haunting violin and underground setting, seems well-suited for winter listening as Ritter imagines a couple of nuclear missile silo employees falling in love on the brink of a potential World War III. Ritter is one of my favorite lyricists ever, and this song contains some of his finest work: “Oh Marie if we could stay here we could stick pins in the map/of all the places where you thought that love would be found/I would only need one pin to show where my love’s at/in a top secret location three hundred feet under the ground.”
“Streetlights” by Kanye WestLove him or hate him (count me squarely on the love side of that spectrum), it’s hard to deny the influence that Kanye has had over the course of his career. 808’s and Heartbreak, his 2008 album most famous for being his “autotune” album, is perhaps the most influential of his discography and almost certainly the most underrated. This album and its moody, atmospheric production and emotional candor paved the way for a generation of artists like Drake, The Weeknd, and Kid Cudi to shine in the mainstream. This is my favorite song on the album, a brooding piano-based track with a thumping crescendo that mirrors a car accelerating through patches of light on a night drive. Strangely enough, this song is perfect for listening to in a car as it accelerates through patches of light on a night drive.
“You’re The One That I Want” by Lo-Fang
I’m sure all of you, like me, immediately picture the end-of-school summer carnival climax from Grease when you think about winter. No? That’s understandable I guess. This cover, however, by classically-trained musician Lo Fang, slows the song down, dragging it out and filling the empty space with cascading low-end bass and melancholy string arrangements. The song is nearly unrecognizable, transformed from a peppy musical theater duet into an icy electronic gem. If that song doesn’t sound track a slow motion video of someone crying soon, then the Internet has let us all down.
“The Wilhelm Scream” by James Blake
James Blake is the quintessential winter musician, a pioneer of soul-infused, crisp, synth-based electronic music that begs to be listened to when walking through barren wind-blown landscapes. There a sense of dread that creeps slowly through his songs, infusing them with a foreboding undercurrent that pairs nicely with soul-crushingly low temperatures. Really, almost every single song on his two proper albums could have been included in this playlist, but “The Wilhelm Scream” is one of my favorites and builds so perfectly that it is the lucky song to get the coveted “Daniel Ford Bump” (industry insider term, not my own).
“Splendor” by M83
M83 sounds like one of those 15 person bands where there are three guitar players, two harpists, six keyboard players, and three guys vibing in front of tiny electronic drum machines not really doing much. In reality, however, it’s a largely one-man affair, with Frenchman Anthony Gonzalez bringing his immersive, sweeping compositions to life. “Splendor” is vintage M83, an epic that steadily and effortlessly moves from slow-burner to barnburner. Recently Gonzalez has pivoted into the film scoring business (though M83 has a new album coming out this year), and those tendencies make watching winter weather in the linked video above even more awe-inspiring than it already is.