As the weather gets colder and the days grow shorter, we know that winter is approaching. For some of us, a new season means changing our habits in anticipation of the coming months, for me, this means revisiting a few of my favourite albums that evoke the feeling of winter. This can be defined by any number of things, from the album’s instrumentation and orchestration, perhaps mimicking Christmas carols with twinkling percussion and gentle piano. Alternatively, an album’s tone and lyrics can transport us to a wintry atmosphere, dealing with feelings of isolation or family dynamics characteristic of the holiday season.
So as we look forward to the colder months, here are some of my favourite albums to welcome you into the coming season.
Lenker’s 2020 album songs, is a collection of tracks written whilst recovering from heartbreak in an isolated cabin in Massachusetts. The album itself feels like a solitary experience – as though we are in the woods with Lenker as she records each track directly onto a Walkman, giving the whole album an inescapable intimacy. You often hear sounds of nature invading the tracks, such as the occasional birdsong and wind chime on ‘zombie girl’ or the gentle rainfall in ‘come’. The third track, ‘anything’, depicts a montage of moments from a relationship, from trips to the ER to ‘Christmas Eve with your Mother and sis / Don’t wanna fight but your Mother insists’. Lenker’s unique instrumentation is evident on ‘forwards beckon rebound’, in which she uses a paintbrush to play the guitar, creating lush overtones as she sings about the ‘wind that howls like a hound’. My personal favourite from the album, ‘half return’, deals with returning to your childhood home and reverting back to your childhood self, with the lyrics ‘Standing in the yard / Dressed like a kid / The house is white’, making us feel as though we are watching a home video on VHS. The final line of the song ‘the lawn is dead’ is repeated, perhaps suggesting that her childhood self is dead, and she must return to her adult life as the winter eventually transforms into spring.
This project sees Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers team up to create an angsty, existential and crushingly honest rock record. The track ‘Dylan Thomas’ showcases the pair’s talented lyricism, describing their lives as a ‘private hell’. The song revolves around the poet Dylan Thomas’ death, described in the song as ‘a seizure on the barroom floor’ on a lonesome night in November, offering a bleak outlook on existence. The sixth track, ‘Chesapeake’, sounds like it’s sung around the campfire as Oberst and Bridgers describe the inevitable end of their music careers as ‘blowing on the embers of a little fire’. The organ enters at the end of the song as the two sing the words ‘O Sweet Child of Mine’, reminding the listener of familiar melodies of Christmas Carols. The song most evocative of winter for me is ‘Service Road’, where we hear Oberst’s voice telling us the story of his brother’s struggle with sobriety with its final lyrics of the song urging us to ‘Go out into the falling snow / Until you feel different’.
The band’s debut LP has become a beloved folk-favourite and is especially synonymous with the winter months for me. The album situates the listener in a unique snowy medieval world of mountainous landscapes with its poetic verse and instrumentation. Lead singer Robin Pecknold’s voice coats the entire record in warm harmonies, inviting us to ‘settle down with me by the fire’ or ‘run through the forest’, as in the song ‘Ragged Wood’. A wintry atmosphere is further explored in ‘Quiet Houses’ – a jovial and upbeat song with its use of tambourine and a chorus of harmonies singing ‘Quiet houses, lit up by candlelight / Light of an English song’. The track ‘Meadowlark’ creates the ambience of a church service with its use of soft organ and biblical imagery of ‘A golden crown / For you to wear upon your fleecy down’. However, the album’s most iconic song for the season is ‘White Winter Hymnal’, with its harmonies stacking up to sound like a choir by a campfire. The vivid winter imagery of ‘swallowed in coats’ and wearing scarves to ‘keep their little heads from falling in the snow’, echoing scenes from Grimm’s Fairy tales, adding to the fantastical wintry atmosphere.
Sufjan Stevens creates the perfect winter setting with his album ‘Michigan’, dedicated to his home state- each track revolving around an element of the ‘the great-lake state’. The album utilises Stevens’ gentle voice as an instrument itself with close mic’d vocals, especially evident on tracks like ‘Holland’ – his voice being warm and comforting as he dreams about ‘sleeping on Lake Michigan’. His wider use of instrumentation, specifical choruses of brass, bells and mallet percussion also provide whispers of Christmas Carols. This is especially hard with the track ‘Tahquamenon Falls’, where patterns of bells sound like falling snow. However, behind this festive exterior, Stevens discusses the economic and social crises that affect Michigan’s population, especially within his home city of Detroit. This is evident in the opening track ‘Flint’, dedicated to the ‘unemployed and underpaid’, with its lyrics describing a man ‘driving to the riverside’ to linger on losing his job, with the words set against a warm arrangement of brass and piano. Stevens also evokes religious imagery synonymous with Christmas time in ‘Oh God Where Are You Now?’, in which he explores his relationship with his faith, asking God to ‘Do what you can / To anoint my head’, asking for hope in a time of crisis.
These albums aren’t always full of festive cheer, and it’s probably not a great idea to listen to them in one sitting – as described many of the tracks have challenging stories behind them. However, as we draw towards Christmas, in between hearing the usual Christmas classics on the radio, I would wholeheartedly recommend finding your personal favourite amongst these winter gems.
Written by Adele Fennessy
To listen to our Spotify playlist of the recommended albums, please click here.