In case you hadn’t noticed, winter is well and truly upon us, so as you sit in your room watching your breath gently mist in front of you and wishing that your landlord had properly insulated the wall cavities of the property that you pay an extortionate amount of money in rent for, I have compiled a list of truly wintery albums to accompany your broody inadequacy as the days get shorter and the nights grow cold. Why don’t you grab a glass of fine single malt/cheap cider and settle down for all you need to know about music to soundtrack a winter?
DISCLAIMER: The five albums that I have picked are totally subjective and based upon many winters of discontent, so if you disagree please feel free to get in touch.
5. Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak
(Released 24th November 2008)
It is hard to think that just five years ago the self-glorifying ideas of Yeezus were nowhere near what Kanye was preaching; the man who proclaimed himself a god on his most recent record wrote, recorded and produced 808s & Heartbreaks as a cathartic look into the pressures of fame and the loss of his mother and long-term relationship with Alexis Phifer that had dominated the previous year for West. What makes this an incredible winter album is the brooding, almost tribal, drum patterns programmed into the titular Roland TR-808 drum machine and West’s decision to heavily auto-tune (and often distort) his mostly sung vocals.
Whilst the album divided critics and peers, it is the overarching darkness of 808s that really got this writer into Kanye West and it is also easy to see the album as a transformative piece of art which equipped the artist who once proclaimed ‘Man I promise, I’m so self-conscious/That’s why you always see me with at least one of my watches’ with the front to proclaim, in 2013, his god-like status.
Key tracks: Love Lockdown, Coldest Winter, Paranoid (feat. Mr Hudson)
4. Muse – Absolution
(Released 22nd September 2003)
For most people, the first experience of Origin of Symmetry’s follow-up would have been either ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ or ‘Time is Running Out’, sat in front of the TV watching Kerrang all afternoon and hearing the same songs over and over again. These Muse tracks were different though. Whilst Showbiz and Origin are both what this writer would term ‘dark’ albums, the incredible production value of Absolution, coupled with themes of post-apocalyptic chaos and, in fact, just chaos in general make this album stand out as one to soundtrack long walks on a dark winter evening; even the uplifting nature of the lyrics of ‘Butterflies and Hurricanes’ (possibly the weakest song on the album) is subverted by the post-chorus jagged piano-drum interplay and sinister violins throughout the track. ‘Hysteria’ stands out for the writer as possibly the best single of 2003; Chris Wolstenholme’s distorted bass run dominates this track and compliments Matt Bellamy’s (also distorted) vocals, which seem to perfectly channel the theoretical angst of a nuclear winter.
Key tracks: Endlessly, Stockholm Syndrome, Hysteria
3. Stars – Set Yourself on Fire
(Released 14th September 2004 – Canadian release date)
‘When there’s nothing left to burn you have to set yourself on fire’ proclaims actor Douglas Campbell (father of vocalist Torquil) at the beginning of ‘Your Ex-Lover is Dead’, the opener of the album. The song quickly establishes a scene of a reunion between old acquaintances framed in a rainy scene (‘in that instant it started to pour’) which leads to a dénouement of a brief affair without regret but confined to the past, and we all know that ruminating over events of the past is an activity to be undertaken exclusively between the months of October and February. Throughout the album the theme of relationships forming, breaking down or broken down is repeated (see ‘The First Five Times’, ‘The Big Fight’, ‘One More Night (Your Ex-Lover Remains Dead)’), the dual vocals of Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan carry the listener on a rollercoaster of emotion that allows for a new interpretation of meaning, both of the album as a whole and the feelings each individual listener takes away as the final bars of ‘Calendar Girl’ fade out.
I suppose that, with what is written above, it is reasonably obvious that Set Yourself on Fire holds a special place in the record collection of the writer. Aside from this being an article about winter albums, I strongly recommend that anybody reading this who hasn’t heard this album go out and hear it immediately – it will change your life.
Key tracks: Your Ex-Lover is Dead, Sleep Tonight, He Lied About Death. For added winter also check out The Russian Futurists remix of ‘The First Five Times’, available on the album ‘Do You Trust Your Friends?’
2. The Mars Volta – De-Loused in the Comatorium
(Released 24th June 2003)
It’s prog-rock Jim, but not as we know it. The Mars Volta ripped up the rulebook of music with their debut album, which rose out of the ashes of seminal post-hardcore band At The Drive-In (whose Relationship of Command so nearly made it on to this list). De-Loused tells the story of the week-long, morphine and strychnine-induced coma of Cerpin Taxt, as conceived by Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Jeremy Michael Ward (who was to die a month before the release of the album) as a ‘fantasy alias’ of Julio Venegas, an El Paso artist who jumped to his death, into rush-hour freeway traffic, in 1996.
In my writing on music, I speak often of albums having to drag you in from the outset or else risk never really engaging a listener; De-Loused is possibly one of the best examples of the way to start an album. The double header of ‘Son et Lumiere’ and ‘Inertiatic ESP’ (as seen, slightly condensed, in the music video, a touching tribute to Ward) begins with an almost hypnotic soundscape opening, later joined by guitar and drum stabs after Bixler-Zavala’s soft, cryptic vocals. This soon gives way to a full-on assault, as promised by the aforementioned stabs, and ‘Inertiatic ESP’ is introduced by Bixler-Zavala shouting ‘Now I’m lost’ viscerally at the listener.
As the album goes on, the listener spirals through Cerpin Taxt’s nightmarish coma, narrated by The Mars Volta, and directed by Rick Rubin. The multitudinous layers, each track a cacophony of dissonant guitars, vocals, synths and percussion, somehow come together to form an almost comprehensible whole and the result is outstanding. This organised chaos is perhaps best evident on ‘Cicatriz ESP’, a sprawling 12-minute epic which again deals with the theme of being lost inside one’s own mind.
The abundant themes of loss, confusion and darkness found within the lyrical and musical composition of De-Loused in the Comatorium make it, for this writer, a near-perfect album to listen to whilst wandering aimlessly with nowhere to go on a cold winter’s night (which sounds a lot more stupid than I intended it to) – just don’t get any ideas about jumping off bridges or overdosing on rat poison.
Key tracks: Son et Lumiere/Inertiatic ESP, Roulette Dares (The Haunt of), Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt
1. Cocteau Twins – Treasure
(Released 1st November 1984)
At the beginning of November I put this album on in the office (at my day job) and was almost instantly derided for the second track, ‘Lorelei’ ‘sound[ing] too much like Christmas’. But a Christmas album this is not. This is dream pop, this is the perfect accompaniment to the false dawn that is a winter sun, when you get into your car, or leave your house with a raging hangover because you drank too much Special Brew to try to keep the lepers away, and you are blinded a low sun whilst simultaneously edging towards another bout of frostbite due to that piercing wind. All you need to hear at this point is the opening of ‘Pandora’; the luscious guitar line and Elizabeth Fraser’s hypnotic, unintelligible vocals, once described as ‘the voice of God’ (think Alanis Morrisette-in-Dogma God, without the death-voice, rather than jovial beardy man who also judges your sins), right after the drum machine drops, and it all feels as though it might be ok as you meander your way to work/the corner shop. I recently listened to ‘Pandora’ through a pair of chunky Beats at full volume and I’m not exaggerating when I say that in a very small way it changed my life.
This feeling reverberates throughout the whole album. Treasure lives up exactly to its title; it is a delicate piece of art to be handled carefully and yet to be examined and admired up close, such is the fullness and the fragility of the piece – a dichotomy impossibly bought together by the unwavering beauty of Fraser’s voice atop Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde’s shimmering guitar and bass, and, of course, the programmed drums as the metronome preventing the matchstick house that is Treasure from falling down.
To the last track, the album keeps the feeling of a winter’s morning, with ‘Donimo’ closing the album and leaving the listener with a feeling that perhaps spring may just be around the corner, that it isn’t all dark nights and bleak skies for ever more. ‘Dream pop’ may well be an accurate description of the Cocteau Twins’ body of work, but nowhere is it any dreamier than on Treasure.
Key tracks: Pandora, Persephone, Cicely
So there you have it, all you need to know about musically surviving winter. For life in general, all you need to remember is to wrap up warm and avoid eating yellow snow. Oh, and don’t say ‘Morrissey’ into a mirror thirteen times.