Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Songs For Winter

The winter here in New Jersey has been particularly awful.  Snow keeps accumulating and the temperatures are stubbornly frigid.  My complicated commute to work has become a daily ordeal of canceled trains, two mile walks in the snow, and general awfulness.  As it does in just about every facet of my life, music has helped me cope.  A good winter song provides a warming glow, like taking a nip of bourbon after shoveling the snow off the walk.  Here are some of my favorite songs for winter time, add your own in the comments if you'd like.

Rod Stewart, "Mandolin Wind"
I've said it before despite some protests, and I will keep saying it: Rod Stewart's body of work from 1968 to 1973, be it solo or with Jeff Beck or the Faces, is among the best created by anyone, ever.  (All in all, ten great albums are worth listening to in the space of five years.)  Yes, he has spent four decades squandering his talent, but the man could sing and when his voice was paired with the right material he really hit the jackpot.  This song references winter, but its steel guitar and mandolin (natch) create a languid, warm vibe.  Put this on while wearing a cardigan and drinking some hot coffee and you'll forget about the draft coming through your window for awhile.

Richard and Linda Thompson, "Withered and Died"
During my first winter in Michigan I became a huge fan of Richard and Linda Thompson's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.  I still listen to it often this time of year, but I have specific memories of this song, which get at the despair I felt that winter over a failed attempt on the academic job market while working on the contingent track.

Wilco, "War on War"
During the winter of 2003 I fell into an intense blue period, which coincided with my obsession with Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album.  This song's grimly optimistic lines "You've got to lose/ you've got to learn how to die/ if you want to be alive" stuck with me in that dark time.  This song also has some of Jay Bennett's best synthesizer work.

Otis Redding, "Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)"
No singer's voice warms my soul like Otis Redding's does, except maybe Sam Cooke (who I prefer to listen to in the summer.)  This is the best of his "sad Otis" songs, where he takes on the persona of a man wounded by love.  It's one I used to always put on the jukebox in the dead of winter in grad school while hoisting a pint at the local pub to escape the cold.

Velvet Underground, "All Tomorrow's Parties"
The droning sounds of the early Velvet Underground have always seemed suited for winter for me, their hazy guitars and viola hanging like my breath in the frigid air.  I get that feeling the most on this song, where the restrained guitar sounds like the faded winter sun, the portentous drums the chill in the air, and the repetitive piano line like the endlessly falling snow.

My Bloody Valentine, "Only Shallow"
Some winter days it is paradoxically bitter cold while the sun shines painfully bright in a cloudless sky, the light blasting off of the piles of snow, making my eyes ache.  On those days I crank this grungy classic, which sounds like how my eyes feel.

Yo La Tengo, "Sudden Organ"
Droning, feedbacky music makes my mind warm, and apart from the Velvet Underground, nobody does it better than Yo La Tengo.  I also love songs that get their names from musical aspects of the song, such as the dominating organ on this track.

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