Friday, January 25, 2013

My Top Ten Albums for the Dead of Winter

Given the last entry that I put up before my inexplicable hiatus, I thought it was only fitting to return on the opposite side of the musical spectrum.  Winter in the Twin Cities is LONG.  It is COLD.  The incessantness of it has a way of mentally herding you into strange corners of your psyche as the months drag on.  In other words, it provides a great atmosphere in which to hole up and immerse yourself in music that sympathizes one way or another.  

Here then are the ten albums that, for me, do the best job of filling that arctic void.  In piecing together this list I noticed an emergence (if not a saturation) of two or three particular "genres".  Being one for variety I was initially discouraged by this, but as with the season itself I came to embrace it.  On that note of ambiguity, I will let the list speak for itself.

10. Muse - Black Holes and Revelations  (2006)

This album sounds like those really long winter nights, where the sky is crystal clear and the frigid air somehow makes the stars look much brighter than usual.  The spacious mix and glossy production allow plenty of room for the synths and guitars to swirl and shine their way through the soundscape, and for Matt Bellamy to fill in the gaps with his airy falsetto vocals.  Black Holes manages to sound simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic, a vibe which of course culminates in the spaghetti western set in space that is Knights of Cydonia.  

Winteriest Moment:  

The final wails of the glossy Starlight fading into the dirty shuffle of Supermassive Black Hole

9. Slowdive - Souvlaki  (1993)

At its core Souvlaki is a subdued, dreamy pop album.  What makes it great, specifically during the winter, is that it exists far beneath the surface of a sea of fuzz.  The songs unfold like dreams, flourishing with surreal ambiance that rises and falls as the deeply delayed guitars bounce through the haze and Rachel Goswell's trance-like vocals coo and purr along with the beautifully overbearing noise.  

Winteriest Moment:

When the guitar cuts through the weight of the water for the solo in Machine Gun.

8. Electric Wizard - Dopethrone  (2000)

Check your suspension before picking up Dopethrone, because this thing is HEAVY.  The songs lurch forward at an impossibly slow pace, and the guitars and bass are fuzzed out and downtuned to the point that they engulf the entire mix in a wall of rumbling distortion so thick that it can very well pummel you (and your sound system) into submission.  What makes it a great winter album though is the desperation of Justin Oborn's vocals as he attempts to fight his way through the devastating white noise.  You can understand barely a handful of words on the whole record, but it has a way of articulating the cabin fever that tends to set in around this time.

Winteriest Moment:  

When the beast finally touches down at the beginning of Funeralopolis, enveloping the universe in unfathomable doom

7. Bruce Springsteen - Nebraska  (1982)

Recorded by himself in his basement on a four-track, Springsteen's bare-bones Nebraska has a haunting beauty to it similar to the skeleton of a leafless tree.  Unlike many albums on this list, there is nothing but dark, empty void to serve as the backdrop as Bruce laments and howls brutally depressing tales of desperation and alienation.  Originally intended as a rough demo, the atmosphere is incredibly eerie, with an unrelenting sense of oppression.  

Winteriest Moment:  

Joe Roberts' heartbreaking story of blood on blood.

6. Brand New - Deja Entendu  (2003)

This album is best listened to while sitting in a silent, dimly lit room late at night, long after the rest of the world has turned in, and withdrawing dangerously deep into your thoughts.   The album has a strong manic-depressive feel, as its mood is of increasingly aggressive angst and urgency, until it all becomes too much and collapses into a moment of tense catharsis, only to start all over again.  

Winteriest Moment:  

When Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don't devolves to a single guitar, for the sake of erupting back into the delirious final chorus.

5. Galaxie 500 - On Fire  (1989)

The lyrical imagery of Snowstorm makes this an easy pick, but the album as a whole is the point where dreamy pop meets the surreal haze of shoegaze, and then makes a crash landing into the crescendo-laden orchestration of post-rock.

Winteriest Moment:  

When Dead Wareham bittersweetly exclaims that his boss has no more work for him and is letting him go home - to ride out the blizzard alone.

4. Sigur Rós - Ágætis Byrjun  (1999)

Hailing from Iceland, it is no surprise that Sigur Rós knows as well as anyone how to tap into the spirit of the fourth season.  Ágætis Byrjun creates a "wall of sound" type of delivery with flowing background ambiance, yet the whole album still feels incredibly ethereal and floaty.  There is a particular alien serenity to it, as if the ebbs and flows are capable of carrying you straight up to the clouds, high above a foreign Alpine landscape.  The vocals, all sung in Icelandic, contribute a great deal to this vibe, and they serve as another instrument and another texture to the sonic landscape.

Winteriest Moment:  

The second half of Starálfur when a moment of tape hiss sends off the lone acoustic guitar and blows in the shimmering synths and backwards loops, before it all dissolves into white noise and gives way to the slowly pulsating organ of Flugufelsarinn.

3. Agalloch - The Mantle  (2002)

This album is Frankenstein's Monster of music.  Never before and never since has fireside acoustic strumming meshed so well with smoldering electric guitars, thunderous percussion, and despair-filled black metal vocals.  Not unlike the beast it is reminiscent of, the whole thing is shrouded in a deep coat of mystery, invoking images of hooded figures wandering the tundra and ascending snow covered mountain faces in search of something beyond comprehension.  Isolation is a common theme among many of the albums on this list, but during the journey The Mantle takes you on you begin to embrace that isolation.  The atmosphere and delivery seem to put you into the shoes (er…hooves?) of the elk displayed on the cover; somehow existing as one with the unrelenting wilderness.   

Winteriest Moment: 

The ethereal, crackling echo of the deer skull drum behind the campfire guitar in The Lodge

2. Radiohead - Kid A  (2000)

From the warm yet ominous opening chords of the rhodes keyboard to the final minutes of deafening silence, no album better conveys the digital emptiness of the looming electronic age.  Released at the turn of the millennium, Kid A uses eerie, disembodied vocals and layered textures of stuttering trip-hop beats to illustrate a vast, lonely, cold, alien future.  The album is at its best during the dissociative ambiance of the middle section, which puts you into a warped sense of security before dropping you headfirst into the overwhelming hopelessness of Idiotique.  

Winteriest Moment:  

Just looking at the cold, computerized mountainscape on the cover, and knowing exactly what you're in for.

1. Explosions in the Sky - The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place  (2003)

This is a great record during any time of the year, but it seems to take on a whole new dynamic among the snow and ice and subzero temperatures.  The crystal clear guitars shimmer like ice above the sparse compositions, with individual notes ringing out like flakes of snow.  On a list filled with depression, desperation, and alienation it seems only right for #1 to be the one that is capable of putting it all back into perspective.  It is an experience akin to watching sun rays reflect off of a desolate snow covered field, illuminating the beauty of what at first may seem like a cold, dead place.  

Winteriest Moment:  

All of it.

[Honorable Mentions:  Electric President - Electric President, Portishead - Dummy]

Thank you for reading!

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