Top Ten Winter Albums: Experimental Edition

The holiday season coincides with the list of Grammy Nominations being released, and I can’t think of anything better to do than recommend 10 albums that you should take the time to listen to this winter. If you wanna get a bit out there with music that reflects these chilly months, then these are the albums for you.

10. The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album 

The Beach Boys: Let’s get the corny stuff out the way. Rarely do I recommended straightforward holiday albums, but the Beach Boys’ Christmas Album is an exception to this rule, due to its relevance to the season. As per usual, Brian Wilson’s forward thinking pop-arrangements shine through on this record as the Beach Boys adapt classic Christmas melodies to suit their style, as well as featuring original cuts. From “Little Saint Nick” to “Auld Lang Syne,” the Beach Boys present perfect mood setting music for any Christmas party—just don’t listen too deep into it. 

9. Agalloch-The Mantle 

Black metal, post-rock and neo-folk are tightly rolled together on this album to perfectly capture the feeling of wandering through a sparse, snow covered forest. Unlike most black metal albums, this one is easy on the ears; instead of offering pure sonic destruction, it’s grand and atmospheric with many serene folk interludes. The playing from all members of the band is stellar, with special mention going to the front man and vocalist John Haughm, whose voice changes from rough growls, to hallowed whispers, to Geddy Lee-esque singing. It’s a sprawling, cinematic record that’s perfect for the season.

8. Ulver-Shadows of the Sun

A somber, soothing record from Norwegian experimental band Ulver. It’s like the soundtrack to a perfect sunset in a snow covered landscape. Ulver has some really breathtaking synthesized arrangements on this album and make full use of the studio as an instrument. The record flows seamlessly together, but the first three tracks make for a great opener, with “Eos” setting the slow, graceful tone of the album. There’s also a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Solitude,” which turns an already haunting song into something even more sorrowful. I would have recommended their first few albums as winter records, but it’s some pretty heavy metal; one of them is just a pure wall of noise, so that’s out of the question.

7. Godspeed You! Black Emperor-FA∞ 

Post-rock pioneers Godspeed You! Black Emperor create a bleak, chilling landscape on  FA∞. It’s like a brown, lifeless tundra with the odd crystal clear lake and dirty patches of snow, with the occasional deer trekking across it. It’s a monumental record with three, epic, twenty minute pieces that seamlessly combines rock, classical music and ambient. The first song, “Dead Flag Blues,” contains one of the best and darkest pieces of spoken word in the history of music and ends in an epic, hope-filled way that makes you feel triumphant. “East Hastings” has an amazing build-up and climax right in the middle of it featuring roaring guitars, pounding drums and aggressive cellos, while “Providence” acts as a come down from all that insanity. 

6. Coil-The Ape of Naples

Ahhhh… Coil. A duo that I should listen to more often. The album was made after the tragic death of the lead singer and co-founder Jhonn Balance. Co-founder and producer Peter Christopherson gave himself the task of reworking their old pieces and Balance’s unused vocals into a somber tribute to his partner. The album is like getting lost in the woods on a cold winter night and stumbling on a strange Pagan ritual, with men in robes standing around a roaring fire pit. Balance’s otherworldly vocals play out across these alien soundscapes and sonic-textures that call back to a simpler age in humanity’s past. Standout tracks include “Fire of the Mind,” “Amethyst Deceivers,” and “Going Up,” I don’t even care if you listen to the whole album; if you’ve got eight minutes to spare, check out that song.

5. Mastodon-Crack the Skye

Crack the Skye is a really weird concept album – it’s about a paraplegic child astral-projecting into Russia before its revolution in the 1920s, and he has to get the help of Rasputin to get back home. However, I’ll be damned if this album doesn’t make me think of a Russian winter in Moscow. It’s a great album through and through; Mastodon crank out some of their best riffs on this album, particularly on the epic 10-minute “The Czar” and the spaced-out opener “Oblivion.” “Crack the Skye,” being a touching tribute by Brann Dailor to his sister, Skye, who died at a young age, is just as incredible. Being a satisfying progressive metal album overall, it deserves at least one listen.

4. Bjork-Homogenic

Homogenic is a beautiful album in every sense of the word. Bjork’s ethereal and powerful vocals intertwine with lush string arrangements and chilling, futuristic electronics. The composition on all ten of these tracks is impeccable, with special mention going to “Jóga” and “Unravel” for not only their excellent string and electronic arrangements, but for Bjork’s singing being at its most evocative and heart wrenching. “Pluto” is another standout track due to how harsh and cold it is, with walls of synths coming right out you and Bjork screaming out her lungs by the end of it. Homogenic is a chillingly beautiful album that represents the icier side of winter.

3. Low-David Bowie

One of my favorite David Bowie albums – right next to Hunky Dory, Blackstar, Station to Station, Ziggy Stardust… and well, the rest. Low is unique in Bowie’s discography, in that Bowie retools his glam rock stylings to play nice with cooler, sleeker electronics. I love just about every minute of this album, from the perfect combination of electronic music and rock on its first half to the more spacey and ambient-oriented pieces on the second half. The ambient pieces are where this album really shines, especially on “Warszawa” and “Subterraneans,” evoking images of clear winter nights with a foot of snow on the ground. It’s one of Bowie’s finest pieces, and should be remembered as such.

2. The Microphones-The Glow Pt. 2

There was a two-week stretch during this semester where I would listen to nothing but indie-folk artist Phil Elverum and his bands Mount Eerie and the Microphones, listening to the latter more than the former. While I did prefer the album Mount Eerie slightly over The Glow Pt. 2, Mount Eerie is more of sweltering summer record. The Glow Pt. 2 is like being stuck in a snowed-in, cozy cabin with a roaring fire in one corner and Phil Elverum playing guitar in the other. He doles out beautifully heartbreaking ballads over the record and makes full experiments with texture and noise, adding a layer of depth that wouldn’t be found on a bog standard indie-folk record. The Glow Pt. 2 is an emotionally resonant record that perfectly captures the feeling of being stuck up in a cabin for the winter and gets better with successive listens.

1. Radiohead-Kid A

Alright, this may be just an excuse to yet again shill for Kid A, but what else do you expect? Not only is it one of the best albums ever made, but also conjures images of wintery, urban landscapes. Much like Bjork, Radiohead plays heavily with sparse and icy electronics, but they take it up to eleven and get rid of the string elements. Every track on this album is gold, but the string of tracks between “Optimistic” to “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is the stuff of legends. It’s just wave after wave of hard-hitting, powerful pieces – “Optimistic” is anthemic, “In Limbo” is delightfully disorienting, “Idioteque” is the dance track for the apocalypse, “Morning Bell” is spine-chillingly epic and “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is beauty and tragedy all rolled into one seven-minute piece. Kid A is a perfect album.