2015 Edition! This is music for long, dark nights and cold, grey days, music to play when surrounded by howling winds and white drifts. But winter isn’t always stark; on this list, you’ll also find music for sledding and making snow angels, as well as the natural music of field recordings. No matter what one’s winter preference, these albums provide the perfect accompaniment.
The first version of this article appeared in 2011 and inspired A Closer Listen‘s popular year-end chart, The Year’s Best Winter Music. With 25 releases on the initial list, plus 37 charted entries from 2011-14, there was plenty to choose from: a shortlist of 62 that had first been narrowed down from a longer list of over 100. Now we present only the best of the best, a list we hope will stand the test of time. For the most part, the albums at the summit remain near their initial positions, while newer recordings make their play at the base; there are, however, a few exceptions and surprises.
For shorter winter-based classical works, we suggest Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 in G Minor, op.13 “Winter Dreams” and the winter movements of Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, none of which are long enough to fill an album. And for vocal-based winter albums, we recommend Björk‘s Vespertine, Benni Hemm Hemm‘s Ein í leyni, and Sigur Rós‘ ( ). Now let’s take a look at what’s left: the “pure” winter albums in which vocals take a back seat to sound.
25) Richard Knox & Frédéric D. Oberland ~ The Rustle of the Stars (Gizeh, 2011)
The triumph and tragedy of the early explorers is lovingly outlined by Knox and Oberland in this bleak but emotionally satisfying opus. Occasionally a captain and crew would return from the polar regions outwardly victorious, but inwardly hollowed and hardened. These musicians find sympathy in their stories and inject empathy into their eulogies. The Rustle of the Stars imagines their hopes and their struggles as they wander into the great unknown.
24) Lawrence English ~ For Varying Degrees of Winter (Baskaru, 2007)
Lawrence English has a natural affinity for winter music. He mastered The Rustle of the Stars, and will appear further down the list as well. This was his first famous entry into winter music, the beginning of a seasonal series that continued with A Colour for Autumn. The muted tap of what may be snow on foil is folded into a larger ambient work with pleasingly frigid overtones.
23) Foxhole ~ We the Wintering Tree (Burnt Toast Vinyl, 2004)
The album that introduced Foxhole to the masses, We the Wintering Tree travels through the seasons, tracing the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Over a decade after its initial release, it retains its impressive power and makes the work of newer post-rock bands seem old. Foxhole and its label may have disappeared like frost, but the impact of this recording remains. One of two post-rock recordings on our list, it impresses with cold, magisterial grace.
22) Hannu ~ Hintergarten (Keshhhhhh, 2009)
The natural heir to Aim’s Cold Water Music (which isn’t included here as it includes a Halloween track), Hintergarten offers modern instrumental trip-hop that echoes and flows. Bells, beats, jazz and hints of modern classicism abound. This is the only album on our list that one might consider dancing to; the sugar plum fairies await your call.
21) Peter Cusack ~ Baikal Ice (ReR Megacorp, 2004)
Lake Baikal, also known as the Pearl of Siberia, is perhaps best known for its ice – specifically, the unique sounds that its ice makes when it begins to thaw and break. Cusack’s pristine hydroponic recording captures this event and surrounds it with context: the village ferry, a man falling through the ice, gulls and trains. This sonic postcard makes a great advertisement for its source; after one play, one begins to think about buying tickets.
20) Andrea Polli ~ Sonic Antarctica (Gruenrekorder, 2008)
Sonic Antarctica is an album that sounds like a soundtrack and unfurls like a film: a fluid combination of tones, field recordings and interviews with the weather station personnel of the South Pole. Polli begins with a helicopter ride and slowly descends into a world of glaciers and sub-zero readings. By the end, we’ve not only been entertained, but enlightened. The album now brings us to the first of three Winter Music Spotlights!
Winter Music Spotlight: The Gruenrekorder Label
For field recordings, Gruenrekorder is the one to beat. The sheer breadth of their scope is remarkable. Other winter-related albums on the label include Dogs from the snowy country (Finnish sled dogs, recorded by Lasse-Marc Riek), Luminarskuu (Finnish snow walk soundscapes, again by Lasse-Marc Riek), Finnish Snow Walks and Dances (field recordings and songs from various artists), Fire and Frost Pattern (half ice, half volcanos from Andreas Bick), Antarctica (field recordings by Craig Vear, originally part of a DVD/CD set), Swiss Mountain Transport Systems (cable cars and chair lifts, recorded by Ernst Karel), and The Sound of Snow and Ice (Various Artists). Some of the early releases are sold out and some are only available in digital form, but we expect many more!
19) Simon Whetham ~ Fractures (Entr’acte, 2009)
A field recording trip to Iceland led to Whetham’s participation in Reykjavik’s Winter Lights Festival, where he first presented this work. The recordings are as clear and crisp as the aluminum bag which shelters the disc. During the glacier and waterfall segments, we can practically feel the ice in the air.
18) Werner Daleldecker + Lawrence English ~ Shadow of the Monolith (Room40, 2014)
The newest of the entries on our list, Shadow of the Monolith is a twin screen installation that later became an album, a pristine collection of field recordings and soundscapes that casts a long, dark shadow. It’s a sign that new, unexplored sonic territory still awaits those who dare venture into the cold ~ in this case, the furthest regions of the Southern Hemisphere.
17) Kate Carr ~ Songs from a Cold Place (Flaming Pines, 2013)
Carr’s first trip to Iceland also introduced her to her first blizzard. The joy of discovering a new sort of weather is apparent throughout this recording, which combines the wonder of the elements with the timbres of newly-purchased instruments. Best of all is the snowstorm, aurally reflected below.
16) Matteo Uggeri | Luca Mauri | Francesco Giannico ~ Pagetos (Boring Machines, 2012)
The sister album to Kapnos and the final piece of the Elements quadrilogy is evocative in sound and scope. The album begins with footsteps in frost and proceeds to soundtrack a cold outdoor morning, beginning at 4:56 a.m. and ending at 9:01. Few people get to see or hear this much beauty before work, but thanks to this trio, they have the chance to do so every day.
15) Lullatone ~ while winter whispers (Self-Released, 2014)
This little treasure was inescapable for readers of our site this past December, as it appeared on multiple year-end charts, including Best Winter Music, Best Electronic Music, and Happiest Music of the Year. It is in fact the happiest entry on this list, reflecting the pure exuberance of childhood with titles including “an ode to eaten snowflakes” and “falling asleep with a book on your chest”.
14) Last Days ~ The Safety of the North (n5md, 2009)
This album tells the tale of a transition: a death in the family, followed by a move to “the safety of the north”, where “the Northern Lights, midnight sun, 50,000 islands, squirrels, bears and reindeer” await. It all works out in the end, as the protagonist grows long and lean, perfected by cold.
Winter Music Spotlight: Glacial Movements Label
No winter music article would be complete without a mention of the Glacial Movements label. Founded by Alessandro Tedeschi (Netherworld), the label’s sole stated mission is the promotion of icy ambient soundscapes. Their latest is Machinefabriek‘s Stillness Soundtracks, the aural segment of a stellar USB release; others include works from Aidan Baker, Celer, Pjusk and Stormloop. The catalog also includes what may be the best winter cover image ever, for bvdub‘s The Art of Dying Alone. While no single album appears on this list, the label’s output as a whole is worthy of recognition. However, if we were forced to choose only one, we’d go with bvdub & Loscil‘s Erebus, which strikes a perfect balance between ambient and drone.
13) Wixel ~ Clouds (Self-Released, 2009)
This stellar EP (the January installment of Wixel’s year-long Awesome Stupid Project) is the musical echo of all the field recording albums mentioned earlier in this article. Some tracks sound like snow, others like ice, others like melting lakes. Wixel’s guitar work is playful and loose; bells and chimes glimmer like kaleidoscopes of light.
12) Stuzha ~ Through the Snowfield EP (This Plague of Dreaming, 2008)
Authenticity is the key to Stuzha’s appeal: boots walking through snow, a match being struck to light a fire, hands being rubbed together, a cold choir passing through the Siberian trees. The title track is one of the all-time best winter songs, infused with Russian folklore and the sound of wind through chimes. Stuzha’s debut album, Siberian Sketches, continues the story and is available on Snowy Tension Pole.
11) Do Make Say Think ~ Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn (Constellation, 2003)
Normally one wouldn’t expect a winter album to contain a track titled, “It’s Gonna Rain”, but it doesn’t always snow in winter, especially in the warmer climes. Winter Hymn is the rocking chair, the bottle of bourbon, the damp sweater, the boots by the hearth; a hard working winter. This is post-rock’s cold opus, the best of the genre from one of its best bands.
Winter Music Spotlight: Taylor Deupree and the 12k label
More than anyone else on this list, Taylor Deupree exemplifies the spirit of winter music. A lifelong interest in stillness and silence, coupled with a wintry locale in Westchester County, New York, have combined to inspire over a decade of seasonal-based works. The highlights include the twice-issued classic Northern, the Polaroid-inspired Snow (Dusk, Dawn), the beautifully packaged In a Place of Such Graceful Shapes, recorded with Marcus Fisher, and the post-Hurricane Sandy Wood, Winter, Hollow, recorded with Seaworthy. Each contains photography and sounds from the area in which it was recorded. It’s impossible to choose a favorite, but for his continued body of work, Deupree wins our snowy hearts.
10) Dag Rosenquist & Rutger Zuydervelt (Jasper TX & Machinefabriek) ~ Vintermusik (Self-Released, 2007)
Winter’s ephemeral nature is captured here through glitches, reverb and drone – a mysterious mirror that reflects different scenes depending on the beholder’s stance. The music keeps changing, shifting under the feet like cold currents. Vintermusik is the frost that etches the glass, the breath that catches in the throat. Long out of print, the set has recently been re-released, along with bonus material.
9) Jaxson Payne ~ Hopen (Self-Released, 2008)
Only 4 people live on the tiny island of Hopen, nine miles from the Norwegian north. We can imagine their isolation, their taciturn, rugged faces. And so, when we hear snatches of sleigh bells and distant choirs borne on the wind, we begin to wonder, have they gone stir crazy? Have they been saved by their own imaginations? Or is there really someone out there?
8) Elegi ~ Varde (Miasmah, 2009)
Varde starts with the discovery of Captain Scott’s long-dead, frozen body in the Antarctic, and it just doesn’t get any brighter. This is the sound of nobility drowned in failure, the sound of one’s dreams crunching beneath one’s feet. It’s the darkest album on our list, the antithesis of seasonal cheer.
7) Richard Strauss ~ Eine Alpensinfonie (Numerous renditions; 1915)
Strauss’ Alpine Symphony exposes the difficulty of making lists, as one would have a good argument for placing this master work higher up the list. If we were judging solely on musical merit, we would place this album at #2; but other factors are at work as well, the main factor being that while the work was composed as a reflection of a man’s solo journey into the Alps, one might not know this as a winter work without reading the liner notes. So we split the difference, because it’s quite fantastic and we just had to include it. The 1993 Berlin Philharmonic version is considered one of the finest, but a brand new rendition from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is not far behind.
6) Sébastien Roux ~ Pillow (Apestaartje, 2007)
After a winter storm, the streets are still; one can hear ice crackling on power lines, wisps of snow dancing in sudden breezes. This Parisian album is a quiet symphony of clicks and drones, conjuring images of scarf-draped children gazing through frosty panes, and leather-tongued skates waiting to be laced. Pillow is gossamer and sedate, a cold weather classic. Apestaartje folded a few years back, but the digital album is available at Boomkat.
5) aMute ~ A Hundred Day Trees (intr.version, 2004)
Here are some of the words others have used to describe Jérôme Deuson’s defining work: frosty, brittle, snowy, cold. In this case, the sonics are a perfect match for the cover art. While guitar is the dominant instrument, the electronics – static, reverb, and bells – define the landscape. The Cure-referencing “Let’s Go Swirling” provides the album’s most accessible moment.
4) BJ Nilsen ~ Fade to White (Touch, 2004)
The beauty of this set is its unrelenting momentum. It starts with sampled snowflakes but soon picks up speed like a snowball in an avalanche, as unstoppable as a massive winter storm. By the end of “Nine ways till Sunday”, the sonics are so thick that they are nearly solid, and a nigh-unspeakable silence follows in their wake.
3) Nils Frahm ~ Wintermusik (Sonic Pieces, 2009)
Like Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas EPs, this 3-track release was initially intended only for family and friends. Thankfully it saw the light of day – and established Frahm’s career. These pieces for piano, celeste and reed organ perfectly capture the season’s mingled melancholy and expectation. A huge debt is owed to Debussy, as one hears pleasant echoes of “The Snowflakes are Dancing” throughout the work.
2) Plinth ~ Wintersongs (Rusted Rail, initially self-released 1999)
Music boxes, creaking doors, traveling choirs: this release, first issued on tape, brings the season to life through its creative arrangement of sounds. Ranging from the folk to the ambient, Wintersongs offers comfort and cheer, while the trumpet and clarinet add winter warmth. As more time has passed, our appreciation for this collection has only increased. It’s now in its fourth pressing, and continues to win hearts and minds every time winter rolls around.
1) Ralph Vaughan Williams ~ Symphony No. 7 (Sinfonia Antartica) ~ 1952
There are many versions of this symphony, which originated as the soundtrack to Scott of the Antartic (1949). Two of the best come from the London Symphony (directed by André Previn) and the London Philharmonic (directed by Bernard Haitnik). Without this composition, perhaps none of the others on this list would have existed. It’s got the spoken word, the wind machine, the orchestral drama, and of course, the dark subject: this is man against nature, and man loses – terribly. The brass theme, most potent in the nearly-overpowering third movement, is one of the finest ever composed. The fact that Vaughan Williams completed this symphony at age 80 is even more astounding. In an age in which careers are measured in months or years, this achievement comes as a valuable reminder of our often untapped potential. Great music is not just for the young or from the young, and the oldest person on our list is the author of winter’s best album.