The 40 Best Winter Albums of All Time

2022 Edition!  Every year, as temperatures drop and snow begins to fall, we renew our love affair with winter music. Seven years after its first appearance, The 25 Best Winter Albums of All Time continues to be our site’s most visited article.  This year we’ve revamped and expanded our list, bringing it up to date.  We’ve listened to all of our readers’ suggestions, reviewed ten annual charts of The Year’s Best Winter Music and increased our list to a Top 40!

What is winter music?  For our purposes, winter music is music written about winter that also sounds like winter. As this is an instrumental-based site, we’ve only included instrumental-based albums.  Christmas sets and albums released during winter, but not pertaining to winter, are excluded, as are short EPs and sections of longer works. For shorter winter-themed classical works, we suggest Tchaikovsky‘s Symphony No. 1 in G Minor, op.13 “Winter Dreams” and the winter movements of The Seasons; and Vivaldi‘s Four Seasons.  For vocal-based winter albums, we recommend Björk‘s Vespertine, Benni Hemm Hemm‘s Ein í leyni, and Sigur Rós( ).  The last three hail from Iceland, where one might argue it’s all winter music.

Winter music suggests snow, ice, frost and wind.  Some artists describe a light and cheery winter in which children skate, sled, and make snowmen and angels.  Others highlight stillness, beauty and calm.  Some artists visit the Arctic and Antarctic, where it is always winter; others lament the melting of glaciers and warn that classic winter is endangered.  Every genre is included, from field recordings to post-rock, but the releases share an overall theme.  In this new edition, most of the previously listed albums retain their former order relative to each other, while new entries debut throughout the article.  Only one album included in 2015 but not in 2011 has been removed, while another included in 2011 but absent in 2015 has been restored. Thanks to the rise in digital formats, there’s also a lot more streaming this time around!

And now we hope you’ll enjoy A Closer Listen’s new list of The 40 Best Winter Albums of All Time!

40) Yann Novak ~ Snowfall (Dragon’s Eye Recordings, 2014)
The most sedate recording on our chart started its life as a six-hour installation, meant to reflect the “stillness and isolation” felt during a snowstorm.  While the composer culled the recordings down to a single hour, the listener is still invited to loop the sights and sounds for an ongoing, immersive experience.  One might even play multiple copies at once as a home installation.

 

39) 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 album.  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.

 

38) Machinefabriek ~ Stillness Soundtracks I & II (Glacial Movements, 2014 and 2019)
If the partnership between Machinefabriek and director Esther Kokmeijer wasn’t made in heaven, it was cemented at the ends of the earth.  These albums accompany slow, sublime films, originally available on USB sticks.  The turquoise and aqua hues are as evocative as the composer’s glacier music.  The music and images may not be still, but exude a feeling of stillness.

 

The Art of Dying Alone

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.  Highlights include works from Aidan Baker, bvdub & Loscil, Celer, Pjusk, Rapoon and Stormloop, but every year, the catalog grows.  Those who love glacial drone will find a wealth of material here.  Attention is also paid to frigid imagery; the catalog includes what may be the best winter cover image ever, pictured right: the forlorn photograph that graces bvdub‘s The Art of Dying Alone.  Start with Stillness Soundtracks, then branch out.

37) Kate Carr ~ Songs from a Cold Place (Flaming Pines, 2013)
A mixture of field recording and strummed reflections, Songs from a Cold Place is a sonic souvenir of Carr’s residency in Iceland, where she witnessed her first blizzard.  The wonder of newness ~ new weather, new instruments, new experiences ~ permeates this album from fjord to cliff to creaking lake.  Technically, it’s a spring album, but spring in Iceland is like winter for most.

 

36) Simon Whetham ~ Fractures (Entr’acte, 2009)
Fractures is a patient album showcasing extended field recordings of crackling ice, glaciers and waterfalls.  While in town for Reykjavik’s Winter Lights Festival, Whetham travelled outward to Þingvellir, where the tectonic plates are separating; but the title also refers to fractures in the tour group.  The recordings are as crisp as the aluminum bag that shelters the disc, the atmosphere far kinder in retrospect than it must have been at first.

 

35) Foxhole ~ We the Wintering Tree (Burnt Toast Vinyl, 2004)
We the Wintering Tree travels through the liturgical seasons, tracing the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.  The trumpets make the battle seem winnable, no matter how high the drifts or how wide the river.  One of two post-rock recordings on our list, it impresses with a cold, magisterial grace. After a decade away, the band returned in 2018; another welcome and surprising resurrection.

 

34) 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 instrumental trip-hop overflowing with bells, beats, jazz and hints of modern classicism.  Some songs are for dancing, others for swaying.  The label calls the album a “musical Narnia,” which is such a wonderful description we had to repeat it here.

 

33) Simon Šerc ~ Bora Scura (Pharmafabrik / Sonospace, 2018; remix album 2021)
Slovenia’s Ajdovščina averages 42 days a year of 200kph Bora wind.  Everyone in this town knows what the wind sounds like from indoors, but this particular field recordist was not content to stay behind shuttered windows and rattling doors.  The sounds are so close to those of drone and noise that various artists were invited to reframe these sounds on a remix album in 2021.

 

32) Lawrence English ~ Viento (Taiga, 2015)
The backstory is similar to that of the album above.  English endured these wild conditions so we wouldn’t have to, venturing out in a Patagonian storm to capture the full fury of winter: whipping winds, wavering signs, screaming fences.  On Side B, he highlights the snowy sounds of Antarctica: still foreboding, but less life-threatening.  The sounds are so cold, one may want to wear a parka.

 

Sonic Antarctica31) Andrea Polli ~ Sonic Antarctica (Gruenrekorder, 2008)
Sonic Antarctica sounds like a score and unfurls like a film: a fluid blend 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.  One of the ironies of time is that when the album was released, podcasts didn’t exist; but it sets the template for one of the formats we now enjoy the most.

Winter Music Spotlight: The Gruenrekorder Label
For field recordings, Gruenrekorder is the one to beat.  The Sound of Snow and Ice is the perfect entry point for those interested in the full breadth of winter sound.  Other winter-related releases on the label include Dogs from the snowy country (Finnish sled dogs as 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) and Swiss Mountain Transport Systems (cable cars and chair lifts, by Ernst Karel).

30) Capac ~ Through the Dread Waste (This Is It Forever, 2018)
While most albums arrive in a click; this one must be earned.  A small metal tag is embedded in a log that must be burned to access the music.  In this fashion, the prospective listener imitates the associations of the release: bygone days in which families huddled around a hearth and told folk stories.  Robert Cooper’s “Winter Morning” is recited by multiple generations, keeping night and cold at bay.  Even a choir emerges, but not, as one might expect, on “O Holy Night.”

 

29) The Frozen Vaults ~ 1816 (Voxxov, 2015)
When is a winter album not a winter album?   When it’s about 1816, the year without a summer. One can feel the unending cold, the clutch of the unrelenting elements.  The sleet falls, the frost spreads, the violins keen, the citizens tremble in fear and frigidity.  Pleq and Spheruleus drench their listeners in melancholy, mirroring the mood of that tragic time.

 

28) Matteo Uggeri | Luca Mauri | Francesco Giannico ~ Pagetos (Boring Machines, 2012)
The sister album to Kapnos and the final piece of the Elements quadrilogy is filled with crisp field recordings that virtually leap from the speakers.  Impressionistic music folds into the soundscape like the release of snow from overladen trees.  The album is the score to 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.

 

27) Lawrence English ~ For Varying Degrees of Winter (Baskaru, 2007)
Lawrence English is all over this list.  He mastered The Rustle of the Stars, made our chart above and appears below 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 snow on foil is folded into a larger ambient work with pleasingly frigid overtones.

 

26) NE Trethowan ~ RS (Slow Records/Tavern Eighteenth, 2012)
The winter wasteland is weather-beaten, the travel slow and arduous.  Creaks and rustles imitate the sound of frozen gears.  Distant choirs hasten the traveler toward safety, or at least we hope it’s safety, and not eternity.  I’ll just lie down in the snow for a minute and take a little nap, you say.  But what beautiful music to carry one away.

 

25) Terje Isungset ~ Beauty of Winter (All Ice, 2018)
Terje Isungset’s music is the literal embodiment of winter; he sculpts bells, mallets and horns from ice, and plays them before they melt.  As the founder of Norway’s Ice Festival, he inspires others to do the same.  Beauty of Winter is the best of a vast array of albums, incorporating Inuit folk, whale song, glacial water and a sense that winter doesn’t lurk ~ it beckons.

 

24) Lullatone ~ while winter whispers (Self-Released, 2014)
This tiny treasure is the happiest entry on this list, reflecting the innocence of childhood through titles including “an ode to eaten snowflakes” and “falling asleep with a book on your chest”.  The journey continues in the winter tracks of Thinking About Thursdays, a track-a-week project in 2015 that was published as a set the following year.

 

23) Pawn ~ Above the Winter Oaks (The Land Of, 2010)
We love this release but pulled it from our list in 2015 because we could no longer find it online in any edition, physical or digital.  But then one of our readers commented that this was his favorite winter album!  The artist is still active in music and installation work as Hideki Umezawa, but we’d love to see a reissue of Pawn’s works from 2009-12.  Above the Winter Oaks is a gorgeous ambient-electronic set, featuring five tracks and five remixes, sounding like gentle ice and sleet, with guitar strums punctuated by tiny glitches and pings.

22) Federico Durand ~ Jardín de invierno (Winter garden) (Spekk, 2016)
Winter garden imagines the blessings that can bloom when the weather is cold.  Recorded on toy instruments in a “cold old house”, these miniature confections sound like frost on the windows, falling snow, the twinkle of sun on icy branches.  A static breeze blows against the windows, inviting listeners to admire the winter wonderland or to bundle up, go outside, and play.

 

21) Thomas Köner ~ Nuuk (Mille Plateaux; originally released 1997, reissued 2021)
One of a quartet of winter-themed albums released by Köner in the 90s (the others being Nunatak, Permafrost, and Teimo, any of which could have made this list), Nuuk is inspired by the climate of Greenland and exudes an image of cold expanse.  After a quarter century, the music still sounds timeless, reflecting the obliteration of time in an overwhelmingly white landscape.

 

20) Taylor Deupree ~ Snow (Dusk/Dawn) (12k, 2010)
Expired polaroid film and analog synthesizers were used to piece together this ephemeral project, which began to decay as soon as it was captured.  The physical release of 63 included blackened originals taken after the first snow, next to prints that preserved their original images.  This loop-based work captures the feeling of disintegration, melt and time.  For purists who would prefer a full album in this spot, simply switch to Deupree’s twice-issued classic Northern.

 

Winter Music Spotlight: Taylor Deupree and the 12k label
Taylor Deupree exemplifies the spirit of winter music.  A lifelong interest in stillness and silence, coupled with a wintry locale in Pound Ridge, New York, have combined to inspire over two decades of seasonal-based works.  In addition to the above entries, winter highlights include the beautifully packaged In a Place of Such Graceful Shapes with Marcus Fisher, the cross-continental and post-Hurricane Sandy Wood, Winter, Hollow, recorded after walks with Seaworthy; and Seaworthy & Matt Rösner‘s Snowmelt.  Each contains photography and sounds from their areas of conception.

19) The Humble Bee ~ Snowflake (Our Other Ideas, 2014, digital re-release 2021)
The album is constructed like the sides of a snowflake: six artists were asked to record six-minute compositions, at 60 bpm, after watching a film of Ukichiro Nakaya creating artificial snowflakes.  Then the compositions were mixed together, played live, and looped to create two longer works, one thirty-six minutes in length and the other an hour.  The result is a tumbling, loop-centric set, rife with organic instruments yet seemingly self-generating.  The record, pressed on white vinyl, solidifies the association.

 

18) Werner Daleldecker + Lawrence English ~ Shadow of the Monolith (Room40 / Holotype Editions, 2014)
Shadow of the Monolith is a twin screen installation that became an album:  a pristine collection of field recordings and soundscapes that travels into the furthest regions of the Southern Hemisphere and returns to bear witness.  The multi-media project is a sign that new, unexplored sonic territory still awaits those who dare venture way, way beyond their comfort zones.

 

17) Blind Cave Salamander ~ The Svalbard Suite (Hypershape Records, 2019)
The Svalbard Seed Bank is the protector of Earth’s seeds, a storehouse of hope should humankind ever need to start anew.  We approach the vault door with resolute steps; then we hear the voices of the people inside.  Blind Cave Salamander paints this soundscape with strings, field recordings, even a choir.  But the permafrost is melting; is the future really as safe as we hope?

 

16) Dag Rosenquist & Rutger Zuydervelt (Jasper TX & Machinefabriek) ~ Vintermusik (Self-Released, 2007; Zoharum re-release 2014)
Winter’s mutable nature is captured here through glitches, reverb and drone – a mysterious mirror that reflects different scenes depending on the beholder’s stance.  The music shifts beneath the feet like cold currents.  Vintermusik gathers the frost that etches the glass, the breath that catches in the throat.  The 2014 reissue includes bonus material.  For more winter music from Zuydervelt, turn to 2015’s Sneeuwstorm on Glistening Examples.

 

15) Wixel ~ Clouds (Self-Released, 2009)
Some tracks sound like snow, some like ice and others like melting lakes.  Wixel’s guitar work is playful and loose; bells and chimes glimmer like kaleidoscopes of light.  While Wixel would go on to release one project a month that year, the first was his finest, taking its time, loops unwinding like tentative flowers in cold winter light.

 

14) Last Days ~ The Safety of the North (n5MD, 2009)
Moving from south to north is like moving from summer to winter.  This concept album begins with 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.  The main character, Alice, grows long and lean, perfected by cold ~ an unexpected wonderland.

 

13) Do Make Say Think ~ Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn (Constellation, 2003)
While normally one wouldn’t expect a winter album to contain a track titled, “It’s Gonna Rain”, 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 finest bands.

 

12) Stuzha ~ Through the Snowfield (This Plague of Dreaming, 2008)
Boots tread on snow, a match is struck to light a fire, hands are rubbed together, a cold choir walks through the Siberian trees, and the listener is immersed in the survival experience.  The title track is one of the best winter songs ever, infused with Russian folklore and wind chimes.  The original release was a 4-track EP, later expanded to a full album with the addition of three bonus tracks. 2011’s full-length album Siberian Sketches expands on the original story.

 

11) Elegi ~ Varde (Miasmah, 2009)
Varde starts with a shovel on snow and the discovery of Captain Scott’s frozen corpse.  Clearly it’s not for everyone.  This is the sound of nobility drowned in failure and dreams crunched beneath the feet.  But to its credit, it’s also an unflinching reminder of seasonal affective disorder and an acknowledgement that winter, despite its stark beauty, can seem like a cold, white coffin.

 

10) Institute of Landscape Architecture ~ Melting Landscapes (2018)
Compiled by a group of teachers, students and researchers at Zurich’s Christoph Girot, Melting Landscapes is a wonder of sonic architecture and a gorgeous physical artifact.  But all of this pales in comparison to its message: the glaciers are melting, and we have very little time to turn the tide.  Ice and wind make a striking impression, but the sound of flowing water is a stark and beautiful warning.  Will this become the new sound of winter music?

 

9) Peter Cusack ~ Baikal Ice (Spring 2003) (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 fracture.  Cusack’s pristine hydroponic recording captures this annual event and fills it with additional context:  the village ferry, seagull and trains, even a man falling through the ice.  Those who hear this sonic postcard may want to book tickets to investigate this area for themselves; the ice melt begins in mid-May.

8) Manu Delago ~ Parasol Peak (One Little Indian, 2018)
When Manu Delago assembled a dedicated crew of instrumentalists for a recording journey into the Alps, he had no idea what lay ahead ~ the difficulty of lugging large instruments, the sudden changes of weather, the cunning cold.  The journey is caught on camera and is part of this multi-media release.  As the troupe reaches base camp, one can feel a palpable sense of relief.  As the highest new entry on our list, Parasol Peak is also the best winter album of the past decade.

 

7) aMute ~ A Hundred Day Trees (intr.version, 2004)
Here are some of the words people have used to describe Jérôme Deuson’s defining work: frosty, brittle, snowy, cold.  In this set, the music is 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.

 

Pillow6) Sébastien Roux ~ Pillow (Apestaartje, 2007)
After a winter storm, the streets are still ~ one can hear ice crackling on power lines and 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. Unfortunately, Apestaartje folded a few years back, but the digital album remains available on streaming services.

5) 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 have grown so dense that they are nearly solid.  A nigh-unspeakable silence follows in their wake; a fade to white.

 

4) Jaxson Payne ~ Hopen (Self-Released, 2008)
Only four 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 upon 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?

 

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 Nils Frahm’s career.  These pieces for piano, celeste and reed organ perfectly capture the season’s mingled melancholy and expectation. A debt is owed to Debussy, whose “The Snowflakes are Dancing” echoes 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.  Our appreciation for this album has only increased over time; every winter, it wins our hearts again.  Closely related is 2011’s Little Winter EP, recorded as The Cloisters, our very first review at A Closer Listen.

 

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 includes the spoken word, the wind machine, the orchestral drama, and 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 the age of 80 is even more astounding.  At a time in which careers are measured in months or years, this achievement serves 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.

Richard Allen

2 comments

  1. Bill Barrett

    Rich, this one post has opened my eyes to a new world of music and music reviews and I can’t thank you enough. Aileen loved this list and already shared it with many of her friends – all of whom are reading and discussing the book Wintering. Talk about timing! It will take some time to dig into this one post and the many others so I am looking forward to chatting more during our breaks during (and after) volleyball. Take care.

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