As cold fronts begin to surround us on all sides, we must prepare ourselves for being trapped at home. While stocking up on milk and bread are important, perhaps vital, having the perfect lineup of music to listen to as the world turns white around you is just as key for a perfect snow day. These can be records to load on your phone for strapping chains on your tires and going into work (if you’re a Northerner) or watching civilization shut down outside your window at the first sign of a flake (if you’re a Southerner). The winter is meant to be embraced. Fluffy pop music won’t melt the snow away, so it’s best to just let nature do its job and complement the weather rather than work against it. Below is a list of 15 great records to do just that.
You will find a Spotify stream of (most of) the albums below the write-ups.
15. James Blake – James Blake
James Blake’s debut LP imbues a quiet sense of solitude and regret that goes perfect with a day spent alone at home, waiting out the storm. Though there is an undercurrent of thunderous and punishing deep bass propulsions, the overall mood of James Blake is one of contemplation and introspection. “I Never Learnt to Share” is perhaps the record’s finest statement to that fact: Blake quietly winds together loops of himself singing “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them” that ultimately knot themselves up too tightly around one another and explode in a storm of sub-bass blasts. It’s an album full of such moments, from the gorgeous “Wilhelm Scream” and his similarly bombastic take on Feist’s “Limit to Your Love.” It’s constantly beautiful and surprising as Blake shows a wisdom and patience far beyond the 22 years he had under his belt when the album was made.
14. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
is a great winter album if only for the reason that practically every song has some kind of appearance of a little winter creature, if meadowlarks and mountain peasants are really winter creatures—in my mind they are. This is probably because the album constantly calls to mind images of wintry isolation and loneliness: Robin Pecknold seems to be a lonely traveler going through each of the songs’ worlds, focused more on nature and the introspection of his own existence that the boundless world around him causes him to contemplate than any interpersonal relationships he might have. What makes Fleet Foxes such a great record is that it’s a meditative look at nature and Pecknold’s relationship to it, but songs like “White Winter Hymnal” explore how that relationship actually effects his interactions with those around him. He seems obviously lost in the woods, on the outside of the “pack” that he follows; it’s a terrific examination of the manifestations that loneliness might take when projected into society at large.
13. M83 – Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts
Even the cover of this album embraces the snow day. Four people are spread out in the snow, looking up at the sky, decked out in winter clothing. Maybe about to start the jumping jack motion to make snow angels, maybe just freshly collapsed from an epic snowball fight. It’s funny that the people on the cover are embracing the snow day in an active, outdoors way, when the actual music on Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts inspires more of a feeling of holing up inside, safe from the elements, and getting utterly lost in the music on this gorgeous record. The record was one of the most expansive and dramatic of M83’s earlier recordings, when it was largely a two-piece comprised of Anthony Gonzalez and Nicholas Fromageau, before Fromageau departed from the band and Gonzalez embraced more pop-laced aesthetics. Dead Cities is anything but pop. From the massive buzzsaw synths of “Birds” and “America” to the shimmering “Run into Flowers,” it’s a record that sees the French duo firing at their peak, stretching their limits to the farthest possible reaches and finding something beautiful and powerful there.
12. Yo La Tengo – I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One
Yo La Tengo
were pretty much made for winter as it is, so this kind of just came down to picking their best album. 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One is the Hoboken trio’s most fully fleshed-out and dynamic set of songs, with the band pulling out every gadget on their utility belt; it ranges from soft-spoken folk brushstrokes to jarring noise rock. Since Yo La Tengo’s music can be all over the place stylistically, people often forget that at their core, they’re a really great guitar band. There is a subtle elegance to Ira Kaplan’s guitar playing all throughout I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One that sees fuzzed-out riffs in the forefront of songs like “Sugarcube” and “Deeper into Movies” and playing more of a decorative role in the electronic-tinged “Autumn Sweater.” Though the album is all over the place stylistically, there’s a sense of wistfulness throughout that gives the set of songs a cohesive voice; the soft-spoken hum is perfectly suited for a day under the blankets at home.
11. Tortoise – Millions Now Living Will Never Die
If Tortoise’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die just ended with the 20-minute opening track “Djed,” it would still be up this high on the list. The song begins with a propulsive, jazz-infused beat bolstered by organs, you blink and you’re listening to chilly icicles of electronic programming jutting from all angles, and you blink again and the trip-hop outro is pounding on before fading out. “Djed” could be the mission statement for the album as a whole, as post-rock pioneers Tortoise were never content with staying in just one place on Millions Now Living Will Never Die. It’s a hard-to-pin-down, exploratory record that, while very challenging, has immediate rewards in the warm and inviting tones. I know, I know – warmth isn’t the key here, but put this record on next time you’re snowed in and tell me it isn’t perfect.
10. múm – Finally We Are No One
múm are Iceland’s best-kept secret, and Finally We Are No One is their defining artistic statement. This album is tailor-made for a forced home-stay from the snow, as their toy-box electronica feels as delicate and fragile as a snowflake. Though the album is largely characterized by the marriage of traditional instrumentations with glitchy electronic beats, a combination that sounds a bit disjointed on paper, Finally We Are No One is anything but. It’s a cohesive, mesmerizing collection of songs that were composed, of all places, in a lighthouse – which largely informs the material itself through its subject matter and overreaching scope. There isn’t a moment on the record that isn’t utterly beautiful and devastating, as the hushed vocals seem to constantly remind the listener that something so lovely could only come from the music-box world that they’ve created, rather than the real one.
9. Beck – Sea Change
What could be better than Beck’s Sea Change for a nice snow day spent at home? Well, eight other albums according to me, but I’ll admit to some arbitrariness to the order of this list. In 2002, Beck released such a grand and stylistically different record that we’re still pretty floored by it 13 years later. Nothing Beck has done before or since has felt as human and real as Sea Change, as it perfectly encapsulates feelings of destitute loneliness and heartbreak. Perhaps the most impressive part of the way Beck offers those feelings up to the listener is that they aren’t just lyrical expressions. Sure, “There’s a place where you are going / You ain’t never been before / No one left to watch your back now / No one standing at your door / That’s what you thought love was for” from “Lost Cause” offers a pretty bleak view of being alone, but the way that Beck offers up sonic expressions of loneliness is its greatest asset. Beck is practically unaccompanied on Sea Change like he is at the epicenter of his music and his surroundings are the sea change that the title speaks of, just him and his guitar are all that is left when everything else has left him.
8. Wilco – A Ghost is Born
A Ghost is Born is arguably Wilco’s most understated record—which seems to be a trait that makes for a great snow-day soundtrack. Especially when considering the guitar-centric virtuosity that Nels Cline brought to the band after this record was released, A Ghost is Born isn’t concerned with flash or technical pomp; instead, the record sees Wilco interested in using a little to say a lot. Jeff Tweedy takes the reins in a big way on lead guitar and songs like “At Least That’s What You Said” and “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” veer into experimental/noise realms through his off-center and compulsive soloing. Part of what makes A Ghost is Born a great snow-day album is the way that these experimental explosions burst out of the songs in very simple and resonant ways. Tweedy employs an almost Neil Young-level of one-note phrasing to both drive home his emphasis and actually shift the meaning of the note each time he strikes it.
7. DJ Shadow – Endtroducing..…
You would think that an album that is comprised almost entirely of pre-recorded samples might be a little bit shapeless as far as an identity goes, but DJ Shadow managed to capture a unifying voice throughout his 1996 debut LP Endtroducing…. It’s a head-nodder, with perpetually huge hip-hop beats, but the mood remains steadily dark and evasive throughout. DJ Shadow was in his mid-twenties when he composed and recorded the album, but the LP still sounds like his most seasoned and realized effort even today. It’s really the moodiness and symphonic textures that make Endtroducing… such a perfect snow day record; many of the album’s songs stretch well beyond the seven-minute mark as DJ Shadow lets his lab creations bounce on through the cold hours.
6. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
If there was ever a record meant for a snow day, this might be it. Everyone knows the story by now: Justin Vernon essentially created a universe of snow days for himself, holing up in a cabin in Medford, Wisconsin, freshly broken up-with by his girlfriend and his band, with the intention of pure hibernation from the world. Apparently that environment improved Vernon’s creative impulses, as For Emma, Forever Ago is a record that exudes seclusion and the feeling of being alone—remarkable, considering Vernon often surrounds his falsetto with lush vocal harmonies and instrumental flourishes, but those are ultimately ornaments to decorate the loneliness rather than serve as actual companions. For Emma is an accomplishment in that it achieves what so many other records set out to do: Vernon puts his heart on his sleeve not for display but as a totem for the listeners to grab onto and feel okay about going to these same places in their own lives. It might serve as one of music’s greatest captures of heartbreak and dissolution in that not only can you tell Vernon feels that way on songs like “Flume” and “Creature Fear,” but it allows you to feel that way too, or at least acknowledge that the feeling is a familiar one.
5. Van Morrison – Veedon Fleece
Sure, Van Morrison also works during the heat of summer. His vulnerable and steadily resonant vocals permeate all seasons, making a chameleon-like partner to any climate, but there’s no doubt that it just works best during the winter. Really, any one of his records could take this spot, particularly any of the ones comprising his scarily stellar ’60s and ’70s run, but Veedon Fleece is the most apt for a snow day stuck in the house, with the introspective and highly stream-of-consciousness elements that defined Astral Weeks finding their way into these Celtic rambles in a way that sounds like a songwriter still longing to find himself. “Fair Play” opens the record in a way that permanently stamps its identity in every note; Morrison isn’t overly concerned with keeping structures tight and predictable, and he lets the song swell and breathe in a way that the lyric “There’s only one meadow’s way to go / And we say ‘Geronimo’” becomes a sort of mantra rather than a songwriting device. In disowning structure for abstractions of thought, Morrison also allows the listener a space to fill those trance-like moments with their own wandering thoughts, an activity well-suited for any chilly day.
4. Radiohead – Kid A
thrives on detachment. Their music has always had an utter unreality to it—a feeling of separation from humanity in a way—that can leave one feeling cold. In the best possible way, of course. Despite the calculated and almost extraterrestrial feel to the band’s records, it’s easy to impose one’s own humanity onto them. I love them for this coldness, and the separation from reality in an almost robotic way throughout Kid A, arguably their coldest record of all-time, is jarring in its impact. The sounds on Kid A are so alien to our senses that it is a consistently jarring record. “Idioteque” sees Radiohead wear their circuitry on their sleeves with Aphex Twin-laden rhythms that tap on the brain from all sides, while tracks like “Everything in its Right Place” and “Morning Bell” flirt with some twisted 21st Century ideal of a ballad, as balladic as Thom Yorke is willing to get, at least. Kid A belongs here not because of its coldness but because of the way that detachment is reflected in our society today. So much of our communication hinges on technology that we may be fading away from each other as each day passes, and Kid A has become the vanguard in the disconnected digital age.
3. Sigur Rós – ( )
Any one of Sigur Rós’ seven studio LPs could go in this spot, but none lends themselves quite so well to wintry elements as the enigmatically-titled ( ). In a way, the 2002 record, comprised of eight untitled tracks, has come to largely encompass the band’s identity as a mysterious unit dealing purely in feeling and emotion, though they’ve reached more concrete peaks both before and after its release. The entire record is sung in “Hopelandic,” a made-up language simply meant to provide shape to the sounds that Jón Þór Birgisson sings throughout, so this is the record responsible for any comment you might hear that Sigur Rós’ deals solely in lyrical abstraction, though it’s not the case. Jónsi utters hardly any variation to seemingly one simple sentence (which has always resembled “You sat along the fire / You saw the light” to me), but the way that he chooses to stretch the syllables or reach for the atmosphere with his vocal continually brings new meaning to the phrase each time it is sang. The record’s strength actually lies in its “blank-canvas” state; the Icelandic group doesn’t impose any meaning on the songs, only feeling, so the range of meanings that come through on a personal level is vast and powerful to each listener. ( ) is sonically sparse and somewhat withholding—cold, even—giving the listener a lot of space to fill with his or her own interpretations. Even the title itself is a blank space, a parenthetical of the listener’s choosing, making the record one of the truly collaborative experiences between musicians and listener.
2. Nick Drake – Pink Moon
Over the course of compiling this list it became apparent to me that the albums I personally value the most in accompanying winter malaise are those that celebrate scarcity, albums that allow some room to breathe and really feel it. After all, this list is about embracing those feelings and not masking them or trying to falsely warm them. For that reason, Nick Drake’s final 1972 masterpiece Pink Moon is tailor-made for a winter day stuck at home. This was always a record I really enjoyed, one I found peaceful to listen to and passively experience, but one sleepless night, with that passivity in mind, I put on Pink Moon through my headphones to help me wind down. It did anything but. When Drake’s record is actively experienced, it’s completely jarring in its profundity. It becomes an album to live in, to walk through and admire each guitar strum as if they’re physical flourishes in a home, ones you can reach out and touch, more importantly feel. It’s as if Drake is sitting directly across from you in the room playing the sometimes playful, sometimes haunted guitar in “Parasite,” the directness of statements about our true natures in “Things Behind the Sun” coming through with striking simplicity.
1. Boards of Canada – Music Has the Right to Children
No other album goes better with a cup of hot chocolate, Snuggie and the feeling of total desolation that winter brings than Boards of Canada’s opus, Music Has the Right to Children. The record blends disorienting interludes like “The Color of the Fire” and “One Very Important Thought” with gorgeous, lengthy compositions such as “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” and “Pete Standing Alone,” which turn from ambient washes of sound to splintered rhythms at the drop of a hat. Ultimately, the 1998 album’s greatest strength is the fluidity with which it manages the shading of these different textural identities; Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin seem to be almost unaware that what they’re making is music rather than aural representations of colors shifting on a canvas. The overall effect is ethereal and moody, given the largely downtempo rhythms and soft-spoken instrumentals, making it a fitting accompaniment to the natural feeling winter can bring.