A few days ago I drove through the worst blizzard I’ve ever seen in my life. The wind was practically blowing the car off the icy road and the colossal wall of falling snow before me was blinding. It was the first time I ever felt fear while driving. A constantly sweaty brow, white knuckles, and empty coffee cups full of sunflower seed shells were proof.
The five-hour drive from Ottawa to Parry Sound started well enough. It was 11 degrees C and sunny in the nation’s capital that afternoon. But an hour outside of the city the weather took a disgusting turn. And that didn’t bode well for the route I was about to take:
Anyone who’s driven Highway 60 knows it’s a winding and treacherous road, especially when the weather’s bad. But when it’s nice it’s a really pleasant tour. I reduced my speed to about 40 km/h for a good chunk of the trip, so I had lots of time to think. Staring death in the face in the bleakest of seasons, I pondered some of my favourite music to listen to in winter. Not the kind of stuff to make you feel warm and upbeat to cope with the cold and snow, but the tunes that help you relate to and understand the desperate and dangerous environment around you. So I came up with this short list of my favourite winter albums:
Radiohead – Kid A
It could have been because they released this in the fall of 2000 and I listened to it constantly throughout the following winter, but the songs on this album always invoke vast, bleak landscapes for me. It’s almost like the music is meant to fill those great and barren voids. At the time Kid A was revolutionary and it hasn’t really been matched since.
ISIS – Panopticon
This is a unique band that plays epic, ambient metal that can sweep you right across the emotional spectrum. Anything that’s long, slow, and heavy is perfect for a backdrop of white-capped mountains surrounding a frozen river and bare trees. This album makes me want to strap on some snowshoes.
Tricky – Maxinquaye
Tricky helped define that terrible term of “trip-hop” in the 1990s. It’s a narrow label that always sells the songs short. I always thought the music he and the dudes from Massive Attack played had the perfect layers of psychedelic musical elements and mesmerizing rhythms that would make you feel at home in a snowed-in cabin.
Sigur Ros – ()
They’re from Iceland. Enough said.
Joanna Newsom – Ys
Winter is probably the most legendary of seasons so it deserves songs that are sagas. She writes tunes that are sweeping fables about mythical creatures, set on top of ancient instruments like the harp. If you have time to kill on one of these cold, isolated nights, throw this album on.
Bonnie Prince Billy – I See a Darkness
I won’t sugarcoat it – a lot of the songs on this album are pretty depressing and some deal with death. No one said winter was a happy time.
Towards the tail end of that epic drive last week I was hard-pressed to think of a hip-hop album that would suit this particular list. The only one that came to mind was this particular gem about life in the distant dystopian future.
PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love
A commanding and powerful voice needs to tame the fiercest of seasons, and she has it. Couple that with songs about isolation and loss – produced in the guitar-heavy mid-1990s – and you have the perfect recipe for blizzard listening.
The Sword – Age of Winters
Sometimes in winter you just gotta crank it to 11 and prepare for battle.
I’m sure if I was trapped in another highway blizzard I could think of some more. What’s your favourite winter music?