A Wintry Mix Without The Mistletoe
Winter, more than any other season, has its own soundtrack. There's a nonstop loop of Christmas tunes in every store you visit, and carolers in the town square. By the time late December rolls around, many people have had it.
Here are some non-holiday musical selections that are still appropriate for this time of year.
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At several points on this transfixing adaptation of poems by Emily Dickinson and John Donne, composer John Adams evokes a lonely journey across desolate, unforgiving terrain. It could be the soundtrack for a funeral procession moving through the snow-covered prairie: One dreamlike episode for small choir is devoted to the Dickinson poem that begins, "Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me." No matter the temperature, the drones of the orchestral accompaniment, coupled with the pure and vibrato-less singing, can send a chill.
The Mamas & the Papas
The breakthrough hit by The Mamas and the Papas, this evergreen classic tells of being homesick and shivering under the gray skies of a strange city. But it does this in the language of bright colors and boundless optimism associated with West Coast pop. The vocals alone provide an education: The verses, sung solo, have a brave and sometimes stoic tone, and just when things seem dour, the mood is lifted by the gorgeously harmonized ensemble singing, spreading sunshine everywhere.
Jan Garbarek with Ralph Towner
Saxophone, guitar and brass choir combine to form an eerie shadow-world of sound on this under-appreciated treasure of ambient improvisation. Virtually every track thrives on sharp contrasts -- the warm, enveloping brass is punctured by ice-pick guitar chords, while wriggling soprano saxophone dances around in wondrous echoes of open space. It's excellent for appreciating the majesty of the fjords in winter.
Blind Willie Johnson
Built around the interplay between Blind Willie Johnson's slide guitar and wordless vocal moans, this track is a key foundation of American music, as well as one of the earliest and most creative conjoinings of spirituals and blues. It can be difficult to tell that Johnson is talking about the crucifixion of Jesus; as the conversation evolves, the narrative's specifics recede, and what's left is the harrowing sound of adversity, those cold and dire circumstances that have inspired so much blues.
Winter is about more than contending with the external chill; it's a time for turning inward, taking stock, introspecting. Pop music offers countless easy remedies for changing up your groove and "resetting" your outlook -- even the professionally wayward Madonna has made contributions to this canon. "Frozen," from her surprising Ray of Light album, turns on the simple yet profound idea that "you're frozen when your heart's not open." It's never a lecture, however; more like a gentle nudge in the direction of those New Year's resolutions.