In late October, on one of the first bitterly cold weekends of the year, I was in a bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that played Frank Ocean’s Blonde. Like, the whole thing, from start to finish. It was a bold move. Though Blonde was widely acclaimed when it dropped in August, the album is hazy, meandering, minimalist — the kind of brainy music critics love but people a few drinks deep usually don’t.
To my surprise, Blonde worked that night, more than it ever did for me when it was first released. I started listening regularly again. In November, as the temperature dropped along with my faith in American democracy, Blonde only sounded better and better. And somewhere in there I realized: oh, Blonde is a winter album, which was mistakenly released in summer.
Winter albums do not have to be hazy, meandering, or minimalist; they don’t even have to be sad (though Blonde definitely is). The only requirement is that they sound different and better in the coldest and most miserable months of the year, whether or not your country seems to be edging toward a constitutional crisis.
Blonde is an album, in other words, that sounds best when everything else is terrible. Here are four others.
Jay Z’s two other masterpieces, The Blueprint and The Black Album, are rich, triumphant, and swaggering, as far from winter albums as you can get. Reasonable Doubt, his debut, is different. It’s not bleak or depressive (remember, winter albums don’t have to be sad), but it’s often subdued and introspective. The music — from Mary J. Blige’s minor-key feature on opener “Can’t Knock the Hustle” to the piano melody of “Dead Presidents II” — frequently undercuts the bravado of Jay’s lyrics. And it closes with one of the all-time great winter songs, “Regrets”: “This is the number one rule for your set/In order to survive got to learn to live with regrets.”
Station to Station
It’s ironic that Bowie’s only great winter album is the first one he recorded in sunny Los Angeles. Then again, he was doing so much cocaine at the time he later claimed he can’t remember most of the recording process anyway. The funk rock of Station to Station has a lot of pep but none of the warmness of earlier work like Hunky Dory or Ziggy Stardust. Listening to the ten-minute title track feels like being chased around a decaying mansion by the deranged coke-fiend version of Bowie, who won’t stop talking about Hitler. It’s so weird and so good.
In Ghost Colours
Cut Copy is an Australian electropop band, and In Ghost Colours is their relentlessly high-energy second record. So how can it be a winter album? Listen closely. Its best moments — and there are a lot of them, which is why I still return to it often almost a decade later — invoke both the bliss and the regret of late nights and crowded dance floors. Not in a melodramatic way, like the Weeknd’s annoying “my glamorous life is terrible” act. Cut Copy’s music is more like neon wistfulness. It is good to be young and alive and feel it all, songs like “Out There on the Ice” remind us. “Even if it breaks your heart.”
I’m cheating with this selection. Sun is a perfectly fine album by indie singer-songwriter Cat Power, appropriate to all seasons but essential to none. But the album was at some point re-released with a bonus track, “Bully,” that Cat Power (a.k.a. Chan Marshall) then performed on the BBC’s Later… With Jools Holland. The clip is stunning, one of the best-ever live performances of a winter song (which don’t always translate onstage). In November, for reasons one can probably guess, I found myself watching it several times a week, marveling at the song’s nuanced, specific sadness and Marshall’s unfussy depth of feeling: “Everything you have to go through with a smile on your face/Everything we now know with a smile on our face.” Keep your chin up.