January is an odd month. After all the hurried activity leading up to the holidays near the end of the previous year, it feels like somebody slammed the brakes on reality. Heck, the early Roman essentially treated it and February as if they didn’t even exist–they just lumped them together into a dead space outside the ten months of their calendar and called it “winter”.
Similar to other recent mixes, I have tried to avoid the obvious. I don’t believe there are any references to New Year’s Day in any of these tracks. It was inevitable there would be mentions of winter and cold, though I tried to only use tracks that felt like winter and January.
I realize many of these tracks will only seem appropriate to me, as some styles and genres immediately bring the month to my mind, even if others may not feel the same. There’s the warmth of lo-fi, with tape hiss sounding to me like the crackling of a burning fire. There’s the iciness of electronic music.
Curiously, Motown-type soul music from the 1960’s is something I listen to almost exclusively in winter, especially songs which are heavy on strings and tambourine. Similarly, gospel music works for me best at this time of year. Then again, I like my gospel lo-fi and grungy, so there’s that similarity the kind of rock music I tend to listen to in this month.
As always, the links are to YouTube videos I did not upload, so the future will doubtlessly bring dead links a-go-go.
“Beyond and Before” by Yes
The lyrics of this song directly address winter more than any other on this mix. I’m actually not much of a fan of Yes, or of prog rock in general. I find this, the leading track on their debut album to be rarely bettered in their prog phase, as it is a solid tune with the musical gymnastics of the genre tastefully restrained.
“Ski Bunny” by Boss Hog
With this track, I’m making an abrupt shift to lo-fi rock. Boss Hog was led by Christina Martinez, whose husband is Jon Spencer of the Blues Explosion, and who backed her in this outfit. At the time, she was unfairly maligned by the music press, the general sentiment being she was riding on his coattails. I found the band’s only major label release to be quite solid, and I challenge anybody to deny the punch of this track I have selected from it.
“The Extension Trip” by Stereolab
Now another abrupt turn, this time towards electronica. I’m not much of a fan of electronic dance music, but I am fascinated by artists who largely use synths to make otherworldly sounds not otherwise reproducible. I could have used any of a great number of this group’s (or, “groop”, as us Lab fans tend to say) tracks for this, as so much of their material conveys this same icy stillness.
“The Devil’s Trying To Steal My Joy” by Prophet G. Lusk
Time to transition to gospel. This track conveys everything I like in the genre, or at least the sub-genre of it I like so much. This is raw and gritty. I love how the levels are pushed so hard into the red. I’m sure this performer doing this song would have been fantastic in any manner of recording, but nothing could improve upon the lo-fi approach used here. This is a strange kind of perfection. A different take, a different mix, any change would not have resulted in what we have here.
“John Brown (Triumphal March)” by Snowpony
I hope I don’t associate this song with January just because the band has “snow” in their name, but I can’t be certain of that. Deb Googe from My Bloody Valentine was in this short-lived act during the ridiculously long break between that band’s albums.
“The 15th” Wire
This song, from the pioneering band’s third album, is often cited as a top example of a single that should have been. Mind you, the single from that album (“Map Ref. 41°N 93°W”) was the smart choice, but is a shame “The 15th” was not a follow-up.
“He Was Really Sayin’ Something'” by The Velvettes
Finally getting to Motown here. Similiar to my comment I about Stereolab, I could have any of a great number of tracks. In this case, I could have used any of a hundred of so.
“Walk Out To Winter” by Aztec Camera
Once again, I hope it isn’t something obvious that planted the idea in my head to use this in a January mix. But doesn’t this song just sound like we’re on the cusp of something fresh and new? I feel it is appropriate for welcoming in a new year, when we hope things will turn out better than the year before.
“Snowsuit Sound” by Sloan
Yeah, this again seems like an obvious choice just from the title. But, regardless of the title, this track strongly sounds like winter to me. And this is a band that should know what that season is like, as they are from Halifax, Nova Scotia. I think their winter is something like nine months long there.
“Coming Up Roses” by Elliott Smith
Lo-fi doesn’t necessarily mean loud garage or grunge rock. This Elliott Smith song is almost a whisper, and it so strongly connotes “cold” to me that I often get goosebumps while listening to it.
“There She Goes, My Beautiful World” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Here we have the intersection of gospel and rock, even if the production is top-tier. That apocalyptic choir is beautiful and devastating.
“Blue Jeans” by Ladytron
More electronica, though probably a bit easier to dance to than the other such tracks I have chosen. Yes, it has “ice and snow” in the lyrics, but I think I would have still selected this number even without that.
“Hang On” by Teenage Fanclub
What is it about this track that makes it so solidly a winter listen for me? Is it the not-entirely-glossy production? Is it the flute? Whatever it is, this is one of the tracks that most strongly conveys January to me.
“Sad If I Lost It” by Guided By Voices
If lo-fi rock makes me think of January, then I can’t leave out Robert Pollard, the king of that aesthetic.
“I Got A Sure Thing” by Ollie & The Nightingales
The kind of soul I listen to in January is largely Motown, yet Memphis-based Stax/Volt channeled that same kind of vibe into tracks such as this. Not sure what that chiming instrument is (celeste, possibly?), but that is one of the key sounds for this month, in my opinion.
“Corporeal” by Broadcast
Static-y, electronic and a production where lo-fi meets hi-fi dead on. From the band that it seems most Stereolab fans cite as the closest to them in style.
“Pyramid Song” by Radiohead
I try not to use the most popular of acts in these mixes, as I assume their songs are the ones most people would already know. But this weird track from what is still the band’s weirdest album (and my favorite), Amnesiac, is too perfect to exclude. This is the definition of glacial beauty.
“Tomorrow’s Calling” by Marianne Faithfull
I know it isn’t a fair comparison, but I think Faithfull’s voice is very similar to Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, and it is best served by material that could have possibly been recorded by one of the projects with which Gibbons is affiliated.
“You Can’t Get Away From It” by Johnnie Taylor
More Motown-styled soul from Stax/Volt.
“Headache” by Liz Phair
Yes, it has “January” in the lyrics. It also has “the Russian army”, which is always reminiscent of winter, as if that country doesn’t have any other seasons. But I like to think the music would be reminiscent of January even if the lyrics were completely different.
“Freezing” by Philip Glass and Linda Ronstadt
This track is from an odd compilation of tracks where the composer worked with various artists on lyrics, and others to handle the vocals. While a noble experiment, I only felt it really clicked on this track, where Kronos Quartet performs the music while Linda Ronstadt sings Suzanne Vega’s vocals.
“Bones in the Ground” by Robyn Hitchcock
I was reluctant to include this track, though I feel it was one of the most essential. You see, I was a huge fan of Hitchcock’s until the only time I saw him live. That evening got off on the wrong foot for me, as I tried to get to the venue as soon as I was off work, but kept encountering construction detours, regardless of the route taken. It was like I wasn’t meant to go to this show, which was already a make-up date for an earlier appearance that had been cancelled due to inclement weather. I finally arrived after he was already on stage and found I had to stand in the back of the hall. When he finished, it turned out I just happened to be right at the table where he was going to do a meet and greet with fans. Except somebody, possibly the man himself, suddenly grabbed me forcefully, said, “You’re not in line” and pushed me away. I was dumbfounded, and so I waited at the bar until the line went by. Only then did I join the end of the queue just so I could meet one of my heroes. He was quite terse, despite having been very pleasant to everybody who was before me. I try not to let such experiences color my fandom, but I admit I have a hard time listening to his music even many years after this happened.
“Riot Act (demo)” by Elvis Costello and The Attractions
The finished version of this is from Get Happy!!, my favorite of the band’s albums. This recording sounds to me like it was recorded in a poorly insulated shed that couldn’t entirely keep winter gusts outside. For all I know, it may have been recorded outdoors in Jamaica on the hottest day in the that island’s history. I don’t know–I only know what it sounds like to these ears.