Top 20 Winter CDs

Only a month left until the end of Winter. It’s been a strange one : the temperature went below – 20 Celsius almost every day during Christmas holidays, then it rained for a few days, then – 20 again… But we’ve had lots of snow, which is great. And the sparkling snow of the last few days has inspired me…

I find that the overall atmosphere, my mood, and the music I listen to are often linked. That’s when I get most into it at least. My spouse and children on the other hand don’t appear to crave that same kind of serenity and often go for the complete opposite : they happily try to break the mood as brutally as possible. I was enjoying a mellow wintery Sunday morning vibe when “I got it from my daddy” from Gangnam Style’s illustrious Psy threw me and my coffee out of the chair. So much for feeling one with the universe.

And so I retreat here to share my spontaneous top 20 list of CDs for the Winter season. It’s too bad that I wasn’t inspired before, because the indie folk person that I am would have found it a lot more natural to start with Fall. But it’s a nice challenge.

What makes a good Winter CD is still a mystery to me at this moment. I think it has a lot to do with sensory perceptions : what the songs feel like, sound like, what images pop up when you hear them. Good Winter albums should be atmospheric albums that make you see and hear the evening snow falling down. They might feel a little Christmassy too (with piano music that sounds like bells, for example). Will finding the recipe kill the magic? Let’s see when I’m done. 😛

Since this is my third top 20 list, I’ll give it a new twist. I’m leaving the last spot open… I wonder if you all out there have completely different music genres in mind for Winter.

20. …?

19. David Usher, Little Songs

David Usher’s first solo album is a hit and miss, the songs are uneven, but there are a few very strong ones (ex. Saint-Lawrence River). I usually end up listening to the same four-five songs, but still, there is a nice atmosphere, a bit wintery, like an early Winter in late November. I never heard his other solo albums but I should, there was potential there.

18. We are Wolves, Invisible Violence 

I’ll bet that these guys listen a lot to Ozzy Osbourne. The singer sounds exactly like him, but he’s backed by an indie electronic rock band. A strange mix. We are Wolves’ third album is harder and louder than most albums on this list, but the electronic and rock atmosphere inspire the vision of an open snowscape (and after seeing the memorable Blue video, that image is kind of ingrained in my head).

17. Lamb, Best Kept Secrets

Lamb is a nice little mix of electronic, trip hop, and drum and base, with a jazzy twist. This “best of” album gathers very different songs (many of them singles, hence the need for a best of), but Lou Rhodes’ jazzy husky voice ties them all together. The drum and base element is also a strong point. It’s nice to listen to this while casually working on the computer, in front of my snow covered window.

16. Massive Attack, Mezzanine

Another trip hop album… This feels right, yet contradictory. I definitely see some kind of snowy scenery, but am I trying to warm myself up ? Am I in a cabin with a fire burning (no, but I should be)? In any case, I just had the most intense flashback of the late 1990s. Perhaps this reminds me of chilling inside with friends when there’s a snowstorm outside. The sound fills the room and some of it escapes outside in the night, into the storm, and brings the vibe… to no one. Trippy.

15. Lhasa De Sela, The Living Road

Another hot-cold paradox. Lhasa De Sela has a deep and warm voice. She mixes different cultural influences into her music, and her songs are in Portuguese, French, and English. So, how does this one work?… Let’s see… nature unleashing its wrath, wind sweeping the snow away, and this woman with a broken heart is still standing, sharing her emotional stories with outstanding aplomb.

14. Patrick Watson, Close to Paradise 

On Patrick Watson’s first release, vocals and piano are upfront. Some songs do stand out, like Luscious Life, but overall, the album sounds like endless string of magical sparkling piano sounds.

13. Portishead, Portishead

The haunting songs on Portishead’s second album work quite well for the Winter season. Incidentally, they make me think of walking around downtown during Québec’s 1998 ice storm. For weeks, several cities went without power. In Montréal, they called in the army to help cut down frozen branches that came crashing down. It was chaos all over, but people were really supportive of one another. My best friend lived in the smallest apartment downtown but she had heat, and I stayed with her for a few days. All day, we’d listen to music on our CD players or radios that could also function on batteries. When you’re 18, that works out just fine.

12. Malajube, La caverne

Malajube’s third release is as innovative as always. These guys are great composers and musicians. One of the signature moves of this band is to turn up the sound of the instruments and to lower the sound of the voice. That way, the voice (whisper) just blends in and adds to the atmosphere. The unexpected melodies and hooks make the Winter days feel pretty darn cool.

11. Nina Simone, Jazz Masters 17

I couldn’t find the cover of the Jazz Masters album… Too bad, it still makes the cut. Nina Simone is one of the most amazing one-of-a-kind voices that has ever been, and her unique bluesy style is the best thing to warm you up on Winter evenings. This CD is a great way to start if you’re unfamiliar with her work : Work Song, Love Me or Leave Me, Pirate Jenny, Mississipi Goddamn, Little Girl Blue, Black is the Color of my True Love’s Hair… You’ll want to know more for sure.

 10. Bjork, Post

Perhaps it’s because of the song Hyperballad, but when I listen to Post, I always think of Bjork on the top of a snowy mountain in Iceland, happy and serene in front of a sparkling white open and windy scenery, screaming and wondering if her voice reaches the other side. For some reason, the image I have of her is in a simple white dress with no shoes… yet she’s not cold at all. Bjork’s voice is amazing enough that it doesn’t have to be warm at all, because it’s… celestial, perhaps? Flying upwards over the icy moutain.

9. Dustin Tebbutt, Home

I like Dustin Tebdutt’s album covers. This artist indeed crafts beautiful album covers, as well as clever and soothing melodies, and the imagery lifts your head up to the stars. It feels beautiful and a bit lonely, just like a silent Winter snowscape. But the colours, especially the contrats of colours, are always very stark in Winter.

8. The Cure, Disintegration

The Cure’s mellow melodic, melancholic and introspective songs flow perfectly from one to the other on this album, which is important for the atmosphere to build up. And so it builds up, like sparkling snowflakes pilling up little by little. Speaking about things flowing, Robert Smith’s voice flows perfectly over the music. It appears out of the mist, and disappears in the same manner.

7. La bottine souriante, La Mistrine

La bottine souriante is traditional music in Québec, especially for those who are of French descent. Generations of people played and listened to this kind of music when they took a break to celebrated the holidays together. I heard there was always one or more people in families who played the violin, the accordeon, or who could drum with their hands and feet like there was no tomorrow! La Mistrine was the first album my sisters and I would put on Christmas night when we were kids. When the first song Le reel des soucoupes volantes started, we knew the party had begun!

6. Belle and Sebastian, If you’re feeling sinister

If you’re feeling sinister is exactly the CD I had in mind when I thought of writing this post : a soft moody album that makes you want to curl up on your comfy chair with a book and a glass of wine on the weekend, around 4 or 5 PM, when the light changes outside and the evening sky becomes blueish. Yeah, I’ve done that quite a few times with this CD on, and it never disappoints.

5. Tori Amos, Under the Pink

A young girl at my highschool played Winter on the piano once at some ceremony or something and I thought that was the best thing I had ever heard, so I bought Under the Pink and discovered Tori Amos. This feels like a very honest album and it puts the emphasis on the piano melodies and the soothing vocals. The songs go straight to your heart, and your mind gets lost in Tori’s very personal and evocative imagery.

4. Radiohead, Kid A

Ice age coming! Kid A is a wonderful album. Radiohead experiments with various sounds and effects, and all we can say is that these guys definitely have an ear for music. It’s amazing how well this album has aged. These sensitive lyrics, backed by the perfect soundscape, can almost bring you to your knees (as the overwhelming How to Dissapear Completely does).

3. Yann Tiersen, Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain Soundtrack

One of France’s biggest movie successes also brought Yann Tiersen’s music to international fame (ironically, Tiersen said he wasn’t satisfied with it), which is not that frequent for instrumental albums. The story of Amélie Poulain does not take place in Winter, but the music, the accordeon, the little bell sounds, the rythm, it has a lovely “Christmassy” feel.

2. Vince Guiraldi Trio Charlie Brown’s Christmas Special

The joy of getting or the joy of giving? Not many Christmas specials have been as good as the original 1963 Charlie Brown Christmas Special. It had everything : social comment on consumerism, glitter vs substance, alienation, … And for one extremely rare moment, everyone rallies around Charlie Brown at the end to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas. That being said, this album is classy all on its own with cool jazzy versions of Christmas favorites. This is one of the rare Christmas albums I never get tired of.

1. A Message to Bears, Departures

The beautiful atmospheric Departures fits really well on a melancholic snowy day. The album doesn’t necessarily lift your mood, but it certainly accompanies your moody self on your moody journey and delicately expands your horizons. This is an enjoyable musical exploration, courtesy of English multi-instrumentalist Jerome Alexander. Now, does the message reach the bears, have they replied, and what did they say?



The Best of the Best of(s) Series: Leonard Cohen (1975 and 2002)

I don’t think this will happen often : posting about two “best of” compilations at the same time… But Leonard Cohen isn’t your usual singer/songwriter/musician. With this many great songs, it’s no surprise that at least two compilations made the list.

Let’s start with the first one: the 1975 release “Leonard Cohen, the Best of”. While I was enjoying “The Future” album from 1992, a friend of mine told me that I absolutely had to listen to Cohen’s 60’s and 70’s stuff before I could even start saying that I knew about and enjoyed Leonard Cohen. So I borrowed this compilation from another friend, and indeed, only then did I start to understand the kind of unbelievable wonders that this Montréal-born artist could create. This “Best of” compilation comprises some of his greatest older tunes, classics like “Suzanne”, “So Long, Marianne”, “Sisters of Mercy”, “Famous Blue Raincoat”, “Chelsea Hotel”, “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”, …  Simply put, there just isn’t one bad song on this album. BTW, in addition to the links below, you can also find many of these songs on these previous posts: ;

In 2002, a 2-disc compilation intitled “The Essentials” was released. Practically all of the songs on the 1975 best of compilation are included on this one as well. But a few cool ones were added, like “The Stranger Song”, an all time favorite of mine. And then, there’s a few great classics from the 80’s: “Everybody Knows”, “I’m Your Man”, “Tower of Song”, “First, We Take Manhattan”, “Dance Me to the End of Love”, and of course “Hallelujah”, a wonderful song that was covered by just about everyone (Willie Nelson, Elton John, Bono, Rufus Wainwright, John Cale, K.D. Lang, Jeff Buckley, …). “The Essentials” compilation continues with some nice hits from the 90’s: “The Future”, “Waiting For a Miracle”, and also “Anthem” which brought us the wonderful phrase “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”. The album finally ends with four songs from the 2001 CD “Ten New Songs”, which he made with Sharon Robinson (a frequent collaborator of his).

Two heartbreaking omissions on “The Essentials” compilation: “Teachers” and “Master Song”. How could those two masterpieces from his first album not be considered essentials?!! But it’s OK, I forgive you, Leonard Cohen. In a world dominated by insipid sorta-dance music about cheap booty-calls, this timeless music fills the heart and mind. Leonard is an artist who can accompany you your whole life. His genius, poetic and touching lyrics about human desires, his beautiful melodies, and his distinctive hypnotic voice, constitute quite the musical work of art. While I think that his first albums are unforgettable and comprise some of the greatest lyrics I have ever heard in my life, I do agree that all of his albums are worth listening to.


Tracy Chapman: Simple, Honest and Moving Songs

When her first eponymous CD was released, folk-rock singer/songwriter Tracy Chapman proved to be a refreshing new act in a period dominated by 80’s style glam and glitter. She is known for the simplicity and originality of her style, her warm voice, and her socially-aware and introspective lyrics (people who sing about compassion and human struggles in such a way are too few). The music is finely-crafted and executed. The emotion in her voice and the content of the lyrics make her performances truly moving. She’s definitely an artist you need to hear.

Tracy Chapman started playing guitar and writing songs early on in her life, and was singing in local coffeehouses during college (she studied in anthropology I believe) before she was signed by Elektra. She’s made numerous albums, and plenty of great songs. It was hard to decide which ones to put links to, so I’ll go with a few personal favorites, which include a well-known classic.






Thank you, Georges Brassens!

I’ve really been slacking off lately when it comes to posting about francophone artists. So I thought I’d get back on track with one of my favorite French artists.

Singer-songwriter and musician Georges Brassens is one of the most beloved figures of France’s cultural and musical history. His distinctive style features a warm voice, unique rythms on the guitar, and beautifully-written, witty and original songs. Not to mention his awesome wooden pipe, which is almost as famous as he is. Georges Brassens sang about freedom, love, and the kindness of simple people, but also about social oppression and human stupidity. He wrote hundreds of songs and I can’t recall a single really bad one (no kidding). His timeless music is loved by people of all ages.

If I had to compare him to an anglophone music figure, perhaps it’d be Johnny Cash, because of his independant thought, first and foremost. Georges Brassens is not afraid to laugh at the clergy, or politicians who send others to war, with a lot of humour and intelligence. While he becomes a thorn in some’s sides, overall, the public loves him. Aside from being a free thinker, he’s also a storyteller, and a poet. In 1967, he receives the Grand Prize for Poetry from the Académie française.

In Québec at least, if you sat around a camp fire and someone pulled out a guitar, there was a good chance of eventually hearing a Georges Brassens song. For the people of my generation, he is one of our all time favorite singers from France (even if he himself was born in the 1920’s). His songs have been translated in many languages and there’s been tons of tributes over the years, as France’s and Québec’s artists recognize his incredible contribution to music.

Thank you Georges Brassens for all those great songs that have accompanied me through happy and painful periods in my life. Let me, too, share them with the world (I’m getting overly excited now)!

Treat Yourself to David Gray’s “White Ladder”

I realized over the years that the albums I listen to most often are those smooth rainy day albums that can be enjoyed while curled up in a comfy chair with a latte or a glass of wine (and now that the kids are getting a little older, I appreciate these moments of peace all the more!). Usually, these albums feature smooth melodies, with vocals and acoustic guitar/piano upfront. David Gray’s “White Ladder” is that kind of album, and it remains a sure bet for a nice little afternoon/evening at home.

“White Ladder” was British singer songwriter David Gray’s fourth record. It was self-financed and recorded in a London appartment… and it became a huge success. How can one explain this success? Sure, the songs are good, but there’s more. As is often the case with successful albums, people felt a special connection to this record. Let’s remember when this album was released : in 1998. Right after the grunge period, just before the turn of the century, when, as it appears, society went nuts and got into the terrible phase of boy band/girl band/lolita/gangsta rapper type artists backed (or made) by an insatiable and insipid music industry. In such times, you could find solace in such an album.

All in all, David Gray looks like quite the nice guy!

Bob Dylan: I’m at a loss for words

This was unexpected, but I’m really having a hard time writing this post about american singer-songwriter and musician Bob Dylan, even if I’ve been listening to his music for a long long time (his 1960’s albums at least). As the 2007 movie “I’m not there” implied, this artist is really elusive. Perhaps I’m also suffering from the Wayne’s World I’m not worthy complex (this might happen again when I speak of Leonard Cohen or other poets who’ve given us such beautifully accurate lyrics about human soul, relationships, or social conflicts).

I think we could say that Bob Dylan is one of the 20th century’s most influential figures, when it comes to both music and culture.

So… I thought, hey, why not let the music speak for itself? I found a couple of cool things on youtube. The classic “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video, a live 1960’s performance of “Mr. Tambourine Man”, and of a personal favorite, “Don’t think twice, it’s alright”.

The enigmatic Amy Winehouse

When I first heard the song “Rehab”, I was blown away. Then I saw the video, and I was blown away even more. Then I bought the CD. It had been such a long time since I listened to a song on repeat by a new artist (although it was her second album – “back to black” is indeed the one that blew the doors right open).

Then I heard “You know I’m no good” and “Back to black”… And I thought, in addition to having a great soulfull voice, this woman is a very talented songwriter, again, at such a young age. Her personal relationships seemed to have been awefully painfull though, because those songs are heartbreaking.

Her live acoustic performances say it all. She was a true artist, gone too fast.

Below are the “You know I’m no good” and “Back to black” videos, plus a few  acoustic live performances of “Back to black”, “Love is a losing game”, “You know I’m no good”, and “Rehab”.