Welcome to the third edition of Prix Fixe, a feature in which our contributors neatly assemble and categorize a menu for your delectation—a list exploring the connections between music and pop culture, among artists, within an artist’s body of work, or anything else we think might amuse you and start internal or external conversations about music.
After the holidays end, there’s precious little to look forward to during the winter months other than lengthening days and the promise of sunshine somewhere in the distant future. So this week, we’re facing Seasonal Affective Disorder head-on with an arsenal of music and a backlog of associated memories. Feast your eyes and ears on our contributors’ go-to songs for (a) wallowing in winter misery, and (b) transporting themselves to warmer months.
01 Bob Dylan: “Girl From the North Country”
As a Southerner, scarf aficionado, and a person prone to bouts of introspection, winter had always been fun and felt like a novelty — right up until I moved to Chicago. When the season lasts more than three weeks and you still have to go to work even if there’s a foot of snow on the ground, cold nights lose some of their luster. Nonetheless, although my feelings on the season may have changed, my favorite “winter” song has remained the same since childhood.
Winter is better suited to reflection than action, making Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” a perfect song for the season; instead of attempting to reconnect with his former lover, Dylan chooses to ruminate on happier, warmer times. And despite his fondness for elaborate metaphors, Dylan is often at his best when packing a lifetime of memory and emotion into a few carefully chosen, straightforward thoughts — and none are more devastating, haunting, and thoroughly wintry than “I’m a-wonderin’ if she remembers me at all/ Many times I’ve often prayed/ In the darkness of my night/ In the brightness of my day.” ~Susannah Young
Link to track: http://hypem.com/#!/item/d8tk
02 The Mamas & The Papas: “California Dreamin'”
I know, there are way too many cliches here: Asian guy from California lives in New York and listens to this song? In the ’90s “California Dreamin'” was up there with photo-booths and Gap scents in terms of things-Asians-like — and which I subsequently dodged. Those days are gone, and now that I’m in the same situation as John and Michelle Phillips were back in 1963, living across the country through chilly (by my 50-degrees-is-cold standards) winters, I can relate to that sense of longing and the quasi-religious zeal I feel at the altar (i.e. LAX) of Los Angeles. ~Dan Nishimoto
03 Wilco: “At Least That’s What You Said”
We get very schizophrenic winters here in Texas — a half-week of drizzly cold, followed by a few days of humidity and heat, then back to cold. Personally, I like our winters; the unpredictability is sometimes maddening, but there’s something beautiful to being at the mercy of Mother Nature. Consequently, I like to turn to Wilco’s “At Least That’s What You Said,” album opener to their highly underrated A Ghost Is Born. It’s the sound of weary resignation (and possibly psychosis), with Jeff Tweedy barely mumbling lyrics over haunting piano chords. Then the atonal bridge erupts, giving way to the best guitar freakout this side of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. With the abundant sunshine and heat the rest of the year, it’s nice to revel in such bleakness once in a while. ~Art Levy
04 Red House Painters: “Katy Song”
05 The Velvet Underground: “Heroin”
Winter blues aren’t really notable here in Wisconsin, because winter can run from early October to late April. It’s just part of existence here. But if there’s one song that takes me to the heart of winter, when the sun barely shines, and the snow is piled six feet high, it’s Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.”
I know picking a song about the heaviest drug about the heaviest season is a gimme, but whenever I hear that opening guitar strum, I think of the winter of my sophomore year of college, when Velvet Underground & Nico was my walking companion as I walked to class, pondering how I was sick of my major and unsure of what I wanted. Something about the experience of a heroin high lined up with having to wade through 10-inches of snow while being vaguely unhappy. Lou Reed is more of a genius than even he knows. ~Andrew Winistorfer
01 Calexico: “Corona”
Our mild winters give way to warmer weather in an instant here in Texas. It’s like somebody turns a switch: ladies and gentlemen, summer! So during the drizzlier months, I put on Calexico’s “Corona,” knowing full well that the golden sunshine is just around the corner. “Corona” is a Minutemen cover, but in true Calexico fashion, the band strips the original of its punky attitude in favor of some Mexican flavor. It’s inherently cinematic: those mariachi horns, the gorgeous strings, and the romance of the sighing pedal steel all call to mind the best ever roadtrip to dusty, sweaty West Texas. And the false starts at the beginning sound like a clunker trying to turn over before finally kicking into high gear, its nose pointed west towards that blistering sunset. The people will survive in their environment…. ~Art Levy
02 Jay-Z: “Big Pimpin'”
Summer in Wisconsin isn’t really something to idealize: It’s a muggy, shitty time that often leads to people wishing for winter, or at least humidity under 85 percent. So I never really idealized summer in the way that pop music does — the idea of “Surfin’ USA” being a song about something other than dudes just surfing took a few years to get. Instead, I idealized a very specific version of summer: the Caribbean, yacht-life of Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’” video. It’s useful to know I was 13 years old when the single came out, and my idealization of that version of summer probably had to due with all the scantily clad women in the video. But still, all it takes is that steel drumbeat, and I’m transported to the Caribbean where I’m on an opulent yacht with an ostentatious champagne budget. ~Andrew Winistorfer
03 Pavement “Summer Babe (Winter Version)”
I first heard Slanted & Enchanted while living in Berkeley, which is probably why I associate Pavement with my mish-mashed feelings about California and warmer climes. That said, the album opener “Summer Babe” is too droopy and jangly to be summer music — you know, that shit you stroll or cruise to. And the Bay Area isn’t necessarily warm. It’s often overcast. Yet pleasant. Throw all these memories and impressions in a gumbo and all of a sudden listening to this song while huddling underneath layers in an under-heated NYC apartment feels just right. “Summer Babe” is just enough of a shimmering reminder that better times await…no matter how long the slog through wind, sleet and grinch-y rain.
Note: There’s a non-Winter Version version of this song, but I’ve mostly heard Pavement through crappy tape decks in cars with open windows, so I don’t know the difference between the two. ~Dan Nishimoto
04 The Smiths: “Ask”
Morrissey might be singing about “spending warm summer days indoors” here, but luckily guitarist Johnny Marr was spending enough time outdoors for the both of them. How else to explain “Ask”‘s near-fluorescent guitar, as faithful a recreation of the sun’s rays as you’re likely to hear in ’80s mope rock? On those mid-winter days when “warmth” can be hard to wrap your head around, throw this song on and it’ll all make sense again. ~Daniel Kolitz
05 Ted Leo and The Pharmacists: “Walking To Do”
Shake the Sheets‘ “Walking To Do” might not be a typical (or exceptionally great) Ted Leo song — no imperative toward political action, no cheeky defiance — but it’s a fool-proof way to help me keep my chin up. The lyrics are relentlessly optimistic, and paired with a backing band that sounds something like a perfect storm of Thin Lizzy and Billy Joel, in three minutes’ time I become 100% convinced that if you just keep moving forward everything will always turn out okay. And its catchiness is so immersive that I’m willing to kind of forgive Leo’s indulgent, awkward scat-style delivery (Shobuya = shebooyah!). Though it’s admittedly not the band’s best song, “Walking” has some key things going for it: It possesses a real simplicity of purpose and the lyrics are loose enough to either take at uncomplicated face value or imbue with greater meaning, customizing them to your own journey. To me, that’s the formula for a perfect summer song. ~Susannah Young
What songs help you get through winter? Let us know in the comments below.