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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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John Adams

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.

Madonna

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.
Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Winter, more than any other season, seems to have its own sound track, that non-stop loop of Christmas tunes you hear in every store you walk into. By the time you reach Christmas week, some people have reached their limit with music that sounds like this:

(Soundbite of song "Winter Wonderland") Unidentified Man: (Singing) Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?

In the lane, snow is glistening A beautiful sight, We're happy tonight. Walking in a winter wonderland…

NORRIS: That's why we've asked our music critic, Tom Moon, to help us find some non-holiday musical selections that are still appropriate for this time of the year. We'll call it our "wintry mix." Tom is the author of "1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die." And Tom, it's great to speak to you again. What do you have for us?

TOM MOON: I have a bunch of stuff that sort of counters the exuberance of the holiday carols. Music that sort of brings you into a more introspective place.

NORRIS: Oh, no, you're not going to bring us down, are you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MOON: I hope not.

NORRIS: OK. Well, I have your list of selections here. And I want to begin right at the top. You have a song here by Dolly Parton. It's called "The Coat of Many Colors," and it's a song that comes with a wonderful story.

MOON: Dolly Parton was one of 12 children. She grew up in a house, a small house in Tennessee, where there was not a lot of money. And she writes this song about how her mother made her a coat. And it was made out of rags, and it was not exactly the most glamorous thing you could wear. But to her, this meant a lot and, of course, it was the warmth of her mother's love, not the material.

(Soundbite of song Dolly Parton singing "Coat of Many Colors")

Ms. DOLLY PARTON (Singer): (Singing) My coat of many colors That my momma made for me Made only from rags But I wore it so proudly Although we had no money Oh, I was rich as I could be In my coat of many colors My momma made for me…

NORRIS: You know, in the winter, we all need shelter, particularly if you're in a colder place. And that's what you hear there - is a song about finding shelter.

MOON: Yeah, and being - being sort of embraced by love, and the fact that she was carrying around this coat and wearing it proudly, even though kids at school were making fun of her.

NORRIS: Something she learned and that she probably carried with her the rest of her life.

MOON: Yeah. Exactly.

NORRIS: Let's move down your list, Tom. We now have something classical. It's from Schubert. It's a song cycle called "Winterreise." And before we actually talk about this, why don't we take a listen?

(Soundbite of song "Winterreise")

NORRIS: This music makes me want to cry, but I'm afraid that my tears might freeze. It sounds so cold out there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MOON: It's desolate, right?

NORRIS: Yeah, the frozen tundra. What's going on?

MOON: Well, this is one of - Schubert was the king of art song, and this is one of his cycles. It's called "Winter Journey," and it describes a poet who's learned that his beloved no longer loves him. And so, he writes the words "good night" on a piece of paper and leaves her house. His footprints are seen in the snow as he leaves, and the rest of the cycle describes his journey through a wilderness that's covered in snow, and him embracing his loneliness, and eventually he dies in the snow.

(Soundbite of song "Winterreise")

NORRIS: All right, well, I'm longing, at this point, to move on to our next selection. Not that I didn't like that, but I'm just ready for something a little bit more upbeat. So, you have a jazzy selection from jazz pianist, Bill Evans. It's called "Gloria's Step." What's this song all about?

MOON: It was a staple of the Bill Evans Trio set in the 1960s. And it sort of has that great winter time feeling of gliding. It's like you're watching skaters on a pond. And the playing is very clear. Every line is very succinct and there's no effort in it. It's just completely smooth.

(Soundbite of music, Bill Evans Trio, "Gloria's Step")

NORRIS: Yeah, I can see the skaters. I can see that in my mind.

(Soundbite of music "Gloria's Step")

NORRIS: Since we're talking about winter music, why don't we head to Iceland?

MOON: Sure, why not? The great Icelandic rock band, Sigur Ros, has this way of communicating that is unlike anything else in rock. They sort of made up their own language. And they've figured out a way to get the - again, the tundra desolation vibe of their native environment into music in a very hip way.

(Soundbite of song "Olsen Olsen")

NORRIS: What an interesting contrast, because in the last music that made us think of the tundra, the Schubert was all about the ground. This sounds to me like the sky.

MOON: Yeah, gray sky, lot of open air, and a voice calling across vast expanse of land, lots of territory in here. And the openness of it is really something else I really associate with winter.

(Soundbite of song "Olsen Olsen")

NORRIS: All right, Tom, I know that winter is often cold, and the days are short, and the nights are long. But sometimes, you just need a song, something that makes you think of warm, ocean breezes. And for this, you've chosen a song called "Miss Tourist."

MOON: By the great, Lord Kitchener, who's considered the grandmaster of calypso. And his thing was - he was just one of these incredibly buoyant figures like Louis Armstrong, who could project a lot of animation in his voice. And he just makes a party. You hear him sing and it's a party.

(Soundbite of song "Miss Tourist")

LORD KITCHENER: (Singing) J'Ouvert morn, you swear that is where she born Holding hand, jumping in a J'Ouvert band When the rhythm hot up the place She say 'play mas' and shaking she waist Kitch, if you phone Hotel Normandie And tell them, don't leave no breakfast for me I say…

MOON: You know, part of the great thing about winter is anticipating being some place warm and having a minute if you can spare it to sort of fall out. And calypso music is great for that. And when you hear these guys who were the grandmasters of this style, it's just so assured, it makes you move. You almost can't help it.

NORRIS: Tom, thank you for this wintry mix, always good to talk to you.

MOON: Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Tom Moon is the author of "1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die." And Tom has some more suggestions for winter music, you can find those at nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of song "Miss Tourist")

LORD KITCHENER: (Singing) Sing along with the tunes they playing And now and again shouting Play mas' Bacchanal Miss Tourist That is Carnival

SIEGEL: You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News. $00.00 Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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