Chicagoans survived their latest brush with winter weather last week, waiting out Polar Vortex Jr. without dipping into their customary winter emergency kits (for me, a fifth of Old Granddad and a VHS copy of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles). However, most of them did it without the aid of seasonal music; while Christmas carols demand a large share of the popular songbook, songs about general wintertime are significantly harder to come by. To stave off cabin fever, I compiled this list of my five favorites. You probably won't find carolers singing them on street corners any time soon, but they make welcome additions to playlists from here until March.
1) Lee Hazlewood - "Urge For Going" (1973)
Before she escaped to Laurel Canyon and started gallivanting around with Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell spent years weathering Canadian winters around Alberta and Saskachewan. That kind of cold sticks with you, even when you leave it. Despite its title, "Urge For Going" doesn't celebrate the kind of California escape that MItchell eventually found; although she eulogizes the death of both a romance and the summer that contained it, she also remains determined to see the cold months out without flinching. "Urge For Going" gained most of its fame by coming out of other people's mouths; the song was a hit for country singer George Hamilton IV in 1967. However, the best rendition comes from picaresque crooner Lee Hazelwood, whose version appeared on his Sweden-only 1973 album I'll Be Your Baby Tonight. Recorded during Hazlewood's stint in Scandinavia, the song takes on an extra layer of yearning; Hazlewood's not only in for a long, dark winter, but also one spent very far from home.
2) Spike Jones and His City Slickers - "Winter" (1953)
Christmas music was always kind to Spike Jones; the wacky bandleader landed his only Billboard #1 single in 1949 with a whistle-filled rendition of "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth." However, he also devoted a side to one of the great lost winter songs of the 20th century. Written by Albert Gumble in 1910, the simply titled "Winter" is a sweet slice of Tin Pan Alley, extolling the virtues of nothing more than cuddling up with a significant other when the chilly winds start to blow. Jones' festive arrangement is granted extra heft by his hired-gun vocal backups, the Mellomen. Fixtures of Hollywood session recording throughout '40s-'60s, the group's close, bouncy harmonies add a touch of gee-whiz wholesomeness to the song's cheeky-for-1910 message. Don't be surprised if you recognize the deepest voice; the group's bass singer is none other than Thurl Ravenscroft, the voice of Tony The Tiger and singer of the Dr. Seuss classic "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch."
3) The Replacements - "Skyway" (1987)
When it gets chilly in downtown Chicago, many office workers make for the Pedway, trudging around in a labyrinthine collection of strip malls, train stations, and basements that leaves you feeling half like a citizen of The Sprawl, and half like a morlock with a desk job. Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, cold-weather commuters walk among the clouds. Relatively, at least. Running between downtown buildings like human-sized hamster tubes, the city's Skyway system provides climate-controlled passage across dozens of city blocks. If you're Paul Westerberg, it also provides a great twist on the old ships-in-the-night trope, one more place to catch a glimpse of a romantic meeting destined not to happen.
4) Aztec Camera - "Walk Out to Winter" (1983)
It's January. The gyms are full, the Container Store is empty, and the break-ups are peaking in the valley between Christmas and Valentine's Day. More than any other month, the first one of the year is a time for resolutions, for reevaluation, for reinvention. You can hear elements of all of those in the teenaged voice of Aztec Camera's Roddy Frame on his 1983 ode to the death of punk as he experienced it. Instead of being bummed out and hiding from the cold outside, though, he seems pretty clear-eyed, ready to leave the past where it is, throw on some snow boots, and bounce ahead to the next great thing. Of course, Frame himself was a key figure of that next wave; along with his fellow Scots in Orange Juice, Frame played the musically sophisticated, radio-ready jangle pop that (as he put it during a 2013 interview with BBC Radio) "struck a chord with [his] contemporary young miserablists with their big coats waiting for Joy Division."
5) Yoko Ono - "Listen, The Snow Is Falling" (1971)
Even in the face of sub-zero temperatures, mounds of grey slush, and a salt stain that seems to creep higher up your pant leg every time you step outside, winter can be beautiful. The next time you glance out the window and notice a dusting of fresh powder coming down, throw this song (the b-side of the much more famous John & Yoko track "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)") on your playlist. Turn the volume up high enough that Yoko Ono's voice can be heard over the hiss of your radiator, but not so loud that the hisses disappear completely. While it plays, think back to the last time snow meant more than just driveways to shovel or commutes to dread. When it ends, keep looking out the window. You might be surprised by what you see.