James Brubaker's 25 Perfect Albums for Fall
Fall is my favorite season, hands down. Where I live in Missouri, we're just now starting to get a taste of fall. As such, it’s time to bust out the well-worn, time tested albums that soundtrack the season so well. Because we’re also gearing up to start collecting lists for our 2016 Albums of the Year list, I thought it might be fun to post a list of some of my personal favorite fall albums.
In the Wee Small Hours | Frank Sinatra | 1955
In making one of the first Great Albums of all time, Frank Sinatra managed to also make one of the first Great autumn albums. The album’s slow-burn songs are all about broken hearts and loneliness—about moments of transition, like fall itself. The album’s contemplative quiet and wistful string-ladden arrangements make for the perfect compliment for lonely, cool fall nights.
Another Side of Bob Dylan | Bob Dylan | 1964
For whatever reason, acoustic guitars feature heavily on many of this list’s albums. Another Side of Bob Dylan is one of Dylan’s less celebrated early albums, but it’s a gorgeous set of ruminative songs perfect for gusty, gray-skied days. Book-ended by two of Dylan’s loveliest acoustic songs (“All I Really Want to Do” and “It Ain’t Me Babe”), listening to this album is almost enough to make us understand why some audiences were so upset when Dylan went electric soon after—almost.
Pink Moon | Nick Drake | 1972
Drake’s gentle acoustic guitar and sad melodies could slot almost as easily onto a list of songs for spring (or even winter) but somewhere in his drowsy voice, we can hear days getting shorter and wind growing colder. Of Drake’s albums, Pink Moon feels like the best fit for autumn; here his songs feel like the winding down and turning inward that defines fall.
Harvest | Neil Young | 1972
Harvest isn’t a great album (it might not even be a top ten Young album for me), but it is a great album for fall. From the rich, contemplative acoustic arrangements to the song’s characters and their attempts to understand what it means to grow up and get older, Harvest is an album built for bonfires and flasks full of stolen bourbon.
Grievous Angel | Gram Parsons | 1974
Gram Parsons won’t be the only country album on this list, but it’s the first and it’s certainly the most country. The thing about a little twang is that it goes a long way when you’re kicking around leaf piles, drinking on porches, and making out with the windows open—who wouldn’t want Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris’ gorgeous version of “Love Hurts” wafting out of the hi-fi late at night while doing any of the above?
3rd| Big Star | 1978
Is 3rdan album? I don’t know. Do I care? Maybe? As someone who’s always been a formalist with regards to what counts as an album, 3rdgives me fits. At this point, we might as well call it and album, and thanks to the album’s infamous dark, odd tone, it’s a perfect fit for late night autumn walks. While the entire album works for fall, “Nighttime” is the easy seasonal stunner, a bleak look at failed connections and alienation that climaxes with the plea heard around countless freshman dorms every fall: “I hate it here/Get me out of here.”
Nebraska | Bruce Springsteen | 1982
Grainy black and white cover photo? Check. Lo-fi guitars and distorted harmonica? Check. Tails of sadness, murder, and heartache bleak enough to fill the biggest fall sky with the season’s quiet dread? You better believe it.
Sister | Sonic Youth | 1987
Not every fall album is soft and quiet. Sonic Youth’s Sister is a loud, weird album that hits just right to remind us of teenage years after school: bored in the bedroom, disaffected, and itching for something new or different to happen. One of Sonic Youth’s strengths has always been looking to the space between what we know is and what we think might be possible—and exploding that space. Sister sets those ideas against slate grey skies and dropping temperatures.
Disintegration | The Cure | 1989
Due to the decade’s emphasis on big synths, bigger guitars, and biggest drums, few “big” 80’s albums feel right for fall. So what it is that makes Disintegration feel like a good fit? Maybe it’s the album’s seemingly impossible depths of introspection. Or maybe it’s the fullness of the songs’ malaise. It’s probably all of that and more, but regardless, Disintegration frequently finds its way onto my turntable when the weather starts to turn.
Automatic for the People | R.E.M. | 1992
This is the album that started fall music for me. Sure, the album suffers a whiff of disappointment thanks to “Ignoreland”—the one thing holding it back from perfection—but because every other song, even the tossed off instrumental, add up to a thoughtful examination of memory, mortality, and nostalgia, and because every note moves on the breeze like a falling leaf, I can’t think of a better album with which to usher in the fall.
Being There | Wilco | 1996
Some of the albums on this list are here specifically because of how they sound. Some of them, though, have to do a little more with my own memories—Being There is a little bit of both. I remember reading Rolling Stone’s 4 ½ star review of this album sometime in late October or early November in 1996. And I remember finding the album in a mall music shop in Indianapolis during a marching band trip. Then I remember listening to the album from start to finish over and over again for the rest of that trip, then for months, then for years after. And perhaps as much as many of the song’s albums feel like fall (whatever that means) the thing about this album that most reminds me of fall is the quiet mystery running through it all—that sadness and seeking and longing that Tweedy et al managed to capture, here, that they’ve never quite captured since.
American Football | American Football | 1999
Back in 1999, I was a heartbroken young lad with a thing for chiming, interlocking guitars and sad sack vocals about failed relationships and loneliness. Of course American Football ate up my entire fall of ’99. Every time I listen to it I’m still transported to those chilly October afternoons and evenings spent searching for a house in which to live the following year and hanging out on the wall outside my dorms, all while still moping about a relationship that ended literally a year before.
Heartbreaker | Ryan Adams | 2000
As I’m writing the blurbs for this list, I’m finding that it’s getting increasingly difficult to find new things to say about why certain albums remind me of fall. Maybe the closest album on the list to Heartbreaker is Grievous Angel, but even that doesn’t seem quite right. Adams employs a different brand of twang than Parsons, but the result isn’t totally different—this is an album perfect for crisp days and the golden hour sun creeping across the living room floor. With her stunning guest turn singing back up on “Oh My Sweet Carolina” I have to wonder if this is has something to do with Emmylous Harris's presence.
They Were Wrong So We Drowned | Liars | 2004
Upon its release, I wasn’t into Liars’ second album, They Were Wrong So We Drowned. Most critics didn’t like it either. We were living in a dance punk world and Liars showed up with a whatever-the-fuck-this-is album. In retrospect. I was wrong. The critics were wrong. Everyone was wrong—but thankfully, nobody drowned. Why is the album on this list? Because it’s about witches, of course, and it’s deliciously creepy and weird—perfect album for Halloween time.
The Disintegration Loops | William Basinski| 2004
I spent the better part of three Oklahoma “falls” walking at night around Boomer Lake and downtown Stillwater listening to Basinski’s beautiful, disintegrating tape loops. There’s a quiet sadness in the physical breaking down of these compositions and the kind of desperate recognition of mortality the process forces. It’s not the kind of album you put on the turntable and crank up, but it’s perfect for moments of quiet introspection as the leaves and weather begin to change.
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood | Neko Case | 2006
Of course Case’s songs on Fox Confessor are beautifully arranged for autumn, loaded with gentle acoustic textures and lilting melodies, but what truly makes these songs perfect for fall is their production—between the reverb on Case’s voice and the rich echo running through each song, this album creates a space as vast and inviting as the fullest of autumn skies.
The Letting Go | Bonnie “Prince” Billy | 2006
Due to his country leanings and acoustic arrangements, much of Will Oldham’s discography makes for good autumn listening. On The Letting Go, though, Oldhan’s songs, buttressed by sweeping strings and Dawn McCarthy’s haunting vocals, feel downright cinematic. These are songs for driving through Appalachian hills and sloping tree tops bursting with color.
Ys | Joanna Newsom | 2006
Ys came out around the same time as Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s The Letting Go and, as a result, the two will forever be linked in my memory. I spent many nights walking from my apartment in downtown Centerville, Ohio up to Bill’s Donuts to write or read or whatever, alternating between these albums nightly. Both albums are big, bursting, even, with sound and ideas. What separates them is their approaches to texture. Whereas Oldham’s album comes off as eerie and contemplative, Newsom’s masterwork is a bold set of epics that managed to stare into the heart of the fall, discern its essence, and spit it back out as something more elegant and romantic than even the most autumnal of autumns could ever accomplish.
Embryonic | The Flaming Lips | 2009
After the brilliant one-two punch of The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, The Flaming Lips hit a bit of a creative lull. They burst out of it with Embryonic, an album that took the bands sci-fi roots, turned them inside out, and re-planted them firmly in the world of creepy late night movies. Embryonic’s songs are about witchcraft and hexes, unsettling hallucinations, and flying saucers, all pumped out of stereo speakers at volumes that make everything sound fuzzier and weirder than usual. When on “See the Leaves” Wayne Coyne sings, “See the leaves/They’re dying again,” it not only evokes the wistful sadness of fall, but also the existential dread that comes with watching the world die around us every year.
Halcyon Digest | Deerhunter | 2010
Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest is on this list primarily because of its sound—this album is rich and mellow, like a 00’s indie answer to R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. The guitars resonate at just the right frequency to pierce the autumn night sky, and Bradford Cox’s (and Lockett Pundt’s) voices settled into the arrangements with just enough reverb to feel almost ghostly. This is an otherworldly album about memory and loss—of course it’s right for fall. Of course it is.
Love Remains | How to Dress Well | 2010
And speaking of otherworldly albums, how perfect for autumn listening is How to Dress Well’s debut? Tom Krell’s vocals are downright haunted and by burying them beneath fists full of decrepit, rotting r 'n' b slow jams, these songs end up feeling like pop music the ways ghosts hear it. Or maybe it’s just the mixtape ghost guys pop in their tape decks when they’re trying to seduce ghost girls. Regardless, this shit is haunted.
Replica | Oneohtrix Point Never | 2011
There’s something about Daniel Lopatin’s drones and sonic landscapes that make for perfect fall listening. The nights are getting colder. The trees are shedding their leaves. Not as many people are out and about on the streets. Fall begins the year’s slow creep into winter’s desolation and that’s a process that Lopatin’s music soundtracks perfectly. The synth drones and collages that make up Replica might be the perfect distillation of all Lopatin’s approaches—the album still has one foot in the drones of his previous albums while the other foot is tentatively reaching towards the more ambitious compositions that have become the focal point of Lopatin’s more recent work.
An Empty Bliss Beyond this World | The Caretaker | 2011
For the uninitiated, The Caretaker’s project, crudely explained, is to explore the relationship between music and memory. On An Empty Bliss Beyond this World, Caretaker mastermind James Leyland Kirby digs up old recordings of old songs and presents them in all of their glorious decay—think of it like The Disintegration Loops, but using music your great grandparents danced to at their wedding. Allegedly inspired by the ballroom scene in Kubrick’s The Shining, The Caretaker’s music generally feels chilling, uneasy, and unflinching in its treatment of memory and mortality. An Empty Bliss… takes that aesthetic of human decay and turns it up to eleven, resulting in a listening experience that lands squarely at the crossroads of eerie and nostalgic.
Ruins | Grouper | 2014
After the ethereal anti-folk of Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill and the stunningly bizarre whatever-it-was of the A I A two-fer, I wasn’t quite prepared for the quiet beauty that Grouper’s Liz Harris gave us with Ruins. Here, Harris whispers and mumbles her guts out over wandering piano compositions. The result is stunning—and perfect for rainy, lonely fall days. Harris wrote and recorded the album while in Portugal, and was inspired by the ruins of old estates and villages she encountered while walking to the beach. What better soundtrack for looking out at a pile of leaves—summer’s ruins—than this devastatingly haunted set of songs about broken buildings of the past.
You Want it Darker | Leonard Cohen | 2016
I’ll be honest, this spot was originally going to go to Bon Iver’s 22, A Million. As much as I love that album, though, I couldn’t very well give it the last spot on this list after a couple of spins through Cohen’s latest. You Want it Darker isn’t all as dire as its title (or recent Cohen interviews) suggests, finding glimmers of (relative) lightness on “On the Level” and “Traveling Light,” but even those songs are steeped in the specter of loss. These songs are dark but filled with a warmth and humanity that speaks to one of fall’s best features—when the weather starts to get cold, it gives us one more excuse to stay inside and take comfort in our loved ones.
James Brubaker is the author of the story collections Liner Notes (Subito) and Pilot Season (sunnyoutside). His stories appear in venues including Zoetrope: All Story, The Normal School, The Collagist, Hobart, Sundog Lit,Beloit Fiction Journal, and Michigan Quarterly Review, among others. James teaches creative writing at Southeast Missouri State University Press.