10 Gorgeously Melancholy Albums to Soundtrack Your Summer

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A couple of weeks back, we had a look at a selection of indie rock summer anthems, and earlier in the month our Pop for Skeptics maven Rohin Guha nominated a selection of more poptastic summer jams. But the thing is, summer doesn’t conjure up images of pool parties and general sun-drenched revelry for everyone — for some (and you can count us among their number, especially in the insufferable humidity of NYC), it’s a pretty melancholy time of the year. And yet, luxuriating in that melancholy can be somehow just as satisfying in its own way as splashing around at the beach — so here’s a selection of 10 albums to soundtrack doing just that. Suggestions are welcome, of course.

Grandaddy — Under the Western Freeway

“Summer Here Kids,” track four from Grandaddy’s 1997 debut album, is pretty much a manifesto for this post, a portrait of a nightmarish summer holiday gone wrong: “Summer here, kids,” sings Jason Lytle desperately. “Summer here, totally lies/ Tourist info said I’d have a good time/ I’m not having a good time.” Elsewhere, the above “Collective Dreamwish of Upperclass Elegance” — our all-time favorite Grandaddy song — is a perfect evocation of sitting alone on the porch on a long summer night, playing guitar and drinking in the solitude, and the album ends with a five-minute field recording of the sound of crickets. You can’t get more quintessentially summery than that.

Neil Young — Harvest

We’ve always preferred Neil Young’s quiet acoustic work to his raucous electrified incarnation, and this album is surely the finest example of his sensitive side. Harvest basically invented what’d decades later come to be called alt-country, and it’s home to some of his best songs (particularly the impossibly bleak “The Needle and the Damage Done” and the beautifully wistful “Heart of Gold”).

Iron & Wine — Our Endless Numbered Days

Speaking of alt-country, here’s perhaps our favorite example of the genre — steeped in the sounds of the American South, Sam Beam’s second album evokes lazy, humid days, bougainvilleas and dragonflies, all undershot with a sense of sober solemnity. Mortality is a constant theme, explored with calmness so complete that it’s somewhat disconcerting — “Naked As We Came” discusses how one half of a couple will die in the other’s arms, while the impossibly beautiful “Each Coming Night” is both elegy and eulogy — and as a whole, the album constantly manages to be simultaneously delicately beautiful and sad.

Radar Bros — Radar Bros

The terminally underrated Radar Bros have made a career out of “delicately beautiful and sad,” and all their albums seem to hover on the border of summer and fall, that strange, restless time when the air is hot and dry but the leaves are just starting to change color. Curiously enough, it’s their first record that’s always seemed the most summery to us — it’s the most sparse and bleak of their albums, but also the one that best evokes being alone in a hot, empty house in an indifferent, alienating city.

Sun Kil Moon — Among the Leaves

You can’t really have a list of melancholy acoustic-y records without at least mentioning Mark Kozelek, and happily Mr. Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon has a new record out this week. From what we’ve heard of it thus far — he’s been very generous on the streaming/free download front — it fits the atmosphere just beautifully.

Marissa Nadler — The Sister

Also releasing a new album this week is Marissa Nadler, and again, from what we’ve heard of The Sister, it’s a fine fit for this list. You could also include any of her previous records here — their Faulkner-esque American gothic tales conjure up the same mythical South as the aforementioned Iron & Wine and plenty of others (they’re particularly reminiscent of Fables of the Reconstruction-era REM to our ears).

Mike Noga — Folk Songs

Australian band The Drones are known for being the most intense band you’ll see anywhere, but their drummer Mike Noga does a very fine sideline in modern-day folk songs (as this album’s title might suggest). “Long Summer Days,” in particular, captures the exact atmosphere we’re going for here, notwithstanding its surreal and rather impenetrable lyric.

Nick Drake — Five Leaves Left

More fall than summer perhaps — although the title refers to cigarette papers, not actual leaves — but still, there’s something of the English summer about this album, and it’s soundtracked many a long, languid summer afternoon round our way.

Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci — How I Long to Feel That Summer in My Heart

Speaking of the northern European summer, we touched on the title track to this in our summer anthems post — rather stretching the definition of “anthem” in the process, it has to be said — but the whole album is definitely worth investigating if you’re in the market for languid, melancholy summer jams.

Cat Power — You Are Free

From the cover art — a sun-bathed forest scene — to the certain airiness and sense of space that permeates the music, we’ve always felt this was a quintessential summer record. And yet it’s just as melancholy as most of Chan Marshall’s other work, discussing everything from broken relationships to abusive childhoods. It’s also (arguably) the best thing she’s ever done.