So, just as we did for 10 Summer songs, it’s now time to turn our attention to my personal favourite season, which is Autumn, or Fall. It’s such a great season, it’s got two names (depending where you’re from, I guess). Autumn is known to be a time when the natural world is about to take a long nap. But, it’s also a season of reflection, too.
Autumn is a time of beautiful melancholy, of wistful feelings of things past, and even of mourning. It’s a time when things get a bit dimmer earlier even if vibrant colours abound. It’s kind of a contradictory season in that way, which makes it the most compelling time of year for songwriters of various stripes to be inspired to take on the subtle emotional charge that autumn seems to provoke in many. Come to that, this kind of contrast between between beauty and melancholy is what I appreciate in music as a listener as well.
So, with that thought, here are 10 autumnal tunes of greatness from across musical history, and with several musical traditions represented. Perhaps the overt jubilation of Summer isn’t to be found here. But, the beauty to be found in reflecting on Summer’s past sure is, as is the appreciation of what memories we’ve made in a season gone by. To me, that’s the spirit of Autumn itself.
Take a look, and see if you can hear it.
1. Blooming Heather – Kate Rusby
This song is known by a few names; “Wild Mountain Thyme”, and “Purple Heather” being two, and not as old as one thinks; it was written in 1957 by Irish songwriter Francis McPeake. It’s been recorded by many since then as well, from Joan Baez to Van Morrison. But, Rusby’s version on her 2007 Awkward Annie record is a standout, with her pure voice bringing out the emotional subtleties in the melody.
Technically speaking, this is a song about summer plans, and summer love to come. But, to me it’s always felt more like a remembrance of those things rather than the things themselves, looked back upon as if down a long corridor of time and experience. It speaks of innocence, and optimism, yet the melody hints at something more bittersweet.
2. I Don’t Know What I Can Save You From – Kings of Convenience
Autumn is often about endings, about leaving things behind. And really this is the central idea in this song by Bergen Norway’s Kings of Convenience, taken from their 2001 record Quiet Is The New Loud.
This is a song of melancholic resignation if there ever was one, about how sometimes certain people in our lives are best left in the past even if we value the memory of having known them.. This is one to be heard while looking out of a window on a sunny day in late-September, with rain clouds gathering far away after you’ve “put the kettle on”.
3. Autumn Leaves – Chet Baker & Paul Desmond
I couldn’t not add this tune, based on a 1945 French song (“Les feuilles mortes”, or “The Dead Leaves”) and re-written with English lyrics by American songbook great Johnny Mercer two years later. It would go on to be a jazz standard, and certainly a favourite of mine in its many forms; a liltingly melancholy tune that deals with past loves and regrets.
This version of the song is featured on a compilation album Together, from sessions of Baker’s 1974 She Was Too Good To Me album. The theme of the passage of time, and of passing away, would be particularly poignant here, given that this Together compilation would gather together some of the last recordings Desmond would ever make. Yet, the peerless beauty of his tone on this track is unaffected, transcendent even. By the end of May of 1977, he was gone.
4. Harvest Festival – XTC
It’s in Autumn that we are most aware of the passage of time, and of moving on; Summer holidays behind us, a new school year, and moving closer to growing up, and of leaving childhood behind. On this song from XTC’s 1999 Apple Venus, Vol. 1 we’re shown a picture of innocence remembered, when a school crush passes end of term exams closely followed by leaving town, never to be seen again, but not before etching a memory into the mind and heart of another.
Here gold-pen invitations draw the present together with the past, with the realization that longing looks given live on well past the time we receive them. They are the treasures of life, to be held as precious in our memories, and during times of reflection, even when, maybe even especially when, we reach jaded adulthood.
5. September – David Sylvian
Autumn is a time of reflection, with the fragments of memory often floating up into our consciousness when we least expect them; memories of the past, childhood sweethearts, and strong emotions that reverberate down the decades back to us many years after we first felt them.Then, as mysteriously as they appeared, they’re gone again.
This is the opening track to 1987’s Secrets of the Beehive, serving as a kind of brief introduction to the whole record, with Sylvian’s voice and piano backed by gossamer light strings, arranged by none other than Ryuichi Sakamoto. Like experiencing those emotions of the past, this is one of those songs you wish would last a little longer.
6. October Song – Amy Winehouse
What’s also true of Autumn is that it’s the perfect season for the blues and for mourning, with images of what’s been lost delivered up ecstatically in this case by one of the most gifted vocalists of recent years, Amy Winehouse from her first album Frank.
Was this song a ode to a lost love remembered fondly? Well yes; Amy’s pet canary Ava, hence the “Lullabye of Birdland” quote. And now of course, we must mourn for Amy as well, with “Ava” being easily swapped for “Amy”, and reborn like Sarah Vaughn indeed.
7. Rose Hip November – Vashti Bunyan
Spring and Summer don’t own the rights to the wonders of nature. Here on Vashti Bunyan’s 1970 song from her album Just Another Diamond Day, we’re reminded that beauty surrounds us, even in the season most associated with things that are passing away.
This song is about being amazed by the natural beauty of the natural world, in “catching one leaf” and finding a whole mythology underneath it. With this song, you can almost feel the cool Autumn breeze blowing through your hair. It’s sweater-weather-by-the-fire music, smelling of wood smoke and of the coming of colder weather.
8. Autumn – Malcolm Middleton
Sure, Autumn can be about wistful memories and days gone by, and about the people who populated those days, that are sadly missed. But, sometimes Autumn memories can evoke some pretty strong negative emotions, as well as very strong, NSFW language too. Consider this song by Scottish singer-songwriter Malcolm Middleton, who has some things to say about where things all went wrong, and specifically when they went wrong, in the strongest possible terms (and wear the headphones for this one, parents).
This song appears on Middleton’s 2005 Into The Woods album, a song that is ultimately about regret, loneliness, and about being haunted by one’s memories instead of being able to treasure them.
9. Seasons – Neil Halstead
Despite the season’s reputation and propensity for melancholy, it must be remembered that it is a part of a cycle. We can find meaning here just like in any other season, as one season slowly fades into another. No time for feeling blue, or feeling old when you’re thinking of also making a new start. And Autumn is a better time than most for a new start.
This song is the opener for Halstead’s 2002 solo album apart from his regular band, Mojave 3, Sleeping On Roads, a record of several songs that are imbued with Autumnal beauty.
10. Little Bird – Goldfrapp
And as with Kate Rusby’s take on “Blooming Heather”, what we get on this track from Goldfrapp, off of their 2008 record Seventh Tree, their fourth, is a sort of impressionist children’s story of a bird that has flown – maybe flown south – and of a summer memory, too dancing in a “land of blue and gold”.
Once again, we find that autumnal stories and images seem intrinsically linked to memory, and to visions of childhood and of innocence recalled.
Maybe Autumn isn’t as out and out jubilant as Summer is. It can be melancholy, and even sombre. But, as we’ve seen, it holds its own value in our hearts as a time of reflection and remembrance of what’s been and what we treasure most from our past as we move into the future. It’s a time when we’re most aware of how precious our time is, as things around us pass away in bright colours, and while the world prepares for a long, restful sleep.
Happy Autumn, Binners!