What on Earth Is Autumnal Music?

Source: D. L. Anderson

If you hadn't noticed, fall is in the air. Football is happening. Halloween costumes are happening. Pumpkin spice latte jokes are happening. Most importantly, though, the "song of summer" debates have ceased happening (Iggy Azalea won), which means only one thing: people are starting to describe music as "autumnal."

It's one of those terms music people use all the time, but it's pretty hard to put your finger on what exactly it means. NPR says it isn't actually a real thing. Pitchfork seems to think it is. Massive music database AllMusic does, too. But nobody is offering a firm definition of what music actually sounds like when it sounds like fall.

We'll venture a step further: Autumnal is not only a mood but a legitimate genre with quantifiable traits. Is a song played entirely on wooded instruments? Autumnal. Does the singer sound like s/he is on Benadryl? Autumnal. Is there talk of one's distant childhood? Doubly autumnal. To test the theory, we built a playlist of what we consider to be indisputably autumnal songs. Listen to the playlist, and read about each track's crunchy-good autumnal qualities below.

"Streamside" by The Album Leaf 

Everybody's favorite study music doubles as autumnal music, largely because Jimmy LaValle mumbles so insistently that it's nearly impossible to understand him.

"Northern Sky" by Nick Drake 

Source: YouTube

There has never been a more hushed sound than Drake's fingers on this acoustic guitar.

"Girl From the North Country" by Bob Dylan

Ostensibly about a girl, this song is really more about the North Country as it turns to winter than anything else.

"Monster Ballads" by Josh Ritter

Source: YouTube

Even if there weren't a video of Josh Ritter performing this song in a room that is the physical embodiment of autumn, this beautiful song would be on the list.

"Grass Stain" by Waxahatchee 

Source: YouTube

Autumnal music seems also to be the most lo-fi music there is — you can hear the crumbling sounds.

"Atlantic City" by Bruce Springsteen 

A lyric from this song is "Everything dies, baby, that's a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday comes back." But what Springsteen really means is summer dies, baby. That's a fact. "Atlantic City" is also off the album Nebraska, which is named after the most quantifiably Midwestern state in the most quantifiably autumnal region of the country. It is known.

"We Are Nowhere and It's Now" by Bright Eyes 

Speaking of Nebraska, Conor Oberst is from there. Oberst also reigns in all things rootsy and sad — it's unclear if there ever was an autumn without him.

"Omaha" by the Counting Crows 

This track is composed almost entirely on wooden instruments — possibly repurposed wooden instruments.

"Bridges and Balloons" by Joanna Newsom 

Source: YouTube

This song is sadly not available on Spotify, but Newsom's reedy voice and delicate arrangements are dry as a cracking leaf.

"Call Me On Your Way Back Home by Ryan Adams 

It's easy to feel autumnal listening to any Adams song — he just wears that much denim above the waistline. But "Call Me On Your Way Back Home" has an unusually large number of hushed moments where you aren't sure whether or not it's ended — a hallmark of the most autumnal music.

"Little Yellow Spider" by Devendra Banhart 

Banhart is generally at one with the world on this track, which also sounds like it was recorded on a guitar made from an apple crate.

"Never Meant" by American Football 

This song is autumnal for approximately 15 trillion reasons. First, American Football's band name. Second, it's about breaking up in the autumn, maybe after a summer fling.

And reasons three through 15 trillion: if autumn were a person, it would be American Football singer Mike Kinsella:

"Naked As We Came" Iron & Wine 

Here's the thing about Iron & Wine primary Sam Beam: He whispers all his songs! There's nothing more autumnal than that.

"In An Aeroplane Over the Sea" by Neutral Milk Hotel 

Sure, this song is about good old-fashioned summer love, but that opening guitar part is essentially the soundtrack to an autumnal panorama in a Midwestern tourism ad. 

?? What a beautiful trees I have found on this boat that is circling all 'round the sun! ??

"The Shaking of Leaves" by Into It. Over It.

Source: YouTube

Song title. Guitar part. Music video. 'Nuff said.

"Holocene" by Bon Iver 

You might think Justin Vernon, the guy who holed himself up in a cabin for four months and emerged with the first Bon Iver record, would be number one on this list. But he barely made the cut; everything the lumberjack of indie rocker pens is so hopelessly sad it surpasses autumnal and goes right on into dead-of-February zone. That said: He holed himself up in a cabin for four months. Give the guy a pass.

"She Loves Me So" by Anthony Green 

Like "Aeroplane," this song is technically a love song, but it's musically one of the most autumnally placid things Green (who also sings in Circa Survive) has ever penned.

"New Leaves" by Owen 

This is more than just an obviously autumnal title — between the acoustic guitar, the pizzicato violins, the brushed drums and the croaking voice, this is as autumnal as they come.

"Sons and Daughters" by The Decemberists 

Source: YouTube

Though the name "Decemberists" evokes December (which is not a fall month), the band actually means to refers to a Russian revolution. This is a relief because the band, clearly, is the Great Pumpkin of indie rock groups.

"Carissa" by Sun Kil Moon 

Source: YouTube

Last sunken-eyed acoustic-guitar white dude here, but if Mark Kozelek's voice were a thing, it would be a massive oak tree with all its leaves falling off.

"Love is All" by The Tallest Man on Earth 

Actually, this is the last sunken-eyed acoustic-guitar white dude, because if Kristian Matsson's voice were a thing, it would be a dead, crunchy leaf fallen from Mark Kozelek's oak tree. 

"Rambling Man" by Laura Marling

Source: YouTube

Among this song's plentiful wood instruments is a set of lyrics featuring a wind/breeze metaphor. Can you find it?

"Brothers on a Hotel Bed" by Death Cab for Cutie (or every other song in their catalog)

The ultimate autumnal band. Scarves, sweaters, videos filmed in cabins — Death Cab for Cutie are some truly cozy dudes. Ben Gibbard probably smells like pumpkin-scented wax and pine from the Fourth of July through Valentine's Day. The only reason "Brothers" gets Death Cab's playlist spot is that in the first verse alone, it knocks out eight autumnal prerequisites. That said, it probably wouldn't take long to find another Death Cab song with more.

Did we skip your favorite autumnal songs? Probably! Tweet or email the author with your gently worded suggestions.

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Matt Pollock

Lives and writes in the Midwest.

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