The strangest thing about the past month, for me, has been watching spring bloom into existence. It seems wrong that flowers should sprout just as humanity sputters into semi-isolated chaos, that the temperature should rise to optimal restaurant patio levels as shelter-in-place orders are issued (or not issued, ahem). It feels like a taunt: Mother Nature saying, “Look how beautiful I am, and how dangerous.”
As one of the lucky ones who can work remotely, I’ve been witnessing the onset of spring outside my window like a zoo animal with nice headphones, soundtracking my work day with whatever my heart desires, streaming services bringing the entire musical universe to my fingertips (shout out, also, to Hillcrest record shop Control, who has been bringing actual physical music to my literal fingertips). For me, this near constant influx of music has been a crucial balm to the encroaching anxiety wrought by the virus, a way to escape without leaving the house.
Unfortunately, the virus may end up a death blow to many a beloved music venue or dive bar (buy merch from these places if you can!), and has made the already precarious art of making a living playing music infinitely more difficult. Artists are trying to adjust by playing intimate livestreamed gigs, but like so many aspects of life right now, these mostly feel like facsimiles of the real thing, failing to capture what makes live music essential and irreplaceable.
Worse than the economic impact, however, have been the deaths of legends like John Prine, Bill Withers (whose death is not linked to Covid-19, but still sucks) and Adam Schlesinger, of Fountains of Wayne and countless other projects. All three sting as losses of not just great musicians, but of singular writers capable of capturing humanity at its most grand and at its most banal.
All of this is to say that times are hard, so I’ve made a playlist of 30 songs that have helped me cope with the insanity of the pandemic and the cabin fever of social isolation. Many of the songs reflect the strange combination of perfect weather and a global pandemic, a deceptively pretty exterior masking a darker interior. Some songs are pretty explicitly on point, detailing loneliness, isolation and helping me to process this new normal. Some may offer catharsis for those frustrated by incompetent federal or state leadership. Others are just good songs that allow me to think about something else for four or five minutes. Enjoy and take care.
“Nobody” by Mitski: To kick off the playlist, I went with this disco-influenced jam by one of my favorite newer artists, the supremely talented indie-rocker Mitski. The first line (“My God I’m so lonely, so I open the window to hear sounds of people”) could not be more appropriate to our current situation.
“Mexican Wine” by Fountains of Wayne: The genius of co-songwriter Adam Schlesinger was two-fold: 1) The man wrote more catchy hooks within a single song than many songwriters wrote in their entire career, and 2) he was a deeply funny, empathetic lyricist who was capable of encapsulating the lives of his characters with the smallest of details. This song highlights both of these skills and provides a valuable lesson: When the times get tough, drink some wine.
“Fire” by Waxahatchee: My favorite song from my favorite new album of this endless, molasses drip of a year. Katie Crutchfield, who goes by the stage name Waxahatchee, beautifully and subtly leans into her country and Americana influences (namely Lucinda Williams) to great effect. The song, which was inspired by crossing the Mississippi River into West Memphis, includes yet another line that encapsulates the status quo: “Tomorrow could feel like a hundred years later.” Indeed.
“Cold Spring” by Monster Furniture: Monster Furniture, a New York City band led by Arkansas ex-pat Gabe Smoller, specializes in ornate but tightly-written chamber-pop. This song in particular always grabs me, injecting Smoller’s falsetto and the band’s usual sound with some country DNA and adding some stellar guitar playing by another Arkansas native, Lucas Murray, who I’m pretty sure played at one point or another in just about every band I’ve seen live in Little Rock. I hear more than a little Fountains of Wayne here in the bulletproof acoustic songwriting.
“Friday I’m In Love” by The Cure: Because it’s a perfect song and is helpful in reminding you that days of the week are something that exist.
“Morbid Stuff” by PUP: The title-track from the exquisitely melodic punk band’s 2019 album, my favorite of that year, seems well-suited for this historic era, starting off “I was bored as f**k, sitting around and thinking all this morbid stuff.”
“This Tornado Loves You” by Neko Case: Because Neko Case is a national treasure, and ever since I heard this song, I somehow empathize with the anthropomorphized version of natural disasters. If that’s not a feat of songwriting than I don’t know what is.
“Another New World” by Josh Ritter: This narrative song tells the semi-fictional story of an explorer seeking the Arctic passage and failing, resulting in a gloomy, isolated experience with his best friend: his ship. It’s like the audiobook of a great short story set to a lovely melody with just the right mixture of relevance and escapism.
“Prom” by SZA: Without IRL proms to look forward to, America’s youth will have to settle for this driving, infectious R&B anthem.
“This Year” by The Mountain Goats: The playlist closes with a song whose chorus has become my mantra: “I am gonna make it through this year, if it kills me.” John Darnielle, a beloved musician and novelist, never fails to capture a feeling with full-throated and honest sincerity. He’s a genius and I hope he is locked in a glass box somewhere until this is all over.