With all of us still shut-in for the foreseeable future, perhaps we’ve been devoting more time to exploring music, whether discovering new artists or falling back on old favorites. The list below is by no means a collection of my favorite songs of all-time; it’s just a rundown of the material that’s been streaming through my phone and blasting from my stereo speakers over the last couple of weeks. It’s programmed, in fastidious order, like an old-fashioned mixtape; give these a spin and see what sticks.
The Mountain Goats, “Until Olympius Returns”
Written and recorded entirely during the quarantine in March, Songs For Pierre Chuvin is the first lo-fi, all-boombox-recorded album by the Mountain Goats since 2001. And listening to it today, it feels even older, akin to singer-songwriter John Darnielle’s early cassette-tape releases of the 1990s. Which is perhaps why physical copies of the album, which sold out within the day of its release last Friday, were only released on cassette. Its lyrical themes are esoteric—inspired by paganism in antiquity—but its means of recording and spartan delivery speak to our isolated times.
John Prine, “Illegal Smile”
Every death from COVID-19 is a tragedy, but this one hurt especially hard. Legendary folksinger John Prine, one of America’s greatest songwriters, died from the disease—cutting short a still-active recording schedule and tour dates on the books. Everybody in the music world has been paying tribute to Prine, and I’ll join that chorus with one of my favorites from his debut masterwork, whose opening lyrics seem to forecast where we are now.
The Wild Reeds, “Tom Traubert’s Blues”
A standout contribution from the ingeniously conceived compilation Come On Up to the House: Women Sing Waits finds this underrated indie five-piece tackling a ballad of bruised romanticism from Tom Waits, lending feminine irony to the original performer’s raunchy gutter poetry.
Phoebe Bridgers, “Kyoto”
There is still new music released during the pandemic, and one of my favorites is this single from Bridgers’ second solo LP, Punisher, which drops in June. I discovered Bridgers through her contributions to Better Oblivion Community Center, and she’s just as catchy and compelling as a solo artist. Dig this song’s hilariously retro green-screen video, which evokes the irresistible cheez of public-access television.
John Adams, “Shaker Loops”
The quarantine playlists I’ve seen have been heavy on lengthy instrumental compositions conducive to retaining focus while working at home. This minimalist masterpiece from one of the great modern composers may be too furious in parts to fully satisfy that need for most, but I’ve been returning to it lately when I need to lose myself in an oscillating ocean of audio.
Spacemen 3, “Ode to Street Hassle”
I’ll refrain from commenting on the inevitably of increased recreational drug use during this stressful and locked-down time, other than offering Spacemen 3’s 1987 psych-rock classic The Perfect Prescription as a way to very nearly capture the same sensation while staying stone-cold sober. My favorite track on the drone rockers’ simulated “trip” is this one, a talkin’ blues tribute to Lou Reed.
Rage Against the Machine, “Testify”
Rage Against the Machine’s 2020 reunion tour has been one of the postponements of COVID-19; we hope it’s not one of the virus’ casualties. Take a break from the Brian Eno and Zero 7 that’s on everybody else’s mellow quarantine playlist, and turn the volume on this incendiary head-banger up to 11.
David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, “American Troglodyte”
With the clubs closed, socially distanced home dance parties are the only way we can get our groove on these days. When I want some spring in my step lately, I come back to the best David Byrne track nobody knows, a cut from his offbeat rock musical “Here Lies Love.” The musical is a biography of Imelda Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines, but this humorous electro-pop number stands on its own as a wry comment on American life.
Max Roach, “Conversation”
Visionary bebop drummer Max Roach worked with nearly everybody important in jazz both classical and modern—Dizzy, Bird, Mingus, Miles, Duke, Monk, Getz. But “Conversation,” one of the undisputed highlights of his 1958 LP Deeds Not Words, showed that he didn’t need collaborators. This drum solo is a conversation between Roach and himself, his certifiable genius distilled into four unaccompanied minutes.
Bob Dylan, “Murder Most Foul”
This takes the cake as the most profound surprise release of the quarantine—a 16-minute magnum opus from the best songwriter of the 20th century that wrestles with the Kennedy assassination and its sprawling ramifications across the generations. Like a superior, politically charged “American Pie,” it’s Dylan’s first original song released since 2012, a track he says was “recorded a while back.” One only imagines what other gems Mr. Zimmerman has been sitting on.
It has been a perfect time for my favorite Blur track—an eight-minute, thoroughly engrossing, slow-burning paean to love lost that can just as easily double, for the uninitiated, as a straight-up love song. It’s one of those tunes, like Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” that most comes alive in a communal concert setting, with thousands singing and swaying to its intoxicating gospel-like rhythms. I hope we can do it again someday.