This article is part of our ongoing series 'Lockdown Listening' in which our writers share what they've been listening to during the London Coronavirus lockdown(s).
To listen to our writers' songs, follow and listen to our Spotify playlist.
Ahh, a desert island discs for the Covid-19 pandemic.
When it came to thinking about my listening habits over the past year or so, I confess that podcasts have been my main sonic crutch, not music. Be it a comedian talking through their dream menu or a journalist having a daily battle with how to deliver the line "here's what else you need…to know today", I was, and indeed am, still hooked. However, on a musical front, my mind went blank. I knew it wasn't a year of musical discovery; it was a year of repetition – my Spotify wrapped for 2020 confirmed this. Like many, I returned to what I knew well, to sustain and comfort me.
The following list lays bare my coping mechanisms for the year. It is full of songs that got me out of bed on days sapped of joy; songs which facilitated simmering emotions to burst out in a wave of catharsis and songs which now feel synonymous with my cooking triumphs (and failures). Enjoy!
1. Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile - Attaboy, The Goat Rodeo Sessions
Before the pandemic struck, I really wasn't well. Leaving my house was a task I often couldn't face. Apart from contractual obligations, I struggled to pluck up the courage to step outside without the promise of financial reward. However, on days where it was an absolute necessity, I needed music to imbue me with some pseudo energy, just enough to distract me and get me out of the door. This record fulfilled this task. With majestic sounds from Yo-Yo Ma on the cello, tenacious mandolin playing from Chris Thile and the rest of the band seemingly having the best jam of their lives, this folk number is one of the most concentrated forms of optimism ever conceived. It zings with gumption! There is also something about strings playing unison at the octave, shredding away – just immense.
2. Laura Marling - Song For Our Daughter, the whole album
"Sometimes the hardest thing to learn is what you get from what you lose,"
Laura Marling was always on the periphery of my knowledge. I admired her prolific energy, lyrical story-telling, and ethereal voice, but it wasn't until this record that I fully immersed into her discography. I emerged in awe. As this album came out in April 2020, it is bound to those gorgeous spring days where the hum of "unprecedented times" felt omnipresent. Abundant with sincerity, the lyrics weave through astute musings on the insidious and overt difficulties of being a woman in contemporary times. As the album’s concept is about offering wisdom, warning and compassion to an imaginary daughter, the premise leads the listener to thoughtful ponderings on what it means to love and nurture in this modern age. Also, the guitar playing is just lush.
3. Brad Mehldau - Remembering before all this
Another big hitter from lockdown 1. This track comes from Mehldau's early pandemic musical response, April 2020. The fact that he managed to compose, record and release an album documenting the slew of feelings at that time blows my mind. There is a slight morosity baked into the undulating chords in 'Remembering before all this'. The sounds ebb and flow in a yearning manner but never to a mawkish degree. A specific visual kept popping up in my head upon each iteration of the track. Imagine a film camera going in and out of focus, attempting to capture something as banal as condensation on a windowpane. There is a smudge on the lens and capricious lighting, both indoors and out. Brewed together, that image has a glazed fog to it. But, for what it lacks in clarity, it makes up for in the sense of mystery. On each listen, that is what I see, every time.
4. Billie Holiday - Solitude
Yes, a cliché pick but a beautiful one. Having once written a whole undergraduate essay on this album, it feels like the music is stitched in me. As well as knowing all the lyrics and Holiday's embellishments, I can also hum and toot along to all the instrumental solos (much to the joy of those around me). This, for me, makes it a perfect pick to accompany the chaos of burning garlic and relying too much on salt. I've found that when attempting something a tad too extravagant in the kitchen, it is helpful having a reassuring voice guiding you through. This album is perfect when cooking pasta dishes while Ella Fitzgerald goes well with cooking dahl. There is no science to this, just tried and tested.
5. Bob Dylan - Mama, You Been On My Mind
"Perhaps it's the colour of the sun…" - or perhaps it's the pandemic which has caused catastrophic amounts of loss in terms of lives, money, time and sense of self - "but you've been on my mind".
There was a moment when I wavered from my regular music routine to discover something new and that something new was Bob Dylan. I hadn't got round to it in my teens, so I had a month of indoctrination and was swept away. This particular track felt poignant as any to mention. Dylan's lyrics speak to the inevitability of one's mind orbiting around the past but not from the point of bitterness or calculating agenda, rather a neutral position of care and respect. Maybe it fuelled my nostalgic headiness, but this honest account of how people imprint upon others offered reassurance to my thoughts.
6. Blondie - Picture This
"All I want is 20-20 vision". Ha ha.
This unabashed song about desire felt an essential listen as the pandemic trudged on. Rationalising one's experience at the moment is part of the parcel - the whole 'we are all in different boats on the same bloody ocean' analogy. Those boats vary in wealth, safety, love and company. However, denying yourself the opportunity to check in with what you actually want and need right now isn't the best course of action either. This track reminded me of my base level desires and frivolous addendums which go alongside my (hopefully) understanding nature. There is also an edge of grit in Debbie Harry's vocals, which adds to the song's sensuousness. Conclusion: it's a banger.
7. John Martyn - May you never
"Love is a lesson to learn in our time"
In this song, Martyn offers a sage manifesto for friendship and acknowledging what humans can give each other and what we can offer. It is hard to know how people are navigating the restrictions, the consequences and the emotional fall out of life in lockdown. Attempting to treat each friendship with understanding, consideration, empathy and love, while also needing more than anyone can give to us at this current time, is a real mixture for distress. I found this track to be a gentle reminder of the importance of managing expectations for those who you care about. He distils all this wisdom in a gentle vignette while a masterful guitar loop churns alongside. It really is a thing of beauty.
8. The The - Slow Emotion Replay,
"Everybody knows what's going wrong with the world, but I don't even know what's going on in myself."
It says it all really.
9. Sandy Denny - Who Knows Where the Time Goes
When I found out that Sandy Denny wrote this at nineteen, I was saddened. The lyrical voice is hardy youthful; it is emotionally weathered. The song gracefully muses over the forlorn realisation of the passage of time. I don't listen to this song very often, and when I do, I must be alone. During the winter months, I chose to adopt it as a sonic conduit, a channel to allow me to return to some raw emotional ground. My previous encounters with loss have felt more pronounced this year as society is, understandably, continually talking about the risk of death. It is rather hard to avoid. This song has offered an understanding ear in those moments of solitude and acute sorrow, isn't it astonishing that music can do that?
10. Beethoven Piano Sonata No.30 in E Major, Third Movement played by Igor Levit
It is just divine.
If, like me, podcasts are also a huge source of enjoyment, these musical offerings have been thoroughly enjoyable:
Louder than a Riot
Folk on Foot
It was a joy to muse over the particular tracks which resonated with me in each lockdown. Some of the above descriptions border on being maudlin; the pandemic has undoubtedly placed me in a glaringly sentimental mood. I have chosen to lean into it for the time being, as it seems the only way to navigate this particular moment. Allow yourself to appreciate the things that help you out and share those with others if you like. I’ve found it has brought me closer to the people I long to see.
Meg Holch, February 2021
Read other articles from the series here. They include:
Go to this Spotify playlist to listen to all the songs mentioned throughout the series!