Welcome to our second edition of Friday with the Fellows–a series of posts by our OCH fellows intended to entertain and inspire during the age of social distancing. Katie Moulton and Layne Farmen, 2019-20 OCH fellows (and our resident music aficionados), made you a mix. Four, to be exact. We can all use a little musical self-soothing right now, and these fit the bill perfectly. What music is currently getting you through quarantine?
For me, making playlists is an important, multi-faceted strategy of self-soothing. This practice of arranging a certain number of songs in a certain order has taken various forms in my life, depending on available tech: from mixtapes and copied CDs to illegally downloaded hodge-podges that disappeared when LimeWire did, to my own radio set lists.
My playlists serve as expressions if not outright declarations of feelings. They are a record by all definitions, a form of diary. The process of creating them is a distracting puzzle with mysterious stakes and answers I only know when I hear them. In these days of upheaval and isolation, the clear sense that we are living through something – or hoping to – those of us so inclined are making a lot of playlists.
I have always made mixes for friends, families, parties. I like to mix genres, styles, genders, and especially eras. I like to vary the mainstream-ness of the choices: If I play you a song you love from Top 40 radio, then you’ll slide seamlessly into the next track that’s perhaps underground, overlooked, and connected to sounds that already resonate with you. (On the first mix below, for example, we move from Halsey to Thundercat to Al Green.) I like to play with tempo and emotion: to start on one peak, for example, then descend into a valley dense with pines, and maybe, if we’re lucky, emerge into dappled light, far and not-far from where we started. No matter what, the choices are intuitive, drawing first from the vault of records in my head and the fresh earworms that are burrowing new homes in me even as I type this.
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties, when I worked as a radio DJ that I fully understood the reach a playlist could have. I had a weekday morning show, and it was part of my job to ease my neighbors into their day. Through a song, I could get them ready for whatever they had to face; I could surprise them with a memory—and I would never have any idea it was happening. But when someone called in to say thank you or stopped me at the local bar (remember those?) because they recognized my voice, the invisible thread between us snapped, vibrated. A playlist is filtered through my highly individual lens, but it can entertain, communicate, and record an experience beyond my own. Certain songs in a certain order can mean something collectively.
We don’t all have access to sourdough starters or watercolor canvases during this collective lockdown—or the time or money to bemoan our boredom and be intentional in our soul-searching. I certainly don’t.
But my wish now is that we, all of us, have access to some kind of music. I wish that you have a computer and decent wi-fi, an old record player with a sensitive needle, or a cassette player in a car that maybe has never been used. I wish you a guitar in your kitchen and an open door. I wish you a delight as unexpected as this one from my neighborhood: A white-haired man in a black hat emerged on the first mild spring evening, and then began to play a bagpipe – of all things! – shrill and spirited from the shadows of his porch. When he stopped and we on our stoops stood and applauded, he seemed as surprised by our gift as we were by his.
I wish you music. I offer you playlists. The first, “Dark Times, Light Songs: Zoom Dance Party” is for communing and shaking your body with friends in the uncanny valley of a video chat room. The second, “Songs from Six Feet Apart” is for pressing your face to your front window, contemplating, feeling this moment. I’m already thinking of more songs to add to these lists—say, anything by the mountain John Prine. But that’s the best thing about playlists: They can be collaborative, and they are ever editable, ever changeable. In that way, they live and move as we do.
Dark Times, Light Songs, Zoom Dance Party Mix
“Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince
“Kill the Lights (with Nile Rodgers)” by Alex Newell, Jess Glynne, DJ Cassidy (Audien Remix)
“Take Shelter” by Years & Years (alternate track: “Don’t Panic”)
“Don’t Start Now” by Dua Lipa
“Adore You” by Harry Styles
“Graveyard” by Halsey
“Them Changes” by Thundercat
“I Can’t Get Next To You” by Al Green
“Want You in My Room” by Carly Rae Jepsen
“So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” by Caroline Polachek
“Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen
“Hard to Kill” by Bleached
“This Will Be Our Year” by the Zombies
“All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem
“America (You’re Freaking Me Out)” by the Menzingers
Songs from Six Feet Apart
“America” by Simon & Garfunkel
“Everybody’s Talkin'” by Harry Nilsson
“You Can Get It If You Really Want” by Jimmy Cliff
“Strangers” by The Kinks
“Streets of Philadelphia” by Francesca Blanchard
“Delete Forever” by Grimes
“Old Friends” by Pinegrove
“There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” by The Smiths
“Everything Is Free Now” by Sylvan Esso/Flock of Dimes
“17 Days (demo)” by Prince
“Cold War” by Cautious Clay
“The Dreamer” by Anderson .Paak
“No Rain” by Blind Melon
“The Eye” by Brandi Carlile
I wanted to make room for two distinct kinds of catharsis: through music and songs that make me feel like keeping my head down, pressing on through a dark and dismal tunnel, and through music and songs that make me feel like raising my head to see the finish line ahead.
Some tracks were, admittedly, chosen for their low-hanging applicability to COVID life. “No one ever told me leaving was the easy part” MUNA sings, “I gotta stay away.”
Some were chosen for a single line, like Earl Sweatshirt’s “lately I don’t like shit I stay inside on the daily,” an interpolation of his appropriately entitled LP I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, a piece of art centered on both depression and misanthropy; staying inside all the time, even when one isn’t supposed to.
Some are important because their release can never be dissociated from the pandemic and its far-reaching influence. Like “Tiger King” became forever embedded into the American zeitgeist whether we liked it or not, Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul,” already an absolute magnum opus on death, history, and popular culture, is now perhaps the most essential document we have that captures this current national moment: an enduring “O Captain! My Captain!” for the 21st century.
Arguably my favorite selections of each list are the firsts: Charly Bliss’s “Capacity” is one of the best songs from one of the best albums of last year, a synth-heavy power-pop testament to the state of being totally overwhelmed. And Vampire Weekend’s recent “2021” is a small cut on a giant album, but it’s central conceit takes on new significance now in “Generation C”: What will we be thinking about in 2021? Will we wait a year, will we have to wait three?
Admittedly, there is going to be some slippage between the lists. Many of the tracks that sound hopeful also have to reconcile with hard realities: There is no unqualified optimism here. This may be on best display with the stirring, show-stopping single from The 1975, which balances two arena-ready hooks, between shouting “Modernity has failed us” and “Love it if we made it.” I think these two lines are great encapsulations of the two crucial kinds of revelations music has offered me the past few weeks: the way we’ve failed (the way we’ve been failed), and the way I want us so badly to make it through. All of these tracks are pieces that have made my heart soar, whether I was thinking about the tunnel or the light.
“Capacity” by Charly Bliss
“Stayaway” by MUNA
“breathin’” by Ariana Grande
“Coldest Winter” by Kanye West
“Xanny” by Billie Eilish
“Isolation” by John Lennon
“Ballad of the Dying Man” by Father John Misty
“I’m Sleeping in a Submarine” by Arcade Fire
“Inside” by Earl Sweatshirt
“If You Need to, Keep Time On Me” by Fleet Foxes
“Paranoia in B Major” by Avett Brothers
“Murder Most Foul” by Bob Dylan
“2021” by Vampire Weekend
“Love It If We Made It” by The 1975
“Bastard” by Polyenso
“Upside” by Steph Simon
“Balm in Gilead” by Sunday Service Choir
“Faith” by Bon Iver
“Due West” by Kelsey Lu
“Alright” by Kendrick Lamar
“Coming Home” by Pusha-T feat. Ms. Lauryn Hill
“High” by Young Thug feat. Elton John
“Blessings” by Lecrae feat. Ty Dolla Sign
“Finish Line” by Chance the Rapper