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The memory might be lost to the flat time of the pandemic, but in March, amateur DJs all over the world were making playlists designed to help themselves and others suffer the pandemic. These playlists mostly toyed with the suddenly critical concept of social distancing, and frequently for lascivious purposes: songs about sneaking a kiss or playing hard to get were clearly an attempt at putting on a festive air and staying positive in the face of unprecedented stress. It was all too cute.
But there's nothing cute about this pandemic.
The halcyon days of washing hands and staying home like it would all be over soon, one way or the other, never actually ended (remember when the cutoff date for the worst-case scenarios of infection models targeted August 1 as the finish line for the worst of the worst of the pandemic?), and maybe it even seems at times like society and the world are more resilient than imaginable given the circumstances. All along, many of us have been staying home whenever possible, stressing about the uncertain future while making sacrifice after sacrifice to protect the health and safety of our fellow humans. For many of those same of us, music has provided refuge amidst the tempest.
Musicians are experiencing the same stresses, of course, and there have been many songs released this year speaking directly to the troubles of the times. The music industry was already shattered by digital downloads and streaming music services, but the lack of public performances during the pandemic has created even more financial struggle for artists, not to mention venues. In the before times, ticket and merch sales at shows provided most of the money to support musicians, and even this system was extremely tenuous on all sides of the equation. Independent venues were already being forced to close by rising real estate prices and encroaching residential interests. The lack of financial support for creative spaces has been one of those alarms constantly ringing in the background all year long, but with so much concern in our lives, it might be a while until the world collectively wakes up to the destroyed landscape of the arts and culture spaces of neighborhoods and communities.
With these terrible truths in mind, I've called attention to my personal favorite songs about places below, with links to the Bandcamp pages for each artist when available. Bandcamp waived their fees of on proceeds from purchases on the site every first Friday of the month throughout the year. Hopefully, Bandcamp will continue the practice into 2021, because we're likely to need the refuge provided by music in the new year.
Despite its less lucrative financial arrangement for musicians, Spotify is still the go-to resource for creating playlists like the one I am sharing here. If you peruse the artists on this playlist on Spotify, you'll see many of them listing charities to support during the pandemic—just another reason to support these artists financially if you can.
The playlist isn't cute, but it can be peaceful. This playlist is also angry and sad and scared. And this playlist can be fun and distracting. This playlist won't provide the soundtrack for a clandestine trip to a Cabo San Lucas timeshare, a dinner with friends at French Laundry, or a garden party to celebrate a Supreme Court nomination. This playlist is for those of us struggling to shoulder the burdens of Covid times. Be well.
The entire UNTITLED (Rise) album by SAULT is dark and defiant and includes several other songs about places. You will want to buy the whole thing.
This synth-driven effort is one of my favorite songs of the year, period. It hits the loneliness of isolation in 2020 perfectly, so I added it to the list, but Nation of Language's album also includes a song called "On Division St," so there's more place love to love here.
You'll see the album where "half return" appears on a lot of year-end lists. This is the album's ode to nostalgia, and the second in a row in the playlist that mentions hometowns by name, with "Hannah Sun."
There's a dark thread running through this otherwise gentle song.
"The City" song starts out as a plaintive piano ballad, and then it glitches and glitches all the way to the end.
Something this infectious and simultaneously scathing as "Boomer," and really all of Bartees Strange's sound, is the only proof needed of the absolute necessity of music.
Black Thought, Pusha T, and Killer Mike carpet bomb the bullshit out of the discourse.
Planetizen's office is located in Koreatown, two blocks to the west of the former site of the Ambassador Hotel, as referenced in this song. Koreatown is my favorite neighborhood in Los Angeles, and I miss going to work in this part of city and spending my spare time in the best dive bars and restaurants in the city, with buses running frequently on seemingly every nearby street. I miss it so much. Unlike many people moving away from the city during the pandemic, I moved closer to this density and cultural center of the city. Every day I think about emerging back into public life in this neighborhood. This song brings that hope, and a reminder about the realities of this city, closer to heart.
A friendly reminder that an anthemic sing-along can be total bliss.
"Lockdown Blues" song came out so early in pandemic, helped by the fact that Iceage is from Denmark, sure, but it's almost too good for a song written and recorded contemporaneously with the events described. All profits of the sale of this track on Bandcamp will proceed directly to Médecins Sans Frontières.
To conclude, some of the most powerful songs about places from 2020 are about the suffering that comes from a lack of place—feeling trapped, isolated, and alone, without a place to escape, without a safe place.