The pandemic has changed how many of us listen to music. As Anwen Crawford recently wrote in The Monthly:
… I am listening to music much as I did when I was teenaged, when I found in it both a shelter against impersonal forces and a passage to somewhere less capricious and more true, where people sang and played what they really meant, and each moment was redeemed by its organisation into sound.
Her words resonated with me as I clung to music with an adolescent desperation and single-mindedness, needing something sensory to mirror the intensity of emotion coursing within me and give it a place in my shrinking world. Corporeal yet digitally transmissible, music was something to hold onto – a teacup in a storm.
After nearly three months in social isolation, I’ve gone through several different phases of listening, reading, and being. First, there was panic and preparation. I read only news media and my Twitter feed, listening to sentimental favourites while I scrolled and shared articles into mushrooming group chats. I was incandescent with rage – at racism, Sinophobia, censorship, government negligence, everything – but music offered both fuel and solace. Then, there was reckoning. Everyone seemed raw, vulnerable, and unusually expressive. I started seeking out new artists. Every other song seemed to puncture my skin and quicken my pulse. Instead of COVID-19 case numbers, I was sending my friends poems and playlists, small gestures of care from afar.
Slowly, this shifted into a bunkering phase. The solitude stiffened and formed a cocoon. Inside, I was safe with my books and music, and outside became blurry and frightful. Now as we stumble towards emergence, this playlist recalls the thick, treacly nowhere time of the last few months, adrift and full of feeling.
1. Joy Crookes – Anyone But Me
Here’s an anthem for when the prospect of being alone with your own mind evokes being dunked in a well of dread. A British neo-soul singer with Bangladeshi and Irish heritage, Joy Crookes delivers a sultry, classic sound alongside 21st-century intertextuality: ‘she just does the spending and then I pay the price/ trying to be Kelis but she always trick me twice.’
2. Dua Saleh – MOth
I get deliciously lost in Dua Saleh’s lyricism. Each song demands to be on repeat for hours. This track goes from a noirish cinematic swagger in the chorus to a section of dense sound poetry (‘lance a lot of naught/ cheeks of beaten rocks’). For me, the visceral entomological images captured a quarantine mood – something fleshy and minute, trapped and helpless.
Everything this nonbinary Sudanese-American artist does is really just breathtaking so go familiarise yourself with their work. ‘Sugar Mama’ is maybe the most vicious song ever written and the fact that you can watch them perform it in both the official music video and a Colors show is one of the better things about being alive right now.
3. Habits – Shame / Desire
Melbourne duo Habits give me hardcore comedown feelings with this industrial and ethereal track. Lyrics like ‘my insecurities ain’t cute anymore’ don’t help. Mohini and Maia alternate vocals, stretching a saltwater taffy cord of desperation between them.
4. Ta-ku x Wafia – Treading Water
This track comes from Ta-ku and Wafia’s joint 2016 EP, (m)edian, which I only just came across though I’ve listened to them both independently. I would like to blame everyone I know for this oversight! ‘Treading Water’ is a gorgeous, timeless duet, their voices blending with taut chemistry. The plaintive pre-chorus reminds me of ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’, Gotye and Kimbra’s ubiquitous-for-a-reason 2011 hit, with its dialled-up ex-factor:
It’s like you never let me past skin deep
Don’t trip up on the mess I always leave
I’m trying to make the best of what we’ve been
I’m no good for you I’m good for you
You can also watch them perform it in a NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert.
5. Ta-ku – Glitter
It feels odd to include two songs featuring Ta-ku’s vocals here when I mainly listen to his instrumental tracks, particularly his 2018 record, 25 Nights for Nujabes, a tribute to the late Japanese DJ Seba Jun (aka Nujabes), but I’ve had this new track on high rotation since it came out on 29 May.
Here the multi-skilled Perth-based artist, who is Filipino and Māori, offers a moody take on Benee’s earworm. Piano replaces the jangly guitars, turning the slowed-down track into a social isolation lament with switched up lyrics referring to being ‘six feet away’, longing for when bodies could ‘stick together like glitter’.
6. Sui Zhen – Perfect Place
Though it’s from her 2019 album Losing, Linda, lyrically this track is an uncanny depiction of my quarantine mind – procrastination, yearning, inexplicable sensitivity, running down to the river – and its sparkly, retro sound is charming.
7. Kira Puru – Alone
Every playlist needs a dance break, and this track from my favourite pop god never fails. KP was the last artist I saw live before the lockdown and oh how I miss sweating in a crowd of her adoring fans.
8. Thao & the Get Down Stay Down – Temple
Released 15 May, the Bay Area band’s fifth studio album, Temple, retains their signature sound – tough, cool, confident rock – but this time singer-songwriter Thao Nguyen is determined to front up with her whole truth as a queer Vietnamese-American woman.
‘I have divided myself into so many selves,’ she said in a press statement. ‘I am nervous, but hopeful that in belonging to myself, I can still belong to my family, and my Vietnamese community, especially the elders. I believe that shame has made my work more general, when I’ve always wanted to be specific. This record is about me finally being specific.’
This title track explores the legacy of the Vietnam War alongside Thao’s own struggle for freedom. It’s a formidable expression of an inheritance.
9. Vetta Borne – R.I.P.
Vetta Borne – a new project for Filipina Melburnian singer Mirabelle – keeps the gaysian torch lit with this catchy, horny number. It just begs to be sent to your quarantine crush on one of those days you think you might die from thwarted lust.
10. Raveena – Still Dreaming
‘Hiding in your room but it’s useless/ how much longer can we really do this?’
The honeyed voice of this Indian-American singer has accompanied me through three months of iso, yet the first notes of this song still come through just as crisp and sweet as the first time I heard it. The beat presses on my bones as her vocals soar out of this small, closed room.