Soundtracking the Many Moods of COVID Isolation: A Listener’s Diary

Author: Riley Urbano

I doubt that many of us sit around pondering the purpose of art, but the question does get a little more interesting when we’re all unified in the common experience of a massive, crippling, existential crisis. What can we expect from art, when the politics of disease threatens our lives, our security, our future? Should it offer up a pleasant distraction from the horrors we encounter when we look outside of our windows, or should it speak the hard truths that our troubled world needs to hear; should it do both? Neither?

If you’re anything like me, you may find yourself increasingly turning to literature, film, and music, when the headlines become too much to bear. As a matter of fact, I find myself clinging to it with more than a little desperation in the absence of, well, life as I knew it. Art is personal, it’s beautiful, it’s kinda spiritual – it’s also weird, which speaks to our present conditions. Here are some records, in no particular order, that have been seeing me through the various forms of boredom and despair that have accompanied the quarantine so far.

Note: I don’t know which of these records are on the major streaming services vs. which aren’t. If these records interest you, but you can’t find them on Spotify or Apple Music, I strongly recommend seeking it out on Youtube, Bandcamp, or other weirder corners of the internet! 

Phillip Glass– Glassworks (1982)                                                                                                                                         File under: “thinking more” cause of all the new free time / mild escapism

Worth a peep just so you can say pretentious things like, “ah yes I’ve dabbled a bit with minimalism.” Glassworks is oddly soothing – I don’t have quite the technical vocabulary to describe Philip Glass’s style. It’s like every instrument in the ensemble is playing a cyclical melody, and all these musical circles just drift in and out of sync with one another. It demands the listener’s attention, but in a gentle way; at first you barely notice the music, but before you know it you’re simultaneously keeping track of countless moving parts all at once. It’s very transportative.



Lesley Gore – I’ll Cry If I Want To (1963)                                                                                                                    File under: creeping dread

This record came to me some days before the pandemic report – I remember thinking, in a benign way, that some of these tracks (produced by the legendary Quincey Jones) could soundtrack the darker moments of a Lynch film. This record was a huge hit, and the monomaniacal lyrical focus on crying might not have turned any heads at the time, but to my ears it’s just a little… obsessive. Ominous, even. Now that nothing makes sense, and we’re all living in actual hellworld, I guess that makes this record a standard-issue vibe. It helps that track one is gonna hit, once we can finally party again…


Orlandivo – Orlandivo (1977)                                                                                                                                            File under: outright denial

We’re not all fossilizing in our homes as widespread disease, poverty and asymmetric class warfare puts unbearable pressure on our fragile way of life here in the U.S…. no, not in the least! We’re in… Rio! It’s nineteen seventy-seven


Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson – Bridges (1977)                                                                                                      File under: grim reminder of America’s deep-seated evil

Gil Scott-Heron made this record with multi-instrumentalist Brian Jackson, as a recollection of thoughts and experiences from Heron’s then-recent tour of Europe. His most enduring works behind him, including the proto-hip hop “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Bridges finds Scott-Heron in an introspective mood, waxing poetic about America’s failings and connecting them to his impressions of Europe. Jackson’s instrumentals are exemplary, and Scott-Heron’s gifts for poetry and songcraft are on full display – there isn’t much more one could want from an LP, all things considered.


Autechre- Tri Repetae (1996)                                                                                                                                          File under: rumination on the off-key sci fi quality of our present dystopia

Tri Repetae presents trailblazers Rob Brown and Sean Booth at their most distant and detached – that’s saying something. Autechre are renowned for their distinctly cold approach to electronic music – the band’s dystopian vibes are especially potent when pictures of Paris and New York, empty, are appearing in the New York Times. And there are few better entry points into Autechre’s near-perfect discography than Tri Repetae, which, despite containing flashes of digital static and sharp drums, is kind of an ambient record. (Not to mention, there are few better times than now to finally get into that band with the long albums.)


Miles Davis- Get Up With It (1974)                                                                                                                                      File under: “So this is what absurdity feels like”

Get Up With It is the last studio record of Miles Davis’ legendary hot streak from the end of the ‘50s through to the mid ‘70s. This album has all the hallmarks of Davis’ electric period: searing guitar solos, disorienting studio edits, rock and roll-inflected percussion, etc. But there’s also something new: a profound sense of confusion, even despair. Two years before the release of this record, Davis was traumatized in a near-fatal car crash after which, in his words, “everything started to blur.” You can hear it all in track one, a harrowing elegy to the recently deceased Duke Ellington, “He Loved Him Madly.” After an extended ambient intro (cited as an inspiration by none other than Brian Eno), Davis’ trumpet weeps in mourning – Davis seems to lament more than the death of his hero… it’s almost like the music itself is dying. Fitting. 

Riley Urbano // my hair’s gonna be long as hellll next time you see me // KXSU Music Reporter

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