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A Small Selection of Pandemic-Era Albums

Jack MapelLentz '22

Well, 2020 was kind of crazy. Pretty much everything got turned upside down in the blink of an eye, the music industry included. No more festivals, concerts, or even impromptu collaborations — with everyone stuck at home, it even felt foreign to consider how such things once existed. The closest thing to a show that exists today might be The Flaming Lips’s performance for an audience literally contained in plastic bubbles. But after the onset of lockdowns and holed up at home with hours of extra time just like the rest of us, artists did what they do best: make music! What came out of that most unique epoch turned out to be some of my favorite music of all time — this is my abbreviated selection of the very best.

Everyone remembers that Wednesday that turned out to be the last of the year — for me, I headed back from Model UN practice just like any other week — but even then, the finality of the lockdown didn’t seem real. Even after the tacked-on second week of spring break, I held out believing that we’d return to school at least sometime before June 4th. But as the case numbers skyrocketed, horror stories emanated from New York, and it became increasingly evident that a concerning portion of our country’s population seemed to be unable to practice common sense and wear masks (or even acknowledge that COVID-19 was a real thing), it became more and more obvious that we’d be in this for the long haul.

By May, it was clear that no one would be back for a very long while. As that finality was setting in, Sara Davis Regan’s exquisite Riverland came out. I was smitten from the first strums of “Days of Old” — it went on to be my third most-played song of the year and the first of songs released in 2020. The rest of the album is equally brilliant. “1:09 AM” eases you into a dreamscape of midnight clarity — clarity and haze somehow coexisting peacefully; the realization of true human nature but the perception that it’s impossible to really understand it.

“Pine Canyon #5” carries on that theme, but opens up into a world of peacefully joyous love… the kind of love that makes oneself whole again. “Dear Forgetful,” “Apt. 6303,” “Ready or Not” — the whole thing is brilliant. Shortly after the album came out, I biked from West St. Paul to the end of the Gateway Trail in Stillwater, playing the album on repeat for a good chunk of those six hours. Every time I listen now, my mind glides right back to biking past Lake Phalen, North St. Paul, the farms past I-694, reaching the end of the trail at Pine Point Regional Park, and then turning around to do it all again. I remember the shape of the clouds.

Shortly thereafter, I discovered Hailaker, a fluid project of Ed Tullett and Jemima Coulter’s — they’d released Holding a couple of days before Riverland. The album quickly became the soundtrack to my early summer. “Toasty” was the first to hook me in, with a sound reminiscent of Landmark-era Hippo Campus.

The rest of the album is, like Riverland, remarkable. Lyrics are another world: “Subletting to your cousin / She keeps her kefir in the oven / Oh, I can’t say that on Craigslist / No, I can’t waste another payslip,” they harmonize on “Airmail”. And “the outside’s contagious” in “Colorado” makes it very pandemic-fitting. They flip between two completely different things in one song, and somehow it sounds absolutely perfect. I honestly don’t know how to describe their singular musical palate. I suppose you’ll just have to listen for yourself to experience it.

Beta Radio’s “It Doesn’t Really Feel Like Spring” was another highlight of the summer — the song is built around a synth arpeggio of ambiguous time signature, and it starts with Brent Holloman’s guitar alongside Ben Mabry’s beautiful low tenor, then blossoms and expands and explodes into a cathartic symphony of strings (contributed by the legendary Rob Moose).

Composed in the span of around six weeks in the midst of those early lockdowns, the duo dwells on the psychological meaning of the pandemic: “I don’t wanna come out on the highway / I don’t wanna step out of the door / I don’t wanna fall away in the decay / But I wanna know the state of the world…” In short — it’s certainly one of their best songs ever.

Around the same time, Phoebe Bridgers’s masterpiece Punisher dropped (how have I not mentioned it yet?), and somehow every single song is monumental on its own. Everything from the dreamy, subconscious “Garden Song” to the rock of “Kyoto” and “ICU” to the Americana of “Graceland Too” to the apocalyptic-folk-indescribable “I Know the End” is gorgeous, introspective, and a world of its own. The latter track is described on Genius as “metalinguistic,” which is possibly the only way to even begin to describe it — it’s like three songs in one.

Ah, and then there’s folklore — Taylor Swift’s chart-topper, career-defining pivot to collaborating with Aaron Dessner (and Jack Antonoff for good measure). Based on the few hints prior to the album’s release, I’d been expecting something even more folk-y, and I was taken aback upon hearing the darker, National-esque sounds of “cardigan” for the first time — but I came to love it, and tracks like “august” and “illicit affairs” quickly won me over for good. “epiphany” is heartbreaking like no other, “the last great american dynasty” weaves glitchy, and Sleep Well Beast-reminicent drums with melodies to swoon over and Swift’s masterful storytelling.

“exile” was, likewise, not at all what I expected, but I was won over in the blink of an eye by the dream-collaboration between Taylor Swift and Bon Iver. I found evermore, likewise surprise-dropped, to not quite be as incredible as folklore, but the title track (“evermore”, another Bon Iver feature) is remarkable — and possibly the best out of both albums. It’s a serene piano blanket one moment, then a Bon Iver song, then a climatic cascade, and then it gently floats back down again.

Another pandemic-shaped album, songs, by Adrianne Lenker, arrived in October. It was recorded, notably, using analog equipment — and they didn’t stop there; the whole album came about when Lenker found that a tiny cabin she’d rented in Massachusetts “sounded like the inside of an acoustic guitar.” Listening to it on vinyl, the binaural microphone they used makes it sound as if you’re literally right in front of her as she softly sings about the cyclical nature of life. “zombie girl” ought to be the definition of serenity.

Some other highlights of the year: Sylvan Esso’s Free Love (particularly the ambience of “Frequency,” “Rooftop Dancing,” “Free,” and intro “What If” — listening it sounds as though you’re inside of a whirly tube); Soccer Mommy’s color theory whose “circle the drain” soundtracked more of my early-pandemic bike rides); Lomelda’s simple “Hannah Sun”; Djesse Vol. 3 from Jacob Collier (“Sleeping On My Dreams” and “In Too Deep” are my favorites); Fish Pond Fish by Darlingside (their harmonies are remarkable— seriously, I can’t believe that it’s even possible to thread that out of thin air); “Dionne” from The Japanese House; Kid Cudi’s “Lovin’ Me” (my brother Max and I have duetted this on countless drives); Mipso’s “Big Star” (thanks, Grace); and lastly Novo Amor’s Cannot Be, Whatsoever.

I have, of course, neglected to mention countless incredible albums — The Weeknd’s After Hours comes to mind immediately, and there are dozens of others. Regardless: though 2020 was unlike any other year for everyone, the music was part of what made the world’s sudden change comprehensible. New music was one of the year’s few highlights — “COVID blessings,” as my pulmonologist says — but what a highlight it was.