Among the many activities COVID-19 has ruined, I miss the casual joy of discovering new music as much as anything. Sure, going outside or eating food aside from what my severely limited culinary skills can conjure up leaves much to be desired, but as infrastructure crumbles around us, finding a new song is like having a mop in the face of a flood: You’ll sop up some water, but it won’t do any good. Music is generally the ultimate balm, but throughout the summer, it has done little to quell the existential anxiety that has locked us in a chokehold.
Of course, this burden pales in comparison to the one that musicians must carry. Most performers saw their only path toward a living wage disappear when COVID-19 turned moneymaking tours into a death sentence. Instead of being able to play out, artists are now looking for donors, patrons, and microscopically tiny Spotify checks to stay afloat.
We’ve compiled a list of songs to be played when you’re happy or sad, breaking beneath your own anxiety, or finding a sunny day at the end of the summer. Perhaps you’ll find a song or two to play while DJing your cousin’s Zoom bar mitzvah. Perhaps there’s an artist here who moves you so intensely that you’ll purchase their music through a site like Bandcamp, which waives its fees on the first Friday of each month and gives the money directly to artists. Most importantly, though, let this list of songs remind you that our struggle is a collective one—and while music may not be able to heal in the face of this threat, it’s as good of a friend as we’ve got.
R.O. Shapiro is an immensely talented singer-songwriter who graduated from a Yale a cappella group to a budding career as an indie rocker in Austin, Texas. A recent move to California hasn’t removed the Lone Star spirit from his tunes, however. The New York-raised singer’s voice is awe-inspiring on its own, but with the addition of a stellar backing band (and the best harmonica use you’ll hear all year), Shapiro’s group pushes this country-tinged ballad into an anthem. The organs soar, the harmonies hit right in the gut, and above all, it’s the sort of song that transcends any particular moment. Shapiro has been putting out singles all summer, and others, like “Take Me Down” and “Hickory Wind,” are as moving as “Younger Then.”
“Long Live Julio”
Boldy James is the latest addition to the Griselda rap family, a collection of Buffalo-based rappers who have turned the industry upside down since they began infiltrating it with their unrelenting prolificity, while still marketing their work as couture. While not quite as popular as co-founders Westside Gunn, Conway the Machine, and Benny the Butcher, Detroit-bred Boldy James has emerged as one of 2020’s strongest artists off a number of stellar releases, including The Price of Tea in China, which was produced entirely by genius-level, LA-based producer The Alchemist.
“Long Live Julio” comes from his official Griselda debut, The Versace Tape, and uses memories of his struggles to celebrate where he is now. There are distinct tales of scrubbin’ Nikes with a toothbrush, and Boldy pleas with the devil to let him keep his chains if he ends up in hell. James is one of rap’s most viscerally powerful MCs, turning mundane moments into all-time bars.
“What You Want”
Dzang is the project of LA-based Adam Gunther, who splits his time between this project and as a producer and composer. His film work spans documentaries, animation, and narrative films, and he’s worked with Sorcha Richardson and Sharon Van Etten behind the boards. His pop project, Dzang, has been relatively dormant since he released the excellent 3G in 2017, but he returned earlier this summer with a slinky and scorched jam, “What You Want.” Gunther builds the beat around singer Olivia Kaplan’s tremendous voice, utilizing subtle electronic movements to accentuate her expressive delivery. It’s low-key and slow-burning, the perfect way to end another long day.
Lianne La Havas
Lianne La Havas’ third, self-titled album is teeming with inimitable soul, but her take on Radiohead’s seminal “Weird Fishes” is perhaps my favorite single cut on the album. The vaguely familiar way she teases the song while giving it her own unique spin lets it live inside the scope of the album without distracting from the fact that the original was penned by one of the biggest bands on Earth. The Rhodes piano melts with pleasure and her voice is so smooth it conjures images of velvet. On the track, La Havas sounds alone but unflinchingly assured, a posture she convincingly carries throughout the entire LP.
“Disraeli Woman” is from Alex Izenberg’s delightful Caravan Château, released earlier this summer via Domino Records. The album recalls days of yore when Laurel Canyon was rich with aspiring songwriters and a plethora of illicit substances. Izenberg has the charm of a down-on-his-luck crooner, sounding a bit like Harry Nilsson on the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack. The track features lush harmonies that give the track a sunny California feel, and Izenberg’s affected, nonchalant vocals betray LA cool with an indie radio-friendly chorus that sticks around long after the song ends. It’s a delightful addition to the Golden State sound.
The King of Sudanese Jazz has found a new generation of devotees thanks to the diligent work of Jannis Stürtz and his Berlin reissue label, Habibi Funk. Ahmed’s brand of the genre is far from traditional interpretations of jazz, though. He plays with big band, funk, and surf rock styles to give his work a thrilling, original swing.
“Argos Farfish” is led by an infectious saxophone line, but it’s Ahmed’s expressive, playful voice that steals the show. With an inundation of reissue labels and old albums finding new homes, sifting through the lot can be a fairly daunting task, but the folks at Habibi Funk have unimpeachable taste. They’ve discovered gems from across the world, and this collection of Sharhabil Ahmed tunes is no different.
SAULT’s origins are a total mystery. All that’s known is that the group is probably a trio and they’re probably based somewhere in the U.K. Despite this determined anonymity, the group’s exacting aesthetic creates a musical personality that’s easy to latch on to.
While SAULT’s first two albums, simply titled 5 and 7, explored the outer edges of funk and soul, their new album, Untitled (Black Is), uses the roots of America’s Black Lives Matter movement to infuse their work with a defiant political soul. Though every track on the album could have made this list, “Eternal Life” is a personal favorite. The synths sparkle like diamonds and the layered vocals land somewhere between girl groups of the 1950s and the late Aaliyah. It shimmers with strength and desperation, built around a woozy and looping drumbeat. The track rises and rises, approaching a breaking point but then fading into quiet before boiling over.
Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes
Tom Misch and Yussef Dayes have my second-favorite collaborative album of the year, behind the latest from Billy Woods and Elucid’s Armand Hammer project. Dayes is a tremendous jazz drummer making serious waves in the U.K. scene, which boasts an equivalency to the inspiring work occurring in LA, NYC, and Chicago. Misch is a pop singer and songwriter, and together, they blend Dayes’ arranging abilities with Misch’s keen ear for melody and structure.
“Tidal Wave” is one of many hits on the album, and while the Freddie Gibbs-assisted “Nightrider” boasts more star appeal, this smoothly unfurling composition is endlessly replayable. “Tidal Wave” neatly showcases everything the duo does well. The drums are sharp and punchy, and Misch’s lyrics are abstract but wholly relatable. It’s an urgent album, unveiled at a leisurely, placid pace.
Photay is the nom de plume of Evan Shornstein, a Woodstock-born composer working at that delightful apex at which the electronic and acoustic meet. While this track would probably scatter a bar mitzvah dance floor and send attendees outdoors for some powerful stargazing, the song’s title is too spot on to not include on this list. Does anything encapsulate becoming an adult in this time less than “existential celebration?”
Photay’s music recalls Brian Eno’s melodic instrumental work, bringing relatability to complex melodies through shrewd layering and a desire to connect intuitively. The song relies on the sharp tone of synthesizers, finding the exact midpoint between inviting and alienating. From there, Shornstein pumps in heavy, mournful chords and skittering percussion, giving this track movement, exploration, and, eventually, cathartic release.
Freddie Gibbs & Alchemist
While Freddie Gibbs and Alchemist both almost appeared on this list through other collaborations, the chemistry between Gary’s greatest and the Jewish DJ Premier warrants its own placement here as the outro. Any time these two originals link up, the results are dynamic, thrilling, and coldblooded, but on Alfredo, the pair is simply working on a different level, a legitimate case to be included among the best living producer-rapper combos, which makes picking a standout a painstaking task.
“Scottie Beam” is one of 10 superlative tracks on Alfredo (the album has, you guessed it, 10 songs), a throwback, glamorous ode to the material pleasures that make quarantine life somewhat tolerable. Though the song isn’t explicitly pandemic related, the point Gibbs makes, with an assist from Rick Ross, is that things—especially nice, indulgent things—make us happy and distract us from life’s horrifying subplots. Like, you know.
Will Schube is a writer and filmmaker based in Austin, Texas.