A year ago, we hoped we would not have a pandemic playlist in 2021. But COVID stuck around. The music we listened to was informed by isolation, illness and a bout of premature hope, chased by a secondary, more muted optimism as the curtains began to draw back once more.
So much music was inspired by the pandemic that it soon became a sub-category of its own. We reviewed dozens of albums that spoke directly to a time of crisis or were inspired by loss, lockdown and disconnection. We’ve chosen a cross-section of these releases below to demonstrate a wide variety of approaches. Will we still be listening to pandemic albums after COVID-19 has run its course? We suspect so, as these albums now serve as historic documents.
Ai Yamamoto ~ Pan De Sonic ~ Iso (Room40)
What to do when stuck at home with children during the pandemic? Ai Yamamoto made the most of it by recording a host of traditional domestic sounds along with the unique sounds of lockdown: remote learning, remote working, afternoon exercise. Her house becomes a home, a safe haven in an anxious time.
Cheryl E. Leonard ~ Schism (Mappa)
Over the past two decades, we’ve grown increasingly attached to our electronic devices; lockdown and quarantine underlined our dependence while reminding us of their now-essential nature. In her first piece, Leonard records the innards of her laptop; her second takes place inside a bottle, a metaphor for isolation.
Federico Durand ~ Herbario (LAAPS)
We reviewed multiple albums this year inspired by gardens, forests and the daily walk. Herbario is the most intimate of them all, diving into micro-sound to imply the experience of soft growth. Each piece is inspired by a specific flower or tree, while the musical roots and leaves were collected and pressed like small sonic flowers in an aural scrapbook.
Frank Horvat ~ Music for Self-Isolation (Centrediscs)
Samuel Rogers writes that Music for Self-Isolation is “the kind of album none of us knew would be necessary.” 31 pieces, mostly solos with a few duets, were played one at a time in an empty hall: a declaration of creation and solidarity in a time of stagnation and separation. The videos provide a window into the mindset of the performers.
Ian Wellman ~ On The Darkest Day, You took My Hand and Swore It Will Be Okay (Room40)
Of all the albums on this list, Wellman’s is the least afraid to delve into anger and fear. The titles are indicative of the subject matter: “I Watched the World Burn Without Leaving My Home,” “We Screamed For Help But Our Voices Were Drowned Out By The Noise Of The World.” Yet Wellman refuses to end on a note of resignation: instead, he suggests perseverance and a new resolve.
Jacob Cooper & Steven Bradshaw ~ Sunrise (Cold Blue Music)
During the current pandemic, many turned to the last pandemic for perspective. Cooper and Bradshaw take a hundred year old song, Ernest Seitz and Gene Lockhart’s “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise,” and thread it through a modern array of compositional techniques, making the old sound new, mysterious, and deep.
Lea Bertucci ~ A Visible Length of Light (Cibachrome Editions)
During the pandemic, Lea Bertucci left her home in New York for a residency in Nebraska, and while out west she traveled some more. A Visible Length of Light is a “real time reaction” to the wild events of 2020, from lockdowns to protests, from selfishness to compassion: an aural and sociological travelogue.
Various Artists ~ Music for queuing at the supermarket (SØVN Records)
The supermarket was the one place we continued to visit during the pandemic. SØVN Records compiled an ode to counter snafus, sold-out products, and the possibility of meeting that special someone, making even the banal seem amusing: a dose of humor just when we needed it most.
Various Artists ~ New Chronologies of Sound (Life Is A Vic Nic)
The pandemic caused many changes in society, including the way we hear. Our sonic awareness is heightened as other sounds are removed; this compilation goes deeper by contrasting past, present and future in a reflective, creative manner. BJ Nilsen’s closing piece provides a kind connection to last year’s playlist.
Whettman Chelmets ~ For … (Drawing Room Records)
If Lea Bertucci’s album is a travelogue, Whettman Chelmets’ album is a diary. Spanning nearly a year, the album takes us through the seasons of 2020-2021, reflecting on the cycles of despair and hope through the lens of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, ending with the migrating birds as they return to sing once more.