Music is great therapy. It eases stress, helps to allay fears, and combats boredom all at once—and during these unsure times, every little helps.
While there is no perfect formula for a playlist to soothe the lockdown anxiety that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic can bring, and has already brought about, there are a lot of things we can consider.
Taste is subjective, and what we need to make us feel better is singular and momentary. We can use music to change how we feel—like listening to something uptempo when we need motivation—or we can use it to wallow in how we feel—like listening to sad music until 2am.
Who and what we listen to at any given time is entirely up to us, but with everything that’s going on right now, it’s as good a time as any to think about it more consciously.
It’s also a good time to relax when we can. We’re all doing our best in a time of crisis. Moreover, it’s a good time to share. So, with all of that in mind, here are sixteen songs you can play together—in any order—to try to unwind and soothe the lockdown anxiety.
#1. All Saints – ‘Pure Shores’
This ambient pop masterpiece is a staple of many 2000s pop playlists. It featured in the film The Beach, which starred a fresh faced Leonardo DiCaprio. There’s something so vital about this song. The ladies’ voices add so much brightness to William Orbit’s already shimmering production. Emotive and entrancing in equal measure, with an irresistible hook to boot, ‘Pure Shores’ is a song to lose yourself in, but also one that you could easily apply to a breathing focused task—yoga, meditation, running, or whatever you’re into.
#2. The xx – ‘Crystalised’
Sticking with an ambient vibe (albeit with a slightly darker and much greater DIY aesthetic), this one is hypnotic and hazy thanks to its minimal, cyclical musical phrasings, synths and drum machines. There’s something really sexy about the soft vocal trade-offs between Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. One voice a very human croon, the other a drawn out murmur.
#3. Mazzy Star – ‘Fade Into You’
This one manages to sneak its way into pretty much any playlist I make. It’s a song I listen to when I’m happy, it’s a song I listen to when I’m sad, it’s the song I’m probably going to dance to at my wedding. This one evokes the feeling of longing better than any song I’ve ever heard. The slow, repetitive melody, barely audible tambourine, and simple slide guitar leads are impeccably arranged. It’s an exercise in doing simple things very well. It’s a song of hope, with the joy it suggests ever so slightly out of reach. Even though it’s a little bit bittersweet, it’s no less dreamy.
#4. Nick Drake – ‘Pink Moon’
The title track from the cult favourite’s final album, which was notable in its starkness. Drake’s vocal, fragile and haunting, is carried only by his deftly picked acoustic guitar and a few auxiliary notes played softly on a piano. ‘Pink Moon’ also features some of Drake’s most atmospheric, thought provoking lyrics, “Saw it written and I saw it say/Pink moon is on its way”. Simply wonderful.
#5. Pink Floyd – ‘Breathe (In the Air)’
It seems almost criminal to play a song like this separately from the context of the concept album that birthed it, but as well as it being a fantastic piece of music, its words offer some sage advice about connecting with a moment through your feelings, not your thoughts, and about breaking away from monotony but not without remembering those close to you—taking a look around you and finding your own point of view.
#6. Brian Eno – ‘Deep Blue Day’
Another ambient piece, you may know this one from the toilet scene in Trainspotting. While it did bring some humour to one of the film’s most darkly comedic moments, it seems almost criminal to pair it with the worst toilet in Scotland.
#7. This Mortal Coil – ‘Song to the Siren’
This ravishing cover of a Tim Buckley song comes from a multi-artist studio session headed by 4AD Records owner Ivo Watts-Russell. Its arrangement is simple, but its sonic textures are shimmering and Elizabeth Fraser’s vocal remains, to this day, one of the most remarkable in popular music.
#8. Cocteau Twins – ‘Cherry-coloured Funk’
Another one brought to life by Elizabeth Fraser, Cocteau Twins are one of those bands who are immensely influential, somewhat overlooked, but always otherworldly beautiful. Fraser’s vocals and lyrics are often unintelligible but I subscribe to the Umberto Eco view that messages go beyond language or text. Fraser’s voice is an instrument, her words a vehicle for that message, and here it blends perfectly with the red-sky-at-night sonic texture that her bandmates—Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde—have created.
#9. Massive Attack – ‘Teardrop’
In case it isn’t really obvious by now, I’m a huge fan of Elizabeth Fraser’s voice. This, her most clear vocal performance put to tape, gave Massive Attack their biggest career hit. Subdued and atmospheric, the song is built around her voice, only fading into the foreground where a gap allows it. Although arguably one of the weaker songs in their oeuvre, it’s one of their signatures and a definite mood soother.
#10. Massive Attack – ‘Protection’
Sticking with Del Naja & Co., the title track from Massive Attack’s sophomore album is a gorgeous, downtempo song that features the natural, jazz-informed voice of Tracey Thorn from Everything but the Girl. It’s a love song, but can be applied to lingering thoughts of fear. It takes a moment to remind yourself that in spite of all the doubt and isolation, you are safe.
#11. Mogwai – ‘Take Me Somewhere Nice’
This one reveals the softer side of the Glaswegian post-rockers. Its strings, shaky vocals and muted drums amount to one of the sweeter interludes in their back catalogue.
#12. Aphex Twin – ‘Avril 14th’
Richard D. James is an enigma, and this is one of the more deceptively simple songs he’s ever created. The song was, in fact, recorded using a Disklavier—a piano with a mechanism that reads MIDI data and plays the keyboard automatically. You can hear the faint clicks it makes all over the track. This piano lullaby is about as close to human as Aphex Twin has ever sounded.
#13. Norah Jones – ‘Don’t Know Why’
#14. Explosions in the Sky – ‘Your Hand in Mine’
The guitars on this one are so soulful. ‘Your Hand in Mine’ steadily crawls from simple to complex layers, guitar leads dancing around each other from start to finish, jumping in together to build to a passionate apex before slowing to a sweet climax. Sometimes music alone says everything it needs to without any words. This is a prime example.
#15. Washed Out – ‘Feel It All Around’
Built off a time stretched, slowed down Italo disco sample, this track is one of the defining songs of the chillwave genre. It sets a perfect lo-fi, airy, peaceful vibe.
#16. Sigur Rós – ‘Starálfur’
Sung in Hopelandic, a language invented by frontman Jónsi, ‘Starálfur’ uses a vocal technique similar to that of Elizabeth Fraser to emphasise the emotive qualities of human vocalisations. The song captures the feeling the pseudo-language describes all too well—soaked in strings and twinkling pianos, led by Jónsi’s earnest vocals.