The Collegian staff have been kicking this idea around for a few weeks now, a quarantine-themed “desert island playlist” that reflects the strange times we find ourselves living in. Emotions are running close to the surface, uncertainty hangs heavy in the air, and the questions far outweigh the answers. So, here’s a quick (but by no means complete!) list of what we’re into right now. Links to a lyric version of the songs are provided where possible. Headphones on, turn it up, and enjoy.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “I’ll Love You (Till the End of the World)”
Cave’s slow-motion disaster ballad blooms like a poison flower and tells a story of love and destruction as observed from multiple perspectives: “It was a miracle I even got out of Longwood alive / this town full of men with big mouths, and no guts / I mean, if you can just picture it / The whole third floor of the hotel gutted by the blast, the street below showered in shards of broken glass / and all the drunks pouring out of the dance halls staring up at the smoke and the flames…”
Leonard Cohen – “Everybody Knows”
This Canadian singer and songwriter started out writing poetry, which explains why his songs, soaked in sorrow, isolation, depression, sexuality, loss, death, and romance, are so elegantly simple. Written as a protest to the 1980s, this song frames the social issues of yesterday while reflecting today’s unfortunate headlines: “Everybody knows that the plague is coming / everybody knows that it’s moving fast / Everybody knows that the naked man and woman / are just a shining artifact of the past…”
Eyedea & Abilities – “By the Throat”
Michael David Larsen, better known by his stage name Eyedea, was an American musician, poet, freestyle-battle champion, and songwriter from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He died in his sleep October 16, 2010, in his St. Paul apartment. This powerful, rapid fire relationship-ending tsunami of a good-bye letter never fails to wring strong emotions: “It happens faster than you could ever think / From always and forever to never again in less than a blink / The river runs until it’s dry / but I die spitting my last drop into its mouth to keep it alive / Long drives, wide eyes, and your smiling face / You dance, I drink, let’s waste the night away…”
The Talking Heads – “Life During Wartime”
The lyrics of this song are told from the point of view of someone involved in clandestine activities in the U.S. (the cities Houston, Detroit, and Pittsburgh are mentioned throughout) during some sort of civil unrest or dystopian environment. Rarely has a song so perfectly described the uncertainty and unrest that many of us are feeling right now: “I got some groceries, some peanut butter, to last a couple of days. / But I ain’t got no speakers, ain’t got no headphones / ain’t got no records to play.”
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – “The Dead Flag Blues”
GSY!BE aren’t exactly known for radio friendly toe-tappers. This Canadian experimental music collective creates slow-burn surreal soundscapes rich in foreboding doom and dreamy desolation: “The government is corrupt / And we’re on so many drugs / with the radio on and the curtains drawn…”
Reel Big Fish – “Everyone Else is an Asshole”
Forming in high school and rising to fame on the third wave of ska during the mid- 90s, the members of Reel Big Fish are a revolving door of come-and-go talent. A lot of people are doing a lot of good right now, but this song is a great vent for the rest of the frustration, cruelty, and carelessness happening around us: “I tried to forgive / I tried to live and let live / but everyone else is an asshole!”
Kimya Dawson – “Fire”
Dawson is an American folk singer-songwriter best known as one half of the anti-folk duo The Moldy Peaches. This is a bittersweet apocalypse jam, because trying to make a difference really does feel like you’re burning, poetically and physically: “He says he’s protecting us but he’s a liar. / I know deep down that it’s down to the wire / My heart will stop if I put out the fire / As long as I’m burning / I’ll keep on yearning / to save the world / Not sure how, but I’m learning”.
The Rolling Stones – “Gimme Shelter”
The tragedies associated with this song belong to another era. I’m thinking of the film that documents the 1969 American tour that culminated in the murder of Meredith Hunter by Hell’s Angels at the Altamont Speedway. I’m thinking of singer Merry Clayton who answered the 3 a.m. phone call to sing the song’s famous refrain “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away”. Almost nine months pregnant at the time, Clayton suffered a miscarriage soon after the recording session. And now, as we in much of the United States are sheltering in place, I too feel as if “a storm is threatening my very life today”.
Bob Dylan – “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”
The song was written by Dylan in 1967 in Woodstock, New York during the self-imposed exile from public appearances that followed his July 1966 motorcycle accident: “Clouds so swift / rain won’t lift / gate won’t close / railings froze / Get your mind off wintertime,/ you ain’t goin’ nowhere”.
Plastic Ono Band – “Isolation”
John Lennon was feeling disillusioned by fame and where his life was heading with the break-up of the Beatles when he wrote this song, which frames his acute insecurity and self-doubt brought on by his extensive drug use: “People say we’ve got it made / Don’t they know we’re so afraid? / Isolation / We’re afraid to be alone, everybody got to have a home / Isolation”.
The Clash – “Lost in the Supermarket”
The Clash were an English rock band formed in London in 1976 as a key player in the original wave of British punk rock. This song addresses the numbness of suburban alienation and the feelings of disillusionment experienced by youth in modern society: “I’m all lost in the supermarket / I can no longer shop happily / I came in here for that special offer / A guaranteed personality”.
John Prine – “Fish and Whistle”
Widely cited as one of the most influential songwriters of his generation and hailed as the “Mark Twain of songwriting” Prine was known for humorous lyrics about love, life, current events, social commentary and songs that tell the melancholy tales of his life. Shortly after receiving the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020, he died April 7, 2020, of complications caused by COVID-19: “I been thinking lately about the people I meet / the carwash on the corner and the hole in the street / the way my ankles hurt with shoes on my feet / I’m wondering if I’m gonna see tomorrow / Father forgive us for what we must do./ You forgive us, and we’ll forgive you./ We’ll forgive each other ’til we both turn blue / and we’ll whistle and go fishing in the heavens”. R.I.P., John.
Queen – “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Written by Freddie Mercury for Queen’s 1975 album A Night at the Opera, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a powerful, priceless six-minute epic about a young man who’s killed someone and sold his soul to the Devil. Mercury refused to explain his composition other than to say it was about relationships, and the band is protective of the song’s secret to this day. Fun fact: A “scaramouch” is a stock clown character of the commedia dell’arte, the comic theatrical arts of Italian literature. “Is this the real life? / Is this just fantasy? / Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality…”
NIN – “Reptile”
The song delves into being a disease or infection, and marks the catharsis of The Downward Spiral while the real, more human side of the protagonist comprehends his emotional damage. Rather fitting when viewed in context: “Devils speak of the way in which she’ll manifest./ Angels bleed from the tainted touch of my caress / Need to contaminate, to alleviate this loneliness./ I now know the depths I reach are limitless”.
Sage Francis – “Vonnegut Busy”
Transitioning seamlessly from socioeconomic issues to personal politics, all while holding true to the core message, this final track of our playlist offers a stirring call to action: “They said the war was over, / but we know it wasn’t / They wanted more soldiers, so we said ‘Sure, fuck it’ / Here’s a fresh batch of people with setbacks / the poor folk, / in fact they’re all broke cause of your debt traps / Picking the pockets of people who probably needed assistance most / selling them lies, selling them out / sending them off to a distant coast”. And may the bridges that we burn light the way…