Isolation Music Playlist: John Lennon, Joy Division, Heart, More - Rolling Stone
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Feeling Lonely? Self-Quarantining Got You Down? Here’s Your Isolation Playlist

Tracks about loneliness and solitude that may also offer some solace and comfort

isolation songs

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Under normal circumstances, choosing to stay in can be a nice break from the chaos of the outside world. But these days, when social distancing is a worldwide mandate due to the coronavirus outbreak, it can be hard to keep your spirits up. Can music help us cope? We think so. Feelings of loneliness and alienation have made their way into countless songs. Here are some of our favorites that tackle the experience of solitude, and sometimes even find a silver lining.

1. Joy Division, “Isolation” 

 

John Lennon’s song of the same title is getting all the coronavirus Twitter love, but it’s Joy Division’s “Isolation” that perhaps reverberates more given our current predicament: “In fear, every day, every evening” are Ian Curtis’ first words on the track, and the lyric “I’m ashamed of the person I am” could be the motto for every person not social distancing. Despite the subject matter, “Isolation” ranks among Joy Division’s cheeriest songs; perhaps for Curtis, isolation was a personal — and not a governmental — choice. —D. Kreps

2. Heart, “Alone”

 

What better scene speaks to this moment than Ann Wilson singing to her sister from a balcony, safely six feet away? “Alone” contains all the ingredients of an Eighties power ballad — hair, dramatic guitar solos, a drummer decked in leopard print, big hair, a smoky piano scene, and more big hair. Save this one for a rainy night of quarantine, when you’ve grown tired of sad songs and need to use your hairbrush as a microphone. —A. Martoccio

3. Warren Zevon, “Splendid Isolation”

 

Leave it to the proudly perverse Zevon to write the most invigorating song ever about craving solitude (taken from a late 19th-century phrase about Britain’s stance toward international relations). Zevon may want to live “like Georgia O’Keefe,” “never go down in the street,” and put “tin foil up on the windows.” But the exuberant rush of the song — pushed along by guest Neil Young’s chugging harmonica — makes you think alone time isn’t always such a bad thing. —D. Browne

4. Love, “Alone Again Or”

Despite being recorded back in 1967, Love’s psychedelic “Alone Again Or” expertly captures the dissonance of our current moment. Its bright, convivial melody (mariachi horns!) is at odds with bandmember Bryan MacLean’s forlorn lyrics. “I think that people are the greatest fun,” Love’s Arthur Lee sings with a hint of optimism, before reality brings him crashing back to a night of isolation: “I will be alone again tonight, my dear.” It manages to be euphoric and despondent all at once. —J. Hudak

5. Gilbert O’Sullivan, “Alone Again”

A good decade before Morrissey, the Irish-born O’Sullivan pioneered the idea of mope pop with this massive 1972 hit. The ballad is a virtual litany of sorrow: His bride leaves him at the altar, his father dies, and he longs for the time when he was “cheerful and bright.” Even the melody and arrangement seem to pout. But there’s no denying the record’s luminous allure; you may weep, but you want to play it again. —D. Browne

6. Eric Carmen, “All by Myself” 

 

Eric Carmen’s 1975 soft-rock smash about a lonely playboy could be the anthem for any single person whose social life has been halted by COVID-19 and is now self-quarantining alone. Celine Dion’s triumphant 1996 version of the Rachmaninoff-stealing single might go down as the more well-known rendition, but Carmen’s original aches more. A 2020 version would have a brighter ending: “Living alone/I think of all the friends I’ve known /But when I dial the telephone/Nobody’s home,” Carmen sang then. However, thanks to the coronavirus, everybody’s home now. —D. Kreps

7. Atlas Sound, “Quarantined” 

The title definitely fits the theme, and although there are only two lines of lyrics — “Quarantined and kept so far away from my friends/I’m waiting to be changed” — Atlas Sound’s “Quarantined” has a tragic backstory: Bradford Cox, the Deerhunter singer who moonlights as his prolific solo project Atlas Sound, has said he wrote the song after learning about Russian children with HIV quarantined in hospitals. Cox’s own health issues — he was born with Marfan syndrome — and the resulting alienation he felt, also inform the track. It’s a reminder that some quarantines, though forced, are just temporary. —D. Kreps

8. Harry Nilsson, “Living Without You”/”Without You”

 

Released within a year of each other, “Living Without You” (off of 1970’s Nilsson Sings Newman) and “Without You” (off of 1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson) make a fascinating pair. They’re both about the isolation that follows a heartbreak, they both basically have the same title, and yet Nilsson takes two drastically different routes to achieve his desired effect. “Living Without You” — a devastating depiction of the patterns loneliness can create, courtesy of Randy Newman — finds Nilsson moving from stillness to a simmer, and though the way he layers his vocals makes it seem like that pot will finally start to boil, he deftly ratchets down the heat in a way that lingers, warm and sad but also cleareyed and painless. “Without You,” on the other hand, also moves from soft-to-loud, but the loud is one of the most delightfully ridiculous roiling cauldrons in all of pop music — thick with schmaltz and all the more delicious for it. The loneliness of the next several weeks (if not months) could fluctuate often between the two poles these songs capture: sometimes quotidian and tedious, the days just stacking on top of each other; other times pushing itself to the front, demanding to be seen. We’ll have to learn how to live with both. —J. Blistein

9. John Lennon, “Isolation”

 

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band was released nearly 50 years ago, but with songs like “Working Class Hero,” “Mother,” and “God,” it’s remained more relevant than ever. “Isolation” is particularly fitting, and not just for its obvious title. It’s a song about Lennon shedding his Beatles skin and revealing himself for the first time, while admitting that he and Yoko are just like everyone else — afraid of being alone and trying to make the world a better place. Celebrities can wallow in their wealth and sing “Imagine” all they want, but it’s “Isolation” that truly captures this horrifying moment. —A. Martoccio

10. Silver Jews, “Honk if You’re Lonely” 

The “hot music take” hill I will happily die on is that humor is a repeatedly underrated, underappreciated, and underutilized quality in songwriting. Not that all artists should be constantly aiming for belly laughs, but those with the awareness to understand and communicate just how ridiculous and silly life is, especially at its most difficult and serious moments, are often the ones worth treasuring most. David Berman struck that balance beautifully, and “Honk if You’re Lonely,” off Silver Jews’ 1998 classic American Water, is the perfect example. The setup is gutting, a lonely, admittedly kind-of-pathetic late-night search for love — or just any kind of human connection — and the punchline is literally a cheap hyuck-hyuck gas station bumper-sticker line. Berman leaves it all out their perfectly wry and dry, completely serious, but not that serious at all. And when the chorus of voices joins him for the titular refrain, it’s a reminder that even though the future holds a lot of lonely honking for all of us, it’ll be important to cut those moments with a laugh. —J. Blistein

11. Tristen, “Alone Tonight” 

This crisp, pop-rock 2017 gem from Nashville singer-songwriter Tristen is a fitting dose of me, myself, and I melancholy. The song’s narrator is not actually alone, they’re just consciously making the bad decision to spend the night with someone they probably shouldn’t be in order to avoid such a fate. “Say we’re only friends/I’ll pretend to understand,” Tristen sings, before precisely vocalizing a feeling currently being felt by millions across the globe: “I don’t want to be alone tonight.” —J. Bernstein 

12. Bon Iver, “Wisconsin”

Hey, if you’re gonna be in isolation, what better way to spend it than by listening to the album recorded by that guy all alone in that woodsy cabin? I recommend playing the entirety of For Emma, Forever Ago while huddled in a fetal position, but if you have to choose just one song, make it the bonus track “Wisconsin,” which carries all the echoing gravitas of city streets emptied out by quarantine. —C. Shaffer 

13. Mac DeMarco, “Chamber of Reflection”

Mac DeMarco knows solitude. His typical recording routine involves late nights at home with no one else around. “It’s my quiet time,” he’s told Rolling Stone — a state of mind that comes through on “Chamber of Reflection,” a lonesome highlight of his 2014 breakthrough, Salad Days. “Alone again, alone again,” he sings, sounding like the last DIY heartbreaker on Earth. -S. Vozick-Levinson

14. The Police, “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around”

 

During his tenure as Police chief, Sting wrote a hundred billion bottles’ worth of songs about loneliness and social distancing — “Message in a Bottle,” “So Lonely,” “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” — but they were mostly depressing. One of the few with hope was “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around,” off of 1980’s Zenyatta Mondatta. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world, and here is poor Gordo surviving in his old car, draining its battery by watching James Brown’s inseam-splitting performance on the T.A.M.I. Show and maybe a little pornography on a VCR, and listening to his only music tape, Otis Redding. He sings that hasn’t talked to anybody in years, but really all he has to complain about is that he hates the food he’s stuck with. It doesn’t sound like such a bad existence. —K. Grow

15. The Langley Schools Music Project, “In My Room”

Self-quarantining never sounded better than the Beach Boys classic about finding solace and comfort within the confines of one’s bedroom. Sung by the Langley Schools Music Project, the “teenage symphony to God”-via-children’s-choir adds a tinge of melancholy to the Surfer Girl single, capturing the sentiment of a nation’s worth of school kids — forced out of their classrooms and now cooped up full-time with their work-from-home parents — whose only escape now is the bedroom. —D. Kreps

16. Smashing Pumpkins, “Soma” 

Billy Corgan and loneliness go way back. Take this Siamese Dream track, where he laments in the chorus “I’m all by myself/As I’ve always felt.” The vibe is subtle — he’s utterly calm and slowly coming to terms with being hurt, until it escalates into an earth-shattering breakdown and James Iha rips into a guitar solo. Years later, the Strokes would release a song by the same name, but it wouldn’t do nearly as much damage as this one does. It’s the perfect song to distance yourself to, both socially and emotionally. —A. Martoccio

17. Cher, “Song for the Lonely”

Of course Cher has already released the most-empowering dance song about social isolation: On “Song for the Lonely,” she sings directly to the lonely-hearted and reminds them that she’s listening in their time of need. Isn’t that all we can ask for during this scary time? That Cher can hear our cries for help as we sit in our homes and apartments surrounded by emergency toilet paper, soap, and canned beans? “Song for the Lonely” was initially written and recorded in a time where joy was desperately needed; while the Living Proof single was recorded in the summer of 2001, she ended up releasing it in 2002 and dedicated it to the people of New York after the 9/11 attacks. “But you know inside/It’s gonna be alright,” she wails in that familiar, throaty warble while standing on the bridge in the music video. There’s nothing better to believe in, right now. — B. Spanos

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