As the summer in quarantine winds down, and many cities remain in half-lockdown, half-reopened states of purgatory, it’s become harder and harder to pass the time in the heat. There’s only so many times you can go to the beach (while social distancing) or sip to-go drinks in the park before you begin to long for an air-conditioned movie theater, or spontaneously hugging friends at a crowded bar. Appropriately, the music I’ve listened to this summer skews less towards party jams and more towards the slower, mellower stuff — guitar reverb, hazy synths, and lyrics that dream of simpler times and hope for better ones to come.
Tom Tom Club, “Genius of Love” (1981)
This has always been my go-to song for walking around my Brooklyn neighborhood in the sun – which I’ve been doing much, much more lately. It’s one of the few songs from my past summer playlists to make it onto this one, in part because its wackiness is just so fitting for this strange time. No, I don’t know why Tina Weymouth’s character is in jail, or who the hell the “genius of love” actually is. But somehow, that kooky rhythm creates the perfect soundtrack for walking past brownstone stoops, neighborhood coffee shops, and people in masks walking their dogs.
Solange, “Binz” (2019)
It’s the When I Get Home song that everyone wishes were 10 times longer. Solange oozes cool on every line, dreaming of a luxe vacation that no one but the ultra-rich is having anytime soon: “I just wanna wake up on ya thigh, on a yacht/Or in the Rolls that’s rented, windows tinted.” That dripping bass line sounds like steak sizzling on a grill, or your brain frying in the heat.
Priests, “Nothing Feels Natural” (2017)
After the much-needed, widespread protests for racial justice that took place through June, the long days of August feel eerily quiet, and attempts at making things appear “normal” end up feeling frivolous. Priests recorded “Nothing Feels Natural,” and the album of the same name, during the 2016 election cycle, but the song’s relevance has only grown with time and the constant chain of surreal, horrifying world events we’ve been subjected to for the past three-and-a-half years.
P.M. Dawn, “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” (1991)
And now, for something a bit more relaxing. There’s something about those guitar samples you hear on certain Nineties hip-hop tracks – wistfulness in a bottle! And “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” is as soothing as they come.
Galaxie 500, “Tugboat” (1988)
Sometimes I remember that, on top of everything, there’s a presidential election this year, and it’s enough to make me want to curl up into a ball and never read another news item again. That’s not really what “Tugboat” is about, and I’m not saying anyone should heed the electoral advice that Dean Wareham is offering here when he sighs, “I don’t wanna vote for your president.” But it’s a striking line in an otherwise simple and sincere love song, with a chorus that never gets old: “It’s a place I’d like to be/It’s a place I’d like to see/It’s a place I’d like to be/It’s a place I’d be happy.”
LeAnn Rimes, “One Way Ticket (Because I Can)” (1996)
Long-distance travel is strongly discouraged these days, so “One Way Ticket” is pretty much an escapist fantasy for everyone right now. Think of it as a country version of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away With Me.”
Lorde, “400 Lux” (2013)
“We’re never done with killing time” — if only Lorde knew how true that would be, seven years later. Quarantine has made us all teenagers stuck at home for summer vacation, and “400 Lux” captures that suburban ennui perfectly.
The National, “Geese of Beverly Road” (2005)
The National recorded their third album, Alligator, in a big old house down in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park neighborhood, an area I’ve walked to a few times during quarantine just to remember what free-standing houses look like. Matt Berninger was inspired to write “Beverly Road” one night while sitting outside on the porch, watching kids run up and down the street and set off car alarms. “The song is theirs,” he would later say.
TOPS, “I Feel Alive” (2020)
What makes the sunny, AM-radio pop of “I Feel Alive” work is the heavy irony between the verses and chorus. “Conversation that I did not like/Faces in the street I wish I didn’t recognize,” Jane Penny sings, before breezing right into the song’s refrain. Confusing? Yes. Uneasy? For sure. But before you know it, you’ll be cheerfully singing right along with her.
Charli XCX, “Forever” (2020)
Charli XCX’s “Forever” music video is one of the best time capsules I’ve seen for the COVID-19 era. Through video-editing wizardry by Dan Streit, the clip depicts a collage of experiences in isolation, taken from many, many fan videos sent in to Charli while she was making her how I’m feeling now quarantine album. Taken on its own, the song’s a bop, too.
Mazzy Star, “Ride It On” (1990)
“Fade Into You” is a hazy summer classic, but She Hangs Brightly is the Mazzy Star album I’ve kept coming back to these past few months, and “Ride It On” is a track I’ve recently grown to admire. I love the galloping rhythm of the guitar and tambourine, and the way Hope Sandoval sings “baby” like she’s flicking cigarette ash. Real cowboy shit.
Carly Rae Jepsen, “Now I Don’t Hate California After All” (2020)
This cut off of CRJ’s Dedicated Side B is more subdued than her usual output, but that glockenspiel-like production is just exquisite. Underneath it all, she paints a vision of the L.A. sands and summer romance that’s too good to be true: “Love on the beach and the tide is high/Moon in the water and the open sky.”
J Hus and Ella Mai, “One and Only” (2020)
London rapper J Hus released his second album, Big Conspiracy, this past February, which feels like a lifetime ago. But for an upbeat, warm-weather number with a hint of melancholy, “One and Only” is a great choice. Ella Mai’s hook is one of the standouts from the record.
Snail Mail, “Heat Wave” (2018)
Snail Mail’s album Lush was an immediate summer classic upon its release, with “Heat Wave” as its centerpiece. Lindsay Jordan crafted a perfect anthem for wasting the day away in the sun, pining for someone or something to come back but realizing that the chase isn’t worth it. “Swirl in the white evening sun/Tell me I’m the only one” is pure poetry.
The War on Drugs, “Thinking of a Place” (2017)
So the joke goes: Remember places? Adam Granduciel spends a full 11 minutes and 11 seconds remembering places, and that was before the pandemic. In a discography full of beautiful, meditative heartland rock, this is one of the War on Drugs’ most transcendent songs; even if you’ve never driven down a dark highway at night, it’s easy to imagine “Thinking of a Place” as the perfect soundtrack for such an occasion.
Nilufer Yanya, “Golden Cage” (2017)
Sure, the phrase “golden cage” may sound a bit too literal in the context of quarantine, but the song itself, like “Genius of Love,” is a very good soundtrack for just wandering around and exploring your neighborhood. Props to the saxophone for adding extra chill vibes.
Haim, “Los Angeles” (2020)
“Summer Girl” is the obvious Haim choice for a summer playlist, but seeing as that song has been out for over a year, the reggae-meets-Sheryl-Crow sound of Women in Music Pt. III opener “Los Angeles” feels like a better fit. Danielle Haim’s plea at the center of the track feels all too real: “Give me a miracle, I just want out of this.” After it came out, I almost set this song as my morning alarm, before realizing how that would quickly start to feel like a Groundhog Day situation.
Cocteau Twins, “Rilkean Heart” (1996)
Rule of thumb for Cocteau Twins: If you want cold-weather music, listen to their pre-Heaven or Las Vegas output. If you want summer jams, post-Heaven or Las Vegas is the way to go. (Heaven or Las Vegas itself works for all seasons, in my humble opinion.) “Bluebeard” is a classic summer drive song, while “Rilkean Heart” is more explicit in its themes of loneliness and alienation. On the chorus, Elizabeth Fraser sings some of the most lucid — and reassuring — lyrics of her career: “You’re lost and don’t know what to do/But that’s not all of you/That’s your reality today/And that is all okay.”
Destroyer, “Kaputt” (2011)
“Wasting your days, chasing some girls/Alright, chasing cocaine” — what a way to start a song, especially one as nostalgia-coated as “Kaputt.” Dan Bejar went with a lush, Cocteau Twins-esque production on his 2011 album, and out came this six-minute ode to rock-and-roll parties of yore, which now reads like an elegy to parties in general.
Lana Del Rey, “How to Disappear” (2019)
I could have put literally any Lana song on here, but I went with an underrated track from Norman Fucking Rockwell!, one that captures the specific resignation of being stuck in paradise. That last line kills me every time.
Spoon, “New York Kiss” (2014)
“The streets are empty, there’s no one ’round/It’s a far-off shout, it’s a far-off shout.” This jam from Spoon definitely fits the quarantine inability to smooch/hug people you would like to smooch/hug, but it’s also another song about place, and memory, and how one’s particular relationship to a city changes once it empties out.
Kacey Musgraves, “Slow Burn” (2018)
This has been a contemplative, Sufjan-like banger for three summers now, and it’s a great one to revisit every now and then. Kacey’s emphasis on patience is a sentiment so rarely found in pop, and she does it so tenderly without being preachy here.
The Avalanches, “Since I Left You” (2000)
Another track that calls to mind parties and large gatherings in a very nostalgic sense. Probably not as debaucherous as Destroyer’s, though.
Taylor Swift, “August” (2020)
Swift is a business-savvy genius in a myriad of ways, but one recent good decision was putting out a song called “August” right before the month of August. Cue predictably high streaming numbers for this track, even compared to the rest of Folklore. It’s an incredible summer track about yearning and endless possibilities mixed with regret — how could I not put it on here?
Beach House, “Walk in the Park” (2010)
Last but not least, this wouldn’t be a summer melancholy playlist without a Beach House song. “Walk in the Park” is, well, great for walking in the park, or hanging at the beach, or — as I learned in early July — staring out at fireworks from your balcony. May it bring your comfort on your next solitary journey.