Why do I hate music lists? Let’s review:
A) “Ranking is the coarsest, least illuminating form of interpretation. As soon as you commit to it (and it requires monogamous rhetorical commitment), you forfeit all other critical tools. Ranking steamrolls every other more nuanced way of talking about art. People only want to know who wins. They probably aren’t even skimming your rationales and justifications…”
B) “Listing is the cheapest, easiest, most contemptible way out of the challenge of writing, of making meaning and holding an argument together.”
C) A new one: I suck at it. Give me a song to listen to and I can describe it musically, culturally, stylistically, referentially, analytically, impressionistically with the best of them. But give me a description a priori – songs about black magic, songs that reference World War II, artists who write about parenting, best songs to shear wool to – and I can’t think of a single thing. Ever. Brain blot. No results found. Dead eyes and feelings of inferiority.
But this is why God invented Facebook, of course. When I was asked to compile a topical piece on the best songs about isolation, solitude and quarantine, I took it to the people, and the people responded in spades. Turns out everyone else alive is good at fitting the song to the given description.
Let’s start with a few obvious ones – that would never have occurred to me.
John Lennon, “Isolation,” Plastic Ono Band
Gotta love the way Lennon puts the “I” in isolation, extending it melismatically over three syllables and leaving the “solation” part of the word, which sounds like solace, oddly…isolated. People think of Plastic Ono Band as the most raw and direct thing ever, but there are crafty moves like that all over that landmark record. And if you are not inclined to believe John when he sings about giving peace a chance or about how we all shine on, or about no money being a cool thing, it is dangerous business to doubt this fellow when he sings about desolation and unhappiness.
Eric Carmen, “All By Myself,” Eric Carmen
Surprised to discover that this soft-rock staple by the former frontman of the Raspberries is less sappy than I remember: more Nilsson than Sedaka or Humperdinck or Cetera. Further, I had figured it would be all about romantic isolation, but it’s really more existential than that. And of course, its soaring refrain is the one to grab if you can only grab one.
Joy Division, “Isolation,” Closer
“Surrendered to self-preservation,
From others who care for themselves.
A blindness that touches perfection,
But hurts just like anything else.”
Neil Diamond, “I Am…I Said,” Stones
In this lovely song from 1971, Diamond bemoans, to a chair that won’t even listen to him, how he doesn’t fit in LA and has lost New York City now as well. I think we are all shouting at our chairs about now.
Duke Ellington, “Solitude”
Duke wrote it. Billie and Ella both scored hits with it. Enough said, right?
Warren Zevon, “Splendid Isolation,” Transverse City
Even if Zevon, to my ears, never quite recovered the form of his first two records, when he seemed poised to become a somewhat-more-user-friendly Randy Newman, this mid-career winner from 1989 might just remind you of the times you craved the isolation that you now must suffer through.
Simon & Garfunkel, “I Am a Rock,” Sounds of Silence
The last track on the early classic Sounds of Silence finds Paul at his most anthemic, Artie at his most soaring. Its theme is withdrawal as a kind of armor, usually against the risks of love and compansionship, but also, arguably, against viruses.
The Beatles, “Nowhere Man,” Rubber Soul
John for two.
John Prine, “Hello in There,” John Prine
A simple folk standard from Prine’s debut. Whether it is full of pathos or mawkish is, I suppose, a matter of perspective, but it has always worked for me; and it is poignant and timely now, when you consider the populations most affected and isolated by COVID-19.
The Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby,” Revolver
Beatles for two.