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14 classic pop songs for the pandemic

One or two hard-hearted millenials have referred colloquially to COVID-19 as the “boomer remover” because most of the people it kills are over 50. While the facts are the facts, give this boomer one more chance to lay out – for pandemic sufferers of all ages — his recommended audio opium for these dark times.

Yes, all of these songs were recorded before 1985, but that’s when, in this boomer’s infallible estimation, music became so automated and sample-ized that it became nothing more than machine noise (with sentiments like this, it’s no wonder so many millenials want us removed).

Without further digression, here are 14 songs that have provided me the most comfort during this period of self-imposed isolation and extremely scary, continually scrolling news. You may not like all of them, but I’d wager that at least one will provide you some solace. (Warning: all these links are to YouTube, which means you’ll have to occasionally endure ads for products that are probably irrelevant).

Season of the Witch (Donovan)

We’re all being stalked today by an invisible, malevolent enemy — surely the product of a witch, warlock, or devil. This spacey, ominous classic will put you in the right mind to face whatever doom that’s out there, whether in the supermarket or in the face you view in the mirror. The great Jimmy Page, pre-Zep by several years, plays guitar on this 1968 classic.


One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor (Paul Simon)

Noise complaints to 311 have skyrocketed since New York City locked down in March. There’s nothing wrong with blasting music at all hours of the day and night if you live in a detached house with concrete walls, but few New York apartments match this description, so take a cue from Paul Simon’s 1973 masterpiece to bone up on Manhattan Neighbor Etiquette 101.

We Gotta Get Out of This Place (The Animals)

“Girl, there’s a better life for me and you,” Eric Burdon implores in this 1965 pop classic, and we can only hope that this is true. For those self-quarantined in “this dirty old part of the city” for months, it had better be. “We Got to Get Out of This Place” became a favorite among U.S. troops serving in Vietnam. The Animals were among the first groups to break big in the U.S. after The Beatles. The CDC’s official advice to us all is that if you decide to “get out of this place,’ please wear a mask — unless you don’t care about showing any respect to the people you might breathe on or otherwise interact with.

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (Roberta Flack)

It’s been at least a week since I’ve seen anyone not wearing a mask in Brooklyn, and so I’m quickly forgetting what people actually look like. If you find yourself in the same position, listen to this beautifully mysterious song — from 1972 — which celebrates the revelatory power of the human face and all that lies behind it.

The Only Living Boy in New York (Simon & Garfunkle)

One of the best things about living in New York City right now is that you can saunter down the middle of many ordinarily busy streets without having to fear being instantly squashed like a bug by some maurading vehicle. It’s almost a kingly feeling — as if the City truly belongs to you (it doesn’t and never will). This 1968 song from Simon & Garfunkle perfectly sums up that false but beautiful emotion. Consider gathering “all you need on the weather report” instead of “doomsurfing” (a new term tapping into our OCD-driven mordi desire to view carnage). The album from which this song springs set a high bar for all future Grammy award winners.

Everybody’s Talkin’ (Harry Nilsson)

Between the CDC, the WHO, the NIH, the White House, the Governor’s Office, right-wing talk radio, and left-wing blogs, everybody seems to have a view on what you should do to survive the next six months. This 1969 composition, written by Fred Neil and sung by the great Harry Nilsson, is perfect for those suffering from overexposure to never-ending COVID-19 talkathons.

It’s a Family Affair (Sly and the Family Stone)

One cruelly obvious fact about home sheltering with your family in how it transforms the people you love most deeply into those that most deeply irritate you. Let’s hope that no one in your household becomes “someone you’d just love to burn” — at least for the next few months.

Everybody is a Star (Sly and the Family Stone)

Almost nobody on television is actually in a studio today– a fact unprecedented in the history of television. COVID has “equalized” media in the sense that it’s reduced humanity to “Brady Bunch” style talking heads on Zoom, Chime, Facebook, et al. Pundits, politicians, the high and mighty, the beautiful, the bad — are all operating at the same (sucky) level. Bad lighting, spotty audio, weird ceiling soffits, annoying camera angles– it’s worldwide amateur hour. The unintended, silver lining of this mess is that our universally sucky production means “everybody is a star — one big circle goin’ round and round.”

Everyone’s Gone To The Moon (Jonathan King)

Yes, most will call this “schmaltzy” and “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” surely is. Strings and insipid “sweetenings” strangled so many good songs days of music production lore. But this Decca release from 1965 was on the radio everywhere so it’s burrowed into my brain and the insanity of COVID-19 is bringing it out again. Everything’s out of whack, people are missing, there’s sadness in the fabric of the couch and perhaps the best explanation for this mess is to blame the destination-readiness of the moon (let’s hope that the six-foot distancing standard holds true there).

Don’t Fear the Reaper (Blue Oyster Cult)

Beyond humorously establishing beyond any doubt the proposition that the cowbell is in fact a lead instrument, Don’t Fear the Reaper — from 1976 — remains one of the most profound pop records concerning the inevitability of death. Let us hope that it not become an anthem for the “reopen America at any cost” crowd. For the rest of mask-wearing America, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” offers comfort in the form of an unbeatable riff-driven classic that’s among the finest songs ever committed to vinyl.

Alone Again Naturally (Gilbert O’Sullivan)

Sometimes listening to really depressing music can make you feel better. Alternately, you may find yourself weeping uncontrollably. Either way, this kind of experience is considered healthier by many mental care practiioners than burrowing into “pandemic anomie” foran extended period. Yes, this 1972 release (which was a worldwide hit) is a bit emotionally overwrought, but Gilbert O’Sullivan’s eminently hummable tune conveys grief more effectively than many other songs dealing with profound loss.

Eyes WIthout a Face (Billy Idol)

With an N95 mask clipped on, one is quite literally a set of “eyes without a face,” the title of Billy Idol’s mournful 1983 ballad. Yes you can wink or roll your eyes at someone, but these could easily be misinterpret as pre-COVID facial tics requiring further medical investigation. (I almost chose another Billy Idol classic, “Dancing with Myself” for this list because, well, a lot of people are doing that right now but “Eyes” won out).

Don’t Stand So Close to Me (The Police)

This 1980 mid-tempo rocker was written about age-inappropriate relationships happening in a scholastic context but it’s now doing double duty as a credible anthem for the social distancing generation. Just sample the chorus (“don’t stand, don’t stand, don’t stand so close to me”), loop it, find the right GIF89 looping file, synch it all up in Premiere and you’re the next whatever star on YouTube.

The End (The Doors)

Recorded in the summer of 1966, the Doors “The End,” droning, mystic, part Oedipus, part California, part Vietnam, naturally includes itself on any pandemic playlist. The End, once you’ve heard it once, always seems to have been there. Eminent rock writer Nick Cohn called The Doors the “house band for the American apocalypse.” 54 years on, “The End” hasn’t aged a moment.


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