Although COVID-19 has proved calamitous for the music industry, one unexpected boon has been that some artists, unshackled by touring and promotion commitments or audience expectations, have been able to use the surplus of time to release surprise albums and tracks, and chance their arm creatively. Although there has been some truly terrible lockdown music from established artists – Van Morrison and Ian Brown wasted no time (well, none of theirs, anyway) in spunking off anti-lockdown tunes – others have fared much better. From Taylor Swift donning an indie-folk cardigan and Sleaford Mods angrily chalking up the cost of the pandemic to Charli XCX crowdsourcing fans’ opinions of her work, here are some of the best opuses created in quarantine.
10Yxng Bane, ‘Quarantime: The Lost Files’
Yxng Bane spent his lockdown playing unreleased tunes online and canvassed fans’ opinions on them, leading to May 2020’s ‘Quarantime: The Lost Files’, a 14-track mixtape that represents his first release in almost two years. Rather than coming on like a desk-clearing exercise, it was packed with afrobeats, R&B and dancehall anthems that served as a distraction to the enveloping gloom, and featued a surfeit of guests including Headie One, D Block Europe and Kojo Funds.
Why it defines lockdown: Sometimes you just needed a dance and to pretend the summer hadn’t been lost.
9Taylor Swift, ‘Evermore’
Taylor Swift has excelled so much at lockdown goals – two surprise albums, an accompanying film, re-recording her old songs – that you wouldn’t be surprised if she’d suddenly revealed she had discovered the vaccine in her lunch hour. Dropped in December, ‘Evermore’ is the sister record to July’s ‘Folklore’ and mines the same winning earthy aesthetic, as Taylor and her collaborators – including The National’s Aaron Dessner, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and indie don Jack Antonoff, along with her boyfriend Joe Alwyn – travelled “further into the forest of this music” (her words). But rather than feel like an album of ‘Folklore’ cast-offs, it was a gem in its own right that even saw Haim turn up as guest stars.
Why it defines lockdown: With two barnstorming records, Taylor’s now as synonymous with the lockdown as Zoom quizzes/banana bread/insert cliché a terrible comedian would make a quarantine based joke about on Radio 4 here.
8Cloud Nothings, ‘The Black Hole Understands’
After their touring diary was wiped, this alt-rock quartet’s seventh album (self-released via Bandcamp last July) emerged when frontman Dylan Baldi and drummer Jayson Gerycz traded music across emails, a move that saw them swap their trademark abrasive assault of noise for vibrant lo-fi indie pop that sounds like something Alan McGee would have signed to Creation Records. Baldi described the record as “poppy and also kind of sad, which is more or less my state of mind”.
Why it defines lockdown: Trapped by our four walls, haven’t we all been craving a phosphorus indie banger?
7Little Simz, ‘Drop 6’
With an Instagram message that laid bare how lockdown was affecting her both creatively and emotionally (“choosing to be alone is different from being forced to be alone and that’s where the difficulty comes in”), Little Simz announced this sixth instalment of her early career ‘Drop’ series of EPs just one month into 2020’s first quarantine. Yes, OK, it’s an EP – but we’re bending the rules because these songs perfectly capture the shellshock of having life’s rug pulled out from under you. Simz sets out ‘Drop 6’’s time-capsule MO on opening track ‘‘might bang, might not’ when she announces ‘This is for the now’, and it boasts a freewheeling, rough‘n’ready experimental energy that comes from this all-bets-are-off-period. “Crabs in a barrel – we’re all in this,” she spits on the raw-as-a-bruise ‘you should call mum’, as she talks poignantly of sleepless nights and nap-filled days.
Why it defines lockdown: It sums up those early days of lockdown when we all felt emptier than our calendars.
6Hayley Williams, ‘Flowers for Vases / descansos’
Holed up in lockdown at her Nashville home, Hayley Williams created ‘Flowers for Vases / descansos’ as a prequel to last year’s debut solo offering ‘Petals For Armor’, which dealt with the emotional shrapnel of her divorce. ‘Descanos’ refers to markings placed at the side of the road in memoriam; this is Williams at her most pensive and plain-speaking, over 14 tracks of stripped-back acoustic guitar-led and piano songs, muted introspection and hushed vocals.
Why it defines lockdown: Because without distraction and forced to look inwards, we’ve all felt our thoughts darken as we contemplated past events.
5Charli XCX, ‘How I’m Feeling Now’
Trust workaholic future-facing pop auteur Charli XCX to get in early doors with the first official lockdown album. Recorded in just six weeks while she self-isolated in her Californian mansion, it was released in April last year – and she shared every step with fans who gave their feedback on tracks and contributed visuals. Together with producer AG Cook, she crafted a pandemic-snapshot that bristles with anxiety and fizzing hooks. “I’m so bored – what? / Wake up late and eat some cereal,” she sings on the happy hardcore banger of ‘Anthems’, which sees her longing for the escapism and communal highs of the dancefloor – something we can all relate to.
Why it defines lockdown: In the initial days of this pandemic, it felt like there was a pressure to concoct your own era-defining King Lear. While the pages to your novel languish the bottom drawer, Charli actually did it.
4Sleaford Mods, ‘Spare Ribs’
Sleaford Mods have always been prolific, reactive and angrier than Priti Patel on a bad day, and on their 11th album (their sixth as a duo), encapsulates the mood of living under a government of elites who treat their citizens as expendable – the titular spare ribs. “And we’re all so Tory-tired / And beaten by minds small,” frontman Jason Williamson rages on intro track ‘A New Brick’. Aided by guest appearances from Amy Taylor of Aussie punks Amyl & The Sniffers and DIY punk Billy Nomates, he sprays his urgent lyrical graffiti over lockdown alienation and claustrophobia, Boris Johnson’s former Barnard Castle-lovin’ advisor Dominic Cummings and Brexit.
Why it defines lockdown: It sums up the enormity of the numbing rage you felt every time you saw a Chris Whitty death-toll slide, or realised we were paying NHS workers in Thursday evening claps.
3Mogwai, ‘As The Love Continues’
When discussing the sublime ‘As The Love Continues’, it’s hard not to resort to the Mogwai review adjective bingo card, ticking off ‘surging’, ‘moody’, ‘epic’, and ‘cinematic’, but the Scottish post-rockers’ 10th album is a full-house of these terms. Recorded remotely via Zoom with Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann, it scored Stuart Braithwaite and co their first Number One album, some 25 years after the release of their first single.
Why it defines lockdown: It doesn’t define our current predicament so much as provide much-needed escapism from it.
2Taylor Swift, ‘Folklore’
She should have been slaying Glastonbury in 2020, but when the pandemic hit, Taylor Swift retreated to a country cabin and used the stillness to create a surprise album that dropped with little fanfare in July. This allowed her masterfully evocative songwriting to play in a different sonic sandbox: out went the weapons-grade glossy pop that’s defined her previous records, and in came a team-up with the aforementioned Dessner (who largely produced it remotely). The result: a stunning collection of wistful indietronia and intricately-crafted chamber-pop. From the storytelling of ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’ to the peon to lost summer romance of ‘August’, it felt like a lush companion to the loneliness of these times.
Why it defines lockdown: Sepia-tinted nostalgia is something we’ve all marinated in. Plus, the accompanying back-to-nature artwork allowed us all to don a jacket, look contemplative by a tree and pretend we’re Taylor Swift (when the thrill of feeding ducks or spotting squirrels palled).
1Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, ‘Carnage’
Nick Cave is no stranger to apocalyptic imagery and finding the right way to articulate grief, so it feels fitting for him to gift us this surprise sumptuous 18th album in what has often felt like the end-of-days. When The Bad Seeds tours were cancelled, Cave said he found himself “taking stock” of life – the result is a self-described “brutal but very beautiful record embedded in communal catastrophe”. Showcasing some of his richest songwriting to date, it’s an exquisite masterwork, shards of optimism glinting among the sorrow.
Why it defines lockdown: Because no-one’s better at providing a compass in a wilderness of loss than Nick Cave.