Five Albums that Got Me Through the Pandemic
Who knew that a pandemic would bring about new music discovery as opposed to clinging to faithful old favorites?
The Album of Record has largely been about celebrating albums from my past and tying them in with my life experiences in order to capture the time and place. The weird thing about the pandemic is that it’s all kind of a shared experience, at least to a certain degree, literally by definition. While I won’t look back fondly on the pandemic - DUH! - I feel the need to lean into it a little bit in order to turn the page. This essay will be part of that.
There were a few records that I either discovered during the pandemic or were released in and around it that I clung to with a veracity that I never would have if not for the tremendous amount of downtime. And nerves. And anger. And sadness. And did I mention nerves? Those long walks to clear my head with my dog? The runs I went on each morning until my ankles wouldn’t handle anymore? These are the albums that made those moments just a little bit more tolerable like a toddler who soothes themselves with their binky.
Even if I want to forget the world that existed when I became a fan of these works, the work itself will forever be special because it was there for me when I was losing my fucking mind. (Sorry mom.)
For this week, there are five Albums of Record.
FEEDBACK REQUEST: There’s no way this one shouldn’t be interactive. In the comments, please let me know at least ONE of the albums that you clung to during the pandemic. It could be an old faithful companion or something new that distracted you while turning your head.
Likewise by Frances Quinlan
I love Frances Quinlan (pronouns they/them) like they’re my cousin or something. Every time they come to town I see them and even though we don’t know each other, it feels like a reunion. I fell in love with the band Hop Along a few years ago when I saw them open for mewithoutyou and The Appleseed Cast at the Grog Shop. I believe it was October of 2014, and I didn’t really pay them that much mind until they closed the show with this one song called “Tibetan Pop Stars.” After hearing that song, I headed straight for the merch table to buy a copy of their CD. The diminutive lead singer with the Janis Joplin growl needed to fill up my speakers on the way home because I was almost instantly obsessed.
Hop Along released the follow-up record, Painted Shut in 2015 and it became my most listened-to album of that summer. My family took a road trip to Charleston South Carolina in July and I must have forced my family to listen to the album at least two times on the way down, two times during the week we were there, and another two on the way home. Every single song on that album is among my favorite songs in the world. I really love it all. I could go on and on about that album, especially “Horseshoe Crabs,” but I’m just going to tell you the peak moment of “The Knock” is all you need to know about Hop Along and this record. Watch them play it live from 2015 and pay special attention from the 2:30 point on.
I saw them play many shows, including a really incredible one outside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland with my wife in August of 2015. They released an album in 2018. I saw them a few more times. Fast forward to January 31, 2020, Frances Quinlan released a solo record called Likewise.
The first time I heard “Piltdown Man,” I didn’t like it. I had trouble identifying the rhythm between the vocal melodies and the keyboard arpeggios. On repeated listens I started to get it and that’s when the opening atmospherics and chords to that song became a calming mantra of sorts. I was having trouble with an injury and I couldn’t run, so I was walking with my dog every single day for about an hour. I don’t know how many days in a row I threw the leash on Jezebel, got the blood pumping, and let the soothing sounds of Likewise wash over me, but it was numerous. Each time those opening notes hit me, it was associated with me doing something for myself (and my dog) for the next hour or so.
I really love the whole album for all the feelings it gave me when nothing felt normal during the pandemic. I have to pick out just a few to highlight though, so I’ll start with “Detroit Lake.” It’s only 3:22 but it takes you on a ride. Once it gets to the chorus, it’s completely infectious. The magic of Frances Quinlan is how you want to sing along even when the words in the chorus are, “Miles from all that’s between us at stake, Algae blooms up in Detroit Lake.” It’s not “We Will Rock You,” mind you, but somehow I’m humming and singing along with these esoteric lyrics.
The most cathartic song on the album is obviously going to be one of my favorites. Frances sounds most like the full-throated Hop Along Frances on “Went to LA.” It’s sparse with mostly just vocals and acoustic guitar to start, but it has one of the best choruses on the album before reaching the peak emotional heights of the entire record.
It was so fitting that the first post-pandemic concert I went to was Hop Along at Mahall’s. It felt weird. It felt cathartic. They didn’t play any of the songs from Frances’ solo record, obviously, but I felt my personal connection to the band was expanded by how much I’d fallen in love with yet another piece of work from the lead singer, Frances Quinlan. I can never be thankful enough for the moments it had gotten me through during the pandemic.
Crux by Moon Tooth
Now for something completely different. Moon Tooth is an uber-talented modern rock band. If they had been around in the late 90s, they would have set the world on fire as one of the most talented bands on Ozzfest. They would have opened for Sevendust and blown them off the stage until they became top-tier headliners. They would be at least as big as Chevelle. Their album Crux was released in 2019, but I only discovered it a few months before lockdown. I had the plan to see them at The Beachland in Cleveland over Memorial Day weekend, but the entire world was canceled that Memorial Day weekend.
These guys just absolutely rock. The style of music they play isn’t particularly original or revolutionary by this point, but they’re so good at what they do and the songs are so good, it’s undeniable. If anyone knows about Pitchfork, the sometimes-pretentious, too-cool-for-the-room music review site, it’s hard to imagine them reviewing a band in Moon Tooth’s genre positively, but Crux is so good it got a 7.3 from the notoriously stingy site.
What separates Moon Tooth from legions of shred-happy colleagues is their emotional urgency and the unexpected ways in which they contort their influences. The lyrics do little to offset the band’s cartoonish ferocity—one of the best choruses culminates in a cry of, “Not today, motherfucker!”—and yet they never sound like they’re just screaming slogans in wild time signatures. They’re always reaching toward the audience with the hopes of pulling you up, an intimacy that’s almost entirely derived from the performance of frontman John Carbone.
It’s exactly the point. The song they’re talking about is “Musketeers,” and it’s so infectious with its breakneck pace and cut time chorus. You will drive an extra 10-miles-per-hour faster or run an extra few miles during your workout if you’re listening to this band.
I could go on and on about the songs on this album and most people would call out the excellent “Awe at All Angles.” You should definitely listen to it, but I need to call attention to “Motionless in Sky,” because of the guitar solo that begins at about 4:30. I talked about the section of “The Knock” that tells you everything you need to know about Hop Along. Well guitar solos can be incredible or they can suck, and this one makes you feel something as much as any lyric or vocal. The guitar part literally sings and it is just another example of what makes this band different and exceptional amongst their peers.
Brave Faces Everyone by Spanish Love Songs
I didn’t want to write a ranked top-five list for this. Each of these albums hit me where I needed it at a time where I needed it. That said, even though I’m randomly writing about this one third, I think I can say unequivocally that this is the top of the pandemic list for me. Spanish Love Songs hit me with the goosebumps straight up the back of my scalp from the very first listen. It made me happy. It choked me up. It made me want to scream the lyrics back at the top of my lungs. It made me want to run forever. It made me want to play air guitar. It hit so many classic notes for me as a music fan that even as I was listening to it for the first time, it felt so familiar that it felt like it had been with me for years, or even decades.
Every word sung by Dylan Slocum sounds like the most important thing he’s ever sung. The word “urgency” doesn’t even cover it. It’s loosely in the same rock / punk / emo genre as Jimmy Eat World, or Manchester Orchestra, but this is not some kind of knockoff. It feels criminal to pick out just a song or two to highlight because you really should listen to the whole thing, go find their Patreon, give them money, and then listen to it five more times. That’s how much I love this band and this record.
The struggles that are encapsulated in the lyrics fit perfectly for the pandemic. “It won’t be this bleak forever. Yeah right.” is from “Self-Destruction (as a Sensible Career Choice)” feels like it was written for the exact day-to-day we were going through poring over news reports about death and sickness.
The guitar break at about 2:30 in “Generation Loss” is perfect to go along with the lyrics in the song.
'Cause we're just so fucking tired
Of explaining ourselves
We throw a pill down our throats
Or ourselves into the ocean
'Cause half our friends are dead
The other half are depressed
In this budget rate line, the borderline's looking thin
So we throw ourselves into the ocean
But let me call out one song for you to listen to. Start right at the beginning because I know how “Routine Pain” smacked me in the face, put its arm around me, and gave me a big hug when I needed it most.
Ohms by Deftones
Speaking of a big hug, it’s weird to think of Deftones as a soothing band. What drew me to this band was the angst and aggressiveness of their album Adrenaline back when I was a kid. Because of that deep, shared history, Deftones occupies a special place for me. Regardless of what the actual material is like in its aggressive, guttural mix of art rock contrast, the fact that they’ve been with me so long means something different when I hear it versus someone else hearing it for the first time without all that context of history. That’s a long complex way of saying that Deftones and I are like old friends. When they released this album in September 2020, six months into the pandemic / post-shutdown, it couldn’t have electrified my brain any more.
They released the song “Ohms” in late August and it came as an utter shock that Deftones was about to release something new. What transpired for the next few days for me was listening to that song on repeat on Spotify.
There will be another essay about Deftones, so I don’t want to repeat myself too much in advance. Weird, right? I already wrote the draft of the Deftones essay, so even though this is fresh for you, I’m actively trying not to repeat myself. It’s like the world’s most boring Christopher Nolan movie, really. Anyway, Deftones was always special to me because it had all the metal aggression that I loved, but it blended it perfectly with glorious melodies. This is a band of contrasts and one that I’ve had a relationship with for more than 25 years.
As a friend of mine once said on social media, “Some of you guys are getting old.”
One other song I’ll highlight is “Error.” It’s one of my favorite songs on the album.
Gigaton by Pearl Jam
One of a few concepts that I’ll be repeating here at Album of Record ad nauseum is the idea that certain bands don’t owe us anything more than what they already delivered. I’m sure I brought it up with Coldplay. It’s a consistent theme in my world, and it certainly goes for Pearl Jam. I can tell you that Pearl Jam has been one of a few of my very favorite bands of my entire life. I’ve already written about the 30th anniversary of Ten on these pages, so you know. What I probably haven’t mentioned yet is that I haven’t had a really tight relationship with current Pearl Jam albums in quite some time. I listen to them and I even fall in love with some songs, but I haven’t legitimately fallen in love with an entire new Pearl Jam album in the year in which it was released since Yield in 1998. I’ve gone back and gotten into Binaural and Riot Act here and there, but not really. Backspacer had a few songs that became favorites like “Amongst the Waves,” but as an overall work? Meh. Sorry, but meh. Lightning Bolt came out and “Sirens” became one of my very favorite songs in the history of the band. For real, that was on repeat for me for probably a month. Love that song so much. However, that album had maybe the single worst Pearl Jam song in the history of the Band called “Let the Records Play.”
No seriously, it’s the definition of disposable, except that the chorus is so douche-chill-inducing that it becomes offensive to me.
It’s ok of course, because as I’ve said, Pearl Jam doesn’t owe me anything more. The fact that they gave me “Sirens” is really enough.
That’s the situation where we receive Gigaton.
It is maybe the most complete album the band has put out since Yield. It’s the surprise return to form that you never knew a band like Pearl Jam - with that amount of water under the bridge - could or would ever deliver again. The fact that it came at a time where many of its fans needed something - anything - in their lives to give them a distraction, happiness, relief, or comfort is all the more miraculous about Gigaton.
I’m not going to call out any songs on this one. I’m just going to tell you to listen to the whole thing. It’s a legit full Pearl Jam album that’s worthy of your time. The songs will challenge the band to use those songs in their setlists unlike “Let the Records Play.” Shockingly the band has played “Let the Records Play” 21 times live in their career.
I need to add some honorable mentions because it was really hard to nail down just five selections.
New Hell by Greet Death
First up? Greet Death. I was supposed to see them open up for Deafheaven, but that show was canceled thanks to the pandemic. They have a 2019 album called New Hell which is phenomenally good. The whole album is great, but I’m going to point you to a near nine-minute masterpiece, “You’re Gonna Hate What You’ve Done.” It’s a slow build with both the band’s singers trading verses before just completely rocking out the end of the song. It’s everything I love about songs like “Transatlanticism” by Death Cab for Cutie. A song that takes you on a ride and is willing to breathe for an extended period of time only to actually pay off? Oh yes. Pump this straight into my emo rock veins!
Big Bad by Mansions
Mansions will get their own essay. One of my very favorite bands of all time, this band released a surprise album in June 2020. I’m going to save my words on this band because I will spew thousands of them out at some point, probably when talking about Dig Up the Dead. The consistency of quality with Mansions music is nearly unbelievable. Big Bad instantly became one of my favorite albums of the year the minute it was released. The whole thing is great, but you should listen to this one on repeat.
Death is a Warm Blanket by Microwave
In January of 2021, I did something at home and posted the following about it on twitter.
I love this album. I love this band. It all comes down to the song “Pull” for me. It’s this pretty little thing that becomes a full NIN song before descending into a metal screamed powerhouse at the end. I fell in love with music like this because of the raw emotion and probably because it would have pissed off my parents with its volume. Now that I’m a dad, I still find myself being drawn to songs like these.
Turn this shit up for the end. Pretend you’re driving through the parking lot in high school and let everyone know exactly who you are as a music fan as you drive out.
That’s it. That’s enough. The pandemic was the pandemic. I feel like we’re nearly nearly finished with it. I want to be done negotiating with it.
It will be brought up here again. I’ll try not to lean into it too much. This is part of trying to close the chapter.
Craig already knows this, but for me, no album was bigger than Gigaton.
Spanish Love Songs is a biggie for me as well, but it more represents coming out the other side. I literally listened to Gigaton for the first time the week our office closed. I didn't know if I was going to have a job, I didn't know when I would see my family again, I was dealing with the flu which I wasn't sure if was COVID and I just had a scare which required a trip to the ER. I was miserable down to my very core, and Gigaton was there for me in such a big way. To this day I adore that album because of what it did for me. It gave me a sense of normalcy, a chance to reconnect with old friends, in a way. The reliable band that has been with me through pretty much my entire life dropped exactly the album I needed at precisely the time I needed it the most.
But also, yes, Let The Record Play is so embarrassingly awful. I still cannot believe they not only finished the song, but included it on an album. I would rank Lightning Bolt a lot higher were it not for that song.
5 from me with many less words:
Pearl Jam - Gigaton
Agree with nearly everything you said, about Pearl Jam not owing anything, best album since Yield... all up until the accolades for Sirens. No need to belabor that... Gigaton is great and would have held up in any of the past 3 decades.
PKEW! PKEW! PKEW! - + One
This was because it was a band I had just gotten into when I saw them on a whim in the tavern at Beachland in December 2019; it's still the most recent concert I've seen. Track #2, Asshole Pandemic, struck, and continues to strike, a chord over those past 23 months. Listening to it takes my mind back to the Beachland.
Car Seat Headrest - Making a Door Less Open
The latest from him, kind of impressive the catalogue he's put together over just 10 years. My two favorites are Hollywood and the stripped down acoustic Hollywood; somehow the same song sounds so different and works either way. The band I most need to see live and yet always passes over Cleveland.
The Hold Steady - Open Door Policy
Could almost copy/paste the thoughts on Pearl Jam. Craig Finn, Franz Nicolay and the boys owe me nothing, but gave me my favorite album of 2021. Can't wait to eventually see the subgroup, The Horn Steady, live.
Titus Andronicus - The Monitor
Released over a decade ago. Nothing to say other than it might be one of the most complete, perfect albums ever and I'll never stop listening to it.