When South by Southwest pulled the plug on its international festival last year, RodeoHouston's decision to do the same was inevitable. This writer was gearing up for Gwen Stefani’s pending date when the rotating stage galloped back to its storage unit. Or wherever star-shaped rotating stages go during their off-season. The following months of every touring act postponing or cancelling their tours is now a traumatic blur. I thought: this shit is bananas.
Live shows are more than just a party. They’re milestones, benchmarks, church. Comprehending how music fans might navigate the indeterminable future without shows seemed minuscule compared to the piling tragedies occurring in the world. But even without those magical moments of dimming house lights and encore numbers, there was never any doubt that music would play a central role in navigating quarantine.
No concerts? Fine. Dig deep into Spotify. (Almost done listening to Coachella’s entire 2020 lineup, here.) Revisit albums from your youth. Discover a local artist. Keep up with your ride or dies. There was plenty of time to bake banana bread and satiate your sonic soul.
In pre-COVID times, nostalgia in pop culture was already in high demand: A Lizzie McGuire reboot was in the works; Harry Styles vied for artistic credibility by donning ‘70s sounds and fashion; Weezer covered Toto’s “Africa” and TLC’s “No Scrubs” then booked a co-headlining tour alongside Green Day and Fall Out Boy and called it the Hella Mega Tour. There’s hella layers to unpack there, but all this to say that audiences were already clinging to reminiscences in a chaotic world without a pandemic in it. COVID just raised its premium.
Some of last year’s biggest records, The Weeknd’s After Hours and Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, played directly into the yesteryear zeitgeist, perhaps decidedly considering they began their respective rollouts in lockdown’s earliest days. Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush brought Kevin Parker’s psychedelic flavors all the way into the ‘80s alongside Hours and Nostalgia. But the sounds of decades past weren’t the only nostalgic factor at play in the last year; the mode in which I consumed music took me back to my youth, when I would listen to albums on repeat for months on end, sometimes daily, as if some sort of ritual that might align my Norah Jones moon with my ODESZA sun.
Now a year into lockdown, plenty of you have likely made pandemic playlists full of music you forged a relationship with. Below are a few love letters to albums that I internalized in isolation over the last year. Records that, ten years from now, will define that little apartment I clung to, songs my neighbors may never want to hear again, and albums that you also may have had on repeat at one point or another.
Tame Impala, The Slow Rush
At the top of their 2020 album The Slow Rush, Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker asks “Do you remember we were standing here a year ago? / Our minds were racing and time went slow / If there was trouble in the world we didn't know / If we had a care, it didn't show.” Now a year into the pandemic, those words from album opener “One More Year” hark back to a reality further out of sight than we might have comprehended last March, when officials were inching the pandemic’s ending horizon back by a few weeks, then months, until, ultimately, indefinitely. What we thought might have lasted only Spring Break and some change wound up lasting One More Year.
The Slow Rush was likely never meant to re-contextualize itself in a pandemic landscape. The Australian psych-rock group was positioning itself in the upper echelons of the business at the time of its release. They were fresh off a series of festival runs, preparing for an arena tour, and early into promoting Rush – a yacht pop album stuffed with Supertramp style synths, glittering House tendencies, and Parker’s signature Lennon-esque vocals. Those upward career trajectories halted when COVID forced the band offstage and The Slow Rush into new meaning.
On early album cut “Instant Destiny,” Parker sings “This traffic doesn’t seem quite as annoying,” a welcomed reality for many Houstonians last Spring when roads were emptier than usual. Hearing Parker’s hypnotic falsetto blaring through the car stereo, driving nowhere and back down the Southwest Freeway, was the closest moment to a concert this Houstonian had with that song last year — a hard singalong to swallow having seen the band in concert three times in 2019. But album highlight “On Track,” however straightforward its sentiments ring, made all of 2020 a little easier to digest. “But strictly speaking, I'm still on track / Strictly speaking, I'm holding on / One other minor setback / But strictly speaking, I'm still on track,” sings Parker on a track that vacillates between an ethereal hymn and a slow driving tenacity, timeless all the while. It’s a gentle assurance that should this pandemic last one more year, The Slow Rush might hold a mental, musical roadmap to navigating it all over again.
Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia
Launching an album campaign in tears on Instagram Live isn’t the ideal beginning to an artist’s new era. But last March at the top of the pandemic, a teary eyed Dua Lipa addressed her fans in a livestream, announcing she would be releasing her album Future Nostalgia a week earlier than expected after the album had leaked. In hindsight, it might have been the first step in gripping the reins on her once calculated, now jeopardized, album rollout. Without a tour to support the album that undoubtedly would have been a smash on stage, the British import pop songstress managed to spin her album's adversity into a year-long era of with music videos, remixes, guest features, a remix album, a deluxe album, an SNL performance, and six Grammy nominations including Album of the Year.
Future Nostalgia’s lead single “Don’t Start Now” likely helped with that. A thesis to the album’s mission of paying homage to generations past, it’s an empowering anthem built on ‘70s disco and funk, a successor to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” and now an evergreen member of club music canon. Chorus lyrics “Don’t show up / Don’t come out” were perfect for early pandemic memes before lockdown grew old and underground club goers resumed showing up and coming out (we saw your Instagram stories). At which point, “I would have stayed at home / ‘Cause I was doing better alone” from late album cut “Break My Heart” became equally meme-able.
Nostalgia is a colorful home to more than just the ‘70s, though. Lipa channels ‘80s punk-spirited pop on “Physical” and a guest feature on Miley Cyrus' “Prisoner” (who’s on her own ‘80s kick at the moment), Madonna’s transcendent Confessions on a Dance Floor (“Levitating”), Lily Allen’s mid-aughts brat pop (“Good in Bed”), and Katy Perry’s pure pop of the 2010s (“Cool”). Then there’s the plethora of songwriters (Julia Michaels, Tove Lo, Justin Tranter, Emily Warren) and producers (SG Lewis, Stuart Price of Madonna’s Dance Floor, and Jeff Bhasker of “Uptown Funk”). One reading of the album’s liner notes alone might point to Nostalgia being the most notable entry in pop album literature since Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream. Still, with so many different reference points, Lipa manages to find her voice, flare, and personality on her sophomore effort; and, a year after the album’s tearful beginnings, Lipa emerges triumphant as the pop star Future Nostalgia always intended to yield.
The Weeknd, After Hours
There’s a stretch of songs near the end of The Weeknd’s After Hours that might be responsible for his ubiquity in 2020: “Blinding Lights,” “In Your Eyes,” and “Save Your Tears.” That touchdown trio, an unmistakable nod to ‘80s synth pop, carried not only an already electrifying album into its nostalgic home stretch, but its generation defining artist to the Super Bowl Halftime Show.
Throughout his career, The Weeknd has expertly wielded his influence to the right audiences at opportune moments. His 2015 Fifty Shades of Grey single “Earned It” placed him in front of fans of the young adult novels; his 2016 Daft Punk collaborations “Starboy” and “I Feel It Coming” garnered acclaim and respect from dance audiences (Daft Punk’s notable absence from his Super Bowl set should have foreshadowed their recent breakup); but his 2020 runaway hit “Blinding Lights” pushed him into middle America radio, catering to nearly every sector of it from Top 40 to Adult Contemporary, ultimately transforming him into a cross generational force on the charts.
His bloody visual presentation — red blazer, bandage-wrapped-face, leather gloves — for After Hours likely fueled the public’s intrigue with the Starboy. “Why is his face so bloody?” “What do those bandages mean?”
According to him, it’s a commentary on plastic surgery culture. Whether his fans buy into that or take it at face value might depend on how much spare time they have to dissect pop stars’ costumes. But The Weekend, an artist who has built his discography on an iced aesthetic as curated as an influencer’s Instagram page, is wise enough to know that conversation and imagery are the truest of currencies. Now almost a decade into his career, The Weeknd has delivered a definitive album and accompanying iconography, infused with just the right amount of political punch, that fans will want to recreate in their own image for the foreseeable future. There’s an overpriced margarita on me to anyone who can accurately guess how many ‘Weeknds’ will be in the stands when he eventually plays Toyota Center in 2022. Make it a double if you can find me in my red blazer.
Perseverance, battle, space. Bronson, a collaborative act comprised of Australian DJ Golden Features and Seattle-area electronic duo ODESZA, conquer all three on their eponymous debut album - a commanding effort fueled with challenging extraterrestrial, orchestral soundscapes and melancholic melodies meant for a turbulent dance floor, now rendered entirely internal. Though Bronson intended for audiences to experience the set live, the group raises the standard for the remote creative process, a beast that artists of all statures have reckoned with in the past year.
After meeting at an Australian music festival in 2014, the two acts forged a friendship, began FaceTiming each other musical ideas, and stored them in a Dropbox file called “Bronson,” named after the Tom Hardy film of the same name. That back and forth process eventually led to the artists renting a home in the middle of nowhere Australia to churn out the album that would become Bronson. The magical results are worthy of repeat listens, ripe with discovery at every turn. Most of the lyrics here are minimal, but they point to themes of determination (“Keep Moving”), confronting your innermost dialogue (“Know Me”), and embracing the unknown (“Dawn”).
Perhaps the album’s deepest strength lies in the space it offers itself and the listener. Those bare lyrics coupled with the album’s adventurous instrumentals allow you to be still in your own thoughts, unpenetrated by politics, a talk show host, or any of your favorite family members spewing conspiracy theories online. During a time where the safest place to be other than isolated at home was in your own mind, this album had me deep in the memory vault, retracing my steps in a Downtown Houston post office, soul searching to the sounds of deep house cacophonies, basking in the glow of futuristic art installations, counting down the time until ODESZA played their evening set. If only a groundbreaking festival that fit that bill were around to welcome BRONSON when live music returns...
Norah Jones, Pick Me Up Off the Floor
Texas native Norah Jones’ discography is as versatile as the musician behind it. Since sweeping the 2003 Grammys at 24 years old with her debut jazz record Come Away With Me, the pianist and vocalist's career could have gone anywhere. And that it has. With each subsequent release in her near twenty-year tenure, Jones has guided her musical output to new creative territories. Feels Like Home carried rustic, Americana overtones; Not Too Late expanded on her lyrical storytelling; The Fall found a jazz-pop sweet spot; Little Broken Hearts placed Jones alongside producer Danger Mouse; Day Breaks and Begin Again elevated her already pristine songwriting; and then there’s her newest effort Pick Me Up Off the Floor, a masterful demonstration of Jones’ unmatched ability to merge music with poetry.
“How I / How I / Weep for the loss / And it creeps down my chin / For the heart and the hair / And the skin and the air / That swirls itself around the bare,” sings Jones on pensive album opener “How I Weep.” A plucking guitar ticks up and down like the second hand on a clock, the only indicator of passing time in the shell shock of loss. Jones’ piano doubles her vocal melody as if reassuring the singer any strength lost while grieving. Occasional strings swell in and out, punctuating an otherwise skeletal instrumentation.
“Weep” is just one of several songs that come into focus under the pandemic’s lens. On “This Life,” Jones repeatedly states “This life as we know it is over,” a dystopian sentiment cemented by a virus that’s claimed over 500,000 American lives and a global economy. And in the same summer that thousands of Houstonians marched for justice for George Floyd, Jones spiritually crooned “To live in this moment / And finally be free / Is what I was after / No chains holding me / If love is the answer / In front of my face / Then I'll live in this moment /And find my true place,” on album gem “To Live.” How Pick Me Up Off the Floor managed to all-knowingly interact with 2020 is some sort of a musical mystery; but, Jones’ message here is clear, and Texan as ever: let there be space, love, and freedom for all.
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