I don’t think it’s a stretch to say we could all use a little extra happy right now. Whether you’re stuck at home or bravely heading out into the workforce everyday as an essential worker, these are unsettling times for us all. And as it has been throughout history, music is often a light in the darkness and a constant in an otherwise unsteady era. We’ve already recommended some great TV shows and movies to binge during quarantine, and while music is a much more vast pool from which to pull, I decided to go ahead and share some albums that have been a comfort to me personally during this time. We return to music for different reasons at different times, and there is undoubtedly some nostalgia clouding my love and appreciation for these records. But they’re also great albums that I think have the capacity to bring joy right now, be it through escapism, jubilee, humor or hope. Looking for more albums like this, but customized to your taste? Email our columnist Patsy at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we may respond to you with some personalized recommendations. But, for now, here’s a starting point. These albums have almost nothing in common, but they’re all just happy music.
Golden Hour is named, in part, for Kacey Musgraves’ teeny tiny hometown of Golden, Texas; population: about 200. But the title of the singer/songwriter’s triumphant third LP is also an ode to the brief period of daytime occurring right after sunrise or just before sunset, a fleeting 30 minutes during which everything is made more beautiful by a dusky, yellow glow. Perhaps darkness is just ahead, but a for little while, there’s nothing but light for miles and miles. Musgraves is all-too familiar with life’s ups and downs, lights and darks, and how they often co-exist. “Is there a word for the way that I’m feeling tonight?,” she sings on “Happy & Sad.” “Happy and sad at the same time / You got me smiling with tears in my eyes.” That track is a lesson in feeling comfortable with dark emotions, but Musgraves spends the bulk of Golden Hour basking in the light, giddy with new love (in her case, with husband Ruston Kelly) and in awe at the world around her. There’s an ease to the record, which is interesting considering it spends so much time investing in the often complicated work of genre-busting. While there’s more than enough twang and small-town heartache on Golden Hour to constitute a country record, there’s a delightfully surprising melange of sounds—spaced-out AutoTune on the psychedelic “Oh, What A World,” doo-wop keys on the starry-eyed “Butterflies” and, most magnificently, the sweaty disco beats on what should have been a pop radio hit in 2018, “High Horse.” For all its genre-defying powers, Golden Hour is also home to pure, stop-in-your-tracks songwriting. Musgraves has a knack for coy wordplay on “Space Cowboy” and “Slow Burn,” and if “Mother” doesn’t inspire you to call up your mom right this minute, you need to listen again. While life is full of lights and darks, Golden Hour is more concerned with the glow, and it is Musgraves’ sun-soaked masterpiece.
There’s a line on this album that can sound both joyful and tragically sad depending on when I hear it and where I am in my life. It just so happens that right now, during one of the strangest times of any of our lives, it’s a little bit of both. “Goddamn, I miss my friends,” the line goes. The song in question, “Rodeo,” is about seizing an unruly love and working it into something useful and beautiful, more or less. But the outlying sentiments about “chasing empty dreams” and “digging up old bones” just feel applicable to so many things beyond a tricky relationship. For obvious reasons, the “friends” line is hard to hear right now, because I’m separated from so many of mine. But it’s also so sweet, because I know they’re all still out there and there is an other side to this separation. The rest of Hotel Parties, the boozy, charming 2015 album by Athens country-rockers Futurebirds, is perfect for these times for different reasons. The call to “Let It All Loose” is the perfect mantra for wound-up quarantinees, while the rowdy “Xmas Drags” and title track will take you right back to last sweaty party before quarantine. So take this album with a warning: It may wreck as well as delight you.
“Music is a world within itself with a language we all understand.” Lines like this are why Stevie Wonder’s songs are timeless. “Sir Duke,” from 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life is a jolt of energy and the perfect breather if you need a midday dance break. This album brought Wonder some of his biggest hits like “Sir Duke,” “I Wish” and “Isn’t She Lovely,” but the album in its entirety is a confidently joyful motif that is still brightening our days 50 years later.
Joni Mitchell can easily switch from subtle storyteller to forthright lyricist, and she does so often on 1969’s Clouds—my favorite Joni Mitchell album, and a perfect one for our moment of indoor confinement. Mitchell transports us to a golden-yellow dawn in busy Chelsea on “Chelsea Morning,” before taking us back to a bowl of oranges at the kitchen table. She gently examines uncertainty (as well as the certainty found in nature) on “I Don’t Know Where I Stand,” which opens with the timely line “Funny day, looking for laughter and finding it there.” As a whole, Clouds is a meditative album full of both fully-fledged and beautifully incomplete thoughts, just questions and musings thrown out into the void. But the album ends with one of Joni Mitchell’s greatest songs and most thoughtful studies of life: “Both Sides Now.” Full of breathtaking metaphor and bold proclamations about love and life, “Both Sides Now” is about many things, including finding comfort even during life’s ugly sides. Clouds isn’t necessarily a party the whole way through, but it’s definitely suited to quiet mornings (or afternoons, evenings, whatever) in solitude—and there’s no shortage of those right now.
Vulfpeck have always been a fun-loving bunch. The jam collective fronted by Theo Katzman make it their goal to share thoroughly dynamic songs with easy-going grooves, and their 2015 album Thrill of the Arts contains some of their most enjoyable output. You can’t go wrong with any of their records (or any of the records made by the band’s various rotating members, many of whom have successful solo careers as well), but Thrill of the Arts is a great introduction to the band (and the universe and rabid fanbase they’ve created). Songs full of sweet nothings like “Back Pocket,” “Funky Duck” and “Smile Meditation” will have you sashaying around your kitchen all day long, and “Christmas in L.A.” is the best California holiday song for any day of the year. It’s far from a mindless album, but it’s also great music to spin while you try to block out the world around you.
This album opens with a track called “The Puppy Song,” so if that’s not comfort music, I don’t know what is. You might recognize this 1969 self-titled effort from one of soft-rock’s greatest rascals, Harry Nilsson, as the inspiration for much of the music in another piece of certified comfort content: the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail. The movie starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan features the aforementioned “Puppy Song” as well as “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City,” which will whisk you away to a simpler, busier time in the city’s life (“Marchin’ Down Broadway” and the song “City Life” are also helpful in that regard, though the latter might make you feel thankful that you don’t live in NYC). While this is not the better-known Nilsson Schmilsson, Harry is a charming snapshot of one of the 20th century’s greatest singer/songwriter’s on the cusp of fame. So, “say goodbye to all your sorrows,” and hop on the imaginary train to Nilsson’s New York City, a magical land full of puppies and walks in the park and new love. Sounds pretty great, right?
This is definitely a ruminative album, but it’s also a rhythmic one. Glass Animals’ 2016 album How To Be A Human Being was an experiment in songwriting that folded in elements of world music from all across the map, and recently I revisited it to see if it still holds up (it does!). How To Be A Human Being is jubilant because of its unapologetic weirdness: Didgeridoos melt in with bongos which thump along to synths and wacky Calypso drums which chime in time with hip-hop beats which march along with Dave Bayley’s thoughtful stories gathered while on tour. In lesser hands, this album would be an absolute mess, but Bayley’s idea to write each song on the album from the perspective of a different character he encountered on tour worked quite well here. The stories range from funny to tragic, but listening to the album again in 2020 feels like watching your old favorite kooky, yet heartfelt, Wes Anderson film. If that sentence piques your interest, look no further than this bombastic rock mural.
As I wrote back in 2018, hard times warrant a Coloring Book re-listen. Chance had a miraculously clear vision on his first wide-release record. The equally miraculous Acid Rap is a summary of youth, but Coloring Book is a mature, yet accessible, celebratory display of one young person’s experiences unveiled as a universal encyclopedia. It reflects a bountiful, unifying, unstoppable joy, one we could all use a share of right now. The ideology of the record, as well as the sonic elements, are staunchly religious. But you don’t have to be a Christian—or even spiritual—to engage with the holiness of Chance’s word. Whenever I revisit Coloring Book, I feel more hopeful about our future, and just in general. More than three years have passed since the album’s release, and so much music has arrived since then that evokes a similar serotonin, but Coloring Book reigns as an uplifting, spiritual offering, an album that critiques hope as much as it encourages it.
If you’re a music fan, you probably know by now whether or not you like One Direction. To be clear, liking Harry Styles—the solo artist—is something different entirely, and while I respect that, I would urge any newly converted Styles fans to take a look back at where his career got its start: boy band mania. The music critic in me would have a hard time providing a viable, positive analysis of One Direction’s 2014 album FOUR. But the screaming fan in me knows that this album is truly great for reasons beyond consistency, tone and cultural importance. I’m not sure it has any of those things, but it does have bangers to spare. And it just makes me smile every time I hear it. Allow the five-part harmonies (the last of their kind: this was One Direction’s last album in their original lineup!) on “Steal My Girl” to fill your soul. Ignore the potentially tone-deaf side of the washed-up, #boss feminism of “Girl Almighty” and just own it. Let your heart race to the sound of certified rock song “Stockholm Syndrome.” This is an album cherished by young millennial women, so take it from one: This album is a surge of pure joy.
If such a decree is not already at large, I hereby declare Father of the Bride the official album of summer. If you’re still skeptical, just listen to it outside, maybe while eating a popsicle. Let Danielle Haim and a choir of children sing you down the aisle on “Hold You Now;” let the bendy “Bambina” rock you into a summer stupor. Let it be easy. It’s light without being too flighty, thoughtful but not esoteric and chock full of tiny little musical treasures. Peel back what some have perceived to be a lyrical disaster, and Vampire Weekend’s fourth full-length is an album of rewarding moments and juicy samples. A record that’s roughly five songs too long and as many choruses too cheesy may not sound like the most enticing listen, but Ezra Koenig expertly spins even the shabbiest couplets into nuance—and he does it to the tune of pure sunshine. He adopted a passion for the Grateful Dead, intensified one for character studies and swapped boat shoes for Birkenstocks, and the result here is the rare album that not only works as picnic music but also makes for a fine conversation topic. Vampire Weekend proved their talent with a trio of excellent albums in 2008-2013. With this comeback, Koenig proved they’re not going anywhere.