Music Therapy: An Annotated Playlist for our Times

I put together a genre-defying “End Times” playlist on my Apple account. It’s all over the place. Uptempo ballads, hip hop, metal, and touchy-feely semi-spiritual slow jams. It is heavily concentrated in the 90’s (oldest kind of millennial here). Some songs are great for driving into the hospital each day and preparing to help in whatever way needed. Some are peaceful for when I’m trying to wind my brain down at night. In what follows, I walk you through some of my favorites by category, and also provide some video links. But first, a little science.

Music therapy has a wide literature supporting its role in reducing stress and anxiety, as well as in improving physical outcomes such as lowering heart rate and reducing pain. There are two types: receptive (where someone provides you with an experience of listening) and active (where you participate by singing, drumming, etc). One study shows having patients with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder) learn harmonica may actually help them breathe better. Music therapy can also be an important component for advanced dementia patients and for those in palliative care.

So, what are my top curated jams for our crazy times?

Whole Soundtracks: While I sample just a few songs from each on the playlist, Hamilton and a Bollywood movie called Lagaan (free on Netflix) stand on their own as great collections to play. Hamilton contains a lot of war songs (most notably Stay Alive, Yorktown (the world turned upside down) which resonate with the battle we in healthcare are fighting on COVID. Similarly, Lagaan, a great moving in which a humble group of Indian farmers wagers a game of cricket (an impossible task, without knowing how to play) against a British army unit in hopes of being spared unfair taxation during a famine. Both Hamilton and Lagaan have a sort of beat-the-odds vibe as a leitmotif throughout. Hamilton is also great for a run outdoors alone and Lagaan is fabulous streaming movie option for those with nearly four hours to kill while on home isolation!

Literal songs about breathing and illness: Missy Elliott’s Pass that Dutch opens with a reference to an “unknown virus attacking all clubs” and contains a fabulous beat for cardio workouts. Blackstar’s Respiration has a slow back beat and a hook which explicitly paces your breathing. It also has a dystopic vibe which makes the lyrics pop a bit more these days. Duncan Sheik advises us he is Barely Breathing. The Butthole Surfers morbidly comment on how some will die and some will “fall with love with life and drink it from a fountain” in Pepper. If we were to gender COVID as female (which is maybe unfair), she may be conceived as Killer Queen.

The World is Falling Apart Songs: Leading off this group is What’s Going On by 4 Non Blonds. In close second, Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire, which reminds us that there have been crises before this and advises all we can do is try to fight. CCR’s Bad Moon Rising strikes an appropriately ominous vibe for those of us still awaiting the worst of things. Alex Parks morbidly advises us it’s just a Mad World, while Cat Stevens tells us it’s a Wild World. Britney Spears advises us just to dance Till the World Ends. A nice death-metal throwback is Guns N’Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle (bonus- that hair in the video)! REM pulls no punches in It’s the End of the World as We Know it. A good way to round out this bunch is Zombie, by the Cranberries (RIP my beloved Dolores O’Riordan).

Get ‘Er Done, B’s: Fellow healthcare workers, what better daily anthem for the drive in than when Queen Bey advises us to get in Formation? Running a close second is Sia’s The Greatest, reminding us “we got stamina” (the video has an artsy if jarring take on the survivors’ of the Miami nightclub shooting).

Conflicted Songs: I’ve always felt Bette Midler’s From a Distance was problematic. Similar John Mayer’s Waiting on the World to Change. I still do, I don’t love the messages from either. But the dissonance still works on some emotional level.

Dreaming Wistfully of Other Places/Times: Kicking things off is John Legend’s Take Me Away from Here, looking to go somewhere “where love is like breathing.” Fiona Apple’s melancholy take on Across the Universe includes the hook jai guru deva om (roughly, “glory to the shining remover of darkness”). Green Day is always right on time, but their slow jam Wake Me Up When September Ends seems well placed, even if the season is a bit off. The obscure Weary Blues by Madeleine Peyroux evokes the loneliness of waiting home alone for companionship.

Inspirational Power Ballads: Andra Day’s Rise Up was great before Coronavirus, but now it is perfection. Dido’s Take My Hand promises to take you through the abyss with a partner if you are so lucky, though it clearly violates social distancing commandments in places. Rihanna’s We Found Love in a Hopeless Place speaks for itself.

Celebrations of Life: What could be better than Fiddler on the Roof’s To Life? It reminds us, “God would like us to be joyful, even when there’s nothing to be joyful for.” Nina Simone Ain’t Got No, I Got Life reminds us that when the economy falls apart and hits us personally, if we are lucky enough to live, we have much. P!nk’s Raise your Glass and Panic at the Disco’s High Hopes seem downright rebellious these days against the gloom.

Spiritual Songs: Whether you are spiritual or not, The Prayer is always a winner, and in a related vein, Sophie B. Hawkin’s As I Lay Me Down to Sleep. Two divas are always better than one in When you Believe, as sung by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. Many have covered Hallelujah, but I’m partial to the Pentatonix version (judge away, ye haters). Similar, our local Dakotan celebrity Pat Surface does a nice take on Turn! Turn! Turn!

Artist of the Times Award: Fan girl shout out to Valerie June whose two albums are so rich with on-point music it is impossible to capture them all. If I had to pick one song, it would be Astral Plane, though really one must listen to the albums fully. Ok, I can’t just pick one. Trials, Troubles, Tribulations is a must-listen!

My Full End Times playlist is here for those on Apple Music.

What’s missing? Leave a note on a song we left off in the comments or paste a link to your favorite melodies for these bizzaro times.

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