Despite the terrifying reality of what we’re all going through right now amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there is something profoundly communal about this experience. It seems we’re all watching the same movies, binging the same shows, liking the same memes. The content we consume to keep us occupied—keep us distracted—serves the dual purpose of keeping us connected. How many of us have binged Tiger King, or rented Onward?
One of my own small joys during quarantine has been to make playlists. I’m not much of a musical curator. I make the occasional playlist for parties or road trips, but I don’t make a habit of crafting mixes. Recently, during long stretches at home, unable to see friends or family, unable to gather in even the most intimate of social settings, I’ve turned to music to smooth the rough edges of my mind. One mix is joyful, uplifting, for when the constant onslaught of terrifying news leaves me emotionally wrecked. Another is melancholic, a nostalgic and emotive mix from a time when molehills really seemed like mountains.
Most recently, I made another list: a Houston “Quaran-Tine” playlist, comprising 90 songs and six hours of music.
Perhaps it’s the knowledge that this pandemic will wreak economic havoc on my city, the likes of which Harvey only teased. Perhaps it’s an attempt at digital kinship, of affiliation during a long stretch of social isolation. Whatever the case, the sounds of our resilient and beautiful city have helped carry the emotional load of this pandemic for me.
And now, I’m hoping it will do the same for you.
Here are six highlights to start getting you in an H-Town frame of mind.
“Caged Birds (Tiny Desk concert edition),” Tobe Nwigwe & Nell: A modern day Houston giant, Nwigwe’s 2019 performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk series will go down as one of the series’s best. My personal favorite from the set was Nwigwe and company’s live rendition of “Caged Birds,” one of the most spiritually uplifting moments in Houston music history.
“Mojo Hand,” Lightnin’ Hopkins: The Bayou City’s most prominent blues luminary, Hopkins’s place within our national blues tapestry is tragically under-appreciated. Nonetheless, the iconic Texan is a lion in his own right, and his 1960 classic “Mojo Hand,” off the album of the same title, is a bonafide standard.
“Daddy Lessons,” Beyoncé: The queen of Houston has more classics and chart-toppers than any Texan before her, so choosing only a few selections from her mythical discography was no easy feat. “Daddy Lessons,” however, stands out to me as an under-the-radar gem. From 2016’s earth shattering Lemonade, the jazzy autobiographical track tells a story of inherited trauma, creole southern identity, and family lessons, making it a powerful and moving work of art.
“The Gambler,” Kenny Rogers: By far the most popular song of the late Rogers, “The Gambler” is not exactly a Houston song. In fact, Rogers was among some four or five artists, including Johnny Cash, to record the track in the late ’70s. It is, however, the most enduring legacy of one of the Bayou City’s most notable sons. A soothing and nostalgic song with some endearing, if vague and comically non-specific wisdom.
“In the Whataburger Drive Thru,” LE$: This cult-classic off LE$’s 2017 album Midnight Club has suddenly taken on new levels of relatability. Let’s just thank our lucky stars that, for now at least, we still have this one ritual of life in Texas to hold on to—the Whataburger drive-thru.
“Houston,” Robert Ellis: Ellis’s eclectic mix of country, pop, blues, and even jazz has earned him a reputation as one of Houston’s brightest musicians. My favorite of his projects is his 2014 sophomore album, Lights From the Chemical Plant, on which the sentimental and brooding “Houston” tells the story of his young adult years trying to make it in the city, and his undying (if conflicted) love of the city as he bids it a sorrowful goodbye.
Listen to Carlos Brandon's entire Quaran-Tine playlist here.