From Madonna to Nina Simone: lockdown taught me how to really listen to music | Music

All the jigsaws, craft projects and home-based hobbies of lockdown are now gathering dust, forgotten;

All the jigsaws, craft projects and home-based hobbies of lockdown are now gathering dust, forgotten; a product of a cursed time that we don’t want to think about again.

But there was one pandemic pastime that I was really fond of, and hope to continue through: listening to music. Like properly, deeply listening to it.

This week Spotify bowed to a request from Adele, and removed the shuffle button from album pages. I can understand the artist’s desire to preserve their tracklist: before lockdown I was haphazard and random in my listening. It was on in the background: ambient noise as I did the dishes, providing a tempo to the stirring of the risotto. When I felt in the mood for proper listening, I would return to old favourites.

But during Sydney’s long lockdown I decided I wanted to mix it up. Each weekday for a couple of months I would wake up, pick one artist, and just stick with them all day: going on my little walk, or even just sitting in a chair listening, giving the music my total attention. I’d start with the most popular songs and then make it through the top albums (yes, with their intended tracklisting); as the day went on – and the Spotify algorithm led me deeper into their catalogue – I’d stay listening while doing housework and workouts.

I shared what I was listening to with Twitter each day; my account’s not up at the moment, but during lockdown followers could join me, and spend their own day with the same artist. People who knew a lot more about music than I did would urge me away from the algorithm and recommend which albums to start with, what tracks to focus on.

To narrow it down, I set a couple of rules: focus on the canon – music others are passionate about but passed me by the first time around; and don’t spend too much time revisiting old favourites: this is about discovery.

The other stipulation: the music couldn’t be too gloomy. I grew up loving the Smiths and the Cure, but I didn’t want to be pulled down too far; and sorry Leonard Cohen, but a surfeit of minor chords were too much for my fragile equilibrium. We have a pandemic to get through!

Here are some other discoveries – and a song to start with for each artist.

Nina Simone is EVERYTHING

Of course I had heard Nina Simone – but until lockdown I had never really heard her. I never let her seep into my bones; invited her in to some interior world where music works its magic.

Waking up in the depth of lockdown – case numbers high, people freaking out on Twitter, a bad vibe out there on the almost-empty streets – on Nina Simone Day everything was transformed. I challenge anyone to be in a negative frame of mind waking up to Feeling Good at high volume. I bounced out of bed and walked down the rain-soaked gloomy streets of Kings Cross; they suddenly seem romantic when soundtracked by Put a Spell on You. Sublime.

Ray of Light is a GREAT album

On my Madonna day, it took a while to get to the goods. Her early pop stuff was a fun, nostalgic listen but it sort of slid off the surfaces; the latter Madonna was too overproduced for my tastes. But the sweet spot? Ray of Light: a perfect balance of pop, dance and melody. Pitchfork described it as “channeling acid electronica, Kabbalah, and motherhood”; I prefer to describe it as the Dorito of Madonna’s career. The perfect blend of sugar, fat and spice; you just have to consume the whole, satisfying tasty thing in one go.

The Mamas & the Papas backstory is almost as good as the music

Their best song, California Dreaming, comes in at just two minutes 25 seconds. Enjoying the sweet delights of these four-part, sunny harmonies, I was sad to discover that the band were also over too soon: only active for a few years, 1965–1968, and briefly in 1971.

After devouring the Mamas & the Papas back catalogue, I watched Laurel Canyon on Netflix and then went down an internet rabbit hole about the band members and their big, chaotic, 1960s lives. (And no: Mama Cass did not choke to death on a ham sandwich in London.)

Johnny Cash was my least favourite day

When I put the call out for recommendations, a largish number of (mostly) men were emphatic: Johnny Cash MUST be on the list. But waking up, the first song on his Spotify profile was Hurt. The lockdown had just been extended. It was raining. It was the kind of unloveable day that goes for a week.

I sang along – “I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real”. That set the tone for a fairly somber day.

Gorillaz lyrics are on another planet

I love Gorillaz, but this was the first time I listened to the lyrics. “I’m a scary gargoyle on a tower / That you made with plastic power / Your rhinestone eyes are like factories far away”? OK sure! And is Feel Good Inc the only song to reference windmills and arse cracks?

Pet Sounds is some sort of pinnacle

Canon for a reason: this Beach Boys album exists outside time, space, trends, fashion or politics. While fans urged me to explore their whole back catalogue, I was too in love with this album to move on – and spent the whole day (and subsequent months) with it on repeat.

Brigid’s list (in order of appearance)

Prince

Fiona Apple

Gil Scott Heron

Joni Mitchell

Nina Simone

The Mamas & the Papas

Stevie Wonder

Nick Cave

Rihanna

Amy Winehouse

Gurrumul

Radiohead

Madonna

Johnny Cash

Drake

The Weeknd

Fleet Foxes

Massive Attack

Velvet Underground

Simon and Garfunkel

Taylor Swift

Beach Boys

Aretha Franklin

Yothu Yindi

Sufjan Stevens

Beck

Rolling Stones