Songs We Listen to in Times of Tumult and Distress

Songs We Listen to in Times of Tumult and Distress

It's no secret that a lot of us feel angry, sad, hopeless, confused, numb, tired, and emotionally drained.

In times like these, music is a great healer. To that end, I asked 18 of my colleagues at KQED to explain which song gets them through tough times, be they cultural, political, personal or otherwise -- the song that realigns their soul when things are terrible.

Kate Bush, "Love and Anger"

When I got the news that a close friend had a brain tumor, I listened to this song. When I found out one week later that another dear friend, only 30, had been diagnosed with lymphoma of the heart, I listened to it again. And again. And again. Cancer. Again. Orlando. Again. Alton Sterling. Again. Philando Castile. Again. Baghdad. Again. Singing loud, dancing hard, singing louder. Sometimes, alone in the house, indulging in the welling up of emotion, all of this life. All of this death. Sometimes, with my daughter swirling around my heels, and we're diving into a full-arms flailing modern dance in the living room, swooping around like cranes, flying straight into the heart of an exuberant yes: Healed, if only for three minutes. Then, the bridge, building up to a chorus of light. The drums, waiting for the choir to kick in. The voices of children and women sing, wail, and rise up: "What would we do without you?" -- Leilani Clark

Kendrick Lamar, "Alright"

Sponsored

I haven't actually listened to this song today for healing. I'm just realizing that I've been singing the chorus in my head, over and over, and I sing it and reference it often. I've actually said in conversation, "You know, Kendrick said we're gon' be alright. And right now, I need to believe him." -- Jamedra Brown

Arvo Pärt, "Spiegel im Spiegel"

Usually, I shy away from songs designed for transcendence, finding comfort in songs that reflect chaos instead of transporting us from it. But in 2016, as the world processed the video of a second black man shot by police in 24 hours, I needed to be taken away. And so I played "Spiegel im Spiegel" by the 80-year-old Estonian composer Arvo Pärt: it lifts and falls, an impossibly fragile violin guiding light piano arpeggios, the sound of one's soul leaving, the aural image of tranquility in the time of death. -- Gabe Meline

Charles Mingus, "Prayer for Passive Resistance"

In volatile times, when some are tempted to respond to injustice with violence, I turn to Charles Mingus and Booker Ervin, who deliver a soul-searing plea with "Prayer for Passive Resistance." For me, this music embodies the strength and resilience of responding to provocation with militant non-violence -- a much more difficult path than lashing out in anger. -- Andrew Gilbert

Big Star, "The Ballad of El Goodo"

"Years ago my heart was set to live, oh / and I've been trying hard against unbelievable odds." This is one of those songs whose lyrics are just vague enough to be completely universal; it's essentially a ballad about how it's really hard to be a human being in the world. Pair that with Big Star's singularly warm, jangly guitar tone and production and the fact that Alex Chilton makes pretty much anything he sings sound like a lullaby, and by the first chorus you have something that makes my chest feel like it's physically swelling with the background vocals, every single time. There is, of course, something melancholy and wistful and a little doomed-feeling about Big Star's entire career. But the quiet defiance and power and hope in the repetition of "hold on, hold on, hold on" that ends this track feels like their essence to me. It feels like prayer. -- Emma Silvers

Otis Redding, "Try a Little Tenderness"

Even though I was introduced to Otis Redding via Duckie's epic lip-sync in Pretty In Pink, a general love for this song has endured. Since our social media outlets, news outlets, and protests in the streets and highways are demanding empathy, recognition, and change, maybe we can -- yes -- "try a little tenderness" in our small everyday interactions with each other. -- Valerie Veteto

Paris, "What Would You Do?"

This is my go-to when things get out of control in the world. It reminds me of the early protest days of the global war on terrorism, and all of the people I participated in direct action with. It isn’t a soothing, feel-good song. It taps into my rage, and I think that's a good thing. If I wasn’t feeling rage with the state of the world right now, I think it would mean that I’ve given up hope. And that would break me. So yes, when I’m not listening to Sam Cooke’s “Change is Gonna Come,” or Leonard Cohen's "Anthem," I listen to “What Would You Do?” and imagine all of us rising up and fighting back, and it gets me out of bed. -- Dani Burlison

Jeff Buckley, "Hallelujah"

When I found out my friend Nate committed suicide I listened to this on loop for about a week straight, blasting it in the bathroom, on my commute, through headphones at my desk. Surrounding myself with the song let me acknowledge my pain when I had to focus on other things, and when I was alone, I listened to it closely and let my tears flow. -- Amanda Stupi

The Dickies, "Eve of Destruction"

When I'm searching for post-traumatic musical coping, I usually take the "manic escapism" route, and this cover by the Dickies follows the recipe: cathartic, explosive, noisy, poppy, and slightly silly. Originally a mid-'60s protest folk tune, revamped in the late '70s by LA's court jesters of punk rock, the lyrics still feel on-point: "I can't twist the truth, it knows no regulation / Handful of senators don't pass legislation / And marches alone can't bring integration when human respect is disintegratin'." It's also fantastic for air guitar and silly-dancing with 6 year olds. -- Nick Jackson

Art Blakey, "Ugetsu"

I was in an emotional tailspin. I’m not even sure what the issue was, looking back, but I know I couldn’t get out of my own head that night. Something told me to put on “Ugetsu,” to close my eyes, and focus on the magic being made in the moment over those 11 minutes; I did it in the naïve belief that, once I re-opened my eyes, everything would somehow feel better. I’m not sure why, and I’m not sure how, but it worked. I listen to it today with that same feeling of longing, of desperately trying to make sense of a series of tragedies that have happened so rapidly there’s barely been time to process them -- and Art Blakey is telling me that it’s okay to feel that vulnerability. -- Brandon Roos

Joe Strummer, "Johnny Appleseed"

On the face of it, the song is a downer. People are locked in factories. Bees are dying. Martin Luther King makes a cameo appearance in the lyrics, and Strummer asks, "Notice how the door closes when the chimes of freedom ring?" But the song is about defiance and rebellion and not giving in -- and about the figure of Johnny Appleseed, who in legend (and fact) aimed to change the world through simple, persistent, tireless action. That hits home with me every time. -- Dan Brekke

Bruce Springsteen, "Land of Hope and Dreams" (Live at Madison Square Garden)

God knows the online world doesn't need another "My Bruce Springsteen Story," but tragedy gives you that horrible, jolting feeling that you're suddenly too far from home -- and Bruce Springsteen fixes that in me. In the most literal way possible, "Land of Hope and Dreams" offers the kind of uncomplicated hope I want right now: from the way it alters the original lyrics of the traditional folk song "This Train" ("this train don't carry no gamblers" becoming "this train carries whores and gamblers") to Springsteen's preacher-like howl at 8:12. By the time it's over, the entire E Street sounds ready to drop, reminding me that it is possible to be exhausted from happiness as well as from sadness. -- Carly Severn

Fugazi, "The Argument"

When I put on “The Argument,” it’s like Ian MacKaye has written the perfect words to describe powerlessness. He’s created a score for what it’s like to be hyper-critical and sensitive and not of this world, and to feel and to feel and to feel too much. But it’s not enough. Because here we are. Whether it’s war among nations, war with ourselves, or a war against people of color, the song captures the real-time need for resistance. Today, resistance feels futile. But we still pick up the brick, we hurl it with everything we have, even if it goes nowhere. Because we need to believe. -- Michelle Threadgould

Masacre 68, "No Estamos Conformes"

On days like this I listen to my Porque Spotify playlist and hit shuffle. When Masacre 68 comes on, I get transformed to sweaty backyards in South Central and East Los Angeles in the '80s with at least 100 other Xicano ponkero kids slamming our bodies together. Those gigs were my way to forget that we were living within a drug- and gang-infused police state, with immigrant parents who worked multiple jobs and didn't understand us. -- Yo Ann Martinez

Datacide, "Deep Chair"

My most-listened-to tune from my most-listened-to album of all time, a 15-minute long journey through soothing tones, simple, hypnotic percussion, and gentle, lilting samples. Without fail, listening to this reduces my heart rate by at least 10 beats per minute, usually more. When the world seems too much to bear, this is my escape. -- Chris Zaldua

Descendents, "Coolidge"

It's been a few decades since I was an angst-filled teenager, but I continue to run to the music of my youth whenever depression or anger overwhelms me. Drum beats played at breakneck speeds and guitars soaked in distortion still provide the release I need when I find my 35-year-old self dealing with frustration, and "Coolidge" by the Descendents has all the qualities of the band's best songs -- driving drums, fast-and-light guitars and a catchy chorus. I've been listening to this track since I was 12, and it never fails to change my mood. -- Kevin L. Jones

Stars of the Lid, "Tippy's Demise"

During my darkest days dealing with anxiety and depression, I'd go weeks where even lyrical content was too overwhelming. It's not that the words didn't speak to me, but rather that the sound of voices was grating. The only thing that made me feel even remotely calm was ambient and droney music. In particular, this track by Stars of the Lid really does it for me in times of duress. It starts with an enormous swell, and then at around 5:30, there's a release that has always made me feel like I'm floating. -- Aldo Mora-Blanco

David Dondero, "Rothko Chapel"

Sponsored

When my friend Josh was killed, I listened to David Dondero's "Rothko Chapel" over and over, compulsively, as if it were a walking stick. It's been on again a lot lately. The song is about mystification, heartbreak, and anarchistic faith; the singer sounds shaky, but clearly, nothing can stop him from confronting the biggest and worst questions in order to live right here, in this world, as it is. The chorus compares a lover's heart to the title's chapel: "Cold dark void yet simple and intriguing, somewhat comforting, got me believing almost anything." Verses list out exactly what his intently disorganized religion is, many beautiful things, before a pullback -- "but my faith it may be fiction, my faith may not be smart," he sings, recognizing his own helplesslessness. It always feels like a "big" song, to me, as Dondero calls out to music deities, yelps, laughs, minces words, and ranges from Texas to San Francisco, always in church. It's a guitar song, mostly in two simple chords, with a folky fingerpicked melody there to pick you up off the floor when you're done laying on the cold stone. -- Hiya Swanhuyser

Volume
KQED Live
Live Stream
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
Live Stream information currently unavailable.
Share
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
KQED Live

Live Stream

Live Stream information currently unavailable.