From Bruce Springsteen to Paul McCartney: The 8 best albums made in isolation
We needn’t tell you about the benefits of self-isolation. In fact, hearing such words right now, in the middle of a global pandemic which has forced the majority of its inhabitants to self-isolate for much of the last 12 months, is tantamount to begging for a punch in the mouth. Instead, then, we’ll just show you some of those benefits in the form of our favourite albums made in isolation.
Many musicians have enjoyed the benefits of isolation. Though some bands thrive on the conversation of creation and the exchanging of ideas to truly solidify their vision and enact their expression, others require a clearness of mind and clarity of thought to truly access their most beautiful musical moments. We’re taking a look at the latter and bringing you eight albums that simply couldn’t have happened without isolation. It’s a list that includes some of the biggest names in music and proves, with a little creativity, that being on one’s own can be beneficial.
If you’re looking for something to keep you entertained during the new lockdown then we’ve got you covered. Below, we’ve got eight examples of artists who have used isolation to their benefit. While we’re not suggesting you go away and right a chart-topping album (though, if you can, you probably should) we are suggesting that diving into these records is an equally good use of your time.
The list below could very well turn into something a little bit self-congratulatory but consider the below records a lesson. They teach us that art will always prevail and that the human behind it, despite being depleted and depressed, is still able to find beauty in the very burning essence of life. Music will always win.
8 best albums made in isolation:
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? – Billie Eilish
Okay, so we’re starting off with a bit of a debatable entry. There’s no doubt that Billie Eilish was facing pressure and the media at every turn before she released her debut record and, therefore, that she required the aforementioned space and time to truly access the music she wanted to make. However, her isolation was a room made for two.
Recorded alongside her brother and longtime collaborator Finneas in their childhood home, the album is imbued by Eilish’s comfort. She’s effortlessly able to transcend the music in front of her and deliver vocal performances that mark her out as one of the best in the world right now.
The album bagged an astonishing 10 Grammys and will undoubtedly be seen as the first and most impressive foot forward for Eilish. But there’s no debate that without her brother and the isolation they imposed on themselves that this LP would have sounded the same.
For Emma, Forever Ago – Bon Iver
It’s not possible to talk about an album created in isolation without mentioning Bon Iver’s modern classic For Emma, Forever Ago. It not only launched the career of Justin Vernon but also confirmed the theory that an artist left to their own devices will always look inward for inspiration.
Vernon, having struggled personally with the difficulty of being a full-time musician and still paying the bills, made his way to his father’s wooden cabin. There, in the rural forests of Wisconsin, Vernon sat down and penned his most beautiful record. Across the three months Vernon spent in the icy forest, the songwriter crafted some of his most adored work.
Naturally, Vernon didn’t find it quite as romantic. Later, he described the experience as a “lonely few months at the cabin, where I plugged in the laptop and f***ed around.” One thing is for certain, they were months well spent.
Nebraska – Bruce Springsteen
One of Bruce’s darkest moments produced some of his best songs as, holed up in his New Jersey home, Springsteen produced a ghostly set of tracks. Sent off as a ropey demo, the E-Street band had struggled to match what Springsteen was looking for and so they were left relatively untouched. We’re glad he did as Nebraska proves to be The Boss at his most arresting and yet compellingly delicate.
Springsteen’s growing fascination with the bubbling classes of America, something so expertly entangled in American folk music, was left bare and exposed on this LP. As he tries to recoup the lost souls of the US, he does so through his bone-chilling song assessments.
It’s some of Springsteen’s most potent work and likely emboldened by his alienation at the time.
Currents – Tame Impala
“At some point, life outside the studio fades into the distance. That’s how I know that I’m into it,” said Tame Impala maestro Kevin Parker. The band’s third album Currents was the LP that confirmed Parker’s pop mastery and also propelled Tame Impala into previously unreached heights.
Parker wrote, performed and recorded the entire album on his own home studio in Freemantle, Western Australia. Only breaking form the smoke-filled studio for the odd swim break, Parker used his self-imposed isolation to create a sonic world for his audience.
“The only rule was to make an attempt to abandon the rules that I’ve set up in the past,” he told Spin, cherishing his role as performer and producer. It is this cyclical relationship that can leave Parker cut adrift from the outside world but also the very thing that makes this, and many of his other records, such vital pieces of pop.
McCartney – Paul McCartney
When the news of The Beatles split finally began to sink in for the four members of the band they all had different reactions, Lennon, the chief conspirator behind the disbandment, went about his life as the most famous man in the world. George Harrison rejoiced at the opportunity to be heard and Ringo Starr, too, was excited for the future. For Paul McCartney, however, things were a bit different.
The singer-songwriter had worked for so long alongside John Lennon that now, faced with a future without him, he retreated to the northern tip of Scotland and, most pertinently, within himself. Secretly working on his debut solo album for months before it was released in 1970, McCartney had begun to find his feet and was ready to stand up and be counted.
It’s a trick Macca has repeated on two more occasions, firstly for McCartney II in 1980 and, of course, the stellar release of 2020 McCartney III. The first instalment of the trilogy is certainly the best and captures an artist beginning to understand their own expression.
OK Computer – Radiohead
Never a band to do things by halves, when Radiohead were setting themselves up for recording their third record OK Computer they chose complete isolation as the only way to get the LP right after their originally planned small studio still offered too much distraction.
Instead, they travelled to Bath and set up residence at St Catherine’s Court, a vacuous mansion that had been left comparatively abandoned. The band had no schedule and no expectations and it offered them a pathway to creative freedom.
One can very nearly hear the very echoes of the empty mansion throughout the LP and there’s a certain dystopian destruction of the aristocracy sound which we’re sure would have pleased Thom Yorke and co. Layered, complex and wholly impossible without their self-imposed isolation.
Visions – Grimes
As famed now for her Instagram as her studio albums, Grimes is first and foremost a generous artist. The singer-songwriter has long played the role of the perennial creator but it was her 2012 breakthrough Visions that really caught the attention of the masses.
“Once you hit day nine, you start accessing some really crazy shit,” she told The Guardian when reflecting on the gruelling recording process. “You have no stimulation, so your subconscious starts filling in the blanks. I started to feel like I was channelling spirits. I was convinced my music was a gift from God. It was like I knew exactly what to do next, as if my songs were already written.”
While the album focuses mainly on the themes of loss and alienation, Grimes manages to use these feelings to create holistic sonic landscapes capable of housing her audience.
Exile on Main Street – The Rolling Stones
Some isolation periods are enforced and others are self-imposed, The Rolling Stones migration to the South of France is certainly the latter. Avoiding the ever-increasing cost of tax in Britain was the main reason they were holed up in the villa called Nellcote.
However, with a band full of heavily drug-dependant rock stars as The Rolling Stones was in 1972, the villa and the isolation also provided the band with some clear headspace. Having ended the sixties with a bit of a whimper, endlessly chasing new styles and sounds, the band got back to basics on this one.
It’s not quite the self-isolation we’ve all faced over recent months, nor the kind that a band like Radiohead imposed on themselves. The Stones often welcomed visitors to their abode but, for The Rolling Stones, this was about as isolated as they could get.