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Terrestrial Doom: 30 Songs For Our Age Of Anxiety

Tim Saccenti
Courtesy of the artist

In 2019, it was too easy to tie all sorts of small personal worries — health, loans, career plans, relationships, homeownership, anything related to long-term planning — to a larger sense of collective dread. A minor emotional tailspin couldn't help snowballing into thoughts on the near collapse of functional society at home and abroad, or our species' middle-fingers-up refusal to reverse the damage we're inflicting on the planet. This year, the personal wasn't the political: It was the global, the universal, a shared earthly anxiety.

I mean, it could just be me. But I think it's not.

Speaking of "Not," Big Thief's 2019 song encapsulates this theme as well as any from NPR Music's favorites of the year. A word-association list of ordinary places and experiences ("It's not the room / Not beginning / Not the crowd / Not winning") quickly escalates to a world-swallowing scale ("Not the planet / That's spinning / Not a ruse / Not heat / Not the fire lapping up the creek"). And then Adrianne Lenker rips the guitar solo for our times, like she's trying to hold all of our rapidly beating hearts still in her blood-slippery hands.

There's an evolutionary function to stress, but too much of it can incapacitate us, mind and body. (And wouldn't that be ironic, if anxiety over the accelerating death of life as we know it reached critical mass and killed us first?) And so to survive when stress crests, we hold on to emotional calm however we're able. As one person on a planet of billions, we're charged to do what we can, let the rest go and love others along the way.

That is the idea behind Terrestrial Doom, a year-end playlist (Spotify, Apple Music) of music that captured 2019's ever-wary mood, presented here in three 10-song movements.

  • In the first third, artists including The National, Hand Habits and Nilüfer Yanya put personal anxiety under a microscope, unspooling threads of personal history and what it means to belong to a people and a place.
  • In the second, Weyes Blood, Sleater-Kinney, Flying Lotus and others articulate the ominous and pressing reality of climate change, from what's already been lost to the potential dystopias to come.
  • Finally, artists like Ada Lea, Oso Oso and Tōth urge a moral resolution to make use of our finite existence on a fragile planet.
  • "Death will come in a cloud of love," Florist's Emily Sprague croons. "Maybe I know at the end of the day / The water's rising and it's hard to breathe," Alex Cameron laments. Daniel Wohl sets his electroacoustic apparatus to evoke the sound of cracking ice, while Inuk throat-singer Tanya Tagaq presses our faces up to the sonic glass of her disappearing homeland. And "When it breaks down" and "the stakes get high," Joan Shelley challenges us "to see the beauty in all the fading."

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