Producers – Addi Weakley, Ashwin Raj and Hannah McCoy
The music industry has definitely taken a hit during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Artists have halted tours. Festivals and concerts have been cancelled. Clubs and venues have had to shut down—some indefinitely. It’s sucked.
Even so, COVID has been good for something: stimulating creativity. Being stuck in quarantine in your home for months on end can seem bleak at times, but some artists have taken our situation and turned it into the fire they needed to pump out some phenomenal songs. Particularly from Midwest artists. Here at Urban Plains, we’ve compiled a playlist of the best pandemic songs from artists that call the Heartland home—or at minimum used to call it home. See our picks here and be sure to check out our playlist on YouTube and Spotify.
The New York Times described the Minneapolis-based Graveyard Club as “moody synth rock” along the lines of Echo & The Bunnymen or The Cure, and sure, that feels accurate enough. But we’d go even a little further and say they’re the perfect modern pairing for an angsty ‘80s teen movie. Like “Red Roses,” off the quartet’s last full length, 2019’s Goodnight Paradise. The song just feels like it was ripped from a mixed tape Duckie might have made for Andie in Pretty in Pink.
During quarantine, though, Graveyard Club went even more old-school for inspiration on their most recent song “Valens.” Matthew Schufman, the band’s vocalist, shared with Broadway World that “Valens” is an homage to Ritchie Valens, one of rock ‘n’ roll’s pioneers. “As a child I loved early rock ‘n’ roll music,” Schufman says. “My parents played it frequently around the house. One of my favorite songs was ‘Donna’ by Ritchie Valens. There was a sweet sadness to it; you could hear and feel the longing in his voice.”
The same can be said for this track, though there’s little else that can tie it to the “La Bamba” star. Instead, it’s a 2020 version of ‘80s synth joy about a ‘50s star. It’s nostalgia stacked on top of nostalgia, which is perfect for the pandemic. We’re all longing for the before times. This will help you dance your blues away until everything gets back to normal.
Alaska – May 1, 2020
291,113 monthly listeners
For nearly a decade, Kansas City’s Colin Dieden helped The Mowgli’s write and perform energetic, upbeat alternative hits. From “San Francisco” to “I’m Good,” their songs have been used in television and movies—including “Shameless” and “Catfish.”
In 2019, Dieden decided it was time for him to begin his solo career as Little Hurt. He said he was beginning to feel emotionally distant from the group and had written music he felt would be best said by himself.
“Alaska” is one of those songs— and guaranteed to get stuck in your head. Bonus: The lyrics in the chorus—“But I think I’ll dye my hair and I’ll move to Alaska”—seems alluring and all-too-familiar during times like these. The lighthearted nature of the song talking about eating ice cream in bed and getting a weird reading from a horoscope are relatable to anyone who feels stuck in a rut.
In the midst of the pandemic, Dieden has kept busy by writing. He told American Songwriter, “I’ve been writing a lot. At first it was really hard for me to write—I was finding myself really uninspired. My family will be like, ‘It’s such an inspiring time, there’s so much to write about,’ and I’m like, ‘There’s something about this global pandemic that’s not particularly sexy and inspiring!’ You know what I’m saying?”
Idiot – July 17, 2020
7,319 monthly listeners
Working in the middle of a pandemic is hard enough, but for Them Coulee Boys, finding balance between family life and music has been a learning curve.
Frontman Soren Staff says, “It’s all about logistics! The fact is that we’ve never had this much time to be creative in our lives, without tours and the like to go on. The problem is just keeping that creative time safe. For a very long time we worked on our new tunes virtually, with shared Google Docs, Zoom conferences, and an insane group chat. We moved on to masked up practices, and eventually to establishing the band as our ‘family unit.’ Plus, we just had a band baby! It’s a lot of hoops to jump through, but we have never had this much time to explore our songs, and we’re excited to see where they go.”
And what they explore is that odd intersection between bluegrass and straight-up rock. There’s foot stomping and even some (very mellow) head banging. It’s perfect for the quartet’s native western Wisconsin: a land that’s equally comfortable with country radio and classic rock. But their track “Idiot,” about embracing mistakes, sounds like it belongs in a Hallmark movie at the moment the main character realizes they have to go back to the small town they’ve only just heard of to pursue their romantic interest they’ve met a handful of times.
As the group adjusts to their new normal, they’ve been more aware of where they find their inspiration.
“I think inspiration wise, it’s really been a larger focus on what’s important to us most,” Staff says. “COVID has stripped away a lot of the bullshit and lifted up what’s real. We’ve been writing a lot about family, blood and chosen. There’s a lot about the work we do right now and what we’re leaving behind. Our music has always had themes of sincerity and honesty, these days it’s just shifting its focus to the people we’ve been spending our time with most.”
Like Gold – September 18, 2020
486,371 monthly listeners
Want to recreate Lollapalooza from your couch? Gianni Blu’s music will transport you to summer. His dance-inspiring electronic music brings back memories of sweating 12 hours a day for four days with 400,000 of your closest friends.
“I was born and raised in Chicago and the city has obviously had a huge influence on my music and my life,” Blu told lifestyle blogger Ricky Lee Potts. “We have a ton of different scenes here especially with dance music and hip hop as I’m sure you know.”
“Like Gold” would have been a hit in clubs, but for now, it’s great for dancing in your kitchen. It’s reminiscent of the before times when going places was acceptable. While people aren’t necessarily meeting in bars anymore, the idea of locking eyes across the room with a stranger still sounds awesome and romantic. “Like Gold” nails that moment.
Traumatized – July 17, 2020
34,875 monthly listeners
Melodic rap is the hot new thing in hip hop these days. Leading that movement: Kansh. His quick flow alongside his energetic beats will make you hyped. And he’s all over TikTok, particularly remixing songs. People love his stuff so much that almost every remix he does goes viral. But Sharma is also a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, so sometimes the self-taught beat maker has to dedicate his time to homework instead of creating a new track. Maybe that’s why he describes his music as “continuously evolving”; he’s getting new inspiration from everything he’s taking in, making him a bit of a chameleon.
What’s even crazier: Kansh only started dropping music six months ago on Soundcloud. That hasn’t stopped his song “Bombay” from racking up 338,648 streams on Spotify. His other viral song, “Slide”, pulled 232,397 streams on Spotify as well. And he dropped his EP Mixed Emotions earlier this summer, which included the fan favorite “Traumatized”. It talks about a failed relationship and how it has affected Kansh emotionally. Although this song has a heartfelt message to it, it also has an energetic and vibrant beat so you can absolutely bump it in
Young & Alive – March, 2020
18,534,551 – Monthly Listeners *154th in the world currently
The perfect mix between pop, R&B and rock = Bazzi. “There’s a genuine feeling in my music,” Bazzi told Spotify. “It’s a mix of everything I grew up on—from rock to pop. It’s got a sway and flow, but you’re in this fantasy world at the same time.” Andrew Bazzi, also known as Bazzi, originally began his musical journey back in Canton, Michigan. Since appearing on the music scene in 2015, we’d argue that Bazzi has become a bit of a musical sensation. His album Cosmic, released in 2018, made seismic waves in the music industry. The song “3:15” may or may not have appeared on my personal 2019 Wrapped list. And his song “Mine” hit over 755 million streams on Spotify.
He initially gained notoriety on the social media app Vine back in 2015, reaching nearly 1.5 million followers. Since then, he has become a popular artist with platinum tracks such as “Beautiful” and “Mine.” His latest song “Young & Alive” might hit that level too, though it will surely keep you feeling just that way until things get back to normal.
Nightlight – August 27, 2020
12,404,742 monthly listeners, *305th in the world
EDM.com has called Illenium a “future bass kingpin,” which is no surprise as he is consistently leading the U.S. dance charts and accumulating over 4 billion streams. We would argue, and many would agree, that Illenium is “one of the most successful crossover electronic artists today,” according to Spotify.
Born Nicholas D. Miller in Chicago, IL, Miller is a DJ and music producer now based primarily in Denver. When asked about his latest piece titled “Nightlight,” Illenium told Billboard, “I got that demo pretty early into the quarantine, and I hadn’t really started going super hard on music yet. I was kind of chilling out from touring and getting that energy, and then when I got that vocal it was like, “Alright, that’s the one I’m going to go really hard on.” It kind of started this whole creative zone for me. Like, ten songs happened after that.” Miller’s new song “Nightlight” will definitely leave you feeling hopefully, and dancing too.
Are We Having Fun Yet? (ayokay Remix)
1,690,769 monthly listeners
Spotify describes Gross Point, Michigan native Ayokay’s music as “effusive pop, hip-hop, and R&B-influenced EDM.” We think he’s the perfect combination of all these genres, seamlessly blending EDM beats with pop lyrics and consistently making banger dance music. When speaking with Riff Magazine, Ayokay—real name Alex O’Neill—has said, “I definitely would not consider myself a pop artist or an EDM artist. It’s somewhere in-between. I liken myself more with some sort of indie electronic, experimental stuff, but I definitely have a very big backbone in the hip-hop community.” His latest mix titled “Are We Having Fun Yet?” makes the original song even better.
O’Neill originally attended the same high school as Mikael Temrowski, also known as Quinn XCII. The two worked together creating music while attending different colleges in Michigan. They remain friends today and continue to work on many projects together. Whether you’re looking for a chill R&B tune or a bopping EDM beat, Ayokay’s got you and will keep your spirits up during the pandemic.
A letter to my younger self – July 10th, 2020
7,291,636 monthly listeners
Mikael Temrowski, known as Quinn XCII, creates music that makes you feel like you’re relaxing on a beach on a beautiful summer day. Maybe that’s the Michigander in him; you have to cherish summer when you’re from Detroit.
The thing is, Quinn never set out to be a songwriter. “I really don’t know what it was that prompted me to write a song for the first time ever,” Quinn told The State News, the campus paper at his alma mater Michigan State University.. “Something clicked in my brain. I knew I loved music and I knew I loved writing, maybe it was out of boredom honestly, I just tried to connect the two together.”
And he connected those two so amazingly. Every Quinn XCII song is almost like a poem. He can express your emotions through his smooth song writing abilities. From sadness to pure happiness, Quinn knows how to express it all.
I wrote you a poem – August 16, 2020
211 monthly listeners
Often described as “deeply unsettling” and “concerningly sad,” David Timm will definitely have you in your feels when listening to his latest EP Poem. Previously known as Boy Blue, David Timm is a musical artist from St. Paul, MN. Timm is currently attending Princeton University studying Art History. Spotify claims, “Though it may not necessarily sound like it, his music is very literally bedroom-pop. He does it all himself: writing, production, mastering.” From what we hear on this new EP, nothing about Timm’s music sounds amatuer.
Poem features four new songs. Nassau Weekly, run by Princeton students, spoke with Timm about this EP. His song, “I Wrote You A Poem” is oddly melodic with electronic instrumentals and tells us, literally, about a poem he wrote. “I guess the first step is that I wrote a poem about my life, about things that I was experiencing. And then, based off of that, I wrote a song about it, because I was kind of using poetry as a means of communication with people when I should just have had conversations with them,” Timm told Nassua Weekly. All in all, if you’re feeling down and crappy and want to listen to some sad tunes, Timm is your guy.
Come & Go – July 10, 2020
42,691,534 monthly listeners, *22nd in the world
A little part of our hearts cried when writing this. Born Jarad Anthony Higgins in Chicago, Illinois, Juice WRLD soon became a chart topping artist when his biggest hit “Lucid Dreams” was streamed on Spotify over 1.3 billion times. With his catchy, “introspective lyrics atop melodic production, echoing Travis Scott and Post Malone,” it’s no wonder he was quickly on his way to success. Unfortunately, at the young age of 21, Higgins tragically passed away on December 8, 2019, suffering from a medical emergency. We know many people across the Midwest and the rest of the world were deeply saddened to see such a young, future superstar soul leave this world much too soon. “I love y’all more than life itself” was one of the chilling last things Higgins told fans at a concert days before his passing.
His third and latest album Legends Never Die, was released posthumously on July 10, 2020 and has since been topping the Billboard 200. His song “Come & Go” is included on this latest album. Billboard staffers say, “Juice WRLD just scored the biggest album debut of 2020” and “Legends enters with 497,000 equivalent album units moved—not only the best single-week mark of his career, but the highest single-week total for any artist in 2020. The set also places 17 tracks on the Hot 100 this week, including five in the chart’s top ten — a simultaneous feat previously accomplished only by The Beatles and Drake.”
Kings & Queens – September 18, 2020
32,104,299 monthly listeners, *53 in the world
“Crafting pop anthems with a much-needed dose of fiery female empowerment,” (Ava Max YouTube) Amanda Ava Koci, is known professionally as Ava Max. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Max is the daughter of Albanian immigrants. She grew up knowing she wanted to be a performer and eventually moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career. It was a smart move. Her 2018 song ‘Sweet but Psycho’ has over 1 billion streams on Spotify. It’s not surprising considering Max’s work gives off the kind of ‘pop vibes’ that we at Urban Plains love—very Lady Gaga or Katy Perry’s early music.
The music industry has been struggling during the pandemic and Max is not excluded from this pressure. “I feel so grateful to even be releasing music and people are listening. Especially during a pandemic! I know that a lot of people are struggling right now. Music, for me, is medicine. And I just couldn’t hold it back anymore,” Max said. Her song “Kings & Queens” centers around female empowerment—the “I’m a fierce woman” vibe, as Max says is reflected in many of her songs. And we all could use a little more empowerment these days.
Lie Like This – October 1, 2020
19,990,844 monthly listeners, *134th in the world
Julia Michaels is quickly becoming a breakthrough pop artist. Born Julia Carin Cavazos in Davenport, Iowa, Michaels has been composing songs for the likes of Demi Lovato, Ed Sheeran, Selena Gomez, Fifth Harmony and Shakira. Now beginning her solo career, she’s rapidly becoming a well known name in her own right, consistently producing tracks that land on the Billboard Hot 100. Michaels is creating new work with scorching hooks and addictive melodies—just the music to brighten up quarantine.
Like her latest, “Lie Like This,” which is all about new love. “It’s about being hesitant about this new, beautiful thing and just giving in anyway, because you know that it’s really special. Michaels told iHeartRadio. This song features danceable beats, beautiful lyrics and vocals that we know you’ll love.
Every Other Memory – April, 2020
2,655,871 monthly listeners
While many old timers are arguing against the direction current country music going, we at Urban Plains are all for it. Modern day country artists have been combining pop, rock and even rap into their work. Ryan Hurd is no different. Hurd unites the country music of yesteryear with the modern day hodgepodge of latest country hits.
Originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan, Hurd was a songwriter before producing his own solo work. He wrote songs recorded by Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Lady Antebellum, Tim McGraw, and more. With all of those big names, it’s hard to believe country music is just now hearing of Hurd.
He finally began releasing his own work in 2016. Since then, he’s been named one of Rolling Stone’s “Artists You Need to Know” and a CMT “Listen Up” Artist. Hurd is also married to fellow country artist, Maren Morris.
He told People’s magazine, “I just love playing on that nostalgia. I think that if you do it in a creative way, it works every time. It’s really fun to just write what I feel like is a great country song.” His new song, “Every Other Memory,” does just that. It’s perfect if you’re wanting to reminisce about an old ex, the good old days or just want a catchy song to sing along to in
F2020 – August 14, 2020
TikTok shenanigans and smooth, soulful vocals go hand in hand when it comes to Avenue Beat. Sam Backoff, Savana Santos, and Sami Bearden found success through TikTok, where their song ‘F2020’ blew up. According to Spotify, they had over six million views in less than 48 hours.
Admittedly, 2020 being an extremely subpar year has been a common theme for many. In their particular case, “F2020” made light of an otherwise crushing situation. “We were actually referencing our first single we ever put to country radio,” Avenue Beat said via Instagram DM. “It FLOPPED and got pulled from radio like two days before we posted ‘F2020,’ so the contrast was legit CRAZY haha.”
On top of their first single flopping, Santos told Rolling Stone that, “The catalyst for the whole song was that all these things had been building up in my week and it had been really shitty. And then Sami’s cat died. And that was the final thing where I was like, ‘What is happening?’”
Pasta Diet – September 18, 2020
309,748 monthly listeners
Netherfriends’ authenticity, creativity, and humor are evident in his album and song titles. Just check out his recently released album How to Be Productive. It includes “Get Up Early,” “Write It Down,” and “Ignore the News.” It’s basically a 2020 to-do list.
And that’s not his only quarantine-centric album. Other notable 2020 discs include Edibles, How to Do Your Taxes, and Songs for Tesla Drivers.
“Pasta Diet” gets right to the heart of this whole thing. It’s about quarantine meals and how nothing even matters anymore, so eat pasta every day if you want. Ziti, gnocchi, and penne are his (UP approved) pastas of choice. Of course, there’s a deeper meaning too; it’s about staying safe and just getting through each day when it’s hard not to dwell on the past or the future.
Rebounding from the disappointment of a cancelled tour, he’s been pouring his time and energy into new music. He says, “I have been living off my Spotify residuals since 2016 and have released over 100 albums, so luckily the pandemic hasn’t changed my lifestyle too much, but I did give up my home back in January with my girlfriend to embark on a year long tour performing a show in all 50 states. The tour was canceled after 11 shows in March, leaving us stranded in Memphis, TN. We took shelter with my Dad in Boyton Beach, FL and have been moving into new AirBnBs every month, which always keeps me inspired to make new music..”
Blotter Acid Reflux Syndrome – September 23, 2020
1,023,475 monthly listeners
“Blotter Acid Reflux Syndrome” starts with a long instrumental intro that sets the tone. A thick low end. Occasional high-end bursts that sound vaguely like laser fire. A droning keyboard. The whole thing just trudges along, almost lagging behind. It says a lot about our moment, even before rapper Slug breaks the spell. Each day of the pandemic that passes feels like a slightly different version of the day before—a 2020 reenactment of the 1993 classic Groundhog Day.
Nevertheless, “Blotter Acid Reflux Syndrome,” the most recent single from the Minneapolis hip hop duo’s upcoming album The Day Before Halloween, is a solid reminder of the group’s longevity. Rapper Slug and producer Ant have been the gold standard of Minneapolis hip hop since 1996. In a Rhymesayers article, Sean Daley, a.k.a. Slug, hit on why Atmosphere has survived nearly 25 years. “People are just looking for something they can relate to,” says Slug. “Something that they can take and apply to themselves. Some of us are lucky enough to become that through our art.”
Off My Mind – August 7, 2020
291 monthly listeners
20-year-old Morgan McCarthy uses poetry as her muse. The Minneapolis-based McCarthy draws on romantic themes to create her ethereal and soulful soundscapes. Like her latest song, “Off My Mind.” It tucks a deep beat under a vibey layer of chiming keyboards meant to take the edge off quarantine.
McCarthy is a part of Eleventh Productions team and spoke with them about her music. “Some huge writing inspirations to me are Alessia Cara and Tori Kelly … When I try to describe my voice to people, I always say that I’m R&B meets Billie Ellish.”
Making waves in the Minnesota music scene, McCarthy has been writing her own music for just two years. We’re only hearing the beginning of what is going to be euphoric song crafting and creation in the future. “Off My Mind” was created and released during the pandemic. We at Urban Plains are ecstatic to see what she produces outside of these weird times.
When You Leave (feat. Emma Butterworth) – May 19, 2020
2,329 monthly listeners
At this point, The Nadas are a Midwest institution. After 27 years, Mike Butterworth and Jason Walsmith, along with an ever-evolving cast of characters that make up the rest of the band, are woven into the fabric of the heartland, the musical version of a neighbor waving as you drive on by. They’re folky, harmony-laden songs are comfy and familiar. Their shows—back when there were shows—are like family reunions, bringing together longtime fans from across the country.
Even the group’s music is becoming a family affair. On “When You Leave,” a standout from the band’s pandemic acoustic album Duo Numero Uno, Butterworth’s daughter Emma, lends her voice to the quiet track. A burgeoning songwriter herself, Emma Butterworth, like her dad, has the kind of voice that feels like your favorite blanket in winter: warm, soothing, and slightly fuzzy. And the song itself, about the passing of a friend, is the kind of funeral dirge 2020 doesn’t deserve: beautiful, sentimental, and poignant.
Like many, The Nadas started the pandemic with a seemingly never-ending string of virtual gigs to make up for their canceled summer tour. Unlike many, though, Walsmith found a way to hit the road, buying a camper van, and heading west, playing socially-distant backyard shows from Illinois to Washington. It was a far cry from the normal summer festivals gigs the group usually plays, but after 27 years The Nadas don’t let much hold them back—even a pandemic.
Nobody to love- May 14th,2020
574,254 monthly listeners
No one does soft love ballads that make you slow dance the night away like Anthony Russo. This singer/songwriter/producer has an impeccable range. If you and your significant other need a song, look no further to Anthony Russo.
Anthony Russo didn’t always know he was going to make music. “One day I woke up and started making music,” he says. “I wasn’t extraordinarily gifted or talented.” After getting a good amount of support on SoundCLoud, the St. Louis native he moved to Los Angeles in hopes of hitting it big. In 2018, he got his break, teaming up with G-Eazy to release the song “Rewind”.
Anthony Russo’s story is as unique as they come. He tells DUJOUR News that his transition to music came from his struggle of finding his purpose. Russo wanted to figure out his main sound so he sampled everything he could. In DUJOUR News, he says, “There were endless possibilities. I realized how many different sounds you can make, different hooks you could write, it had me running in circles for a minute”. He gained more popularity in recent years when he joined G-Eazy’s “Beautiful & Damned Tour”. Being on the tour showed him a glimpse of the limelight. He states, “ I’m so thankful to be here at all. It feels like everything is manifesting into real life and I’m just watching it unfold every night”.
On November 7th, 2019, Anthony Russo released his debut EP “Dear You” which consisted of uptempo pop style love songs. Since releasing his debut EP, he has dropped two songs “Typical” and “Nobody to love.” On “Nobody to Love,” He expresses in the song how he doesn’t need anybody to love him and life in the city of angels. You will be sure to be dancing to this upbeat song in your living room like nobody’s watching.