Live concerts, gigs and festivals are still out as we march further into 2021, so the need to feel transported to somewhere more beautiful via melodies, lyrics and rhythms has rarely been felt more keenly. In short, music has never been in greater demand.
Whether you're after a selection of sounds to help you get a good night's sleep, tunes to entertain children at home or a selection of inspiring albums written in self-isolation, heading down to your local record shop and rifling through crates is off-menu right now. But that's where streaming services like Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz, Deezer and Apple Music come in. These offer a lockdown-approved lifeline at the click of a button – a chance to test-drive new tracks and try sounds before you buy.
Spotify isn't our reigning champion when it comes to value, variety and audio quality, but its popularity and accessibility is undeniable. And the platform is always trying to offer something new, whether it be artist-led algorithms to better personalise your music recommendations, listing virtual events in lieu of real ones or giving Spotify account-holders a chance to 'tip' acts while listening – acts who are clearly losing gig revenue right now.
If you've ever used Spotify, you'll know that typing 'new music' into the search bar will yield a selection of curated mainstream newness from the likes of Lady Gaga, Ella Eyre, Jake Bugg and Stormzy, (and New Music Friday UK is always a good playlist shout here) but what if you're looking for something a bit different? That's where we come in. Why not lend your and ear to a few of these slightly more niche curated playlists? It'll make a change from the hi-res files stored on your laptop, whatever's on the Astell & Kern, the playlist someone shared with you at the start of the first lockdown or the CDs you retrieved from your car glove box, at any rate...
- See our Spotify review
Crate Diggers Anonymous
Imagine a record store (remember those?) in Las Vegas. Now imagine one in east London. Now think about popping into one in Bilbao for a crate rummage. What new and old LPs might you unearth? You could soon be spinning John Mayall, Led Zep, Kool and the Gang, Barry White or Weather Report, it depends. There's no specific genre here. Click play. Let's see.
Think beat-driven spitting segued with melodic, softly-sung but often edgy vocals – forget commercial pop music, there's a message here if we'll only listen. Expect new tracks from Curtis Waters (pictured) and ballads from Joji interspersed with hard rap from Kenny Mason and everything in between. If OutKast, Wu Tang Clan, Dave, Dungeon Family or Bel Biv DeVoe have ever featured in your heavy rotation, give this a spin. You'll almost certainly learn something.
Defected Records (Deep House)
There's a time and a place for house music, and that time is right now, in your actual house. Home entertainment remains the only entertainment for most of us, so go ahead and bring it home. Defected Records is a British independent record label specialising in deep house music and recordings, founded in 1998 and based in London. This playlist does exactly what it says on the tin, with over 25 hours of head-nodding tracks from the likes of FISHER, Gorgon City, Ferreck Dawn and Jack Back.
Social Distancing Distortion
American singer-songwriter Matt Berninger (frontman of indie rock band The National) curates and updates this playlist on a weekly basis. You might get Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Leonard Cohen or Interpol. And you might get Marilyn Monroe, Whitney Houston or even John Prine singing about a happy enchilada.
"Playlist themes subject to change according to moods and events," is the cover description. We say, if you want someone to serve up the collective mood through the medium of music, subscribe.
It's like the ultimate new rap music label. Spotify describes this playlist as "the official voice of generation next". If you're looking for a soundtrack for your next virtual house party, Most Necessary gets it done. With one eye on the next huge hit-single and another on capturing a snapshot of the current vernacular, you'll rarely hear a track that misses the mark. Expect new offerings from CJ, DaBaby, Lil Tecca, BRS Kash (pictured) and Toosii, for starters.
Phonica Recommends (Home)
Independent UK record store Phonica only opened in London's Soho in 2003, but it quickly became one of the capital's most-loved vinyl specialists. Basically, if Phonica recommends it, that's more than good enough for us.
Phonica's Spotify page reads: "So much great music out there that we've decided to split up our recommended playlists into two: one for the club and one for home listening".
So now you've got two extra playlists to add to your list, spanning everything from dub, reggae, nu jazz, soul and funk to broken beat and techno. Click the link below to access Phonica's recommended 'home' playlist, or turn your abode into a particularly exclusive club for the night, with the Phonica Recommends (Club) selection.
Vintage throwback hip-hop that strays from the well-explored coastal tracks and celebrates lesser-known heroes of the genre. Think Camp Lo, Big L and Mac Miller alongside Drake, Ghostface Killah, Eminem, 50 Cent (pictured) and Nas.
Got a pressing Zoom meeting or big grocery shop ahead? Get the cans on and stream this. You're going to ace it.
Discover Hozier's laid-back cover of the Destiny's Child classic Say My Name, John Mayer's take on Tom Petty's Free Fallin' using just a mic and two guitars, or Teenage Dirtbag as you've never heard it before; sung not by Wheatus but by Ruston Kelly.
The moments of surprise, recognition and ultimately approval come thick and fast here. A staple go-to for when you just can't decide what to listen to.
R&S – Office Favourites
R&S Records is an independent record label founded in 1984 in Ghent, Belgium. R&S represents the initials of Renaat Vandepapeliere and Sabine Maes, the couple responsible for creating the label.
Expect heavier electronica, house and trance offerings from Richard Fearless or V interspersed with expansive soundscapes from Darkstar, Nautic or Axel Boman, alongside the occasional grime track from Novelist. It'll easily double as your running playlist too, if you're pushing your time.
Late Night Lofi
Think laid-back chill-hop, juicy lo-fi beats, layered synthy vocals, classical and jazz-infused piano chords with crisp textures; ice clinking in a glass, rain on a window, crunchy leaves and even the brushing of teeth. It's perfect for playing through the cans and relaxing, zoning out, getting ready to sleep or seeing you through a bout of insomnia 'til sunrise.
At 4am in New York, when (if?) Birdland calls time at the bar, you'll finish your drink and talk about the price of a subway ticket versus a yellow taxi home to this playlist, one day...
The What Hi-Fi? Lockdown Playlist (and more)
Shameless self-promotion aside, this surely beats another Brian Eno album. What you'll get is a What Hi-Fi? curated playlist featuring five-and-a-half hours of tunes to celebrate staying healthy and not going out.
It's all relatively upbeat – no lonesome crooning – and all the titles here are relevant to our shared predicament, tangentially or otherwise. Think Lost In The Supermarket by The Clash, Outkast's So Fresh, So Clean, Iggy Pop's I'm Bored and Music For A Nurse by Oceansize, for starters.
Like what you hear? There's plenty more where that came from. We also regularly curate a monthly playlist featuring the music we've been listening to (and testing with) over the past 30 days. To enjoy it via the streaming service of your choice, just click on the relevant link below and drink your fill.
Listen: What Hi-Fi? Spotify playlist 2021
Listen: What Hi-Fi? Tidal playlist March 2021
Listen: What Hi-Fi? Deezer playlist March 2021
Listen: What Hi-Fi? Qobuz playlist March 2021