There five college radio stations within range of where I live in Boston (six on a clear night).

For a while at the beginning a few stopped allowing people into the studios and just shut down. I’d tune to 88.1 or 91.5 and there’d be nothing there. It wasn’t my first inkling of a new normal (that was probably a visit to Trader Joe’s on a Friday afternoon in early March, empty shelves and people who seemed terrified of me brushing by them in an aisle) but it did hit home. I listen to the radio a lot.

Now they all are back, most with prerecorded segments by the d.j’s played in the usual timeslots. I’m grateful especially for 88 Rewound, which plays a pop chart from the past in order, and which I’ve woken up to on Saturday mornings for at least a decade. A taste of the old normal…

The station that intrigues me the most though has dispensed with their d.j.’s entirely. Instead it randomly plays an obscure but limited playlist of maybe fifty to 100 songs. None of the songs necessarily go together, and all of the artists are unfamiliar. It’s humbled me to hear so much music I’ve never heard of, much in the rock/folk/blues genre I thought I was pretty on top of. The Evil Streaks, the Speedways, Lisa Bastoni, Tiger Bomb, Adam Sherman, Andrea Gillis: who are these people?

When I look on Spotify I do find them there, most with less than a thousand plays and “This artist does not have images or a bio yet” on the About tab. But someone at this radio station must have known about them, or how would they have gotten on the playlist in the first place?

Music hasn’t been much of a comfort to me over the last few months. In fact I’ve barely listened to new music (I’ve had the new Jason Isbell for two weeks and played it once) and except for a few curation bursts (yacht rock Sunday! Texas singer-songwriter exercise bike session!) haven’t even been playing much old stuff. Who can listen with attention when there’s so much static? (Don’t worry, I have been doing a lot of reading.)

Listening to this station every weekday morning from 7:30 to 8:30 as I’m starting my workday has been my most consistent musical engagement. And an interesting thing has happened: repeated exposure has created a kind of alternate universe where these songs are popular. Here are songs I never heard of three months ago and now I hear them every day (and sometimes twice within the same hour, stupid randomizing algorithm!).

When everything feels like an alternate universe, when the news is a Michael Crichton novel, a musical alternate universe fits right in. Three months ago I didn’t wash my hands after taking in the mail either, and now I do it without thinking. Maybe I’ll never hear these songs again once this is over (it will be over). Most are okay but not good enough to seek out. But for as long as this quarantine lasts, they are all number one with a bullet.