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First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

The Best Songs to Work To
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A collection from readers of the songs they most enjoy listening to while reading and writing for work (typically sans lyrics).

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It’s rare to see something end well on the internet. Most ongoing projects—whether blogs, podcasts, or novelty Tumblrs—don’t really ever formally end; instead, their creator loses interest in them over time, and then they have a busy couple months at work, and then maybe they have a new kid on the way, and obligations stack up until eventually an unpaid server bill takes the long-fallow page out of its misery.

So I want to congratulate and also thank Hoverbird (also known as Patrick Ewing) for formally and lovingly ending his tremendous online radio show, Warm Focus, this Wednesday. You can listen to the final episode on BFF.fm’s website.

For the past 18 months or so, Warm Focus has run early on Wednesday afternoons on BFF.fm, capturing a nameless but very weekday-in-autumn vibe: the popping-synapses, bright-but-background, happy-and-humming, in-the-flow feeling that characterizes music for good work getting done well. Hoverbird himself says the genre walks the line “between mellow & energetic, digital & analog, high & low BPM.”

Reader Doug keeps alive our series of “songs to work to” with a score by Nick Cave set to an enchanting timelapse of scenes from San Francisco:

Pretty sure I picked this one up from the Dish, but it’s a phenomenal instrumental song that tends toward the more relaxing, if that’s what you’re craving.

You may recognize it from the 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Reader David recommends a popular soundtrack whose movie—a George Clooney vehicle directed by Steven Soderbergh—got a mediocre Rotten rating:

Hello! I listen to a lot of ambient and film music while I work, and one of my all-time favorites is the soundtrack to the 2002 sci-fi film Solaris, composed by Cliff Martinez. Ambient beds of synthesizers and the occasional swell of strings (real? electronic?) mingle with steel drum sounds—yes, steel drums!— to create an otherworldly soundscape that’s simultaneously free-floating and grounded in pulsating rhythm.

You can hear the whole album here on YouTube.

One of its most popular tracks is embedded above, and the bouncing audio visualizer adds a nice touch.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Reader Doug digs deeper into his collection:

“Skylight” by Gramatik. The title of this album, Beatz & Pieces, Vol. 1, pretty much sums up my taste in “working music”—heavy beat, probably some mixing / sampling or something that sounds like it, brought together by great composition.

“Imagination” by CFCF. A little less electronic, slightly more jazzy than some of the other stuff on this list, but still has that solid underlying rhythm layered with the more complex melodic stuff on top.

“Ce matin-la” by Air. Just relaxing, easy instrumentals. Nice changes of pace, combination of a bunch of different instruments ... working gold.

That song from Air is off their album Moon Safari, available on YouTube, and one of their others, Talkie Walkie—available here—was a favorite during my senior year of college, so highly recommended.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Coming off a two-week vacation, traveling through several airports, I especially need our “songs to work to” series to help transition back to office mode. Sarah is the latest reader to lend a hand:

Since I spend a lot of my days reading and deciphering complex scientific papers and work in a noisy office, music is often the only way to get anything done. Like many people, I listen to a lot of classical music to focus, especially the Karajan recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies that I’ve loved since I was little, as well as Bach’s B minor mass and “St. Matthew Passion”—because nothing soothes the soul like Bach (and that opening of the Passion gets me every. single. time.). Josquin Des Prez’s “Ave Maria” and “Missa L’Homme Arme” have also been favourites since I heard them in my first year of music school.

When I stray away from classical, Brian Eno’s Music for Airports [first part embedded above] or Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven are longtime favourites—waves of lovely, lovely sound.

And when I’m doing work that doesn’t require intense focus, like answering emails, it’s Beyoncé of course. I often think of it as a little treat to myself for getting through a complicated math or physics paper. Yes I’m lame.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Reader Barbara, who recommended a full playlist of classical music earlier this week, shares a lyrical description for her top choice:

The champion long-running compositions for working, for me, are the J.S. Bach Cello Suites, performed by Mstislav Rostropovich. (These do require a quiet environment or headphones that limit competing noise). The notes push onward inevitably, flowing and cascading, for a couple of hours if I play all six suites.

It’s like going into a large, high-ceilinged room that has minimal furniture, but very rich textures—bookcases with leather-bound volumes, silk oriental rugs, deep-cushioned velvet upholstery, satin pillows, a lacquered chest, taffeta draperies, window seats with brocade cushions, and glazed plaster walls, all in aquamarine, emerald, sapphire, ruby, pearl, and silver tones, with one or two cloisonne tchotchkes, an arrangement of tulips or apple blossom or pussy willows, and a marble fireplace with an enormous mirror above it.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

For those struggling back to productivity after the long weekend, reader Barbara has several recommendations—starting with the soundtrack to a Washington Post video about Hawaii’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument:

I really liked the music that was used, but the credit was remarkably unhelpful: “Podington Bear.” No track name or album name. Some exploring did not identify the track, but it did inform me that Podington is Chad Crouch, who has a lot of ambient music available online. I listened to the album Springtime more than once—I like the cheerful aspect, and sometimes I work best with a little bounciness to goose me to more productivity. The tracks are short, but “Sidecar” and “Transmogrify” are fun, and “Golden Hour” [embedded above] is lush and relaxing. Several albums are on the Free Music Archive, which was also a new discovery for me.

I listened to “Golden Hour” a few times this morning, and can confirm both bounciness and relaxation. Back to Barbara’s list:

A reader in Nashville, Holly, runs through a handful of picks:

I usually listen to something I’m going to be reviewing, or interviewing about. But when it rains, I listen to Rickie Lee Jones’ Pirates or Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain [full album on YouTube, and its first track is embedded above]. When it needs to go into overdrive, any version—Waylon Jennings’, Emmylou Harris’, Foghat’s—of Rodney Crowell’s “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This,” or the very first Prince album. And when my soul’s on the line, Valerie Carter’s A Stone’s Throw Away: churchy, soulful, undulating and forlorn in phases.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

A reader writes, “Speaking of video-game music, Geometry Dash is the best, because it is like an energy booster.” If you’re also unfamiliar with Geometry Dash:

It’s a 2013 mobile game and Steam game developed by Sweden-based developer Robert Topala, and published by his own company RobTop Games. It is a rhythm-based running game which currently has 20 levels. Each level features unique background music. Other features of the game include a level editor, map packs, user-created levels, secret coins, and a great variety of icons and game modes, as well as user coins and a secret vault in the latest versions.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Three more picks from reader Doug:

  • “Mary’s Song”—Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Pretty sure I picked this one up from the Dish, but a phenomenal instrumental song that tends toward the more relaxing, if that's what you’re craving.
  • “Thing of Gold”—Snarky Puppy [embedded above]. Came across this band via my little brother (who was lucky enough to be featured on TotD back in the early days). I think of them as an evolution of jam bands, a little more classically jazzy maybe but in that same kind of thread: something a little more than classic jazz, but that clearly maintains the connections to the great improvisors / instrumentalists of the past.
  • Linus and Lucy”—Winton Marsalis. Because what sort of monster doesn’t love the Charlie Brown theme played by two of the jazz greats of our time?

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

A two-parter from reader Kevin Gibbons:

When I am working on websites or doing data-related work, I like electronic music that keeps up my work pace and helps me keep on the anti-distraction blinders. Here’s a good example: “Walking with Elephants” by Ten Walls.

When I’m doing work that requires reading, I love piano music. This album by Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is perfect for me because of its winding, elegant stumble.“Homeless Wanderer” is a great track if you need one.

The YouTube version embedded above is a mashup of that track and this compilation of snippets from nearly 400 films released in 2013. Watching the mashup isn’t great for getting work done, but it’s a great mental health break for cinephiles like myself.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

A handful of picks from reader Doug:

  • “Midnight” by Caravan Palace. This breaks the rules on vocals a little bit for your series, but I’ve found that the kind of vocals included in this song (more sampled / mixed in than a primary component of the song) can fade in to the background pretty easily when you’ve got it going as background music.
  • “I Slept With Bonhomme At The CBC” by Broken Social Scene [embedded above]. A little older than some of the selections on here, but this is a song that I’ve kept in the rotation pretty constantly since first hearing it.
  • “Gardyn” by Pogo. Some people might think there's a little too much going on in this song, but this is the kind of music that drives me when working ... some nice beats, pretty repetitive on the surface but complex enough on a close listening to keep the procrastination-prone part of my brain occupied.

For a panoply of Pogo songs and entrancing videos to accompany them, go here.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)