Productivity talk can edge into dystopian territory, but at the beginning of the year, I like to think of that kind of research and the tips that follow as a necessary self-help effort. And anyway, we’ve all heard the studies about what music does to our brains while we’re trying to work.
“When the task is clearly defined and is repetitive in nature… research seems to suggest that music is definitely useful,” Fast Company notes. As Quartz points out, nine out of ten people are more efficient at work while listening to music. A landmark 1972 study proved that factory workers performed better when “upbeat, happy” songs were played overhead. But what exactly does “upbeat” and “happy” mean to the individual desk worker with access to anything and everything (thanks, Spotify)? And what if “happy” and “upbeat” isn’t really your thing?
I polled a few co-workers here at Flavorpill HQ. Pop hits, Philip Glass, drone metal (like Earth), ambient techno (like Gas), low-key indie rock (like Beach House) were among the answers I received. Personally, I need wordless electronic music in bouts of productivity crisis. Ambient music does the job, but sometimes I need more of a steady bpm to motivate me.
It wasn’t until the late ’70s that Brian Eno started using the phrase “ambient music” to apply to his own sound, at that point already having made his own lasting mark on the genre, first via 1975’s Discreet Music. “Actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener” is how Eno described the ambient genre, and indeed the ability to be ignored is helpful in the work environment. I hate multi-artist playlists for workdays because they force my brain to acknowledge stylistic shifts, even subtle ones. So I use full albums. Specifically, I use these full albums (plus my own Aphex Twin megamix), or at least I have for the last six months. I hope you find them as effective as I have.
Daft Punk — Alive 2007
A followup to Alive 1997, Daft Punk’s Grammy-winning second live album is my go-to album when I just need to knock out work quickly. It helps if the task is tedious in some way, as Alive brings even more energy to Daft Punk songs than originally existed by mashing up what is essentially a best-of set.
Clark — Clark
For his seventh album, Warp Records producer Clark created a world that feels a little like the TV show Black Mirror: recognizably distorted. The 2014 self-titled effort loops between slow deterioration and hyper-speed rebirth, sometimes simultaneously. This may sound like music that demands one’s full attention, and at times it is if you let it. But the beat pushing the dark narrative forward has also worked for me as a driving force when I’m on the final legs of an intense, multi-faceted project.
Ricky Eat Acid — Three Love Songs
On his electronic debut last year, Sam Ray bounces between dark and light worlds with marked entry points. The most obvious — the album’s proper start — features a monologue about moving through a house only to realize you’re alone. In that sense, Three Love Songs feels not only intimate but manageable — not fully demanding of one’s conscious attention. It’s a true ambient album in the sense that found sound and bits of white noise creep in. I find it a useful soundtrack for deeply creative work.
Brian Eno — Small Craft on a Milk Sea
While Brian Eno’s four-part Ambient series from 1978 to 1982 (and his releases in the years directly before and after) make up the bulk of his masterclass on the genre that remains one of the best soundtracks to a desk job, his late career output is full of albums that also work well for these purposes. Small Craft on a Milk Sea, from 2010, is a contained universe in each song, some demanding more attention that others. Again, a great album for multi-faceted projects and switching between tasks requiring varying levels of focus.
Air — Moon Safari
French duo Air’s 1998 debut album is the Friday afternoon productivity album (besides Jock Jams, which I’ve used in my most desperate times). Moon Safari is an intergalactic dance party that requires very little of its listener: just chill out, get happy, and bop along when you can.
Nine Inch Nails — Hesitation Marks
I often listen to Nine Inch Nails’ catalogue as a motivational device for the most horrendous tasks on my to-do list (head like a hole, amirite), but Trent Reznor’s most recent NIN album — 2013’s Hesitation Marks — steps down the intensity while keeping up the pace. When I say Hesitation Marks is the most ignorable NIN album, I don’t mean it’s the most forgettable. Though lyrical, songs like “All Time Low” and “While I’m Still Here” lend themselves to instinctual grooving with just a few listens. In the midst of a long, tedious task, there’s nothing I love more than a subconscious dance party at my desk to shake it up.
The Social Network Soundtrack — Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Speaking of Reznor, his soundtrack work with Atticus Ross for David Fincher films has been known to make great finish-line music for big projects. The intensity seethes through in a way that’s far less demanding than the NIN catalogue. The high-energy, wide-varying Social Network soundtrack is my favorite among them, and the one I work to most often.
Dawn of Midi — Dysnomia
Brooklyn trio Dawn of Midi — comprised of pianist Amino Belyamani,bassist Aakaash Israni, and drummer Qasim Naqvi — have variations of a theme on lock. Their stunning 2013 album, Dysnomia, moves methodically, so it works best at a low volume while making your way through a structured project.
Arca — Xen
We’ve praised Xen — the Mute Records debut from Yeezus and FKA twigs producer Alejandro Ghersi — a number of times here on Flavorwire throughout 2014. Part of why I connected with Xen so intensely is that it makes for a great soundtrack to deeply creative work — brainstorming, big-picture type of stuff. Xen does demand some amount of your attention, but the inspiration you get out of it in return is worth it.
Lone — Reality Testing
British electronic musician Matt Cutler made a career-defining album with 2012’s overloaded Galaxy Garden, but it’s his streamlined follow-up that works best for, well, work. This is a fun one for when you’re in a bad mood about your work, as it dips between house, techno, ambient, and more with an easiness that doesn’t call attention to itself. I always feel better about the day after I complete a task to Reality Testing.