Your stress level is raging, your heart is racing, and your blood pressure is soaring. If one more thing goes wrong or rubs you the wrong way, you’re going to blow up and fall apart. When things get that bad, try these songs. Some will calm you way down, so much so that you may feel like sleeping or meditating, while others will uplift you just a little.
Marconi Union — “Weightless”
First things first, “Weightless” is scientifically proven to be the most relaxing song ever. The band behind it, Manchester’s Marconi Union, worked with the British Academy of Sound Therapy on the track. I use it when I can’t sleep (it will make you drowsy), or when I’m on the verge of a panic attack.
Radiohead — “Treefingers”
This instrumental off Kid A may seem eerie to some, but its ambient space tones instantly lower my racing heart or escalating blood pressure when I’m on the brink of going off. The song also works on loop for drifting off into meditation or sleep. Weird side effect if you spent much time at Disney World as a kid: you might get a wave of nostalgia, as the song sounds a bit like the music they play while you’re waiting to ride Space Mountain.
Miles Davis — In A Silent Way
In A Silent Way was the calm before the storm in Miles Davis’ discography. A year before he released his seminal Bitches Brew, the great jazz experimenter offered up this wholly original LP of proto-ambient, semi-psychedelic jazz. It hard to pick which side is more soothing to the soul — “Shhh / Peaceful” or “In A Silent Way” — so for good measure in times of woe or anger, listen to both.
Cocteau Twins — “Lazy Calm”
The opening track off Cocteau Twins’ 1986 LP Victorialand ranks among the pioneering dream-pop band’s most blissful. “Lazy Calm” is about as close as a song comes to mimicking the feeling of floating, with singer Elizabeth Fraser’s vocals drenched in reverb.
Christopher Cross — “Sailing”
Cross’s 1980 classic is not cool and was never cool, but even in the context of rock’s chilliest genre short of chillwave itself — yacht rock — “Sailing” is peak musical Ambien. Cross demands you give into tranquility while listening, but you know, in a very gentle way.
Sigur Rós — “Hoppípolla”
If you need twinkling orchestral rock that crescendos straight into your happy place, Sigur Rós are your dudes. “Hoppípolla” is more upbeat than much of the Icelandic band’s work, but its quiet lows and triumphant highs make it my go-to song to listen to during flight take-off, a typically tense situation for my neurotic mind. I recommend the entirety of SR’s 2005 album Takk… for this purpose, now that I think of it.
Brian Eno — “1/1”
If you suffer from anxiety, you may already be well acquainted with Brian Eno’s discography; his work, after all, has been used by one doctor to develop a quiet space of reflection for patients. I highly recommend the first two entries in his highly influential Ambient series, 1975’s Music For Airports and 1980’s The Plateaux of Mirror, as well as 2010’s Small Craft On A Milk Sea, for calm-down purposes. “1/1,” the 17-minute opening track off Music For Airports, is not only the first work of ambient music many listeners ever heard, it’s incredibly soothing without ever switching into autopilot.
Beach House — “Silver Soul”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a description of Baltimore duo Beach House’s music that doesn’t utilize the word “dreamy.” Their five albums not only tap into the subconscious, they lay lush musical groundwork that’s perfect for projecting your own issues onto. “Silver Soul,” off 2010’s Teen Dream, might talk you down with its empathetic pleas of, “It has happened again,” or perhaps it’s the Wall of Sound vocals between members Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally.
Harry Nilsson — “Perfect Day”
The docile apex of what should have been the singer-songwriter’s 1977 comeback LP, Knnillssonn, reaches previously untouched heights of calm once the St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir Boys join in. I like to listen to this lush trifecta of harmonies, acoustic finger-picking, and sweeping strings on days that have been the exact opposite of perfect, as if to remind myself that someday I will feel this kind of bliss again, once I stop wanting to punch a wall.
Modest Mouse — “Float On”
Modest Mouse’s 2004 breakthrough into the mainstream is an obvious choice here for a reason: it’s a jangly reminder that even when you, for example, back your car into cop car, life’s gonna end up just fine.
Air — “New Star In the Sky”
French duo Air remains a go-to for moments of chill-out, with low-key gems tucked into an impressive discography that seamlessly blends electronica and space rock. “New Star In the Sky,” off Air’s essential 1998 album Moon Safari, is one such groove, as is the vibraphone version of Virgin Suicides anthem “Playground Love.”
Phosphorescent — “Song for Zula”
This six-minute, cinematic highlight off folk-rocker Phosphorescent’s 2013 LP Muchacho may be more uptempo than one would expect from a calm-down song. But imagine yourself flying down a hill, head out the car window, wind in your face. This is the perfect song to soundtrack that exact moment, so I go to that place every time I hear “Song for Zula” and instantly feel a rush of relief.
Sade — “By Your Side”
I know, I know. But c’mon. Sometimes songs are classics for a reason. Sade is the aural equivalent of a post-orgasm bliss where you drift right into your first deep sleep in weeks.
Paul Simon — “Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes”
This Graceland highlight makes the list for a few reasons: the extended a cappella intro from Simon and his collaborators in Lady Blacksmith Mamboza surrounds you with a calming embrace. Then, a minute in, Simon’s signature guitar tone — rock’s original definition of “breezy” — leads a blissful, semi-nonsensical celebration that will make you wanna dance.
Sufjan Stevens — “Chicago”
With the exception of Know Your Rabbit and The Age of Adz, Sufjan’s discography works well when you need to chill out. “Chicago,” perhaps the folk singer’s most famous song, is both triumphant and mellow, but it makes this particular list for its chants, “I made a lot of mistakes” and “all things go.”
Claude Debussy — “Clair De Lune”
If “Clair De Lune” doesn’t cool you down, please seriously consider anger management.
Steely Dan — “Aja”
Never has Steely Dan been among the most racous entries on any other list on which they’ve appeared. “Aja,” the crowning jewel of the duo’s jazz-rock masterpiece of the same name, is an eight-minute odyssey that starts off calmly with tasteful piano and eclectic percussion before working its way up to a burn-the-house-down jazz sax solo. Minutes later, synthesizer and percussion sputter out in such a controlled manner, much like the song’s protagonist, whose only vice is the love of a good woman.
Sia — “Breathe Me”
“Breathe Me” is, most famously, the song from the final scene of Six Feet Under. Without spoiling one of television’s most stunning dramas to date, I’ll just say that I associate “Breathe Me” with someone facing their fears and driving off into the future. That spirit of resiliency is one that can be helpful to tap into when you’re on the brink of losing it.
Crosby, Stills & Nash — “Helplessly Hoping”
This Stephen Stills-penned ballad off CSN’s 1969 debut is little more than an acoustic guitar and three voices harmonizing, but its gentle beauty is staggering — enough to take you to your happy place.
The Mountain Goats — “This Year”
When all else fails, I listen to this anthem and punch the air. The Sunset Tree highlight won’t lull you into submission, but rather, remind you that sometimes things downright suck but you’ll make it through anyway.