Nobody likes working in the vac, especially around Christmas when distractions are at an all-time high. If, like me, your productivity outside Oxford plummets to the point where you struggle to remember what subject you do or what a collection is, a bit of music to help you power through coursework, reading or revision (or if you’re lucky, all three) might be just what you need. I’ve picked out a few albums that should be your first port of call when you need some tunes to see you through the hours at the grindstone.
Jazz: Kamasi Washington, The Epic
There isn’t really another word for Kamasi Washington’s titanic 2015 record than epic. Sprawling across just under three hours with a good number of securely double-digit runtimes, The Epic is sizeable enough to handle any academic challenge you can throw at it (I can confirm this album saved me in prelims a couple of years ago). The lengthy tracks undergo considerable development and there are a lot of grand moments; favourites are the cosmic chorus of ‘Askim’, playful drums of ‘Leroy and Lanisha’, and the mellow organs of six-eight standout ‘Henrietta Our Hero’.
Film Soundtrack: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, The Social Network
Film soundtracks pair perfectly with work when you consider that they’re meant to add to the visual experience without drawing you from it. None are better than Reznor & Ross’ 2011 score for The Social Network; hit play and you too can pretend you’re Zuckerberg writing line after line of billionaire-quality code, when really you’re just trying to make sense of doodles you drew half-asleep in a Friday 9AM. ‘A Familiar Taste’ and ‘Carbon Prevails’ experiment with irregular beats and distortion, whilst ‘In Motion’ and ‘Intriguing Possibilities’ are particular masterpieces of Reznor & Ross’ arpeggiator-driven, sequenced sound.
Game Soundtrack: Disasterpeace, FEZ
If film soundtracks are great background tunes, video game soundtracks are designed to be repeated on loop for hours and hours without distracting from the experience. Disasterpeace’s charming, chirping accompaniment to FEZ is a wash of filtered drum machines and bit-crushed synths, and tracks like ‘Progress’ and ‘Flow’ will hopefully be eponymous with their effects. Not to mention, FEZ is a puzzle game, meaning its music needs to bring out the peak of your intellect: problem sheets and translations alike will crumble in the face of your newfound cognition.
Ambient: William Basinski, The Disintegration Loops
For the real 2AM isolationist experience, shut yourself away with The Disintegration Loops. This is literally the sound of the same repeated six-second taped sample progressively falling to actual physical bits over the course of seventy-four minutes. Some describe it as a statement on the fragility and temporary existence of analogue sound corrupted by a digital age; others would say it’s kerosene in the essay tank. Try not to draw too many parallels as you churn out two thousand words with the sobering sound of steady degradation in your ears.
Hip Hop: J Dilla, Donuts
For a more upbeat essay-writing experience, look no further than the undisputed master of hip-hop production’s posthumous magnum opus, Donuts. Tracks like ‘Workinonit’, ‘Stop’ and ‘Two Can Win’ are particularly inviting for rap talent, but sans-flows – as they are presented in Donuts – are uplifting anthems for study. Expect a wide array of inventive beats, catchy instrumental hooks and ingenious manipulation of samples.
Electronic: Bonobo, The North Borders
Bonobo’s trademark fusion of sampled instrumentation and clean, side-chained synths is perhaps its most effective in 2013’s The North Borders. Sprawling, harmonic soundscapes are crafted in ‘First Fires’ and ‘Emkay’. The thumping bass of single ‘Cirrus’ and garage beat of ‘Know You’ keep up the pace, whilst Erykah Badu’s vocals in ‘Heaven For The Sinner’ take a brief tour of the astral plane (a great place to pick up particularly far-fetched essay points).
Shoegaze: My Bloody Valentine, Loveless
From the moment the opener ‘Only Shallow’ thunders in with its less-is-more fill, there is simply so much noise present in My Bloody Valentine’s ’91 classic that to take any notice whatsoever of the outside world with it in your ears would be an impressive feat. As such, it silences any distraction and puts you firmly in your own personal bubble, from within which forty-eight minutes of blissfully uninterrupted productivity can sprout. In ‘Loomer’, the churning, revolving guitars grind out nostalgic chords, while the massive, ride-heavy drum groove of ‘Come In Alone’ keeps the midnight oil burning.
Folk: Nick Drake, Pink Moon
Sometimes a stripped-back, exposed acoustic guitar and the occasional tinkle of piano is all we need to keep us thinking. Nick Drake’s Pink Moon sounds as current as anything, but consider its 1972 release and you realise Drake’s genius was well before his time. Tracks like ‘Which Will’ and ‘Place To Be’ are warm, melodic, and serve as great background atmosphere (though have much merit as centrepiece songs in their own right), whilst the quicker rhythm of ‘Things Behind The Sun’ keeps the neurons firing.
Techno: Objekt, Flatland
There’s a special kind of panic reserved for rapidly-approaching deadlines when the odds are stacked against you. If you’re still blessed with forty-four minutes on the clock, fight back with Flatland, Objekt’s gritty 2014 record. ‘Agnes Revenge’ explodes in and bombards with drowning space-age synths, before the ticking time-bomb beat of ‘One Fell Swoop’ takes over. All guns blaze in ‘Ratchet’, while the relatively reserved ‘Interlude (Whodunnit?)’ provides a chance for a well-earned breather.
Minimalism: Steve Reich, Music For 18 Musicians
Steve Reich’s iconic 1976 piece spans just under an hour, and yet is known to have defined a new concept of extended music. Blending classical instruments with synthesised sounds, Reich builds through a series of movements so subtly you’ll have to rewind to figure out at what point the music changed. Chimes trill, angels coo, and arpeggiated synths bubble in and out; all the while you take a leaf from Reich’s book and, in honour of the great composer, focus on your own minimalist approach to revision.