The world is full of year-end lists, and at the end of every year I discover a lot of great music from them. I’m now of the age where I wouldn’t consider myself as being on the pulse of anything besides esoteric Finnish rock and modern composers whose primary instrument is distortion, so I don’t feel qualified to summarize the importance of this year’s musical output. Instead, I’d like to offer the records that have been the soundtrack to the work I’ve produced in 2012.
It’s not just any music that makes for good work music. If you’re like me and work in an open office that’s often disrupted by external voices and cross-room conversations, putting on the headphones really means something. The act itself separates you from your environment and facilitates the type of long-term disconnect that’s necessary to get into deep thinking space and get some work done.
It takes truly immersive music to create the mental space to really think things through. And if it’s something you can put down whenever someone enters the room, it’s not going to get you to where you need to be.
These are the records that have helped me get to productive mental spaces in 2012. It’s impossible to name a ‘best’, so I’ve ranked these based on my last.fm stats to give them some level of importance. These are all beautiful records, and I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I have.
My favorite creative space involves lining up four Tim Hecker records in a row, cranking the headphones, and eliminating the world for four solid hours. Ravedeath is my current favorite, a hazy, distorted mess of delayed piano that feels like a full-body massage. Its closing suite, “In The Air I-III”, is probably the most haunting piece of music I’ve heard since Khanate; it makes me well up every time.
Triumph is a live radio performance on WFMU from 2007. In its nearly 80 minutes, Circle leaps from minimal, Satie-inspired sketches to obtuse and noisy passages, punctuated at just the right times by their more traditional NWOFHM persona (imagine Kraftwerk trying to play as Judas Priest). There’s a long, unstructured piano/toy piano piece towards the end that’s full of this amazing, ebullient energy and seems to last for days.
Donuts is a hip-hop classic that I only caught wind of a few years ago. Made while he was in and out of the hospital and slowly dying, Donuts is J Dilla’s love letter to the world, a heavy and amazing farewell. It’s a very antsy record, speeding up and slowing down and cutting in and out of what feels like a hundred different pieces of music. Donuts is perfect for switching back and forth between tasks and is my go-to soundtrack for writing CSS and checking it in the browser.
US Christmas plays a sortof Godspeed-meets-Neurosis brand of eerie sludge rock. They’re heavy, but also reverbed to death in a way that makes things always feel off-kilter and out of focus. The long reverb and drawn out chords and beats create a sort of tunnel vision for me that is perfect concentration music. A few acoustic songs provide incredible contrast and quickly become the record’s highlights.
I’m not really a fan of Shlohmo’s records, but these three mixes are genius. Can a mix start with Suicide, head into AM soul, chopped and screwed Queen Latifah, Nintendo dance music, and on and on and end with 12-RPM Drake leading into Tom Waits? It can and it does. These mixes are things that shouldn’t work on paper but become magical and incredibly fun when coming out of your speakers.
I haven’t heard such an immersive hip-hop record in a long, long time. It’s a record where the skits aren’t bong rips and simulated blowjobs, they’re vignettes that actually support and enhance the storytelling within the songs (spoiler alert: he gets shot in the middle of a verse in one–I laugh every time). This is what I put on when a I’ve pushed past a problem and everything is a fun, downhill ride.
Yet another hazy, distortion-filled, zone-out record. It’s like Flying Saucer Attack if they were a 90s britpop band. Black Earth is blurred and indirect but oddly upbeat and almost dancey. This creates an excited type of zone-out, perfect for the beginning of a project when everything is just hope and possibilities.
Oneohtrix Point Never
Rifts is my quintessential problem-solving record. For one, it’s long, which gives me plenty of time (it’s actually three records packaged as one). It’s also built entirely on 80s synth sounds, which gives it that Epcot-y future-of-the-past feel that makes me feel all nerdy and smart, like I’m trapped in Mr. Wizard’s world. The melodies are circular and unending, like Shepard’s tones, which makes it great music to get lost in.
Some days you need to throw birds up at the world and power through some problems. The more recent Darkthrone records also work well in this application, but lately I’ve been enjoying It Was Written as a fun F-you to whatever ails me. Removing the first track (an overblown intro) and the last track (the over-poppy hit “If I Ruled The World”) from the playlist makes this album a lot more enjoyable.
Mamiffer is a duo of Aaron Turner and his pianist girlfriend Faith Coloccia, who create epic, often operatic orchestral pieces for piano and distorted guitar. It’s excellent for long, deep concentration, and the sort of music that makes your life feel all cinematic and important. If you want to make that sitemap really mean something, create it while listening to Mamiffer. The second track, “We Speak In The Dark”, features guest vocals from Circle’s Mika Ratto and an incredible descending piano line that seems to go on forever.
Zomes is the solo project of Lungfish’s Asa Osborne. Like Lungfish, the music of Zomes centers around short patterns repeated over and over, but using sparse instrumentation of only guitar, drum machine, and organ. These hissy cassette recordings sound like songs long lost and forgotten, like a decoder ring for all the world’s eternal secrets. Listening to this record leaves me lost in that feeling of discovery, and sets a perfect mood for early planning and sketching, when you’re waiting for the right idea to emerge.
Drive was the best film I saw in 2012. Like Nicolas Winding Refn’s other work, it’s a beautifully-shot film made incredible by the mood and timing of the music. Its soundtrack stands alone, and putting it on makes me feel smart, decisive, and in control. The cold and inhuman sounds of layered synths excite the logical part of my brain and make it a great soundtrack for deep thought.
Say God (song)
While the record of the same name is fine, it suffers from the same lack of focus as much of Higgs’s post-Lungfish work. But this song, “Say God”, is one of the most transcendental pieces of music I have ever heard. At 11-minutes, it’s just long enough to get lost in, and those 11-minutes feel like they last forever. I hit this one up when I need a mental reset or spiritual recharge during the course of the day.