What should I (not) listen to?
May 29, 2007 11:58 AM   Subscribe

What's your background music?

I like to listen to music while I work, but a lot of my work is writing or reading, and music, especially with vocals, can be pretty distracting. I've tried jazz, Cocteau Twins, Sigur Ros, and other non-word singing, songs in languages I don't know, and some minimalist stuff, all with some success. I think the ideal background music for me is not super complex, because even a lot of tonal variety can throw me off reading. Unfortunately, a lot of contemporary 'ambient' music makes me want to barf. I guess I'm looking for simple rather than bland. Any suggestions?

Bonus points if you can suggest what I should plug into Pandora to create a station that would meet my needs.

posted by serazin to Media & Arts (43 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
You might search for terms like "post-rock", "dub", "minimalist" etc on sites like last.fm and pandora.

A good Sigur Ros-esque band to check out: Mogwai

I listen to singer/songwritery stuff and despite the lyrics tend to do just fine with it. Things like Ben Folds, Nick Drake, Iron & Wine, etc...

I also like instrumental stuff, but some may be a little complex if that bothers you. Examples: Aphex Twin (older ambient stuff), California Guitar Trio, etc..
posted by twiggy at 12:10 PM on May 29, 2007

posted by The Straightener at 12:10 PM on May 29, 2007

posted by cashman at 12:16 PM on May 29, 2007

For me, it depends on the intensity of the lyrics. I can easily read and write listening to the Barenaked Ladies' "Call and Answer" but not, say, their "Too Little Too Late."

For good, ignorable singing, I'd suggest you check out msot of Sufjan Stevens' work.
posted by sjuhawk31 at 12:22 PM on May 29, 2007

For me it's all about familiarity. I can't listen to new stuff while I work, no matter how simple/minimalist it is, because I'll be paying attention to the music and not my work. On the flipside, albums I'm familiar with work perfectly, even if they're loud, harmonically adventurous, fast, etc.
posted by danb at 12:36 PM on May 29, 2007

Try groove salad on somafm.
posted by aeighty at 12:43 PM on May 29, 2007

"God Speed! You Black Emperor"


They have some mp3 tracks for download on the site...
posted by MathewS at 12:56 PM on May 29, 2007

Some albums on my BGMusic playlist. All pretty minimal, pretty un-boring:

Biran Eno — Music for Airports
Slint — Spiderland
Lineland — Pavillion
Donnie Darko OST
Penguin Cafe Orchestra — Broadcasting from Home, S/T
The Wind-Up Bird — conduction. convection. radiation., Whips, S/T
Minotaur Shock — Maritime, Rinse
All of The Books' albums (there's vocals, but it all fades out for me. YMMV.)
posted by wemayfreeze at 1:13 PM on May 29, 2007

Boards of Canada
posted by O9scar at 1:14 PM on May 29, 2007

Kruder and Dorfmeister
Massive Attack
Thievery Corporation

For me, having a solid, regular, bass beat works. Not too many vocals, but the beat is important.
posted by theiconoclast31 at 1:15 PM on May 29, 2007

DJ Shadow
Yo La Tengo
posted by mattbucher at 1:21 PM on May 29, 2007

bossanova is the wallpaper of my life... check out Stan Getz, Luiz Bonfa, Jobim - if you haven't already, you might try lounge/exotica a la Les Baxter

(I like your question bytheway)
posted by mrmarley at 1:24 PM on May 29, 2007

Here are some netlabels with free ambient/chill out/experimental electronica that may suit you:

posted by Crotalus at 1:28 PM on May 29, 2007

simple rather than bland:
Monolake/Robert Henke
Frank Bretschneider
posted by Dean King at 1:38 PM on May 29, 2007

Anything too sedate puts me to sleep so I have to have something going on there.

Anything Galaxie 500/Luna does it for me - I can put all the recordings on constant repeat and just start working. And I get interrupted once in a while by just the perfect Dean Wareham riff to make me smile.

Also add (in no particular order and off the top of my head); Yo La Tengo (seconded), Willard Grant Conspiracy, The Folk Implosion, and most non-English operas.
posted by elendil71 at 1:39 PM on May 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

posted by Rhomboid at 1:46 PM on May 29, 2007

Stars of the Lid and labelmates Labradford might do you well.

Seconding recommendations of Brian Eno's Music for Airports and all Boards of Canada.
posted by porn in the woods at 1:51 PM on May 29, 2007

Steve Reich - Music for 18 Musicians (minimalist classical)

Arvo Pärt (minimalist classical)

Mompou - Musica Callada (classical, like a more dissonant Satie--who I'm surprised no one's mentioned, BTW)

Pole - albums entitled 1, 2, and 3 (electronic)

mum (electronic)

Four Tet (electronic) (caution: disjointed, thus possibly too distracting)

previously on AskMe
posted by Jaltcoh at 2:00 PM on May 29, 2007

posted by Afroblanco at 2:08 PM on May 29, 2007

Seconding AIR.
Zero 7.
If you like Mogwai, you might also like Explosions in the Sky.
posted by gnomeloaf at 2:18 PM on May 29, 2007

Does Pandora offer classical music? Outside of work I never listen to classical, but as soon as I sit down at my desk I put on my headphones, turn on my satellite radio, and leave it on the XM Classics station all day long. It's not necessarily "simple" music, but I find that the lack of vocals and the long flowing nature of the pieces really help when I need to really focus on what I'm reading or writing.
posted by platinum at 2:30 PM on May 29, 2007

The Orb
Bebel Gilberto
Bengal Audio (actually, most of the stuff on Six Degrees)
Aphex Twin Selected Ambient Works volumes I and II
n+1 all things Brian Eno
posted by softlord at 2:34 PM on May 29, 2007

Do Make Say Think
Explosions in the Sky
American Analog Set
Broken Social Scene
posted by ninjew at 2:45 PM on May 29, 2007

I have similar needs—I'm trying to finish a Ph.D. thesis and need music to block out noise around me/keep me from feeling like slitting my wrists. I listen to a lot of Boards of Canada (Music Has the Right... and Campfire Headphase work best; Geogaddi, while it's their best album, is also their most distracting), The Orb (UF Orb works perfectly), God Speed You! Black Emperor (F#A#[infinity]), and Renaissance polyphony (mostly masses—Josquin du Prez, Thomas Tallis, Palestrina, and so on).
posted by Sonny Jim at 3:39 PM on May 29, 2007

Isolee - Rest

I also like some of the Tallis Scholars choral CDs
posted by citron at 3:40 PM on May 29, 2007

CPE Bach
Beethoven (early works)
posted by ludwig_van at 4:07 PM on May 29, 2007

Peter Bjorn and John --> it's addictive.
posted by pwally at 4:21 PM on May 29, 2007

You want Bang on a Can's version of Terry Riley's In C. That's what you want. I'm sure of it.
posted by .kobayashi. at 4:28 PM on May 29, 2007

Choral music, especially requiems. Russian sacred music, especially vespers. Baroque masses and operas, especially Handel. I have a CD of Handel's largos that I'm addicted to. There's something almost mathematically regular about the baroque music, yet it's extremely lyrical; it's as if it can keep both my right and my left brain occupied so I'm free to concentrate, like a parent who sits two noisy toddlers in front of the TV so she can work.

Lately I've been listening to Yahoo Music's smooth jazz channel. No, I'm not a fan of smooth jazz. I find it boring -- and that's the ticket. It's just distracting enough without actually catching my interest or evoking emotions like "real" jazz would. Perhaps you too can find your own magic something that bores you without actually irritating you.
posted by ROTFL at 5:03 PM on May 29, 2007

Leo Kottke
John Fahey
posted by hypocritical ross at 6:06 PM on May 29, 2007

Portishead & Massive Attack generally plays when I have to write papers.
Classical guitar on last.fm usually plays when I have to do problem sets.
Grateful Dead live sets play when I'm reading, if I'm listening to music. There are words, but when you have a 30 minute song, there aren't that many.
posted by devilsbrigade at 6:28 PM on May 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm a teacher, and I find I can only grade to the Strokes' first album, lately. The lyrics are ignorable, and it's simple and forward-moving.
posted by HeroZero at 6:51 PM on May 29, 2007

posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:54 PM on May 29, 2007

Bill Evans.
Keith Jarrett Trio.
Joe Pass.
Kenny Burrell.
Wayne Shorter.
Art Tatum.
Billy Taylor.
John Lewis.
Paul Desmond.

These are all people who play/played with great taste, and generally, considerable restraint and simplicity. They tend to create a framework for time, that you fill in.
posted by paulsc at 7:04 PM on May 29, 2007

Great suggestions so far. Try M83 as well.
posted by dazed_one at 9:39 PM on May 29, 2007

Ravel/Debussy string quartets, my favorite version is by a Dutch saxophone quartet.
posted by hortense at 9:55 PM on May 29, 2007

I've only recently discovered that the music I like to listen to while working actually has a label: post-rock. Try using that tag on last.fm or Pandora. Some of the bands I like: Explosions in the Sky, Mono, Sigur Ros, Muse, Mogwai, Red Sparrowes.

I often listen to movie and anime soundtracks. Recent favorites are 300 and Berserk OST.

I also recommend Boy in Static, although I'm not too sure what kind of label I'd apply there.
posted by gakiko at 12:11 AM on May 30, 2007

Lesser known than Boards of Canada, but similar vibe: tides, by arovane
posted by O9scar at 12:55 AM on May 30, 2007

I highly recommend 70s/80s Steve Reich (his 90s-and-later music is also beautiful but is more active & varied).

Especially try these beautiful, long & meditative (but very non-bland) pieces:

- Six Marimbas
- Mallets, Voices & Organ
- Music for 18 Musicians
- Music for Large Ensemble
posted by allterrainbrain at 1:53 AM on May 30, 2007

I had success with this Music to think to question, as you can see there is much overlap in answers already. Good luck and enjoy.
posted by safetyfork at 6:37 AM on May 30, 2007

I've been listening to the Pride and Prejudice soundtrack lately. I listen to it as I set stones or do intricate handwork.

Also seconding Leo Kottke.
posted by Flakypastry at 7:30 AM on May 30, 2007

Thank you all so, so much for these suggestions, and especially for the links to previous related threads.

So far I'm having the best luck with the bossa nova - for some reason it is predictable and repetitive enough to be not-distracting, but also feels like 'real' music instead of, I don't know, synth pan-flutes or something that would make my skin crawl.

I'll delve into the minimalist and ambient stuff yawl have suggested, and start checking out some of the classical work as well.

Yawl rule, as always.
posted by serazin at 12:34 PM on May 30, 2007

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