More than ever, we’re treating pop music functionally—we choose and use tunes to get us going in the morning; to set the right vibes for cooking; to get amped for a night out. But creating a functional playlist for others can be perilous. Consider the wedding DJ, who takes responsibility for the entertainment of everyone at the reception, and whose success or failure is rooted not just in his judgments, but in his visible actions. At a reception with 10-year-olds, hippie uncles, and everyone in between, musical tastes can be comically divergent, but it doesn’t matter—if you’re the DJ and they’re not dancing, you’re blowing it.
Sometimes, particularly in tumultuous times, it seems that certain music becomes broadly functional for large swaths of society—it’s been said that Beatlemania was partially the response of a nation in search of joy following JFK’s assassination. Some attributed the sustained popularity of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack to a yearning for simpler times following the tumult of the 2000 election and the shock of 9/11. Now, in the midst of ominous news, upended routines, and multiplying demands, Spotify relaxation playlists have found their moment—NPR’s new “Isle of Calm” playlist picked up 20,000 followers in no time; Spotify’s “Ambient Relaxation” has nearly a million.
What follows isn’t a playlist promising peace of mind, but a catalog of music to explore, and maybe in which to find a few moments’ relief. You could play it in the background, but it’s offered in the spirit of Brian Eno, whose ambient music aimed to “accommodate many levels of listening attention.” In any case, I hope you find something that works for you in this strange season.
“Discreet Music” (1975)
Starting with Eno himself, this half-hour process piece of overlapping, slowly morphing tape loops clearly marks out the territory he made explicit three years later with Ambient 1: Music for Airports.
As I wrote not so long ago, this album casts a lovely spell, as celestial tones bloom and withdraw through layers of plinking and pulsing synthesizers and various malletophones.
Dead Prez? No, Des Prez! Eight hours of sublime polyphony from the 15th and 16th centuries, featuring masses, motets, and such. It isn’t just for Catholics anymore.
You know how some old dude is always ranting about how the old Fleetwood Mac was the best, and how Peter Green is the most underrated guitarist ever? He coulda just played you this lightly breezy, patchouli-laced gem.
Take away “Maria También” and you’ve got nothing but understated, supremely chill funk that’s perfect for online cocktail hours after putting the kids to bed.
“Alphorn Solo” (1990)
Eleven minutes of long, echoing, guttural tones from a gigantic wooden horn might sound daunting. But there’s a transcendence to the elemental sonics and the deliberate unfolding of this piece; it sounds like the world exhaling.
The Duke’s compositions, orchestrated with Billy Strayhorn, rarely gave his piano a chance to shine, so the 1954 album The Duke Plays Ellington is a treasure, and this solo version of the sweetly sad “Melancholia” defines the word better than any dictionary.
The little-known Kamm turned in a modest masterpiece with this solo acoustic guitar album—there’s nothing fancy in his compositions, nothing flashy in his technique—everything on Saudade just sounds like a kindly relative disclosing simple truths.
Ludwig van Beethoven
The slow movement of one of his visionary late quartets, Beethoven wrote this “holy song of Thanksgiving” while recovering from a long winter illness; it’s not the monumental 9th symphony, but it’s no less an ode to joy.