I’ve been writing about music for close to 40 years (!), which means I rarely don’t have something playing in the background — including while I’m at the computer working. A good bit of the time, of course, what I’m listening to is whatever specific artist or record I’m writing about.
But there are a lot of times I go off-script, too, especially when writing something fictional or longer or not related to music at all, or even just for a change of pace. At those times, I’m usually looking for the aural equivalent of comfort food: something soothingly familiar that I can slip into and eventually tune out, letting it work its magic subconsciously.
This actually isn’t all that unusual, because a fair amount of anecdotal evidence suggests that if you want to really bear down on a task requiring concentration, it helps to binge on the familiar. It’s not just writing, either. My wife works as a real-estate paralegal and recently spent a day with Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” playing on an endless-loop repeat, and she reported that she felt like it greatly enhanced her productivity.
In my case, I’ve developed a few go-to favorites over the years. Some are individual songs, some are complete albums — and they all help focus my mind. What are some of yours? I’d like to hear about them in the comments.
Television, “1880 or So” — This was the leadoff track on the seminal New York new-wave band’s 1992 reunion album, and it was never any kind of hit. But it still kind of puts me in a trance every time I hear it, and I can listen to its hypnotic guitar interplay and mysteriously murmured lyrics for hours at a stretch. I’ve been trying to wear this one out for more than a quarter-century and it hasn’t happened yet. Another song in a similar vein is “Days on the Mountain” (1982) by Television founder Tom Verlaine. It’s weirder and less tuneful, but also longer and more epic. It scratches the same itch.
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue — This 1959 cool-jazz classic is an album I could happily listen to every single day the rest of my life, and it’s another one I’ve never been able to wear out. In that, I rank it alongside my all-time number-one favorite, Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. But Riot isn’t something I put on when I need to really bear down on a piece of writing; too jittery, and it demands too much concentration to serve as accompaniment. Kind of Blue, however, retreats into the background just enough to work perfectly.
The La’s — This Liverpool band made one and only one album, about which there is a fair amount of lore. Unsatisfied with how things were going in the studio, the band broke up in the middle of recording, leaving the producers to piece together enough songs to make up an album. While that’s not a promising scenario, the result is nevertheless one of my all-time favorite start-to-finish records ever. You already know the hit, “There She Goes,” 2:42 of chiming pop perfection. But all 12 songs flow along, rising and falling at a perfect pace. Even though it’s barely 35 minutes long, The La’s really does feel like a satisfying, long day’s journey into night.
Ennio Morricone, Legendary Italian Westerns — I’ve always had a special affinity for the “Spaghetti Westerns” of Italian director Sergio Leone, including the wide-open ambience of composer Ennio Morricone’s elegant scores. Two decades ago, this 1988 compilation of the maestro’s greatest western themes was my main soundtrack while I was writing my novel “Off The Record.” There’s just something that feels intrinsically right about dramatic instrumental movie scores as fiction-writing accompaniment.
Aaron Copland, Copland Conducts Copland — Speaking of cinematic, Aaron “voice of the American Heartland” Copland is pretty much the last word when it comes to broad-brush musical landscapes. Between “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Appalachian Spring,” this is music that should have your written epic sailing along in no time at all. And Copland’s music is so versatile, it even worked as soundtrack for a movie about basketball — Spike Lee’s “He Got Game.”