Music to program to
There are two types of programmer (or, I guess, designer): those that listen to music when they work, and those that don’t.
I’m of the former type, and every time I meet someone else from the same camp, we inevitably end up swapping music suggestions.
The music I listen to at work ranges from tango (Gotan Project) and acid jazz (Hidden Orchestra) through post-rock (Sigur Rós, Explosions in the Sky), to ambient electro (Andrew Pekler, Jan Jelinek), and finally glitch and techno (Vladislav Delay, Jon Hopkins, Glitch Mob).
The whole point is to provide just enough stimulus that I can get into the zone, without providing so much that I get distracted out of it by an awesome tune.
Typically the songs don’t have lyrics (or are foreign, so I can’t sing along). And the range of styles means I can pick an album that suits the work at hand – acid jazz in Photoshop, say, and Glitch Mob when I’m hammering out some horrible CSS bug.
So here’s a run-down. I hope you find something new and awesome to listen to! Where possible I’ve linked song names to videos on YouTube, so you can have a listen. Album names link to Amazon.
Tweet me @zarino if there’s anything you think I should add to the list!
Gotan Project Super-cool folk/latin/jazz from the continent
The name might not ring a bell but you will have heard music by Gotan Project before. They’ve got that catchy, unusual sound that makes them perfect for advertising and movie soundtracks.
It’s all about accordions and super-cool bass riffs, with bits of echoey foreign vocal lines smattered throughout. Everything is French and Spanish and it just oozes sophistication.
Like Andrew Pekler, this is the sort of chilled lounge music you’d expect to hear in a posh handbag shop, where all the sales assistants wear insanely well fitted brown suits and foppish side-partings.
Hidden Orchestra Immersive, mind-blowing jazz
Hidden Orchestra are a Scottish group, based in Edinburgh. They have a completely unique sound which mixes jazz, hip-hop, and samples of the natural world, into a weird but wonderful soup you just want to get lost in.
Their 2010 album Night Walks is on the jazzy side of acid jazz – like my other long-time favourite, the Cinematic Orchestra, except entirely without lyrics.
2012’s Archipelago develops their trademark swooping, deep, rich soundscapes, with instrumental melodies that simply drip sophistication.
Where to start: Reminder and Fourth Wall are good introductions to their broody, bombastic bass lines. Disquiet, on the same album, is a good taster for their archetypical swirling, gliding, sophisticated instrumentals and complex string riffs.
If you like Hidden Orchestra… check out The Cinematic Orchestra (Ma Fleur is a good introductory album). And if you like them, try Patrick Watson’s Close to Paradise and Adventures In Your Own Back Yard.
Sigur Rós Ethereal, minimalist, bizarre
Sigur Rós are one of the longest-serving artists in my library. I first heard of them when their UK breakthrough track, Hoppípolla, was used in an advert for the BBC’s Planet Earth in 2005.
Compared to Hidden Orchestra, Sigur Rós feels like airy, ridiculous fluff. Gone are the deep, brooding baselines and windswept sound effects. In come fairy vocals and countermelodies that sound like the springs in a pocket watch. But it’s all very lovely.
Where to start: Takk is probably their most approachable album. Famous for Hoppípolla, but Glósóli and Gong are also really good. The untitled album, “( )”, has more typical, spaced-out, grandiose, post-rock feel – a bit like Explosions in the Sky.
Explosions in the Sky It’s all about the climax
Wikipedia describes Explosions in the Sky as making “brooding, ominous melodies building into crashing climaxes.” Which is pretty spot-on.
As with most post-rock, we get nice long tracks here, with lots of time taken to develop melodies around a theme, almost always building to some really satisfying, eardrum-popping crescendo at the end. It’s perfect background music for working to.
If you like Explosions in the Sky… make sure to check out Enchanted Hill and In A Safe Place by The Album Leaf, and A Data Learn the Language and Chez Viking by The Mercury Program. Bits of 65daysofstatic (like Radio Protector and Drove Through Ghosts To Get Here) are also really similar.
Andrew Pekler Broken little fragments of electro jazz
Andrew Pekler’s music is sort of like Hidden Orchestra: you can hear real jazz instruments, and they build up gradually to form often quite complex tunes. But unlike Hidden Orchestra, the instruments are warped and splintered. You get bits of melody, in weird orders, like a cubist painting.
As I said above, I always feel like this is the sort of low-fi electronic lounge music you should hear in trendy handbag shops like Louis Vuitton or Gucci. There is nothing offensive, nothing jarring, here. Which is nice sometimes.
Jan Jelinek / Gramm Like you’re living in a computer
Jan Jelinek (who also performs under the stage name Gramm) is all about deep, reverberating, repeating soundscapes, brought to life with clicks and skips and driving rhythms.
The music sort of washes over you, and recedes into the background, making it perfect for working along to. There’s just enough variation and progression to keep you creative without distracting your focus.
Where to start: Legends / Nugroove™, the opener from Personal Rock, is probably a good introduction to his style, with a ridiculously catchy driving bassline, and metronomic clicking percussion, cutting through a mournful, wailing chord line. Once you get bored with that album, try Kosmischer Pitch for something with more melody, like Universal Silhouette.
If you like Jan Jelinek… then read on, because you’ll love Vladislav Delay and Jon Hopkins.
Sasu Ripatti / Vladislav Delay Ambient / glitch / techno
Compared to Jan Jelinek, Vladislav Delay comes across as quite unfriendly. At first the noise is claustrophobic. But give it time, and you’ll find bits of his back catalogue that are energetic and intense.
Syncopated, semi-random bass lines and percussion give everything a sort of out-of-control runaway feel. Bits of it feel organic. Others feel manufactured. It’s hard to describe!
Where to start: This is the sort of music you just put on in the background, and no matter where you start or stop listening, you’ll still get the same effect. As far as I can tell, no one track is better or worse than any other. I found Multila a slightly more friendly introduction to his style than Kuopio which was just a little too close to having a rave going on inside my head.
Jon Hopkins From excitement, to anxiety, to beauty
Opalescent is a really airy, ambient album. If a bit nondescript. I wouldn’t bother downloading it.
The earlier Insides shows off Jon Hopkins’ affinity with Brian Eno, and features a nice easter egg in the form of Light Through The Veins – which is a longer, better version of the only good bit from Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, the twinkly Eno-influenced melody that book-ends the album in Life In Technicolor and Death And All His Friends. Turns out that riff was too good to be a Coldplay invention – it was a sample from Jon Hopkins. Mystery solved.
His newest album, Immunity, is more similar to Jan Jelinek – clicks and skips, with real world samples that keep it from feeling too artificial.
Where to start: Open Eye Signal, on the album Immunity, is a good introduction to the modern Jon Hopkins. Relentless rhythm and pace. With a good set of speakers or headphones, the bass goes right through you.
Daft Punk: TRON Legacy R3CONF1GUR3D
The original soundtrack to TRON Legacy is pretty good as far as ambient, soundtracky music goes, with some stomping energetic bits (The Game Has Changed, Derezzed, Fall) and some plinky-plonky spaced-out bits (The Son of Flynn, Armory, Solar Sailer).
R3CONF1GUR3D is an album of remixes from the original soundtrack. It’s a bit hit-and-miss, but taken as a whole, standout tracks like The Glitch Mob’s bombastic remix of Derezzed, and Crystal Method and Photek’s synth-heavy covers of The Grid and End Of Line respectively, make it a worthy listen.
As you’d expect from an album originally meant to be a dancefloor counterpart to a more orchestral original album, R3CONF1GUR3D is pretty energetic and upbeat. Perfect for getting over the late-afternoon slump.
Where to start: Well, this is only one album, so start at the beginning and work your way through! If you like the sound of a track, look up the artist who mixed it – that’s how I found out about the Glitch Mob…
The Glitch Mob Turn it up to eleven
Six months ago, I never would have considered a band like the Glitch Mob. But times—and tastes—change. This is all worlds apart from Sigur Rós and Hidden Orchestra – Glitch Mob is heavy and high octane, with deep rumbling bass lines and trippy, glitchy melodies.
Their 2014 album Love Death Immortality has astonishing energy (in tracks like Mind Of A Beast, Skullclub, and Carry The Sun), paired with wailing female vocals and equally wailing synths and guitars (in Our Demons and Becoming Harmonious).
Drink The Sea, from 2010, is less varied, and maybe less approachable for newcomers. In parts it’s almost more like a high-powered, bass-heavy version of a post-rock act like Explosions in the Sky.
Is that all?
But hopefully, if you’re the sort of person who listens to music while you work, it’s given you some ideas on what to try next. Let me know what you think – tweet @zarino :-)
Update: Your suggestions!
Thanks guys, you’re awesome! I had loads of suggestions after this post was first published. Here are the highlights:
Ross Jones suggested Public Service Broadcasting, the Ozrics, and the Shez Raja Collective. The Ozric Tentacles were a bit too psy-rocky for me, and I can’t say I’ve really got into Shez Raja. But Public Service Broadcasting was ace! Sort of like a mix of Lemon Jelly, Duckworth Lewis / Divine Comedy, and maybe even bits of Hidden Orchestra. Their stuff can get a bit twee at times, but their debut album Inform - Educate - Entertain is a good place to start. They’ve got a new album coming out in February next year.
Zach Beauvais suggested Do Make Say Think, who I haven’t listened to much, but seem to be somewhere between a typical instrumental post-rock band like El Ten Eleven, and an American folksy bluegrass band.