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It’s that time of year again: school has begun and students are back on the job. Even those of us in the 9-to-5 fray feel this autumnal pull to stock up on office supplies and score some back-to-school deals. Time for setting pen to paper, firing up those laptops in large lecture halls, figuring out who is doing what in your group’s project for the term, and staking your claim for work space at the local coffee joint. As anyone who has ever pulled an all-nighter for school or work knows, music can help make that time more productive. Whether you’re hunkered down at the library or you’ve ordered pizza for a group study session at your place, nearly everyone has that album or type of music that can reduce the distractions and focus the mind.
Noise rock + hardcore + ‘70s prog rock + post-rock dissonance = Polvo. That was an over-simplified equation for what math rock bands like Polvo are like (equations, math, get it?). There’s not enough space to go into defining math rock that would satisfy all genre-heads so I’ll just stick to my equation. The funny thing is, despite being one of the most commonly thought of bands when math rock comes up, Polvo doesn’t really think of themselves as belonging to the genre. Listening to Exploded Drawing (1996) and subsequent albums, it’s easy to see why. While the characteristic dissonant song structures and time signature changes are all present, as well as the long guitar instrumentals, there’s more Sonic Youth-indie rock than Don Caballero in songs like “Bridesmaid Blues,” “Crumbling Down,” and “High-Wire Moves.” For clearer math rock characteristics, listen to the angular “Feather of Forgiveness.” When integrals and matrix algebra get you down, there’s enough hard-driving bitterness and complex guitar-work on Exploded Drawing to inspire you to find the solutions.
Soul-crushing folk is right up my alley during times of intense focus and stress and Burn Your Fire doesn’t disappointment in that respect (see “Unfucktheworld” and “White Fire”). But Olsen shifts gears to all-out rock on the second track, “Forgiven/Forgotten” and “Hi Five.” She yearns for connections, singing about loss and disappointment, either accompanied by a guitar or by her full band, and Olsen’s bluesy folk vocals tremble and soar throughout. And lest you think that by the end of the album your tears will be staining your homework, Olsen’s vulnerable confidence looks to the light on “Windows,” inspiring us all to keep going and not be crushed by our disappointments.
For those people who find Bob Dylan hard to listen to and think his ‘60s output consists only of protest songs, listen to 1969’s Nashville Skyline. Unlike some of his heavier work, this is a perfect album to put on when you need something relaxing in the background but upbeat enough to keep you from completely zoning out. The story goes that Dylan quit smoking which resulted in the almost unrecognizable croon he achieves on this album. On top of that he goes full on country, even singing a duet with Johnny Cash on album opener “Girl from the North Country.” And the kicker? There are outright love songs on here. Dylan provides the requisite songs of heartbreak like “I Threw It All Away” and “One More Night” but there are also songs like “To Be Alone With You” about the simple thankfulness of being with the one he loves. There’s romantic tenderness in asking his lover to stay the night in “Lay Lady Lay” and in the album closer (“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”) he sings about giving up the rambling life and settling down. All of it combines to create one of the smoothest, most chill albums of Dylan’s career.
Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) is start-to-finish one of the most laidback hip-hop albums out there. It’s great for catching up on the readings for a literature course or soundtracking an evening group study session, impressing your study mates with the musical depth of your collection. It may not be the critical darling that their second album Blowout Comb is now considered, but Digable Planets’ 1993 debut is just as much of a classic. Reachin’, like other late ‘80s to early ‘90s hip-hop, relies heavily on jazz and soul samples and is an early touchstone for jazz hip-hop fusion. But instead of verses that sit front and center, contrasting with the music behind, DP match their vocals with the chill grooves; the vibe of the album takes precedence.
Music Has the Right to Children (1998), Boards of Canada’s debut full-length, is an electronic album that ranges between ambient and minimalist synthwave along with occasional hip-hop beats, and holds its own against any of today’s electronica releases. Using analog and digital synths, drum machines, sampling from educational programs like Sesame Street and elsewhere, and a focus on nostalgia, the album sounds like the last gasp of summer. Music Has the Right to Children sets the moodiest of moods for studying where you’re wondering, is this the right major? Where did my childhood go?
Ever wish that your study sessions would fly by in a montage, where you’re the hero in your own movie finally buckling down and showing everyone how capable you really are? Well, Devo’s first album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978), is the soundtrack for that montage if you’re wired on a few energy drinks and a bag of Cheetos. Produced by Brian Eno, Devo combined performance art and de-evolutionary theory along with minimalist new wave punk into a gloriously fun take-down of conformity and dehumanization that is still relevant today.
Some of you are thinking, wait she’s going with another math rock album? And the answer is both yes and no, to the chagrin of my fellow math nerds who prefer unique solutions. Don Caballero is considered one of the seminal ‘90s math rock bands (but they also dislike the label) and whereas Polvo leaned more into noise rock, Don Caballero falls more on the instrumental post-rock side of things. Their third album in particular, What Burns Never Returns (1998), is arguably their best work. The music has the characteristic time signature and rhythmic changes and they also experiment with guitar pedal effects; this coupled with Damon Che’s explosive yet highly technical drumming may as well make this a post-prog-jazz album.
Frédéric Chopin’s piano compositions are great for work situations when you need your mind sharp, but also want beauty and peace around you. The Legendary 1965 Recording by Martha Argerich is notable for multiple reasons, not least of which it having its first ever vinyl release earlier this year. Argerich, of Argentina, is one of the greatest pianists of her time. As one music professor friend told me, she’s a genius. But in 1965 she was still a young pianist making her mark, winning 1st Prize at the International Chopin Piano Competition, and amazing everyone with her technical skill and ferocious playing. Shortly afterwards she entered Abbey Road Studios and recorded the pieces on this album. Due to a commitment she had made with another company, the recording was shelved for over 30 years before finally seeing the light of day on CD in 1999. Argerich’s flamboyant and yet tender interpretation of Chopin’s 3rd sonata in B minor is just perfection. She also kicks ass on three mazurkas, one nocturne, a scherzo, and the familiar Polonaise No. 6. The Chopin repertoire represented here is exhilarating and vibrant yet loses none of its sensuality.
Blue Bell Knoll (1988), Cocteau Twins’ fifth album, is not only severely underrated but also one of their best. It’s one of those transition albums that tend to get overshadowed by the follow-up album, in this case the amazing Heaven or Las Vegas. It was recorded in their newly built studio where they were able to experiment more with dense layers of sound as well as incorporate more pop sensibilities. Vocalist Elizabeth Fraser uses her voice as another instrument, using foreign language words and other meaningless vocalizations which make Cocteau Twins songs more like impressionist paintings, but on this album there are points where clear sentences can be heard. A distribution deal with Capitol Records allowed Blue Bell Knoll to be released directly in the U.S. contributing to increased exposure here. It also helped that first single, “Carolyn’s Fingers,” was their most accessible song to date, its video making the rounds on MTV, bringing dream pop and Fraser’s ethereal vocal gymnastics to the masses. Along with Robin Guthrie’s distinctive shimmery guitar work, the glittery pop of songs like “Cico Buff” and “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat” is atmospheric and otherworldly, providing a sparkling backdrop for getting through a day’s reading or working on your sketchbook for an art project.
I once listened to Turn On The Bright Lights on repeat all night long in an empty computer lab and it was Interpol’s hunger and drive that kept me awake and focused on mind-numbing statistical code and a semi-intelligible econ history paper. Interpol’s 2002 debut album, part of the post-punk revival of the early ‘00s, is probably not something that is on everyone’s list of go-to study albums, but that’s the thing with classic records: they get under your skin into the marrow where you can easily switch from close critical listening to being able to tune it all out except the mood the album surrounds you with. A rhythmic exorcism of loss and regret, Bright Lights immediately hits you with claustrophobic layers and throbbing basslines (“Untitled”) and then the aggressive perfection of “Obstacle 1” and “PDA” makes you weep in thankfulness that yes, guitar rock and pounding drums are all you need in life. The ambition and perseverance of a band trying to make it translates into an album made for pushing through walls, climbing over hurdles, and not letting anything get in your way.