Whether you’re crunching numbers from a cluttered office in a crowded apartment outside London, or burning the midnight oil from a dingy student bedroom, self-motivation has never been more taxing for the stay-at-home generation. If you’ve found yourself struggling to maintain focus or needing a kick into productive action, this list may have what you’ve been seeking. I’ve compiled tracks ranging from contemporary classical, through ambient, to the left-field corners of electronic music that have helped me through this difficult period when a black coffee and an impending deadline just isn’t cutting it!
1. ‘Scene Suspended’ – Jon Hopkins
I first came across Jon Hopkins’ work on realising his role in coproducing much of Coldplay’s early albums (give ‘Light Through the Veins’ a spin if you need convincing!) and his close ties with Brian Eno. A personal favourite artist of mine from my years of discovering new music, Hopkins has, in my view, an unrivalled ability to blend truly beautiful classical melodies with hard-hitting and transcendental techno. His new ‘Polarity’ tour of opera houses across Europe, is a masterful demonstration of this ability to weave the seemingly paradoxical genres together and was the last gig I managed to catch before the pandemic called time on live music. ‘Scene Suspended’ is one of Hopkins more recent productions, firmly on the classical end of the spectrum and a perfect soundtrack when clarity of mind and focus is what you’re after.
For fans of: Brian Eno, Biosphere
2. ‘Everything You Do Is A Balloon’ – Boards of Canada
You could do far worse than sticking any Boards of Canada album on shuffle if you’re in need of a late night grind at the desktop. I’ve opted however for one of the brother’s earliest tracks, from their 1996 EP ‘Hi Scores’ that I feel captures both a love of the vintage analogue synthesizer sound and catchy trip-hop beats. The EP as a whole perfectly represents the stripped back, lo-fi sound the duo have crafted over the years and is the perfect soundtrack for those more reflective moments of concentration.
For fans of: Autechre, The Future Sound of London
3. ‘Recovery’ – Rival Consoles
Leicester-born producer Ryan Lee West (Rival Consoles) has been a staple on the London-based Erased Tapes record label with a repertoire ranging from complex IDM and glitch, to harder club-orientated tracks. I first heard ‘Recovery’ played in a Boiler Room set from Italian electronic duo Mind Against back in 2015 when the track first released and I’ve not tired of it since. Expect an emotional backdrop of eerie synths accompanied by an erratic yet melancholy lead and a powerful yet subtle drum arrangement. This track is brain food at its finest!
For fans of: Kiasmos, Max Cooper
4. ‘Styge’ (Ochre Remix) – Ed Chamberlain
The track that immediately springs to mind under the ‘braindance’ genre (if that’s not too pretentious a category), ‘Styge’ is an electro-infused composition that really encapsulates intelligent dance music. Dug up from the depths of the underground and given a delicate remix from Ochre, this 2008 version features the same warping ambience and complex drum patterns of the original, but the melody is complemented by a harp rhythm which gives the track a tranquil and relaxing tone overall. A fitting demonstration of how electronic music can be shaped for different environments and a must-have on your focus playlist.
For fans of: Four Tet, Skee Mask
5. ‘Negative Returns’ (Four Tet Remix) – Krust
Upping the tempo somewhat, Kieran Hebden’s (Four Tet) recent take on Kirk George Thompson’s ‘Negative Returns’ is exactly what you’d expect from the former artist. This remix is completely new territory for Hebden who has produced extensively but never released a remix in the 170+bpm range. Unsurprisingly however, for those familiar with Four Tet’s discography, the track is rearranged and mastered beautifully. It strips back the aggression and ‘noise’ of the original and leaves a delicate and floating liquid d’n’b track which hits those frequencies that really allow you to tune into what you’re doing. Expect emotional and ethereal synths paired with the sample selections we know and love, as well as something a little bit new when it comes to the drums.
For fans of: Floating Points, Calibre
6. ‘Lone Swordsman’ – Daniel Avery
A favourite selection on Mary Anne Hobbs’ BBC Radio 6 morning slot, ‘Lone Swordsman’ is a track from Daniel Avery’s ‘Dusting for Smoke’ EP released on Phantasy records last year. Avery’s track has a simple and contemplative feel befitting of its purpose as a homage to the late Andrew Weatherall, a true musical pioneer in acid house, rock and beyond. The lead melody is dainty and catchy and the accompaniment from the synth chords and drums is understated and yet exactly what this track demands. A real winner from an artist who continues to impress.
For fans of: Avalon Emerson, Leon Vynehall
7. ‘Love’ – Ben Lukas Boysen
Renown for crafting mesmerising soundscapes that owe much to an early mastering of sampling techniques, Boysen has made his name in sound design working alongside major clients in the advertising, film and gaming industry. This track from his 2020 release ‘Mirage’, available from Erased Tapes records, is a showcase of an exciting genre of avant-garde, experimental electronic music that draws on classical influences. It features a slow and emotional build-up of arpeggiated synths set to the backdrop of a string section reminiscent of a Nils Frahm production. Definitely one of the more dramatic tracks to feature on this list but one that captures an intricate genre that’s worth considering if you’ve always thought classical meant little more than Beethoven’s sixth symphony!
For fans of: Nils Frahm, Rival Consoles, Plaid
8. ‘Fundamental Values’ – Nils Frahm
To wrap up this list we come to an artist who’s love of the black and white keys and modern twist on classical music has earned him global critical acclaim. While working with a true arsenal of equipment and scaling up to full blown orchestras in his live performances, Frahm’s compositions centre on a real appreciation and command of the piano. ‘Fundamental Values’ takes the listener on a mesmerising 14 minute journey. It begins with spritely, delayed synth patterns and slightly eerie chords before the piano comes in. The track is a testimony to Frahm’s ability to marry electronic minimalism and looping techniques with a dynamic and free flowing grand piano lead. The track slowly gathers momentum and drama as Frahm introduces and manipulates backing vocals before it enters its final phase in the last four minutes with high feedback on the synths and rapid percussive elements. A true masterclass in the ‘not quite classical’ bracket!
For fans of: Jon Hopkins, Hans Zimmer
While these tracks may not be a definitive, catch-all solution to getting stuff done, hopefully they serve as a starting point for those unfamiliar with an interesting and burgeoning genre exploring the intersection between electronic music and new classical. Whether they end up being used as a backing playlist to work or study to, or simply tracks to look out the window and ponder the meaning of life at 2am is entirely up to you!