Long-time readers of this column might presume I’m pretty relaxed, which is admittedly true of my approach to grammar and not-hyphenating-words-too-much. Still, fact is I’m a worrier by default: on edge like a startled cat, shoulders tensed, fretting about a thing or wondering what I’ve forgotten that I ought to be fretting about. Maybe you are like this too, maybe not, but suffice it to say we live in anxious times. Life moves at machine-speed, having long since outpaced the human mind and body… our pockets ding and vibrate interminably, our eyes guzzle a dizzying and infinite zoetrope of images, colours, assemblages… what I’m describing is not altogether bad, but it’s not very calming either. Music is remarkably good at defying the hurried and functional emphasis of modern life. And while an album-for-relaxation might seem crudely functional in itself, there’s usually more to it than that. Notwithstanding relaxation CDs you buy in Dymocks and chill-out/homework soundscapes on Youtube (these things have their own freaky charm), here are some records that I feel do the job of relaxing you very well, while also being great musical works in plenty of other ways. For your convenience I have offered “serving suggestions,” pairings to complete your relaxation experience.
1. A.R.T Wilson – Overworld
Purists might scoff at the fact that I’ve chosen to include Andras Fox’s neo-80s psych-meditation pastiche, rather than give due credit to one of the countless records that might’ve inspired it. But here’s the thing: predecessors notwithstanding, Overworld is just ridiculously good, a glowing watercolour skyscape of breezy analog synths, gorgeous compositions and pillowy beats. Conceived as a collection of “synthesiser and drum machine themes for contemporary dance,” this tape-hissy record plumbs a nostalgic well and splashes you with all the right stuff. Blissful, cheeky, catchy but never intrusive – easily some of Andras’ best work in my books.
Pair with: Yoga, incense, chamomile.
2. Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works, 85-92
There was no way I could leave this corker out. An undisputed classic of the genre, Richard D. James’ 1992 debut LP wraps you up like a doona of pure light, clearing yr head of extraneous thoughts and filling it with hazy, spectral imaginings. Admittedly not everyone will find themselves relaxed by this one, at least not consistently: tracks like Schottkey 7th Path and Hedphelym have a slightly sinister, alien quality, doused in subtle industrial noise and influenced by dancefloor tempos. But if that world of sound is compatible with your tastes, SAW 85-92 is a one-way ticket to relaxo island.
Pair with: Night-time driving through the city.
3. Sibylle Baier – The Colour Green
Recorded between 1970 and 1973, but only released in 2006, Baier’s minimal folk masterpiece has made up for lost time and won plenty of admirers. Its 14 tracks are often ingeniously unconventional, but they go down smooth: gently intoned tales of love, memory, landscapes and more. Guitar and voice are delivered with the minimum amount of force, so the whole things floats through the air like candle smoke. About as beautiful as music gets and totally soothing.
Pair with: Feline on your lap, tea in your hand, all after a day of avid bushwalking.
4. Nick Drake – Pink Moon
Another inevitable inclusion, it’s hard to believe the much-loved Pink Moon wasn’t universally embraced upon its release in 1972. The record copped mixed reviews, with some critics lamenting its bare-bones sound that sat in contrast to the ornamentation of Fives Leaves Left and Bryter Layter. In hindsight, its intimate, stripped-back quality is crucial to its appeal and the songs speak with a rare warmth and purity. Drake would only live for another two years after Pink Moon and would never be privy to its legendary status – certainly this adds to its melancholy quality. But it remains an inexhaustible, placid record, of which Drake was reportedly “immensely proud.” And rightly so.
Pair with: Loved ones, maybe a hi-qual book, wind in the treetops.
5. Bohren & Der Club of Gore – Sunset Mission
Really I could have chosen any number of B&DCoG records but 2000’s Sunset Mission definitely hits the slow-down sweet spot. This German band come from a hardcore punk/doom background but have spent over 20 years totally nailing the dark ambient jazz intersection. I think there’s a certain kind of under-appreciated relaxation – SPOOKY relaxation – like when only watching Twin Peaks will suffice to chill you out. Sunset Mission includes a quote in its liner notes that starts off “alone in the comforting darkness the creature waits.” Comforting darkness is the name of the game here.
Pair with: Your favourite film noir / cigar-smoking in the bath.
6. Brian Eno – Discreet Music
We’ve discussed A.r.t Wilson and Aphex Twin but neither could realistically exist without the god-daddy of modern ambient music, Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno. 1978’s “Music for Airports” is remembered as the landmark, but Discreet Music three years prior strikes me as even more pure and uncomplicated in its blissfulness, the best sonic wallpaper you could ever hope for, a magical electronic extension of Satie’s “furniture music” concept. I seriously DARE you not get relaxed while soaking this one up.
Pair with: A leisurely game of chess.
7. Electric Wizard – Dopethrone
Time for a curveball. So far I’ve included records that fit comfortably into the stereotype of what it means to relax: quietude, not too much going on, inoffensiveness (with all due respect to the aforementioned goodness). But sometimes you cant just go straight from “pressure cooker” to “putty.” Relaxing can mean working through your anger, your pent-up rage. Here, Electric Wizard’s heavy-as-stongehenge stoner opus comes in handy – it provides deep relaxation through catharsis. The gargantuan, lumbering “Funerapolis” makes you feel like you’re crushing everything in your path, which in turn means there’s nothing left to do but raise your glass to Satan and zone out.
Pair with: Mate, the it’s called “Dopethrone,” use your imagination.
8. Beach House – s/t
Beach House have subtly reimagined their lilting, slow-burn sound a bunch of times over their four albums (and a fifth LP, Depression Cherry is arriving… tomorrow!) Still, for my money, nothing has reached the soporific heights (lows?) of their charming, accomplished, lo-fi debut. It reads as a mission statement for the band’s career to date, with Victoria Legrand’s sweet dream-pop melodies floating over organ drones, drowsy drum machines and bell-like guitar lines… some of these songs, like “Apple Orchard” and “Master of None,” still rank among the band’s best but it’s the overall mood that will have your eyelids heavy and your brain smiling.
Pair with:Mulled wine, d e e p carefree vibes in a comfortable bed.
9. The Caretaker – An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
A promising album title for relaxation prospects, not to mention tunes called “I Feel As If Might Be Vanishing” and “A Relationship With The Sublime.” The Caretaker probably fits into the “spooky relaxation” genre I’ve decided exists; the project (a brainchild of James Kirby aka V/Vm) was inspired by ‘The Shining’ and is haunted by an uncanny quality. Old-timey, “sentimental” band tunes play out from a cloud of reverb and vinyl crackle; phrases loop and cut off abruptly. That might not sound very calming but, in an eerie cinematic way, it definitely is.
Pair with: Drinking a martini alone on a paddle steamer at night.
10. Craig McElhinney – You and Me Are Young and Brutal
It seemed only right to give shoutouts to local record and I can’t think of one that I’ve spent more time unfurling to than this. Craig McElhinney’s first album is not necessarily his best, but there’s a simplicity, clarity and immediacy to it that makes it a no-brainer when you want to declutter the skull and drift off. In fact there’s a tune called “Drift Slowly Down The Frozen Lakes Through The Ice Caves Of Your Mind” which is exactly what it feels like – bonus points for accuracy. Honestly though, everything Craig’s put out is A+ relaxation material, the type of stuff that filters out the guff and leaves you feeling renewed.
Pair with: Ice cold vodka, shisha and a good, languid YouTube trawl.