Apr 23, 2021 Work + Life

Finding Your Groove – Music to Design/Code to

Everyone’s hit that just-right groove at some point, where you feel the combined focus and the energy of the music coming over your headphones. Whether you’re working with lines of code or vector shapes, the right music can be creative fuel.

When it comes to the science of listening to music while you work … Ehhh … Nothing’s definitive. A few studies show it’s counterproductive, but a number of others do show some increase. Computer programming, advertising/marketing, and design are among the fields most likely to listen to music at work, too.

So, I guess we’re saying there’s a chance it works.

And I do wonder how much the results depend on exactly what music you’re listening to. The – kind of contradictory – factors that matter most to me:

  • Flow – The working soundtrack should be a rolling soundscape. Sharp changes and elements that demand attention distract from the real-world task. But a flowing blend actually reduces the impact of distractions.
  • Intrigue – If music gets too monotonous or dull, it shades the work experience the same way. Even chill vibes need variety and unexpected elements that fuel creativity.

Today, I’d like to point you to five music experiences that strike the tricky balance. Use them to build your own creative playlists.

Lofi Grooves

Chillhop’s dawn in the geek world rose from stand-out anime series Samurai Champloo – infusing modern vibes into an Edo-era Japan setting, then backing it with the mingling sounds of mellow jazz and boom-bap beats.

The show’s signature soundtrack brought together Japanese DJs and producers like Tsutchie, Nujabes, Force of Nature, and Fat Jon.

And that sound serves as the backbone for the proliferation of “lofi beats” streams, which have had a long moment as work/study music of choice. Springing up from YouTube, the often live-broadcast streams are recognizable for their idling anime backgrounds – most iconically a girl in a green sweater jotting notes next to her lounging cat.

The music itself feels grounded but trance-like, blending old-school samples and bassy rhythms with a patina of analog pops and fizzes. It rests comfortably in the background but holds intrigue on a closer listen.

Lofi Girl’s original “beats to relax/study to” remains the essential entry. (You might know the YouTube channel by its former name, ChilledCow.) But you can find countless tweaks on the theme, including holiday-inspired mixes and one interspersed with interjections by C-tier Marioverse villain Waluigi.

lofi.cafe collects many of the best live streams into a single website – perfect for long work sessions.

Further Listening

Rereleased on vinyl for the first time this year and already hotly sought after, consider Nujabes’ Modal Soul required listening if you dig the chillhop sound.



Vinyl Sets

Tuning into compressed digital streams of vinyl records seems like the kind of oxymoronic hellspawn that could only be born out of a pandemic lockdown.

But there’s something genuinely special in the analog warmth and the hand-selected record-bin dives of this weird little sub genre. For remote work, maybe they provide some social sense to music listening.

I first got hooked last year as bars, cafes, concert venues, and record shops had to shutter their doors in the face of coronavirus. Local speakeasy hifi lounge In Sheeps Clothing streamed recordings of their collection playing in their acoustically finessed room – to give the sense of sound in space.

And these recordings let us share in obsessively assembled collections, spanning regions, genres, and eras.

And that’s where My Analog Journal enters the room.

The concept of this YouTube channel is pretty simple: The host DJ spins a half-hour (or so) set of music delving some particular region and era of a genre. You’ll hear Soviet jazz, 60s French Beat, and Italian soundtracks. With a DJ at the turntables, each set bops from start to finish with a finely tuned flow. And while you’ll likely be familiar with the styles of music at a broad level, you’ll undoubtedly discover things you’ve never heard before. It’s that perfect mix of being cozy yet unusual.

Also? Any set focused on cumbia – a form of Latin American dance music – is a must listen.

Further Listening

My favorite discovery from work sessions at In Sheeps Clothing was South African indietronica artist Felix Laband. Each pastiche of sounds and beats provides a landscape to get lost in – or to simply gaze out at from your office window.



The Curators

Even though music discovery has largely become commoditized by high-tech algorithms, there’s still value to having a human expert at the helm.

KCRW’s legendary program Morning Becomes Eclectic has been the curated soundtrack to long Los Angeles commutes genres since 1977. And it’s kept spinning as even LA drivers temporarily stopped rolling. In search of new music, old gems, and the occasional voice of another human being whispering sweet track names in your ear? Tune into its daily morning broadcast or its around-the-clock stream Eclectic 24.

On the side of town that’s closer to the mountains than the beach, Aquarium Drunkard (a longtime Media Temple client) has grown from one of the original mp3 blogs to a full-fledged museum of music. Running the gamut of jazz, garage, folk, and a whole lot more, Aquarium Drunkard blends an array of genres into its own unique essence. It’s all presented across podcasts, mixtapes, and even music video collages.

In the spring of 2020, Aquarium Drunkard began delivering its various music programming – including archives of its long-running Sirius/XM radio show – in the form of a 24/7 pandemic-piercing stream called Radio Free Aquarium Drunkard. That stream has evolved into a far more manageable monthly block of shows on Dublab.

You can also plunge into the blog’s soundscape through its Spotify playlists. (Don’t miss Lit Up Like a Christmas Tree come December.)

Further Listening

Another longtime Media Temple client, SXSW drops a hefty list of up-and-coming artists playing its Austin festival annually. Giving its hundreds of tracks a full listen can be a project in itself though, and outlets like NPR (usually) trim it down a tad. Looking for new artists and albums to put in your regular rotation? Dig in.

CoverTube

Countless artists got their breaks from covering other artists’ songs on YouTube: Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, and Tori Kelly all followed that path. And the site’s been a hotbed for unexpected takes on modern standards for years now. As a dark-and-smoky club once was to jazz, the bright glow of YouTube is to pop music.

Media outlets have gotten artists of all sizes into the game as well, from The A.V. Club’s Undercover series to Australian radio station Triple J’s Like a Version.

But for our purposes, I want to look at the particular trend of genre-benders.

Pianist Scott Bradlee broke out big with Postmodern Jukebox, a rotating lineup of musicians and singers who recast modern pop into older genres. While the genre-bend isn’t a new concept, the committed output is on a whole new level. PMJ’s seven years of song drops could easily fill a radio station manager’s daily programming bucket. By running a wild range of contemporary artists through the group’s vintage filter, Postmodern Jukebox ends up tying them all together.

Pulling some whimsy out of the formula, Scary Pockets gaze at pop monsters through a sultry funk lens. The covers get their vibrant soul from Patreon-founder Jack Conte’s electric organs and a cast of revolving vocalists. They’re basically the plugged-in west-coast version of Scott Bradlee’s New York-rooted ensemble. And their output similarly overwhelms: The group’s released multiple compilations every year since 2017, brimming over a full work day’s worth of funk covers. You can hit play and know the groove will last a looooong time.

Both groups stretch across the streaming world, so you can watch them on YouTube, listen on Spotify, etc.

Further Listening

Pomplamoose seized a big share of the YouTube algorithm with full band mashups, blending songs from different artists into one arrangement. Another project of Jack Conte – featuring his keys and “this kicks” grimaces – Pomplamoose focuses on the citrusy vocals (and deep eye contact) of frontwoman Nataly Dawn. They also crank out originals, more-traditional covers, and French tunes. Of the three acts here, Pomplamoose has the mellowest vibes – without losing any of the ingenuity.

Mashup Masters

Admittedly, all the vibes so far have been on the mellow side. But sometimes you need some serious kick in your rhythm. And in those moments when music must be energy, reach for the oddball sounds of the mashup in its more common form.

The proliferation of mp3 files and cheap editing software in the early 2000s allowed DJs and DIYers to splice together unlikely musical pairings into almost wholly new compositions. Strangely enough, hacking out track separations from games like Rock Band provided a wide and weird trove of source material for mashup DJs to work with as well. (Vox called the work of Neil Cicierega – most known for using these particular samples – “music that sounds like using the internet.”

While this strange little sub-genre has found its home in sweat-powered dance parties like Bootie, it’s often also suited for working it out during work hours.

The Hood Internet should earn your bandwidth as one of the most prolific and consistently quality producers, with 10+ mixtapes and numerous singles released into the ether. Often splicing hip-hop vocals with indie rock instrumentals (or vice versa), The Hood Internet has created mashups that arguably eclipse their heavy-hitting sources. For me, that’s exemplified in the Dead Prez vs Grizzly Bear track “Two Weeks of Hip Hop.” Oh man, you just have to listen to it.

The Hood Internet also spent the pandemic smashing together the pop hits of each year starting from 1979.

When you need a quick hit of energizing flurry, though, there’s simply no better play button than the one on Girl Talk’s frenetic masterpiece Feed the Animals. (Fair warning: This is a solid NSFW, headphones-or-HR album.) Girl Talk dices its source samples up into minuscule portions, sometimes serving half-a-dozen in a matter of seconds. Yet, it somehow flows like vodka at an open bar. The result? Music that frees you from the perception of time while pushing you forward through it. (I’m not high, I promise.)

Need more Girl Talk? The feature-length visual album Girl Walk // All Day hits towering highs while a cast of dancers take the beat into the streets of New York City.

Further Listening

At Media Temple office happy hours, we’d been obsessed with Harmonix’s DropMix – a “game” where players create their own mashups by placing playing cards on a light-up board. The developer followed this bit of technical magic last year with the criminally underrated Fuser, which removes physical objects from the equation and adds a host of tools for more creative control.

Both games slap, and they let you apply a creative hand to your music experience (no actual skill required).

Web Hosting to Design/Code on

And hey, when you’re looking for a web hosting experience that gives you more time to hit your groove with fewer obstacles along the way, spin something up with Media Temple.

About the Author Mike Martens makes words happen for Media Temple’s UX and Creative teams. Over the past decade, he’s crafted copy across every medium for a lengthy list of iconic brands. Meanwhile, he's photographically documented Creative Morning speakers and The Moth storytellers, plus designed weird roleplaying games. More by this Author