The 20 Best Albums & Soundtracks For Productivity

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The 20 Best Albums & Soundtracks For Productivity

When you type “study” into the Spotify’s search bar, you’ll receive a wealth of playlists that seemingly have nothing to do with one another. There’s “All Nighter,” “Intense Studying” and “Instrumental Study,” among many others, each one filled with wordless, chill instrumental music. To counter those feelingless mixtapes, we present our own favorite albums to work to. Here, you’ll find everything from movie scores (both low-brow and high-brow) and bluegrass to hip-hop and chillwave. If you have a paper that needs writing, a room that needs organizing or any number of tasks that require some level of unwavering concentration, you’ve come to the right place. Here are 20 albums that are great for productivity, as tested many times over by members of the Paste Staff. Albums are listed alphabetically.

Listen to our Paste Study Playlist on Spotify right here.

1. The Album Leaf: Into the Blue Again

If slow-burning ambience is what you’re after for a study session, look no further than The Album Leaf’s 2006 album Into the Blue Again, a sort of instrumental take on bands like Yo La Tengo. If every coffee shop played this album on rainy afternoons instead of the Coffeehouse Sirius/XM station or whatever Spotify playlist the barista felt like brewing to that day, we’d all be happier java patrons. The entire album is full of instrumental bliss, but you may be happy just listening to album opener “The Light” on repeat for a few hours. It’s the sonic equivalent of sprawling out in the sunshine. —Ellen Johnson

2. A Winged Victory for the Sullen: The Undivided Five

The Undivided Five—A Winged Victory for the Sullen’s’s first full release since their soundtrack for 2016 French erotic thriller Iris and their first non-score album since their self-titled debut in 2011 (2014’s Atomos scored a piece by modern dance giant Wayne McGregor)—feels bigger and brighter than ever, filled to the brim with beautiful, slow-building piano and perfectly programmed synthesizers. It’s easily one of the prettiest albums of 2019. O’Halloran and Wiltzie do a lot with a little. Album opener “Our Lord Debussy” creates an entire melancholic universe with just a few piano chords as synthesizers and strings weave in and out of the soundscape. Nowhere is the duo trying to truly show off their adept playing chops, never feeling the need to wow the listener with a ripping piano solo or a “Movies” by Weyes Blood-esque fast-building string crescendo. They let each song have the space to breathe and develop on its own terms, unfolding at a slow and steady pace and never feeling the need to heighten the tension via a faster tempo. —Steven Edelstone

3. Boards of Canada: The Campfire Headphase

Outstanding work music enthralls without distracting, and this 2005 record from veteran downtempo duo Boards of Canada is outstanding work music, from the first garbled guitar notes of “Chromakey Dreamcoat” to the gauzy distortion of “Dayvan Cowboy” and the languid, bass-driven lope of “Hey Saturday Sun.” Its slower, more ambient stretches may require you to brew some coffee to fend off that dreaded eyelid droop, but surely you were already doing that. Bonus points for The Campfire Headphase’s hour-long runtime. —Scott Russell

4. Brian Eno and David Byrne: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

When I need a quick shot of adrenaline to get work done, I often turn to Brian Eno and David Byrne’s still-mystifying avant-funk masterpiece, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The African-inspired grooves are both paranoid and energizing, and the sampled voices—borrowed from such unusual sources as a real exorcism, a Qur’anic recital, and a slick-talking preacher’s broadcast sermon—are more mysterious and less distracting than singalong pop vocals; they function as conveyors of sound more than meaning. The album was released around the same time early hip-hop pioneers were experimenting with sampling, but sounds as if it emerged from another planet: It pioneered the use of samples as lead vocals 20 years ahead of The Avalanches. Its radical techniques proved influential on artists as wide-ranging as Kate Bush, Pink Floyd, and Burial, and even presaged the later legal questions regarding sampling—the album’s release was reportedly delayed by the difficulty of obtaining sample clearances. —Zach Schonfeld

5. Call Me By Your Name Original Soundtrack

I often find myself pressing play on the Call Me By Your Name soundtrack when I really need to focus. Something about the thoughtfully curated mix, from the groovy Italian synthpop to the hopeful, classical arrangements to Sufjan Stevens’ haunting vocals, launches me right into the hyper-specific mindset I need to actually get work done, especially if I’m procrastinating. You may find yourself drifting off to the Italian countryside every now and then, but the abrupt start of a new song will get you right back to where you need to be. —Annie Black

6. Confidence Man: Confident Music for Confident People

If you’ve got a day of mindless work ahead of you, sometimes the best way to chug through it is by listening to vibrant, rhythmic music. Listening to rhythms and grooves makes working easier because you can just lock into the percussion and let it dictate your energy level. You won’t fall asleep in a pool of drool at your desk if you’re listening to something with an invigorating pulse. One of my go-to albums for busy work is Confidence Man’s Confident Music for Confident People—a bubbly alternative-dance record with zany beats. Whether you’re washing dishes, plugging away at spreadsheets or cleaning restrooms, this Melbourne group will make you feel like the life of the party. Their party-centric lyrics are also occasionally funny, and we all know laughs at work are a godsend. —Lizzie Manno

7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Original Soundtrack

Jon Brion has produced and played on some of the biggest and best records of the past 30 years, from Frank Ocean’s Blonde to Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and 50 or so others in between, but his best work to date is still his score for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Some short songs get weird, sure, but the prettiest tracks—“Phone Call,” “Peer Pressure,” “Row,” “Theme,” Elephant Parade” and more—are some of the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous tracks I’ve ever heard. Ambient and tranquil, those handful of songs do deserve your attention, but their calming nature makes them well-suited for being productive. —Steven Edelstone

8. Groove Armada: Vertigo

This 2000 smash-hit from English electronic duo Groove Armada is perhaps the only album on my writing playlist that I could just as easily drop onto my party playlist (as a matter of fact, hang on a second while I do that). In this LP’s case, danceable doesn’t mean distracting: Its relentless energy is just the boost one needs to plow through a Herculean task with stamina to spare. Vertigo does intermittently commit what I consider to be a cardinal sin of work music by incorporating vocals—writing is hard enough without a stream of competing words to worry about—but sublime songs like “At the River” are worth it, and the bulk of the album’s 70-minute runtime is blissfully, mesmerically instrumental. —Scott Russell

9. Her Original Soundtrack

Justice for Arcade Fire: They more than deserved the Oscar for Best Score in 2013 for their work on Her. It’s a stunning piece of ambient music, calming and subtle, perfect for throwing on in the background while you’re getting work done. They even managed to sneak a few songs from their own discography in the score, too: Reflektor cuts “Supersymmetry” and “Porno” both make appearances here, this time as gorgeous instrumentals. But the real highlight is “Photograph,” one of the most beautiful songs of the 2010s, an absolutely dazzling solo piano track that’s every bit as sublime as the scene—and film—it soundtracks. —Steven Edelstone

10. I Know Leopard: Love is a Landmine

If you’re looking for a chill, downtempo album with enough pizzazz to keep you focused, I’d recommend the debut album from I Know Leopard. Love is a Landmine is a slick, funky synth-pop record that melts, struts and twinkles. This album isn’t a grower either—after you hear these dazzling, ’80s-indebted pop songs for the first time, you know it’s a record you’re going to revisit. Lead vocalist Luke O’Loughlin (who drummed with These New South Whales) has a smooth, honeyed voice that he wields with alluring confidence, and and it’s hard to imagine many other people attempting these heady slow jams without his impressive vocal range. There’s a lot of bland, “pretty boy” indie-pop out there these days, but O’Loughlin’s ingenious songwriting rises far above this glut. This may seem like a late-night record, but I assure you that your early morning shift will feel infinitely more glorious if you put this on. —Lizzie Manno

11. Jeff Tweedy: Together At Last

Ever think, “Damn, I wish I could focus while listening to Wilco but these guitar freakouts and insane drum fills are too distracting?” Well, Jeff Tweedy answered your prayers with Together At Last, a wholly acoustic version of Wilco’s best songs, from Summerteeth’s “Via Chicago” to Sky Blue Sky’s title track. Anyone who’s ever seen Tweedy do a solo set knows this well: Acoustic versions of the legendary Chicago band’s “hits” work just as well acoustic as they do with the full band. Even without a shredding guitar solo, tracks like “Muzzle of Bees,” “Ashes of American Flags” and “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” feel totally intimate, as if Tweedy was serenading you from your apartment. As a result, Tweedy’s calming and warm voice works well when trying to focus on whatever task is at hand. —Steven Edelstone

12. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl Original Soundtrack

It’s impossible for me to write or edit while listening to music with lyrics, so I gravitate toward movie soundtracks while I’m working. And after 17 years, the first Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack is still one of my favorites. Between it’s often lively tempo and swashbuckling orchestration, the album provides the perfect motivation for getting work done. Plus, it’s just fun! —Frannie Jackson

13. Leon Bridges: Coming Home

I have a friend who used to post up in the all-silent third level of our campus’ main library and listen to nothing but Leon Bridges’ “River,” the last song on the Texas soul singer’s 2015 debut album Coming Home, for hours on end. She was a straight-A student! All of Bridges’ smooth music would be conducive to quiet time, but several songs on Coming Home are especially calming and syrupy. His new project with fellow Texans Khruangbin, Texas Sun, would also make for a fine collection of work-worthy tunes (and if you’re unfamiliar with Khruangbin, and something a little spicier works well with your study style, their discography may also lend itself to your productivity). —Ellen Johnson

14. Little Women Original Soundtrack

Very rarely does a score for a wide-released, feature-length film come along that’s palatable enough to listen to on its own. I’m not talking about soundtracks—compilations of songs by various artists that were hand-picked for a film, or musical soundtracks—but rather, scores, the music composed originally for a film that plays throughout. Very often this music is meant to go unnoticed, to support the ongoing action without drawing attention away from it, so it’s not always very listenable outside of the theater. Case in point: No offense to Nathan Johnson, but I don’t want to listen to the Knives Out score while I’m having my coffee. The same goes for that of most movies in theaters right now. Now what score would I listen to over some piping hot java? I’m so glad you asked! The score for Greta Gerwig’s beautiful Little Women adaption is music for anytime. It is soaring, stylish, pastoral and precious all at once. It is the perfect mate for Gerwig’s earnest picture. It is the work of one Alexandre Desplat (Shape of Water, The Queen, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Pts. 1 & 2), a brilliant French composer who may have just made his most affecting score yet. —Ellen Johnson

15. Lo-Fang: Blue Film

Lo-Fang’s Blue Film is auditory Xanax. It’s ethereal and mesmerizing and calms your brain the fuck down. Featuring every instrument under the sun from cello to bass, from violin to synth, the classically trained Matthew Hemerlein composes a swirling vortex of melody and rhythm that is upbeat at times and slow and brooding at others. There’s something about overwhelming your senses with hypnotic sound that helps channel your focus and relaxes your worst shark-like can’t-stop-moving-or-you-will-die habits. If I need to tune out the world to take some photos, write, or attempt to enjoy the beach (even having fun can be a task), I put on Blue Film. —Olivia Cathcart

16. Pete Rock: Petestrumentals

On, Petestrumentals, one of the greatest producers in hip-hop history digs back into his bag of tricks to create one of the most tranquil collections of instrumentals for your mind. A true OG, Pete Rock (the man behind the timeless production of “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)”) composed Petestrumentals by remixing his recorded beats from the ’90s. The album’s opening track, “A Little Soul,” is a Dilla-like sonata with clean bass thumps and an epic groove. The cut also served as the intro to Mark Farina’s legendary trip-hop/house Mushroom Jazz Vol. 4 comp, another fine album to spin while getting work done. Even when vocals appear on throughout Petesrtumentals’ 32 tracks (on 2011’s 10-year anniversary edition)—often from synonymous companion CL Smooth—the music never ceases to produce deep atmospheric concentration. And that’s what we’re after on this list. So instead of spinning those random “chill hip-hop beats” Youtube mixes made by some kid in a basement, check in with one of hip-hop’s originators for the goods to keep you focused. —Adrian Spinelli

17. The Social Network Original Soundtrack

The productivity playlist industrial complex is overwhelmingly pleasant, a bright, monotonous mixture of propulsive sonics built for ads about co-working spaces. Work in real life is rarely enjoyable. You’ve got hovering supervisors, stress dreams about deadlines, and the ever-looming sense that late-stage capitalism will inevitably cause your demise. The music you use to get stuff done should fit accordingly. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ spare soundtrack for a film about one man’s vision of getting revenge against an ex online shaping the future of communication, democracy and empire fits the bill. The Social Network soundtrack, like much of Reznor’s work with Nine Inch Nails, is brutal and gorgeous at once, the underlying thrums and burbles of doom existing in unison with moments of elegant piano and synth lines to cut through the tension. It’s the sound of possibility giving way into danger, and also the sound of you getting stuff done against all odds. —Joshua Bote

18. Tycho: Awake

When it comes to soundtracking productivity, you can’t go wrong with anything by Tycho, Scott Hansen’s long-running instrumental synth-pop project. 2014’s Awake, though, is a particularly invigorating blend of ambient dance music and celestial post-rock, with undulating synths, counterbalanced by meticulous, melodic guitar and bass, rushing over propulsive percussion like white-water rapids over rocks. Let it sweep you away and you’ll find Awake to be an energizing 36 minutes that will keep you focused on (and make you feel up to) any challenge. — Scott Russell

19. Uncut Gems Original Soundtrack

Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) scored his first major film back in 2017 on the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time. The soundtrack, proggy and nervous, stood on its own among Lopatin’s other experimental works, a case for scores-as-listenable-music. His work on Uncut Gems, also by the Safdie Brothers, portrays him as a scorer with multiple tricks up his sleeves. In contrast to his work on Good Time, the soundtrack for Uncut Gems dives even deeper into the cosmic, extensively using a Moog One synthesizer and drawing on early avant-garde New Age composers like Suzanne Ciani and Vangelis. The score also eschews cliches endemic to film scores—on “Fuck You Howard,” a track that plays during a moment of righteous rage from Julia Fox’s character, Lopatin wanted to dive back into that prog noise from Good Time, crafting a triumphant and choral track in honor of her strength, a shift in psyche from Sandler’s Howard Rattner. Lopatin’s work here portrays him as a composer hyper-concerned with the issues presented within a film’s text, and it’s always honest, even if it’s for a colonoscopy scene. —Austin Jones

20. William Tyler: Goes West

One of the sharpest pluckers in the game, William Tyler makes purely instrumental guitar compositions that say more with chords and progressions than words ever could. Tyler’s 2019 album Goes West is full of particularly game arrangements, each one more spritely than the last. However, it’s nothing too noisy that it’ll distract from whatever work is at hand: These are wordless songs, equal parts comforting and smooth. “Fail Safe” will have you ready to head out on a safari after you finish that paper or presentation you’re slogging through. —Ellen Johnson

Listen to our Paste Study Playlist on Spotify right here.

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