Music to Write To (The Best of 2016)

By any measure, writing is a solitary endeavor. Not only must the writer at work quarantine herself from her fellow humans, but she must also excise that running dialogue we fragile humans hold with ourselves throughout the day (or is that just me?). In any case, our heads must be empty if we hope to get anything done. While, say, a painter can work with the companionship of music, I don’t know of any writer (aside from Stephen King, who claims to prefer Metallica) who can concentrate with a head full of sound—at least not the kind with lyrics. Of course, there are centuries of classical music that writers are free to cozy up with, distraction-free. But if the classical canon intimidates you even more than silence, or if you simply prefer something more contemporary, here are my votes for the year’s best word-free  albums to write to.

7. Huerco S., For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)

I’ll start with a full disclosure: no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get behind this album. Yes, I listen to this sort of music when I write, but that’s mostly because I listen to it always, regardless of what I happen to be doing. And at the end of the day, For Those . . . is just too repetitive for my taste. Still, based solely on the amount of critical acclaim it garnered, I’d be remiss not to include it here. Indeed, the sound is lovely—it’s certainly immersive, and especially for an album built from sequencer loops, it’s incredibly organic. Plus, the gentle repetition is apt to provide a hypnotic, trancelike state for writing. But don’t worry; there are enough surprises here to keep a drowsy wordsmith awake.

6. Mary Lattimore, At the Dam

I’ll admit this is a strange one, but given time, strange often reveals itself to mean interesting. Plus, at its core, the album is simply gorgeous. As a harpist, Lattimore has collaborated with some big names (Kurt Vile, Thurston Moore, Jarvis Cocker), but alone on her debut album she has plenty of space to get weird. The harp serves as a foundation upon which Lattimore layers noises and knob twirls and various dissonant effluvia—it may not be an easy album, but it’s definitely a rewarding one. If you’re looking for inspiration while chipping away at your poststructural Oulipo poetry/flash-fiction hybrid collection, this may well hit the spot. Still not convinced? Its title is pulled from an essay in Didion’s The White Album.

Standout track: “Jaxine Drive”

5. Peter Broderick, Partners

On the surface, Partners is just a guy and a piano—airy compositions unfurling across what sounds like an immense, empty warehouse. If that’s all you need, then break out the Selectric and have at it. But there’s much more at play here. An ode to the legendary John Cage, the album includes mesostic poetry as well as, yes, some actual lyrics. If I’ve lost you there—I know, we had an agreement—just skip the first and last tracks and feel distraction melt away.

4. Tim Hecker, Love Streams

Another full disclosure: Tim Hecker is somewhat of a god to me. If that sounds dramatic, well, so is the music. At turns vicious and beautiful, Hecker’s sound is best described as that of industrial collapse. Imagine room-sized machines breaking down, buildings crumbling, but imagine it all, somehow, sounding gorgeous. Love Streams does have a softer side; woodwinds and pan flutes, plus, most notably, the human voice (choral—not lyrical) all lend some warmth to an oeuvre that can often be brutal. Brutality still exists in spades here, though. Hecker may not be for everyone, but his music does make for a powerful means of shutting out the world at large.

3. Madeleine Cocolas, Cascadia

Anyone interested in the wider field of ambient/experimental/drone is no doubt familiar with Julianna Barwick, the genre’s breakout star, often called “the hipster Enya” for her celestial vocals and popularity with certain online “indie” music publications. Madeleine Cocolas certainly takes a page from Barwick’s book here, using her voice as an emotive—though almost entirely wordless—instrument. But much of Cascadia is just airy piano and strings, often reminiscent of Rachel Grimes’s work. Futuresequence, Cocolas’s label, is a treasure trove of immersive ambient drone, and this ode to the Pacific Northwest provides a lovely and welcoming entrée.

Standout track: “If Wisdom Fails”

2. Shaded Explorer, Empatia

British Columbia–based label Silent Season aims, according to its website, to unite “deep ethereal music and the rain forests of Vancouver Island.” Emanuele Pertoldi, a.k.a. Shaded Explorer, certainly follows the label’s template of marrying soothing, immersive synth-based tracks with the sounds (whether real or synthetic) of babbling brooks and wind-rustled pine boughs. Empatia sometimes calls upon a beat to provide backbone, but just as often the tracks meander aimlessly and free, like a monarch through the horseweed.

1. Biosphere, Departed Glories

It’s unnerving how precisely Geir Jenssen, the Norwegian ambient artist known as Biosphere, has captured the sound of early autumn (October, specifically) here. Jenssen is known for building compositions from of a variety of found sources, be they tweaked field recordings or obscured bits of horror-film soundtracks. Here, his source material is almost exclusively Eastern European and Ukranian folk music, though you certainly wouldn’t know it. The album grounds itself in Poland’s Wolski Forest, where executions were carried out during World War II, and as such it seems impossible to describe the album without using the word “haunting.” If you’re looking for companionship while working on your romance series, be sure to look elsewhere. But stick Departed Glories on repeat and your thriller/horror/mystery/noir is likely to write itself.

Standout track: “Aura in the Kitchen with the Candlesticks”