10 mixes, radio shows, and DJ sets for ultimate focus
Lo-fi hip hop, curated classical music, and ambient courtesy to power you through the work day
image YouTube: ChilledCow
words Niall McKenna
If you’ve been finding it tough to focus on things recently – tedious work tasks, sorting out life admin, or finally starting that book you bought because of a TikTok – you’re not alone. In British-Swiss writer Johann Hari’s latest book Stolen Focus, there’s a cited study of a small group of college students that found they can now only focus on a single task for 65 seconds. For office workers, the average person only manages three minutes. This apparent decrease in our collective attention spans has prompted a mass cultural rethink on how we manage our time, and how we can become more engaged and productive. Methods like the Pomodoro Technique, which breaks up 25 minute chunks of work with 5 minute breaks, are always popular. Another longstanding study aid, of course, is music.
The idea of unobtrusive music being conducive to focussed work isn’t new, but has reached new highs of popularity in the age of live streaming and the WFH boom. There are thousands of concentration and study streams, playlists, and videos pushing some strain of low key music, most notably lofi hip hop, made famous by the “lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to” stream on YouTube.
The stream’s anime girl and her cat have been studying uninterrupted for over two years now, so with that goal in mind, we’ve handpicked some mixes for focusing to. Featuring uber-chill ambient music, proto - “lofi hip hop”, sleeper train journey soundscapes, thoughtfully curated classical music and more.
Malibu – Crack Magazine Sunday Mix
Ambient music is often the first thing people reach for when they need some unobtrusive sounds to help them focus, and French producer Malibu is certainly shaping contemporary working ambient music landscape today. Sidestepping the often emotionally flat nature of environmental ambient music, she infuses her original sounds and mixes with poignant, discreet vocal runs and a filmic flair. This 40 minute suite for Crack Magazine’s Sunday Mix series is a great introduction to her sound. One to get lost in!
ONY – Eternal Screw
First created by Houston legend DJ Screw in the 90s, “chopped and screwed” music was the result of slowing and manipulating pop and R&B records to create an anaesthetised, chill-out friendly new genre. ONY, a London-based producer and contemporary proponent of the late DJ Screw’s sound, puts a 21st century spin on things in a recent official mix release for Eternal Dragonz, flipping Asian R&B and hip-hop, ambient, and city pop into a hazy fug.
Pavel Milyakov – i-DJ
Dedicated to “the end of summer”, this mix from Gost Zvuk label boss Pavel Milyakov for i-D is speckled with that sun-tired, languid energy that you can really relax into. Lots of lazy guitar licks and moody downtempo tracks, which makes it perfect background music for a late summer evening activity.
Sybil – Deep Mind Music Vol. 17
“Imaginal realms for psychonautic exploration” reads the blurb on the SoundCloud bio for Deep Mind Music, the long running ambient and chillout mix series curated by London DJ Sybil. The mixes, some by friends and frequently by Sybil herself, may well help guide you explore your own subconscious and experience ego death, but they’re equally suited for more quotidian purposes. Vol. 17 features a typical two hours of floating echoes and deep, slow chord progressions. Let the music clear the mental runway for focussed work, or let it flood your brain and take you away, it’s up to you.
Space Afrika - RA.772
For those who appreciate a bit more texture in their chillout mixes, Manchester duo Space Afrika are doing amazing things. Taking definite cues from the Burial school of moody, beatless journeys, their original music and DJ mixes are layered bricolage works inspired by the slate grey industrial landscapes of North West England. Cutting and pasting field recordings of overheard conversations, oblique monologues, rain patter, and passing cars over abstract sound art and delicate ambient drift.
Phil’s Jazz Dis-Junction: Sleeper Train - NTS
NTS resident and jazz producer Phil Smith recalls a trip to Ukraine in a specially recorded, personal mix. In particular, he cites his time spent travelling on the country’s night trains, which he describes as “dreamy restful time, being rocked gently, half asleep, half awake.” The mix, first created in 2017, features gentle jazz and Ukrainian traditional music, accompanied by recordings from his trip – creaking carriage furniture, cozily snoring passengers, and the muffled gallop of the tracks rolling underneath. It was recently rebroadcast on the station, as “an invitation to remember what peace sounds like”.
J Dilla Instrumentals Mix
Revered Detroit producer J Dilla is arguably the reason “lofi hip hop radio - beats to relax/study to” even exists. His relaxed, unquantized swing and inventive use of samples changed hip hop and R&B fundamentally, influencing the likes of Kanye West and modern jazz fusion wunderkind Thundercat. Most bedroom producers of relaxed hip hop instrumentals are aping his style, whether they’re conscious of it or not. There are a lot of fan-made instrumentals mixes on the internet, but this one covers a lot of his best work. Alternatively, you could just listen to his 2006 album “Donuts” – a self-contained masterwork of instrumental hip hop.
Tafelmusik – 20th March 2022 - NTS
What would a list like this be without some classical music? It’s the true O.G of concentration aids, and you’ll even look smarter if someone walks into the room while you’re listening. You could stick on Classic FM, but for our money, Francesco Fusaro’s incredible, long running Tafelmusik series on NTS is great if you want to hear some deeper cuts. Fusaro plays everything from thousand year old Gregorian chants to 20th Century minimalist obscurities from avant-garde heroes like Julius Eastman – although he’s not above playing a bit of Mozart.
No it’s not an 80s new wave band – ‘pink noise’ is essentially white noise, but with some of the harsher, higher frequencies pared back. It’s often described as the sound of nature, due to its similarities to the pleasant sibilance of swaying trees, waterfalls, and gentle breezes. Babies sleep to this sound.
Anetha – LT Podcast 21
This one isn’t exactly relaxed or soothing, but hear us out: there’s something about the repetition of fast techno that can truly help you get “locked in” to whatever you’re working on, and energise you at the same time. The internet is brimming with mixes to choose from, but this recent Lobster Theremin Podcast from French DJ Anetha is perfect for the job at hand – nimble, modern techno like Nicola Cruz’ Latin-flavoured stepper “Se Pone Caliente”, fresh tracks from Anetha’s own Mama Told Ya imprint, and even a surprisingly tasteful Vengaboys edit, all running along at a consistent clip for over an hour.