Everybody has their own definition of a “chill” record. But if ever there was a time when one was desperately needed, it would likely be when you are stranded on a faraway island — with nothing but a volleyball to keep you company. Or worse, other pain-in-the-ass survivors of the crash.
But what chills you out? Perhaps to no one’s surprise, Brian Eno — the godfather of ambient — shows up five times on our lists, with his now-legendary Ambient 1: Music for Airports receiving two nods.
Meanwhile, noodle rockers Pink Floyd are mentioned a trio of times too — as a group, through the symphonic reimaginings of their work by the London Philharmonic and also guitarist David Gilmour’s work with the Orb. Paul Simon received three nods as well, including one dating back to his time with Art Garfunkel.
Pat Metheny, both with and without Charlie Haden, earned two mentions, as did crooner Frank Sinatra. Two of our panelists voted for Philip Glass, as well.
Elsewhere, we’ll be cooling it to everything from unplugged Nirvana to the Carpenters, from Miles Davis to Bread, from Sade to Alice in Chains …
1. MILES DAVIS – IN A SILENT WAY (1969): Hypnotic, looped grooves, and Joe Zawinul’s graceful masterpiece in the middle of it. The original ambient album of the modern era.
2. JEAN MICHAEL JARRE – OXYGENE (1977): Probably the first ambient/electronica album I’ve ever heard. Amazingly, it still sounds fresh, edgy and ahead of its time in spite of its heavy reliance on period synthesizers.
3. PAT METHENY – NEW CHAUTAUQUA (1979): Metheny’s first DIY album, with all its rural charm and mature melodies, has aged quite well.
4. THE NECKS – AETHER (2001): The Necks are the masters of changes. The itty-bitty microscopic changes, over the course of an hour-long song.
5. THE BEAUTY ROOM – THE BEAUTY ROOM (2006): Instead of trying to choose from the more soulfully relaxed moments of CSN, Steely Dan and Terry Callier, I can just take this album that deftly pulls those elements from all of these acts.
1. BREAD – THE BEST OF BREAD (2001): The undisputed kings of the soft rock set, Bread wrote and played amazingly pretty songs sculpted of delicate structures, liquid harmonies and luscious melodies. A tranquil quality pervades the music as the lyrics fire the heart.
2. THE CARPENTERS – A SONG FOR YOU (1972): Richard and Karen Carpenter were so unique that they invented a genre all their own. One can’t argue the chart-topping brother and sister duo sounded like nothing else that resided on radio at the time. Karen’s radiant vocals speak volumes, while Richard’s piano work and arrangements are the stuff genius is made of.
3. PINK FLOYD – DARK SIDE OF THE MOON (1973): Despite the progressive mentality and movement of this trillion-dollar selling album, such spacey music is great to space out to. A record designed specifically to experience on headphones, Dark Side Of The Moon is so potent with imagination that it transports both the ears and body to planes inaccessible on a physical level.
4. SIMON AND GARFUNKEL – GREATEST HITS (1972): From the sweeping orchestration of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to the abstract impressions of “Sound Of Silence” to the tenderness of “Bookends” to the cynical confessions of “I Am A Rock,” here’s a an album that’s perfect for kicking back to and wrapping yourself up in the literate poetry of it all. Celestial lung power and mobs of minty fresh melodies intact.
5. SOUTHWEST F.O.B. – SMELL OF INCENSE (1968): Draped in a Nehru jacket of dreamy psychedelic pop, Smell Of Incense flowers to a showcase of haunting choruses and creamy textures. An elongated jam, devised of repetitious and hypnotic rhythms also appears on the album, which produces a calming effect.
1. FRANK SINATRA – ONLY THE LONELY (1958): Sinatra’s greatest ballad set, it possesses a nearly classical feel — with none of the over-the-top swagger and all of the easy late-night atmosphere that Sinatra at his best could conjure. Pulling vocals over the beat, holding notes past the end of a stanza, Sinatra sustains his own words until you hear the cracks in his voice and, you become certain, his heart.
5. BRIAN ENO – ENO BOX II (1999): A thinker, a tinkerer, Eno’s always risked much — not least of which was failure. Aside from presenting a chance to chill, this set also works as a handy guide to map that metamorphosis from little-known Roxy Music sideman to mixer-slash-muse for the stars. That it focuses on songs with lyrics also makes this set far more accessible than, say, Music for Airports.
3. PHILIP GLASS – ‘LOW’ SYMPHONY (1993): An entirely new synthesis of the original Bowie/Eno collaboration and the orchestral — serious, but not overly; a variation in the truest, classical sense of the word … but with a very modern twist.
4. THE ORB FEATURING DAVID GILMOUR – METALLIC SPHERES (2010): A cool combining of this British group’s now-familiar deconstructionist sound collage of tribal/trance refuse with one of doob-rock’s most recognizable instrumental touchstones. Listen as Gilmour’s vibrato effortlessly blends with the Orb’s next-galaxy synthesizer washes, mid-tempo house flourishes and whoa-man effects, and tell me if this isn’t the best record Pink Floyd never put out after Wish You Were Here.
5. PAUL SIMON – SURPRISE (2006): The sentiments run fluidly between the comfy dreamscape of recollection and the angular complaints that accompany mature acceptance. Collaborator Brian Eno’s electronic addendums tend to jump out more dramatically, too, coming as they do within the familiar framework of Simon’s world-weary mutterings.
1. LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA – US AND THEM: THE HITS OF PINK FLOYD (1995): Pink Floyd’s music was already ideal for chilling out to. The classical arrangements of their hits on Us and Them just make their music even more chill.
2. CHROMA KEY – DEAD AIR FOR RADIOS (1998): On his final album with Dream Theater Kevin Moore gave a preview of the music that was to come from him in the future with Space Dye Vest. The music on Dead Air for Radios is a natural extrapolation of his atmospheric and ambient approach to progressive rock. This album was the soundtrack of my road trips from Ohio to Chicago to visit my then-girlfriend (now wife) in the summer of 2002.
3. DJANGO REINHARDT – PECH A LA MOUCHE (1993): Some great performances from later in Reinhardt’s career that show the folly of the claim that he lost some of his musical personality when he switched from acoustic to electric guitar. The performances on these 2 discs are brilliant and provide some solid chill out music.
4. KYOTO JAZZ MASSIVE – SPIRIT OF SUN (2002): Japanese acid jazz at its absolute best. Chill out music doesn’t get much better than this!
5. LOS LOBOTOMYS – LOS LOBOTOMYS (1989): A great live set from 1989 with a who’s who of LA session musicians (Steve Lukather, David Garfield, Jeff Porcaro, Joe Sample, Carlos Vega, etc. etc. etc.) jamming and having an absolute blast doing so. If Toto were the pinnacle of West Coast pop, Los Lobotomys were the pinnacle of West Coast jazz.
1. BRIAN ENO – AMBIENT MUSIC 1: MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS (1978): As some would know, Eno’s constant exploration/innovation led him for a while to focus on ambient music – that is, music designed to meld with the background noise of particular locations or environments. Some interviews suggest this particular album was supposed to make people calm about boarding airplanes – hence the title. Frankly, I’d be more concerned about having a snooze in the boarding area and missing my flight, so if making people calm was what it was supposed to do, I guess it achieved its purpose.
2. GEORGE WINSTON – DECEMBER (1982): In the run up to the big December 25th red letter day, imagine somewhere a moment with no pressure to meet the demands of family and friends, no pressure to follow the schedule of traveling and shopping, and no pressure to balance traditional religious obligations with commercial consumerism. George Winston’s December IS that moment – a soundtrack to a lazy, quiet winter evening where the holiday lights illuminate the snow covered neighborhood, and the temperature is just cold enough that the frost makes the air itself sparkle with Christmas magic.
3. OPAL – EARLY RECORDINGS (1989): Opal’s first studio album, Happy Nightmare Baby, was neo-psychedelia for the mid ’80s. It doesn’t sound at all like Early Recordings, which is a compilation of acoustic based tracks that were either EP cuts or unreleased studio material. Hindsight being 20/20 and all that, it’s a tossup as to whether ex-Rain Parade member David Roback and ex-Dream Syndicate bassist/vocalist Kendra Smith might’ve taken Opal further than just one studio album if they had focused on this sound instead. As it was, Roback later picked up Hope Sandoval to form Mazzy Star. which went on to moderately more success.
4. THE O’KANES – TIRED OF THE RUNNIN’ (1988): Just plain beautiful playing and singing in a country/folk framework. The O’Kanes built this masterpiece mostly out of vocal harmonies, guitars, mandolins, accordions, stand-up bass and brushed drums, and even a bit of fiddle and banjo as well. What more do you want? Oh yeah – great writing – they have that too
5. COWBOY JUNKIES – THE TRINITY SESSIONS (1988): Recorded live in the acoustically beautiful Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto, this album has a great concept, great song writing by the band and great choices of cover songs, great execution and of course, beautiful sound recording. For me, this is personally the maximum chill out album. Truthfully, I’ve never managed to stay awake to hear it all at one sitting…. It’s a REAL sleeper in my books.
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1. SADE – STRONGER THAN PRIDE (1988): In my opinion, Sade has become THE ultimate chill artist. It’s difficult to select just one album, but the ethereal quality of the title track and “Haunt Me” represents Sade at her romantic best.
2. INCOGNITO – BEST OF INCOGNITO (2000): These acid jazz pioneers have recorded so many outstanding discs, it’s virtually impossible to choose one specific album. This greatest hits collection provides a thorough overview of their best, most relaxing songs, including the smooth and sultry “Deep Waters.”
3. MAYSA – METAMORPHOSIS (2008): Maysa frequently sings with Incognito, and her deep, rich voice sounds just as lovely on its own. From Brazilian rhythms (“Higher Love”) to the sexy ballad “Take Me Away,” her warm vocals provide the perfect background for curling up with a warm cup of tea.
4. ASTRUD GILBERTO – JAZZ ‘ROUND MIDNIGHT (1996): The Brazilian vocalist practically defines what “chill” music is all about, her wispy voice floating over exquisite arrangements. Having legends João Gilberto, Stan Getz, and Antonio Carlos Jobim in your corner hardly hurts, either, with “The Girl from Ipanema” an everlasting classic.
5. KENNY RANKIN – THE KENNY RANKIN ALBUM (1976): A lovely orchestra combined with Rankin’s flawless vocals forms one of the most romantic albums ever recorded. Rankin’s beautiful voice graces both standards (“When Sunny Gets Blue”) and his own compositions (“Make Believe”).
1. BLACK LABEL SOCIETY – HANGOVER MUSIC, VOL. VI (2004): This collection of very mellow, mostly acoustic tracks was released, essentially, to fulfill a contract obligation, but it has some of my favorite BLS songs in “No Other” and “Once More.” Among the other treats, a cover of Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “Layne,” a tribute to late Alice in Chains vocalist Layne Staley.
2. ALICE IN CHAINS – JAR OF FLIES (1994): Alice in Chains’ second acoustic EP really showed what they were capable of as an unplugged act. The songs here are just as strong as anything from their louder, angrier records, and there’s not a bad tune in the bunch.
3. SHOOTER JENNINGS AND HIEROPHANT – BLACK RIBBONS (2010): Shooter Jennings’ very experimental trip into rock ‘n’ roll met a mixed reaction among fans, but I still love it. A concept record featuring Stephen King as narrator, the songs run the gamut from trippy Pink Floyd-influenced numbers to NIN-flavored industrial to slabs of Sabbathian metal. The title track and “Triskaidekophobia” are two of my favorite Shooter tracks.
4. NIRVANA – MTV UNPLUGGED IN NEW YORK (1994): My feelings about Nirvana are well-documented. I think they’re the most overrated band in rock history. This, though, is a great record. A mix of Nirvana originals and some tasty David Bowie and Meat Puppets covers, this record, to me, showcases the best of what the band had to offer.
OPETH – DAMNATION (2003): OK. I had to get one death metal band in here, but this is a very undeath record. It’s largely clean ’70s-influenced prog rock with no growls or heavy riffs. It’s still pretty damned heavy stuff, though.
1. THE BEACH BOYS – PET SOUNDS (1966): “It’s so sad to watch a sweet thing die”: From start to finish, this classic cohesively tracks the trajectory of love and relationships spiraling downward from romance to ruin. You know, for when you want to relive that universal experience.
2. TOM WAITS AND CRYSTAL GAYLE – ONE FROM THE HEART (1982): Whether in songs of affecting poignancy or couched in bluesy barfly renderings, this sumptuous and striking achievement sees Tom Waits’ gravelly gravitas affectingly offset by Crystal Gayle’s torchy and pristine crooning.
3. FRANK SINATRA – IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS (1955): Regrets? I have a few. And when the ol’ ennui strikes at 3 am in my soul, I put this album on and drunk dial old girlfriends.
4. ELVIS COSTELLO/BURT BACHARACH – PAINTED FROM MEMORY (1998): Torchy here, touching there, this impeccably crafted and accessible pop collaboration is indeed “the sweetest punch” combining, with complementary expertise, Bacharach’s sixties-style melodic grace with Costello’s incisive lyrical savvy.
5. PAUL SIMON – HEARTS AND BONES (1983): “Negotiations and love songs / Are often mistaken for one and the same”: Whether Simon delves into bitter truths or tenderly traces “the arc of a love affair,” this album nevertheless contains some of Simon’s most gorgeous melodies and heartfelt lyrics.
1. BRIAN ENO – AMBIENT 1: MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS (1978) Eno was going for the aural equivalent of art. Some folks think he ended up with the sonic equivalent of wallpaper. Those people are boring.
2. JEAN MICHEL JARRE – OXYGENE (1976) My first electronic recording. It’s amazing how well it stands up after all of these years.
3. MICKEY HART – MUSIC TO BE BORN BY (1989) Originally intended to facilitate the birthing process, this is a recording made of son Taro Hart’s in utero heartbeat, then transformed with some light percussion, flute, and bass harmonics. Mesmerizing and soothing at the same time.
4. PHILIP GLASS – MUSIC WITH CHANGING PARTS (1971) If you’re not paying attention (and are you supposed to be paying attention when trying to chill out?) you might think that Glass’ signature shifting layers have actually stopped shifting. My ears find this totally enthralling. Bonus: most people can’t stand this recording, so you’re often left all by yourself to chill.
5. CHARLIE HADEN AND PAT METHENY – BEYOND THE MISSOURI SKY (1997) Two old friends playing music that sounds like it’s been around forever.
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