At last, it’s 2022. Winter Quarter is well underway and it’s very possible that a lot of students are going to be experiencing high levels of stress, emotional deprivation, self-doubt, fears of failing, existential thoughts and crises – everything that’s to be expected of a college student today. Of course, nobody wants this to happen; I don’t necessarily enjoy school-induced mental breakdowns or feeling as if I’m destined to disappoint my family.
However, as somebody who has grown from that kid at the dining room table crying over high school calculus homework to someone who kept my cool after missing an English midterm worth 20% of my grade*, I’m telling you now the wasted tears can be reduced or otherwise avoided – sometimes all you need is a good playlist.
I’ve sorted a collection of songs according to how they’ve helped me personally, though these songs are limitless in the kinds of emotions they can conjure up. What I mean by this is the list is whatever you make of it. It’s not like only Hedron and Structure No. 3 are necessarily good for studying, I just prefer some songs over others in certain instances (i.e. I wouldn’t prefer to listen to Country Boy over Road Song as a “pick-me-up”). Anyway, these are 10 of my favorite instrumental songs to help get you through this quarter (and the years to come).
*I made up the grade.
For When You’ve Got to Grind:
“Hedron” AND “Structure: No. 3” – BADBADNOTGOOD*
You’re finally sitting down after scouring the library for a nice spot, preferably at a table with a view. It’s not as quiet as you’d like, but you’d rather avoid the cold and dismal study-intensive environments of the fourth and fifth floors. You have your headphones to drown out any background noise that may inhibit your ability to work efficiently. As you put each earpiece in and press play, conversations begin to fade out as BADBADNOTGOOD takes the stage. Bass. Drums. Keyboard. What conversations? You’re in the zone now, a personal atmosphere if you will.
*I chose to pair these two songs together because while they both have amazing qualities unique to each individual song, they also share the ability to completely envelop listeners as means for escaping reality.
For When You’re Looking For a Little Bit of Inspiration:
“Country Boy” – Herb Ellis
It is my personal opinion that the best art is derived from overwhelming emotion, which is something that this song certainly is not lacking in. Feelings of despair, loneliness, hopelessness, and acceptance are everywhere in this track. As the song progresses it becomes hard to tell what exactly it is you’re feeling, even though the feeling is there. You’re sure of it. This inability to put words to a specific emotion requires a different form of expression; like the image of a saddened cat, all alone at the bar as he drowns his sorrows in dark liquor and aimless flirtations. In other words, this song causes a sort of emotional confusion, which can then be harnessed as inspiration in creating your own art. If it doesn’t, it’s a great song nonetheless.
“The Red Pony” – John Fahey
There are two versions of this song that I love: the recorded studio version and a 1969 live recording uploaded on YouTube. The live recording was the first version I was introduced to, and I instantly fell in love with it. I later had to turn myself over to the studio recording because I am someone who loves a good playlist. Whichever you may prefer, both versions continuously build and release tension with the pace gradually picking up through the song’s progression. It’s almost as if it were meant to be a backing track to a stop-motion of a red pony running along a stark desert as he gains speed, mane flowing with the wind. I mean, I’m sure the title itself has a lot to do with why that image has stuck with me, but I’m not really upset about it.
“O Gato” – Paul Desmond
Regardless of the occasion – walking somewhere, drawing, schoolwork – throwing on “O Gato” in the background is bound to put a smile on your face. It’s a beautiful melody of reds, yellows, and oranges cascaded in bright blues and pinks. It’s a lively cat sauntering through the town, not a care or concern in the world. It’s of pure spell-casting class.
For When You Want to Reflect (or Maybe Unwind):
“Mudmen” – Pink Floyd
“Mudmen” is the first purely instrumental song I fell in love with, and also the song that locked in my love for Pink Floyd and David Gilmour’s guitar playing. It’s a relatively simple song, but that doesn’t take away from its capacity to encapsulate listeners. The power of Gilmore’s guitar, the crisp drum fills, and the organ melt together into a beautifully intense rhythm that leaves room for deep thought. I will say that I am slightly biased in the sense that I listened to this song primarily during high school when teen angst was surging through my veins; yet even at the age of twenty (with a slightly reduced teenage angst), I find this song just as enthralling as I remember it to be.
“Riviera Paradise” – Stevie Ray Vaughn
It’s hard to put into words how beautiful a song like “Riviera Paradise” is. Aside from it being one of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s most masterful songs, it truly is a piece of timeless artistry. Nothing really seems to matter when I’m driving down empty streets late at night, windows down and the radio turned up (not fully though, because my poor Honda’s speakers can’t take that much heat). In this warm solitude, any frustrations I had are tossed out the window, like the gusting wind just picked them up and blew them all away.
For When You Need a Pick-Me-Up:
“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” – Grant Green
It’s only natural to include Grant Green on this list, and what better song to use as a pick-me-up that insinuates losing track of time? What’s interesting to me is that whenever I listen to Green I almost forget the amount of skill it takes to play what he’s playing because he makes it all sound so easy. Which, when this is the case, everyday stresses start to seem a little less daunting, dare I say, manageable? This song just puts me in a good mood, there’s no other way to say it. My drive to Trader Joe’s this morning? Exquisite. Absolutely delightful. And I’m sure the people sitting in their cars next to mine would agree.
“Sweet Georgia Brown” – Herb Ellis
You’d think that a song that makes you super giddy would be easy to write about, but it’s been days and I can’t find the words to do this song an ounce of justice.* Some word association I can think of: Spongebob (if you listen to the song you’ll probably see where I’m coming from), laughing, and dancing. I don’t know. The song is great and it speaks for itself how uplifting it feels. I don’t even think I’d be able to cry while listening to it, which is also why it’s perfect for when you’re needing a pick-me-up.
*As with every other song on this list. Listening for yourself is the only way to really judge a song, so take my words with a grain of salt.
“Caravan” – Les Paul and Chet Atkins
If there are going to be any songs you choose to ignore from this list, don’t let “Caravan” be one of them. This song turns any outing into an adventure as if you’re on a special mission where the task at hand is a matter of life or death. Going to the food store? Walking home after a lecture where literally nothing made sense? Feeling lonely or homesick with nobody to talk to? Fall into this song’s rhythmic trance and let it take you away. It’s country, it’s jazzy, it’s bluesy; it’s water trickling down a stream of pebbles. It’s everything you want it to be and more–just give it a listen and you’ll see for yourself (or maybe not, but you won’t know until you try it out).
“Road Song” – Pat Martino
The day this song came into my life was quite the journey, to say the least. I was out in Poly Canyon submerged between two hills with a little baggie of mushrooms, switching between myself, Kelsey, and my newfound alter-ego, Mrs. Chipmunk, and her Bag. The day was going by as if I were in a fairytale, a children’s storybook if you will, and every gust of wind signified the start of a new day. Burnt orange sycamore leaves would catch air as I would sigh a breath of relief, for a new page had turned, and it was a new opportunity for me to seize the day. The day was magical, in no small part thanks to Pat Martino and his beautiful piece, “Road Song”. I remember sitting there, looking out into the distance admiring the beauty of the day, the beauty of life, the colors, the flow of nature, the cows speckled onto the hillside straight ahead, and this song coming on. I had been playing the Herb Ellis album Texas Swings, and after it had run its course similar artists began playing automatically. Luckily for me, Martino’s work found itself in that category, and when the song came on I was overwhelmed with joy. Embarrassingly enough, I was so overcome with emotion that I felt compelled to record my surroundings in order to forever capture that moment. And while I certainly think there’s something to be said about that in and of itself, if I had never pressed record I wouldn’t have been reminded of its existence the following day as I played back videos and ultimately found myself Shazaming the view of the cows. Rest in peace, Pat Martino; may your legacy live on for years to come.
Kelsey Amann writes for .WAV’s Content Team. She wrote the article. Ally Maranta is on .WAV’s Art Team. She made the graphic.