As software developers and knowledge workers more generally, we’re always trying to manage our attention in order to stay on task and hold sufficient context in our minds to design and create an effective solution for whatever problem we’re working on. The Pomodoro Method is a productivity technique meant to help with focus and managing our limited will-power. The idea is that you set a 25-minute timer and then work on a task for that amount of time before taking a 5-minute break to recharge. After four of those, you take a longer break.
Personally I’ve never been able to follow so-regimented a scheme, but I’ve found over the years that combining this idea with my love of music works pretty well for me.
Music is easier than ever to find and access, but even in this streaming modern day and age I’m an album guy. You can keep your playlists and your algorithmically-optimized radio stations and your YouTube channels to chill to. Those have their place, but for me I like to hear an artist’s intent across a whole set of songs. Because I listen to a lot of music when I’m working, an album with a clear vision and consistent quality can really help me stay focused and find the flow I need to keep moving forward.
One day, I was doing just that – listening to an album I loved, deep in the zone, working away at something and then suddenly I noticed nothing was coming out of my headphones and I’d just cranked out almost an hour of focused work. I wasn’t done, but I knew I could take a break, take a breath, and step away for a few minutes to recharge. Thus was conceived the idea for this post:
The Pomodoro Album™, an album that’s
- around the length of a Pomodoro timer (full disclosure: we’re going to be pretty flexible on this, most are a bit longer),
- that doesn’t have any really bad tracks you need to skip,
- and that consistently fosters an energetic or introspective mood conducive to work.
Here’s a list of some of my favorites:
El Ten Eleven: self titled
I’ve had El Ten Eleven’s self titled debut on fairly constant rotation since I first heard it. Like a lot of good productivity music, it’s instrumental and ebbs and flows pretty smoothly, reaching exciting peaks without too many surprises. No individual voice stands out and fully takes lead; the peaks are a gestalt as the elements grow together. You don’t need to know this to enjoy the album, but the band is just two people and one of them conjures a two-necked guitar with a standard neck, a bass neck and a loop pedal, tapping, sliding, hitting harmonics and thumping bass lines that bring focus up and down the frequency spectrum. The other drives things forward on the drums with tight, propulsive rock beats. The combined effect is a motivating and fun 35-minute album that can keep you in the zone for the duration.
Hermanos Gutierrez: El Bueno y el Malo
These actual brothers weave understated guitar melodies into relaxing and expansive sounds evoking the desert. It’s not a barren sandy waste, though – it’s a high desert in spring sporting night-blooming cactus, howling coyotes and the rhythm of riding up and down the undulating basins and ranges. Between the swooping slide guitar and reverberating chunky strums of a big hollowbody, it sounds like a shimmering mirage of saguaro and juniper. This kind of spacier, mellower vibe tends to work for me when I’m in a more investigative or exploratory work-mode – maybe reading or planning out a new project.
Danielle Ponder: Some of Us Are Brave
Sampling soul singers with powerful voices is a tried-and-true (okay, maybe even cliche) way to add heft to a dance or hip-hop track, but Danielle Ponder skips the middle-man and just does it all herself. She’s got the vintage-sounding voice of crate-diggers’ dreams and a solid knack for modern R&B production. This album grooves hard and no it’s not instrumental, but despite her vocal talent, Ponder fits her voice into the mix much like another instrument. You can take a break and listen to the yearning and struggles presented in the lyrics, but the feelings are suffused throughout all elements of the music and when you’re looking for something to keep pulling you upward and forward because something better is on the horizon (lunch?), this album fits the bill.
Tommy Guerrero: Year of the Monkey
This is a short album, but it kicks right into gear with a skittering beat, melodic bass, and a chorus of chiming, fluttering guitar chords that eventually give way to a bouncy lead. Tommy Guerrero, also a pro-skateboarder, crafts groovy soundscapes that you could carve down a long, winding hill to. Since I’ve never broken any bones, and plan to keep it that way, I get more use out of his music behind a desk when I’m looking for a laidback pick-me-up. Like a lot of good instrumental music, his songs have discernable parts for each instrument while trading off which layers hold the groove and which one draws focus, while serving the feel as a whole. I first heard this EP’s opening track, Archaic Days, in a coffee shop and immediately knew who it was, so I think this 20-minute album is a good introduction to his work, but he’s got plenty of albums that could have been on this list. Most are groovy like this one, but don’t miss Perpetual, which takes his distinct textures out into a more understated, ambient place if you need a lower-energy, more exploratory vibe.
Sunset Rollercoaster: Cassa Nova & Soft Storm
Runtime: 35:09 & 31:26
If you grew up subjected to a certain type of adult-contemporary soft-rock, this album will teleport you right into the backseat of your mother’s station wagon, despite being made by an indie-rock band from Taiwan in 2018. Sunset Rollercoaster mine early-90’s easy-listening radio sounds and repackage them into modern, funky suites that suck you in with nostalgia and then take off into moody, instrumental, downbeat excursions. It’s as if mom took a wrong turn on the way to the skating-rink and ended up in a chill-out tent at Coachella. Cassa Nova and its follow-up Soft Storm might require a specific strain of nostalgia to really shine, but if it hits right, you’ll be done with your homework before you know it.
Tony Rice Unit: Backwaters
With a name like Backwaters, you’d be forgiven for expecting a pretty traditional bluegrass experience, especially from someone who’s among the greatest flatpickers of all time. But that much talent rarely comes without a concomitant need to explore and push boundaries and the reality of this album is that it’s a jazz record. Rice is telegraphing as much by including My Favorite Things, but you can hear it throughout and I find that the whole thing is a great (and concise, Pomodoro-ish length!) exploration of where two disparate American styles of music can really get along. I find this album in particular to be a good day-starter – it’s energetic, but not overly fast or percussion-driven. The bounce and lightness of it feel right in the morning light while I’m getting organized and building up context for the day’s tasks. If you enjoy it, be sure to check out Tony Rice’s work on the first self-titled album by The David Grisman Quintet, which I would have included on this list if it weren’t too long.
City Girl: Goddess of the Hollow & Siren of the Formless
Runtime: 31:36 & 26:22
Chill-hop? Lo-fi beats to study to? This pair of short albums (both clock in around 30 minutes) might fit more or less into those genres, but to my ear bring a little more depth and personality than your average playlist filler. The dynamics across individual songs keep things interesting as do the range of textures, from live instruments (electric guitar, ukulele) to synths and the occasional vocal. I usually lean on these when I know what I need to do and just need to knock it out.
Cory Wong: Trail Songs (Dawn) & Trail Songs (Dusk)
Runtime: 24:56 & 22:07
Who better to help you get stuff done than the busiest guitarist in show business right now? Cory Wong is known as a funk guitarist with his own signature Strat, but his interests clearly range wide and this pair of 25- and 22-minute (perfect Pomodoro length!) albums indulge his occasional need to go acoustic. You’ll hear the usual funky bass and intricate melodic lines, but in a wood-and-steel setting featuring talented guests like Chris Thile and Sierra Hull. When you’re closing in on that last mile of a
hike project, either of these albums will give you just the boost you need to get over the last hill.
Tropics: Nocturnal Souls
It’s right there in the name: this album swelters with a dark humidity that borders on the spiritual. It’s 30 minutes of R&B smeared thin into ambient wisps in some places and clumped and concentrated into tight uptempo workouts in others, sometimes over the course of a single song. The dynamics keep it moving and interesting, while the steady, intricate rhythms drive you forward. I tend to put this album on when I’m in an investigative mode – troubleshooting a bug or trying to understand why something works a certain way so I can build on top of it. It’s just got that searching through the dark vibe.
This and basically all of William Dorey’s albums as Skinshape have a laid-back, vintage feel. Acoustic drums, slide and electric guitar, gentle horns and strings all work together here. It’s not quite intricate enough to be jazz and not quite heavy enough to be rock; it sits at a really nice place right in between. There’s great playing, solid grooves, and a spacious atmosphere that’s just right for a half-hour of calm but energetic focus.
Japandroids: Celebration Rock
Do you have a massive amount of caffeinated (but also kind of wistful?) energy that needs channeling right now? If you’re feeling like a firehose whipping around out of control, turn yourself over to this pair of firefighters so they can aim you straight at whatever inferno you’re currently trying to put out and hold you steadily streaming in a powerful torrent of productivity. Celebration Rock starts and ends with the sound of fireworks in the distance and in between it’s an unrelenting 35 minutes of epic riffs, fast-twitch strumming and pounding, rolling, crashing drums. If the task in front of you is clearly defined and you’re looking for the motivation to blast right through it, this is it.
Loved the article? Hated it? Didn’t even read it?
We’d love to hear from you.