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8 Songs to Help You Relax and Refresh

from our Optimisticles blog series

By Wes Kilgore, Well Beings

As summer winds down and many of us are heading back to schools and campuses or preparing to send our kids back, it’s a good time to be mindful of the pace of our daily existence and to do our best to try not become overwhelmed by the responsibilities we face during these kinds of transitions. Try to seek out opportunities to hit the pause button on your tasks long enough to just breathe, meditate, pray, cross stitch, play tiddlywinks, or do whatever it takes or in order to clear your mind, relax and refresh. Here are a few soothing, cleansing songs to help you unwind.

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Little Dragon – Twice

Sweden’s Little Dragon had me hooked from the very first track they ever released, Twice, from their 2007 self-titled debut album. I was already a fan of lead singer Yukimi Nagano’s work with fellow Swedes, electronic jazz duo Koop, but Little Dragon was forging its own unique sonic path. Twice is a hypnotic, drum-less, rumination on self-disappointment — I think. The lyrics of the song leave a lot of room for interpretation, and there are no shortage of dissections online, but none is as thorough and incisive as Indigo B’s post in The Lyric Review blog.

Nick Drake – River Man 

The sonic palette of Nick Drake’s River Man, from his 1969 album Five Leaves Left is nothing short of mesmerizing. The song starts with an off-kilter (because of its 5/4 time signature), acoustic guitar riff that gives way to Drake’s melancholic baritone and rising, rapturous strings. The mystique of this wonderful piece of music is augmented by Drake’s brief, tormented career. He lived with depression, and although he was signed to Island Records he refused to perform live or do interviews to promote himself. After releasing only three albums, he died in relative obscurity at the age of 26. But his small body of work left an indelible mark on acts like R.E.M., Aimee Mann, The Black Crowes and Beck, who all cite him as an influence — as well as The Cure who took their name from a lyric in one of his songs.

Psapp – Hill of Our Home

You may be unknowingly familiar with Psapp from their tune Cosy in the Rocket, aka the theme song to Grey’s Anatomy. The British duo has carved out space for themselves in the crowded landscape of electronic music by coming up with a format dubbed toytronica. While bleeps and found sounds (meowing cats anyone?) abound on much of their material, Hill of Our Home strikes a more pensive, contemplative tone, with its plaintive piano, plodding bass line and lyrics about the weight of the world and doubt. I’m not sure exactly what lead vocalist Galia Durant has in mind when she sings “Today ate us up / and never chewed,” but I know I’ve definitely had days like that.

Lhasa De Sela – De Cara La Pared

Lhasa was a Juno (Canadian Grammy) award-winning Canadian-American songstress, who was raised in a family of traveling musicians and circus performers. Her 1997 debut album La Llorona (inspired by the Aztec legend of La Llorona), combined a dizzying array of klezmer, torch songs, jazz and Middle Eastern music. De Cara La Pared, a standout track from that album, is propelled by a rhythmic, aquatic percussive effect, soaring strings and haunting harmonies.

Fink – Sort of Revolution

Fink is one of the few artists who have made the transition from a successful career as a DJ to a successful singer-songwriting career. It was hard to pick just one Fink song for this playlist because a lot of his tunes have hypnotic guitar riffs that make them easy to zone out and relax to. But most of them also kind of skew to the dark side — as do I, it seems, musically anyway. So in the interest of showing that relaxing and refreshing doesn’t have to equate to somber, I’m going with Sort of Revolution, the title track from his 2009 release. Sort of Revolution has a propulsive, hopeful and almost quietly anthemic feel that makes it an excellent driving song, a point driven home by the repetition of the chorus “Let me know when we get there / if we get there.”

Ryuichi Sakamoto – Tango

When you think of Japanese Bossa Nova, whose name comes to mind? I’m guessing nobody. But the next time you’re asked about it (sure, it could happen), you should be ready to respond with these two words: Ryuichi Sakamoto. Sakamoto is a composer, pianist, singer, producer and actor who first gained musical prominence as a member of the electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Sakamoto explored all kinds of musical terrain after leaving YMO, including his 1995 album Smoochy, which seamlessly weaves together elements of jazz, latin music and electronic percussion. Tango is one of Smoochy‘s more cinematic offerings. The English translation of the piece (sung entirely in Japanese by Sakamoto) was unknown to me before writing this article. But the language barrier never stood in the way of my enjoyment of the captivating, lush piano-driven soundscape that Sakamoto creates. For more on the extraordinary music and life of this composer, check out the doc Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda.

Nick Hakim – I Don’t Know

Whenever I play Nick Hakim’s I Don’t Know, the immediate reaction from anyone hearing it for the first time is usually to pause whatever they are doing and say, “Ooh. Who is this?” Since releasing this track on his 2014 two-part debut EP, Where Will We Go, the New York-based, Berklee-trained multi-instrumentalist has garnered praise from Pitchfork and The Guardian, been showcased by Eryka Badu and has collaborated with fellow Optimisticle playlist artist Lianne Le Havas, who sang his praises in a 2020 NPR interview.

Music writer Michelle Geslani nicely summed up relaxing vibe of this tune in a 2014 Consequence of Sound review: “I played this song for a friend of mine last night and he said that it made him “sleepy.” I almost took offense, but he was quick to note that it was only because the track, despite the potent emotional content, feels like a warm, fleece blanket of serenity. I’m totally inclined to agree.”

Lianne La Havas – No Room for Doubt

British singer-songwriter-guitarist Lianne La Havas was one of the last protégées in Prince’s life. While tinges of purpleness have inevitably crept their way into the music of most acts associated with Prince, the sound of La Havas’ 3-LP discography has remained surprisingly devoid of the Minneapolis legend’s tiny footprints. Reportedly, His Royal Badness was taken with the artist upon first hearing her 2012 debut release Is Your Love Big Enough?, and the two formed a friendship and working relationship that included Le Havas joining Prince onstage for a 2014 SNL performance. A single from that debut release, No Room for Doubt, is a hauntingly beautiful, spare reflection on the doubt we often face when trying to define romantic relationships.

To close out this Optimisticle, here’s a video of Le Havas covering another song featured in this playlist, Twice by Little Dragon.

About the Author

ee Dunning, author & psychotherapist providing crisis intervention

Wes Kilgore is a writer, musician and bon vivant based in the Washington, DC area, and the proud parent of two disturbingly well-adjusted young women and two borderline sociopathic Corgis.

Related Series & Films is a mental health resource, not a crisis or suicide response website. If you are in crisis, or experiencing thoughts of suicide, please text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741), or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.