I recently spent the better part of a day trying to stay conscious in the midst of a headache. It wasn’t quite as bad as a migraine, but in the moment, any such distinctions didn’t really matter. I’ve typically found that the best solution for such a scenario is to take some medicine, retreat to the bedroom, make it as dark and cool as possible, drape a cold rag over my eyes — and put on some soothing music.
Over the years, I’ve written about individual albums and how they’ve brought me comfort in the midst of migraines. But for whatever reason, I’ve never posted a list of my favorite “headache” albums, i.e., those albums that I regularly rely on to help me relax, lull me to sleep, take my mind off the pain, and drown out the chaos. So here are ten of my favorite such albums, listed in alphabetical order by artist.
For their sophomore album, the duo of Lawrence Chandler and Martha Schwendener began wedding shoegaze textures to the beats and vinyl crackle of hip hop, as best evidenced by the opening title track. And while I normally eschew beats altogether when I’ve got a headache — when my head’s already throbbing, I don’t need anything percussive — Bowery Electric’s skeletal rhythms are hypnotic. Schwendener’s lethargic vocals help soften the band’s rhythmic vibrations, as well. Meanwhile, the nearly 17-minute “Postscript” is all undulating, slowly shifting drones and bass pulses — the perfect sort of thing for when your brain is already a bit addled. (Read my original review. I initially found Beat rather hit-or-miss, but it’s grown on me more over the years.)
When Harold Budd died in 2020, the world lost a musical master. Budd’s refined, elegant piano pieces could be described as “minimalist,” but I think that word fails to describe the amount of emotion and beauty that Budd wrung from each and every note that he played. There’s a lot of beautiful music in Budd’s discography, but Translucence + Drift Music — his 2003 collaboration with John Foxx — is the album that I return to most often. Budd’s playing is economical to the extreme; every note seems like it was carefully selected specifically to maximize the music’s emotional impact. Look no further than the album’s opening track, “Subtext,” for a prime example of this. (Read my original review.)
It might seem odd to see a lovesliescrushing album on here, given Scott Cortez and Melissa Arpin-Duimstra’s propensity for needle-pushing, eardrum-rupturing waves of noisy shoegaze bliss. Those are certainly present on 2002’s Glissceule, my favorite lovesliescrushing album. But the duo’s sonics are more refined and less abrasive here. Some that’s likely due to Cortez’s use of digital tools — previous lovesliescrushing albums were analog-only affairs — which processed his guitars to the nth degree. In any case, the resulting music is among the most otherworldly and beautiful — and soothing — of the duo’s storied career, particularly on songs like “Gloscien,” “Suhr,” and “Suischre.” (Read my original review.)
Back in 2011, Manchester’s Marconi Union made headlines when their song “Weightless” was deemed the world’s most relaxing song, beating out the likes of Enya and Coldplay. This came as no surprise to me, however; I’d been listening to 2005’s Distance for quite some, and its refined instrumental compositions had long been a source of deep relaxation. Blending shimmering electronics, drifting guitars, and pulse-like beats, Distance conjures up all sorts of nocturnal urban images, of a city at rest in the wee hours of the night. (Read my original review.)
360 Business / 360 Bypass is a bit of outlier in Pan•American’s discography, relying heavily on electronics for its dub-influenced sound as opposed to the dulcimer and guitar that figure so prominently on Mark Nelson’s other albums. But there’s something surreal and hypnotic about 360 Business / 360 Bypass that continues to intrigue — and relax — me over the years. The vocals of Low’s Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker on “Code” are just an added bonus. Fun personal note: When my oldest kid was still a baby, I once took him on a long drive to try and put him to sleep while giving his poor mother a break, and this album was the soundtrack for our little road trip. (Read my original review.)
Released in 2017, this is one of the more recent “headache” albums in my collection, but it’s quickly become a favorite. As might be inferred by the album’s title, Angela Klimek’s ambient soundscapes conjure up dark, wintry nights, when the world is blanketed by deep drifts of freshly fallen snow and all is quiet and still. The music here is pretty simple, consisting almost entirely of vast drifts of chilled synth and reverb-drenched piano — but that does nothing to lessen the music’s emotional heft. Indeed, that simplicity is precisely what allows tracks like “Southbound Formations” and “The Park at Night” to be as haunting and transportive as they are. (Read my original review.)
The term “ethnic ambient” might be a bit old-fashioned nowadays, representing a sort of musical tourism that just picks and chooses “ethnic” sounds in order to make music that sounds “exotic.” While that term has been used to describe Robert Rich’s Propagation, there’s nothing touristic about it. Rich achieves something truly beautiful here, reverently blending instrumentation from China, Nigeria, and Indonesia with synths, lap steel, fretless bass, and organic environmental recordings (which Rich calls “glurp”) to create music that feels ancient and futuristic, traditional and cutting edge. When you have a headache, sometimes you just want to escape — and Propagation evokes the sort of lush, vibrant world you might want to escape to. (Read my original review.)
In their list of the 50 best ambient albums of all time, Pitchfork described Steve Roach’s landmark Structures From Silence thusly: “these structures hover forever at the horizon, an oasis from the din surrounding it.” And it truly is an oasis, filled with shimmering pools of sound that Roach stirs in all sorts of dreamy, evocative ways. Case in point: “Reflections in Suspension.” Though nearly 17 minutes long, the song never over stays its welcome as Roach patiently coaxes gentle, fragile notes from his Oberheim synthesizer. But eventually, the song reaches critical mass, resulting in a gorgeous cascade of sound that’s immensely satisfying and rewarding. (Read my original review.)
Steve Swartz’s Nighttide was the result of several late night “sessions” during which he’d set up a guitar and amp in his daughter’s room and play while she slept. Distorted power chords this most certainly is not. Rather, Nighttide consists of several lovingly created drone pieces punctuated by the occasional field recording (e.g., an oscillating fan) and other bits of random noise. Swartz’s surreal music might evoke the hum of a sleeping city or a distant factory, and occasionally grows dark and ominous. But even then, nothing breaks the spell cast by the album’s hushed and haunting atmospherics. (Read my original review.)
I’m not sure what else I can say about The River of Appearance at this point. Last year, I wrote an in-depth examination of each one of the album’s songs in honor of its 25th anniversary. But the fact remains that this is often the very first album that I reach for when my vision starts to go awry and I feel a headache’s first pangs. Over the years, its serenely otherworldly soundscapes have proven themselves consistently reliable in helping me escape the pain that comes with even the worst migraines. As such, The River of Appearance has become more than just a favorite ambient album; it’s become a source of comfort and refuge. (Read my original review.)
Back in July 2021, I sent Opus subscribers a playlist titled “Music for Migraines” that features nearly two hours of soothing “headache” music culled from the above albums (plus several others) as well as an accompanying podcast episode. These are just a few of the perks that subscribers get every month in return for supporting my writing on Opus.