Know someone who could do with a moment or two to take a breath and regroup? Who perhaps deserves a luxurious evening of simply chilling out with a relaxing album, a nice glass of wine, and the freedom to doze off on the sofa? If so, we have a few suggestions on the album front - albums we have given or received as gifts ourselves, ranging from classical, to jazz, to soundtracks, to folk music, to poetry. We hope one or more will prove to be the perfect chill out companion for your recipient.
Smooth Classics for Rough Days: Confession: three of the CD sets on this list are compilations by Classic FM, but we couldn’t not include them, because they are just so darned good. Classic FM is a brilliant British radio station that shares classical music in a very non-stuffy way and their mandate encompasses not just the geniuses of centuries past - Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and the like - but also contemporary greats, from John Williams, to Ludovico Einaudi. This 3-CD compilation was our first Classic FM purchase and it did not disappoint. Today, the set is out of print, but there seem to be a goodly number of decent used copies on the market right now, most of them eminently affordable. To check out the tracklist, visit the Amazon.co.uk listing. You’ll see that there is a pretty strong consensus about the merits of this compilation. In fact, we had to chuckle a bit at the “worst” review, coming in a three stars: “Only a couple of tracks that I enjoyed, the rest would put you to sleep.” Well, that’s actually precisely why we like it - this CD set is super relaxing, restful and yes, totally soporific, but in the best possible way!
Classic FM Relaxation: The Ultimate Piano Chillout Album: So thrilled were we with Smooth Classics for Rough Days, that this piano “chillout” album soon joined it. If you know someone who could do with a bit o’ relaxing music played primarily on the piano, then this has to be a top contender. Be it as background music while chopping up the carrots for a pot of Bolognese, or while lolling on the sofa, mug of cocoa in hand, this CD set is bound to take the stress level down a notch - or ten. Side note: this CD set is still available in the UK, so if you’re US-based and thinking about purchasing a copy, we recommend ordering from Amazon’s UK site as, at the time of writing, Amazon.com is only listing very expensive used copies.
Classic FM Smooth Classics: The Ultimate Collection: The last of our Classic FM recommendations, it’s a wonderful complement to the above two sets with hardly any overlap. This set is makes for wonderfully easy listening as well, and we particularly like the inclusion of tracks such as ‘Earth’ by Hans Zimmer (from ‘Gladiator’) and Gabriel Fauré’s ‘Pavane’ (the first track on the second CD, listed as ‘Andante molto moderato’). Camille Saint-Saëns’ ‘The Swan’ (aka ‘Le cygne’) from ‘Carnival of the Animals’ was new to us and is truly lovely - as was César Franck’s ‘Panis Angelicus’ as recorded with Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone) and Aled Jones (tenor). We could keep on going, but we’ll leave it there - take it from us, this is another marvelous, super relaxing round-up from the great Classic FM!
Allegri: Miserere / Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli / Mundy: Vox Patris Caelestis: This is a more recent addition to our music collection, and it has been such a great success that we have since gifted it on to others. The Tallis Scholars who recorded this album specialize in Renaissance music and have made a truly stunning CD from end to end. They include works from three composers: Lorenzo Allegri’s ‘Miserere,’ William Mundy’s ‘Vox Patris Caelestis,’ and ‘Missa Papae Marcelli’ by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Allegri was an Italian composer who worked for the famed Medici family in Florence. From what we have read, he was well known as a lute player, but also did some composing and his ‘Miserere’ is a beautiful, haunting piece of music. We hazard that it would be hard to truly listen to this work and not get caught up in some kind of metaphysical meditation - or, to simply find your mind wandering, happily tripping away from day-to-day life for a moment, perhaps accompanied by a daydream or two. As for William Mundy, it’s entirely feasible that he was busily composing some new piece in his native England at that moment in 1567 when Allegri was born. Mundy would likely have been about 38 years old at the time. Among the positions he held throughout the course of his life, were vicar-choral at St. Paul’s Cathedral and Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Much of his working life was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, but ‘Vox Patris Caelestis,’ a gorgeous antiphon (i.e. call-and-response piece), may have been composed during Queen Mary’s brief reign. Last but not least, Palestrina, the third composer on the CD, was born just 4 years before Mundy. Like Allegri though, he was based in Italy - but in Rome rather than in Florence, holding positions at various churches, the most prominent being St. Peter’s. Purportedly, Palestrina was quite famous in his day and influenced composers long after his death in 1594. If you listen to ‘Missa Papae Marcelli’ (the ‘Pope Marcellus Mass’), it’s easy to understand why. Rarely do we find whole albums that are as consistently good as this one is - needless to say, we heartily recommend checking it out!
Il Postino (soundtrack): Il Postino was nominated for Best Picture at the 1996 Academy Awards and ended up losing out to Braveheart. What it DID win though was the Oscar for Music (Original Dramatic Score). Argentine-Italian composer Luis Enrique Bacalov was abundantly deserving of the award as far as we’re concerned - this soundtrack is one beautiful piece of music after the next. You know the kind of artist that is so good, they make what they do almost look effortless - like Fred Astaire dancing? Bacalov does something similar here. In a way, the music sounds simple and endearing - a bit like the postman for whom the film is named. But, on second, third - or, for us, the bajillionth listen - you realize just how amazingly complex it actually is. How, for instance, does he manage to variously evoke the love, passion, tenderness, the beauty of nature, of good people’s hearts and the humor to be found in our daily life? Were we in Pablo Neruda’s shoes, we could not have wished a more perfect composer to be indirectly associated with our poems. And, that brings us to a bonus on this CD: a selection of Neruda’s poems (as translated into English and read by a talented group of artists). We especially like Rufus Sewell’s reading of ‘Ode to a Beautiful Nude,’ ‘I Like for You to Be Still’ as read by Glenn Close, and Madonna’s melancholic reading of ‘If You Forget Me.’
The English Patient (soundtrack): This is another soundtrack we find ourselves returning to again and again. The year after Il Postino won an Oscar for its score, The English Patient swept the Oscars, winning nine awards in total, including one for Best Picture and one for Music (Original Dramatic Score). The film’s producer, Saul Zaentz, was no stranger to the Oscar podium - he had previously won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. For Gabriel Yared, the film’s composer, the opposite was true - it was his first nomination, and his first win. There are a couple of excellent classic songs included on the CD that are great to have in your track list, but don’t really qualify as “relaxing.” That said, the majority of the CD is Yared’s original score and it’s positively hypnotic - romantic, beautiful, sad, wistful, passionate, tender, and ever so slightly menacing at times. Really, all the things and all the feels. We can’t recommend this CD more highly.
The Most Relaxing Jazz Music in the Universe: The name of this compilation makes a pretty bold claim and, clearly, it’s somewhat subjective. However, we humbly submit that this 2-CD set may well live up to its promise - it’s as chill as chill can be. You know in the movies when a character is at home, listening to some cool jazz, either preparing a meal for someone - usually while drinking a glass of wine and/or making some kind of Italian food - or, as in the case of a hardboiled detective story, drinking hard liquor, moodily trying to let go of some of that stress that comes from relentlessly pursuing the baddies, while simultaneously looking out over the twinkling lights of the city they are sworn to protect (Harry Bosch, we’re looking at you!)? Well, the composer or music supervisor in charge of the soundtrack probably spends a goodly amount of time sorting out which jazz track to use, but we have a feeling they could pop this CD on and basically achieve the same level of suave, sophisticated, relaxing complexity almost instantly. If you know someone whose life would be improved by some absolutely lovely jazz music, do check out this compilation.
Songbird by Eva Cassidy: This is an album that brings us happiness but with a touch of sadness. Happiness because it is truly beautiful and because the CD was gifted to us by a very dear friend. Sadness because Eva Cassidy, the brilliant singer and guitarist behind it, died of skin cancer at only 33 years of age. Cassidy’s voice resonates with such feeling, tenderness and sincerity, it is hard not to get emotionally swept up as you listen to her singing. Put this CD on in the golden light of a fall evening, light a fire and curl up on the sofa and just let your mind wander - you’ll find it’s easy when your thoughts are nudged along by Cassidy’s lilting, almost conversational style of singing. We have her album Live at Blues Alley too - it’s also excellent - but we chose Songbird for this list as the more soothing of the two. We’d especially draw your attention to the following tracks: ‘Fields of Gold,’ ‘Autumn Leaves,’ ‘Songbird,’ and ‘Over the Rainbow.’ This album would be a perfect gift for anyone whose favorite time of day is dusk, who is partial to jazz or blues music, who likes long walks in the autumn, who likes a good rainy day every now and again… you get the picture!
Greatest Hits by James Taylor: This album is a collection of truly iconic songs - from ‘You’ve Got a Friend,’ to ‘Sweet Baby James’ - and it’s one we have returned to, time and again, whether recovering from having our wisdom teeth pulled out, or hanging out with friends. To us, Taylor’s voice is pretty extraordinary in that it manages to be both singer and storyteller simultaneously, and we find it’s easy to get so lost in his lyrics and melodies that all other worries and cares are forgotten for a spell. Do check out this album if you are looking to gift something relaxing to someone who enjoys folk music, music that tells a story and/or just helps you unwind for an hour or two.
Good Poems read by Garrison Keillor: Were you ever assigned poems to read in school? Yup, us too. But, we didn’t really appreciate the magic of poetry until that one teacher who read a poem to us almost daily at the start of class, who taught us that poems don’t truly come alive until they are read aloud - or sung aloud, as in Bob Dylan’s case - because poems aren’t just about what the words mean on the page, they’re about how the words sound too, their rhythm, their melody and, in some cases, onomatopoeia. For that reason, who reads the poems and how they read them is supremely important. And, on this compilation CD of poems, we think Garrison Keillor does a brilliant job. He paces himself in such a way that listeners are given enough time to absorb and ponder the words as they are spoken. He reads with feeling, but doesn’t overdo it and has a lovely, rhythmic gravitas to his voice that lulls you into a state of relaxed receptiveness. Really, pretty prefect for the selected poems, and why we chose this album for the list. We’ve listened to it on airplanes when the lights have been turned out and everybody is tucked up under their blankets, trying to get a few minutes of sleep - and we’ve listened to it in the midst of crowded subway cars, closing our eyes and escaping the sweat and frenzy for several minutes at a time. With poems from the Bible, Yeats, Frost, Shakesepare, Carver, and many others, this is a wonderful compilation. Most of the poems were new to us - indeed, we’re still absorbing them all - but we’d especially highlight “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna” by 19th century Irish poet, Charles Wolfe. It is a story-poem, commemorating the loss of the British commander while fighting Napoleonic forces in Spain. The way that Keillor reads it, it is sad and somber, but also exceptionally beautiful.
Well, that’s the round-up, folks! Now that we’ve shared our list, perhaps you are wondering why we chose to share CDs as opposed to digital albums? Isn’t digital the new wave? Who’s listening to CDs these days? Indeed, it’s true that that’s the way things have been heading. That said, we do know some folks who still prefer to listen to CDs - and, some we know are actually switching back from digital to CDs when they are at home (and don’t need their music to be portable). That was one reason we chose to link to CDs. The other reason is the simple fact that some of these (most notably the compilations) are only available as CDs. Even if they weren’t, though, we often buy CDs instead of digital albums - not only can you often get them cheaper (sometimes for pennies!), you can upload them with a higher quality sound than the average MP3 download affords. So, we made a small investment ($29.99 when we bought it several years ago) in a portable Samsung external CD/DVD USB drive and have definitely recouped way more than it cost by buying many of our albums used in CD format and uploading them ourselves. Just thought we’d mention it in case you fancy doing the same. Meantime, please do add any albums you’d highlight as especially relaxing below (no matter the format) - we’re always interested in expanding our music horizons!
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