10 Records That Make Me Feel Smarter


Researchers say that listening to music can improve your focus.

Of course, it has to be the right music. Studies have found that listening to a Mozart Sonata can improve your focus and enhance your performance on intelligence based tasks. There is no evidence to suggest you’d get the same effect out of a Shania Twain record. 

But don’t let that stop you from trying. 

Anyway, I’m always hustling and I need a constant soundtrack. But it requires some careful thought. I’d be lying if I said I sat around listening to Mozart sonatas all day. 

I like classical music as much as the next brooding James Bond supervillain. But I have my own catalog of go-to records when it comes to getting shit done. Yes, there is a happy medium between Mozart and Shania Twain.

And I’ll tell you all about it…in a minute.

But first…

Can music actually help you focus?

Well, I don’t know you. Maybe. Maybe not.

It actually depends on a whole bunch of different factors including your personality, the complexity of the task at hand, and the type of music you choose as your soundtrack. So for instance, if you’re easily distracted, don’t blast Gwar while exploring Einstein’s field equations. 

On the other hand, some researchers have suggested that music may actually play a key evolutionary role in our ability to digest patterns, anticipate events, and create order out of the chaotic strands of human experience. 

Think about that next time they play Semisonic at last call. 

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. If that isn’t Einstein’s theory of relativity in action, I don’t know what is. 

No seriously. I really don’t. Physics is not my strong suit.

But if it was, a 1993 study suggests I should really be listening to Mozart while I do it.

Rock Me Amadeus 

Rauscher et al (1993) investigated the connection between Mozart and spatial reasoning. Test subjects listened to the Austrian composer’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D. Major, K. 488 before performing an intelligence test. 

 Control participants were tested using either “relaxation music” or silence.

In short, the study revealed what it called The Mozart Effect. Relative to the control groups, the Mozart group demonstrated improved spatial reasoning abilities 

But does Mozart make you smarter? Well, for a few minutes it does.

The researchers concede that the Mozart Effect subsides about as fast as salvia. (My words, not theirs). That enhanced mental acuity retreats after roughly 10 to 15 minutes, which means you have to keep feeding your head with Mozart if you really want to crush it. 

Music of the Mind

Unfortunately, subsequent researchers found it difficult to replicate the findings from the 1993 study. The Mozart Effect is far from proven science. 

But the premise is rooted in something more fundamentally provable. Music triggers the parts of your brain that do a lot of the intellectual heavy lifting.  According to a study conducted at the Stanford Cognitive and Systems Neuroscience Laboratory, music engages the same neural regions that control your attention span, your ability to make predictions, and the strength of your memory retention.

According to one of the study’s co-authors, associate professor of music Jonathan Berger, “The study suggests one possible adaptive evolutionary purpose of music.” 

Berger elaborates that music engages the brain over a period of time and that the process of listening might be “one way that the brain sharpens its ability to anticipate events and sustain attention.”

If you’re looking for a way to alter your brain activity without a pharmaceutical prescription, you might just invest in a decent sound system.

Choose Wisely

Before you get to work, you’ll want to choose your music selections wisely. But this is about more than just whistling while you work. It’s not as simple as streaming your favorite tunes. 

As a general rule, most lyric-based music is distracting. In fact, a study conducted at the University of Wales found that students were just as easily distracted by songs that they liked as by songs they disliked. 

Students tended to be less distracted by music that was lyrically repetitive or instrumental.

I’m the same way. I love me some Bob Dylan but the dude never shuts up. I can’t work with all those words blowing through my brain. 

I need something that stimulates without distracting, that energizes without intruding, that motivates without dominating, that matches the tempo of my workflow and the mood of my moment.

My 10 Favorite Focus Records

That’s the idea behind the list of records below. These are not ranked. This is not a “best of.” This is something a little different.

This is the selection and sequence of records that I would listen to over one long-ass day of work where I’ve got a crapload of work to do and no time to waste combining through my shelves. 

1. Clifford Brown & Max Roach–Clifford Brown & Max Roach (1954)

A landmark bop jazz recording and among the most elegant products of the genre. This is the perfect start to a day of work, a record as rich and warm as your first cup of coffee. All due respect to George Thorogood, but trumpeter Clifford Brown was the finest musician ever produced by the great state of Delaware. 

Sadly, he was killed in a car crash at just 25 years old in 1956. But he jammed an incredible recorded legacy into his four years of activity. His best work came through his partnership with legendary drummer Max Roach. In addition to co-headlining a quintet of rotating members (including future legendary tenor saxists Harold Land and Sonny Rollins), Brown and Roach shared a close personal friendship. 

In fact, Roach introduced Brown to his future wife. At the time of their meeting, she was a student working on a thesis which claimed that jazz music was inherently inferior to classical music. 

Naturally, Clifford Brown disagreed, and set out to prove as much. As the story goes, he ultimately succeeded in dissuading her of this hypothesis. Perhaps it helped that Brown penned a song in her honor. “Joy Spring”, included here, is considered a jazz standard. 

2. George Benson–The Shape of Things to Come (1969)

Later audiences will know George Benson for his swanky white suits, his life-FM crossover success, and Yacht Soul fare like “Give Me The Night.” 

And honestly, you won’t hear me say a bad word about that George Benson. I love that George Benson. 

But yo…the George Benson you hear on this record…this George Benson is nasty. Before crossing the bridge into pop stardom, George Benson was jazz music’s premier guitarist. By the late 60s, Benson was already a rising star, the heir apparent to the great Wes Montgomery. In 1968, Montgomery–at a mere 45 years old–died of a heart attack in his home.

Benson signed with Montgomery’s label (A&M subsidiary CTI) and immediately stepped into his idol’s shoes. This is the first record from that long and fruitful associate. 

Equally inventive and virtuosic, fluid and fleet, his playing on pretty much anything from this era gets my brain firing on all cylinders. This one already displays Benson’s tendency to lean into rock and soul. Listen to the tradeoff between Benson and organist Charles Covington on the title track and the second-side reprise, “Shape of Things That Are and Were”.

[“The Shape of Things to Come” was written by legendary songwriting team Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, and performed by a fictional garage band called Max Frost and the Troopers. Get the whole story here.]

It’s pretty clear that CTI wanted to launch Benson as a major artist. Guest spots on this record include Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Hank Jones, Idris Muhammad and even salsa legend John Pacheco. It worked. This album cooks.

The speed, energy, and selection of familiar crossover tunes make this a frequent spin during my work day…a perfect way to push back against my first late morning caffeine dip.

3. Stan Getz–Captain Marvel (1974)

By the early ‘70s, Stan Getz was a well established jazz pioneer noted for his work in bebop, cool jazz and bossa nova, most notably through his international 1964 smash collaboration with Astrud Gilberto on “The Girl From Ipanema”. 

This highly underrated release finds him at the front edge of the next big thing. If Captain Marvel doesn’t sound like a full-throttle fusion album, it should at least be seen as a launchpad. Indeed, while the album bears Stan’s name, most of the songs and arrangements were provided by a young pianist named Chick Correia. 

The band was rounded out by Stanley Clarke on bass, Tony Williams on drums, and Brazilian musician Airto Moreia on percussion. The 1972 sessions were captured in New York. You can hear the simmering salsa rhythms of that time and place. But Stan Getz gives the whole thing a distinctly West Coast breeze. That same year, Chick would take the whole band with him, dub them Return to Forever, and forge funk fusion history. But for my money, they never sound better than they do on this little gem.

Also, my kingdom for an authentic version of the wicked cool t-shirt young Stan wears on the cover of this album. 

4. Paul Desmond–From the Hot Afternoon

If Paul Desmond’s name is not immediately familiar to you, the sound of his alto sax may in fact be among the most familiar in all of jazz. That’s because Paul Desmond was a key sideman for legendary cool jazz pianist Dave Brubeck. 

So that snaky melody that slithers through “Take Five” belongs to Desmond. Here, out on his own for CTI, he delivers one of my all time favorite performances. Tinged with latin rhythms but layered with shimmering harps, muted horns, and gentle syncopations, this is the sonic equivalent of a screened in porch baking in the midday sun, fan buzzing in a corner, sweat trickling from your forehead, but fingertips ablaze with activity. 

5. Cymande-Cymande (1972)

On its face, this is an album recorded by a British band in London. But in truth, this is one of funk’s most exotic and inventive creations. The nine piece band includes members from Jamaica, Guyana, and St. Vincent. The result, on their debut, is a pioneering concoction of African rhythms, rastafarian themes, and American soul grooves. 

It made a modest impact at the time, floating up the bottom of the U.S. soul charts. And lead single “The Message” even charted on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #48. But its real impact would come some 20 years later. The album’s bounty of grooves, breaks and beats bubbled up during the golden age of hip hop. Selections from this previously underappreciated record found their way into tunes by Masta Ace, De La Soul, Wu Tang Clan, the Fugees and countless others. 

The LP also finds its way onto my turntable pretty much constantly. Uplifting and propulsive all at once, this is a late afternoon shaker. 

6. Buena Vista Social Club–Buena Vista Social Club (1997)

The original Buena Vista Social Club refers to a members only club that opened in the Buenavista section of the Playa municipality in Havana, Cuba in 1932. While nobody is exactly certain where the small wooden venue stood, it was the heartbeat of a golden age in Cuban music. 

Prior to the revolution and the arrival of the Castro regime 1959, local musical forms called son, danzon, and bolero flourished in this largely black, segregated neighborhood. Cultural and artistic suppression under the Castro regime brought an end to this era. 

But in 1996, British Record Producer Nick Gold and American guitarist Ry Cooder visited Cuba for a chance collaboration with some of the genre’s long-lost icons. The result was the album here, as well as an Academy Award nominated documentary and a surge of interest in Cuban music and Latin music in general. 

Local legends like Compay Segundo, Rubén González, and Ibrahim Ferrer would achieve global stardom and spend their final days in the spotlight. Each would pass away within just a few years of this recording. 

It’s just one of a million reasons this is such a compelling listen–dig the documentary for the whole story. Ghostly harmonies, smoky rhythms, clarion matador calls–it all feels like an echo from a place lost to time–the perfect soundtrack as twilight approaches.

7. John Coltrane–A Love Supreme (1965)

This is the album I turn to most often when it comes to reigning in my focus–usually just after dark. And this record does have a dark, pensive quality to it. Intended as a spiritual piece–the love supreme is God’s love–it always struck me as a remarkable achievement in focus. 

It was recorded in December of 1964 and released just one month later…which is just crazy.

The record is a suite in four movements, a single listening experience woven around Coltrane’s inimitably toned tenor sax. The quartet here is rounded out by Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones on drums, and McCoy Tyner on piano. Tyner in particular jumps off the platter, raining down arpeggios like waterfalls while Coltrane cuts through with his trademark sheets of sound. 

Jazz critic Martin Gayford once said of this record, it “marked the point at which jazz—for good or ill—ceased for a while to be hip and cool, becoming instead mystical and messianic”. 

Its meditative quality is perfectly suited to my mood as the evening turns to night. 

8. Frank Zappa–Hot Rats (1969)

If you’re the type who finds Frank Zappa impenetrable, annoying or downright offensive, I offer Hot Rats…not necessarily as a counterpoint, but at least as an antidote. Bluesy, greasy and entirely devoid of Zappa’s trademark sarcasm, Hot Rats is the point of entry for the uninitiated.

There is a fact which is often lost behind Zappa’s confrontational humor–he was an absolute beast of a guitarist. This comes through with facemelting clarity on tunes like “Willie the Pimp” and “The Gumbo Variations.”

Zappa was also an incomparable talent scout. Players like Captain Beefheart, John Luc Ponty, Sugarcane Harris and Ian Underwood trade licks and charts on a mostly instrumental proceeding. It also contains what may well be the closest Zappa ever came to composing a jazz standard in “Peaches en Regalia.” 

It’s entirely possible that Zappa’s most accessible record is also his very best. It also has a loose, grimy feeling that gives me a second wind as the clock approaches midnight.  

9. Mahavishnu Orchestra–The Inner Mounting Flame (1971)

Ok. Now it’s getting late. I usually turn in this direction some time after midnight. I’m not gonna lie to you. This may be a bit of an acquired taste for some listeners. (I’m being euphemistic. There’s a chance you could absolutely hate it. But not me. I love it.)

This stuff is hot, heavy, and brimming with nervous, fiery energy. Fronted by the boundary-pushing British guitarist and Miles Davis-sideman John McLuachlin, Mahavishnu Orchestra is the peak convergence of jazz-fusion, eastern philosophy, and psychedelic pretension. 

Again, it’s not for everybody. 

But for me, Mahavishnu is essential soundtracking during the lonely hours of the night. This is all anxiety, tension, and treble–a tempestuous swirl of squalling strings, spiky organs and magmatic riffs. 

Every composition feels like it’s reaching for something, brimming toward the vortex, stabbing at infinity. In other words, you really have to be in the mood for this shit. If it’s 1AM and I’m still working, I’m generally in the mood for this shit. 

10. Beastie Boys–The In Sound From Way Out (1996)

Ok. That got heavy. And I got a lot done. Now it’s time to bring the temperature down. This album plays like an AC on full blast. By this point in their career, it was no secret that the Beastie Boys were a far more ambitious unit than their earliest recordings suggested. 

[Sidenote: This is not the first album to bear that title. French electronic music pioneers Perrey and Kingsley released a record by the same name in 1966. Find out what that album has to do with this one.]

From fratty snots to pioneers of the genre, their collaboration with the Dust Brothers (Paul’s Boutique) and their investment in the Free Tibet movement revealed a thirst for innovation and a thoughtful worldview. Both are on full display on a Beastie Boys record which contains no rhyming whatsoever. 

No “Body Movin’”. Strictly chill-lounge groovin’…and purely instrumental taboot. This is an oft-overlooked slice of trip-hop perfection. 

It’s also one of my most well-worn wads of wax, owing to its perfect placement at the end of any long night–whether you’re working, drinking, or both. This one takes my racing pulse back down to a steady tick. 


So what if I’m not quite over the finish line yet? I’m not gonna lie to you. I’ve pulled many an all-nighter on the clock. So what then? 

Ahh well, I love my vinyl, but I’m usually pretty tired of flipping, queueing, unsleeving, resleeving, and all that other stuff by now.

This is about when I’ll probably make the jump to Spotify. 

Still with me? Dig this mix. 

As per the Mozart Effect, it may not make you permanently smarter, but it could help you get some shit done right now.