To hear others tell it, Woman, the acclaimed debut album from L.A.-based sleepy pop duo Rhye, is the perfect choice for sex music. "Woman is bound to become fodder for a tasteful boudoir soundtrack," says Pitchfork. "The kind of album that can only be made in the feverish early stages of all-consuming eroticism and adoration," says Spin. "Now the pair may be destined to take on the mantle, for a smaller crowd, that Sade has held for millions around the world. Is Rhye prepared to be indiedom's baby-making soundtrack of choice?" says the New York Times. "A blush to the cheeks means the music is working," says FILTER.
To hear the actual music, you might agree with these assessments. Rhye's calm sound is made of layers of gentle electronic beats, and the traditional instruments are stacked like pillows. This music is warm and dim, like a bedroom turned down and primed for lovemaking. It is steady, eschewing dramatic arcs or surprising progression for a floating sense of vibe.
Woman is self-consciously mellow, groovy and tastefully sexual ("I'm a fool for your belly," Milosh sighs in lead single "Open," and song that follows that on Woman, "The Fall," starts with the politest of demands: "Make love to me"). The voice of Rhye's singer, Michael Milosh, is Crying Game-androgynous: capable of fooling masses, but obviously male once you have confirmation that he is. Milosh's pipes are frequently compared to those of quiet-storm seductress Sade, though I think that equation is generous. Milosh lacks Sade's innate ability to just open his throat and sound like a natural resource; his singing is not quite falsetto but pushing the upper range of his voice and thus never sounds less than belabored.
For those not chafed by Milosh's cloying way of singing, Rhye's music may seem built for the background; a score not a soundtrack. For these reasons, it's borderline stereotypical as far as sex music goes.
And because of that I would warn against selecting it as sex music. It's too on the nose. It's synonymous with sex music right now. People will judge you, as they always do when it comes to your musical taste. They will know you read that Times piece or that you are a Pitchfork lemming. They will realize that you are as calculated as you are. These things will your partner out of the moment.
A good rule of thumb, I think, when it comes to selecting music to have sex to is to choose stuff that is as nondescript as possible. It's probably best not to play anything that will remind people of their past, which means, unfortunately, the whole genre of quiet storm – the go-to soundtrack for people who say things like "making love" and lite-radio staple – is out of the question. Anita Baker may remind someone of that time he was sitting in the principal's office after tripping someone during kickball. It was an accident or was it? You don't want someone debating this when they should be debating whether or not you are the kind of person who likes your nipples played with. Don't do quiet storm during sex. You aren't Billy Dee Williams. Or, I don't know, Usher.
You also really, really don't want "I Wanna Sex You Up" playing while you're loving someone down. "We can do it till we both wake up" may put impossible expectations in the head of your partner because, seriously, what do those words even mean?
Pop music is in an advent of midtempo, when artists like Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Ciara and Destiny's Child are launching projects with seductive sways instead of pummeling attempts to repenetrate public consciousness. It may be tempting to source these, but again, you run the risk of familiarity. More out-there contemporary atmospheric R&B stuff may also be tempting, but this comes with the same risk and also if you play the Weeknd, your partner will probably take you for the type who cries after sex.
There are albums by the likes of Frank Ocean and Jessie Ware that would also seem to fit the bill, but again: too obvious. This is also true of the recent My Bloody Valentine album, and that is a damn shame because it's simultaneously loud and pretty, painful and pleasurable and thus a terrific soundtrack for anal.
I'm afraid this leaves you with few options. The more obscure you go, the less likely your music will be recognized and trigger associations in your partner. Cooly G's Playin' Me album from last year leaves plenty of spaces for your personal noise and comes with a chill that practically begs rubbing bodies to warm up. It's also hypnotic, loopy and its tempo is active: it's a fine accompaniment to something as potentially repetitive as fucking. Even better, I think, is the recently released self-titled debut by Australia's Flume. Flume's hip-hop inflected beats are slightly warmer and emit a heightened sense of fun – something that is lacking from most music associated with sex.
Of course, I speak mostly of casual hookup scenarios. These are the kind of couplings (or more-plings) delicate enough to be damaged by musical choice. If you are in a situation where you are sleeping with the same person repeatedly, be you in a relationship or not wanting to admit that you are in a relationship, you already know what you like and what the other person likes. Maybe you've gotten past the point of ceremony and you have done away entirely with the concept of "mood setting." That's great. Get it done, get it done quickly. You've got sandwiches, and they need eating.