Tracing its origins back to the 1960s, ambient music is entering its seventh decade as a genre. And, so far, the 2020s are looking like some of the best years that ambient music has seen. Perhaps it was something to do with lockdowns and pandemics, but in the last couple of years, there has been a proliferation of stunning new ambient music albums released.
From the early days of Erik Satie’s Furniture Music and Brian Eno’s still-classic Ambient 1: Music for Airports, the genre of ambient music has grown and developed. In this article, we look at some of the key records that helped establish the genre, as well as some of the latest big releases. From dark ambient, to ambient techno, to ambient jazz, here are 11 of the best ambient albums.
Gas, Pop (2000)
Genre: ambient techno, minimal ambient
Legendary German-producer Wolfgang Voigt – better known as Gas – has created an opus of stunning minimal ambient techno albums. Drawing on inspiration from LSD experiences in the Königsforst, a forest near his hometown of Cologne, Voigt’s aim with the project is to ‘bring the forest to the disco, or vice-versa,’ and he certainly achieves it.
Each and every one of his albums is worth a listen. I’m a fan, especially, of his 2000 Pop, with his 1998 Königsforst, and 2017 Narkopop also up there. Gas offers the very best in complex, rich, rhythmic techno-inflected ambient music, taking you with him on these earthy, gently pulsating psychedelic trips. It’s some of the most atmospheric music you’ll ever hear. Get lost in the forest listening to Pop here.
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, & The London Symphony Orchestra, Promises (2021)
Genre: ambient jazz
British electronic music producer Floating Points has been building a reputation as one of the great electronic producers of our time for some years. With his latest release, he has outdone himself. His 2011 ambient album Shadows was spectacular. But the 2021 Promises with Pharaoh Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra was probably the most phenomenal record to be released during the whole of the pandemic.
Based on four simple chords, looping round and round for the duration of the 46 minute 37 second record, the album is imbued with a sublime sense of stillness and melancholy. As the movements progress, Pharoah Sanders’ raw, expressive saxophone lines carry you until lush, string arrangements modulate and build into a stunning wash.
The stillness and curiously comforting melancholy that the record taps into is simply transcendent, with those four simple, returning chords giving up more to the listener on each repetition.
Robert Rich and B.Lustmord, Stalker (1995)
Genres: new age ambient, dark ambient
Based in California, the extremely prolific Robert Rich has been producing stunning ambient music for over forty years. An innovator in the ambient music genre, and a pioneer of ‘sleep concerts’ – 9-hour overnight concerts where the audience would literally bring sleep bags and doze to his music – Robert Rich truly understands the embodied power that ambient music holds for many people.
Robert Rich is not so much a dark ambient composer, but to me, his collaborative 1995 dark ambient album Stalker with Lustmord, is one of his most impactful. Icily cold, and at times darkly bleak, the record is both otherworldly and uncannily familiar, with scarcely a glimmer of light surfacing in its 68 minute duration.
For a warmer taste of Robert Rich, try the beautiful 1992 Soma collaboration with Steve Roach. A percussive, organic piece of New Age art, the word soma comes from vedic texts which described a drink that was used to help people commune with the gods.
Nala Sinephro, Space 1.8 (2021)
Genres: ambient jazz
Caribbean-Belgian jazz composer and keyboardist Nala Sinephro’s Space 1.8 should surely be nominated for an award for the most daring debut album ever. Straddling jazz and ambient music, and never settling on either, Sinephro casts off convention to create one of those exceptionally rare records that is authentically unique, and stylistically pioneering. What’s more, she does it extremely well.
Playing the pedal harp, modular synths, and piano, the record lives up to its name with ample spacey moments, pulsating arpeggiated synth lines, as well as lush, swelling ambient soundscapes. The record is a little less minimalist than others on this list, but I have no doubt that ambient music lovers will find a lot of value in this ambient-jazz crossover masterwork. A genuine piece of avant garde brilliance.
Brian Eno, Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978)
Genres: minimal ambient
Brian Eno’s seminal 1978 Ambient 1: Music for Airports is truly amongst the essential minimal ambient albums of all time. Despite the common perception, the record was not the first ever ambient album, but it was perhaps the most impactful. Eno’s intention with ambient music was, in contradistinction to so-called muzak, to create something that was both ‘ignorable’ and ‘interesting.’
The music was not intended as sonic wallpaper in a superficial sense, but music that could ‘induce calm and space to think’ – minimal music, with a higher purpose, if you like. The record’s title did indeed have some connection to actual airports,inspired by a long wait that Eno endured at Cologne Bonn Airport during which he found himself irritated by the place’s dull atmosphere – ironic, perhaps, considering the pregnant sense of possibility that airports can evoke.
Needless to say, you can enjoy this minimal ambient masterpiece anywhere and anytime – airports included.
William Basinski, The Disintegration Loops (2002)
Genres: minimal ambient
William Basinski is one of the world’s foremost ambient artists, and the experimental composer and sound sculptor’s 2002 The Disintegration Loops is his career-defining work. Trained as a classical musician, Basinski works extensively with reel-to-reel tapes.
His analogue, loop-based approach to ambient music leads to a distinctly, beautifully soft, warm depth – and a lot of repetition. To my ears, it’s as if the idea behind The Disintegration Loops was to find a four second loop that’s so beautiful you want to listen to it on repeat for an hour. The beauty of analogue is that each repetition is different (of course, there is more going on than just a single loop – but if you listen you’ll see what I mean). With each meditative repetition, time marches on, and you change, and the world changes around you.
The Disintegration Loops is considered his essential work, but Watermusic (2001), and Melancholia (2003) are equally worthy. Basinski continues to compose to this day – his 2020 Lamentations is bleakly spare and beautiful.
The Soft Pink Truth, Shall We Go on Sinning That Grace May Increase (2020)
Genres: ambient, minimalism
In the midst of worldwide lockdowns and bleakness, the release of The Soft Pink Truth’s Shall We Go On Sinning That Grace May Increase was a moment of light. The record sees house music producer Drew Daniel collaborate with a small orchestra of instrumentalists to create a beautiful flowing work of ambient music that melds together Reichian minimalism with touches of house.
Intended as a response to the election of Trump and rising facism, Drew was intent on not producing ‘angry white guy music’. We’re treated, instead, to an uplifting, meditative journey, representing an earnest departure from the artist’s usual mischief. The record curiously takes the title from the Apostle Paul’s rhetorical question, amounting to a call for personal responsibility and integrity.
A sophisticated, brilliant, absorbing record, and one of the best to come out of that strange, difficult year.
Aphex Twin, Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)
Genres: ambient techno
Legendary producer Richard David James – known as Aphex Twin – is one of the most influential electronic music producers of our generation. You would be hard pressed to find any electronic music artist who has not, at some point, been touched by his music.
In the unlikely event that you’re not familiar, it should be said that Aphex Twin is by no means a strictly ambient artist. He has, nonetheless, produced two of the best known and best loved ambient music albums of all time.
Aphex Twin’s ambient records are saturated with modular synths glooping and pulsating around. At times the works are beatless soundscapes, and, at times, the tracks are driven by fairly energetic techno-inflected four-on-the-floor grooves. A soft, gurgling sound palette, and gentle, measured sense of progression makes all Aphex Twin’s ambient works interestingly, deliciously unintrusive.
Make sure to check out Selected Ambient Works 85-92, and if you want more, the sequel, Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994).
Alva Noto, Xerrox, Vol.4 (2020)
Genres: minimal ambient, glitch
Alva Noto is the project of German composer and audiovisual artist Carsten Nicolai who boasts a catalogue of outstanding glitch and minimal ambient albums to his name. Alva Noto’s collaborations with pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto deserve a special mention. Of these works, which include the soundtrack to the film The Revenant, the 2002 album Vrioon wonderfully melds glitch and ambient with subtle piano melodies.
Better still is his droning, minimal Xerrox collection, which represents the heights of cold, sparse, minimal ambient music. Released on Nicolai’s Roton label, the prolific producer has dropped the four volumes over a span of thirteen years, interspersed with numerous other projects. The Xerrox series, which is intended to eventually include a fifth release, is based around the idea of copying.
The records see Nicolai and collaborator Christoph Brünggel’s ‘sample transformer’ manipulate familiar, mundane audio fragments – anything from ad jingles to film soundtracks – and convert them into something unrecognisable, and quite beautiful. Find your way in with his most recent – Xerrox, Vol.4 (2020).
Loscil, Clara (2021)
Genres: minimal ambient
Loscil is the ambient project of Vancouver based artist Scott Morgan. The name Loscil derives from the ‘looping oscillator’ function in the Csound programming language – geeky or what! But as is generally true, the geeky obsessiveness of artists is what leads to direct rewards for the listener.
Since the release of his debut record, A New Demonstration of Thermodynamic Tendencies (1999), Loscil’s music has only got better. Loscil’s records are often deeply rooted in a sense of place. His Pacific Northwest surroundings formed part of the influence for Sketches from New Brighton (2012), Sea Island (2014), and Coast/Range/Arc// (2020).
His 2021 album Clara is possibly his best yet. The 70 minute record is based on a short extract from a three-minute recording of a string orchestra in Budapest. Morgan then produced a lathe cut of the recording, before scratching it up to produce the amazing textures that form the basis of the record. Let it’s expansive, slow-moving, warm sounds engulf you.
Steve Roach and Robert Logan, Second Nature (2016)
Genres: minimal ambient, dark ambient
The two collaborative albums of prolific ambient producer Steve Roach and composer Robert Logan deserve special mention, and are amongst the best ambient albums of each artist. The fruits of an extended session in Roach’s Californian studio, Second Nature and Biosonic were released in the same year.
They combine the best of Roach’s mastery of expansive, space-like voids, and Logan’s meditative worlds, in which slowly looping, almost imperceptibly slow melodies chime above breathy drones. The resulting atmospheres inspire a sense of solitude, mystery, and wonder. At the same time as creating space, these records somehow suggest a detailed, visual, alien world.
On a similar theme, fans of these collaborations might also want to check out Steve Roach’s 1996 The Magnificent Void with its comparably spacey depths, and icy, otherworldly textures. Listen to Second Nature here.