32 Best Ambient Albums Ever Made

32ambient2

Here it is, the Optimistic Underground list of best ambient albums ever made. Inspired by all the discussion surrounding Pitchfork’s list of the genre, I decided to lay out my favorites. This is a sound that I’ve been in love with my whole life, so the only problem was narrowing it down.

Lots of people like ambient music for lots of reasons. Some love to fall asleep to it. Some are fascinated with the granular detail of slow songs. Some enjoy the way that it can dilate time, shifting perception for vast stretches.

I love it for all of these reasons, and for the way it can utterly transport my mind in a way that frees me to have all sorts of thoughts, the kind of ideas that spring up during a long bike ride or a mediation session. Ambient music is contemplative music, for all intents and purposes. It’s music to think about, and think to.

As of right now, I can’t imagine setting a strict order for these albums. So they’re not numbered. Some are definitely more beloved than others, but the important thing is that these are all incredible works of music that deserve your attention. Every single album here is a defining example of the power and possibility of ambient music.

These are the best ambient albums ever made:

Steve Hillage – Rainbow Dome Musick
1979

steve-hillage-rainbow-dome-musick

This album is a holistic distillation of everything that ambient would be known for over a decade after it was released. It is an outlier in Hillage’s catalog, a leap into the future on a sleekly ambient pulse, mixing guitar, synthesizer, piano, and exotic percussion into a seamless wash of sound. You’d never know it was recorded live, but the fact that it was makes it all the more impressive. Seriously, this sounds like it was made in the early 90s, not the late 70s.


•  •  •

The Detroit Escalator Co. – Black Buildings
2000

Detroit Escalator Co Black Buildings

The Detroit Escalator Co. is one of the unsung heroes of the mid-90s crest of cutting edge Detroit techno. The project, by Neil Ollivierra, only resulted in two albums. The first was an uneven collection of mostly brilliant melodic techno, but the second was a subtle explosion of cool cyberpunk vibes. Synths, guitars, tactile drum programming, and a rollercoaster of moods flow through this, all contained in a narrow channel of pure mood. It’s the pulsing, future fringe of ambient techno, delicate and determined.

A key track from this album appears on my Ballroom mixtape.


•  •  •

Tangerine Dream – Rubycon
1975

tangerine-dream-rubycon-cover

This is my favorite Tangerine Dream album for a lot of reasons. Rubycon is a concise distillation of everything the band did well into 30 minutes of cosmic drift. It’s also a perfect crossroads between the earlier droning incarnation of the band and the often prog-rock leaning sound they evolved into by the 1980s. Most importantly, it sounds like nothing else on earth. It sounds like what I picture the inside of a wormhole looks like. This is a fundamental record of psychedelic music and a foundational record of ambient.

Once again, rest in peace, Edgar Froese.


•  •  •

Brian Eno – Discreet Music
1975

brian-eno-discreet-music

This album is where the genre was first truly expressed to its extreme. The title track is a half hour cascade of shifting tones, rippling textures, and achingly light synth melody. Eno’s programmed structures bounce off and reflect themselves, creating a kaleidoscopic rendition of a narrow band of musical color. It’s as calm as the sea on a windless night, and just as deep, dark, and full of mystery. Even better, it’s backed by a three part deconstruction of Pachelbel’s Canon in which the parts phase in and out of sync, blurring and erasing all sense of time.


•  •  •

Cluster – Sowiesoso
1976

cluster-sowiesoso

This is the best recording from the original lineup of the band that resisted all categorization, even the burgeoning “krautrock” in their prime. Cluster began more a menacing, freeform cousin of Tangerine Dream’s early experiments, evolving into something as complex and driving as krautrock champions like Neu! and Can, without even the most remote of connections to recognizable rock music. The pieces here exist out of time, cloudlike pop confections in a sea of glowing haze.


•  •  •

Seefeel – Starethrough
1994

seefeel-starethrough

Starethrough may be an EP release, but what it lacks in length it more than makes up in groundbreaking sound sculpture. Seefeel had already deconstructed guitars into pulsing dance tracks on their debut release, Quique. Here they hit the afterburners and left recognizable structure behind. These four tracks have as much in common with later composers like Fennesz or Oneohtrix Point Never as they do with contemporary dub techno or IDM artists. While they had more approachable songs in their past and a further erasure of form in the future, at this point they perfected a sound.


•  •  •

Alva Noto – Xerrox Vol. 2
2009

alva-noto-xerrox-2

This throbbing slab of digital noise finds bliss at the center of chaos. When you pull back far enough, everything becomes a pattern, a wave, a deeply moving sound. Alva Noto’s most beautiful work is a stunning, verge-of-melodic oasis among a sea of static. Its songs emerge from the decaying wreckage of looped samples, thriving like crows over carrion. The movements hiss and vibrate, swelling background noise up to the forefront and receding behind bowed strings, synths, and unknown pleasures beyond.


•  •  •

Klaus Schulze – Mirage
1977

klaus-schulze-mirage

“Music is a dream without the isolation of sleep” is the tagline in the sleeve. Still, I swear that this is the actual, real-deal soundtrack to zooming across the lunar landscape. It feels just like your best acid-fantasy out of body experience, an ideal trip that sees you zooming through the solar system like you’re on that Cosmos ship with Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Schulze is a prolific German composer who was part of the initial lineup of both Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel. It’s kind of incredible how much talent exploded from that brief era of time in that specific part of the world. While every Schulze fan seems to have a different favorite, and the press often points to Moondawn as a breakthrough, it’s this album, Mirage, that’s always caught my sense of wonder. The two half-hour pieces here offer an out of body experience for those willing to take the plunge.


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33 thoughts on “32 Best Ambient Albums Ever Made

    • Thank you! I really struggled with Chill Out to be honest – it was on my original pile of 50 or so albums – but at some point it ended up on the chopping block. >_< I already thought of another 10 albums I wish I'd included!

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    • I love Chill Out but I am kinda glad he used something else in lieu of it – it’s such a well-known ambient record that I’m sure most ambient fans are at least aware of. Dang, now I kinda want to listen to it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I listened again just a couple days ago. Kinda perfect for just drifting off, the way the samples enter and exit haphazardly feels like slipping in and out of sleep.

        Still, it’ll probably be on my “stuff I missed” list or whatever I end up calling it :D

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  1. This is an exciting list that contains enough of my own favorites (The Orb, Seefeel, Stars Of The Lid, Alva Noto, Slowdive, etc) to assure me that we’re on the same wavelength … but a whole pile of other albums I’ve never heard but should clearly check out.

    I’m starting at the top, with “Rainbow Dome Musick”, which is fabulous. From my perspective it’s an obvious progenitor of “The Orb’s Adventures…” — of course I already know of Hillage’s involvement in that group, but I’d never heard his own music to compare with it.

    I should make my own list. There are a lot of stone classics you’ve inexcusably overlooked ;-)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent comment, I’m glad to see someone else who’s familiar with a pretty wide swath of this stuff!

      As for the overlooked things: I’d love to hear suggestions! I’m actually putting together a second “oops I forget these” list that will include some I forgot, some that have been suggested since I published, and some that I simply had to cut to make the list more succinct. I’m eager for things I’ve never heard :)

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      • Just in case I never end up writing that post, some quick picks for my list:

        Robert Rich “Trances/Drones” (Massively deep soundworlds from 1982)
        Stars Of The Lid “Avec Laudenum” (I love all their albums, but this for me is their pinnacle)
        Eluder “Drift” (This sounds exactly like being asleep)
        How To Disappear Completely “Arterial” (The best by this mysterious but very prolific Eastern European improv-ambient group)
        Biosphere “Autour de la Lune” (Don’t make me choose between this and “Substrata”. They’re so different they might as well be by separate artists!)
        Expo 70 “Center Of The Earth” (Exactly what it says on the tin. 45 minutes of deeply cthonic guitar noise, then 5 minutes of palate cleanser.)
        Windy & Carl “A Dream Of Blue” (None of their full albums really do it for me, but they have some killer EPs. See also: “Antarctica”.)
        Loscil “Submers” (Ambient dub perfected.)
        Aloof Proof “Piano Text” (Ambient piano music perfected. Or you could call this a reverb album featuring a piano.)
        Krill.Minima “Radiodub EP” (Ambient dub made out of static, hisses, crackles. It’s like if you recorded distant music off a shortwave radio and then subtracted out the music.)
        Zoviet*France “Shouting At The Ground” (Only a few of their many albums appeal to me, but this one is amazing. It has the same quality as early SoTL, where you have no idea what kinds of instruments the sounds are being made by, or even if they’re forwards or reversed.)

        Damn, looks like I have enough material here for at least a Part One post; just need to add links to some audio…

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        • These are excellent choices! I included Submers but the rest slipped my mind. Well, to be fair I was considering Windy & Carl’s Antarctica, but it just didn’t make the cut. Howevever, the rest of your choices are very interesting. I LOVE Avec Laudenum, but Ballasted Orchestra is loved just a little bit more. It’s probably the Twin Peaks fan in me…

          I’m definitely doing to check out the Robert Rich, Eluder, Aloof Proof, Krill.Minima albums, since those are all new to me. Also, it’s been years since I’ve listened to Zoviet*France, so I should go back to that :) If you do publish your post, let me know! I’d love to see it all.

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  3. I’d like to add a vote for Biosphere’s “Substrata” here. The combination of cold but warm, dreamlike and trance-inducing elements is still unmatched. Music for astral projection.

    Robert Rich has been mentioned as well – I love “Fissures”, together with Alio Die (another artist with an insane catalog of releases). Very earthy, haunting.

    Matt Hillier aka Ishq, Elve, Ishvara etc. etc. has produced a lot of albums that really wonderful from beginning to end (“Infinite Garden” as Elve for example).

    Hecq – “Night Falls”, highly cinematic, touching, incredible sound wizardry. An absolute stand-out album from his diverse catalog.

    Sleep Research Facility – “Deep Frieze”, perhaps the best of his works.

    Thomas Köner’s “Nuuk” always electrifies me from the very first moment. Super intense.

    Something from the “new German ambient” school of the early to mid-nineties, the Recycle or Die label. Baked Beans “Bean Me Up, Scotty” or Stevie Be Zet’s “Archaic Modulation” – both well bordering into New Age perhaps.

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    • Wonderful suggestions, thank you! I really do regret not including Substrata, to be honest. Maybe I’d just seen it on too many other lists, but it’s there for a reason – it’s a true classic.

      The only one of your other suggestions I’ve heard is the Sleep Research Facility, so I’m excited to explore some new tunes. I’m familiar with Köner but not Nuuk,, and the rest are just completely new. As for some sounding like New Age… I have a deep affinity for that sound too. Are you familiar with the Wolf Müller & Cass release from earlier this year, The Sound of Glades? I shared it a few months ago, and even considered it for my big list, but decided that it was too new in the end. ( https://optimisticunderground.com/2016/07/20/wolf-muller-and-cass-the-sound-of-glades/ if you’re curious)

      Again, thank you! I’ve got so much new material to hear.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Happy to hear that you like my suggestions. I completely understand the impulse to omit Substrata – but, I’ve just listened to it again, and I think it does deserve to be mentioned that often. ;-)

        Also, I share your hesitation about naming things “best of” prematurely. I too think that music needs to “ripen” or perhaps grow, and pass the test of time before being awarded a “best of”. :-)

        Anyway, thanks again for sharing your list, I enjoyed it a lot – and I just got notice that my copy of “Returnal” is on the way to me. I’m going to check out the Wolf Müller & Cass album now. Thanks for the recommendation!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, the music needs to ripen, good way to say it. Even the albums I love right away end up better after some time. And wow, that’s great you got Returnal! OPN is one of my favorite artists and that is a gem of an album. I really hope you love it too!

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  4. Great list! I like that you included Birth of a New Day. I bounce off most vaporwave, even the original Eccojams, but this one pulled me right in.

    Also really love Alva Noto. When I heard he was involved in The Revenant’s soundtrack, I immediately ran out to go watch it, ha ha. Leonardo winning an Oscar? I’ll catch it on DVD. Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto on the soundtrack? Better go watch it on the big screen.

    A recommendation: Steve Roach – Possible Planet. An entire album made on a modular analog system almost 10 years before the modular analog resurgence, no MIDI, no keyboards, no computers. The stirrings of life on an alien planet; nothing else sounds like this. I don’t see it mentioned much, but it is one of my all time favorites. Turn up the subwoofer for this one, trust me.

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    • Great recommendation – I’ve heard a lot of Steve Roach but not that album! I’ll listen asap.

      Also, I felt the same way about The Revenant when I saw who was scoring it. Fantastic aesthetics. Also, I honestly am the same way with a lot of vaporwave. The genre is flush with embryonic sounds that have only recently been fleshed out into more ambitious creations like the 2814 album. Have you heard their newer album? I like it a lot, but it’s not as unique sounding.. feels like classic 90s minimal techno in a big way.

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    • Thanks! As I mentioned in the intro, I was inspired by all the talk about that list, but I was a bit underwhelmed by the list itself. They included a lot of great albums, but missed some really interesting ones.

      Of course, I missed a couple essential things too (I wish I’d included Biosphere – Substrata!) so I’m making a second list soon with a handful of albums I forgot + some great suggestions from readers.

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  8. Late to the party but, wow… thank you so much for this. I’m diving into Ambient music for the first time and this is bar none the best list I have found. I have sampled about 4 albums so far and really dig them all. Much appreciated!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s awesome to hear! Thank you for letting me know – I love knowing that I’ve helped someone get into new music. Which albums did you try so far? If you want to hear more recommendations, I’m happy to share!

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