32 Best Ambient Albums Ever Made

Fennesz – Endless Summer
2001

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This is the sound of digital atoms splitting, storms of static wielded like guitars, and guitars turned into waves via granular synthesis. It’s a miracle of contradictions, magically turning harsh noise into lush soundscapes, feeling as natural as a sunrise over the ocean. Endless Summer is the sound of saving yourself from oblivion, a wave of relief as a light finally appears at the end of the tunnel. It’s the perfect noisy ambient album.

Caecilia is the warm little melodic heart at the center of this masterpiece, a fine entry point as any.


•  •  •

Brock Van Wey – White Clouds Drift On and On
2009

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I needed this album more than I knew, when I first bought it. Icy yet sharply emotional, the album feels slow in the moment but devours time like a monster. It came as a two-cd set with a full deconstruction on the second disc, courtesy of Stephen Hitchell, fostering a vast sense of scale. The album is pure heartache rendered as a widescreen ambient adventure.

I wrote about White Clouds Drift On and On way back in the early days of this site. Rough but enthusiastic.


•  •  •

Stars of the Lid – Tired Sounds Of
2000

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This album is the purest expression of the romantic ideal of ambient music,  using only tone and texture to evoke giant landscapes, deep narratives, and deeply felt emotion. It feels almost still at first blush, and spread over two hours, it seems excessive. But listen closely. Sit in a dark room or alone at the park. Play it loud and realize that these slow motion tidal waves of sound are crafted from dozens of tangible pieces, admiring the intricacy of it all. Or just let it bowl you over with feeling. It can be really cathartic at the right time.


•  •  •

Steve Hauschildt – Where All Is Fled
2015

Steve Hauschildt - Where All is Fled

Hauschildt was part of Emeralds, the biggest band of the late 00s synth explosion, but his solo work has now eclipsed everything his former band did. This album is a polyphonic labyrinth of dreamy genre explorations. From pure ambient passages through dub workouts, twinkling cosmic jams, and motorik tidal waves, Where All Is Fled maintains a consistent mood, an image of gleaming loneliness punctuated by romantic flights of fancy. I listen often, feeling transported, like the last human on Mars, commuting to work on a train full of robots in the year 2259. It’s wonderful.


•  •  •

Terry Riley – A Rainbow In Curved Air
1969

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I feel like I said it pretty well back in 2009: “This recording is analogous to a profound dream: deeply affecting, nuanced, beautiful, yet devoid of concrete meaning. The feelings evoked are an end unto themselves. These sounds are subconscious and natural. This composition is eternal.”

On this record, Riley laid the foundation for his pattern improvisation technique, twisting sumptuous timbre shifts on synthesizers and organs, contrasting order and seeming chaos, erupting in little moments of bliss and long stretches of dizzying, dissonant melody. It’s as timeless as music gets.


•  •  •

Motion Sickness of Time Travel – Motion Sickness of Time Travel
2012

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This music feels like the most epic 8-bit adventure stretched into timeless, formless oblivion. It’s The Legend of Zelda as a billowing storm cloud. It’s the most literal expression of the artist’s name, a slow motion explosion of romantic synth drone melody. Four tracks sprawl over 80 minutes, leaping right outside of time and surrounding all senses; it’s a psychedelic epic in every sense of the term. This is a trip to get utterly lost in.


•  •  •

Susumu Yokota – Sakura
2000

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This is the most lyrical, natural album on the entire list. At least, it seems that way. Shaped by Japanese classical music as much as by fellow electronic pioneers, Yokota’s work often veers into radical style shifts, but on this album, he struck a perfect, placid balance between traditional melodic construction and psychedelic electronic dreamscapes. This album literally never fails to improve my outlook for the day.

The below song, Tobiume, appears on my Luminous Path mixtape.


•  •  •

Slowdive – Pygmalion
1995

slowdive-pygmalion

This is the logical conclusion of shoegaze: ambient bliss. Most people think of Slowdive as the band that released the “second best shoegaze album” behind My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, pointing to Souvlaki as a premier example of the genre. They’re not wrong; that album contains some of the finest shoegaze ever made. But Pygmalion is where Slowdive truly blossomed into an utterly unique form of ambient avant garde dreampop. The album unfolds over glistening, icy landscapes carved out of blurred-beyond-recognition guitars, with vocals winding by like frigid wind through a canyon. There’s a lot of heart and heartache in this obtuse record, waiting to be unearthed.


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32 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.

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      • 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 ;-)

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    • 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!

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    • 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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