32 Best Ambient Albums Ever Made

John Foxx – Cathedral Oceans
1997

john-foxx-cathedral-oceans

Foxx was the frontman for new wave all stars Ultravox, but managed a surprising turn by becoming one of the most prominent ambient composers in the decades since. This album is perhaps his defining release, a work of astonishing clarity and beauty that uses an orchestra of synthesizers and effects to turn Gregorian chants into aural landscapes. Time is stretched beyond recognition here, with single notes drifting for minutes and vocals warped into tidal waves of sound. There are few tangible landmarks in this Ocean, but the utterly complete sense of drift is unmatched anywhere else.


•  •  •

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.


•  •  •

Stars of the Lid – Tired Sounds Of
2000

the-tired-sounds-of-stars-of-the-lid

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.


•  •  •

Susumu Yokota – Sakura
2000

susumu-yokota-sakura

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.


•  •  •

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.


•  •  •

Loscil  – Submers
2002

loscil-submers

On this album, Loscil recorded perhaps the most gentle yet propulsive set of techno songs I’ve ever heard. This tight, calmly aquatic set features a deeply homogeneous production that folds every muffled percussion click and synth wash into the same ever-ringing echoed envelope. It’s dance music as a muted prayer, head nodding as meditation.


•  •  •

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.


•  •  •

Brock Van Wey – White Clouds Drift On and On
2009

bvwwhite
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.


•  •  •

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63 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!

          Liked by 1 person

  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.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 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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  13. Nice collection – especially glad to see Liumin on here. But alas, such a shame that Robert Rich is neglected from this list! If I had to choose one of his releases (because it’s too easy to pick 5+ essentials from his catalog), I would absolutely add Echo of Small Things to this list. And, while I’m thinking of it… Substrata and/or Shenzhou by Biosphere, Journey to the Sun by Adham Shaikh, and for something more experimental, Radio Amor by Tim Hecker. Nevertheless, I look forward to checking out some new stuff from here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely regret leaving off Substrata – it’s one of my favorite ambient albums without a doubt. I also wish I’d included a Tim Hecker album. As for Shaikh, I’ve never heard of him so I’ll check that out. And I definitely do not recall ever hearing an album by Robert Rich, so I’m looking for ‘Echo’ right now. Thank you for the suggestions!!

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      • Substrata has been on so many lists that it might be implied by now :P. I remember finding Journey to the Sun on another top ambient list, and it’s one that definitely stuck with me. Organic and meditative – the two longest tracks on the album are masterpieces for me.

        Robert Rich has quickly become my favourite electronic/ambient musician. The variety of instruments that he uses is incredible – tons of electronic equipment with flutes, lap steel guitar and percussion. His albums range from rhythmic and melodic world/tribal sounds to some darker ambient and spacey soundscapes. Can’t get enough of it! His releases will definitely give you something to deep dive into :). And it’s all on his Bandcamp!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Wow, Rich sounds right up my alley, especially with the lap steel guitar stuff. I’m leaving the country for a few days so I’ll hopefully have time to listen over the next week.

          Speaking of lap steel guitar and ambient music, have you heard Chuck Johnson’s Balsams from last year? Wonderfully warm, enveloping sounds, I wrote about it around July I believe. Reminds me of Eno’s work with Lanois.

          Thanks again for the recommendations!

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        • I forgot to reply here before letting you know that Rich was indeed my cup of tea. I thoroughly enjoy Echo of Small Things, and have a couple others lined up for near future listening. Thank you!

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  17. No Substrata? Just kidding, I realize all this stuff is subjective.
    I would like to say though, thank you for including the KWJAZ. That album is a masterpiece. Everyone always sniffs at it like “Oh right, just like Ariel Pink and Rangers, Etc” to which I always want to add “Yeah, but better.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really, really regret not including Substrata. Honestly, I don’t know what my brain was doing, because it’s not only a classic but a personal favorite. I even used Hyperborea in a mix a couple years ago! (It’s called Ballroom and it’s on here if yr curious)

      About KWJAZ, that’s incredible! I haven’t heard anyone rate it like I do before. I enjoy Ariel Pink and Rangers and a lot of the stuff that was floating around then, but you’re spot on. It’s just better. I so wish we could have had a follow-up from this project.

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  18. Great list! But of course I have to mention some imo overlooked classics:

    Secede – Tryshasla
    This is an amazing concept album about a dying man who journeys in mis mind to a world called Tryshasla. The concept isn’t new; Jethro Tull employed it in their underappreciated A Passion Play. But Secede manages to pull it off brilliantly, with very few lyrics, just from the power and mood of the music.

    Spacetime Continuum – Sea Biscuit is a mesmerizing album by Jonah Sharp, and the album that turned me on to the genre more than 20 years ago. It still sounds fresh all these years later.

    Gas – 0095
    Woob – 1194
    Two essential releases from the seminal em:t label. It ranks in importance with Instinct Ambient, and just behind FAX.

    IMO, you should have at least one Tetsu Inoue release on your list. Many might choose World Receiver or Ambiant Otaku, or maybe Flowerhead, one of his Datacide collabs with Atom Heart (Uwe Schmidt), but my favorite is Organic Cloud.

    Other excellent Tetsu Inoue collabs beside the many with Pete Namlook are MU – Masters Of Psychedelic Ambiance (with Uwe Schmidt), Electro Harmonix (with Jonah Sharp), and Zenith (with Carlos Vivanco)

    Another fine release, that is chilling in its seductive evil beauty, is City Of Light, in which Bill Laswell and Tetsu Inoue collab with two members of Coil. This album can easily become an obsession.

    It was nice to see krill.minima mentioned, but I prefer the undersea sounds of his album Nautica.

    Ishq – Orchid should imo never be left out of a best-of ambient release. Matt Hillier is one of the best in the genre, and Orchid remains his signature album.

    I miss seeing something by Human Mesh Dance included. Those three early Taylor Deupree releases are iconic.

    Lastly, Journey To The Sun is a fine Adham Shaikh album, but his earlier work Realignment is imo even better.

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  20. Great list, my only objection is the lack of anything Boards of Canada. Unless you don’t consider that ambient? I’ve always been terrible with genres but it seems like any variety of BoC albums would fit alongside many other entries in this list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d consider Boards of Canada more of an IDM act, I suppose – they came up on Warp in the late 90s mixing a lot of elements – I’d definitely say they worked with ambient forms, but almost always mixed with other genre signifiers, like hip-hop and techno. I think I could make a case for In A Beautiful Place Out in the Country as an ambient masterpiece, in fact. It’s kind of an outlier in their catalog but it’s maybe my favorite.

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  21. Wow this is a great list! This introduced me to some really interesting and fascinating finds!
    I do have a question for you though.

    Selected Ambient Works Volume II by Aphex Twin is one of my favorite albums ever and probably my favorite ambient album. What put SAW 85 – 92 above it in your opinion?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I’m so glad the list introduced you to some new stuff, that’s my main motivation for writing them. I Honestly I just think the first SAW works better as an album. They’re both amazing and the second contains one of my (and a lot of people’s) favorite ambient tracks ever, Rhubarb. I could have easily chosen it too, I suppose. But I had to go with my gut. The first one stretches the edges of “ambient” a lot, and that might have been a factor too.

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