The Orb – Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld
The Orb’s monumental debut is a gigantic, messy sprawl over two hours of jazzy beats, atmospheric sampling, and immaculate deep space drift. It’s that final point that earns it a place on this list. This vast journey – and it is a journey, the most purposeful of narratives on this entire list – takes the listener through dub techno and deep house passages, but these detailed points of interest are separated by vast stretches of galactic real estate. Near the middle of the album, a pair of tracks run back to back, soaring far outside the realm of any recognizable beats or structure for more than a half hour of ambient bliss. It may end in a frenzy, but the moments spent in the drift feel most alive.
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Manuel Göttsching – Inventions for Electric Guitar
Inventions For Electric Guitar is the perfect bridge between first wave German kosmische music and the early techno it eventually inspired. With a pair of twenty minute epics and a smaller tune between, Göttsching wastes no time stretching the outer edges of rock far beyond what anyone was doing at the time, or for years to come. His guitar here often sounds like an arpeggiated synth or a warm drone wave, rarely revealing itself as the traditional six stringed instrument we all think we know. From his early days in Ash Ra Tempel to the proto-prog of Ashra, this man was always at the vanguard of new sounds; here he simply hit a sweet spot for ambient groove music that was never quite found again.
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Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal
I knew right away that Oneohtrix Point Never belonged on this list, and I knew it had to be his breakthrough, Returnal. The album melts cogent thought, blurring time and physical sensation; its otherworldly experience dilates far beyond its 42 minute span. The album has always felt like a straight shot across the solar system to my ears. Entering through the asteroid cocoon known as the Oort cloud, it opens with a massive hissing noise assault that gradually fades into the gentlest drone you’ve ever heard. From here, we drift past icy planets and swirling, stormy gas giants, slingshotting around the bigger ones before zooming past the warm glow of the sun on our way toward the great big galaxy out there. But never mind my silly space analogy; just listen to the song below. There’s never been a more ironic name for such a blissful track.
Returnal was named Best album of 2010.
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John Foxx – Cathedral Oceans
Foxx was the frontman for 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 work, 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.
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Deepchord Presents Echospace – Liumin
Liumin is a juggernaut of thumping dub bass, cyberpunk synths, and the most lush ambient pads ever crafted. It’s a seamless experience from end to end: opening in a warm drone pool, flowing like a river into light beat constructions, billowing into more hard-charging sequences, then gradually trickling down to end in a familiar ambient stillness. The entire thing is set into a landscape of field recordings, with the sound of Tokyo’s streets, subways, and citizens cropping up throughout the mix. It’s an ambient journey through one of the most futuristic cities on earth, a relentless ride that cocoons the listener in its world for over an hour.
Liumin was shared with a full album stream from Soundcloud just last year.
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Virginia Astley – From Gardens Where We Feel Secure
I’ve always been infatuated with this sound. Seriously, it feels like a childhood dream manifested in an album. Using only piano, soft woodwinds, and a few fleeting echoes of her own voice, she crafted a holistic little fantasy world of an ambient album. This is music to be absorbed into, an album that can radically elevate your sense of oneness with the world if you let it. The song below is one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces I’ve ever listened to. I’ll never tire of it, and you won’t either. This album is super rare to find, but incredibly worth a listen.
A Summer Long Since Passed is a fine introduction. Its mournful atmosphere was perfect enough to earn a place on my Dust mixtape, an ode to fallen pets.
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Steve Roach – Dreamtime Return
This is a massive, two hour ambient epic set to the Aboriginal concept of dreamtime, a layer of existence that stands outside of time itself. Its songs range from three to thirty minutes, with every variation between conjuring different levels of depth and space. As a cohesive whole, the album folds in both electronic and natural sounds, from didgeridoos to huge synth pads to field recordings from the Australian outback. Like Stars of the Lid, Steve Roach approaches the genre with spartan ideals, stripping the music down to its central essence and then amplifying that elemental spark into a massive conflagration. Dreamtime Return is a lot to take in one sitting, but it’s beyond essential.
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Miles Davis – In A Silent Way
Yes, it’s technically jazz. But In A Silent Way is perhaps the very birthplace of ambient music. There’s a holistic sense of tone and texture that wraps the entire production from end to end, creating a dreamlike atmosphere for the laid-back band to play around in. It’s impossible to overstate how important of a development this was in 1969. The album played a huge role in influencing Brian Eno’s early ambient work, introducing the idea that music could feel calm, otherworldly, and self contained while still offering room for its tangible elements to move and interact. It’s an important outlier in Miles Davis‘ catalogue, a quiet explosion of new sound that was quickly abandoned in favor of the burgeoning, brash fusion sound of the 1970s.
Pieces of this album help glue my Luminous Path mixtape together.
I know that I missed some important albums. In fact, I had more to begin with, but I wanted to cut it down to a succinct number, with each album representing a different facet of ambient music. It’s hard to kill your darlings, but sometimes it’s necessary. Thirty two just sounded like a nice number, anyway.
Comment and let me know your favorites and anything I missed. I want to hear it all.