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.
On with the list. These are the best ambient albums ever made:
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.
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The 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.
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Tangerine Dream – Rubycon
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Alva Noto – Xerrox Vol. 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.
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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.