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:
Miles Davis is one of the most prolific musical geniuses of all time, having dominated most of the 20th century jazz landscape with progressively experimental releases that pushed the boundaries of what music could be. His work was not only adventurous; it was catchy, fun, thrilling, and always memorable.
Being a huge fan of the artist means having to reframe my perspective when a novel aspect of his work catches the light just so. This happened again.
I’m writing about the most soulful, beautiful album I’ve heard this year. It just happens to have been recorded over thirty years ago.
I only mention current events in these weekly posts to give context to the words I write and the music I share. The circumstances in which we listen are important. Music might help buffer the hardness of the world, but he world informs it all the same.
That being said, I don’t even know what to say about what’s happening in America lately. Everyone seems to have lost hope. I know it’s not true, but dark attitudes are in the wind. I’m doing my part to remind those around me that things can and do get better. The fact that there’s always beautiful new music is enough proof for me.
This week I’ve only got two things to talk about, but they’re really important to me: Sade and the new Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead.
In the grand scheme of things, Animal Collective’s fever-pitch impact on the internet music world of 2009 isn’t much of a blip, but to my friends and I, living and breathing and freaking out on last.fm, it was the event of an age.
This week’s real world brought a deadly terrorist attack in Belgium, while the music world brought the premature death of a hip-hop hero. It was downers all around, and I struggled personally with some dark moments too. At least in my own case, I try to meditate, focus, and seek the healing power of art. This is how I keep perspective.
It’s also how I end up sharing music. Here we go:
Have you ever heard of Fishmans? If not, that’s okay, because you’re here. I’m sharing their most incredible album. Uchu Nippon Setagaya is pure dub nirvana from Japan.
As a true believer in dub in all its permutations, I wholeheartedly consider this one of the best examples of the genre. Fishmans lit a constellation spanning the night sky from Kingston and Tokyo, mixing lush electronics, deep, wobbly bass lines, and the utterly distinct, androgynous vocals of lead singer Shinji Sato. Their final album may be the purest expression of this unmistakable sound.