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 of just being there.
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 breakthrough thoughts, little eurekas, 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.
Update 8/18: I’m now organizing this list into chronological order based on some quality feedback from friends and readers. I think this will help give context to the music as we move through the years, giving a sense of narrative from the earliest releases to the latest. To be completely honest, I’m not sure why I chose random order when I first wrote this list – I’d like to send a message two years back to ask myself. I’ve learned even more in the time since, so I’ll likely bring future updates to this list.
In the meantime, I thank you for reading and I hope you find something new to love, maybe an entire genre. Some of these albums are definitely more canonical or officially beloved than others, but I consciously choose to ignore the popular, limiting narratives about the genre. The important thing is that these are all incredible works of music that deserve your attention, and that every piece here exemplifies a facet of ambient music, from its core to its outer fringes. Every single album here is a definitive example of the power and possibility of ambient music.
For more exploration, try the 32 Best Dub Techno Albums and Every David Bowie Album Ranked lists or see the Optimistic Underground best of the year collection for a load of gems.
On with the list. These are the best ambient albums ever made:
It’s the summer of 2016 and I’ve felt more energized than I have in years. In addition to writing more frequently than ever, I’ve rediscovered my passion for mixing and recontextualizing music.
I make mixtapes that I’d want to listen to, sharing music the way I hear it. This one is a night drive for future ghosts.
The past two weeks rolled with dark gravity, anchored by the massacre in Orlando that saw 49 people killed in an LGBT dance club. It may be only the latest in a nearly constant string of mass shootings in the US, but it’s the most devastating in my lifetime. I’ll never forget the gut punch of hearing the news.
It’s important to seize on the image of us at our worst, not just to examine how and why, but so we can truly appreciate us at our best. Still, it’s just as important to grasp the good news when we have it. With that in mind, I want to share the great musical discoveries I made in the past couple weeks.
Aphex Twin has released the first single off his upcoming Cheetah EP and it’s… well it’s fantastic. This is par for the course, considering the high quality of work he’s been dropping since returning to the world in 2014 with the monumental Syro.
The video is a whole new experience for fans, though. Watch the weirdly psychedelic clip here:
I began this mix in 2011, when I last returned to Michigan. In the midst of feeling directionless and alone, I was trying to start again, build something, connect myself with bigger ideas. Instead, I nearly ruined my life.
I was on a collision course with something terrible, and I had no idea it was coming.
This album changes everything for the Dream Catalogue mastermind.
With last month’s deep-dive into the Dream Catalogue roster, I became aware that label co-founders telepath テレパシ and Hong Kong Express had each released an incredible amount of material in the past year. Their output rivals that of every other artist on the label combined, and incredibly, most of it is top notch. Sure, a handful of them tread in the same ultra-drifting waters, but somehow there’s a fascinating diversity of styles between the pair, all lit with the signature cyberpunk glow of the burgeoning label.
So Oneohtrix Point Never has dropped a huge single today in the lead up to his new album release next month. The new song is called Mutant Standard and it’s one of the best tracks he’s crafted yet.
Don’t worry about the grey “no video here” backdrop, the song will begin as soon as you click play. I suppose that’s Oneohtrix, aka Daniel Lopatin, having a little fun with the youtube-as-audio format.
What I love about this 8 minute juggernaut, cresting the center of the album’s running time, is that it finally cracks open that experimental edge of Lopatin’s sound and reveals an earnest dance beat, if only for a moment. When I reviewed the upcoming album, Garden Of Delete, I wrote the following:
“Mutant Standard bursts out clad in minimal techno, snowballing into a close cousin of last year’s kaleidoscopic (and near-perfect) Syro. The tune expands, bursting at the seams with a ragged midi arpeggio before fading into new age bliss. It wasn’t until the song ended that I realized it’s the most straightforward “dancey” track Lopatin has ever recorded.
The song reaches a skidding, frantic momentum that reminds me of nothing so much as the most mind-shredding moment from Aphex Twin’s noisy classical/techno masterpiece, Drukqs. I’m thinking Mt Saint Michel + Saint Michael’s Mount. The ending quivers and bows out, shuffling offstep like a particularly warm Autechre song.”
I still feel pretty much the exact same way, so there’s that. Enjoy the tune! The album drops November 13, 2015, and you can preorder from Warp already. Since it leaked nearly a month ago, a lot of us have had time to become very familiar with the sound, so this monster of a tune might not be news. If that’s the case, I hope that if enjoy it like I do, you’re paying for the real deal when it’s out. It’s important to encourage progressive, adventurous music like this.