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:
This album made a spot on my Best of 2014: Honorable Mention list, for a lot of great reasons. Here it is, streaming free in its entirety.
It breaks traditionally stone-faced drone music into wondrous, almost funny eruptions of surprise and joy. Its 83 minute running time seems monolithic and impenetrable until you actually hit play and topple inward. The first track bursts with a mischievous philosophical rant, peaking with the line,
“Grab yourself by the anus and turn yourself inside out. Reveal your inner workings! Put that which is most basic out into the light, and put the decorative outer wrappings where they belong.”
The final track ends in a fever dream of early industrial rock vocals and manicured feedback swirls. A whole lot of really fun, weird music happens in between. Fans of Fennesz, black metal, drone rock, David Lynch, and fucked up dreams: listen now.
Black To Comm is the artist name of German musician Marc Richter. He doesn’t have a lot of pictures online, so I just thought I’d share the album art in high resolution.
Welcome to Part 1 of the Best Of 2014. Part 2, the very best albums of the year, can be found here: The Best Music of 2014
For my official Best Of 2014 list, I wanted to be concise and honest, brutally direct. I trimmed the full list to just 14 albums that affected me in some grand fashion. This did not leave much room for the most of the amazing music I heard last year, became addicted to, and still listen to today. So, instead of making some sprawling list, I’ve crafted a full breakdown of my “Honorable Mention” albums of 2014. The music here is astounding, through and through. I just happened to love a handful of music even more than this. That list is coming soon.
I’ve included one song from each album, choosing a music video when available, and audio-only tracks for the rest. Click play and listen to these, especially if you’re totally unfamiliar. This is how new favorites are born!
Please let me know in the comments what albums you feel I may have missed, or share how you feel about what is here. I’d love the feedback.
Albums are listed by artist and title, with the record label below.
Black To Comm came to my attention in a single instant: walking with my girlfriend into her favorite Manhattan record shop, Other Music, and spotting this artwork on the new release rack. I was drawn in, picking it up, staring into its depths. I had absolutely no idea who the artist was, but I wanted to know how it sounded. Unfortunately, at the time I was short on cash and wanted a known quantity – an album sure to justify my purchase. Fortunately, my friend Samuel at Bubblegum Cage III highlighted the error in distrusting my gut instincts that day.