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:
Combing my list of unfinished drafts, I sometimes unearth little gems. This one began as a nod to a certain New Orleans ambient noise band, but quickly veered into a miniature Grand Statement about what I get out of music.
This self portrait is a handy visual metaphor for the words you’re about to read.
I was discussing Belong‘s debut album, October Language. I was living in San Francisco and had picked up the album on CD at Aquarius Records. The following is what I wrote almost exactly 4 years ago. I’m sharing because it still applies to my life.
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.
In 2011, like every year since I’ve discovered how to harness the power of the internet (and a handful of discerning friends) to expand my horizons and unveil whole dimensions of music, has been an incredible year for listening: another slab in my monument to Why You Should Pay Attention. I held crushes on a number of albums and fell deeply in love with a select few. All deserve acknowledgement but only the most striking motivate me to gush at length. With a little luck, I can turn people on to something which will enrich their lives and change perceptions in small or significant ways. Or maybe even sell an album for one of these deserving artists!