One year ago today, I was drinking on a beach in Mexico, blissfully unaware that David Bowie was dying. I set a reminder on my phone to grab his then-upcoming album Blackstar as soon as it dropped, so that I could listen on the flight home. I was looking forward to hearing what might come next, sure in the magical knowledge that the man was immortal, in some strange way. That he’d always be there for us, with some new adventure.
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:
My favorite musical discoveries often appear on the most unexpected detours. As I leapt from one Twitter feed to another last week, I was surprised to learn that Robert Glasper recently crafted an entire album of reinvented Miles Davis tunes.
Even better, there was a music video for his take on eternal jam Maiysha, with new vocals courtesy of Erykah Badu.
This week brought some genuine surprise to the music world. Frank Ocean finally crashed the hype train into public view, dropping his long-awaited sophomore album on a weekend night. After four years, nobody expected it to appear so randomly, but here we are.
This is the state of music in 2016. The pendulum of control is truly swinging back in favor of the artists. Everything else I discovered this week was courtesy of the artists themselves, broadcasting personally on Twitter, Bandcamp, and other open platforms.
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 haven’t posted a weekly update in a while, so it’s about time. A lot happened, but I’ll stick to the highlights.
I hung out in wine country, biked about 500 miles, and finally saw my Japanese metal superheroes Boris in concert. Then I found myself on an extended deep dive into all the 60s jazz that I skipped over in the past. This total immersion is resulting in another evolution of taste.
This mixtape is about that warm glowing feeling you get when you dream about the right path in life. You see it materializing before you, and although it isn’t real yet, you’re filled with the light of understanding.
After this kind of dream, you wake with a newfound sense of purpose and optimism.