Wow. Just wow. This is Miles Davis at that stratospheric peak he seems to ride every few albums, the ones with mountains of praise written about them over the decades. For some reason it’s far less revered than the likes of Kind of Blue, Bitches Brew, and On The Corner, but it’s just as important to his development as an artist and just as incredible of a listen for jazz fans today.
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.
On with the list. 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.
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.