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:
Looking at the startling cover art, I knew I had to hear Mark Pritchard‘s new album, Under The Sun. Beyond his decades-long pedigree across many galaxies of the electronic music universe, this image seemed to portend an idea of something truly groundbreaking. While it might not shake up an industry, it’s certainly one of the most interesting releases from a man with several genre landmarks under his belt.
The impossible is now possible.
Radiohead have come back from a well-deserved but decade-long victory lap, making truly fascinating music again. This is vital stuff, the kind of work that will actually justify the coming weeks of breathless dissection. It’s more deserving of the clichéd descriptors that critics have reflexively thrown at the band – haunting, gorgeous, unnerving, innovative – than anything they’ve ever recorded.
It’s well into 2016 and suddenly The Field is back with another album in the exact same format as his earlier work, right down to the album art – what began as eggshell almost a decade ago is now a darker shade of black. Same bag of tricks, shuffled around. What surprise could there be? What’s the point?
The point, it turns out, is that he’s actually getting better at this, and has been for a while.
Where All Is Fled crawled under my skin after a while. I listened, I liked it, and I listened again. Then I kept listening at work. I looped the album every time I drove. This sound world was burrowing its way inside me for weeks before I realized what was happening. The way this album became one of my favorites of the past year was almost… passive aggressive.
This week in music features a big dip into the past, plus something super new. I also need to mention the movie I watched instead of the Oscars, because it’s the best I’ve seen in weeks. All I know about Sunday’s ceremony is that Ennio Morricone finally won and so did Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s a good thing; this music is more interesting and important.
I’ll start with the new music because it’s the most deserving of attention.
Every once in a while, a great album by a favorite artist slips right by me. Nightvision is a perfect example. Mark Van Hoen released the album in November of 2015, and I stumbled upon it only this week. Van Hoen’s work has appeared on my best of lists and his former band, Seefeel, created some of my favorite music of all time. This was a huge oversight, as it turns out.
After just a few listens, I really wish I’d heard the album a few months ago. I have no doubt that it would have appeared somewhere on my best of 2015 list. Nightvision is frankly incredible.