Serendipity: I found Gaussian Curve thanks to Dam-Funk’s DJ-Kicks set, a sprawling mixture of funk, psychedelia, and groovy, ambient bliss. This project fit that last descriptor perfectly, laying out an enticing breadcrumb trail to the far edges of hazy consciousness; I could never resist. It’s since become one of my favorite ambient acts ever.
I’ll tell you a very short story about how quickly Oren Ambarchi’s latest album became one of my favorites of 2016. My first listen to Hubris resulted in the below note, found scribbled on a note pad at my desk the next morning:
“Giant stupid grin inducing fusion of New Music minimalism and krautrock groove.”
That jumbled run-on was all that I could muster after having my mind blown by surprise, early one December evening. What follows is my attempt at organizing that electric feeling into something more digestible.
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:
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.