Looking back at what a shit year 2016 has been, it’s no wonder I published more music writing than ever before. As the months wore on I found myself swiping away more and more real news in my feed and just getting lost in Bandcamp and other music sources. I wasn’t really trying to bury my head; I was looking for a better way of thinking.
The world is what it is, but I can frame it and focus on it however I choose. Immersing in the toxicity of bad news and worse reactions changed my perception one way, so I aimed to change it another way. Art has been a life sustaining tonic all my life, a refuge sought in times of stress, loneliness, and most of all, deep frustration. If I’ve hit a brick wall, I know that obsessing about the problem won’t help. I need to detach, breathe, and follow something made to surprise. A good story or song is something to be lost in, sure, but it grants perspective. It can bend the light just so, showing me a new way to see.
Perspective also comes from travel. The simple but profound act of experiencing other parts of the world can never be overestimated. This is where the image at the top of this list comes in. It’s Greenland, as seen from my plane back home to the United States from Ireland a month ago. I happened to open the window shade during the brief window when we were passing over the very tip of the continent-sized island. It felt like magic.
I’m entering 2017 with hope that good news can happen and that we can press on, even when our heroes are gone. I look around and I wonder who the future heroes are going to be. Those people will be standing against the dark tide and risking everything. They’ve got new ideas to replace the scary old ones that never quite die.
Looking back on the past year of music, I see a lot of new ideas and new perspectives on old ones. The best kind of music always elicits surprise, even if it’s made in a familiar way. There’s a flash of feeling, a rush of blood, and it clicks. Everything on this list mattered to me and I hope some of it can matter to you.
Let’s begin the countdown. These are the 30 best albums of 2016:
I say this with no reservation: Steve Hauschildt is one of the most creatively generous artists working in electronic music today. His work is utterly timeless, unmoored from trends and familiar signposts alike. On his latest album, Strands, he seamlessly blends the entire spectrum of dreamy synthesizer music into a breathless futuristic rush.
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:
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.
2015 was an incredible year for music, full of surprises and second comings, weird new genres and unbelievable evolutions of existing sounds. Of course, every year is great for music as long as you’re open to new sounds. That’s how this whole thing works.
Every year, I enjoy writing down my favorites as I go along, adding them to a simple text file on my laptop. Sometimes I add stars to the albums when I realize I’m completely mad for them. For some albums, this means I find myself listening day after day, racking up dozens of plays. For others, this means that I’m struck so deeply on an emotional, intellectual, or even physical level that I can’t bring myself to listen again for a few days. Both experiences bring lasting rewards, especially when considered in the long view. This is why I love looking back and appreciating the permanent impact from these powerful pieces of music.
As it turned out, this year’s list included over twenty starred albums. I left a handful for my Best of 2015 Honorable Mention list, but the rest were simply indispensable. My list would not be complete without all of these albums.
So please, read on and enjoy. These are the 17 best albums of 2015.