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:
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.
My morning news just brought word that Edgar Froese, founder of one of my favorite bands of all time, Tangerine Dream, has died at age 70. The cause of death was pulmonary embolism.
Tangerine Dream, for those only familiar with the name via a smattering of mostly-great 1980s film soundtracks, were one of the most innovative and popular bands to emerge from the 70s German krautrock / kosmiche scene. Constantly evolving, they helped birth the modern ambient sound and informed generations of electronic music in every form. Froese was the only consistent member through dozens of lineup changes that included the luminous contributions of Klaus Schulze and Conrad Schnitzler.
Moving from spooky moonscape-scouring meditations through epic space rock and pulsing dance music, Froese never let the band stay perched on one sound for long. With over 40 years worth of music to choose from, fans of the band can never reach consensus on what is the best. Personally, my heart will always return to Rubycon. The eerie psychedelia on these two tracks laid the blueprint for ambient rock, but was so much more than a chill-out session. Analog synth arpeggios lay a spaced out bed for for a quietly propulsive rhythm. With a wash of disembodied choral voices influenced by György Ligeti, plus tactile sounds from gongs, strings, and woodwinds, the eponymous pieces build tension and ease it away like a tidal wave in slow motion.