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:
John Cale & Terry Riley, two of the most important names in 20th century composition, formed an unlikely alliance for this one-off project in 1971. The result was one of the weirdest entries in either sonic titan’s personal oeuvre.
First of all: look at that cover art! After dozens of listens, I still don’t know the significance of this, yet have grown more fond each time I see it. The care and attention put into this is a small signifier of the music within; the big picture may seem obviously grand on first glance, yet astounding little details emerge during close inspection and bring the project into focus when one returns to the wider view.
Instead of performing a balancing act between Riley’s spacey minimalism and Cale’s avant-rock nature, each artist seems to pull the other in a direction previously unexplored. Of course, it’s not entirely surprising if you’re familiar with the output of both geniuses, but the sound is defiantly no exact split down the center of their respective sensibilities. From raging textural passages to alien placidity, through jazz whispers and on to a straight up vocal number, there’s more variety in these five tracks than a good portion of the rest of their careers.
The opening features Riley-an organ tones riffing over a krautrock groove of moaning guitars and intricately barbaric drumming, the whole jam subtly erupting and then sighing to a close. Second track The Hall of Mirrors in the Palace at Versailles hews closest to Riley’s minimalist nature with an appropriately meandering, lost-organ and woodwind shuffle while the short closer, The Protege, feels almost like a lost bluesy instrumental from The Velvet Underground‘s golden days (when Cale was in the group). Everything in between veers wildly between these extremes and even, in the epic centerpiece Ides of March, shoots for the moon in a song so neurotically busy with busted drums and ticklish piano that it manages to evoke one of my favorite turns of phrase: maximized minimalism.
The project seems to have been such an exception for each artist that, by all accounts, neither was satisfied with the end result. Luckily for those of us with an outside view, the work stands on its own as a unique hybrid, a historical artifact, and an eclectically bopping good listen.
You can unearth this brilliant jewel of a buried treasure at cduniverse or amazon.
I’ve previously referred to this compositional wizard. Finally, an elucidation: Terry Riley is one of the founding fathers of modern minimalism and, more subtly, inspiration to myriad genres and generations of popular music since his first groundbreaking compositions. I’m here to share my love for A Rainbow In Curved Air
So I’m sharing this landmark recording. The title cut is an unequivocal masterpiece. Anyone speaking otherwise is obviously ‘out of their element’ and should, by all means, give it a listen. There isn’t much to write in the way of a description, other than noting that this recording is analogous to a profound dream: deeply affecting, nuanced, beautiful, yet devoid of concrete meaning. The feelings evoked are an end unto themselves. These sounds are subconscious and natural. This composition is eternal.
[purchase at amazon and rejoice. thank me later]