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:
Miles Davis is one of the most prolific musical geniuses of all time, having dominated most of the 20th century jazz landscape with progressively experimental releases that pushed the boundaries of what music could be. His work was not only adventurous; it was catchy, fun, thrilling, and always memorable.
Being a huge fan of the artist means having to reframe my perspective when a novel aspect of his work catches the light just so. This happened again.
Boris playing Just Abandoned Myself.
After years of waiting, I finally saw Boris live. It was incredible. It was exactly what I was hoping for. It changed my perception of a band that’s been a favorite for almost a decade. I now see Boris is completely new light.
Standing in the Pyramid Scheme in Grand Rapids, MI, I felt a blast-furnace heat that burned away any trace of skepticism I had about the power of live rock music. It’s been a long, long time since a band gave me such a revelatory experience.
As I was mixing tracks tonight, I felt like writing down a bit of what was happening in my head. It’s a brief glimpse but it’s real. What follows is written chronologically.
This is what I said about the mix in question: “I’m trying to contextualize some of the jazz that leads me into modern stuff like techno, balearic, and vaporwave.”
“Synthus is a state of mind ”
I only mention current events in these weekly posts to give context to the words I write and the music I share. The circumstances in which we listen are important. Music might help buffer the hardness of the world, but he world informs it all the same.
That being said, I don’t even know what to say about what’s happening in America lately. Everyone seems to have lost hope. I know it’s not true, but dark attitudes are in the wind. I’m doing my part to remind those around me that things can and do get better. The fact that there’s always beautiful new music is enough proof for me.
This week I’ve only got two things to talk about, but they’re really important to me: Sade and the new Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead.
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.