Recommendations: ambient albums
What makes a good ambient album? I think the most essential quality is space—in both a temporal and dimensional sense. My favorite ambient records are the ones which sparse, transparent arrangements, with plenty of room for the different timbral elements to stand out, as well as a low number of sonic events for a given period of time. Ambient music is sometimes derided as “mere sonic wallpaper” but I don’t think that is a bad thing. The compositional aesthetic of ambient music is one of stasis; a limited sonic vocabulary will be used, coupled with lots of repetition, just like wallpaper repeats a small set of motifs to make an all-over pattern. Like good wallpaper, good ambient music is unobtrusive, blending in with whatever is around it. And good ambient music, like good wallpaper, serves an important purpose of adding beauty to otherwise mundane parts of our lives—filling up the spaces that might otherwise seem empty.
If you like that kind of music, or are intrigued and want to hear some examples, I have some recommendations for you. I discovered all of these albums in the past year or so, and they’ve been on heavy rotation since. I hope you enjoy!
Somewhere Decent to Live (Space Afrika, 2018)
Very minimal, thumpy beats and mellow, warm synths make up the bulk of this album. The mood is quiet and emotionally neutral, and the sonic palette is restricted enough that the pieces seem to float in and out of each other. “U+00b1”, with its phased loops and backwards percussion, exists in an interesting contrast to the rest of the album.
Natura Morta (Andrea Belfi, 2014)
A glowering, malevolent mood pervades this album. The six tracks are divided into two movements; the first section slowly builds to a driving, insistent yet subdued beat with wispy shreds of sonic texture floating above. After a cataclysmic flourish of percussion, the second movement coalesces into a sonic landscape of tense cymbals and ominous piano, climaxing in rolling tympani before sinking into a blur of buzzes, static, and cymbals.
Hanging Gardens (The Necks, 1999)
Presented as one 61-minute track, this album swings ever so slowly through a gamut of tense and brooding drum, piano, organ, and bass combinations, going from soft to loud to nearly silent to loud again, and then wrapping things up quietly in the end. It gradually reveals more and more of itself, rewarding the patient listener with a superbly crafted longform tension-and-release. This isn’t strictly within the bounds of “ambient” because it will take over your full attention if you let it.
Ultraviolet (Kelly Moran, 2018)
Meditative and hypnotic prepared piano melodies commingle with deep synths on this album. Moran’s piano sounds like a hammer dulcimer, or at times a child’s toy piano; the bright, crisp sound excellently counterpoints the thick beds of texture she places underneath.
Clouds (Gaussian Curve, 2015)
This album is more song-based, but the songs are so skeletal that they function as ambient music. The simple instrumentation of synths, guitar (played mostly with an energy bow) and “rhythm structures” (i.e., very sparse beats) make for an open, transparent sound.
Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records (Jan Jelinek, 2001)
This album has the feel of trip-hop reduced to a bare minimum; lots of subtle beat-like things exist in a blend of clicks and bubbly keyboards, providing a cool, relaxed vibe. The mood varies from track to track, with some inhabiting a very nonchalant space and others more energetic and upbeat (if such a word can be used to describe such subdued and mellow music).
Casino Versus Japan (Casino Versus Japan, 1998)
This long album is presented as four twenty-minute-long, multi-part “songs” which oscillate between droney, static sections and beat-driven interludes. The overall mood is one of variety within limits—ever-changing, yet focused around a central compositional aesthetic. Perhaps my favorite part is the first ten minutes of “Names on Maps of Venus”, with its fractured 4/4 meter and chiming, echo-soaked guitars. The 4th part of “Blue Vacation” is also very good, with a churning rhythm overlaid by loops, drones, and Ernest Hemingway reading his “Second Poem to Mary”.
Well, that’s enough for now. I hope you enjoyed this music—let me know which ones were your favorites, and why! Comments are always on as well as email responses.