In Part 1 of our exploration into ambient music, we explored the history of the genre, its development and the common characteristics of what makes up an ambient track. In Part 2 we recommend some ambient albums for those dipping into the genre for the first time, and some more challenging albums for those who want to dig deeper.
To draw attention to the modern ambient sound, all records on our list were released in the 21st century. All of these albums are undoubtedly inspired by the ambient music pioneers and artists of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records | Jan Jelinek (2001)
Repetitive. Spacey. Tafelmusik at its best. This is the kind of album that I like to play as I work to stay focused on a particular task. It’s quiet, focused, repetitive to the extreme, with pockets of melody oozing out ever so slowly. It’s soothing but with a subtle kick. It makes you listen to every small sound which isn’t a chore. Quite the opposite. It uses clicks instead of drums. It takes the elements of a song that often get hidden in the background and places them centre-stage. On each listen there’s something new to appreciate which is very much in the spirit of ambient music - the slow unravelling of sound. Dig deeper: Zwischen (2018)
Pop | GAS (2000)
You’ll notice immediately in this record how a musical phrase will begin only for it to be cut off before it progresses into melody and then repeated over and over. This is a classic ambient characteristic. It’s like GAS aka Wolfgang Voigt has taken a Pop song, cut it up and stuck the pieces back together in different places. It’s as if the song itself sits just out of reach, making us want to keep looking for it as the record continues to bring us back to where we started. The effect is a soothing, easily ignored yet strangely alert record. Most of all, it’s Ambient. Dig deeper: Narkopop (2018)
Love Streams | Tim Hecker (2016)
Immediately recognisable as ambient with its use of wind instruments, this is a modern ambient masterpiece. More driving in places than other albums on this list yet probably one of the most definable as ambient. Love Streams uses the repetitious organ throughout as an energy source from which everything else gradually emerges. Vocal chops give it an almost religious – or at least choral – feel alongside the organ. Building from a single instrument outwards, noise and FX enter the frame as if they’re trying to tell us something. But, they’re just passing through leaving us none the wiser.
It’s as if we’ve walked in on something midway through – a revered event, quiet yet spiritual. Very much in keeping with ambient’s ability to feel like it is happening right now in the present moment. Love Streams asks for multiple listens which I have answered and it always manages to surprise and astonish. Dig deeper: Instrumental Tourist (2012)
Drukqs | Aphex Twin (2001)
Moving from thumping Techno tracks like "Cock/ver10" to melodic piano numbers like "Avril 14th" to the spacey drift of "Gwety Mernans", and the Foley-heavy, delicately dark "Gwarek2", this is an epic album that can’t be tied down to one sound. Even the diversity of these titles are a hint at this album’s schizophrenic nature. But there’s never a drone or spacey repetitive sound too far away and ambient moments intersperse perfectly within the heaviest of tracks creating a genius sound palette to give you eargasms.
In "Mt Saint Michel + St Michael's Mount", just as we begin to get comfortable with the vocal humming, (which might bring a conventional track to an end), the drums return, the vocal is gated, and beat crushing distorts into fragments that tickle the ear canal. Magic! The use of field recordings and Foley is a common feature in ambient music. Here it gives an ASMR-like appeal. Dig Deeper: Selected Ambient Works Vol II (1996)
Wingbeats | Hidden Orchestra (2016)
This album uses field recordings – the “wingbeats” of birds - classical strings and wind chimes to create a thing of beauty. The sparse, acoustic drum-led, strings-less "Bird Table" introduces the listener to the real meaning of the word ambient, stripping back the melody to the bare bones of a track’s elements. The rawness eludes to the physicality of birds at a table pecking at feed, their wingbeats and intermittent bird call the only other sounds to make up the “tune” of this track. Influences of the natural world are common in ambient music. This track takes this literally, ultimately giving the birds themselves the microphone! Great stuff! Dig deeper: Reorchestrations (2015)
Alien Observer | Grouper (2007)
This record stands out on this list due to the beautiful Enya-esque vocals of Liz Harris, the real person behind the commune-influenced moniker. This is ironic because the vocals feel more like a background instrument or like they just happen to be passing through, at once elusive and integral, at once ignorable and monumental. This is the juxtaposition of ambient music (which, we discussed earlier, is not so paradoxical when we get to the crux of it). For me, Alien Observer is one of the most quintessential ambient records on this list. It’s a sprawling, hissing, drone-heavy record that is elusively haunting and successful as “background music” if we so wish. Dig deeper: Grid of Points (2018)
For Those Who Have Never (And For Those Who Have) | Huerco S. (2016)
A quintessential, essential listening ambient album from the Kansas-born New York resident. It captures both the dreamy essence of ambient and its uneasy meditative and repetitive characteristics. A looped pattern of beatless phrases anticipates the flickering of a synth melody which evaporates before we can fully grasp it. Influences include Hiroshi Yoshimura, Gas, 90s German Techno, and Oval. The influence of Japanese ambient tracks can be heard in the texture of this album creating a sense of distant melancholia mixed with hopefulness: a common effect in ambient music. Are these sad or happy songs? Do they incite or aid anxiety? Well, it depends on the listener and how they happen to listen. Dig deeper: Untitled (2012)
Hectic Shakes | Christoph De Babalon (2019)
A funny sort of title for an ambient album, you might think. Well, this is no ordinary ambient album. If you only listened to the beginning of track one, you'd be inclined to think it couldn't be more quintessentially ambient. It's a longish, drawn-out beatless soundscape until the beat breaks the idyll at a minute and a half in. Its drum & bass vignettes play out against the synth-warped ambience to create a sound that delights in the quietude whilst also celebrating the drum. A very fitting title then for this hectic shake-up of an album that seems to allow the listener to appreciate this genre even more than fully beatless ones.
Grinning Cat | Susumu Yokota (2000)
With a body of work spanning two decades before his untimely death in 2015, Yokota has a varied and excellent back catalogue to explore. What I like about Grinning Cat is that it’s jazz and orchestral-infused ambient music and well, it’s not exactly ambient...at least not all of it.
The thing is, this record is as varied as Yokota’s back catalogue. There are many pure ambient tracks like opener “I Image”, piano- heavy “Sleepy Eye” and “Cherry Blossom” and “Love Bird”, yet, these sit alongside more genreless heavily sampled songs like experimental “King Dragonfly” as well as old-school jazzy tunes like “Weak Balloon”. "Tears Of Poet", for example, is a wonderful blend of lounge/jazzy sax melodies with choral vocals and a repetitive male vocal chop which ends up sounding almost Fat Boy Slim-esque. You’ll also find a drum-heavy track “Flying Cat”, a big no-no in ambient. For me, this fusion of styles is what makes this album great. Dig deeper: Laputan (2016)
Slow Vein | Hegira Moya (2018)
It’s one of my favourite things - to listen to new ambient artists and find a new favourite. This is a perfect background soundtrack whether you’re reading, working or chilling. You feel cocooned within this music like it’s protecting you from the outside world. It’s a drifting synth-rich experience that uses drone sounds, bird chirping and tinkling FX, and pop melodies to create a soothing experience, at times uplifting and at times darker and melancholic. Dig Deeper: Quiet Residential Area (2017)
Endless Summer | Fennesz (2001)
With a new album in 2019 (it’s brilliant), it was this 2001 release that solidified the Austrian’s place in the world of ambient. It’s an album that saw the artist combine the noise elements of earlier albums with melodic guitar which takes the listener on a moving, soothing journey of distorted dreamy drony and delicious music. Take the title track for instance. By intercepting the melodic parts with static drones it allows the listener to really hear and appreciate each strum of the guitar whilst simultaneously taking us to a whole other place of daydream. Classic ambient territory.
“A Year In A Minute” presents a melody that seems to be wrapped up in a blanket of fuzz, static, noise and electronic bleeps. It’s there but it doesn’t take centre-stage. “Caecilla” mixes a dreamy melody with droning sounds and “Shisheido” sees Fennesz play guitar and mix this more traditional indie sound with electronic effects. If we hadn’t already got the idea that this album is about distortion and decay of traditional Pop aesthetics and instruments, then “Before I Leave” spells this out with CD-skipping forming the entirety of this track. Dig deeper: Something That Has Form And Something That Does Not (2010)
Read Part 1: What is Ambient Music?