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As a longtime nerd of electronic music in all of its forms, compiling a list of the ten best ambient albums is true torture. Please know that I feel appropriately ashamed for leaving out all the classics I inevitably must skip here. However, if this list helps those uninitiated down the path of chilled-out enlightenment, then my job has served its purpose.

The term “ambient” is mostly just another genre-tag we use for convenience — I’m pretty sure some consider Enya ambient as well, so it makes all the great stuff we know as “ambient” that much more trivial. Even the very term itself has sub-genres: “ambient house”, “chillbient” (what is “chillbient” anyway? Forget it, I don’t want to know), “Illbient” (see “chillbient”), “dark ambient”….the list goes on. The one prevailing idea behind this type of music is that it conjures a certain mood and tone of instrumental and relaxed nirvana whilst incorporating samples of every day happenings like bees buzzing, birds chirping, and cows farting (listen to “Sticky End” on “U.F. Orb”). These found sounds only go so far before the human element needs to take charge and converge the atmosphere with samples, synths, and classical origins.

The best ambient music struck its loudest chords in the 70’s and 90’s. In the 70’s, Brian Eno made the single greatest stride in the history of ambient music with a series of exceedingly beautiful vinyl adventures that still hold up to this very day. These works acted as a catalyst to any type of modern beat-less, instrumental music existing. Eno proved that instrumental electronic music can be just as emotional as the most complicated Mozart symphony, or more importantly (in the face of tired rock aesthetics), the longest screeching guitar solo. The 90’s made ambient music even better. The young techno crowd stepped in and showed off their aptitude in studio science while incorporating the latest and greatest in musical technology. This 90’s generation was the first to be influenced by the greatness of the experimental 70’s, and they concocted a heady brew mixed with dance culture. Some of the finest moments in ambient music shimmered from this time period and those precious ideas only continue to gather steam.

Eno once described his ambient output as “environmental music”, as if to say that his music was there to ignore as much as get lost in. An organic approach to ambient music is key — it invites the listener to be just as engaged and proactive as is necessary. It’s evolving music, shifting with moods, allowing us to hear something different each time we listen. To call it formless is missing the point entirely, as we put as much form as our personal experience allows us to. This relative freedom opens huge scopes of possibility built upon exactly what our life experience brings to the music.

Let’s get lost, shall we?

10 Essential Ambient Albums

  1. Terre Thaemlitz

    Soil

    Terre Thaemlits: Soils - Best Ambient Albums

    If you don’t know the name Terre Thaemlitz, it’s high time you did. Thamelitz also records under the name DJ Sprinkles, and has produced some of the most highly soulful ambient music this side of the early 90’s. I highly encourage anyone to investigate this fascinating character’s output and politics, but what stands above all of this is the staggering depth of the music, never more so than here on Soil. The similarities to Aphex Twin are here, but Soil encapsulates feelings of beauty and dread simultaneously, leaving a feeling of unease and unpredictability to each listen. Closing track Cycles is one of her best tracks ever, enticing the listener to sit closer to the speakers with its broken keyboard melody. Yet it is also repelling us with a ghostly voice scratching at the surface as if it were trying to crawl out of the speakers and ruin our bliss. Mood music indeed. Stars Of The Lid have conjured up some amazing tunes in their time, but their mojo comes from releases like this. Thaemlitz is a force not to be ignored, and Soil is an example of a tremendous slice of 90’s ambient that has gone overlooked for far too long.

    Listen


  2. Biosphere

    Substrata

    Biosphere: Substrata - Best Ambient Albums

    Substrata by Biosphere makes most of the best ambient lists, and why the hell shouldn’t it? Equal parts spooky and gorgeous, Geir Jenssen incorporated his early influences of techno and house, and collided it with some of the most haunting soundscapes ever. The magic of Substrata is how Jenssen turns the humans into an alien life form amidst the pulsing electronics — in track “Hyperborea”, a human voice finally materializes to literally “reveal itself”, sounding more strange and foreboding than the streaking electronics that pierce it. Substrata is an intensely personal work of ambiguity, built around claustrophobia, disengagement, and naturalistic fallacy.

    Listen


  3. Brian Eno & Harold Budd with Daniel Lanois

    The Pearl

    Brian Eno & Harold Budd with Daniel Lanois: The Pearl - Best Ambient Albums

    The Pearl is one of the purest ambient albums there is, stuffed with melancholy and quiet beauty. Whether you’re driving home during rush hour, flying high above the earth in a jet, or staring at the azure sky in a field of daisies, The Pearl will right your ship once again. While this is undoubtedly an Eno production with the bubbling loops and nostalgic vibe, Budd’s classical influence transcends the ambient genre and creates something altogether timeless.

    Listen


  4. Gas

    Königsforst

    Gas: Königsforst - Best Ambient Albums

    It was difficult to choose just one Gas release for this list of the best ambient albums. Any one of Wolfgang Voigt’s side project albums would suffice, but I’m choosing this third album in the series due to its sizable shift from the first album, and his unique use of sampling. Perhaps the closest brother to Eno’s Ambient series, Voigt makes the heart ache with his desire to completely encapsulate the listener with strings and melody without even a hint of subtlety. In the hands of a lesser producer this could come off as pompous and pretentious, but the music acts as a mere extension of our own emotions as each track goes exactly where we hope it to go. Königsforst is the best example of how a 4/4 beat can work exceptionally within this ambient framework without sounding like a mere club track. “Track 5”, with its peripheral beat, is grounded by spooky horn calls, and ghostly echoes of some lost orchestra. Chilling, haunting, and absolutely timeless, Königsforst easily makes it into this top 10 ambient albums list.

    Listen


  5. The Orb

    Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld

    The Orb: Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld- Best Ambient Albums

    Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld forever married the ethics of dance culture into the spaciousness of ambient music. In the late 80’s, Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty performed “chill out” sets for the rave kids to come down to, allowing them an opportunity to show listeners a taste of a different sort of electronic music. While Cauty continued on with the KLF project, Paterson culled the remains of many hours of jam sessions, enlisted the help of future electronic wizards like Thomas Fehlmann and Youth to chime in, and all of a sudden “ambient house” was born. This album switches back and forth from the dance floor purity of “Little Fluffy Clouds” to one of the the most recognizable ambient tracks ever, “A Huge Ever Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Center Of The Ultraworld”. At just under two hours in length, this was the first epic ambient experience, and one that changed the landscape forever.

    Listen


  6. Tangerine Dream

    Phaedra

    Tangerine Dream: Phaedra - Best Ambient Albums

    One of the prototypes of electronic ambient music, and the first that Tangerine Dream employed the Moog synthesizer. Taking hours to tune every day, this attention to detail pays in spades as the multi-layered waves of sound proved to be excitingly fresh, and far ahead of its time. Phaedra is one of a few T.D. albums that stands alone in its place and time, gathering no moss and sounding every bit as exciting as it did over 40 years ago. While employing other-worldly sounds and noises, the stark melodies keeps us grounded and always coming back for more. This album was a huge commercial and artistic success in its day, and helped usher forth the proliferation of synthesizers in popular music everywhere.

    Listen


  7. Steve Reich

    Music For 18 Musicians

    Steve Reich: Music For 18 Musicians - Best Ambient Albums

    Some may argue upon Music For 18 Musicians place in the pantheon of best ambient albums, but its approach and delivery to the genre cannot go unnoticed. Based around 11 chords and elements such as human breath, it focuses on a simple pulse for 60 minutes. If ambient music is about extended periods of atmosphere and “environment”, this album is arguably the best of all time in these departments. While the quietudes juxtapose the crescendos, Music For 18 Musicians radiates a visionary stroke of genius influencing all musical structures to come after it.

    Listen


  8. Global Communication

    Pentamerous Metamorphosis & 76:14

    Global Communication: Pentamerous Metamorphosis - Best Ambient Albums Global Communication: 76:14 - Best Ambient Album

    Ok, I’m cheating a bit here by putting two albums in the three spot, but in this case it is absolutely deserving of it. Mark Pritchard & Tom Middleton combined their background of classical training and love of rave music, and created some of the most lovely and striking pieces of ambient music known to humankind with these two releases. While 76:14 needs no introduction with its certified classic status and nods to Tangerine Dream, it’s Pentamerous Metamorphosis that maybe needs a re-evaluation. The album consists of five G.C. remixes from the Chapterhouse album “Blood Music”, but you wouldn’t know that by listening to the albums. G.C. takes the very basest of elements from an 11 track indie-rock album, and transforms them into a five-track, 60 minute journey. Pentamerous Metamorphosis is every bit as brilliant as 76:14, perhaps even more so as listening to the album now proves it to be less dated and more relevant with its starker grooves and minimalist samples. Make no mistake about it, 76:14 is an undisputed monster of ambient music history, but Pentamerous is a better document to the power of remixing, the evolution of ambient house, and the excitement of discovering a stunning album overshadowed by its more publicly revered cousin.

    Listen to Pentamerous Metamorphosis
    Listen to 76:14


  9. Brian Eno With Daniel Lanois & Roger Eno

    Apollo – Atmospheres & Soundtracks

    Brian Eno with Daniel Lanois & Roger Eno: Apollo (Atmospheres & Soundtracks) - Best Ambient Albums

    I try to avoid including two albums from the same act in these lists, but how in the hell do you make an ambient list without at least two from Brian Eno? Eno’s Ambient series of albums are all must-haves in any collection, but Apollo, arguably, is the cream of the crop. More so than the other Ambient albums in the series, Apollo conjured a sense of humanity that very few others could ever equal. With melodies that could break even the coldest of hearts, Apollo proves too impossibly beautiful to comfortably categorize.
    Listen


  10. The KLF

    Chill Out

    The KLF: Chill Out - Best Ambient Albums

    The KLF are perhaps the most rock ‘n roll “band” in the history of popular music — however, that must be saved for another post. The seeds of Chill Out were planted by Jimmy Cauty and Alex Paterson performing their “come-down” sets during the late 80’s rave scene, while Bill Drummond’s influence solidified the timeless beauty of this album. Never before has an album been more of a gateway between the old and the new, escalating disparities such as Elvis and acid house, transposing them over chanting monks and news blips about kids being killed in auto accidents. Chill Out is a capsule of taking every past experience and re-tuning it in a truly environmental way. Floating above the recorded ephemera is the heart-breaking pedal steel guitar of Graham Lee, further humanizing the completely alien experience. The KLF meant this to be the imagined soundtrack of a drive down the American Gulf Coast, and while they had never even been there, it couldn’t sound more authentic. The group used it as a vehicle to coyly promote their own tracks like “3 A.M. Eternal”, “Last Train To Trancentral”, and “Justified and Ancient”, but Chill Out was the moment their imagined concept album took on a much deeper meaning. While Elvis’s ghostly voice wafts in and out about living in the ghetto, and Acker Bilk’s “Stranger On The Shore” brings us back to nostalgic reality, we realize that the music has come full-circle, using all of the elements given to us, and wrapping it up in the most up-to-date package imaginable. The environment, the artistry, the melodies, the influences, and the attitude all come together effortlessly on Chill Out, and without saying a single word.
    Listen


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