The 50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time: A Playlist Curated by Pitchfork

What makes a good ambi­ent record? I’m not sure I can even begin to answer that ques­tion, and I count myself a long­time fan of the genre, such as it is. Though con­ceived, osten­si­bly, by Bri­an Eno as mod­ernist mood music—“as ignor­able as it is inter­est­ing,” he wrote in the lin­er notes to 1978’s Ambi­ent 1: Music for Air­ports—the term has come to encom­pass “tracks you can dance to all the way to harsh noise.” This descrip­tion from com­pos­er and musi­cian Kei­th Fuller­ton Whit­man at Pitch­fork may not get us any clos­er to a clear def­i­n­i­tion in prose, though “cloud of sound” is a love­ly turn of phrase.

Unlike oth­er forms of music, there is no set of standards—both in the jazz sense of a canon and the for­mal sense of a set of rules. Rever­ber­at­ing key­boards, squelch­ing, burp­ing syn­the­siz­ers, dron­ing gui­tar feed­back, field record­ings, found sounds, lap­tops, strings… what­ev­er it takes to get you there—“there” being a state of sus­pend­ed emo­tion, “drift­ing” rather than “dri­ving,” the sounds “sooth­ing, sad, haunt­ing, or omi­nous.” (Cheer­ful, upbeat ambi­ent music may be a con­tra­dic­tion in terms.)

Giv­en the loose­ness of these cri­te­ria, it only stands to rea­son that “good” ambi­ent must be judged on far more sub­jec­tive terms than most any oth­er kind of music. Next to “atmos­pher­ic,” a pri­ma­ry oper­a­tive word in an ambi­ent crit­i­cal lex­i­con is “evoca­tive,” and what the music evokes will dif­fer vast­ly from lis­ten­er to lis­ten­er. “No one agrees on the lan­guage sur­round­ing this music,” Whit­man admits, “not the musi­cians who make it, not the audi­ence.”

Ambient’s close asso­ci­a­tion with trends in avant-garde min­i­mal­ism, from Erik Satie to Steve Reich, La Monte Young, and Charle­magne Pales­tine, may pre­pare us for its many crossover strains in elec­tron­ic music, but not, per­haps, for the seem­ing syn­er­gy between ambi­ent and cer­tain devel­op­ments in heavy met­al (though Lou Reed seems to have pre­saged this evo­lu­tion). “There are many roads one can take into this par­tic­u­lar sec­tor,” writes Whit­man, “vir­tu­al­ly every extant sub- and micro-genre has an ambi­ent shad­ow.”

Such ecu­meni­cal­ism is a fea­ture: it means that a list like Pitchfork’s “50 Best Ambi­ent Albums of All Time” (stream most of those albums on the Spo­ti­fy playlist above) can pull from an impres­sive­ly wide array of musi­cal domains, from the ear­ly exper­i­men­tal elec­tron­ic music of Lau­rie Spiegel to the spir­i­tu­al jazz of Alice Coltrane; the chill-out elec­tron­i­ca of The Orb and The KLF to the ethe­re­al indie post-folk dream­pop of Grouper, a very rare entry with vocals.

If the genre has stars, Tim Heck­er and William Basin­s­ki might be con­sid­ered two of them; if it has august fore­bears, Pauline Oliv­eros, Ter­ry Riley, and of course Eno are three. (Music for Air­ports comes in at num­ber one, though anoth­er very well-cho­sen inclu­sion here is Eno and Harold Budd’s utter­ly gor­geous The Pearl.) Oth­er entries I’m very pleased to see on this list include albums by Gas, com­pos­er Max Richter, and vocal exper­i­men­tal­ist Juliana Bar­wick, artists who might nev­er share a stage, but sit quite com­fort­ably next to each oth­er here.

What’s miss­ing? Maybe the glacial­ly slow, gui­tar and bass drones of Sunn O))) or the deeply unnerv­ing noise of Pruri­ent or the lush elec­tro-acoustic com­po­si­tions of Ash­ley Bel­louin, I don’t know. These aren’t com­plaints but sug­ges­tions on the order of if you like Pitchfork’s “50 Best Ambi­ent Albums of All Time,” check out…. I could go on, but I’d rather leave it to you, read­er. What’s on your list that didn’t make the cut?

Vis­it Pitch­fork’s list here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The “True” Sto­ry Of How Bri­an Eno Invent­ed Ambi­ent Music

10 Hours of Ambi­ent Arc­tic Sounds Will Help You Relax, Med­i­tate, Study & Sleep

Hear “Weight­less,” the Most Relax­ing Song Ever Made, Accord­ing to Researchers (You’ll Need It Today)

Moby Lets You Down­load 4 Hours of Ambi­ent Music to Help You Sleep, Med­i­tate, Do Yoga & Not Pan­ic

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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