Best Ambient Music

Ambient is best defined as Brian Eno did it: music that fades into the background, but if you want to listen to it, is interesting in the foreground too. This is really difficult to do well. While normal musicians only have to satisfy the second condition, ambient artists have to deal with the first as well, which very much changes the way their music must be made (note that when ambient fails, it's usually because only the first condition is met).

Biosphere - Substrata (album) [1998]
I almost inarguably call this the best ambient album of all time. It sounds at turns like floating through space, sitting on an iceberg travelling down a frozen river, wandering across an alien beach at night, walking around a tiny fog-enshrouded rocky lighthouse island, and travelling through the arctic on a dogsled. It is truly a work of art that can be listened to (or rather, slept to) again and again: it almost never grows tiring, because it takes you to so many places. It manages to be dark without falling victim to Halloween cheesiness (Lustmord): its menace is hinted at, not told. There is no evil in Substrata: the worst you'll find is a beautiful emptiness.

The Orb - A Huge Evergrowing Pulsating Brain that Rule From the Centre of the Ultraworld (track - make sure you get the 18 minute version - the shorter one is pointless) [1990]
I've always felt like this sounded like a world created within a song. It doesn't "microvary" as much as traditional ambient - it creates little scenes within itself through faster shifts and bizarre samples. Really interesting, but like I said, don't get any version but the complete one, at 18 minutes. The shorter one is basically a bad ambient remix of an old 80's song (which was one small part of the full version, but in the full context, it's actually excellent).

Tim Hecker - Radio Amor (album) [2002]
This is a pretty experimental work, but still fantastic. It's sound is difficult to describe, but it always conjures for me the image of a deserted island on an alien world, with a small sentient transmitting device trapped in the centre, calling out it's lonely song to any who will listen, wanting nothing more than an end to it's solitude. Yet, on your discovery of the box, you are taken away, hypnotically entranced into the device's mind. You find yourself flying above the earth's atmosphere on a sound wave, through space, underwater, to unimaginable, beautiful, and warm tropical places, before finally finding yourself away from the island, sailing home on a ghost ship, called by the transmitter. At least, that's what it conjures up for me. But still, even if you don't listen to music like that (then why are you listening to ambient? Or electronic music, for that matter?), it's a beautiful album.

Aglaia - Three Organic Experiences (album) [2003]
You're going to have trouble tracking this one down. You'll need Soulseek, and even then it'll be difficult. But it's worth it. I might post one of the 3 tracks (think: Three Organic Experiences: Three tracks. AHA!). Reminds me of...I'm not going to go into explicit detail like I did with the previous one, but it's a very mystical atmosphere. I think the best comnparision, is all the beauty of the game "Myst", without the psychotically hard puzzles (which I actually didn't think were that bad, but all my friends complained, and I heard it gets insane by the time you play "Riven"). Exploring a lost ancient civilization and it's wondrous remains, yet...a mysterious emptiness. Oddly though, this world changes with each listen. At first it was this Myst-like abandoned ancient civilization, now it looks like the Earth before humanity turned it into it's own personal toxic waste plant...with a touch of the ethereal and mystical. As for the sound itself, it's stuffed with real instruments: flutes, strings, unheard of wind instruments, synthesized but organic drones, ethereal choruses singing in forgotten tongues; all played underwater. At least, that's the first track. The second features them played in the trees of a (yet unnamed) China over a bamboo-bride crossed waterfall: where those monkeys live in eccentric little treehouses, all connected by rickety, yet mostly indestructible bridges. The third features them played on a melting glacier.

Monolake - Hongkong
This is an excellent album: perfectly representative of the deep/ambient techno sound. I begin my journey in this musical world inside a huge biodome containing the last animal life remaining on the planet - no humans reside here, so it is overgrown with jungle to all corners. Only the occasional gardening machine makes its way past to keep the ecosystem in check. On finding my way out (hiding with a group of robots who make their way into an airlock), I wander into a barren field populated only by strange technology, robots, and the remains of human manufacturing plants. As I wander through this world, I find myself on a gray shore, looking out to an island across a small passge. On it is a robotic factory of some sort, automated past any need for humanity. Crickets chirp around me, but on closer inspection, I find they are tiny robots, subsisting in an ecosystem made up of only of technology. As I continue my wander through this deserted world, I find a radio tower still standing, starkly silhouetted against a barren backdrop. On entering, I discover it still transmits - the room is filled with screens broadcasting all kinds of historical recordings. I find a door to a basement of some sort, which appears to be an abandoned subway station. This is confirmed when I hear the sound of an approaching train. I board when it arrives. As it travels through the darkness and out of the tunnel onto a bridge high above the barren world, I realize I'm not really alone here. I'm being taken back to humanity.

Tetsu Inoue - Ambiant Otaku
This is a beautiful album. To me, it sounds like walking through the clouds during a thunderstorm. I feel completely safe there, as I'm carrying a massive Chinese umbrella that protects me from the lightning as I hop from thunderhead to thunderhead. I'm surrounded by a faint red glow. Electrical rays shoot into the star, nebula, and galaxy-filled night sky above.

Future Sound of London - Lifeforms (album)
Truly beautiful, incredibly organic. It's really evocative, and all of the images it brings are very alive, very primordial. There isn't a machine to be found anywhere in the world of Lifeforms: nothing but life, evolving rapidly from humble cellular beginnings. It's an alien world, passing through the stages of it's evolution stylized and sped up for our viewing. Entirely different organisms from those on earth develop, now no longer for our viewing, but simply because time is percieved at a different rate in this universe: our laws of physics don't apply. Then, when the end of this process comes, the lifeforms you see standing before you...are yourself. Thousands of versions of you, crowding around you. Your presence created these beings. But...they aren't you. But they don't want you alive: they attack and destroy you, believing death to be the greatest gift any being can be given. Maybe it is (we don't know).

Mille Platueau - Clicks & Cuts 2 (collection) [2001]
This isn't ambient per se either - it's IDM/glitch/REALLY microhouse/minimal techno. However, coincedentally, combining those genres together winds up creating the exact sound of ambient, and therefore deserves a place on the list. This is also a collection of tracks (unavailable elsewhere), not an album, with pretty much the entire Mille Plateau glitch backcatalogue from that period. For those who know Mille Plateau, that's a good thing. A VERY good thing. Same label that put out Tim Hecker, in fact (as well as classics by Oval that would probably make the list if I managed to get a hold of them anywhere, and I can't - not even Soulseek has hints of their existence, despite their fame as being all time classics). Anyway, this collection is full of glitchy textures, and scratchy, nostalgic sounds, along with tiny, pretty melodies, all ever-changing as only ambient can be. Each track has it's own (very fascinating) imagery, but they all work together to paint a sparse, tiny, and futuristic, yet beautiful world. It can be best compared to a science-fiction short stories collection, all wrapped around a single (brilliant) theme. Being trapped inside tiny machines, Nanobots travelling through the bloodstream of an alien creature, a human mind stored in a tiny clock, an insect-like nanodevice in a life-destroying rain, unable to contact it's creators in a now-annihilated world...well, that's my take on it, anyway. Point being: it's worth getting. (It has 60 tracks too! Although CD 1 and the first few tracks of the 2nd are the real gems here).

The Orb - Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld
The album containing "Huge Evergrowing pulsating..."
Lush ambient soundscapes, an ether of music, out of which surreal noise and samples float, bubble and intertwine. Absurdly humorous: nothing here makes real sense, but somehow you are relaxed in the nonsense anyway. Perhaps it's better described as the "Monty Python" of ambient music. Evokes all sorts of images, some blatently obvious (Little Fluffy Clouds...da da...), others more introverted...personal. Fast, yet slow at all at once: one moment you float through space, the next in a tropical rainforest - but never once are you jarred: Ultraworld lulls you through the universe at a relaxing yet breakneck pace. The final track is a seperate but complimentary entity that can't be fairly compared to the rest: it's the crown jewel of a true classic - it stands head and shoulders above what is already a masterpiece.

Echospace - The Coldest Season (album) [2007]
Traversing the ocean floor in an impenetrable submarine.

Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (album) [1993]
Just fantastic, that's all there is to it. I'm not going to go off into another long pseudo-poetic rant about imagery, I'll just tell you that this album has it. In celebration of Easter (which is today), it'll be like a little treasure hunt (only instead of finding chocolate eggs, you have to find ambient imagery).

Steve Roach - Dreamtime Return [album]

Boards of Canada - Music has the Right to Children (album) [1998]
It sounds like a memory of distant childhood, but not as we're meant to remember it, the way it really is. When we remember childhood, for most of us, it often feels like remembering another life: like the memories are barely ours. And what we remember is a confusing, and often dark place, not the wonderful, carefree existence we're meant to have had. Music has the Right to Children captures this feeling of disquieting nostalgia perfectly.

Chicane - Offshore (original ambient mix) (track - make sure you get the 1996 ambient version with no lyrics and no simplification - AKA don't get the almost unrelated radio edit) [1996]
The shortest ambient track I'm posting. At only six minutes, this isn't a journey, so much as a snapshot. However, it's image is so tranquil, so beautiful, that I still keep coming back to it, after knowing it for so many years. Nothing captures the sound of a Mediterranean Sunset on a deserted island like "Offshore." This was one of ambient's few radio hits.

Sasha & Digweed - Northern Exposure volume 1, CD 1 (DJ mix) [1995]
This is, in fact, an ambient trance mix. However, that's entirely alright, when the mix is this perfect. I'm not going to bother describing it - I've done that too much already. It's just good.

Brian Eno - 1-1 (From "Ambient Music for Airports") (track) [1978]
This is a real classic. One of the first tracks ever to fully gain the title "ambient," (only predated by Eno's earlier "Discreet music" compilation), and for good reason. A zen garden of sound, a meditative journey to nowhere at all. The others on the album were a little disappointing, I thought - lonely without being. However, this track still remains one of my all time favorites. It still doesn't sound dated, even though it was created in the 1978. This is by far the oldest album on the list.

Klaus Schulze - Irrlicht

Biosphere - Shenzou [2002]
Another from Biosphere? Well, it's no coincedence that Biosphere is considered by many (including me) to be one of the greatest ambient artists (not technical wizard - Brian Eno wins that one) of all time. This has more of a primordial feel to it, like earth before life came into existence, or maybe as life began to form. Biosphere's home probably ahs somethin to do with his talent - northernmost Scandinavia is a very peaceful location, atmosphere wise. Rather than trying to escape their ever-accelerating world, like most other ambient artists, Biosphere bottles the tranquility around him into a musical form, as a sort of gift to those forced to live in our maddeningly paced society. Point being: It's awesome.

Autechre - Amber [1994] (album)
I'll add a description later, but for now, we'll just say it's good. Very futuristic ambient. Almost IDM, but not quite.

aMute - The Sea Horse Limbo [2006] (album)

Steve Roach & Kevin Braheny & Michael Stearns - Desert Solitaire [1989]
The title explains it all. It sounds like a desert. I could go on and on about imagery, etc., but just discover it yourself. It's good.

Vir Unis & Saul Stokes - Thermal Transfer (album) [2002]
Another primordial journey...only this time, it's through the vast, deadly jungles of a last hidden pocket of the dinosaur age. I would go on with all the images and stories (including the footprint-shaped volcano as the centrepiece of this surreal world, slowly erupting in the end, wiping out all traces of a once beautiful land), but there are quite a few, and I've skipped a large number on all of them anyway. Moving on, Thermal Transfer employs the Vir Unis trademark: what he calls the "fractal beat" - a truly tribal sound, moreso than any other tribal beat - it's very "unsynthetic," highly organic. This is likely the primary influence on the mental world described above, it's a truly fantastic sound...

Nathan Fake - Peary Land (track) [2004]
What a great little tune: it's so beautiful. And oddly enough, it evokes images exactly like it's title suggests. The track conjures a view of an engless gray landscape completely covered in oddly-shaped (gray) pears as far as the eye can see: a canopy over the unseen ground (which all signs suggests is a giant gray pear). The sky is gray, at least in the beginning, but as the track progresses, the sky opens up into a beautiful blue vista, and colour comes into the gray world, envelops everything, and you drift peacefully in a sea of colours and oddly-shaped pears. It sounds nothing like any of Nathan Fake's other work: this is pure ambient here, and it's great. It's also entirely ignored. Except by you. Who will now download it. So ha!

Gas - Pop [1999]
It's hard to describe, but there is one thing I can say with absolute certainly: this is not pop music. Not that that needed to be said...
Anyways, it's a tranquil piece (it's an ambient piece...), evoking images of floating high above lush landscapes (or soundscapes, perhaps), wandering through places of ancient ruin before they were ancient ruin, wandering among darkly majestic rolling hills. There's an overwhelming feeling of peace, and perhaps mysticism; with something sinister lurking just below the surface...

thanks to listology :)