A Closer Listen receives more submissions in the Ambient field than in any other, which means that our ambient artists must try even harder to stand out. This seems ironic, since the nature of ambient music has been not to stand out.
The ambient field holds all manner of music, ranging from dark ambient to the light and uplifting. Those who define “ambient” as “aural wallpaper” are seeing only a small slice of the arena, as demonstrated by the variety of this year’s picks. In 2012, ambient music is much more than music for airports.
Our ambient artist of the year is Michael Tanner, who is involved in two entries on our list (as Plinth and as part of the Tyneham House project) and just missed the chart with two others (Taskerlands, The Cloisters). This was his year, and we continue to be impressed by his ability to make each release sound distinct.
And now, in alphabetical order, we present A Closer Listen’s Top Ten Ambient Releases of 2012.
36 ~ Lithea (3six Recordings)
Over the last three years UK producer Dennis Huddleston has made a name for himself with his ambient-leaning electronic project 36. Self-published artists tend to be more miss than hit, but Dennis’ 3six recordings is the exception to the rule. The colors tape trilogy (red blue and green) was a fine example of superb packaging and sound working in harmony, while his full-length albums demonstrated even greater diversity and command for revitalizing ambient music. Mist, 36’s collaboration with Black Swan, makes more sense in the wake of Lithea, the final installment in the trilogy that began with Hypersona and Hollow. In fact, Black Swan’s influence seems apparent even in the design aesthetic of the release, as well as in the darker aspects of 36’s music that seems always just below the surface of Lithea. 36 has refused to stagnate, continuing to develop and even improve upon his particular brand of powerful mood music. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Atay Ilgun & Alper Yildirim ~ Aokigahara, The Black Sea of Trees (Wounded Wolf Press)
Suicide is a difficult subject to tackle, no matter what the forum. This album focuses on a desolate forest known for its appeal to depressives. Its respectful treatments and poignant turns honor the subject matter, while offering a reason to live. Surrounded by beauty, one thinks of life and death and the ephemeral nature of it all; the album’s winds may blow cold, but they whistle words of encouragement. (Richard Allen)
Black Elk ~ Sparks (Koen Music)
One of this year’s fruitful meetings of the minds was that of Black Elk, a dynamic melding of Tim Martin, Ian Hawgood, Clem Leek and Danny Norbury. From hushed strings and piano to swirling, powerful drone, Sparks brings the staggering consistency fans expect from these artists, as well as unexpected new timbres and colors. (Zachary Corsa)
bvdub ~ Serenity (Darla Records)
Serenity’s angelic, female vocals are drenched in gorgeous synth pads and ascending clouds of deep-set, beautiful beats. Brock Van Wey’s music under the alias bvdub is a continual evolution, and he continues to inspire, reinvigorate and refresh with every release, despite his prolific output. This album calls on bvdub’s ambient influences, encased in transcendence. Strength, love, beauty and unity – Serenity couples all of these feelings in a cinnamon coating of atmospheric positivity and perfect harmony. On Serenity, the musical vein of the emotional transcends beyond musical elements and into spirituality. (James Catchpole)
Isnaj Dui ~ Abstracts on Solitude (Hibernate)
Abstracts on Solitude is a sanctuary of sublime, introverted flute and light electronics that flirt in the air like an ephemeral, scented breeze. As Isnaj Dui, Katie English silences all with an engulfing peace; a peace that is eventually victorious over electronic anxiety. Her music is a realisation that solitude, and being as one, is a reflective blessing, differing substantially from loneliness. In this clearing, we can fully appreciate life. Sensually, her flute rises in contemplative, healthy and natural tones. ‘The Last Will Become a Darker Grey’ is a meditative, stunning finale to an already beautiful record. (James Catchpole)
Olan Mill ~ Paths (Facture)
Our reviewer Nayt Keane calls it “poignancy with brevity”, and a better description of this music cannot be imagined. We now know that this may be the last we hear of Olan Mill as a duo; this knowledge causes a bittersweet flavor to linger in the grooves. When the paths we take lead in different directions, the burden of choice weighs heavy on the heart. (Richard Allen)
Plinth ~ Collected Machine Music (Time Released Sound)
Deluxe versions of this album contained individual songs, written on music box punch strips. These made Collected Machine Music the best packaged release of the year. Yet even without the music box, the album sounds like a personal gift. The sounds of clocks, calliopes and music box melodies waft through the speakers, transporting listeners to a more sedate and wistful era. (Richard Allen)
Talvihorros ~ And It Was So (Denovali)
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth …” The first words of Scripture are the launching point for this album, based on the story of creation: seven songs for seven days. New ideas find their genesis here, as Ben Chatwin draws order from chaos. This evocative album is the artist’s best work to date, and the start of a possible new direction. (Richard Allen)
Tyneham House ~ Tyneham House (Second Language Music/Clay Pipe Music)
The (anonymous) musicians of Second Language unite in a tribute to Dorset’s ghost village, deserted in the wake of the second world war. There’s something distinctly British about the whole endeavor, which comes across as very proper yet charming. A bonus cassette contains sound collage and field recordings, and a vinyl reissue is due out in 2013. (Richard Allen)
Various Artists ~ Trust (Time Released Sound)
What do you do when your trust is broken? Do you withdraw, or plow forward with even greater trust? The founder of Time Released Sound took the road less traveled, trusting artists to turn in immaculate, compelling recordings and accepting them into this compilation without screening. Herrick’s trust was rewarded here, and his story is an encouragement to all. (Richard Allen)