ACL 2014: Top Ten Ambient

der009This year, A Closer Listen continued to receive more ambient music than any other type, over 500 releases in all.  The ambient field is so competitive that only the most distinctive releases manage to break through and to form a lasting impression.  In this field, it’s easy to suffer from “ambient overload,” and to conclude that there’s just too much to sort through; but that’s our job.  Each of the releases below has something special to offer, and may renew one’s faith in the field.  From a celebration of life’s little pleasures to a 7-disc set, this year’s selections both calm and inspire.  It’s okay to play them in the background, but there’s enough grit and texture to move them into the foreground.

And now, in alphabetical order, we present A Closer Listen‘s Top Ten Ambient Recordings of 2014.

36 ~ Dream Tempest (3six Recordings)
36 aka Dennis Huddleston continues to evolve as a producer. Not only has he managed to continue self-releasing albums each year, but almost each one has been better than the last. Dream Tempest is darker than its predecessors, but despite the ominous mood its melodies are no less engrossing and its resolutions no less satisfying. Huddelston’s obsession with video games seems to have influenced not only his harmonic sense but his mastery of dynamics, in the best possible way.  (Joseph Sannicandro)

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Birds of Passage ~ This Kindly Slumber (Denovali)
Alicia Merz’s third album as Birds Of Passage is anything but kindly, but it suffers not in the least for its stark desolation and yearning. There’s a buried sense of hope in these droning, wandering musings that make for incredibly moving and uplifting music, which is something we’ve become to depend on from Ms. Merz in recent years. This Kindly Slumber may be a little less than kind, but it’s also nothing less than revelatory and brilliant.  (Zachary Corsa)

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Cinchel ~ A House Once Lived that Never Was (Self-released)
Jason Shanley’s greatest asset as a sound artist may be his restless unwillingness to stay still stylistically. From full-side clamoring drones we’ve now moved to twenty-five delectable short pieces, complete with a ransom of photographs and intimate ephemera. This is impressionist sound art in the best way possible, incorporating immediate surroundings into a sonic representation that does them more than justice.  (Zachary Corsa)

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Damian Valles ~ Exposure (Voxxov)
Exposure is cold and harsh, an aural reflection of frostbite.  Released at just the right time (January 6), the album resonates with the darkness of caves and the fear of being engulfed.  This claustrophobic recording holds the distinction of being the only dark ambient release on our list, but it wears its insulated suit well; nearly a year has passed, and its time has come again.  (Richard Allen)

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Ian William Craig ~ A Turn of Breath (Recital)
The human voice is an amazing instrument, but in music it is used more for the delivery of lyrics than as an instrument in itself.  Ian William Craig stretches the capacities of his vocal cords, tenderly reaching for the highest, purest notes.  On A Turn of Breath, these notes are layered like prayer cloths, and treated with filters to sound like hope wrapped in muslin.  The subdued nature of the release is its greatest asset, heart-rending and soothing in equal measure.  (Richard Allen)

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Lawrence English + Stephen Vitiello ~ Fable (Dragon’s Eye Recordings)
The follow-up to Acute Inbetweens (Crónica, 2011) is a different beast, a tactile reflection of fall in all of its permutations.  The textures are as crisp as leaves beneath the feet, while the chimes ring like calls to prayer.  The title reflects the overall timbre, reminiscent of a fairy tale, as time is suspended and children play between the ticks of a clock.  (Richard Allen)

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OKADA ~ S/T (Self-released)
OKADA released two albums back to back, and each received votes in our year-end tally.  July’s self-titled debut narrowly beat September’s Division of Self, but the 1-2 punch established OKADA as a force in the ambient scene.  The rub:  he’s not just ambient.  One can make a case that these albums are each electronic, with hints of ambient and modern composition, or modern composition, with hints of electronic and ambient.  No matter how one categorizes the music, the combination is extremely effective.  (Richard Allen)

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Pascal Savy ~ Adrift (Eilean Records)
Adrift is the best kind of ambient record, soothing enough to be inviting while repetitive and textured enough get lost in. Ambivalent to the listener, Adrift cycles through each track as is moving through rooms of a haunted mansion, long enough to get a sense of the space but not enough to feel trapped, and the movement through the whole house feels directed and whole. Sonically its richly textured and dense drones will burrow into your memory long after they’ve faded away.  (Joseph Sannicandro)

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Sima Kim ~ Debris (Soft Corridor Records)
Sima, Sima, Sima. Do you ever sleep? The insanely prolific South Korean musician blessed us in 2014 with, among other releases, this gem from the rising Soft Corridor label, in which “Debris” fragments of sound are scattered luminously here and there like so many sonic jewels, all circling the stirring twenty-minute majesty of “Where I Was With You” at the album’s core. Sima, please don’t ever sleep. Just keep recording. You’ll sleep when you’re dead.  (Zachary Corsa)

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Various Artists ~ The Unofficial Countryside (Wist Records)
The most elaborate release yet from Wist Records, The Unofficial Countryside is a 7-CD3″ set inspired by Richard Mabey’s nature essay of the same name.  Ruhe, Sub Loam, Nacht Planck, Sub Loam, Ian Hawgood, Sima Kim, Sxa Ormbjüment and Gentlemen each contribute a disk, while Wist takes care of the packaging.  This marvelous collection invites us to look closer at our surroundings, whether trees or concrete, and to view them with wonder.  (Richard Allen)

Review and purchase link


  1. Pingback: OKADA Top Ten Ambient Albums of 2014 at ACL - inexplicably conscious

  2. Should “Sima Kim ~ Debris” be here?
    It’s a good release indeed, but it was released last year (end of last year yes, but still 2013 :p).

    • An excellent observation! It was indeed released at the very end of 2013, after our year-end charts had been published. We caught this after the voting had taken place, but decided to allow it since our reviewers had felt so strongly about including it. However, no harm done as our #11 ambient release was Okada’s Division of Self, which was mentioned in our blurb for Okada’s self-titled album.

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