There will always be hard days. We will always need to be soothed. But there is also great beauty in the world, which is where this genre makes a (quiet) impact. The irony: some of this year’s ambient albums get loud.
Perhaps there’s no such thing as “pure” ambient. The category is big enough to accommodate everything from haunted ballroom to choirs, from Ripples to The Rising Tide. If these releases have one thing in common, it’s a concentration on mood. If we’re able to face the world with greater calm after listening, then the music has done its part.
And now A Closer Listen presents The Top 10 Ambient Albums of 2016!
Asuna ~ Tide Ripples (Home Normal)
Reining in his usual multi-layered extravagance a touch, Asuna starts each of the two tracks on his latest LP with a finger-picked acoustic guitar phrase that repeats until time becomes an abstraction. Keeping concentration through these 20-minute-plus pieces seems almost to defy their purpose, but doing so reveals gentle accordions, tranquil drones and mellifluous vocals. The charming track titles mirror the movements that comprise the tracks, each one a meditation on a simple object (“her fringe”, “window of an empty building”). In both music and concept, Tide Ripples excels in finding beauty in the familiar. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
Drombeg ~ Earthworks (Futuresequence)
There is a flow and grace to the debut release of Thom Brookes as Drombeg that calls to mind a dance. A slow dance, yes, but one of fluidity and with narrative. This “soundtrack for the middle of nowhere” leaves remnants of its homages to both water and earth as field recordings thoughtfully scattered over its palette of electronics and strings, which is full of warmth despite the unforgiving Irish terrain it depicts. After a journey through monuments vestigial and tales mythical, one is struck with the sense of an artist fascinated by – and grateful for – the place he calls home. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
Eluvium ~ False Readings On (Temporary Residence)
Matthew Cooper has been recording for two decades, and is still challenging himself to come up with new creative combinations. The filtered operatics and dilapidated drones of False Readings On lend the album a sense of spiritual conflict, which echoes its theme: a “meditation on self-doubt, anxiety, and separation from one’s self”. The final 17-minute track is devastating, a finale that swallows everything it follows. (Richard Allen)
Gidge ~ Lulin (Atomnation)
Lulin is a sublime, slower piece of music from Swedish electronic duo Gidge, The atmosphere’s more in line with ambient music, as Lulin snakes smoothly over misty leaves and icy lakes. Prints are left behind as the piano trudges from one frozen zone to another, Haunted sounds, subdued synths and sparse designs darken an atmosphere that’s already close to waning. As the piece slowly moves, shifting imperceptibly from one theme to another, voices echo and rhythms sway. With 24 minutes of film and 42 minutes of music, prepare for a long Scandinavian night. (James Catchpole)
Ian William Craig ~ Centres (Fatcat/130701)
Following his break-out release A Turn of Breath, vocalist and composer Ian William Craig has used his voice to increasingly salient and dynamic effect. Centres may lack the cohesion of its two forbears, which left ACL staff swooning the last two years, but is a remarkable and generous LP nonetheless. Its kaleidoscopic textures, formed of synths, organs and accordions fed through tape decks and loop stations, are hypnotic backdrops to the prominent vocals, be they clearly sung solos or fractured, drifting choruses. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
José Soberanes ~ The Rising Tide (Whitelabrecs)
There is a certain creativity in longing, that wayward love that weaves a tapestry of memories out of a myriad objects and unrelated sensations, a creativity that profoundly rejects words, if only because they are measures of containment. The Rising Tide is one of emotional outpouring, the kind that in remembrance of the greatest of desires comes to imbue each and every thing in our world with heartbreak. If ambient is (classically) associated with commitment (how ignorable or how interesting a work can be is up to you), then it is also the perfect vehicle for the way in which Soberanes explores “loss, anxiety, and hope” in the everyday arrangement of sounds close to us, sounds that for whatever reason might no longer reflect or happily receive our affection; so, longing creates them anew. (David Murrieta)
Koen Holtkamp ~ Voice Model (Umor Rex)
As half of Mountains, Koen Holtkamp has made a huge impact on a generation of artists. On his latest solo work, he demonstrates the value of patient composition. Voice Model is comprised of only two tracks, but each travels a distance so far from beginning to end that one may feel that they have crossed boundaries geographical and musical. The album is electronic-based, but soothing; the guest flute and trumpet lend it an organic edge. The twinkling synths of “Scene I” fall like stars, inviting listeners to make wishes. (Richard Allen)
Ólafur Arnalds ~ Late Night Tales (Late Night Tales)
Late Night Tales is less a DJ set than a lovingly-curated mix tape. On his installment of the series, Arnalds showcases the finest tracks from some of Iceland’s best performers, including Hjaltalin and Samaris. But his own new material provides some of the album’s most memorable segments, especially a plaintive, stripped-down version of “Say My Name.” The mix is a brilliant blend of new and old, and is guaranteed to lead listeners to new discoveries. (Richard Allen)
Sustainer ~ Medicina (Eilean)
Rarely do people highlight the beauty of banality without sentimentally freezing it into clichés, but thankfully, Sustainer infuses old 60s and 70s muzak clips with a life perhaps only a few have known them for. In its subdual, Medicina finds a keen vibrancy, truly highlighting the soothing properties such music was meant to have, a cure for the anxieties that every city breathes into the body. To any modernist that music signals death, but what if someone told you it could actually enable life to go on? It just needs refinement, its curative properties readied for chemical production in a form that heightens the body’s response to certain illnesses… the raw form might be a weak palliative, but its synthesis into medicine brings out the beauty at its core. (David Murrieta)
Teasips ~ Proxemic Realms (Heavy Mess)
The pan flute is evocative and cleansing, at once submerged in cold waters and enveloped in the barely-there, ghostly clouds that graze the top of a summit. Under her alias Teasips, Angela Francis Wilson gives the listener a reflective, gently undulating retreat. The slim sound of the flute skims the waters of a deep lake as it passes by; the sound of a faint breeze. Unclouded by anything else, it’s as clear and as sharp as mountain air. It’s white magic; serenity itself. (James Catchpole)