After a long, hard day, there’s nothing like a beautiful ambient album to soothe the savage breast. Whether one is dealing with heartbreak, the loss of a loved one or the state of world affairs, this is music to come home to. The best ambient music is noticed, then forgotten, then noticed again, a sleight of hand only the finest artists can accomplish. These are the words we apply to these sounds: melancholy, comforting, nostalgic, warm.
There is also a cold, dark branch of ambience, but none of those albums made the cut this year. Why? Because this is what we needed when it was already too dark to go on, when our fears turned out to be reality, when humanity seemed at its lowest, weakest point. These artists gave us permission to rest for an hour or so, to gather our strength, so that the next day we might pick up our hats and continue to fight the good fight. They are beautiful, yes ~ but they seem to know us, and love us, providing the manna we need for the day.
And now, in alphabetical order, A Closer Listen presents the Top Ten Ambient Albums of 2017!
Ben Lukas Boysen & Sebastian Plano ~ Everything (Erased Tapes)
43 tracks, 190 minutes of soft joy, exploding from the heart of man’s connection with nature. Back in July, we called this one of the year’s best albums, and we haven’t changed our minds since. The video component is crucial to the understanding of the release, but not to the enjoyment. Even without the visuals, one starts to feel a sense of oneness that flies in the face of current public sentiment. Perhaps underneath the bluster, we still believe. (Richard Allen)
Emilía ~ Down to the Sadness River (Rottenman Editions)
The shortest entry on our list is an EP adrift in a sea of albums. Down to the Sadness River is a bottle of tears that one fears to uncork. This may be all the artists had: just enough to complete the elegy, like a broken sentence at a funeral, the words trailing off, the eyes ~ and in this case, the music ~ sharing what the lips cannot. (Richard Allen)
Ester Vonplon + Taylor Deupree & Marcus Fischer ~ lowlands (IIKKI Books)
A movement so slow it seems still, a clarity so bright it seems to blind. Deupree & Fischer’s emotional soundscaping does a wonderful job of capturing the beauty of Ester Vonplon’s photographs of her Arctic voyage, the sublimity of endless ice becoming the greatest contrast to the sheer activity of the mind and body and they stand in for the rest of the world in a place where they do not truly belong. All the rush of veins, all the storms of thought are transformed into the peaceful development of an ambience that transcends speed and builds myriad layers of quietude, highlighting the allure of long-duration. (David Murrieta)
Fabio Perletta ~ Ichinen 一念 (LINE)
Fabio Perletta may still be better known for his collaborations and his sound installations, but he brings the same conceptual rigor to his solo music. Carrying a minimal, Zen-inspired aesthetic, this work for microsound and computer manipulated field-recordings made across Japan has a beautiful narrative quality within and across its three movements. Activating quotidian and sacred objects, Perletta erases the distinction between them while playing with the listener’s sense of time. Meditative, elemental, and full of care, with slight frequencies just on the edge of perception, Ichinen’s tone poems prove Fabio Perletta an artist to watch. (Joseph Sannicandro)
The Fun Years ~ Heroes of the Second Story Walk-up (Spring Break Tapes)
Heroes of the Second Story Walk-Up doesn’t barge through front doors so much as blow through back windows. Formed by baritone guitarist Ben Recht and turntablist Isaac Sparks, the music of The Fun Years transcends the casual band’s name. Urging redemption by tactile rhythm, crackling vinyl slithers with synths above sleepy guitar. The paring of crate-dug record loops with Proustian post-rock is so natural it leaves one wondering why it isn’t already a sub-genre. Media preservation be damned—how lovely to hear dusty record ruts spun like grains of sand between two ears. (Todd B. Gruel)
Hannu Karjalainen ~ A Handful Of Dust Is A Desert (Karaoke Kalk)
The weaving, crystalline structure of A Handful of Dust is a Desert subtly multiplies sounds not as sequences but as interlocking parts of a construction, as places that do justice to the idea that even in the microscopic we can find entire worlds yet to be conceptualized. Nevertheless, at no point does Hannu lose sight of the sequential, inasmuch as it is also a constructive tool, a precision in the midst of networked expanses, a way of melodically making the whole building resonate with warmth. Almost eight years ago the artist left us wanting for more, and finally here it is, a splendid work of art. (David Murrieta)
James Murray ~ Heavenly Waters (Slowcraft Records)
A productive year saw Murray release three albums, and it was Heavenly Waters that caught our ears the most. Taking inspiration from a group of constellations, many of the tracks contained elements similar to the sounds of the solar system that NASA has recorded. Using these unearthly tones as a bed for the more expected array of ambient instrumentation (warm electric piano, acoustic guitar, an ethereal choir) made for a work that was both meditative and unsettling, depending where you focused. (Jeremy Bye)
Janek Schaefer ~ Glitter in My Tears (Room40)
In 1995 Janek Schaefer, then an architecture student at Royal College of Art, sent a sound-activated tape recorder overnight through the British postal system for the ‘Self Storage’ exhibition. That work, Recorded Delivery, is a justified classic of sound art, and jump-started a successful recording career. Glitter in my tears marks over 20 years as a recording artist with 26 vignettes of mediated memory composed over ten years of late nights. As such it feels like an overview and culmination of so much of his career, displaying a breadth of styles united by an attention to texture, atmosphere, and emotion. An “architect of foundsoundscapes,” each miniature is haunted by a melancholic joy rooted in the relationship between sound, media, and bodies. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Lowercase Noises ~ The Swiss Illness (Self-Released)
For those who are wondering, the Swiss illness is nostalgia. The theme bleeds through much of the ambient canon. Yet in the hands of Andy Othling (Lowercase Noises), nostalgia is molded into finely fragmented shapes, like pillows placed behind the heads of hospital patients. The album was born from a year of suffering, and now serves as a mark of empathy. (Richard Allen)
Slow Heart Music ~ This Body Is Not Me (Whitelabrecs)
Belonging somewhere between nothing and everything, simplicity courting clarity in timeworn future tense, Ben Rath’s dime store guitar is recording so warmly on This Body Is Not Me that the strings tremble, glowing in the haze of yearning that’s thick enough to swim through. Spontaneously composed with six strings, two hands, and a single beating heart, the ingredients are minimal and wholesome. Slow Heart Music may yet inspire a new lifestyle (Paelo diet) and wardrobe (hand-sewn from fig leaves), to boot. (Todd B. Gruel)