2018 was a particularly strong year for ambient music. We received over a thousand albums for consideration, in some weeks more than all other genres combined ~ and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. While composing this introduction, we took a quick look at Bandcamp and counted over 40 ambient releases with a release date of today. For fans, this is an embarrassment of riches. For artists, it’s a mixed blessing. How in the world is one going to get noticed? Like you, we read a lot of blogs. We continue to be impressed by our friends at Stationary Travels, which has quickly become our favorite ambient-minded site. They’ve turned us on to some great music we otherwise would have missed. In the end, we believe that the cream rises to the top. In this case, the best of the best is 1% (10 out of 1000).
And now, in alphabetical order, A Closer Listen presents The Best Ambient Music of 2018!
Félicia Atkinson ~ Coyotes (Geographic North)
This is relatively short work – the two halves add up to just shy of 33 minutes – but it captures a moment vast in scope. Inspired by a trip to New Mexico, Felicia Atkinson conjures up the baking desert landscape, wide open sky and long road ahead with a concise array of sounds. The precision of these pieces work best on headphones, each note and voice in just the right place: it’s cinemascope for the ears. (Jeremy Bye)
bvdub ~ Drowning in Daylight (Apollo Records)
Eternity is perhaps this album’s main concern, the infinite extension of emotions over natural experiences, of the sun (“Drowning in Daylight, Never Ending”), the sky (“Waves from Above, Never Ceasing”), the ocean (“Seas of Shores, Forever Sweeping”), and the subjects that attempt to grasp them (“You and Me, Forever Reaching”). There’s a fractal quality to this extension, with drones and beats reproducing infinitesimally at various degrees, and if you pay close attention to any one sound in this album you’ll realize it is impossible to single out, even though it seems like you’re hearing just one tone. “I am large”, this music says, “I contain multitudes.” (David Murrieta Flores)
Ian William Craig ~ Thresholder (Fatcat/130701)
Ian William Craig has always crafted transcendental ambient music, and Thresholder is no different. Haunting the air with its spectral tones, his angelic voice quivering in the ether, Thresholder’s unlimited depths radiate a sense of immense, all-engulfing space, mimicking the Universe into which it was born. As expected, the record is a stunning listen, and it’s made all the more beautiful for its tonal fragility. Spooling through looped, decaying tape, and made to feel all the more alive for its use of an unpredictable recording format, the gold-speared harmonies coagulate and swirl, never settling in its reels of tape but instead continuously altering and expanding. Like stardust, Ian’s vocals float in space, held together by wavering strands of harmony. The tape both feeds on and exhales the music, replacing scientific elements and gravitational laws with ever-echoing notes. Ian’s voice becomes glue and gravity, and Thresholder’s ambient textures are locked in its orbit. (James Catchpole)
Federico Durand ~ Pequeñas Melodías (IIKKI Books)
As Pequeñas Melodías progresses, it slowly rights itself, one soft-boned loop at a time. Recorded on analog tape, Federico Durand’s skeletal melodies sound even more fragile immersed in warm crackling. Percussion resounds with rounded corners on “El Jardín De Rosas Antiguas”; an acoustic guitar pricks the hair on our neck on “Los Juguetes De Minka Podhájská.” Durand’s newborn notes wobble in place, balancing on shaky legs. The thrill is the reminder of our struggle; like watching babies fumbling to stay upright, balancing on their own accord. Pequeñas Melodías celebrates a newfound freedom with each tentative step. And we stand by cheering like proud parents. (Todd B. Gruel)
Enofa ~ Arboretum (Time Released Sound)
Ross Baker’s work has often been imbued with the rural and the seasonal, and his first work as Enofa continues this sensory journey. With birdsong almost constantly in the background, the pastoral and poetic Arboretum shifts gradually between moments, like an expertly crafted mixtape soundtracking the final long shadows of summer and the golden haze of autumnal days. (Jeremy Bye)
Ian Hawgood + Danny Norbury ~ Faintly Recollected (Home Normal)
Sometimes an album isn’t just an album; it’s a companion. Faintly Recollected was released at the very beginning of the year, and became a soundtrack to snowfall and reflection. The dual theme of memory and hope is a perfect score to the lynchpin of time. The CD is constructed as one continuous, beautiful piece. Danny’s cello is elegant yet mournful, while Ian’s chimes are peaceful and soothing. Together, they seem to be saying, rest now; everything is going to be all right. (Richard Allen)
Pausal ~ Volume Flow (Hibernate)
Volume Flow is bright and tranquil, its dynamism emphasizing the fluidity of sound, its continuity kept even throughout different layers, every drone a drop of water in a peaceful river. Like the natural world Pausal love, this music embraces listeners as if it was an organism, alive at every point you care to listen to, interconnected and unified, its energy directly pouring into our experience of it as whole. Slight tensions populate this soundworld (an insect eats another), but all they do is affirm the sheer volume of its connections, the tensions not a reminder of perfectibility but of wonder, an awe before the generic uniqueness of the living being. (David Murrieta Flores)
Strië ~ Perpetual Journey (Serein)
Strie’s Perpetual Journey is the story of Laika, the stray dog who, as part of Russia’s space program, was sent into orbit. Laika, completely unaware, isolated, and strapped in the trapped confines of a rocket capsule, soon fell ill. Hours into the flight, her heart rate increased dramatically. Physically and mentally distressed, she later overheated and sadly died. In Russia, she was and still is considered to be a national hero, but others feel differently. Metallic drones somehow induce a sense of isolation, putting the listener under a great deal of strain. How terrifying it must have been for poor Laika, being thrust into the black depths of space; an animal in distress at the incredibly unnatural position she found herself in. Strie’s soft sounds are at once refrigerated and comforting, supporting and comforting Laika in her hour of need. Strange whirls and whirs blend in with an ambient drifting, but there’s nothing calming in these sounds. Strie circles the Earth with her, a companion to another living soul who never returned home. (James Catchpole)
Valotihkuu ~ Fragile Melodies (Whitelabrecs)
It’s not often that an album sends us in search of an artist’s entire discography, but this is exactly what happened with Fragile Melodies. Conveniently, our search coincided with an artist sale that amazingly is still going on! For the price of a single album, one can buy an entire day’s worth of music and chart the artist’s musical arc. The combination of field recordings, bells and ambience is absolutely lovely, like a season in a meadow brought to life. (Richard Allen)
Christina Vantzou ~ No. 4 (Kranky)
Vantzou has stepped as though in a dream away from modern composition towards ambience. And while No. 4 is not ‘dark’ as that genre tag would imply, an eerie otherworldliness like a mist spreads through the house where the composer lays her scene. In this liminal state between wakefulness and sleep, the voices are many – keys, strings, harp, marimba and more – but their dialogue is hesitant, spacious. Wordless vocal textures drift through open windows like wraiths. As we step into the “Garden of Forking Paths’, a monotone bass line implores we keep our heads affixed to the ground, for who knows what may be circling above. Subtle and wonderful. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
Thanks for the ambient top 10! I knew of half of the artists but several only recently thanks to Instagram and friends with deeper music budget pockets than mine! Love the enormity and dedication of your blog and its contributors!
Right… we’re at this point where even I have heard less than half of these! We won’t keep up!
Ambient/Acoustic stuff always appreciated – thx.
Thanks a million for such a kind mention, ACL! That sure means a lot. And thanks for the tireless work you do and for blazing the trail for the rest of us.
the best site on the net! Great list.
Thanks guys 🙂
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