And now, the first of the Big Seven Lists! We receive more ambient music than anything else, at times equal to all the other genres combined. This makes the field our most competitive, which is ironic considering the fact that ambient music is more often meant to inspire relaxation than competition.
This year’s picks underline the variety of a genre that seems on the surface to be homogenous. Along with sounds typically associated with the genre ~ an album for falling asleep, another for staring at clouds ~ we find a fantasy about a deserted town, a score to the onset of dementia and the completion of a trilogy on tragedy. And yes, Virginia ~ there’s even a Christmas song! Ambient music has never seemed so diverse.
And now, in alphabetical order, A Closer Listen presents The Best Ambient Music of 2019!
The Caretaker ~ Everywhere at the end of time/everywhere, an empty bliss (History Always Favours the Winners)
Everywhere at the end of time is Leyland Kirby’s multi-year project charting a patient from the onset of dementia to its tragic conclusion. everywhere, an empty bliss is comprised of shorter, more accessible tracks from the same period. Consider the latter a “greatest hits” or an entry point. Together, they represent one of the decade’s definitive works, massive in nature yet succinct in scope. The haunted ballroom genre remains in good hands with The Caretaker, who continues to chart a course uniquely his own. (Richard Allen)
Hammock ~ Silencia (Hammockmusic)
Like the entry above, Silencia also represents the completion of a multi-year project inspired by loss; but that’s where the similarities end. Marc Byrd’s family tragedy ~ the loss of a nephew ~ plunged the duo’s music into a melancholic, downward spiral. Yet once the music hit rock bottom, it began to look up ~ all the way up to the heavens. Finally, on Silencia, a balance is achieved. The loss is no less painful, but the pain has been folded into the silence of contemplation. (Richard Allen)
Jefre Cantu-Ledesma ~ Tracing Back the Radiance (Mexican Summer)
When we look up at the sky, we see only history, a past long gone. A similar thing happens when we think of those enlightened characters that have left teachings and schools for a posterity that does not belong to them: drawing a path towards the numinous core of that past is a task of profound connection. Cantu-Ledesma’s spiritual bent continues on this album, perhaps one of his best, but definitely one of the highlights of a year in much need for reflection and spiritual connectivity. These drones are ancient, and they speak in the voice of a light long gone. (David Murrieta Flores)
Lilien Rosarian ~ a day in bel bruit (Self-Released)
So where did all the people go? Sound artist lilien rosarian’s a day in bel bruit channels a Twilight Zone eeriness through a Pixar palette of pastel water colors. Glitched out birds circle wormy synth lines; bursts of mid-station radio static leak from open windows; snippets of nursery folk tunes jingle across rolling valleys. Despite the strangely vacant village, a day in bel bruit is one giddy dream from which we care not to waken. Can we stay a little longer, please? (Todd B. Gruel)
Loscil ~ Equivalents (Kranky)
Equivalents is as ambient as ambient gets, in a good way. The cover is a portrait of a cloud, and each piece is inspired by an Alfred Stieglitz cloud photograph. What do we think when we look at clouds? Some see classification; others see shapes, but then they change. The same is true of ambient music. We can allow this music to drift around without trying to define it; we can lie on our backs and listen. (Richard Allen)
Minor Pieces ~ The Heavy Steps of Dreaming (FatCat)
Ian William Craig has been thrilling us for years with his multi-octave voice and gorgeous loops. Now he’s found a perfect musical partner. Teamed with Missy Donaldson as Minor Pieces, he’s now brought his music to the next level. This may be a vocal album, but the vocals continue to wander off the page like smeared ink. Those tired of traditional carols will cherish the Christmas gem “Bravallagata;” but this music is mesmerizing no matter the time of year. (Richard Allen)
Mount Shrine ~ Ghosts on Broken Pavement (Cryo Chamber)
Taking us on a journey that feels both lonely and one-way, Mount Shrine presses down on our senses in a persistent yet nonintrusive way. Ghosts On Broken Pavement opens to the sounds of cracking voices through broken radios, rainfall on the roofs of deserted buildings and the perpetual hum of electricity pylons, and this emptiness accompanies us throughout. The digital instrumentation emerging behind these sounds borders on drone, delivering clean lines, swells and the ghosts of simple melodies. There is no threat, no danger and no one ~ there is simply the quietly disturbing vacancy of a place that should be full of people, emotions and life. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
Olga Wojciechowska ~ Infinite Distances (A Strangely Isolated Place)
This has been a good year for Olga Wojciechowska, also known as Strië and Iden Reinhart. This summer saw the reissue of Ohtul on lathe cut, an album that once came with a puzzle. This autumn, the artist released Infinite Distances, continuing the puzzle theme with the fragmented art of Marco Vannini. And yet, as many pieces as there are to Wojchiechowska, they seem to be fitting together better than ever; the distances are not so infinite after all. (Richard Allen)
Trio Ramberget ~ Musik att somna till (Self-Released)
I have long waited to hear a band merge the emotive beauty of ECM-Records with the “deep listening” philosophy of Pauline Oliveros. Swedish improvisational group Trio Ramberget do just that, stressing resonance over form, they trade in the metronome for a subterranean magic. The reverb-drenched instruments may sound frayed, but they’re not afraid. Double bass, bass clarinet, and trombone all ease around hidden edges, meandering through dimly lit caverns where sound surrounds consciousness; each player shuffles through the darkness, each note cautiously reaching for a pinprick of hope ahead. (Todd B. Gruel)
A Winged Victory for the Sullen ~ The Undivided Five (Ninja Tune)
Like the inexorable sliding of glaciers, the music of Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran is slow, solemn and graceful, implying or auguring the greatest of tragedies but sounding resiliently dignified all through. With a title inspired by the harmonic perfect fifth, among more, The Undivided Five sees the duo return more to the overtly melancholic blues of Atomos in sedate, enveloping string sections, but also to the pristine spaces of their debut in simpler, unadorned piano sections. In looking back as well as drawing inspiration from sources as disparate as spiritualists, painters, births and bereavement, they also inch forward at that same glacial pace, producing a set perhaps lacking the coherence of prior works but whose peaks stand tall and proud, as profoundly moving as we’ve come to expect. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)