Our Best of the Decade lists begin today! These lists celebrate the power ~ and the idiosyncrasies ~ of the individual. Each of our staffers was invited to list their favorite album of the decade in each of seven categories, followed by one alternate. All #1 picks were included, then the full staff voted on the #2s and the overall list. In only seven days, our Top 20 Albums of the Decade will be revealed!
If you’re like us (and we think you are), you may be poring over large collections and old lists at the end of the decade, replaying albums to see if they are as good as you remember them. But what makes an album “the best?” Some music is simply, objectively good, as critics and fans rally around certain releases. Sometimes an album hits us at a certain point in our lives: the death of a loved one, a move to a new town, the start of a new relationship ~ and our appreciation of the album is forever entangled with our own narrative. Some music sounds amazing when we first hear it, but the excitement wears off; other music grows on us. Some fair questions to ask when considering our picks: Do I still want to play this? Is it meaningful to me? Does the album possess a larger relevance? Would I give it as a gift, and if so, would it be appreciated? We can answer as critics or as fans; we can answer with our heads or our hearts (or in the case of dance music, our feet). In the end, our request came down to this: “You’ve heard thousands of ambient albums in the last ten years. Pick one.
A quick note for those who may be curious: our best-of-decade lists often diverge from our best-of-year lists. Here are some of the reasons: 1) Half of our writers were not here when we launched in 2012, and new blood has brought new and exciting ideas to the table; 2) We missed some of these releases when they came out (or in the case of the earliest albums, we hadn’t started the site yet); 3) Many of these albums were never submitted for review, so they weren’t covered earlier; and 4) Some albums age better than others. But every album here is close to at least one writer’s heart.
And now, without further ado, A Closer Listen presents The Best Ambient Albums of 2010-19!
Ben Lukas Boysen & Sebastian Plano ~ Everything (Erased Tapes, 2017)
Everything (the album) is an immersive experience that matches Everything (the game). Players may explore life as a seed, or as a rhino, or as a planet. From micro to macro, the game opens one’s eyes to infinite possibilities. The 190-minute score is both calming and curious. While listening, it feels safe to leave one’s comfort zone, even to travel outside the earth’s atmosphere. One feels a tremendous sense of connection: at one with other creatures, indeed the universe. For three hours, cares just seem to drift away, and after one exits, one can’t wait to return. (Richard Allen)
The Caretaker ~ An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (History Always Favours the Winners, 2011)
The Caretaker’s dusty music comes from another time. Fading loops play on and on, emerging from a haunted ballroom where the dance never ends. Draped in the smart attire of old orchestral music and bygone fancies, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World represents Leyland Kirby’s most complete (and coherent) record. The album’s deep crackles speak of worn clothing, as wrinkles steal the familiarity of faces. Eerie undercurrents run deep. The record falls under hauntology, which deals with nostalgia more than spooks ~ a different form of haunting. But the real nightmare is the poisonous blossoming of dementia, which pokes like a weed through these grooves. (James Catchpole)
Dustin Wong ~ Meditation of Ecstatic Energy (Thrill Jockey, 2013)
Once upon a time, Dustin Wong finished a soloist phase, and with its ending he entered the shining halls of great guitarists. Marked by this very album, that finished cycle gifted us listeners with some of the most intricately, delicately built music of the decade. It might be a stretch to call the mathy interactions of all these Robert Fripp-like loops “ambient”, but what is at play here is a density of layers that even at their loudest demand nothing: like baroque counterpoint, the voices here flow carelessly towards some unseen beyond, their ecstatic energy not a burst but a soft, slick whisper. Pay attention to the “top” voice – delight in its progressions. Pay attention to the “middle” voice – the harmonies are worlds in themselves. Pay attention to the “low” voice – the minimalist patterns are kaleidoscopic. Pay no attention at all – the music will heartily, cozily, wrap you up. This album was an event, whether you were listening at the time or not, and that’s just great ambient. (David Murrieta Flores)
Grouper ~ A | A : Alien Observer (Yellow Electric, 2011)
This decade’s ambient has had no shortage of experimental adventures, among which Grouper stands as one of its most representative artists. Her releases have been consistently powerful and moving, but it is in the A I A double album from 2011 where the melancholic core of the decade traces a soft, faint pulse. A dreamy, bubbling echo of a sadness silent (Alien Observer) ebbs into a dread so vital it can only be expressed in the fading away of inner seas (Dream Loss); the opaqueness of this work, one that affirms the dissolution of each sound as it is heard, speaks to the pre-verbal qualities of ambient, its sprawling network of self-destructive drones. A I A brings the unconscious, present all the way back in music made with furniture, to the fore, all those silences in a world that’s now revealed as fragile as a synapse coming to articulate the most appropriate response: an existential grief intimately laced with the possibility of change. After all, A I A seems like longing, but not for the uncertain past or for a future that will never be – it is a longing for the here and now, a longing to live. (David Murrieta Flores)
Huerco S. ~ For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have) (Proibito, 2016)
We obviously like Brian Leeds at ACL, we just don’t like talking about him. He has scored two albums in this list, which is pretty good going as we’ve never actually reviewed any of his releases. Consider this making amends: you can read about Pendant below. That was preceded a couple of years earlier by Leeds releasing For Those… under his Huerco S. guise, a lush, blissful excursion ideal for late night / early morning listening. The arrangements tend toward the hazy; although Leeds does underpin much of this album with a subtle pulse, there’s no sense of the other instruments being locked into a groove, which gives the tracks here a shimmering, intangible quality. Both beatless and beatific, For Those… is an album that shuns many of the tools of techno production whilst producing a comparable state of euphoria. (Jeremy Bye)
Ian William Craig ~ A Turn of Breath (Recital, 2014; Extended Version 2019)
As one of the most consistent entrants in our year-end lists, Ian William Craig simply had to feature among our favourites of the decade. The opera singer’s debut LP from 2014 is the work of vocal experimentation and soulful elevation. With a single, almost wordless voice dominating and mesmerising, plus reel-to-reel tape and the tentative intrusion of synths and acoustic guitar, he seems to give voice to the human spirit itself, in all its inchoate fragility. The effects and filters to which this voice is subject signify the trappings and travails of today’s technological world ~ the distance we now enforce between us for our increasing reliance on machines to communicate, depriving us of face-to-face connection, the nuance of fleeting glance and gesture of hand. What long-term suffering to our souls, this removal of the personal? Yet by A Turn of Breath’s close, entire passages of words have become discernible, completing the soul’s transcendence with the message: we will prevail. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
Juliana Barwick ~ The Magic Place (Asthmatic Kitty, 2011)
On the surface, The Magic Place is a wordless hymnal in an empty church being sung to an ambiguous shrine. Throughout the album, Julianna Barwick multiplies her skeletal voice into oblivion, reaching a point where the center is lost and every scattered harmony sounds peripherally trapped. The focus turns towards absence, like Barwick’s voices are worshipping something that isn’t there. She endlessly loops vocals over themselves (and the occasional piano line), but the natural, fundamentally human ebb and flow of the arrangements bypass any concern of monotony. It all comes to a soaring peak on “Prizewinning,” a marching flurry of bubbling ecstasy that is in itself a decade highlight. The more time spent with The Magic Place, the more one sinks into it and its friendly hypnotism. (Josh Hughes)
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani ~ FRKWYS Vol. 13: Sunergy (RVNG International, 2016)
I hope readers of ACL can agree that Suzanne Ciani is nothing short of musical royalty. As recent reissues and rediscoveries are making increasingly clear, she has a fantastic and diverse body of work reaching back to the late 1960s. She also helped to carve out a space for female musician-composers at the macho frontier of electronic sound. For both these reasons, Ciani was an exciting inclusion in the FRKWYS series, which focuses on intergenerational collaboration. Fellow enthusiasts of Buchla synths, Ciani and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith together create languorous swathes of ambience which evoke the warming rays of the sun, the turn of the tides, the very rotation of the planet. Released in the same year, Smith’s Ears and Ciani’s Buchla Concerts 1975 complete this picture irresistibly. Sunergy is nostalgically and unashamedly “new age”; anyone who ever turned their nose up at that appellation will feel their shame lifted away like spray from the ocean. (Samuel Rogers)
Max Richter ~ Sleep (Deutsche Grammophon, 2015)
Sleep takes a long, serious look at sleep and the desire to sleep. Concert attendees had a major choice to make: would they try to stay awake for 8 hours, or would they allow (or challenge) the orchestra to put them to sleep? To some, the album might be used as a sleep aid (although one is better served by selecting highlights than by playing the full set). But while the album is ambient, it is also intensely musical, serving up exquisite highlights such as “Return 2” and “nor earth, nor boundless sea” ~ ironically, music worth the extra cup of coffee and the attempt to stay awake. The release was ambitious, but the extra effort resulted in a classic long-form composition. (Richard Allen)
Pendant ~ Make Me Know You Sweet (West Mineral Ltd., 2018)
Make Me Know You Sweet is a record that banishes escapism and instead vomits out hallucinatory immersion, where sea and sky meet on the indistinguishable horizon. Producer Brian Leeds has most notably released music under Huerco S., but two years after his ghostly opus For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have), he re-emerged as Pendant to further splinter the shadowy traces of dying sounds. Last time it was the nightclub behind thick concrete walls, but here it has morphed into the faraway nearby that Georgia O’Keeffe spent decades staring into. The at once gauzy and subterranean soundscapes do not demand, but request a lucid patience from the listener. If you accept it on its own terms, the album becomes not a world to get lost in, but a dense, oceanic feeling that you can only ever hope to squint at. (Josh Hughes)