ACL 2020 ~ Top Ten Ambient

A Closer Listen received over 10,000 submissions this year, 7000 of them valid, and we listened to at least a segment of every one.  Now we’ve chosen 70 of them ~ one percent to include in our year-end lists.  The competition has never been fiercer, although most artists are not competing ~ they’re just trying to brighten the world with their work.

This is certainly true of ambient music, which (with the exception of dark ambient) seeks to calm, soothe and console.  We’ve all needed inner peace this past year, and ambient artists stepped up.  Those listed below accomplished even more by standing out in a crowded field.  They made us think, feel or otherwise react.  Many chose to address the global crisis with works of empathy, healing and grace.

In some of this year’s lists, you’ll see bonus picks at the bottom.  These albums were voted #1 in their field by one of our reviewers, but crowded out of the top ten when multiple others voted for different albums.  This year, we wanted to champion the individual voice, so these are included as well.  And now, without further ado, A Closer Listen presents The Best Ambient Albums of 2020!

Botany ~ Fourteen 45 Tails (Longform Editions)
This longform composition is all about endings and the extension of endings.  Sometimes a record is too good to end, which is when Botany sends it into a loop.  Multiple lines unfold like gossamer threads, converging in mesmerizing ways before pulling apart again, like characters in a play.  An thread of eternity is added, with the suggestion that a lifetime might unfold in the final second of life.  The listener is left with something profound yet unnamable.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

Ian William Craig ~ Red Sun Through Smoke (FatCat/130701)
Ian William Craig has spent the better half of a decade slowly exposing his haunting voice. The operatic-trained vocalist turned ambient virtuoso has captivated us for a while now, and yet the bold leaps and bounds of Red Sun Through Smoke require an even more immersive exploration. His words are stripped but the garbled static underneath is constantly reaching for clarity. The title comes from fires in British Columbia this past summer that led to the death of his grandfather, a sorrow which is felt in his abstractions (“taking earth inside your belly just to feel the weight”) and the 4-track radio hiss searching for a connection. Yet in the end, Craig still seems to find a hope behind the haze, a potent beauty within the fuzz that connects his entire output.  (Josh Hughes)

Original Review

Ian William Craig & Daniel Lentz ~ FRKWYS Vol. 16: In a Word (RVNG Intl.)
The FRKWYS series has been consistently interesting for a decade now, creating many a unique collaboration. Craig & Lentz is no different, a moving, expressive collage of voice and piano. Craig’s detailed textural work is corresponded by Lentz’s precise, minimalist piano style in a way that makes both shine beautifully. Each side of the equation is independent, worlds on their own, but they hold a horizontal relationship in which every crackling shift in Craig’s harmonies is heightened by a few well-placed piano notes; each contemplative piano fragment is made even deeper by the textures unfolding around them. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

Jon Hassell ~ Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two) (Ndeya)
Some music critics have come under fire recently for suggesting that innovative work is no longer coming from the younger generations. This is nonsense, of course, as artists of all ages produced noteworthy records this year. Still, it is heartening to see musicians who have been active on the scene for over 50 years continue to impress us. Jon Hassell’s distinct trumpet style not only created a new sound, but was so innovative that it actually freed up younger players to pursue their own vision. While Hassell may not be able to tour and work with his live band as in the past, he didn’t respond to working in the studio as a restriction. Instead, it became an opportunity to uncover potential musics yet again. In a year as difficult as this one, Seeing Through Sound is not just a salve to help escape our troubles, but a lesson in how to make the best of whatever we have to work with. (Joseph Sannicandro)

Original Review

Julianna Barwick ~ Healing Is a Miracle (Ninja Tune)
It is no surprise to hear such an excellent album from Barwick, who recorded our Album of the Decade all the way back in 2011. Her technique is impeccable, and the collaborators she worked with in Healing is a Miracle add considerable depth to the music as a whole. That healing is a miracle is not a statement of its rarity, but of its enthusiastic quality; the Greek origins of the word denote divine inspiration. This music is uplifting in the best of ways, a harmonic balm that quietly whispers that everything will be fine, perhaps not today, but certainly one day. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

Mary Lattimore ~ Silver Ladders (Ghostly International)
Modern recording presents a temptation towards excess, but Silver Ladders is characterized by an elegant restraint. The palette is limited, but the results exceed the sum of the parts. Mary Lattimore’s harp musters melody, rhythm,and texture all at once, with some occasional buttressing from the guitar playing of Slowdive’s Neil Halstead, who also produced the record. Patient and evocative, Silver Ladders ebbs and flows in waves, Lattimore’s harp always the ladder returning us to solid ground. (Joseph Sannicandro)

Original Review

Midori Hirano ~ Invisible Island (Sonic Pieces)
We first wrote about Midori Hirano’s strongest album yet in a pre-pandemic world, though now it seems unavoidable to connect her melancholic classical arrangements with some sort of universal escapist longing. Invisible Island initially pits minimalist piano against warped ambience, but the two ultimately subsume each other into beautiful uniformity. Hirano treats synthetic noise as a necessity to reach (or imagine) the transcendence of this invisible island. There is a stark reimagining of how melody can interact with opposing textures— not to create sonic juxtaposition, but something profoundly new and whole. It is thoughtfully optimistic for a genre too often obsessed with tension.  (Josh Hughes)

Original Review

Roedelius ~ Selbstportrait Wahre Liebe (Bureau B)
Call it Sanfte Musik [“Soft Music”], Freundliche Musik [“Friendly Music”], or something else. By whatever name, the music of Hans-Joachim Roedelius was foundational to the modern ambient genre. But let’s not resign him to a hall of fame yet! In 2020, Roedelius completed a loop, returning to the same equipment and style that saw him moonlighting from Harmonia and Cluster in the 1970s. The results remain both beautiful and invigoratingly relevant. This is not a trip down memory lane: it’s a timely reminder of possibilities; a map to where ambient music has been, and where else it may venture. (Samuel Rogers)

Original Review

Wife Signs ~ Beneath the Weight of Care (Healing Sound Propagandist)
Digital-only label Healing Sound Propagandist has chalked up nearly 60 releases since its launch in November last year. We can’t claim to have heard them all, but if Wife Signs’ contribution is anything to go by, this is a series we will be investigating further in the future. The debut recording of Kellen Perry, Beneath the Weight of Care takes its inspiration from the scales of Ethiopian tizita, editing a series of improvisations into a mournful, nostalgic series of melodies. Bathed in the ambience of the room and some delicate synth touches, this is a brief but memorable work: healing sounds indeed. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

William Basinski ~ Lamentations (Temporary Residence)
Beginning with the title, Lamentations is threaded with Biblical themes: a sense of longing and dissociation, a yearning for restoration, and a deep-seated sorrow.  The heartache is almost too much to bear as the music loops and repeats, like damaging thoughts that become earworms.  Basinski is the perfect person to create a magnum opus around the world’s ball of crises, and while Disintegration Loops is sublime, time may declare that Lamentations possesses an even deeper resonance.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

BONUS:  thme ~ that’s what it will be like (Whitelabrecs)
During my first listen, I kept this record playing and briefly left the room. Upon returning, I found the space transformed into a utopian vision of what it might become. The home-working stresses of 2020 were washed away. The sun shone brighter at the window. It can be difficult for a debut album to cause a big stir, especially if released in the last quarter of a busy year. However, thme’s full-length warrants commendation for its restorative powers and its idealism. Its soundscapes contain shimmering vistas and billowing white clouds, with enough interference and shadow to avoid being saccharine. Whatever’s around the corner, I hope that’s what it will be like. (Samuel Rogers)

Original Review

BONUS: KMRU ~ Peel (Mego)
“Why are you here.” Depending on the context, this could be an innocuous question or an insidious threat. Peel begins with a track of this title, establishing an ambiguity that carries through the entire album. Recorded in one session immediately after returning to Nairobi from Montreal, Peel transforms field-recordings made on that trip, conjuring the traveler’s disorientation and curiosity. Long loops of sub-bass and chirping high frequencies patiently unfold across the double LP, a hint of unease only partially masked by the lull of the droning tones. Peel reaches a fever pitch on “Klang,” about midway through, but it is the culminating eponymous track that is the true climax. Just one of several excellent, and distinct, releases by KMRU this year alone, he is a young artist to watch. (Joseph Sannicandro)

Original Review


  1. Mike Rome

    Always a good read

  2. Pingback: 2020 Best of Lists from Around the Web: Part III – Avant Music News

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