This year’s picks emphasize the variety of ambient music through poetry, field recordings and home diaries, featuring children and cicadas, time and seasons, dedications to loved ones and even a celebration of those who do nothing.
This year, many of us felt like “grass eaters.” For at least the early part of the year, we were stuck in our homes, working remotely or not working at all; we were worried about our prospects and the health of those around us; we had too much on our minds and too few outlets. Ambient music was a reminder of gentler times and a soundtrack to staying at home. Here is some of the peaceful music that calmed us, soothed us and saw us through the storm.
Our seven genre lists are compiled in traditional Billboard fashion: staffers are invited to submit top ten lists in every category, and their picks are ranked in reverse numerical order: 10 points for #1, 9 for #2 and so on. Our genre lists are presented in alphabetical order, while our Top 20 list is ranked.
Ai Yamomoto ~ Pan De Sonic – Iso (Room40)
For Ai Yamamoto, lockdown wasn’t that bad. Sure, there were chores to do, and remote learning for the kids. But there were also moments of precious respite: cooking, walking, bouncing on the trampoline, and for the end of the day, a glass of wine that could double as a musical instrument. The album is both snapshot and diary, a collection of sonic memories that may one day cause an unusual wistfulness. (Richard Allen)
Ben Seretan ~ Cicada Waves (NNA Tapes)
After a record full of theological, philosophical musings on his split from Evangelical Christianity, Ben Seretan holed away at a residency in rural Georgia for a back-to-basics project centered on the piano. The resulting Cicada Waves is all meditation through process, the sound of someone reacquainting themselves with an old instrument, pleasantly distracted by the natural sounds tapping outside the window. Seretan lets phrases ring out long enough to fully soak in each note before the next melody eases in, all while rain and cicadas hum in the distance, filling in the intimate space. (Josh Hughes)
Celia Hollander ~ Timekeeper (Leaving Records)
The days creep by and we can never stop forgetting. Flashbacks of a Monday morning turn into warped memories of an already warped dream from the night before, which turn into a fleeting thought from that afternoon, a shared moment at dinnertime, a brushup with a coworker in the early afternoon. It’s this chaotic nature of both memory and time itself that foregrounds Celia Hollander’s excellent Timekeeper, a record that inordinately bounces across a day, stopping at both those split seconds of clarity and the numbing fuzz of repetitive, daily life. You look at the clock, it’s 1:17PM, and that minute of looking through the refrigerator sets off those chirping guitars of curious serenity. Next thing you know, it’s 1:23AM and the feelings of that memory have already distorted into something wholly new, almost unattached from the past. (Josh Hughes)
Hammock ~ Elsewhere (Hammock Music)
After experiencing months of isolation and lockdown, most people wanted to go somewhere – anywhere. Where better to start than Elsewhere? The duo of Andrew Thompson and Marc Byrd composed and recorded this album in their homes, separated from each other, keeping the arrangements minimal. Following on from a trilogy of albums that explored grief and loss, Hammock are well-positioned to channel a sense of melancholia that stems from somewhere hard to define. There is mourning, there is uncertainty. Even if we haven’t lost somebody close in the pandemic, we can still feel that loss. Elsewhereis an album that, for a short while at least, eases the burden. (Jeremy Bye)
Hollie Kenniff ~ The Quiet Drift (Western Vinyl)
The undulating tones throughout The Quiet Drift push back and forth like that winding, jagged amusement park ride slowed down to where you can notice people walking past you. Call it nighttime time-lapse in the city music, music to leap into the ocean to, an album whose proceeds partially go to The Nature Conservancy of Canada and a women’s emergency shelter— Hollie Kenniff’s latest is the once every few years record that sinks into your soul as a pointed examination of the self, whatever that might look like. The voice, guitar, and synthesizers circle past each other like radiating ripples in a pond, providing a genuinely moving look into how to slow down and embrace the complexity swirling all around. (Josh Hughes)
James Osland ~ Almond Drive (Rusted Tone)
Warm, playful, and lush, Almond Drive is a love letter to a happy home and a reminder that such things are possible. This idyllic sound retreat introduces a faraway land where children play and adults take care of everything else. If it’s not real, we imagine that we can make it so for our own children. (Richard Allen)
M. Sage ~ Wants a Diamond Pivot Bright (Florabelle)
A direct and deeply collaborative response to the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Wants a Diamond Pivot Bright is M. Sage’s grand experiment in closing the gap and widening the network between sound and writing. After inviting 16 musicians to spend time with Wallace’s work and send arrangements, Sage added his own embellishments to the compositions, accompanying the results of his own interpretive project. As our own Richard Allen wrote in his review, “The music opens up the poems like the poems open up the world.” The procedural nature of the record adds multidimensionality to the original source, but also highlights the observational brilliance of Stevens’ work. (Josh Hughes)
Observatories ~ Flowers Bloom, Butterflies Come (IKKII)
The latest from Ian Hawgood and Craig Tattersall is a multimedia work that nonetheless works well solely as an album, and it should come as no surprise to ACL readers that it is ambient music at its best. Deeply layered and weaving each piece like a beautiful hand-made textile, this album sways away from the more dreamy, hazy qualities of the genre by means of a production that lets sounds crack and click. It makes the concept of texture justice, as it lets us feel the matter out of which the metaphors of its title and track names are made of. (David Murrieta Flores)
Tomoko Hojo + Rahel Kraft ~ Grass Eater Diary (LINE)
Is doing nothing doing something? This is the question asked by Tomoko Hojo + Rahel Kraft, who introduce listeners to the derogatory term grass eater. The album meanders like a horse in a field, content to enjoy the day, to graze on whatever is available, to drink in the sun and the day’s gentle breeze. But shouldn’t the horse be working? Over the course of the last year, we’ve realized that we may have been working too hard, and that there is value in contemplation and reflection ~ even if others may chastise us for the appearance of doing nothing. (Richard Allen)
Tony Dupé ~ Margaret Hammett Lived (Lost Tribe Sound)
Perhaps lockdown was an opportunity for you to hunt through those dusty boxes in the attic, or maybe research your family tree. For Tony Dupé, it was the chance to pay tribute to his great-aunt, Margaret, who was placed in Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne as a 19-year-old unwed mother – and where she stayed her entire life, with almost no documentation to bear witness to her life. Fortunately, Tony had met her several times as a child and can say, with certainty, that Margaret Hammett Lived. Using instrumentation closely associated with chapels, he has created a work of palpable emotion and fragile beauty that take their inspiration (and titles) from chapters of Margaret’s life. By the time you hear the cello and voice on the closing “I Had Two Babies Both Eileen”, your heart will break. (Jeremy Bye)