From Brian Eno to Celer: our guide to the best ambient music
What do you think of when you think of ambient music? Gently keening synthesisers? Ever-so-soft piano playing? Yoga? Brian Eno’s shining bonce?
Since it came of age in the 1970s, ambient music has always been happy hiding itself away. Indeed, the aforementioned genre superstar Eno was always explicit in his desire that ambient music should be ‘discreet’, able to be appreciated in its own right and also occupy spaces as background mood music.
Many great ambient works have been created in service to this notion, and you can argue that a record ceases to be ambient music when it stops adhering to those principles. However, the genre has evolved considerably in the forty-five-odd years since Eno gave it a name. Over time the ambient music world has become more complex and diverse, overlapping with everything from new age to musique concrete to house to rave. In our eyes, this is a good thing - while those early works of tranquil pleasantry should be celebrated for the new ground that they broke, the very concept of this genre is that it should be a ‘blank canvas’ and thus ripe for stylistic cross-pollination.
Allow us, then, to celebrate some of our favourite ambient music from down the years. Some of the artists here have made beautiful and crystalline work while others have utilised ambient techniques in the service of more challenging music. Regardless of how pious they’ve been to genre’s core principles, all of the musicians and records below have advanced the sound in some way, shape or form.
Best ambient music artists
Most famously known for being Roger Eno’s brother, we’ve gotta give Brian credit for doing some other things he did aside from that: like, I don’t know, inventing ambient music? He was in Roxy Music before all else, but Eno has become famous for a series of brilliant records that traversed both background structurelessness and experimental pop music.
Eno literally had a project dubbed the ‘ambient’ series, just so you know. In 1978 he set about making a record that could be both captivating and entirely secondary, crediting ‘Music for Airports’ with a dual purpose that would become instructive for the genre to come. Made primarily with tape loops, ‘Airports’ became one of the best loved records of its ilk, giving the listener sound spaces to impose their own lives onto.
A serial collaborator interested in taking in new perspectives on his music -- and sharing his own with others -- Eno’s ambient series later involved the impressionistic piano music of Harold Budd, the repetitive dulcimer rhythms of Laraaji and the fourth world music academics of Jon Hassell. Eno had interpreted ambient music his own way, but he was not averse to letting it grow and reshape. In fact, Eno would go on to be the guy who oversees the thing, rather than directing it: producing records as iconic as Coldplay’s Viva la Vida is proof of an unpretentious, open-minded musical brain.
It’s also worth noting that, you know, Eno wrote some bangers: outside of making purely ambient music he utilised his talents to make the bubblegum pop of ‘Another Green World’ and the beloved ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’. Recently he’s delved back into ambient music, making the aquatic vocoder record ‘The Ship’ and the perpetual minimalism of ‘Reflection’. There’s no stopping Roger’s bro.
Though he has been a musician of note since the late 1970s in his home state of Texas, William Basinski didn’t release his first record until 1998 - despite the fact that said album Shortwavemusic had been laid down way back in 1983. Basinski’s reputation has grown and grown in the decades since. Indeed, Ol’ Bill may well be the most famous of the more modern ambient vanguard.
He’s certainly got a strong claim to having produced this century’s most notable ambient work - his 2002-2003 series ‘The Disintegration Loops’. ‘The Disintegration Loops’ came about somewhat by accident. In attempting to digitise his early tape recordings, Basinski found that the process he was using was actually distorting the material with each new loop. Rather than seek to save his older works, Basinski instead ran them all through the same dodgy tape head. The result was a set of spectral, haunting pieces which laid the groundwork for everyone from Burial to The Caretaker.
Unusual techniques like these have characterised much of Basinski’s other work. 2017’s David Bowie homage ‘A Shadow In Time’ saw him doing more unspeakable things to some old tape reels - he even let his cat chew one of them up before starting to record. Basinski did something rather more wondrous on 2019’s ‘On Time Out Of Time’, somehow managing to synthesise airy drones from a recording of two black holes merging 1.3 billion years ago.
The most winning combo in ambient music are surely these two. A benevolent duo of Brian McBride -- fantastically named, and very much aware of his Fulham FC counterpart -- and the composer creative Adam Wiltzie, Stars of the Lid have recorded some of the most affecting drone music of all time, crafting twin opuses in ‘The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid’ and ‘And the Refinement of their Decline’. The mad thing is that those were their final records under the name: a whole slew of records came before it, marked by deep-diving experiments, dark ambient and heartbroken strings.
Formed way back in 1993, Stars of the Lid is as old as me and twice as good. Their earlier records were scratchier and weirder, offering experiments that could only be made with noxious lo-fi production. ‘Music for Nitrous Oxide’ and ‘Gravitational Pull Vs the Desire for an Aquatic Life’ provided listeners with an ominous introduction to this band, with found sound mingling into nauseating textures.
Then it all went a bit nice.
Drone poster boy Tim Hecker moved from the Montreal imprint Alien8 to 4AD, who were happy to embrace the heart-rending outpouring of 2016’s ‘Love Streams’. He’s come a long, long way from making the relatively hushed ambient music that characterised his early days: his solo name debut Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again and its follow-up Radio Amor were gorgeous records with an intimate lightness to them. That is, compared to what he’d go on to do: he promised a record of black metal drone on ‘Mirages’, and a record of black metal drone is what we got (even if moments like ‘Neither More Nor Less’ do have a more deft touch).
After dropping more promising LPs in the coming years, Hecker really hit his stride in the 2010s. 2011’s ‘Ravedeath, 1972’ received universal acclaim for the way that it combined grandiose ambient gestures with the sort of insistent pulse one finds in the work of golden-age Steve Reich. Subsequent LPs like ‘Virgins’ (2013) and the aforementioned ‘Love Streams’, which spun more gold from the same aesthetic, were also fawned over by critics. Having recorded those three LPs in Reykjavik, Hecker’s more recent works ‘Konoyo’ (2018) and ‘Anoyo’ (2019) saw him work with a gagaku (court music) ensemble in Tokyo.
One of the formative musicians of Japan’s ambient movement, Hiroshi Yoshimura’s work is marked by its ability to build architecture and paint environment. I almost want to call his sounds ‘descriptive’ -- when his instruments, rattling against his ambience, make their mark, I feel like something has been created in my head, as if an unknown quality been made clear to me.
Immersed in graphics and sculpture, it’s no wonder that much of Yoshimura’s ambient music has served as a sort of bespoke object. His ‘Soundscape 1’ opus includes percussive chimes and bleeping aesthetics, conjuring up a particular place with its own evocative personality. The immense ‘Green’ utilises gorgeous field recordings alongside its miniature melodies to create an uncanny division between tangible and intangible; as if we were looking at a grassy field stuck in a snowglobe. His rarest and most sought after record, the now-found cassette ‘Pier & Loft’, remains an absolute masterpiece of environmental storytelling.
Through a career of improvisation and laissez faire composition, Yoshimura became a household name in making site-specific music. He was commissioned to work in a variety of environments both functional and artistic, and is known for proving that ambient music can be more than general. It can be particular to its place.
The warm, crackling ambient music of Chihei Hatakeyama has long been a fireplace for Norman Records -- a replacement for expensive heating in the months where temperatures start getting all obscene on us. A sound artist based over in Tokyo, he runs White Paddy Mountain, a label operating on a diligent and dutiful mission to make everyone feel okay. Sustained and slow, his music is formlessness as friend, enveloping the listener in comfort through gorgeous tones.
Utilising processed guitars, laptops and other lightly-used instrumentation, Hatakeyama’s records follow simple, muted patterns. There’s so much music by him that it’d be hard to know where to start, but this makes digging into his discography is a delight, in a sense -- everyone will have their own favourite. Personally, I’m partial to ‘Too Much Sadness’, a gorgeous record written in response to a Fukushima earthquake made from sampled LP crackle. Other highlights include ‘Mirage’, released for Lawrence English’s Room40 imprint -- a meditation on the perceptive sensations brought about by combining sound and architecture, it reflected the visual stimulus Hatakeyama music can provide.
By the time you’ve read this he may well have released another sixty albums so let’s not try and be current and with the times about it: the sentimental and warmly-wrapped music he makes is often the exact kind of ambient music you need in your life. Consider yourself saved.
Beyond his very good cowboy hat, which I’ll wager he’s never once been without, Lawrence English is responsible for much of the ambient music you hear today. An innovator of overdriven drone and the musical implementation of field recordings -- often as heavy and textural as the composed pieces he makes -- he also masters records for others, and releases the most forward-thinking material out there over on his Room40 imprint. From all the way in Brisbane, he’s keeping ambient music real.
A thoughtful artist, English’s music begins at the philosophy of sound: he considers the intricacies of our actions as listeners, and also the difference between sound for its own sake and sound as utility. He’s written essays on the manipulation of music, and in particular on its use as a weapon. This mix of theoretical and phenomenal is woven through his solo discography, stretching through the oughties to now in records of blissful fuzz drone -- such as highlight ‘The Wilderness of Mirrors’ -- and unfettered sound art such as ‘Viento’, a recording of the Antarctic winds made while travelling with the Argentine Antarctic Division.
English’s music can be both an expression and observation; he is interested in environments as much as structuring, choosing particular spaces or political landscapes as his muse. Recent LP ‘Cruel Optimism’ goes beyond our archetypical understandings of ‘ambient’ music, using its immense, bellicose textures to consider the power dynamics running through our lives. English is an artist who sees structures and systems that run through invisible spaces.
There’s a simple and alchemical brilliance to the music of Celer, a very basically described ‘warm drone’ outfit based out in Tokyo. Initially formed of the musical partnership Will Long and Danielle Bacquet-Long, they spent the early oughties releasing an absolute mountain of records marked by quiet, unobtrusive sustain, giving records neutral and self-descriptive names like ‘Continents’ and ‘Melodia’ so that the listener could impress themselves onto the record.
After the sad passing of Danielle Bacquet-Long in 2009, Will Long decided to keep making music under the moniker, offering further sound blankets to throw over yourself. Like many warm drone artists, the output became staggering, but the best of Long’s music also seems to be his most sentimental, including evocative tone poems like ‘I Love You So Much I Can't Even Title This’ and the ambitious ‘Sky Limits’, a collection of lilting drones given character and shape by field recordings.
Celer’s the kind of artist who just absentmindedly drops a new musical dispatch when he chooses; it’s always a treat, having something new to sink into. But he has occasionally branched out, too: recent collaborations with deep house legend DJ Sprinkles resulted in ‘Long Trax’, a collection of minimal dance music deviations that held on to the trademark prettiness of Celer. With a self-releasing schedule quite unmatched, be prepared to commit yourself to this one.
As well as easily winning Ambient Music’s Most Tattooed Man award, bvdub or Brock Van Way is surely its most prolific artist. Since 2007 an unrelenting stream of releases have come our way from the Bay Area artist on a variety of labels. In 2011 for instance, he released seven albums.
Not all of them have been great and there have been concerns about his Robert Pollard-esque attitude to quality control. However with 31 albums behind him, the law of averages says that some will be great and at his best bvdub is a force to be reckoned with. His The First Day and Tribes at the Temple of Silence albums - both on the excellent Home Normal label - are exceptional examples of what he does best -- gloriously atmospheric swathes of ambience lashing over intense beats.
The cue cards come from Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume 2 - these gorgeous swirling melodies owe a lot to early Richard D. James but there’s also something of Third Eye Foundation in how textural loops are placed over breakbeats. Each bvdub album is it’s own entity but a special mention must go to Yours Are Stories Of Sadness (2016) - a collection of short emotionally charged pieces miles away from his usual marathon excursions.
There’s a lot to wade through for the new starter but his is a sound field worth investigating.
Sound artist Leyland Kirby is best known for his ambient work as the Caretaker. A rich and deeply conceptual sound world, music under this moniker is largely concerned with the onset of dementia, the fractures of memory and sound’s ability to reforge the mind. As the Caretaker, Kirby approaches plunderphonics with an unprecedented attention-to-detail, looping specific and microscopic fragments in meticulous structural shapes. Which is to say: listening to the Caretaker is a trip, but a massively well crafted one.
The Caretaker has an opus: it’s called ‘An Empty Bliss Beyond This World’, and it’s considered one of ambient music’s landmarks. Kirby made the record after uncovering research that old sounding music can help alzheimer’s patients retain memories better. Structured with the forgetting and decaying sense of self, it is a devastating meditation on the loss of memory and capacity, sampling old ballroom jazz records and editing them so that their cadences are abrupt and their repetitions are inappropriate. Atmospherically, it’s a masterclass; as an experiment into the physiological qualities of music, it’s fascinating.
What the hell is ‘soft pedal’, I hear you asking? Allow me to explain, valued reader. ‘Soft pedal’ is this style of piano playing the ambient composer Harold Budd invented for himself. It’s pretty self-explanatory, one might argue, but it essentially refers to a featherlight playing that centers itself on sustained, airy aesthetics that eschew narrative in favour of overall atmosphere. One might argue it’s not ambient at all, but a separate, individualist genre unto its own. Harold Budd would certainly argue that. But we’ll call him ambient anyway.
Budd is one of many California minimalists, counted alongside legends such as Terry Riley and Lou Harrison in a microcosm of innovators who would create balmy and beautiful music. Crafting both ambient and more steadfast drone pieces for piano, his career dived deeper and deeper into the world of minimalism, releasing an endless wave of records that sounded romantic, peaceful and profoundly emotional. Collaborating with producer Brian Eno countless times, his music developed in cavernous empty spaces that felt anonymous and personal at the same time.
Many will consider Harold Budd’s best work to have come on ‘The Pearl’ and ‘The Plateaux of Mirror’, collaborative albums made with Eno that recontextualised his piano playing through processed texture. For me, though, he arguably reached a creative peak with ‘Avalon Sultra’, released late into his career in 2005. A gorgeous, lonely hymnal, it showcases his talents sublimely, offering up the expressive, melodic piano playing he makes sound so effortless -- within template that feels both ambient and active, still and searching.
The brilliant Kara-Lis Coverdale is at the very least a legend to the halls of Norman Records. She’s the reason we tried to make ‘crystalwave’ a genre, giving us the euphoric ambient shards of ‘Sirens’ alongside LXV. A record that further expanded on the overloading palette of Oneohtrix Point Never, the record was a sudden proclamation, to us, of a very digital genius.
Of course in reality we were way behind the game and Coverdale had been making music for a hot minute. She’d already delivered cassette of hyperreal loops for Constellation Tatsu and a brazen meditation for Sacred Phrases, proving the many different ways in which her music could operate. She’d also already been working as a studio hand, musician and collaborator for the legendary Tim Hecker, co-conspiring on ‘Virgins’ before becoming almost equally important in the aesthetic sharpness of ‘Love Streams’.
Her most recent solo LP, ‘Grafts’, was a twenty-minute victory lap of ambient music in which dimmed neon lights glared onto grey industrial floors. It was characterised by all things Coverdale, with hectic movement preying on its very stillness. With Coverdale, it’s not so much ambient music as it is everything music, a busy metropolis contained within her droning sound templates. We can only go on to assume she’s going to change the game -- a few times.
Best ambient music albums
Here it is, then, the big one. Arguably one of ambient music’s most famous LPs (or LP box sets, if you wanna go there), William Basinski’s opus became a hallmark in the world of tape music and looping, centring itself on an endlessly repeated, slowly decaying melody and speaking to the aging process of sound. Basinski’s Disintegration Loops has suggested new ways ambient artists can structure music -- and also hinted that sometimes the process is as important as the artist. Its legacy can be felt in the reel to reel repetitions of Ian William Craig and the fragmented sound sampling of the Caretaker.
With a title like that, you’d be forgiven in expecting Tim Hecker’s six studio LP to be a halcyon-glow dance opus in the vein of, say, Daniel Avery’s ‘Song For Alpha’. However, you would also be very wrong. ‘Ravedeath, 1972’ has lots of things in its DNA - NYC minimalism, shoegaze, the majestic doom of Ben Frost - but club music isn’t one of them. Indeed, at points this doesn’t sound like a record born of civilisation. Both still and full of motion, detached and intense, listening to ‘Ravedeath, 1972’ is kind of like standing all alone in the middle one of the wide Icelandic landscapes Hecker recorded it in.
The Orb raised a few eyebrows when they emerged at the start of the 90s - who did this lot think they were, releasing twenty-minute-long singles with ridiculous titles like ‘A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld’? 1991 debut LP ‘The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld’ silenced the critics. An ambitious record, this album runs to well over 100 minutes and plays both as individual tracks and a single evolving composition. Over a mix of downtempo breaks and gently pulsating house loops, The Orb overlaid pillowy keyboards and dreamy vocal samples to create one of the most pleasant trips ever set to tape.
Emeralds’ very own Mr. Sparklehands wasn’t quite content with blowing our minds in his now defunct kosmische band, so he gave us Where All is Fled too, a solo record of immense generative soundscaping. Listening to it, you can hear the world being rendered in real time, as if you’re walking through a video game world and seeing it develop. Utilising a beatless musical palette of pulsating synths, Hauschildt created a neon green masterpiece that homages the early days of electronic music while forging ahead into something -- or somewhere -- new.
Liz Harris’ fifth record was the first one many listeners noticed, embracing its dream pop raindrops and underfoot melodies. It’s only sort of an ‘ambient’ record, really -- sitting down and listening to it you’re more likely to be enraptured in its singer-songwriter elements, knotted into reverb and distortion and noise fracture so as to make them more elemental. It’s like a pastoral psych folk record of old caught in a storm, and from a distance, in torrential spirits, it speaks to us.
An Empty Bliss Beyond This World can now be seen as a blueprint for the more expansive, high-concept project describing the onset of dementia that the Caretaker has taken on. At the time, though, the record was singular. Sharing The Disintegration Loops’ method of creating ambient music from melodic vignettes, Leyland Kirby took old dixieland jazz records and reduced them to snippets, emphasising the idea of memory loss by through editing -- tracks end abruptly, and switch back into others at will. An Empty Bliss Beyond This World is beautiful and beguiling, and remains a devastating portrait of an unknowable suffering.
Our Phil describes this one in a Top Gear-ish voice as ‘quality ambient’. And he’s right. Music for Airports gave many artists a useful definition for ambient music that could navigate both its space as ‘background’ music and as an engaging emotional companion. It’s the most iconic of Brian Eno’s Music For series, Eno thinking beyond the ‘narrative’ presentation of music and giving us spatial music shaped like an environment. Super pretty, super minimalist, and also Phil would just like me to say that for the record he doesn’t watch Top Gear.
1984’s ‘The Pearl’ gently evolves the sound that Eno and Budd had developed on ‘Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror’ four years previously. Yoking together Budd’s well-tempered ‘soft pedal’ klavier style with Eno’s delicate electronic treatments, ‘The Pearl’ is one of the finest realisations of the latter’s discrete aesthetic. ‘Against The Sky’ was later sampled by U2 on ‘No Line On The Horizon’ (an album produced by Eno), but don’t let that put you off.
Do those busy, twinkling keyboards that kick off ‘A Rainbow In Curved Air’ sound familiar? That’s because this 1969 record from minimalist pioneer Terry Riley has inspired a huge swathe of work down the years - the genesis of The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’, Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ and Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ can all be discerned in these ecstatic plumes of synthesiser. A landmark in 20th Century composition, ‘A Rainbow In Curved Air’ embodies the utopian spirit of a certain strain of psychedelic music better than perhaps any other record.
While Biosphere’s first two albums ‘Microgravity’ (1991) and ‘Patashnik’ (1994) had contained prominent ambient influences, these sounds often themselves subsumed into techno, acid and house tracks. The one born Geir Jenssen stripped out the beats for 1997’s ‘Substrata’, focussing instead on granular drones, sonar bleeps and wistful guitar motifs. Not dissimilar to what Mika Vainio was up to around the same time, ‘Substrata’ is frequently noted as one of the best ambient records of the 90s.
Even when David Sylvian was making sprawling New Romantic pop with Japan, there were moments when his interest in ambient and discrete music floated to the surface - see ‘Burning Bridges’ from 1980’s ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’, for example. Fast forward to 1988 and the now-solo Sylvian teamed up with Can’s Holger Czukay to make ‘Plight & Premonition’, a record that consisted of two side-long compositions. These tracks saw the pair layer eerie keyboards, found sounds and foggy atmospheres atop ominous drones, turning new age music dark in the process.
Now sadly deceased, Susumu Yokota made a whole range of wonderful music in his lifetime. A renowned house producer and DJ, Yokota also turned heads with his gorgeous ambient records. 2000’s ‘Sakura’ stands as one of his finest works of this ilk. Some of the tracks here are spare and gorgeous, their synthesisers lazily spiralling upwards to the sky, while others wed this vibe to beats which demonstrate Yokota’s love of house music and cuts like ‘Naminote’ soften up bopping jazz loops into something altogether more lovely.
‘Tanto’ is one of the finest realisations of bvdub’s aesthetic. The one born Brock Van Wey has pushed the boundaries of what ambient music can be, supercharging it to a point where it spills over into shoegaze, post-rock and emo. On ‘Tanto’ he executes this move expertly to deliver a set of widescreen and hugely emotional pieces. There’s variation here too - for every snowstorm ambience like ‘I Break All Around You’ we get the crashing breakbeats of ‘You Tell Me To Be Strong’.