2017 is already one of the biggest years for ambient in recent memory. From the return of the genre’s legends, to the continued output from it’s most prolific modern innovators (as well as an already sizable number of name making breakout projects). From ambient dub, to ambient pop, and from tribal to dark, ambient seems to be shining across the board.
The year of ambient? Too soon to say, but if it keeps up this pace, by the end of 2017 this list could morph beyond all recognition. A damn shame because so much of this list is already so genuinely great. Here’s Overblown’s top 10 ambient albums of 2017 so far.
10. Palmer Eldritch – Natural Disaster
Natural Disaster will likely be the most confident ambient album you hear this year. Piotr and Rafal, the two primary members of the Palmer Eldritch, are not people with… reasonable ideas. Their musical vision of downtempo meets post-rock meets tribal-ambient is one I imagine most people will give a stern, side-eyed glance too, and honestly, I do too, even having listened to the album already. It’s weird, and it hits the ear in a deeply “off” way, hell it even falls on it’s face pretty hard at certain change-ups, but damn it, it’s a compelling listen.
The way the low, conventional ambient hum of “The Beginner’s Guide To Maya” bleeds into the almost celtic folk-ish violin of “The Great Wheel”, before morphing a full three times before the song comes to an end, it’s just constant never-ending musical whiplash. Sure, to a certain degree it does feel gimmicky in that sense, often depending on such drastic change ups to keep the listener engaged, but when those change-ups work, it’s bliss. On songs like “The Rose, The Phoenix, The Crowned King”, the song evolves so naturally that you might question whether tribal ambient and downtempo had always been bedfellows. At the very least, you might become very compelled by Palmer’s argument that they should be.
9. Visible Cloaks – Reassemblage
Visible Cloaks’ Reassemblage is an album that doesn’t really fit in. It’s the electronic lost boy of 2017. Sure the influences aren’t hard to see, it has a feature from Japanese new-age legend Miyako Koda, but it’s not really very new-agey, and certainly wouldn’t play well to that crowd. Its got a feature from wonky/UK bass artist Motion Graphics, but it’s definitely not playing to that world either, much too slow and ambient in texture. There’s all kinds of fingers in the broth, but not much that really pulls it to somewhere definitive.
It’s been compared to Oneohtrix Point Never very heavily since it’s release, but even those comparisons are pretty surface level. Sure the analog synths, and progressive electronic aspirations are similar, but Reassemblage is the kind of digital blanket that OPN would never make, too hippy-friendly and too willing to melt into the background completely. Visible Cloaks isn’t just flirting with ambient music, he’s diving in head first, pulling his bag of oddities with him, like OPN’s mellowed out, sleeping pill addict, alternate reality cousin.
It’s an album that seems ready-made to get caught in electronic music history limbo. Was it an important development, was it even a development at all? In a very odd way, it’s inability to be pigeonholed is it’s only true definitive element, an album that dares to float almost entirely on it’s own.
8. Kara-Lis Coverdale – dGrafts
On Grafts, the Canadian native seems to find a more meditative place, and her music blooms for it. The gentle tings and walls of synthetic drone rise and fall in a lull, as small organic sounds creep up like islands buried behind the fog. The heavy repetition and simplistic melodies represent her post-minimalist roots at their most refined, exploring the same kind of sleepy, surrealistic trances as her contemporary, Max Richter, but with a much heavier, omniscient sorrounding those classical aspirations.
The way the air clears out from under everything as the song reaches an enveloping drone at the climax of the second movement “Flutter”. Accompanied by nothing but heavily reverbed thumps, it’s nothing short of breathtaking, and one of the most beautiful moments in ambient for 2017 so far.
7. The Caretaker – Everywhere at the End of Time – Stage 2
It’s incredibly difficult to say what differentiates one Caretaker album from the last, especially as the reality that The Caretaker is going to release four more albums in this series really settles in. Ever since his career defining An Empty Bliss, he’s moved in variations so slight it’s almost impossible to really consciously see them. This time around the crackles and noise have started to creep just a little fraction further onto the Dixieland samples, creating the feeling that these old and distorted memories are beginning to succumb to the Alzheimer’s that the project is based on.
If Stage 1 was the “everywhere”, Stage 2 is those first steps toward “the end of time”. Or as James Kirby himself puts it.
“The second stage is the self realization and awareness that something is wrong with a refusal to accept that. More effort is made to remember so memories can be more long form with a little more deterioration in quality. The overall personal mood is generally lower than the first stage and at a point before confusion starts setting in.”
Whether that intention really comes across in the music is difficult to say, but on a powerfully subconscious level, it really does feel like his best work in years.
6. Kyo – I Musik
I Musik could certainly be called “ambient”, but it could also be called electroacoustic, minimal synth, music concrete, and about a hundred more increasingly confusing and pointless genre tags which really only describe brief moments in the larger tapestry of things. I Musik is an album about exploration, or perhaps a bit more specifically, it’s about boundaries. The boundaries of sonic worlds, between sampled voices and analog synthesizers, between crystal clear melodies and blurry, compressed drones.
I Musik slithers all over those kind of boundaries, leaving their avant-avant-garde songwriting slime, and little vocal snippet eggs all over them. Sometimes it does manage to pull itself into a sort of “tune”, or at least, clearly understandable composition (Just take the linear and genuinely groovy “Azzurra” for instance). Though more often than not, these songs sort of dissolve in the listener’s hand. Elements begin to bleed together, and sounds become harsher, less melodic as they pull apart and push back together roughly. It’s the kind of album that feels truly, and singularly unique, a rarity even among those “iconoclast” albums which we hold up as “classics”.
Of course Kyo are much too weird to ever achieve any sort of public perception as “classic”, but this album is at the very least something, something that demands attention, regardless of whether you approve of it.
5. You’ll Never Get To Heaven – Images
Ambient-pop is a genre that never seemed to hit the stride it was destined to. Sure, the highs are some of the best music ever made, AIR, David Sylvian, Slowdive, Fishmans, etc, but every year I’m sorely disappointed in the lack of listenable ambient pop. I get the duality is hard to balance, creating pop songs, which thrive on form and forward movement, that exist in an ambient space, which of course naturally fights all those principles. I guess the reason You’ll Never Get To Heaven pull it off is because at heart, they are really a dream pop band. With Images, the ambient-ness of the whole affair seems to have just fallen into their laps.
The premise is, take dream pop and strip it of all of its forward propulsion, and indie pop underpinnings, and see what’s left. The answer is basically just that beloved Cocteau Twins’ wave of dreamy textures, but crystallized in place. Then, from above, Alice Hansen’s voice can swoop down to weave in and out of these timeless structures. On instrumental numbers like “Still”, “Shadow Garden”, and “Rain Copy”, there is no doubt that these are ambient compositions, regardless of their original intent, but the songs gain such a profoundly pop element to them on the vocal numbers. Alice’s voice is tender and subdued enough to pull your ears forward, straining to catch what she’s saying, and the gentle thumping of synthetic drums keeps you pulling forward, even as the scenery around you remains motionless.
4. Bing & Ruth – No Home of the Mind
The gentle colors bleeding together on the cover of Bing & Ruth’s new album, No Home of the Mind, is really all that needs to be said about it. Taking the gossamer drones of their last album, Tomorrow Was the Golden Age, and casting them over drifting, and faint piano lines. Simple melodic phrase which give the songs a new sort of skeleton structure. Much like that cover, the album floats in sea of soft borders, and undefined tone. Melancholy drifts into whimsy, and then into the sort of dark release of “Flat Line / Peak Color” and “What Ash It Flow Up”. The soft oranges and whites give way to the black at the corners of both the cover, and Bing & Ruth’s world. Though complaints of “samey-ness” and “repetitive” could certainly be lobbied at it, the gentle descent into darker places and more somber palettes over its substantial 59 minute run time will provide a highly affecting, subtle journey for those who have the patience to take it.
3. Gas – Narkopop
Wolfgang Voigt returns to his most beloved moniker, Gas, a full 17 years after releasing the project’s magnum opus, Pop. Despite being his most well known work, Pop was really a complete 180 from Wolgang’s previous work under the name. With Pop he redirected his dense and droney style into something bright and dreamy, while also experimenting with layers of natural sounds in a way he’d never really done before. Because of Pop’s sort of outlier position in his catalogue, I imagine many well meaning fans who loved that work were very dissapointed by waht they got on Narkopop.
Upon his much awaited return though, Wolfgang did something very odd, though perhaps also very sensible, completely sidestepping those sonic roads opened up by Pop. Instead Gas returns to the more murky and synthetic sounds of his earlier albums, Zauberberg, and Konigsforst. Filling out their sound with even more bombastic strings and even deeper layers of reverb, Narkopop is almost like the ostentatious finale to his long delayed trilogy, leaving Pop as some sort of masterful detour.
2. Ryuichi Sakamoto – async
Back in 2014, a few months after his last “solo” album, Three, had been released, Ryuichi revealed to world he had had diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer. After taking a year break to receive treatment hw would return to his usual, prolific self in 2015, scoring two films (including the hugely successful Revenant), creating another collaborative album with Taylor Dupree, and even compiling a nice little retrospective compilation. But async is the very first genuine statement we’ve heard from Ryuichi since that diagnosis, and if it’s sounds are to be believed, Ryuichi’s world has become a great deal more bleak. From the somber spoken word segments which linger on memory, and the end of it all, to the funeral dirge of “solari”, and the many other deeply melancholic sonic detours like it.
There’s a rather unfair (and morbid) parallel that can be drawn between this album and Blackstar by Ryuichi’s former costar, and temporary friend, David Bowie. Where Bowie dealt with his encroaching mortality in the only way he could, with pop rock that was twisted and grand, hitting it head-on with bombast and spirit, Ryuichi does it the only way he knows how, sideways and with a sense of great emotional maturity. He meditates on the sounds of his own mortality with as much emotional wisdom and patience as he has given us over the past three decades, in all of his previous work, never letting his composure fall for even an instant.
async may just be the first time in which ambient music has been turned towards one’s own morality, and for that reason alone it would be an immensely interesting release, but the sparse synthetic soundscapes and somber field recordings, paired with what could be Ryuchi’s most desolate classical compositions ever, makes for an album which is powerful enough on it’s own two musical feet.
1. Various Artists – Mono No Aware [Compilation]
There’s a certain critical obsession with compilations. Check reviews of any comp about “Southeast Asian Psychedelic Folk 1984-1989”, or whatever, and I can guarantee the review will be glowing, extolling the comp as an “important and illuminating cultural artifact” or something along those lines. The reality is that there are very compilations that have meant much at all in the grand scheme of musical history. The truly game changing ones you can count on your hands, things like Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, Brian Eno’s No New York, or Warp Records’ Artificial Intelligence. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that those compilations created genres, changed the direction of music in the west, and solidified important underground trends.
Now, I would never imply Mono No Aware is as important as those comps, mostly because it would take quite a few years to really say something like that, but what I can say, is that it feels like an important release. A full bodied, and distinct compilation in an ocean of pointless novelties. The brilliant flow and musical harmony of all these artists, most of whom were almost completely unknown at the time of the release is incredible. Bill Kouligas, the head of Pan label, and the compilations head architect, casts light into the darkest, and most interesting caves of ambient music today, bringing up new life and new voices into a genre that too often feels like the same voices talking to themselves (I mean, just look at our list to confirm that). Maybe it will fail to stand that test of time, but currently, it’s by far and away the one of the most compelling compilations include in recent years.