Ambient doesn’t usually have “years” like other genres do. You know, sometimes it’s just a fantastic year for indie rock, or for hip-hop, or for dance music, etc, but ambient always just seems to… be. The masterpieces are maybe just too subtle, and even the lows are usually good enough anyways that it becomes a bit difficult to say where we are. Is it a good year, a bad one? I don’t know, but 2018 feels different to me. Like a year where ambient music feels more bold, and in your face than it has been in quite some time. These ten releases strike me as the kind of consistency and universal greatness I’d expect from an end of year list, not a midpoint one. And even more than that, contained within are more than a few releases that feel boundary pushing in a way I wouldn’t expect from any ambient list, any year. Anyways, here’s our top 10 ambient albums for 2018.
10Anenon – Tongue
On the back of the breakout success of 2016’s Petrol, Anenon (aka Brian Simon) was presented with a challenge of concept. Somewhere in the balance of his jazz, electronic, ambient, minimalism, and electroacoustic music, he had to pick a direction to move in. He needed an element in that complicated mix to focus in on, to refine. Of course, there was always the option to keep the balance where it stood, but with Petrol he had already begun exhausting that possibilities efficacy. To stand still was to stagnate. So the choice remained, what was Brian Simon to do. The answer in a very literal sense was ambient, as Tongue is by many hands and feets a much more ambient affair than Petrol, but the real answer, is nothing.
With Tongue, Anenon sacrifices none of the strength or engaging qualities of any of his genre aspirations. The spiritual refrains from his jazz informed brass section remain alluring, despite their quieter tone. His electronic and minimalist aspirations almost benefit from their more backstage presence, elevating songs with simple melodies emerging from below and above. Adding dimensions of organic instrumentation on top of synthetic arpeggios. The balance, while tipped substantially in one direction, manages to keep its form, and hone in its focus towards a more singular goal.
9Blithe Field – Days Drift By
Far, far away from the modern indietronica, and highly underrated singles, which kept Blithe Field floating under the surface of the early 2010’s indie scene for almost a decade, Days Drift By is a step towards pure retro-ism. Informed by the piano balladry and minimalist jazz influences of people like Brian Eno, Harold Budd, and Jon Hassell, Blithe Field has made one of the years most comforting and familiar ambient albums. While also not completely abandoning those modern tropes.
Built upon layers of piano and ambiance, decorated in plucks of strings and discordant brass breaks, Days Drift By, feels lost and forgotten. Evoking years long since gone, of Brian Eno’s now defunct Obscure Records, until that second half of “RD 1” / “Love Knot” comes in and shatters everything. Blithe Field’s trademarked bustling compositions and chipmunked vocals begin to arrive, and build onto those familiar layers, until finally, it bursts open into something brand new, something beautiful.
8Various Artists – I Could Go Anywhere But Again I Go With You
The newest electronic comp making waves is, admittedly, not entirely devoted to ambient music, and certainly not the kind of driftable, soundscape thing you might expect from the genre tag. Instead it incorporates industrial, noise, and UK bass into something more than just ambient. Capturing, much like last year’s smash hit compilation Mono No Aware, a vibrant underground, filled with life and extensive creativity. A spirit which spills outward from ambient into all directions and corners of the independent electronic space.
Highlights include gossamer and beautiful contributions from Kyo (a favorite from our list last year) and Internazionale, as well as a great host of newcomers and scene standards. What it lacks in consistent tone and editorial design, it more than makes up for in the incredible depth and breadth of its contributions, which startle and confront in equal measure.
7Sigur Ros – Route One
Cut from a 24 hour performance made by Sigur Ros in 2016 as they drove around their home island of Iceland, Route One is the sort of slightness that stands far apart from the band’s glacial and massive catalog. Procedurally generated from 2016’s “óveður”, Route One resembles more than anything, a disembodied sonic corpse, morphing inward and outward simultaneously. The song is bent till it breaks, and then pulled back together from the pieces in an alien and childlike tone. It’s equal parts rudimentary and bizarre, as the sort of lifeless drones of procedural voices choke in and out of the buzzing synths and incessant twinkles.
Compared to the structured nature of works like Ágætis byrjun or even their most recent Kveikur, the frightfully messy work on display with Route One seems anachronistic, like a beamed in message from a Sigur Ros of the future. A future where Jonsi and company are now programs and cyborgs, plodding along at procedures and algorithms, making music not of our world. Completely unconcerned with human emotions, quite a leap for a band whose career was defined by its emotional intensity. In that sense it’s not hard to see why it’s received a sort of middling reception among Sigur Ros fans and critics alike. And I’ll be the first to admit it’s not perfect, but beyond my gut reaction as a fan of the band, I find it to be in all dimensions an engrossing and enthralling listen.
6Many Rooms – There is a Presence Here
I felt a reassuring hand popping this in, on a late Friday night, like a soft presence lifting my hand onto its destination. I don’t know why I had waited so long to listen to it, having known about it for quite awhile, but just recently I finally did it. My best guess is that I had simply waited until I could maximize it’s mesmerizing qualities. Subconsciously put it off until the time was right. That first listen was like being cradled and set to sail all in one motion, beautiful and transfixing.
Many Rooms has spent almost two years teasing towards this album, an absolute lifetime in the modern indie world. Which at first consideration, might seem labored and frustrating, but you have to admit after a listen or two, that this music seems removed from the indie world completely, and really, from all time wholly. Minus the Nine Inch Nails interpolation, she seems as old as she is new, and completely untethered from our day to day existence.
The drifting gossamer guitar lines, and reverb heavy vocals feel ripped right out of some Japanese avant-garde, but dropped right into her Columbus,Ohio home, they feel like bleeding American tragedies. The ambient album of the year so far.
5SUSS – Ghost Box
“Ghost Box is an album of psychedelic ambient country instrumentals created by a group of musicians known as SUSS.”
Broken rails and empty expanses.
Guess we can’t go any further than this,
The real edge of it all.
Killing it for its own sake,
Too hot or anything else,
Too cold to be bothered
Pour another thing right out into it.
4Rafael Anton Irisarri – Midnight Colours
“The eight new songs were conceived as a sort of soundtrack to the “Midnight Clock or Doomsday Clock” – a symbol which represents the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe.
Irisarri experimented with the use of heavily “degraded” tape, played through a mis-aligned Otari 8-track tape machine that was constantly on the fritz. “I felt using tape gave the music a particular texture & character, like when you watch old news reels from the 1950’s, you know those that talk about the H-bomb, and how we are all doomed,” he explains.”
To read how Rafael describes his own album, you’d think he’d given into despair. That Midnight Colours was the sound of our end and filled with nothing but the most horrific sounds our New Yorkian friend could conjure. I ask then, of you, my humble reader, to listen to the song given above, “Falling Curtain”. Close your eyes and let whatever images flow in, to flow in, to morph and appear. Do you see bombed out wastages, or lines for what little food we saved? Or like me do you see great open expanses of green, spilling over cliffs onto lakes and rivers. Of life and of life after that? Midnight Colours is as concerned with death as it is with life. And in the final moments of our world, Rafael finds more beauty than most could find in a perfect day.
3Pendant – Make Me Know You Sweet
After a solid half decade of dominating the outsider house scene, Huerco S. (aka Brian Leeds) makes the biggest outward step of his career since his 2013 debut Colonial Patterns. Pushing the ambient direction he’d been pursuing under the Huerco S. name into something completely unhinged. Under this new fully ambient moniker, he unravels those haunting melodies and clunky drums, which had until this moment defined his sound, into bottomless oceans and Lovecraftian warbles.
With titles like “VVQ-SSJ” it even feels like tracks plugged into coordinates. Unsearched corners of the endless water, or barren places just off the coast. The drones shuffle and even occasionally glisten, like waves pushing through into view, but never enough to break up the oppressive monotony of it. Those glittering synth melodies of “BBN-UWZ” or the expansive drones of “NMQ-HYT” are just precariously beautiful lights, hanging from the end of the dreadful things which live in the dark of the water.
2Sarah Davachi – Let Night Come on Bells End the Day
Are you familiar with resonant frequency? Perhaps at least mildly familiar with the old timey footage you saw in highschool physics of bridges being destroyed by nothing more than the wind. It’s a sort of natural frequency for a material, where waves begin to add to one another, growing and growing until a physical system can’t hold it anymore. Sarah Davachi is in pursuit of the human frequency, pushing the very limits of sustained tones into consuming and textural masterworks.
Listening to Let Night Come on Bells End The Day gave me a sensation which no album has ever done before. A feeling like my inner ears were pressurized, like I was on a plane, or somewhere deep underwater. Like I was listening to music which was coming from the other side of it. I won’t lie, at first I was quite uncomfortable with the whole thing, I mean, a pressurized ear isn’t a good feeling is it? But within a few minutes, after an acclimation took place, it felt natural, almost awe inspiring, like floating beneath the water of the music. Translucent and lucid.
1DJ Healer – Nothing 2 Lose
DJ Healer (aka Traumprinz, aka Dj Metatron, aka Prime Minister of Doom, aka Prince of Denmark, aka The Man With Too Many Names) isn’t the kind of name you’d expect for a project as sincere and beautiful as this one. Really it seems more in line with the sort of outlandish, experimental, and goofy stuff Traumprinz normally releases, not for a towering epic of ambient house. I mean a title like DJ Healer just conjures up so many images of pretentious beat wizards fellating themselves, it just can’t be anything but a joke… or is it? It’s sort of hard to turn off your irony-dar these days isn’t it, to talk about things like they aren’t some big joke. To pull off that mask of ironic detachment and open yourself to the world. But with Nothing 2 Lose, Traumpinz does that and so much more, opening back the layers caging his soul like they were paper thin.
Sprawling out over the albums massive running time, and 12 minute epics, DJ Healer captures elements of faith and purpose, and of kindness and openness. Unironically, and with a gentle hand. The soundscapes are intimate and soft, so quiet you can’t even really hear them on your car speakers. A bold statement as to how and when you should listen to this album, not for listening but for communion. Nothing 2 Lose is an almost biblical statement of purpose, DJ Healer has nothing to lose, and he’s giving everything he has to it. It being what might well be the most sonically sophisticated ambient house in over two decades.