While searching through the troves of avant-garde music released in any year, it’s become a ritual of mine to ask myself “could I convince someone that this album is ambient music?”. It’s my way of wrangling with, and coming to understand a genre space which seems less and less certain each year. The question of “is this ambient music?” seemed to me to be too constrained by simplistic or overly reductive rules within my own schema of the space. And most importantly, it was much too exclusionary. Instead it became more productive to start from the place of the conclusion, and to try to reasonably convince someone of it’s existence. Ambient became less about holistically following rules or presenting qualities rigorously and more about expressing the universal feelings of ambient and achieving a balance between excursions in and out of that.
In that mindset the porous and genre-curious entries which dominate this list make sense, as something which can be shared and collectively seen as ambient without ever having to define or restrict a set of musicians who have become more and more disenfranchised with consistency.
10ana roxanne – ~~~
Some debut releases feel like fully formed portraits of an artist’s vision, or like a great artistic voice that’s still inside it’s flower bud, waiting for circumstance to allow it’s bloom. Ana’s debut album is nothing so explicit and self serving. It is instead a celebration of creativity. There’s nothing set in stone, and no future written here, just a collection of esoteric and unique songs existing in almost completely different worlds.
The goofy plinks and calming narration of “Slowness” feels unhindered by the rainy dread of the album’s next track. It is a song isolated in space. A collage thrown onto a wall to show the great aspirations and reaches of an artist working through something important. Where so many ambient pop albums feel so tied to singular ideas and sounds that they become monotonous and struggling to their own ‘popness’, this feels like an actual pop album brought into an ambient world. Jumping erratically between new skins and new feelings. Shedding the costumes of one world to find new facets of an artist in the next. The sense of immediacy and reckless creativity is apparent in the little cracks and pop of clips and noises heavily altered and rearranged. The simple defects of the immediate.
9Hania Rani – Esja
Esja is an album constructed with ancient parts, striving for something done so many times before that I often dismiss albums like this out of hand. And yet, and yet…
The pouring melodies of Glass pull and pull, splaying out over twinkles and snaps so quiet they feel as if they must be in the few inches of air outside your ears, or else you could never hear something so fragile. Her sense for tiny melodic gestures and quiet soundscaping make for one of the most intimate and striking modern classical projects in a sea of such things. For a debut solo album, it feels posed to tell a much grander story yet unread. If Hania can find the epic and arresting in the minute and benign, then there is a world of sound and minutiae which is waiting to be spun in her loom. Along with the beautiful and equivalently minimalistic Mi, recorded as part of her band Teskno, this is the sound of an artistlanding at a run.
8Smany – To Lie Latent
Smany is ambient pop at its compositional apex. Melodic and rich, simplistic and emotive.
Reworking a bunch of old songs for a “new” album Smany has stumbled backwards into a masterpiece. Searching through her past catalog to find songs which hadn’t managed to find their feet, but had some great unrevealed quality. Sonically composed of the rich blue and white hues that take up the cover To Lie Latent perfectly balances the distance and shape of pop with the hugging intimacy of ambient. A patient and soothing experience propped up by Smany’s fragile voice and her knack for perpetual melodic release. It orbits between glitchy strings and electronics which draw heavily from artists like Dntel and Maison Book Girl while primarily drawing on cloistering and motherly ambient pop. Cokiyu for the 2010s.
It’s an album that constantly feels as if its pulling baggage of your shoulders you hadn’t even realized was there, and then reveling in the evaporation of the contents within.
7Caretaker – Everywhere at the end of time
The first time I heard Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World I remember feeling a dread in my gut. This unshakeable feeling that something was wrong, that I wasn’t well and that I wasn’t supposed to be here. It was the cloying feeling of life upending and memories melting around you. With time I began to see the trees for the forest, and I could see the elements of what Leyland Kirby was doing, enough to make it feel less dreadful. And for years I had something to come back to and feel a kind of warm and comforting dread. When eventually a half decade later Caretaker took on those sounds’ darkest fringes to express and to codify the sounds of memory loss and dementia it felt scary again.
And three years later, it still is. Though let me admit to you that I haven’t actually listened to the full 6 hour behemoth above as much as I’ve listened to each section as it has dropped, and honestly, I’m not sure the immense runtime is necessary. The last two hours? Some of the most genius ambient music ever constructed and a harrowing and unpleasant place to leave us. The first 4 hours of warm-up? A little bit hard to pull through as a contiguous experience.
6Triad God – Triad
Far and away the most genre-bending album on this list Triad God is an acquired, and perhaps unattainable for some, taste. It’s intersections at first appear like an MC Esher painting connecting planes and dimensions where no such connections could actually exist. With patience and the right vantage point though, you can find the necessary placement required to comprehend the geometry of the music.
Combining elements of cloud rap, spoken word, ambient, ambient pop, experimental R&B and UK electronics, it follows from, but also develops upon, his shaky debut. Moving into a more concise and consistent style. The ambient sections and outros are still a bizarre turn from the vocal modulation and minimalistic beats of the choruses. And the spoken word/hip-hop avant-garde aspirations of the verses are still very singular, but with an album-wide consistency it no longer come across as a gimmick. Instead songs like “Babe Don’t Go” and “Chinese New Year” reveal an improbable and necessary set of moments and songwriting flourishes that could only exist in this highly specific soundscape. The sly machismo of the rapping on “Gway Lo” crashes the against fragile descending melodies, and it is like yelling at the rain, capturing an impossibly intricate emotional state in glass.
5Nivhek – After It’s Own Death
The use of reverb in ambient music to create incidental drone music has been a defining trend of ambient for almost two decades now. It’s always been a way of nicely connecting the two genres in a way that felt natural and appreciably blurry and pleasant. Nivhek is Liz Harris’ definitive statement on the idea, taking it to such extremes that it’s confrontational. A Grouper album played from the backside of an airplane hanger in the rain, and then at once, the whole building shrinks and contracts and you can hear the sound of her breath leaning over you, out-of-sync and dreadful, scared and angry. The sound of metallic drums and and blasts of droning noise interspersed among the death-wish bliss.
Listening to it, it feels like an album Liz would have released under her Grouper alias a decade ago. Something frightening and bizzare, experimenting with the very form of ambient music. Now that she has changed her musical directions towards an ambient piano based singer-songwriter through that alias, this Nivhek world we see now feels like an odd message from the past. Like a Liz who isn’t really here, speaking to us through the looking glass from a world where things are not well. A warning about the dread we feel looming over us.
4Meitei – Komachi
Komachi works from a place of formal sophistication. Blurring lines between ambient sub-genres, electronic flirtations, and textural folk music through the perfecting lens of structure. Songs build and coalesce, split apart and fractalize, empty and become full again. In response to one of the most promising debuts made in avant-garde/ambient last year, 怪談 (Kwaidan), Meitei has hunkered down to really define the idea of what he was doing, and parse out what exactly that meant in terms of construction. The way synthetic warbles blend into wooden claps and open strums is composed and measured, intended from the beginning. The emotional conveyance of synthetic memories and tactile history blurring come across crystalline and unhindered. When inevitably the songs’ oblong melodies and wavering sounds evoke his Japan in duality concept, it’s simply a delivery of the premise which was so carefully fostered.
3Fennesz – Agora
Fennesz’s fourth solo album Venice has lagged a bit in the popular consciousness compared to his highly vaulted Endless Summer, but it’s Fennesz album I think best represents the glitch and ambient music of the 21st century. It has a quality to it’s tone and austerity that feels much more in tune with the world around it, and the things that were yet to come. Perhaps it was the experience of 9/11 falling between them, or a reaction to the reaction. The general trend to gravitate towards the joyful power of Endless Summer feels almost counter-trend, like an escape from reality into something unlike the world as we see it. Sure the blissed-out party in the sun being refracted through the memories of a lifetime is certainly a singular experience, but Venice is the sound of your life cracking and contorting, unsure and concerned. It was the sound of experimental music to come.
Agora is the sound of the future honed in on the present. Where Venice hinted at unpleasant facts in discordant drones bursting in through his glitchy shimmers, Agora is like ambient made out of the melodic ideas of ominous post-rock. It pulls back and forth in tight ambient grooves that swell and rise over massive runtimes, building to monumental releases and expansive soundstages. It’s optimistic in the face of great sadness, but sad in the very marrow of its bones.
2Kin Leonn – Commune
Kin’s debut album Commune, released early this year through Darla Records, is an experience of culture and synesthesia. The rustic painterly greys of it’s cover, and the images of the music itself. Grainy Singapore streets and longing nights cast in synthetic light. Images which are true to both the nature of Singapore and of London, but also to the fantasies, clinging to an emotional idea of what the cities are in our minds. Drawing parallels between London’s underground experimental scene and the effervescent films of Eric Khoo as concrete objects and certainties, but also as abstractions. A gliding between cinematic modern classical, and the knocking claustrophobia of Boiler Room beats. The music is a wonder, something impressionist and decadent that never feels over-composed or artificial, despite it’s driving rhythms and effected string patterns.
As much as Commune feels like prescient music, intersecting the growing worlds of outsider electronic and the post-Winged Victory For The Sullen modern classical, it also feels wholly contained within itself. It is an evocation of a specific space which, despite similarities to existing ones, never fails throughout its entire tracklist to feel singular. Despite it’s early-bird digital release in 2018, this physical release by Darla Records, fitting the album’s tangible sense of place, is it’s definitive moment.
1Saba Alizadeh – Scattered Memories
Anyone interested in the world of experimental Iranian music would do well to listen to Girih: Iranian Sound Artists Volumes I – IV. It’s an overstuffed banquet of genius and thoughtful electroacoustic, drone, ambient, and general avant-garde. Towards the end of the compilation you’ll find a track by Saba Alizadeh. It is a rather unassuming little thing in the overall scheme of the project. Working with an interesting mix of electroacoustic and dark ambient it leaves a faint impression if not particularly notable on such a compilation. Tasked with picking an artist on the compilation who would make something essential and definitive of that scene, few would probably have picked him. The album which has followed though, is something of a watershed for electroacoustic and ambient.
Scattered Memories is so rich in world and atmosphere that it feels available and open to anyone. So rarely in ambient music do I feel like I could recommend albums to people uninterested in the space. The dread of “Blood City”, the beautiful swashes of color in the wind throughout “Dream”, or the existential spinning sensation of “Would You Remember Me”, it feels so thoroughly beyond genre and time. Taking wholesale from both contemporary techniques and Iran’s timeless musical heritage, it escapes the very bounds of it’s conception and stretches backwards and forwards infinitely. I could imagine the sounds of “Elegy for Water” shimmering from deep within a well, dug before man could remember, and enjoyed long after us. The rustling sounds of earth and texture pushed away by something ancient and powerful, erupting into their cracks and definciences.
Saba Alizadeh so thoroughly escapes obvious structure or planning that the album’s best evokes in crystal clear imagery the raw elements and base states of being in his world.