Ambient (on eMusic & Bandcamp)

Someone recently posted a question about what makes “good” or “bad” ambient music, and I expect some of the enthusiasts here might like to weigh in. 

My comment:  Rather than "good or bad," which I agree is almost entirely subjective, I'm more interested in approaching objective measures of what is or is not ambient music. I think a growing number of people in the digital age throw the term around haphazardly to refer to anything electronic that's just downtempo or non-intrusive. Plenty of newbies conflate ambient w/ a term I despise, "chill-out music." I personally draw the line in the sand and say that if there's a beat, it's not ambient. And is the briefly fashionable, slightly ominous subgenre of "illbient" included or not? I'm open to more learned opinions, since some of my favorite ambient albums and "songs" do break my own rules. I guess I'm less fond of the pure drones w/ no discernible melody.

I’d furthermore add that I think lyrics of any kind are a hard disqualifier also.  This isn’t to say there can’t be human voices, but I don’t think they can sing any words.  Non-instrumental ambient seems to me a contradiction in terms. (though do check out the excellent Plafond 6 album for an example of vocal-intensive near ambience 

I strongly believe that there should be room within the “big tent” of ambient to include overlap with new classical and experimental music.  I’m not going to touch the New Age issue, and easy listening needs to stay in the elevator.

Talking functionality, since I’m usually relaxed already, I don’t tend to put ambient music on to relax, which I gather may be the most common “use” for this kind of non-intrusive music.  I’m quite a bit more likely to reach for some illbient or a dronescape to inject just the right amount of dread in my day.  I also worry about reading to ambient music, especially if it’s academic reading or otherwise something I’m reading for work, b/c it has a strong soporific effect on me. 

Here’s what I’ve found on eMusic and Bandcamp in the last half year or so, in the approximate order of preference.  Actual dronescapes (and yes, I do think there’s a difference) still to come once I have enough to make a list.

1. “Land Patterns” - The World on Higher Downs (2007).  It’s old, I’m shocked it’s on eMu—let alone at a bargain $3.49—, but I’d put it right up there with Global Communication’s “76:14” as my all-time favorite ambient album.  Granted, it pushes right up to the line where something is either too loud or otherwise engaging.  There is usually a beat of sorts, but it’s buried deep in the mix and is never what is most prominent in any of these quite atmospheric, ethereal songs.  Just the fact that they are individual, identifiable songs is a plus in my book.  A song like “Alpine Low” adds a little tension with its strings, but it’s a mighty fine song that shouldn’t disqualify the album.  I want to believe these aren’t just sampled instruments, but I don’t know.  Probably not many more albums with guitars or drums on this list.

2. “Low Power” - H.Takahashi (2018).  Favoring tones over drones and entirely free of percussive or non-electronic sounds, this is a short album, but duly, universally acclaimed.  The only downside might be that the loops are a little shorter and so can seem more repetitive, not that it’s probably intended for such scrutiny.

3.  “霧が晴れたら” - Rhucle (2019).  Quite a large discography to choose from, with some including this one for 99 cents.  This has the sound of wind chimes or something wooden over a very soft tone, with washes of other sounds, sometimes actual rain or soft clattering and pops.  Very calm.

4. “Endless City/Concrete Garden” - Plumbline & Roger Eno (2013).  This comes close to being too busy to be ambient, with piano melodies paired with percussion on the opening track perilously close to a beat.  The second track is also on a trajectory and going places where the piano leads it—clearly it’s not enough for them to work solely in unchanging loops.  By the strings of the third track, one already has experienced enough sonic variety to span an average ambient album, but there’s plenty more yet to come.  I think tracks like “Ulterior Motives” and “The Artificial Cat” actually cross the line and are no longer ambient, but I appreciate the element of experimentation in them.  The album as a whole is well within bounds.  I’d never heard of Plumbline and only heard 1985’s “Voices” in the past few years, finding it underrated and a departure point for a much larger discography than I had expected.  I usually have a very low tolerance for vocals in ambient and otherwise non-intrusive music, especially from the mid-1980s (thanks, Robert Wyatt!), but found nothing to complain about after the warning of its title.  This one’s completely instrumental other than a story in French on the last track.

5. “Eitt” - Jon Olafsson & Futuregrapher (2015).  This album for me epitomizes the ambient piano, though I don’t know how it manages to float like this on the open sea.  Usually just a few tones are played or repeated and left to resonate on the surface of a quiet, near-constant drone.  At times the leash comes off and the piano sequences are allowed to scamper a bit.  While that might not sound very interesting, as always somewhat the point, everything feels very deliberate and done with clear artistry that elevates this far above mere “relaxation” music.

6. “Himmelbjerg” - Gron (2015).  Two tracks of about ten minutes each lead me in format to imagine what it would have been like if ambient music had existed in the era of the single and B-side on vinyl.  This is more of a long EP, but I prefer the A-side, a series twinklings over a shifting drone that reminds me of ocean waves advancing and receding.  The B-side has more of a swirling foundation with a persistent, soft beep.  If one listens carefully, the effect can be disconcerting rather than mind-clearing, but there’s a shift midway that calms everything down.  99 cents or NYP.

On other lists:   “Ten Thousand Things” - Snufmumriko (2014).  “Music for Destroyed Orchestra” - Andy Fosberry. (2018).  “Kafkudengun” - Miguel Conejeros (2016).  “By the Sea” - Shuta Yasukochi. 2019.  “Faded Clothes” - Seki Takashi. 2019. 

Bandcamp Only:  “4” - Boozoo Bajou (2014).  I think I bought this on eMusic in the good-old days, and it’s easily my favorite ambient album of the 2010s, quite different from their other albums (which are also very nice but not ambient).  I used it as the soundtrack to a very relaxed and enjoyable massage party.

“Riceboy Sleeps” - Jónsi & Alex (2009).  I’m less sure that this is my favorite ambient album of the 2000s, but it’s up there.

“Paper Streets” - Sven Laux (2017).  This album evokes the soaring peaks of its cover art with long strokes of sound.  It’s not so much relaxing as cinematic and orchestral, with Andy Fosberry’s 2018 album a good point of comparison.  “Out of the Blue” has a particularly nice outro, and the title track suggests some kind of horrible misery or the process of trying to complete an impossible task.  NYP.  

“Storm Debris” - Outer Nothingness (2015).  The loops here remind me of one of my favorite albums by Hoedh.  It’s very repetitive but mesmerizingly so.  NYP.  

“A Thousand Harmonies in Silence” - Bedroom (2020).  An album not only calm but calming, the drones and guitars here actually seem to be in slow-motion conversation with each other rather than just layered and looped.  “Penelope’s Song” is what so many solo piano artists wish they could be.  The label Past Inside the Present is highly recommended for inexpensive ambient music.

eMusic still has several dedicated ambient labels worth mentioning also.  My favorites are Ancient Language, Hundred Acre, It’s a Pleasure, Stillpoint, LANTERN, Moller, ROHS!, 3rd and Debut, Adx, Beacon Sound, I S L A, Line, and White Paddy Mountain.  

Also worth a listen are Personal Escape, Shimmering Moods, SPEKK, Moodgadget, Romtid Musikk, Spiritech, Instinct, Odd John, ZBM, Magneto Nature, Tehnofonika, 

eMusic is rife w/ examples of mislabeling music “ambient” when it’s actually just downtempo electronica and actually has a lot under a highly questionable style of “Ambient/Instrumental.”  I don’t think remedying this is a high priority for them.  Entire labels can also get it wrong, IMO, such as Ambient Wave (mainly electronica), Maisonneuve (mostly easy listening), Skylar (paired w/ hip-hop singles), Sprix (paired w/ heavy metal?!), Supertive AB (electronica), Corvus (starts ambient but didn’t sample long enough to know whether songs become metal), High Sound (hip-hop beats), LoveZone (soft trance), or Treadways (trance).

I think this is the first list on which Bandcamp had every album in the eMusic section.  Three quiet cheers for the spread of ambient music.

Rather than reposting repeatedly, here’s my lists of what’s left on eMusic: 

& by my evaluation

& by genre 


  • edited September 2020
    I just thought that I would mention Nils Frahm.
    - Ambient with an edge ?
    From Spaces (2013)
  • I definitely like what I've heard of NF...what's your opinion on how much edge is allowed before giving up claims to ambience?
  • omnifoo said:
    I definitely like what I've heard of NF...what's your opinion on how much edge is allowed before giving up claims to ambience?
    On a scale from 1 to 10 ? ;)
  • I'd rate NF a solid 7, but if you're referring to ambient edge I'll need a full, multi-page explanation of the scale  :p
  • edited September 2020
    Oh boy, this is up my street and I have no time.
    "Low Power" is one I have enjoyed a lot. Eitt is nice too. I tried hard with Global Communication - even bought the CD - after reading that it was considered a classic, but it never quite took with me.
    Totally agree that ambient and downtempo should be different things. I think the distinction between "ambient" and "new age" is often a real one too. And I agree about distinguishing things that have a beat from things that do not. I keep considering retagging my library to distinguish "ambient," "microsound,"  "field recording," and "drone" but it would take forever and the boundary there is mushy too. (Pet peeve: folk doing a "remix" of an ambient track I like and adding a 4/4 thud.)
    There's a boatload of good stuff on bandcamp; for now I'll just plug Porya Hatami and Federico Durand one more time. I am enjoying Gallery Six lately.
    Funny, I have a massive ambient collection and every release by Nils Frahm, and have never thought of Nils Frahm as "ambient". I can see the logic, it just never struck me as fitting there. (And his concerts are certainly not - they often blow the doors off. When I saw him in Chicago be made the building visibly vibrate.)
  • Sorry to catch you at a busy time.  My school year online is less leisurely than usual.  

    All around agreement w/ you, and you're definitely the foremost expert on ambient I "know".  Also the only one I know who doesn't bow at the altar of GC; I suppose everyone will do so for classics that don't resonate personally.  I'd almost say the majority of rock and electronic classics for me I tend to give (grudging) respect but do not usually feel like listening to.  I will look into your suggestions and had never heard of "microsound" before.

    I think it falls to Brighternow to defend NF from an ambient standpoint, as I think it's a stretch, too.  

  • omnifoo said:
    I think it falls to Brighternow to defend NF from an ambient standpoint, as I think it's a stretch, too. 
    ^^ Probably . . . :)

    released August 22, 2020
    Imens Vi Stadig Findes is the second compilation by FUSEM. 15 carefully selected works by the most talented artists in Danish ambient music. The title translates to "While We Still Exist".
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