Top 10 ambient records of all time

You hardly need a news report to tell you about the healing power of music.  Many studies over the years have confirmed our own personal experiences:  music can positively affect our moods.  Like purposely turning your mouth into a smile, you can immediately feel happier, more inspired and even relaxed when you listen to your favorite songs.

Any music will do, but doctors and healing professionals often recommend ambient music therapy for therapeutic purposes.  Can you just imagine getting this advice?  “Listen to these two CDs, and then call me in the morning!

The therapeutic qualities of music have been recognized since time of Plato and Aristotle!  Music therapy, according to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), is a well-established health profession similar to occupational therapy and physical therapy, that uses music to therapeutically address physical, psychological, cognitive, behavioral and social functioning.

Ambient music therapy can be used in many settings.  Some people put on the music to help them relax and fall asleep.  You might hear it during a massage or at a yoga class.  Therapists often recommend listening to new age music artists during meditation and deep breathing exercises.  Even fussy babies often fall asleep with ambient music therapy.

As for the music itself, I will just go out and quote Brian Eno, whom invented the genre and its idiosyncracies in 1978 on his album : Ambient 1 : music for airports : An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint.

So here is my TOP 10 AMBIENT records of all time :

1) Klf : Chill out

Chill out is an album released in 1990 by the English band Klf that has basically defined what chill out was about at that span as the concept of a chill-out room only became necessary within the rarified rave culture of the ’80s and ’90s, when club-goers needed a respite from Ecstacy-induced whirling and the random hugging of strangers.

It consists of 40 minutes supposedly excerpted from a 480 minutes of a live chill room performance. This was back when chill was unheard of (or at least cutting edge). Strangely enough, it’s at least 50% Orb, and was just made at the KLF’s studios. All I can say is that sounds like a mystical journey through the English countryside. If there’s only one ambient album you ever buy, buy this one too.

One of the initial works in the ambient house canon, Chill Out is the practically beatless soundtrack to a late-night journey along the Gulf Coast, and the track titles tells much of the story: “Six Hours to Louisiana, Black Coffee Going Cold,” “3AM Somewhere Out of Beaumont,” “Elvis on the Radio, Steel Guitar in My Soul.” Recorded live by Drummond and Cauty (with much unintended help from sample victims Elvis Presley, Fleetwood Mac, and the throat singers of Tüva), Chill Out consists largely of fragmented, heavily reverbed steel guitar, environmental sounds (birds, trains), occasional synth, and an angelic vocal chorus repeating the KLF’s own “Justified and Ancient” theme.

Say what you will about mind-expanding drugs, but without them, the world wouldn’t have Dark side of the moon or KLF’s Chill out. On Chill out, listeners are treated to a sonic collage that works as both fascinating listening and an aural blanket in which to wrap one self to counteract the affect of too many pinging synapses. Each song here is a hallucinatory vignette, filled with sounds that could have been collected from dreams. A sleepy sax floats over ocean noises and seagulls in “Melody From a Past Life Keeps Pulling Me Back”, while elsewhere are heavenly choirs, railroad ambience, Tibetan chants, stuttering synthesizers, a snippet of Elvis Presley singing “In the Ghetto”, sounds of thunder, and disembodied voices off the radio. Throughout, Drummond and Cauty display an instinctive talent for wallpaper music that’s truly diverting, making Chill Out one of the essential ambient albums.

KLF : Madrugada eterna / 1990 : Chill out / TVT Wax trax

2) The ORB : Adventures beyond the ultraworld

The Orb virtually invented the electronic genre known as ambient house, resurrecting slower, more soulful rhythms and providing a soundtrack for early-morning ravers once the clubs closed their doors. The group popularized the genre as well, by appearing on the British chart show Top of the Pops and hitting number one in the U.K. with the 1992 album U.F.Orb. Frontman Dr. Alex Paterson’s formula was quite simple: he slowed down the rhythms of classic Chicago house and added synthwork and effects inspired by ’70s ambient pioneers Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream. To make the whole a bit more listenable, as opposed to danceable, obscure vocal samples were looped, usually providing a theme for tracks which lacked singing. Much like the early Orb-related project recorded as Space, Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld simulates a journey through the outer realms — progressing from the soaring ambient-pop of “Little Fluffy Clouds” and the stoned “Back Side of the Moon” (a veiled Pink Floyd reference) to “Into the Fourth Dimension” and ending (after more than two hours) with the glorious live mix of “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain.” A varied cast of samples (Flash Gordon, space broadcasts, foreign-language whispers) and warm synthesizer tones provide a convincing bed for the midtempo house beats and occasionally dub-inflected ambience. With a clever balance of BBC Radiophonics Workshop soundtracks, 70s ambient meister-works by Eno, Hillage, and Floyd, plus the steady influence of Larry Heard’s sublime Chicago house, Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld is the album that defined the ambient house movement.

The first Orb album was also entirely new when it appeared : a low-key dance record, with echoes and swells more than up-front tunes, stoner-level dub bass, and all sorts of samples and sounds like seagulls, film clips, astronaut voices, bits of disco–fluttering through the mix like hallucinations. Essentially a techno album for tired dancers, it’s held up nicely over time, thanks to its intricate, dreamy sonics. Beyond the classic “Little Fluffy Clouds”–a set of interlocking synth hooks and loping percussion, held together by a cut-up sample of Rickie Lee Jones talking about the skies on Little fluffy clouds.

The orb : Little fluffy clouds / 1991 : Adventures beyond the ultraworld

3) Global Communication : 76 : 14

One of the most significant releases to cross the ambient currents of the 1990s, 76:14 places itself alongside benchmark electronic releases from Brian Eno, the Orb, and the Future Sound of London. This synth-dominated venture allows the armchair traveller to indulge in atmospheric wanderings which suggest virtual galactic discovery. But often enough the textured beats keep things grounded to dissuade the listener from being lost in the void. Vocal samples from nine languages also remind us of the international and diplomatic intentions of this otherwise electro-instrumental album. Strap in and enjoy the lift-off for all mankind.

Tempering the industrial tilt of their previous Reload material with slower, more graceful rhythms and an ear for melody unmatched by any in the downtempo crowd, Mark Pritchard and Tom Middleton produced the single best work in the ambient house canon. The tick-tock beats and tidal flair of “14:31″ nowadays called Ob-selon-mi-os is proof of the duo’s superb balance of beauty with a haunting quality more in line with Vangelis than Larry Heard (though both producers were heavy influences on the album). On several tracks the darkside appears to take over — the pinging ambience of “9:39″ — but for most of 76:14 the melodies and slow-moving rhythms chart a course toward the upbeat and positive.

Global communication : Ob selon mi os or know as 14:31 (Notice how naming songs after minutes makes the listener focus on the music instead of the namechecking…) released in 1994 on Dedicated : Album 76:14

4) Biosphere : Substrata

Biosphere’s Geir Jenssen hails from Tromso, Norway, a city 500 miles above the Arctic Circle. A founding member of quasi-new age Norwegian trio Bel Canto, Jenssen recorded a pair of albums with that group for the Belgian Crammed label before departing to record solo, first as Bleep, then as Biosphere. He released a number of Bleep singles through the late ’90s on Crammed subsidiary SSR, as well as the full-length The North Pole by Submarine, issued in 1990 and an acknowledged precursor of what became known as ambient techno. Fusing elements of composition derived from environmental experimentalists such as Brian Eno, Jon Hassell, and Walter Carlos with the rhythmic backbone of urban dance styles such as techno and acid house, ambient techno’s popularity would grow with the popularity of artists such as the KLF, Irresistible Force, Higher Intelligence Agency; and of course Biosphere.

Many people call Substrata the best ambient album ever, and I’d be hard pressed to disagree. Whilst it’s true that every ambient album takes you to a certain location, some do it better than others. This album is stunning. It was voted best ambient record of all time at Epsilon the current reference in ambient at Hyperreal. Interestingly, while many ambient artists have moved increasingly toward the integration of percussion and rhythmic sequencing, Substrata finds Jenssen almost completely abandoning the rhythmic elements of earlier works such as Patashnik and “Novelty Waves,” focusing on dark, subtly melodic, often piercingly melancholic soundscapes that flow seamlessly from one to the next. The album recalls the more abstract moments of Global Communication’s ambient works, as well as the glacial expanses of Jenssen’s 1996 collaboration with Higher Intelligence Agency, Polar Sequences, and is quite easily among his most accomplished, satisfying works to date.

Biosphere : Kobresia / 1997 : All saints / Touch reissue : 2001 (With Man with a movie camera OST)

5) Aphex twin : Selected ambient works 2

Selected Ambient Works, Vol. 2 is a more difficult and challenging album than Aphex Twin’s previous collection. The music is all texture; there are only the faintest traces of beats and forward movement. Instead, all of these untitled tracks are long, unsettling electronic soundscapes, alternately quiet and confrontational; although most of the music is rather subdued, it is never easy listening. While some listeners may find this double-disc album dull (both discs run over 70 minutes), many listeners will be intrigued and fascinated by the intricately detailed music of Aphex Twin.

British electronics wunderkind Richard James (alias Aphex Twin, AFX, Polygon Window, etc.) claims he heard the compositions on Selected Ambient Works, Volume II in lucid dreams. Like abstract paintings composed of shades of a single color, James’s resonant explorations of specific timbres linger close to a central idea on each cut, incorporating just enough variation to remain disturbing. While its predecessor, Selected Ambient Works ’85-’92 drew on seven years’ worth of material, the uniform quality of these untitled tracks, plus their judicious sequencing, suggests they were assembled over a shorter period. Clocking in at over 150 minutes, the double-disc set (if this is “selected,” how many hours of outtakes remain?) provides an exemplary introduction to the quieter facets of James’s expansive, idiosyncratic aesthetic. It’s much smoother and lower in frequency. About half the tracks have deep beats of some sort or another, and a few tracks have controlled freakiness. Genius is often close to craziness and RDJ is indeed proof of this.

Aphex Twin : Rhubarb / Selected ambient works vol. 2 / 1994 : Sire

6) Tetsu Inoue : Ambient otaku

Tetsu Inoue’s first solo work on Fax and a highly sought-after collectible. Some of the tracks bear a passing resemblance to Brian Eno’s early generative experiments (Discreet Music, Evening Star) but Inoue’s take is decidedly contemporary, with pillowy, mellifluous synth passages occasionally accented by subtle beats and lilting melodies. It is rather an affair of a minimalist ambient techno. What we have here is haunting and contemplative atmospherics mixed with field source recordings and sparse percussion. The slow building atmosphere leads to awesome soundscapes and dreamy textures. Minimalist, environmental and innovative sounds are only some of the adjectives worth describing this record. Do yourself a favour, lose yourself in space with ambient otaku.

Tetsu Inoue : Karmic Light / 1994 : FAX records

7) Brian Eno : Music for airports

Four subtle, slowly evolving pieces grace Eno’s first conscious effort at creating ambient music. The composer was in part striving to create music that approximated the effect of visual art. Like a fine painting, these evolving soundscapes don’t require constant involvement on the part of the listener. They can hang in the background and add to the atmosphere of the room, yet the music also rewards close attention with a sonic richness absent in standard types of background or easy-listening music. Eno continued to perfect the concept of ambient sound with 1978’s Music for Airports, a record designed to calm air passengers against fears of flying and the threat of crashes

This complex sound sculpture was created by Brian Eno in 1978 and was even installed for a while at the Marine Terminal of New York at LaGuardia Airport. The ambient-minimalist soundscape has been alternately described as background Muzak, a profoundly artificial musical milieu, and a groundbreaking studio creation. Eno designed Music for Airports from a few simple notes and the serial organisation of variable tape loops that didn’t quite match up. It’s a groundbreaking elaboration on the aural/spatial dimension that utilises silence, piano, synthesizer, female voices, and, most importantly, the technology of the studio. Eno’s theory of the “discreet music” he called ambient was far from the modern chill-out room: the idea was that it should function at very low volumes, unobtrusively coloring the atmosphere of a room.

Brian Eno : 2-1 / Ambient 1 : Music for airports / 1978 : EG Records – Polydor

8_) Pete Namlook : Air 1 & 2

Pete “Namlook” Kuhlmann is a whole continent. A dizzyingly prolific composer who’s steadily built up an entire industry around his Frankfurt-based Fax label, Namlook’s name is inextricably linked with the post-rave resurgence of ambient music, and many of his solo and collaborative recordings with the likes of Mixmaster Morris, Tetsu Inoue, Klaus Schulze, Bill Laswell, Richie Hawtin, Geir Jenssen, Dr. Atmo, Burhan Ocal, Atom Heart, Jonah Sharp, Charles Uzzell-Edwards, and David Moufang, among many others, number among the most lauded and influential in new ambient. Fax helped give shape to ambient’s new school by allowing the artists to freely experiment while making a living from their music. (Fax’s label structure confers the majority of its profits to its artists.) Countless Fax releases, particularly those dating from 1993 and 1994, are considered classics of contemporary electronic ambient, and while the label has suffered a certain degree of repetition in recent years, Fax remains one of the most important and influential German electronic music labels.

Air 1+2 forms one of the most evocative displays of ambient music ever recorded, and is arguably Namlook’s solo masterpiece. Air 1 is a set of gusty ambience with the appropriately titled tracks “Wind” and “Breeze,” plus a series of impressionistic female French vocal samples placed over lazy, brooding space music.

Now, whereas Air I is very dreamy, Air II is very Tribal. A little rain stick, a little digeridoo, a lot more transitional in nature. Both discs are strangely… sophisticated. I think it’s the woman who speaks French on them.

Pete Namlook : Wind / 1994 : Instinct records

9) Dreamfish : Dreamfish 1 / Fax / Rising high

Dreamfish, an exotic and richly textured album by Mixmaster Morris and Pete “Namlook” Kuhlman, both prolific in their own right, was the best ever selling album on the Rising High label, a label known mostly for its techno and early trance. A celebration of the sounds of ocean life, it’s alleged that Morris and Namlook locked themselves in a studio, took a heap of LSD and stayed up until they had finished this masterpiece.

I’ll always remember it best as being the ideal accompaniment to playing the first ever Tomb Raider game, with its glistening aquatic soundscapes and eerie, almost Kraftwerk-like distorted voices. But I have, most of all, been enormously surprised to find that my classical-loving mum is now a huge, recent convert to ambient music; rather like the rave-generation’s chill-out seekers, she says that she loves its eerily calming vibes. If a piece of music can unite rave children and classical lovers into one camp, then it must be something truly special. Dreamfish is a different form of fantasy by Pete Namlook and Mixmaster Morris ; strange bedfellows, indeed. Namlook takes a lot of risks in his choices of collaborators. Morris adds some deft touches to the sequences and atmospheres to create funky ambient. This is music to bathe in. Spend an hour listening to it in a flotation tank!

Dreamfish : Underwater / 1993 : Fax

10 ) ISHQ : Orchid /  Interchill / 2001

ISHQ are Matt Hillier and Jacqueline Kersley. Based in Cornwall UK, they’ve been making music since 1995 with skirts between Idm electronica, deep ambience and even has some newage overtones. Their emphasis seems to be on music as harmony. They have released a gorgeous track called Sol in 2001 on The Vancouver label Interchill which releases their more experimental soundscape music and other studio works.  Orchid is warm, lush and peaceful. You are absorbed in long drifting tracks with strong rhythms. The mixing is very intelligent, there are no random or superfluous sounds nor any boring moments. Finally, the music has a singular unique texture and atmosphere you won’t find elsewhere. The beautiful cover art describes this music really good. Ishq takes you to the most beautiful places you can imagine with this deep, hypnotic but still very sunny album.The music is spacy, but still very earthly with all the nature-samples. . A subtly evolving soundscape which glistens with delicate accents and various unseen entities,  birdsong and bells fading into an ongoing progession of smooth drones and deep musicality.

ISHQ : Sol / 2001 / Floatation compilation

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18 thoughts on “Top 10 ambient records of all time

  1. Pingback: World Wide News Flash
  2. These look great. I’ve heard most of these but the ones I hadn’t sound awesome. Wish I’d known about them sooner…thanks! :)

  3. You’ve got great insights about Entertainment, Arts, Dance, Chicago house music, electro, house music, deep soulful house, acid house music, house dancers, keep up the good work!

  4. Pingback: R.I.P. Pete Namlook : 1960-2012 « Funky Jeff
  5. I missed half of these first time round. Thank you big much funkyjeff77! Have you heard Robert Leiner “Visions of the Past”. Some great tracks on there! Cheers

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