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Alright. Now we can relax and enjoy some chill sounds.
Everyone needs to have at least one or two great ambient albums in their collection and yes, that includes people who wouldn’t otherwise listen to music like this. At the bottom of the page you’ll find a collection of albums from the early years of ambient music that you can come back to as your personal ambient library.
First off, what is ambient music?
Ambient music is unique in its focus on creating atmosphere and evoking feeling with its slow, soothing and repetitive tones. Often ambient music is used for meditation or relaxation. If you’ve ever been to a spa for a massage or watched a yoga DVD (side note highly recommend Power Yoga with Bryan Kest) you will have heard ambient music.
Ambient music is very focused, but softly gliding toward that goal. And the great thing about ambient music is that you never really know if you reach the goal, or what the goal really was, but you feel incredibly relaxed, at ease and utterly soothed by the – dare I say – mystical sounds. It’s all sounds, rarely if ever voices. There certainly aren’t any lyrics. It’s about the absence of humanity, almost. Ambient music takes place in the sky, in the water, the trees, the flames. Humans certainly exist within it, but you get the sense of being rather alone while listening to ambient music. Take a look at this guy, lost in the ambient sounds of Music For Airports by Brian Eno.
Ambient music is interesting in that it does not follow any traditional music-making sort of formula. We mean, by this, that ambient music does not necessarily tell a story or use multiple notes in the way of melody or harmony (although it can be densely layered if its creator wishes it to be).
Often, there may be one to a few notes that are just repeated throughout the songs (which are, of course, usually rather lengthy) but there are a number of instruments you will come upon while listening including the flute, bells and singing bowls, piano and string instruments. Especially the harp. So glorious!
A really neat way to explain or look at ambient music is this: you can listen or ignore it quite equally. It does not require fully attentive listening, but certainly engages those enveloped by it. It provides…ambience. Not to be confused with the word ambiance, which is referring more to the mood or setting of a physical environment. You could say that ambient music enhances ambiance. Weird, but true.
The beginnings of ambient music
So when did all this begin? You know it had to have come from synthesizers! And those were only really available to the public by the late 1960s, early 1970s.
The instrument was being produced more frequently and offered at more affordable prices, so many musicians began to incorporate the synthesizer into their work.
We hear a lot of it in prog rock from the late 1960s onward, but of course, some musicians were so infatuated by the synthesizer that they explored it fully and began to make music solely with it.
Brian Eno is well known for putting out the first ambient album, entitled Ambient 1: Music for Airports, but ambient music was being created in Jamaica and Japan in addition to the United Kingdom.
Eno himself stated that the synthesizer is so well-loved because it is such a new instrument without any rules about how to play it and the possibilities are endless.
And this was all rather developing from an early 1900s music style called “furniture music” that one could play while entertaining guests for dinner, which served to provide atmosphere and background noise without taking full attention.
It died off a bit in the early 1980s, but by the end of the decade and into the 1990s it had rather a cult following with the popularity of techno music and the like. These days, ambient music is very popular. You will notice a lot of ambience in drone music and New Age sounds, using the same structure with sustained, repetitive sounds.
You will notice several German artists on this list. In the 1960s, there developed a genre of music called krautrock, which translates to cosmic music, and drew upon psychedelic rock as well as minimalism and jazz improvisation. The very first album to be categorized solely as ambient was Brian Eno’s Music for Airports in 1978, but there were innumerable ambient albums created in years prior. For that reason, we have included them also on our list.
So, without further ado, though the ado has been very fun indeed, let’s look at some of the earliest ambient artists – the very founders of this beautimous genre – and listen to their greatest albums!
1. Brian Eno – Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978)
Of course, ambient music existed before this album, released in 1978. However, this is his best known work and first album to ever be labeled “ambient music.” Upon listening you will hear piano keys that melt into synthesized soft sounds, flutes and the underlying, ever-present drone. Initially this album was created to act as a sound installation. Halfway through we hear the synthesizer really coming through, as though it turns entirely electronic at midpoint. He released three other ambient albums, this being the first in the series, although he was hinting at it on previous album but had just never gone “full ambient” (I just made that term up).
2. Tangerine Dream – Zeit (1972)
This album is technically categorized as “space music” or “electronica” but you can bet it’s ambient. Coming from Germany, Tangerine Dream released their album Zeit in 1972, fresh after the Cold War and Space Race. And pictured right on the front is an eclipse. You’ll hear all kinds of beautiful alien sounds on this one coming from guitars, synthesizers, cellos and symbols evoking the whistling of comets and theremins.
3. Popol Vuh – Affenstunde (1970)
There are a few German artists on this list. Do Germans really dig ambience or do we just really dig German artists? This avant-garde group took its name from Quiche language to mean “book of the people” or “meeting place.” Their first album title Affenstunde translates to Monkey Hour, or Hour of the Monkey, in which an ape becomes a human being. This album was nothing like anything people had heard before it. The film Planet of the Apes had been released in 1968 delving into themes of the Cold War, animal rights and racial issues. The texturing of space and sensation blew people’s minds and for this reason, it is on our list.
4. Ash Ra Temple – Schwingungen (1972)
Well pardon me for asserting there are no vocals in ambient music and then going ahead and adding a damn album with vocals. Guess what? This album also has drums. Fight me! I’m just trying to give you a big scope of what the early genre was all about; a lot of it is derived from krautrock albums like this one. It is divided into three parts: Light: Look at Your Sun; Darkness: Flowers Must Die; Suche Und Liebe (we’ll let you google-translate that for poignancy).
5. Kraftwerk – Trans-Europe Express (1977)
Kraftwerk! If you don’t know Kraftwerk, are you even alive? We’ll give you three guesses where they’re from. Their music is a little more melodic and formulaic than others on this list, but their music is rather ambient with soft vocals. They give a theatrical experience to the viewer. The members dress up in uniform (usually red shirts with black pants) and are made up to look like androids. Their music is far more robotic than any other on this list, but it’s all done on synthesizers and provides that exact experience of atmosphere where, like we (and Brian Eno) mentioned earlier, the music can be equally enjoyed or ignored without any intrusion upon the listener. They are surreal, they are profound, they are just a little bit odd and we love them.
6. King Tubby – Presents The Roots of Dub (1975)
King Tubby was a brilliant sound engineer, working in the 1960s and 70s, but still to this day is one of the most important figures in Jamaican music. His work as a sound engineer influenced the beginnings of the dub scene. Dub, of course, is a subgenre of reggae made of remixes and samples blended together. Tubby was a genius at this, likely stemming from his work stabilizing electrical currents for the island. He also built amplifiers for sound systems and ran an electrical repair shop. Due to this deep knowledge of the technical workings of sound, he pioneered a new way for music to be produced and enjoyed. He invented a sound system that laid reverb on the crowd: something unprecedented at the time. This album is my personal favourite of the list because it’s got a rhythm section and I’d put this on any time, whereas the others I would use for a specific mood or environment. I find this album the most calming of them all.
7. Isao Tomita – Snowflakes Are Dancing (1974)
Isao Tomita worked in music from 1950 right up to his death in 2016 at 84 years of age. Professionally, he composed music for television and film, and as artists will, explored the possibilities of what he could create. In the late 1960s he was transfixed by the power of the synthesizer and built a home studio where he became one of the pioneers of electronic and space music. One of his most valued synthesizer features was its ability to imitate other instruments. He even took impressionist paintings by Claude Debussy and translated them to synthesizer music on an album called Snowflakes Are Dancing. In his work you’ll hear a lot of reverberation, string simulation and synthesized orchestral sounds and, quite literally, bells and whistles – all done on the synthesizer. This album was so meticulously produced, taking 14 months total to create and finalize.
May your wishes be granted,