A great ambient album can provide a space to step into, or make the trees on your morning walk seem a little taller and the light a little more vivid or the world seem a little more like a dream.
When Brian Eno set the rules for the genre in 1978 with Music for Airports and the subsequent Ambient series, ambient music was simpler; he defined it as "as ignorable as it is interesting."
Forty years later, ambient can mean anything from slow-moving tape loops to earsplitting Ampex noise. Hell, St. Vincent's Masseduction is even classified as "ambient pop" on Wikipedia. Music that gets slapped with the genre tag isn't always ignorable -- or interesting, for that matter. And the music that still hews to Eno's hoary old adages isn't always ambient, either. The swirling, stoned dub techno tracks of Topdown Dialectic and the soupy digital jazz of Sam Wilkes are a lot closer to one another than what you'd hear in most dance or jazz clubs.
In a way, ambient is a center of gravity towards which all music is attracted in 2018. The rise of streaming and curated playlists means it's easier to non-committally enjoy music than ever before. Mainstream pop and rock are mellower than they've been since the stoned '60s. Even Spotify's RapCaviar playlist is sort of ambient. It's worth wondering in 2018 whether ambient music still even has a place when one can simply find a Spotify playlist for a fix of unobtrusive drift music.
But a great ambient album can still provide a space to step into, or make the trees on your morning walk seem a little taller and the light a little more vivid or the world seem a little more like a dream. The ten albums on this list come from disparate scenes and sources -- bloghaus vets, new age gurus, crusty New York art weirdos, smooth L.A. session cats -- but all offer a similar listening experience, one as conducive for falling asleep to as for wandering around and reveling in the mundane. Here are PopMatters' Best Ambient and Instrumental Albums of 2018. --Daniel Bromfield
10. Simian Mobile Disco - Murmurations (Wichita)
It may seem odd to start out a list of the best ambient and instrumental albums of 2018 with a record that is filled to the brim with vocals and lyrics, but for anyone paying attention to former dance club impresarios James Shaw and Jas Ford of Simian Mobile Disco, they have come a long way since their late-2000s debut in the post-Europop landscape. In full collaboration with the Deep Throat Choir, Simian Mobile Disco's sixth full-length is a stunning gem that alternates between lovely ambient works drenched in waves of vocals to more straightforward drum-machine-driven soundscapes. Even when things go a little more traditionally dance or the Deep Throat Choir's lyrics are directly in front of you, Murmurations' magic is that it still manages to pull all these threads together, making an album that puts you in a very specific headspace but one that is as thrilling as it is relaxing, as daring as it is familiar. It's simply a must-hear record for fans of the band, fans of electronic music, and fans of losing your headspace in an album over and over again. - Evan Sawdey
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9. Mansur Brown - Shiroi (Black Focus)
When Yussef Kamaal's LP Black Focus dropped in late 2016, fans of jazz and funk alike were blown away by what they heard: a kinetic fusion of Miles Davis' On the Corner experiments mixed with more contemporary styles and structure (to say nothing of the great use of synths throughout). One of the highlights from the record was the incredible guitar work of Mansur Brown, a 21-year-old prodigy who showed talent well beyond his years. What's even more remarkable than his young age? His incredible debut album, Shiroi. Looping simple phrases in with quick drum work and definite sense of self, this is the perfect kind of album to introduce casual jazz observers to what's going on in the now while also soundtracking any nighttime drive through a city you will ever take, the kind where you see streetlights stretch their forms against the curve of your windshield and you sit back and wonder what it all means. Yes, it's that kind of record: driving, dramatic, compelling, and cool all at the same time. - Evan Sawdey
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8. M. Geddes Gengras - Light Pipe (Room40)
If you're an ambient artist that's about to put out a double-disc set of music, you better have the chops to back it up, lest your listeners fall asleep in your soundscapes. Thankfully, M. Geddes Gengras is not amateur, and Light Pipe is his brilliant, expansive tenth solo effort. While some may recognize him for his more dance-minded moniker Personable, there is a gravity that runs through Light Pipe's extensive runtime that makes it stand out from so many other ambient titles, due in part to the fact that some of these songs stretch out well past the 20-minute mark, allowing him to fully explore a droned-out groove without fear of having to edit himself short. "irwin" trembles with cinematic anticipation, while "water study" stacks literal waves of synth washes across each other, creating slow-motion ripples of sound that move between audio channels. Gengras' style may be somewhat abrasive to some, but those willing to invest over two hours of their time into Light Pipe's expansive world will be handsomely rewarded. - Evan Sawdey
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7. Topdown Dialectic - Topdown Dialectic (Peak Oil)
A liquid by definition takes the form of its container, and that the eight aqueous, sloshing tracks on Topdown Dialectic's debut all cut off after precisely five minutes long suggests that they could go on for six or ten or 30 minutes if they wanted. Dub techno, the turn-of-the-millennium style in which the mysterious outfit traffics, is synonymous with endless, stoned drift; indeed Topdown Dialectic slips by unobtrusively enough to make for great morning-commute listening. But Topdown's restraint and razor-sharp focus means this weightless music sounds fearsome and formidable. Dub techno is a conservative genre, but far from just repurposing bits of old Basic Channel tracks, Topdown Dialectic can sound like Teutonic laptop scientists, cheeky breakbeat revivalists or club-clobbering party-starters when they want -- all while maintaining the corroded, cloudy feeling that makes this music so interesting in the first place. - Daniel Bromfield
6. Mary Lattimore - Hundreds of Days (Ghostly International)
Mary Lattimore's Hundreds of Days revels in the harp's spiritual qualities: not only in its connotations of angels and paradise and Alice Coltrane but in its potential as an instrument one can zone out on, plucking away blindly and losing oneself. It's no wonder Kurt Vile commissioned her to play on his slacker odyssey Bottle It In, which sits at a similar intersection of folk and ambient psychedelia. Once Lattimore gets going she really gets going, following her fingers deeper into pieces that drift into double-digit runtimes and seamlessly merge the sound of her instrument with all sorts of fluttering electronics, plus some new sounds including her own voice. The sheer size of Lattimore's harp means she can often squeeze only herself and the instrument into her car in tour, but hearing Hundreds of Days it's easy to imagine Lattimore sitting at her harp and drifting Vanessa Carlton-style deeper into some enchanted wood. - Daniel Bromfield
5. Warmth - Parallel (Archives)
Spanish producer Agustin Mena started out making dub techno before eliminating all aspects of his sound except distant, mile-wide chords. It's hard to think of music more purely ambient than Mena's most recent three albums as Warmth: 2016's Essay, 2017's Home, and the best of the bunch, this year's Parallel. Percussion is nonexistent, the textures are uniform, and chord changes are a rare luxury. But this is no mere wallpaper music, nor is it healing-shop new age meant to stupefy us into a brainless trance. Instead, it revels in rich emotional shading, and while some of his earlier work could be fluffy, there's an eerie ambiguity to these slow-moving synth pads, as if we're experiencing the calm before a storm. Certainly Mena masters the shoegaze effect of suggesting something massive and potentially dangerous kept at bay by thick walls of sound. This is music that seduces us with beauty while keeping us just slightly on edge. - Daniel Bromfield
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4. Lubomyr Melnyk - Fallen Trees (Erased Tapes)
Approaching his 70th birthday, Lubomyr Melnyk is no doubt just as surprised as anyone by his success. Born in Germany to Ukranian parents before spending most of his time studying in Canada, Melynk has always stuck out in the world of contemporary compositions due to his love of "continuous" music, where he holds down a piano's sustain pedal to get certain notes to overlap and bleed into each other, in effect creating a new note that didn't exist between key presses. A late 2000s reissue campaign helped reignite his career and eventually get signed to Sony Classical, but it was album Fallen Trees for Erased Tapes that has stunned us all. While his compositions here wouldn't be classified as adventurous, his adherence to performance, texture, and mood is otherworldly, as his fantastic flurry of soft notes help craft a soundscape that is as cinematic as it relaxing, propulsive as it is pastoral. While there is no shortage of contemporary solo piano records to choose from, Melynk's incredible turn on Fallen Trees shows that even as he heads into the twilight of his years, he is still filled with the passion, verve, and fire of someone half his age. A stunner. - Evan Sawdey
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3. SUSS - Ghost Box (Northern Spy)
When you tell someone you're listening to ambient music, a casual listener might have an idea of what "ambient" is: quiet synths, rolls of melodies, maybe even a backbeat or two. You know: massage music. Yet fans of the genre know just how sprawling and diverse the tag "ambient" truly is. Bob Holmes' knows the power of this genre as well, and so when his band SUSS went out to make "country ambient music", few could've guessed that the end result would be as utterly captivating or gorgeous as this. Ghost Box -- the band's debut album which has already been reissued due to the group finding an audience on Spotify -- is a creature unlike any other, where slide guitars and tremolo-heavy string pluckings paint a picture of a desert horizon facing a gorgeous sunset. Their songs at times are downright minimal ("Rain" uses its punctuated silence to great effect), and at others some light keyboard effects (like on "Big Sky") showcases how each track has its own distinct identity, even if the album is best absorbed as a complete artistic whole. The "country ambient" sub-genre maybe as niche as it can get, but there's no denying that SUSS are already the undisputed masters of the form. - Evan Sawdey
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2. Gigi Masin - Kite (Self-released)
Italian producer Gigi Masin's been kicking around since 1986, but for all intents and purposes, he's an upstart. He was best-known for years for his hip-hop sample staple "Clouds", which we can hear in beats for everyone from Björk to Post Malone, before finding new fame with the intergenerational Gaussian Curve ensemble. This is his first solo record since 2001's Lontano and easily his best, whittling down the scattershot musical sensibilities of his early Fourth World albums in favor of a stately Mediterranean palate of piano and synth that brings to mind white Grecian ruins and aquamarine mosaics at the bottom of fountains. At 40 minutes it refuses to deepen and resists our efforts to get lost in it; it swims lonesomely around our heads, making everything a bit more wistful with its sad chords. It's late-afternoon music, perfect for those hours when the light starts to turn pink and the day feels as transient as life itself. - Daniel Bromfield
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1. Sam Wilkes - WILKES (Leaving)
Early in 2018, the ever-reliable Leaving Records dropped a surprising collaborative record between saxophonist Sam Gendel and a new up-and-coming bassist named Sam Wilkes. The two Sams have a distinct chemistry -- one where they used beats and loops of their respective instruments to craft soundscapes that Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and the rest of the Brainfeeder crew would've been mighty proud to have on their own records. It was a quirky, gorgeous jazz-dub record (even counting the occasional beatbox experiments), but few could've guessed that Wilkes' would be back later in the year with his self-titled debut, one which has Gendel, Brainfeeder drummer Christian Euman, and more all work together to craft a half-hour of some of the most forward-thinking instrumental music of the year.
Wilkes' grooves are indelible, deep, and moody. The space he gives Euman and Gendel to explore the outer reaches of each new piece yields powerful dividends, particularly during the highlight "Run (fade)" when Euman's crashing cymbals give the song a powerful climax. WILKES arrives with a complete musical identify, one that wraps you into its world and soothes, challenges, and pushes your understanding of ambient-jazz at every chance it gets. The chemistry between the musicians is peerless, but it's the distinct sonic world that the collective has created that will keep you coming back time and time again, making WILKES the Best Ambient/Instrumental Album of 2018. - Evan Sawdey
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