best-ambient-albums-2020

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The 10 Best Ambient Albums of 2020

In a year that felt lonelier than ever, some expected ambient music to be a soothing balm. Yet ambient artists capture the sadness, the bliss, the hurt, and the healing of this wild year better than most.

10. Julianna Barwick – Healing Is a Miracle [Ninja Tune]

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Julianna Barwick’s new album of ambient vocal-loop devotionals is her shortest and catchiest, as well as one of her best. The layers of voices are less sumptuous than on her career-making Magic Place, and they’re not drowned out as they sometimes were amid the post-Yeezus affectations of 2016’s Will. Instead, they’re allowed to just kind of emanate, like little plumes of oxygen from a forest. This is earthier music than she’s ever made, seemingly coming from the ground (or the chest) rather than echoing through the walls of the vast churches she used to sing in. And though the collaborators are eyebrow-raisers — Jònsi, Nosaj Thing, Mary Lattimore — only Lattimore is obvious, her harp on “Oh Memory” almost approximating a rock ‘n’ roll bassline as Barwick’s voice drips from the strings like dew. If it’s a little short and just over half an hour, that just makes it more playable. —Daniel Bromfield

9. Suss – Promise [Northern Spy]

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There’s a reason why New York City’s SUSS has landed on PopMatters’ Best Ambient/Instrumental Albums list for the past two years running. The reason is simple: their incredible country/ambient hybrid is nothing short of peerless. Light acoustic strums run up against an echoed, always-yearning slide guitar, with the perfect amount of ambiance cut in for perfect chillout seasoning. With Promise, the quartet’s third album in as many years, things feel a bit bit more uneasy this time out, as the group recorded this largely in quarantine and titled it Promise as such unusual new circumstances for our lives made them really question what the word “promise” means nowadays. Unafraid to dirty up their sound with some occasionally unsettling or atonal moments, it feels like the band is exploring new sides of their sonic, taking listeners to occasionally ugly places even if the end result, as it always has been, is one of serene beauty. A truly essential 2020 record. — Evan Sawdey

8. Field Works – Ultrasonic [Temporary Residence]

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The musicians that Stuart Hyatt assembles for every Field Works recording feels like a Who’s Who of the current ambient/instrumental scene: Eluvium, Pantha du Prince, Kelly Moran, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Dan Deacon, Juana Molina — the list feels endless. For 2020’s Ultrasonic, an all-star cast was assembled to take field recordings based on the echolocations of bats and use them as a compositional foundation. From there, Hyatt’s many friends do extraordinary things, bouncing between ambient styles and moods with a remarkably streamlined flow, custom-made for the night-vision set. There’s the Eluvium opener “Dusk Tempi” that balances against the horror-movie-ready “A Place Both Wonderful and Strange” by Noveller — to say nothing of the alluring and ghostlike minimalism of Felicia Atkinson’s “Night vision, it touched my neck”. The striking result is a beautifully rendered set of compositions that is great for daytime listening even as it’s intended for a nocturnal (and possibly wing-ed) audience. –Evan Sawdey

7. Florian T M Zeisig – Coatcheck [Enmossed]

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Florian T M Zeisig makes ambient music shot through with the unmistakable pulse of the club: dance music, but not meant for dancing. It’s appropriate for an album about the experience of working in an actual coat check, which Zeisig did in Berlin before the pandemic, and in these six compositions, we can hear thousands of dance tracks and drunken conversations filtered through the sober, patient ear of a club worker. It’s a great concept, but it’d never get off the ground without Zeisig’s remarkable ear for sound design. This is one of the most amniotic ambient albums in many a moon, kin to Gas’s Pop or Vladislav Delay’s Multila in how quickly it absorbs the listener into its world. It’s like one of those fleeting moments when you fall asleep on the job, except you can stay that way for 40 minutes and no one can give you any shit for it. —Daniel Bromfield

6. Green-House – Six Songs For Invisible Gardens [Leaving]

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Olive Ardizoni intended their debut effort, Six Songs For Invisible Gardens, as a way to transform the room that this record is played in. Designed to harmonize plants and their caretakers together, Ardizoni stuns with a cohesive and considered sound. Each of these six tracks feels like a personalized guided meditation as waves of warm synths meet bird chirps, melodic rising lines, and deliberate and planned cooldowns. This may very well be the soundtrack to photosynthesis itself. “Parlor Palm” mixes arpeggiated synth plucks with field recordings to achieve a sci-fi sleep chamber effect, the listener nestled in among rows of lush greenery, not a thought out of place. More than just a relaxing listen, Six Songs For Invisible Gardens feels like a celebration of everything from vintage synths to ecological harmony. Charming, chill, and just a touch transcendent. –Evan Sawdey

5. Adrianne Lenker – instrumentals [4AD]

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As the singer of Big Thief and as a solo artist, Adrianne Lenker has a way of making the baroque and fantastic seem grounded. Her songs are so rich with mossy detail that reviews of her work often end up reading a lot like her lyrics, yet somehow she never seems to be laying it on and always comes across as a hard worker rather than a psychedelic auteur. Instrumentals, one of two albums she recorded this year in a Western Massachusetts cabin, is the kind of New Age two-fer popular in the ’80s. Side two even consists of “mostly chimes”, and there are water sounds and bird songs galore. But you never catch Lenker referencing or poking fun at the genre. In fact, Instrumentals seems to sprout right out of the walls of the cabin she recorded in. It’s mossy, natural, and… well, I’m starting to sound like an Adrianne Lenker song. —Daniel Bromfield

4. Mike Cooper – Playing With Water [Room 40]

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The Caretaker’s Everywhere at the End of Time became a TikTok phenomenon this year, one of the clearest signs yet that a generation is growing up with a high tolerance for the avant-garde. I hope they find Playing With Water. English guitarist Mike Cooper has been making exactly the kind of music we find here for 20 years, using Hawaiian slack-key guitar, field recordings, and harsh, piercing electronics to paint an aural portrait of the world’s islands being consumed by the inexorable advance of the sea. But this is the scariest manifestation of his vision yet: scenes of ruin and desolation, filled with the all-encompassing and almost overwhelming sound of water. Pay close attention to the title. Mike Cooper plays with water as a field recordist and composer. But he’s also interested in how the human race plays with water, and in this context, we can read it as “playing with fire.” —Daniel Bromfield

3. Leandro Fresco and Rafael Anton Irisarri – Una Presencia En La Brisa [A Strangely Isolated Place]

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Back in 2017, celebrated ambient musicians Leandro Fresco and Rafael Anton Irisarri collaborated on their first full-length, La Equidistancia. It was a record so beautiful, so gorgeous, and so perfectly tempered that it topped PopMatters Best Ambient/Instrumental Albums of 2017 list. While the two have put out wonderful recordings and collaborations since then, Una Presencia En La Brisa (which translates to “A Presence In The Breeze”) proves that together, Fresco and Irisarri have scintillating chemistry: just two masters of the craft obsessing over every single detail together.

Somehow even cooler and more delicate than La Equidistancia, Una Presencia is the very sound of weightlessness, as opener “Elevando Como Barrilete” glides and evolves with subtle grace. What separates their collaborative efforts from their peers is the sheer natural evolution of each track, growing and expanding and lingering on certain elements for the perfect amount of time. No synthpad or echo tone ever overstays its welcome: each addition or subtraction feels like exactly what the song needed at the time. Breathtaking at its 40-minute runtime, Una Presencia could’ve run twice as long and we still would be completely engaged. In terms of modern ambient masterpieces, Fresco and Irisarri are currently batting two for two. –Evan Sawdey

2. of1000faces – Astronomica [Ming]

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The most astonishing thing about Matt Walker’s of1000faces moniker is that although it’s been active since 2013, it’s been primarily an outlet for space-rock. Walker — a veteran drummer for acts like Filter, Garbage, and Morrissey — has been collaborating with fellow industry players to deliver vocal-heavy rock songs in his own solo flavor via EPs and some stray singles. Yet Astronomica, his debut full-length, is a full-bore ambient affair that is occasionally doted with cellos, guitars, and treated piano.

Cinematic in nature yet considered in approach (most songs clock in at the four-to-five minute mark), Astronomica feels like a distillation of Walker’s many ambient influences, ranging from Harold Budd to Ryuichi Sakamoto to Stars of the Lid. Unafraid to take differing styles and subgenres and smashing them together just to see what happens, Astronomica feels more like a celebration of ambient as a whole, as the yearning stretches of “Below the Brine” and the carefully-tapped synth plods of “Origami Ocean” feel completely disparate, yet somehow fit under the of1000faces umbrella with comfortable ease. While Walker’s rock drumming skills allow him to pay the bills, it’s clear after one listening of Astronomica, his heart belongs to a different genre entirely. — Evan Sawdey

1. Joshua Chuquimia Crampton – The Heart’s Wash [Independent]

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On top of being the year’s most unique and daring solo guitar record, The Heart’s Wash demonstrates what it is to be an artist in 2020. It’s to be alone, which Joshua Chuquimia Crampton is with his instrument. It’s to try and find an escape from all-consuming chaos, and The Heart’s Wash is explicitly positioned as a healing album, from its title to the faint light that radiates from the lettering on the otherwise pitch-black album cover. And it’s to put yourself through a certain level of punishment, which is true both of lavishing love and money on an avant-garde double album during an economic crisis and in filling it with music where we can almost feel our fingers bleed and callus along with Crampton’s.

The L.A. guitarist is a martial artist, and he seems to be putting himself through a purifying ritual just by striking his hands against his instrument and producing those raw, billowing, volcanic chords. Though he considers his work “classical,” its tones, textures, and way of empowering the listener through sheer physicality have a lot in common with heavy metal. Certainly, it fits the “instrumental” criterion more than “ambient.” This is not music to bliss out to, but it has a centering effect that seems to warm the very bones, and its 96 minutes reminiscent less of the arduousness of a journey than the fullness of a place you can come back to from time to time when this one is too dark. —Daniel Bromfield

If you’re looking at this list, you’re of a rare and dying breed: you are actively choosing to engage with ambient music.

It’s easy to just put on a curated relaxation playlist, allowing the music to melt away without the pesky step of engaging with the artist. You might argue there’s no need for this music to even be made by people. But that undervalues an interaction crucial to all music, no matter how non-committal: between the listener and the artist. Isn’t it more rewarding to know who’s making your music, to understand what they’re trying to convey, to enter the artist’s imagination and let your own fill in the blanks, and maybe even form a lasting connection?

The “relationship” between artists and listeners is often romanticized, and it’s less true that artists and listeners share a bond than that each provides a service for the other. But when you find a song or an album or an artist you love, you form a special relationship with them. You become curious about what they’ll do next. And when “what they’ll do next” finally comes around, you go on Bandcamp and buy it. That’s an order, not a generalization.

It’s hard to talk about ambient music in 2020 without talking about the algorithm, harder yet not to talk about the pandemic. There’s a joke among ambient artists that any album released after 2016 is a “balm for these trying times.” Well, it either is or it isn’t.

Some of the albums on this list, like
The Heart’s Wash or Healing Is a Miracle, position themselves as temporary respites from end-times madness. Others, like Playing With Water or the workingman’s blues of Coatcheck, confront it directly. Instrumentals falls into both categories, having been basically made as therapy, and I would argue for Six Songs for Invisible Gardens as apocalyptic due to its connection with a culture that values houseplants mostly as a cure for malaise.

But even if artists aren’t making art about it (and they have every right not to), they’re affected by it. The innocent astral fun of of1000faces’
Astronomica? Well, Matt Walker isn’t drumming on tour with Morrissey anytime soon, so help the guy out. You’d be spending that money at the bar anyway. —Daniel Bromfield


Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

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