Some may not consider it a blessing, but we should count ourselves lucky that we now have bad ambient records. You know a terrible ambient record when you hear one: generic, unengaging, and outstaying its welcome. At times, Brian Eno equated ambient music to wallpaper (in a non-derogatory way), but a lousy ambient album honestly sounds like the aural equivalent of watching paint dry. You know what this sounds like if you’re even a casual fan of the genre.
So why is this a good thing? Simple: because ambient music has reached a beautiful saturation point. While the pandemic unleashed the creativity of thousands of would-be musicians and turned them into actual record-makers, the market is now flooded. Whether they’re self-releasing on Bandcamp or dropping albums on ambient warhorse labels like Leaving, Hausu Mountain, and A Strangely Isolated Place, there is a market for ambient music like never before, up to the point where the genre can withstand a plethora of bad albums in its mix.
Don’t worry: you won’t find any bad albums here. In a banner year for ambient, we’ve combed through dozens of releases to find the best, most daring, and most infinitely replayable new releases that helped us get through all of 2022. It’s exciting to think that ambient music is as commercially viable now as ever, and that’s only because of the artistic achievements laid out across these ten exemplary works.
Viul & Benoît Pioulard
[A Strangely Isolated Place]
Benoît Pioulard (the pseudonym of the Michigan-born Thomas Meluch) has been releasing electronic/ambient albums for the past two decades, often in a wildly collaborative fashion. Working out of a series of lockdown-inspired sketches created with Viul (Luke Entelis), the duo’s joint-recorded Konec recalls the beautifully washed-out tones Pioulard has achieved in tandem with his minimalist contemporary Rafael Anton Irisarri, who helped master this record.
The waves of synth feedback on tracks like “Performance” have a distinct rising action, riding a fine line between distortion and pure cathartic release. The compositions of Konec have distinct shapes and clear destinations, but they take their careful time in getting the listener there. The joy is in the journey, not so much the destination, and Konec is filled to the brim with gorgeous, aching musical travelogues.
Surya Botofasina Everyone’s Children [Spiritmuse]
A direct student of Alice Coltrane, the spiritual jazz of Surya Botofasina’s debut album is something to behold. With production by Carlos Niño and featuring appearances by Mia Doi Todd and sound-bending guitarist Nate Mercereau, Everyone’s Children floats in an idyllic space partway between pure jazz, pure ambient, and pure worship. The cascading piano lines of “I Love Dew, Sophie” go through so many different emotions and iterations in its 10 minutes that it’s hard to pick one specific highlight since the song is full of them.
In moving through traditional jazz and contemplative pieces, Botofasina’s debut sometimes replicates a worship service, almost bending the listener’s ear towards a higher function, whatever form that takes. Everyone’s Children succeeds due to its bold risks, such as opening the record with a drifting 27-minute piece called “Surya Meditation” that belies easy definition. Even with the occasional spoken word interlude, Everyone’s Children reads as a meditative, instrumental experience that was released in 2022 but feels completely timeless.
Desert Mirror EP
Recorded on an upright piano in an abandoned airstream, the pandemic forced many to wonder what our true end-times would be like, which compelled California pianist Nico Georis to record what he considered “survival piano jams”. His Desert Mirror EP gets a lot of fascinating tones and textures out of a single instrument, as the whipping, cut-out matte haze that glosses over “The Funeral Mountains” serves as gritty contrast to the elegiac tones that appear on the three “Mirror” pieces that dote this quiet 23-minute offering. Unhurried but burdened with a sense of melodic purpose, certain Sufjan Stevens-styled musical phases appear in compositions like “Tears of Gold”, but the overall effect of Desert Mirror is something wholly unique, instantly memorable. The kind of thing that transports you to same beautiful headspace with each listen, even if it’s intended to be the last thing we as a species might ever hear.
[A Strangely Isolated Place]
When creating a list of the year’s best ambient albums, it’s expected that most of the featured records would have synth pads used in some way or another. What was not expected was how many outstanding 2022 records would implement traditional keyboards in their mix, which the albums by Surya Botofasina, Nico Georis, and James Clements’ ASC project all have in spades. Original Soundtrack serves as the score for an unmade film, one drenched in art-house angles and obfuscated emotion. Clements’ piano serves as the melodic base for swells of sounds to build around. This imaginary piece of cinema may only exist in Clements’ head, but we can tell from its implied score that it’s sepia-toned, an awards-circuit darling, and featuring some of 2022’s best music to brood to. An elevated, gorgeous work.
M. Geddes Gengras
Expressed, I Noticed Silence
The last time M. Geddes Gengras appeared on our Best Ambient/Instrumental Albums survey was with their two-and-a-half-hour opus Light Pipe in 2018. That sprawling, all-encompassing affair required intense listener dedication to get to its yielded great melodic rewards, but many found the journey a more-than-worthy endeavor. So imagine our surprise when Gengras unleashed this year’s Expressed, I Noticed Silence, which sports a comparatively economic 37-minute runtime. Despite its modest presentation, Expressed is an ambient delight, with Gengras moving through tracks that feel less like a record of new compositions and more like a greatest hits compilation playing to all their strengths.
“Parts of a Private Moment” announces itself with a wash of dreamy digital tones but surprises with the number of instruments hidden in the back of the mix, yielding new surprises upon each quiet listen. “Discovered Endstate Always”, in contrast, elicits the sounds of progressive ambient contemporaries like CFCF and Christopher Sky by providing a hint of more propulsion and a semblance of a backbeat to follow. Expressed, I Noticed Silence doesn’t need to break any new ground when exploring its soundscapes with such expert precision. It may be modest in scale to Gengras’ other works, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying.