SUSS — SUSS
When the ambient country trailblazers SUSS lost founding member Gary Leib in 2021, they were unsure what the future would hold for them. Despite working in a niche subgenre, the group had found a distinct audience for their brand of slide-guitar emotional swells and, in a remarkable feat, have managed to land on PopMatters’ Best Ambient/Instrumental Album list every year since 2018.
Deciding to continue as a trio with Leib’s memory at the front of their work, SUSS released a series of four EPs tackling new angles of their sound, all four of which are now assembled in this monumental eponymous double-LP. What made SUSS such fixtures of these year-end roundups wasn’t just their exceptional chemistry as an ambient band so much as their willingness to experiment, to push “country ambient” into darker, stranger, and weirder places. While the mournful Night Suite EP from 2021, their last recorded effort with Leib, is an admittedly depressing listen, the simmering Heat Haze EP finds SUSS trying on new sounds as a trio, aurally capturing the visual effect of your distant vision distorting as the scorching heat lifts off the ground.
The Winder Was Hard EP was a lockdown reflection that dabbled in appropriately icy and isolated textures, while the brand-new Across the Horizon sometimes borders on optimism, completing a full emotional narrative without saying a word. SUSS continues to be not only the kingpins of country ambient but also one of the best bands working today.
Arroyo Low — 2020
Every year, there will be some carved-out exception to what goes on the Best Ambient/Instrumental Album list, often birthed out of necessity. While we don’t think of spoken word sections as breaking up the flow of an ambient record, how does one quantify a record like Arroyo Low’s powerfully emotive debut album 2020, wherein three songs feature a guest vocalist? The answer is simple: you power through and put it on the list anyways because 2020 is the kind of lush instrumental project that demands a larger audience.
Producer Dane Sandborg is hiding behind the Arroyo Low moniker, yet his mix of Nate Mercereau-styled guitar lines, clips of live birdsong, and quiet synth ploddings show that he is a master of his craft. Tracks like “Windsor” and the horn-lifted “Moments” feel cinematic in scope. Even when vocalist Minoru shows up on their three set tracks, their presence is so breathy and ethereal they barely register as the kind of thing that would interrupt an ambient listening experience (the only exception to this is “Limousine”, which is borderline too sexy to be considered ambient outright). Regardless if Sandborg continues with vocal assists or goes full-bore instrumental in the future, we’ll still be listening with baited, echoing breath.
El Bueno Y El Malo
When reading up on Hermanos Gutiérrez, some may be surprised that this instrumental acoustic guitar duo’s sound wasn’t birthed in the American West so much as in their home country of Switzerland. Yet genre transcends all physical borders, and while brothers Estevan and Alejandro have been releasing their own albums for years, El Bueno Y El Malo is their first record released under the easy eye of Black Keys’ frontman Dan Auerbach, who produces and also plays guitar on the appropriately-titled “Tres Hermanos”.
While Auerbach adds a studio warmth to their sound and adds in a few beautiful percussive elements occasionally, the show’s star is the Gutiérrez’s unmissable guitar interplay. Always more focused on finding a groove than showing off dexterous licks, the brothers find gorgeous textural elements in the shuffle strums of the title track or the hushed tones of “Pueblo Man”. There’s a deep sense of catharsis on El Bueno Y El Malo, achieved through their incredible musicianship, artistry, and craft. The album title references the Good and the Bad, but it feels misleading when every track here is of excellent quality.
The joy of being a Rival Consoles fan is not knowing what direction Ryan Lee West will take his project next. After some notable boundary-pushing albums at the start of the 2020s, Now Is marks a return to form for his distinct brand of ambient techno, and it sounds like he missed making this kind of music. At times claustrophobic (like on the echoing “Frontiers”), at times exceptionally rendered (like during the waves of cascading synths that make up “Running”), Now Is is an album that feels born out of a particular post-lockdown headspace, grappling with darkness but never succumbing to sadness.
There are a lot of elements at play in Now Is, but the beauty of West’s compositions is that they never lean too hard into a particular trope. Closer “Quiet Home”, for example, feels like it’s going to be a meditative closer, but well-placed orchestral plucks and some surprising hushed roars of feedback help elevate it to be more than a mere keyboard ballad. Now Is feels effortless in its execution, but only because West has been honing his craft for the past decade-and-a-half, utilizing all his genre experiments to help create a gorgeous return to form. Even if he’s taken some time away from ambient techno, Now Is makes it feel like he never truly left.
Already in late 2022, some people want to declare that the COVID-19 pandemic is over, moving past a nearly three-year cycle of disease, sadness, and misery that has affected the entire planet. Yet for those who contracted COVID, lost a loved one to the disease, or have been cursed with the “long” version of it, the effects of the pandemic never left. Perhaps the global trauma we experienced is best reflected in the two albums released by Brooklyn artist Robert Ouyang Rusli, under their OHYUNG moniker, in the year’s first half.
Their first record, GODLESS, was formed of screaming beats, caterwaul synths, and the kind of anger that makes tracks like “FUCK ELON MUSK” feel all the more palpable all these months later. The other album, imagine naked!, is borne out of OHYUNG’s first attempt at creating an ambient album, capturing the discovery and serenity many obtained in forced isolation. Clocking in just under two hours, imagine naked! is a nakedly raw emotional experience, using Rusli’s tools as someone who worked in film scores to capture a variety of moods: uncertainty, serenity, and release.
Using a plethora of textures and instruments, imagine naked! runs a gamut of feelings, at times unwavering and uncertain and at other moments fully blissed out. It’s a bold move to open your record with a 15-minute opus and even bolder to close with a 37-minute one (longer than some of the other albums on this list, mind you), but the genius of imagine naked! lies in how it moves through its movements without censorship: every composition is given exactly how long it needs to breathe and leave its impact.
OHYUNG was already an accomplished musician before imagine naked! came out, which is partly why their first attempt at an ambient album is not the work of an amateur. However, it’s imbued with the power and spirit of someone discovering how best to weaponize their craft, laying out an emotional map of their soul, and finding harmony and resonance within all those who listen. imagine naked! isn’t just an incredible plunge into the best ambient music has to offer: it’s one of the year’s best albums, regardless of genre—a masterwork.