This was a challenging year to be an ambient music fan. For one thing, there isn’t as much money as there used to be in the genre. Even our top pick for The Best Ambient Album of 2022, OHYUNG’s game-changing imagine naked!, never got a vinyl release after sales of the double-cassette version didn’t hit the thresholds their label needed to hit. Streamers are no better: Spotify, with its dominant market share, is looking to demonetize tracks that achieve less than 1,000 plays, and even Bandcamp, the home of a litany of great unsigned ambient talent that spans the racial and gender spectrum, feels like a husk of itself after it got sold from one conglomerate to another and a majority of its staff was let go. While there will always be great new ambient records, the avenues to support these artists feel like they’re drying up.
This is why writing this list annually is such a joy. There are too many great albums to cover, and certain cuts had to be made to make a tight Top Ten. Yet we have scoured up and down for these selections, landing on some established favorites, some new surprises, and ultimately, just some incredible works by musicians doing it for the love of it. You will never find a genre more nurturing or fruitful than ambient, and as these releases highlight, 2023 was a year of exceptional music that survived punishing circumstances. These are miracle records, through and through.
10. One Million Eyes — Iris (A Strangely Isolated Place)
[lighting crash] Yes, yes! Luciano Ermondi and Paolo Mazzacani’s transformation from an erstwhile electro-dance to serious ambient music heavyweights is complete! [evil laughter; end scene] Iris, the sophomore release of the duo under their One Million Eyes moniker, is truly daring in the sense that they pull back from some of the more experimental aspects of their debut (2021’s Brama) to create a streamlined, holistic experience. While they trade in some of the more well-known tropes of ambient (the windswept synth pulses that populate “Samovar” will always be evocative), the lines they draw to their peers and inspirations give Iris its focus.
Using a supremely well-implemented vocal sample on “Kettlesoul” — drawn out, looping, languishing — serves as a dead ringer for Eluvium’s late-period full-lengths. When the slide acoustic guitars float in during “Deserto”, echoes of the great band SUSS come to mind, although they’d never use evaporating keypads as One Million Eyes do. Iris is evocative of grey skies over gentle slipstreams, but it is inviting, shielding, and covering us even when the world seems to churn a bit heavier than usual. Just like the function of an actual iris, here you can feel the light slowly coming in.
9. Nico Georis — Cloud Suites (Leaving)
For keyboardist Nico Georis, finding inspiration for his new full-length Cloud Suites was simple: just look up. The accomplished keyboardist retreated to his California studio out in nature and used the clouds as a living muse for a new set of recordings that were entirely improvised. While that might sound like a scattershot approach to releasing a new album, the songs on Cloud Suites feel like they have been around for years.
The opener “Bent Violet” rides small gliding jazz chords in the vein of Danish alt-jazz duo Bremer/McCoy to achieve an almost romantic effect, while the digital pipe organ sounds of “Ice Crystals” soon give way to a gradual ebb of keys that’s both graceful and sweet. Even the closer, “Daydreams”, exists on a melodic pathway of its design, giving the whole record a dreamy, pastoral feel. The further Georis goes into his discography, the looser and more limber his sound becomes. With an album as beautiful as Cloud Suites, it feels like you, the listener, are floating right up in the sky with them.
8. Metro Riders — Lost in Reality (Possible Motive)
Metro Riders’ Henrik Stelzer is hyperfocused on this one sound. It’s extremely specific: lo-fi digital tom hits, pre-set bongo taps, synthpads so 1980s they’re practically in leggings, and a distinctly lo-fi vibe that recalls the earliest of Chicago House experiments where mics picked up the ambient noise of a humming apartment and became a part of the whole aesthetic. Stelzer already achieved this with his 2017 debut Europe By Night (it hit the runner-up slot in our ranking of The Best Ambient-Instrumental Albums of that year), and Lost in Reality feels like its direct sequel.
As if soundtracking the grittiest low-budget cop thriller Europe could offer from 1987, there’s a quiet brooding to Lost in Reality, the echoing pads of “Contrebande” making the listener feel like they’re about to uncover a criminal conspiracy within the sticky underground of a subway station. As this list has shown over the years, not all ambient music has to be pleasant or breezy: there are thousands of tones and styles within this genre, and you may not always want to get Lost in Reality, but when the mood strikes, it’s transportive.
7. Daryl Groetsch — Frozen Waste/Gardens in Glass (Independent)
There’s something beautiful about the stark minimalism of Daryl Groetsch’s website. Unlike the music he makes under his Pulse Emitter persona, Groetsch’s solo albums feel purposefully retro, much like that bare-bones HTML landing page. Having been making recordings for over two and a half decades, Groetsch lived through many different eras of electronic music, so it’s unsurprising that his numerous releases that came out in 2023 would feel akin to turn-of-the-millennium electronic albums and Warp-adjacent releases that go big on early home production stylings but refuse to get too intricate in their percussive elements.
It’s a true yin-and-yang situation; Groetsch’s parallel albums can be enjoyed separately while also complimenting each other. True to their names, Frozen Waste is a sparse, chilling record, full of drawn-out landscapes of icy synths and where harsh digital winds blow across them. Gardens in Glass, by contrast, refracts the sun through warmth and color, as new textures and welcoming tones invite the listener in for a pleasant experience. These two records feel like “throwback ambient” in the best way, acknowledging the power of the pioneers who have come before while running with the torch themselves.
6. Alex Albrecht — Violet Visionary (A Strangely Isolated Place)
The phrase “ambient jazz” immediately evokes the cheesy oversaturation of Windam Hill-style New Age records in the 1990s — mass-produced for as broad an audience as possible but quietly influential despite a somewhat cheesy reputation. Melbourne-based Alex Albrecht is committed to this kind of Pure Moods vibe, where long looping piano phrases with dynamic percussion and hazy synth lines weave in and out of his compositions. There’s a certain familiarity, where crisp piano plinks are nestled in long passages of meditative calm, recalling classic ambient and downtempo acts like Deep Forest in aesthetic but all given its own vibe.
Loop-driven as Albrecht’s album Violet Visionary is, we cannot get some of these percussion loops out of our heads even days after listening. There’s a somewhat retro feel to it, mining structures and sounds that have very much become cliché in ambient circles, but the precise way Albrecht combines them makes him a Visionary.
5. Hollie Kenniff — We All Have Places That We Miss (Western Vinyl)
Just as countless new ambient records come out every year, there are also those critics who write about them with feverish joy and appreciation. There’s former PopMatters contributor Daniel Bromfield, the longstanding Bandcamp scribe Ted Davis, and PopMatters metal columnist Antonio Pošćić. We all search high and low for new emerging voices in the genre, looking to help bring their sound to a broader audience, but truthfully, it’s also nice to see a familiar face. Hollie Kenniff is the fourth entry here who has previously been on one of our Best of Ambient lists, and for a good reason: her 2021 debut, The Quiet Drift, topped our survey with its fresh perspective and relatable daydream aesthetic.
Even more pandemic-minded than that winsome debut, We All Have Places That We Miss has a more languid tone than its predecessor, its humble guitar lines interacting with the soft echoes of keyboards to make a record that echoes the kind of soundtracks Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie made for Gregg Araki films. There’s an emotive bent to Kenniff’s compositions, as the switch in chords halfway through “No End to the Sea” has an emotive swell that can only be described as “cinematic”. Husband Keith Kenniff (Goldmund) again makes a few appearances here, but two records in, it’s clear that Hollie Kenniff is quickly becoming a regular fixture in the ambient scene, and we couldn’t be happier about it.
4. Ylia — Ame Agaru (Balmat)
The best part about Ylia’s sophomore album is how it is simultaneously an ambient record through and through and also nothing like an ambient record you’ve heard before. For the Málaga-based Susana Hernández, simple textures and tones looped to a hypnotic effect won’t cut it. On Ame Agaru (which translates to “after the rain”), pianos, woodwinds, saxophones, and all manner of other instruments are welcomed into the fold by this LP’s numerous collaborators.
There are clanging drum sounds, repeated pedals used to full effect, and songs that don’t lock into grooves so much as evolve. They shift and change as if they are curious to peek around their corners to see what’s coming. “Luz de Comino”, for example, starts as a moody synth journey, but partway through, the tempo increases, the pulse quickens, and the synths that had been our friends for so long slightly snarl. There’s a story to be traced through Ylia’s songs, but it’s up to you, the listener, to piece it together. Rest assured, this is the best kind of mystery to solve.
3. Ki Oni — A Leisurely Swim to Everlasting Life (AKP)
Chuck Soo-Hoo’s latest album under his Ki Oni moniker is designed as a meditation on death, of observing the tradition of leaving a house light on for days so a deceased spirit can know where to issue their goodbyes before moving on. Designed as a pure meditative experience, A Leisurely Swim to Everlasting Life consists of only five songs, yet the shortest clocks in at 15 minutes, making this an epic hour-and-a-half journey into the heart and soul of its composer. Long-form ambient, by its very nature, runs into comparisons to drone, where the length of the record at hand is specifically designed to trigger a form of mental drift, but when it works, it does so in shimmering spades, and Leisurely Swim achieves its goals firmly.
Of all the great albums on this list, Ki Oni’s entry is assuredly the calmest, but the sign of a great artist is knowing how well to work the groove, and even the 22-minute “Reincarnation at the End of the World” shows a deep understanding of how long Soo-Hoo could sustain this structure before ending it. He is innately aware of his intentions and the audience’s capacity for his ambitions, which shows how much effort went into such a Leisurely Swim.
2. Ohr — Luma/Chroma (sound as language)
Wouldn’t it be great if there were singles charts for ambient releases? Regardless of genre, releasing singles is explicitly designed to drum up hype for any given record, but ambient is an unusual beast because it’s one of the rare genres that best thrives in the album format. While the closing track, “Two Fixed Points”, was released as a single from Luma/Chroma — the stunning sophomore record dropped under George Cory Todd’s stage name Ohr — it’s only a peak into the glitch-styled electronic landscapes he has assembled on this towering masterwork.
A clear student not just of Marcus Popp’s pioneering Oval project but of Oval’s 1994 magnum opus 94 Diskont, Luma/Chroma doesn’t hit you with synths so much as hums, the always-on vibrations of a computer tower tangling with tinny click tracks and sliced synthetic noises. That description may paint this as a harsh or intimidating record, but there is a warmth to be found in Ohr’s madness. Even “Titleist”, which starts off quietly buzzing, eventually has a slight backbeat pumped in halfway through, giving it propulsion, as if the computer is waking up and coming to life. It’s a moment where it feels like the ghost in the machine is finally escaping, finding release, and a beating heart emerges out of all the 0’s and 1’s. There’s a humanity lurking underneath the surface of Luma/Chroma, and part of the joy of listening to it is finding it.
1. Prins Emanuel — Diagonal Musik II (Music for Dreams)
Like any genre, ambient can thrive on complexity. Artists in the space must know how long to extend a track for, when to shift and change, when to introduce new elements, when to know if a piece is going to cross from “ambient” to “drone”, and what that change will do to a song’s objective. Yet, on the flip side, there is beauty in simplicity, and for his direct sequel to his 2018 album Diagonal Musik, Swedish-based DJ Prins Emanuel is aiming straight for the heart. His tracks — which mix guitar lines, numerous woodwinds, exotic percussive styles, and certain sounds so specific their exact origin is unknown — are often built around simple loops and structures. Yet, his brilliance is in how he renders them so effectively.
The echoing synthwave that overtakes “Västan Vind” and quietly kills off the marimba riff? The cold winds on “Ruach” that then fade to quiet bassoons as a cricket click track plays in the back? The music box that opens “Parnassos” soon compliments that deeply saturated indie-rock guitar line as both fade off in the middle distance? These moments are deeply memorable, each instrument a character given a specific arc. Because the songs are so open and accessible, it feels like each element is given a moment to shine, creating an album where every track is distinct, every note feels correct, and every emotion Emanuel has put into this record is transmitted straight to you. This is a rare sequel that’s genuinely better than the original.