Previously, my husband listened to music with lyrics as if it was just background noise, sometimes taking calls on his customer service job with a receiver in one ear and an earbud blasting music in the other. I don’t know how he did it, and these days neither does he. Now, he finds music with lyrics distracting if playing in the background, which is surprising given how many years he treated pop songs like any other casual distraction.
Studies have shown how our listening habits have changed as the COVID-19 pandemic forced many of us into isolation and contemplation. Former niche beatscape stations like YouTube’s LofiGirl have grown by over two million subscribers in the past year alone. Ambient music has always been multi-functional, used for everything from personal relaxation to a focusing tool to an appreciating genre all its own. While several 2021 releases here were born out of extended lockdowns, the Best Ambient Albums of the year pack quite the emotional wallop regardless of their context.
11. Ryan Dugré – Three Rivers [11A]
Conceived out of a series of day-of improvisations on his guitar, Ryan Dugré’s third solo album is one of outrageous beauty. In a banner year for solo acoustic records (including great works from Hayden Pedigo and Cameron Knowler), Dugré goes out of his way to ensure that Three Rivers plumbs the deepest of emotional depths. Three Rivers uses simple structures to unveil a wide breadth of feelings, aided by some light synths, barely-there percussion, and the occasional quivering string section. It goes from the ominous “Stalking Horse” to the quietly resigned slide-guitar evocation of “Lumima”. At times capturing the intimacy of a man alone in a room with his guitar and at others feeling overwhelmed with the sheer size of the sound achieved by his many other musician friends, Three Rivers is less of an album and more of a sonic journey. Luckily, it’s a journey we’re happy to go on again and again.
10. SUSS – Night Suite [Northern Spy]
Night Suite is a very difficult listen. Not because the country-ambient kingpins SUSS decided to make a challenging album, no. It’s because days after finishing recording this short EP, founding member and keyboard player Gary Leib passed away. For a group finding success in the streaming era with their distinctly-emotive style of slide-guitar swells, Lieb’s passing seemed insurmountable. While the remaining members are planning to move ahead, Night Suite serves as a gorgeous final testament to the SUSS’ time with Leib, offering a quiet, powerful set of songs that, like the EP’s title invokes, seems perfect for driving at night. SUSS has already delivered us several incredible records, and with Night Suite, they give us a final place to appreciate the power and potency that Leib added to the group.
9. Brothertiger – Fundamentals, Vol. III [Satanic Panic]
Earlier in the year, PopMatters published a piece about all three portions of Brothertiger‘s instrumental Fundamentals series and how they function as a continuous piece of work. Although born out of John Jagos’ pandemic live streams under his Brothertiger moniker, the three albums over time felt like a growing, continued work, with Vol. I serving as dusk, Vol. II soundtracking the dead of night, and Vol. III capturing the feel of the first crack of dawn. While more of a midtempo record than an ambient chillout, Vol. III still crackles with energy, a genuine sense of joy found in each new melodic loop. While some people have been able to slowly get back to a somewhat normal vaccinated life, Vol. III feels almost celebratory, which is a mood that Jagos’ has reflected in the sporadic (but excellent) synthpop singles he’s dropped this year. Brothertiger’s music has always made for a great listen, but as his Fundamentals series continues to grow, he may have just discovered his ever-evolving masterpiece.
8. Devendra Banhart & Noah Georgeson – Refuge [Dead Oceans]
Once the name on everyone’s lips when people were describing the early 2000s’ “freak-folk” scene, Devendra Banhart has over time been able to let go of any genre trappings and make the kind of music he wants to make without any preconceptions. While he’s been unafraid to collaborate with just about anyone in the last few years, his 2021 collaboration with Noah Georgeson truly shocked us. They created a full-bore ambient album on the first try that feels like something they’ve been working on for years. Quiet and unafraid, the duo balance calming tones and piano with harp work, brass, and field recordings Banhart made when visiting Nepal. Lovingly rendered and methodical in approach, Refuge is as patient and rewarding an ambient album as they come, aiming solely to heal and calm while never rushing the point. Tracks like “A Cat” seem simple upon first listen but reveal a depth of sonic details with each new run-through, proving that Banhart’s latest genre pivot is the type that’s so successful you hope he continues to stick with it.
7. Arushi Jain – Under the Lilac Sky [Leaving]
Of all the albums on this list, absolutely none of them sound like Arushi Jain’s Under the Lilac Sky. Intended to be listened to as the sun is setting, Jain uses her Indian culture and love of synths to compose songs that, while slower by nature, absolutely ramble through a panoply of keyboard fantasias. Different synth tones jostle, fight, and ultimately harmonize together throughout her colorful, sometimes chaotic creations. Unafraid to challenge the listener while remaining notably accessible, Under the Lilac Sky goes through moods and movements, each track imbued with a distinct flavor. “The Sun Swirls Within You” has clashing analog tones that eventually break apart to introduce a series of layered, honeyed voices singing in Hindi, only then bottoming out in some bass tones that guide the listener home. It’s at times heady stuff, but Under the Lilac Sky is more than happy to relish in the fact that it has few clear contemporaries.