Best Ambient Albums of 2021
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The 11 Best Ambient Albums of 2021

Studies have shown how the global pandemic has changed our listening habits, and for those seeking calm, these 11 are the best ambient albums of the year.

6. Florian T M Zeisig – Music for Parents [Métro]

Florian T M Zeisig - Music For Parents

Florian T M Zeisig’s third album opens with the sound of water running as if to comment on the stereotypes everyone has about what any run-of-the-mill ambient record would sound like. But as the slow bell-tone keys start drifting into the mix, it’s clear that Music for Parents, Zeisig’s third full-length proper, has different aims than the usual ambient fare. Created after a visit to his parents’ house revealed their recent purchase of a vibroacoustic mattress, he became obsessed with the way sound affected one when laying on it. Thus, Music for Parents is very much designed as a record best-experienced while on the said mattress and wearing another bass-enhancing device.

Fortunately, if you own neither, the resulting album is still a gorgeous, floating experience that is sparse, slow, and occasionally on the edge of euphoric. With a digital release that clocks in at over an hour, Music for Parents is a very patient, deliberate kind of ambient record, where a single piano key coming in after three minutes of “Smoking by the Pond” feels like the loudest thing you’ve heard all day. Working at its own unhurried pace, Music for Parents is the kind of album designed for complete bliss and complete disassociation. And if you’re listening to it while also being a parent? Even better.

5. Green-House – Music for Living Spaces [Leaving]

Green-House - Music for Living Spaces

It’s no surprise that Olive Ardizoni landed on PopMatters’ 2020 edition of the Best Ambient/Instrumental Albums with their lovely debut as Green-House: Six Songs for Invisible Gardens. That record was an audio form of photosynthesis, washing our ears in a quiet warmth that helped us (and any plants that happened to be within hearing distance) grow. With Ardizoni’s first true-and-proper full-length Music for Living Spaces, they’ve done one better.

An attempt to capture the sonic equivalent of what your brain does when it sees something “cute”, Music for Living Spaces floats on quiet, gentle melodies that are designed to put the listener in a state of peace. Even with each track’s careful construction, Ardizoni has found unique new tones and textures to change the vibe on every song, running through a gamut of analog synth sounds that makes the record feel intentionally dated beautifully. While compositions like “Rain” and the slow-rolling “Royal Fern” sound great in any context, Music for Living Spaces is best experienced as a whole, on your own, in your own beautiful living space.

4. Floating Points/Pharoah Sanders – Promises [Luaka Bop]

Floating Points:Pharoah Sanders - Promises

The entirety of Promises centers around a straightforward melodic theme. A light harpsichord motif repeatedly occurs throughout this epic collaboration between electronic producer Floating Points and legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. To an outsider, it may seem like a stretch to make the same few bars interesting for 45 minutes, but to anyone who’s heard Promises, the journey is epic in scale and scope. With the London Symphony Orchestra stepping in at numerous points to give the work a sense of grandiosity, this record soars, saddens, and challenges over its nine distinct movements. The emotion within Promises is overwhelming, playing on our senses and expectations repeatedly as it takes listeners on a journey that almost defies standard genre classifications. A sometimes intimidating playthrough, Promises remains as one of the year’s most impactful albums.

3. Masayoshi Fujita – Bird Ambience [Erased Tapes]

Masayoshi Fujita - Bird Ambience

Masayoshi Fujita has built his reputation as a generation-defining xylophonist, often taking his improvisations and turning them into dynamic studio records full of electronic production and clever studio polish. Yet with Bird Ambience, Fujita dared himself with a new main instrument: the marimba. While not dissimilar from his previous records, Bird Ambience relies less on external orchestral additions. Instead, it feels very self-contained: the marimba is sometimes making its percussive beat or is being covered up by a blanket of ghostly keypads. At times, Bird Ambience even feels haunted, but when paired with tracks like the galloping “Morocco” or the ethereal closer “Fabric”, it’s clear that Fujita’s latest might go down as his most emotionally expressive. Clocking in at just over an hour, there are sonic peaks, valleys, and caves to explore on Bird Ambience, and you may just be surprised by where the journey takes you.

2. Lionmilk – I Hope You Are Well [Leaving]

Lionmilk - I Hope You Are Well

The best part about I Hope You Are Well is that it was never intended for public release. For Los Angeles’ Moki Kawaguchi, the tracks on this record were made up of small compositions specifically designed to lift the spirits of his friends and family coping with the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Enough recipients spoke out about its quality that a short cassette run of the album was put into place, making for a lovely souvenir of what is an already-lovely healing document. Flicked with light touches of jazz, I Hope You Are Well is gorgeous in its sparseness, as most tracks are just solo keys with no other accompaniment. There’s some light beatwork and synthpads on tracks like “I Remain Hopeful”, but the nimble, interlooping melodies of sketches like “timeaftertime” engage and relax without ever turning stale. Kawaguchi hopes we are well, and after listening to this wonderful, minimalist gem, it’s guaranteed that you’ll feel better about everything.

1. Hollie Kenniff – The Quiet Drift [Western Vinyl]

Hollie Kenniff - The Quiet Drift

A dual US/Canadian citizen, Hollie Kenniff has lived in various homes stretching a litany of locales, from farm towns to cities, but has spent her life looking for the meaning of “home”. Her debut album, The Quiet Drift, is the sonic encapsulation of searching and longing. It is a moody, gorgeous synth palette that shifts and yearns but never overwhelms. Even more surprising than its impact is its origins: Hollie’s husband Keith collaborates on this record twice under his Goldmund moniker. Before that, the two were in a synthpop duo called Mint Julep that has been churning out giddy electropop candy throughout several albums.

There are absolutely no hints of Hollie’s pop connections here, as the swells of her crystalline vocals on tracks like “Some Day If Some Day Comes” feel like the kind of touch that could only come from years of experience in the ambient genre. The Quiet Drift is a major triumph: the kind of album that feels like it’s searching for answers but is confident it will find them. It may just soundtrack your soulful scouting as well.