Best Library Music Albums of 2023

The 12 Best Library Music Albums of 2023

When it comes to library music, human generosity and creativity have no bounds. There’s always more to discover. This “background music” demands closer attention.

Though its motivations have shifted through time and space, library music was always meant to live on in some form or another. The quasi-ersatz genre was created to be taken, used, and folded into a second life. It was not available in stores near anyone, yet it was all around everyone, ubiquitous in cinema, radio, and advertising for decades, and still is in different ways.

Library, production, or stock music was not originally intended to be enjoyed as music for music’s sake, though it frequently referenced the popular music of its era. Library meant commercial background music, an unflinching conspiracy between capitalism and the arts. Yet, in addition to the inspiration of the exploration age and collaboration with talented, like-minded individuals, its creators were afforded enviable access to analog recording equipment built to survive atomic blasts.

These mavericks had the means, if demands, to regularly press their original music onto limited vinyl runs for distribution. They enjoyed a level of creative freedom with corporate backing that remains unfathomable to this day despite Red Bull’s best efforts.

Production music traces its roots back to a time when people would write scores for pianists to perform live in the theatre during silent films. After the invention of the talking pictures, library recordings were chiefly produced by collectives of composers and session musicians in Europe, who were given the finest mid-century recording equipment and instrumentation available, then beaten like a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters to continually produce primarily lyric-free music for easy licensing to compliment any conceivable action, from training videos and radio ads to pornography and public information films.

As the traditional studio big band scene of the 1960s and 1970s dissolved following their golden age, the inventiveness and pliability of their collectively monolithic recording catalogues significantly impacted the development of hip-hop and electronic dance music through crate-digging in the late 1980s and 1990s. The pre-Internet obscure, intensely creative, and license-friendly (if ignored) nature of the recordings made them easy for other creators to take for other purposes.

1992 was the year that Columbia House stopped selling records for pennies by mail. Interest in vinyl was plummeting while CDs were soaring, and MP3s would eventually follow, so boxes of the original library music pressings found their way into back alleys and charity bins. The general public saw the analog format as obsolete after the rise of digital technology and their grooves as old-fashioned, but pop culture has a way of coming back around. 

Since the mid-1990s, soldiers of the weird and forgotten have formed labels to reissue lost classics and curate compilations surveying the greatest hits from Bosworth, Nelson, KPM, Amphonic Music, and other golden age publishers, while records once thrown away have become thousand-dollar grails online after being heard on a Quentin Tarantino or Adrian Younge soundtrack. A couple of those classic houses still operate in some regard, but fresh attempts are consistently being made to honor their legacy in different ways.

There are genuine freaks and geniuses who choose to take up the challenge. To make a library album is to pursue analog recording techniques, short yet hook-laden songcraft, and imaginative thematic challenges. Choosing these limitations through intention rather than necessity sparks a certain creativity in the individual, yet it is also a way to contribute to something larger than oneself directly. To paraphrase Will Holland from the liner notes for Stampede, the first Quantic Soul Orchestra album, this kind of music is a way for artists who become successful using samples to put something back.

Inspired by Italian cinema, Edizioni Mondo produced a couple of strings of vinyl between 2013 and 2019, downtempo house and kosmische-tinged rock that evoked scenes of nature and space exploration. Asthmatic Kitty Records put out an impressive “library catalogue music series” in 2009-2012, which featured pivotal early appearances by experimental folk composer William Ryan Fritch and Roberto Carlos Lange as he transitioned from Savath & Savalas to Helado Negro. The short-lived Rotary Tower started a promising run of library-focused albums with A. Dobson, Ganzfeld, and The Giallos Flame in 2014, but it was tragically cut short by the untimely death of founder James Dyer (former head of the similarly-minded D.C. Recordings).

Recently, labels such as Madlib Invazion and Jazzaggression launched their own in-house library music series, with Madlib promising to issue a new entry each month for an entire year. Toronto producer Castle If started releasing a mini-album of synth-based library music every month late in 2022, admirably managing to keep it up all by herself for half a year, capped off by one of her best works yet called Exotic Sounds in the summer of 2023.

When it comes to library music, human generosity and creativity have no bounds. There is always more out there to discover. This so-called background music demands closer attention. These crates need more digging than ever.

Editor’s Note: Click on the album covers to listen to the music.

12. Kirk Degiorgio – Modal Forces / Percussive Forces (BBE)

As a significant player in the UK’s massive electronic music scene for decades, Kirk Degiorgio started DJing in the late 1980s before getting into modular synths by Doepfer and Serge. He released a bunch of Blue Note-tinged future-jazz, Detroit techno, and abstract electronic P-Funk laced with Moog and Oberheim under a bunch of names, including a 1997 full-length for the infamous Mo’ Wax under his most famous pseudonym, As One. He was also the driving force behind Applied Rhythmic Technology (or ART) Records, which featured his work in the early 1990s alongside early appearances by Carl Craig, Ed Handley of Plaid and Black Dog Productions, B12 incarnations Redcell and Cmetric, and a few little-used aliases of Richard D. James.

Apparently, starting around the pandemic, Degiorgio became overwhelmed by the urge to scratch his library itch. He used his still-going ART Records to launch a composer series for experimental neo-classical, abstract Buchla, and electroacoustic library music. In 2023, B12’s FireScope Records put out Origins, a space-themed ambient album of Kirk’s under the name Blue Binary that is equally worthy of inclusion on this list.

Released through BBE, Modal Forces / Percussive Forces is a wonderfully faithful library album, with 16 brief, descriptive tracks evenly split into two sides embodying a specific theme. It could pass as a double-LP compilation of early 1980s jazz-fusion, electro synth-funk, and minimal wave or late-career Keith Mansfield if it weren’t for the dashes of Skalpel nu-jazz breakbeat spice.

The Modal Forces side highlights Degiorgio’s synth collection, Fender Rhodes, and acoustic bass. A few tracks are greatly enhanced by live drumming from Chris Whitten, noted for working with Edie Brickell, Paul McCartney, Julian Cope, and Dire Straits. Whitten had played with Degiorgio in the soul-jazz pop band the Beauty Room, and his silky, metropolitan, throwback pattering here highlights the hypnotic aspects of percussion as much as anything on ECM Records, enhancing Degiorgio’s love for the progressive side of Herbie Hancock and Lonnie Liston-Smith.

Inspired by incidental music from 1970s detective shows, the Percussive Forces side nudges askew the elegant, contemplative jazz fusion for funkier boom-bap drums, a dose of clavinet, and a swig of James Mason swagger. These eight percussive tracks swoosh by quicker than the eight modal tracks, but they leave the listener wondering what kind of library music album Degiorgio could make if allowed free access to All Things Analog Studios, anyone who has played in Aquaserge and orchestration from maestro Louis King.

11. ATA Records – The Library Archive | Vol. 3 (ATA)

Inspired by the catalogues of DeWolfe, Telesound, Conroy, Sonoton, and Bruton, bassist Neil Innes and percussionist Pete Williams have been keeping it old school at ATA Records in Leeds, England, since 2014. ATA stands for “all things analog”, which is also their mission statement. Innes and Williams have hoarded a principal’s ransom worth of vintage gear in their studio garage, making every attempt to utilize the same recording equipment and techniques as their industry forefathers like a funky cult of mutant musical Mennonites perpetually stuck in 1979, as most people into library music are on some level.

Where earlier volumes of their Library Archive series leaned on English and Italian guideposts like Keith Mansfield and I Marc 4, the third volume of weird vibrations broadcast from ATA Studios indulged in their fascination with bodacious blaxploitation composers Willie Hutch, Quincy Jones, and Melvin Van Peebles, the latter of whom once made a sci-fi concept album with Malcolm Catto’s Heliocentrics in 2014 that is out of this world. Over the heavy bed of cinematic funk, they borrow trace elements from Jungle Obsession 9 by Roger Roger and Nino Nardini, Gruppo Di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza’s lone self-titled 1970 side-project under the name The Feed-back, and Roy Budd’s Get Carterscore, and make them their own.

Recorded to two-inch tape, The Library Archive | Vol. 3 is a fantabulous concoction of library music odes, ideal to compliment scenes of daring heists, nail-biting getaways, sci-fi horror chases, and anything else filmmakers could imagine. Focused on the rhythm section, many of these tracks do not prominently feature or don’t even have a guitar, and they don’t need it. Instead, the higher frequencies of their melodies are typically provided by possessed synth, incredible bongo, vibing vibraphone, horns going to Chili’s for baby back ribs, and even a little beatbox flute scatting vaguely in the style of Harold Alexander on “Mama Soul”. True to form, this is an album of samples waiting to be found and perfect as they are in context.

10. Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan – The Nation’s Most Central Location (Castles in Space)

Although it sounds like a boring subcommittee in a sleepy regional municipality, Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan is the captivating work of Gordon Chapman-Fox. His aesthetic has a delightful Ghost Box hauntology vibe, from his striking minimal, retro, corporate-esque artwork to the pulsing, cerebral blend of simmering tension expressed through vintage synth pads. His work could soundtrack Richard Littler’s Scarfolk books if the occult references were replaced with typical road signs, particularly with the nascent undercurrent of rage on The Nation’s Most Central Location.

Chapman-Fox strikes a perfect balance between dream and nightmare, like the evil clown or the tree with a grumpy face. His sparse downtempo hauntology has an ethereal, cinematic tone, projecting John Carpenter, Cate Brooks, Jean-Michelle Jarre, Pye Corner Audio, and Tangerine Dream. The analog warmth and nostalgia of atomic age synthesis gently numb the ominous isolation and industrial anxiety.

On the surface, Gordon’s fourth album appears to be a collection of ambient sounds perfect for pairing with rolling pastoral drone footage following the English countryside in Cheshire off the M56 motorway near the Daresbury Nuclear Physics Laboratory, but The Nation’s Most Central Location could easily sync up to timelapse shots of glaciers melting. His soundscapes ruminate on eco-grief, mourning the sense of optimism lost sometime after the 1980s malaise figure-headed by Ronald Reagan, Brian Mulroney, and Margaret Thatcher cemented an apocalyptically hypocritical blend of Evangelical Christianity and Ayn Rand’s selfishness-based Objectivism as the global conservative ideal, dooming anyone who isn’t rich to live out a slow, agonizing extinction event where most will die in natural disasters before growing old enough to watch their pensions disappear. It’s heavy. 

9. Fabien Guiraud – La Prise Électronique (Histoire Inconnue du Disque)

Originally a visual and experimental electronic artist from France, composer Fabien Guiraud became enamored with analog synths and library music after moving to London. His third full-length was produced by percussionist, vinyl junkie, and label boss Julien Galner, who released La Prise Électronique through his own imprint, Histoire Inconnue du Disque.

As the previous owner of Chambre404 Records, Galner was responsible for releasing the madcap third album by Gainsbourg-smoking art-rockers Aquaserge. À L’Amitié came out in 2014, around the same time as he was involved in his projects Exotica and Chateau Marmont, the latter of which featured Guiraud early on in its run. Galner added a little drumming to La Prise Électronique (or The Electronic Plug), but other than a couple of vocal snippets by Bella Heath, the rest of the piano, organ, guitar, keyboards, composition, and drum machine programming was done by Guiraud.

Presented at the beginning and halfway through, Heath’s somber vocals frame the record. While evocative, these pieces of dark poetry do ground La Prise Électronique with a traditional album feel, like early-career AIR or Peace Orchestra. Yet, among other aspects leaning library, this imaginative, moody collection of minimalist trip-hop and musique concrete oozes a quality seen vividly in Cindy Sherman photographs. 

Beginning in the late 1970s, Sherman framed countless untitled film stills of herself cast in roles from movies that never existed yet look like they do. With one image, she coaxed the viewer to fill in the possibilities for feature-length presentations, and movies need music.

The cover art for La Prise Électronique, designed by Diamond Pete, was informed by sine waves, patch cables, and Sol LeWitt. It has a nostalgic tint and geometric quality reminiscent of many memorable library music designs, while the mind-flaying instrumentals of La Prise Électronique practically write their own scripts.

The otherworldly nature of these recordings feels at times like deconstructed Kruder & Dorfmeister remixes or Portishead trips, with its recording on reel-to-reels projecting its spirit as far back as Goblin or Joe Boyd’s eponymous 1968 musique-concrete avant-pop masterpiece, The United States of America, if it was dripping with French cool. It sounds like the record was dug out from the basement of a building in the woods that mysteriously burned down.

8. Sven Wunder – Late Again (Piano Piano)

Joel Nils Danell is a rare breed of Swedish progressive jazz-rock composer raised on Ennio Morricone and the Wu-Tang Clan. Late Again was his fourth album under the name of Sven Wunder, all released since the pandemic’s start on his label. Danell runs Piano Piano with his partner John Henriksson, who provides Sven Wunder’s impressionistic cover art.

Although not specifically library music, electing to present their work as rather straight-faced jazz efforts instead, their output ticks a lot of the same boxes for the general library music revival. Each of Sven Wunder’s full-lengths to date had been sterling examples of trippy, well-traveled instrumental jazz organized by evocative visual themes. The first album, Eastern Flowers, took all of its track names from, well, eastern flowers and infused them with the Anatolian rock of Moğollar, while Wabi Sabi demonstrated an infatuation with Japonism and Edo-period instrumentation. Natura Morta (an Italian term for still life painting that translates as “Dead Nature”) went more abstract, delving into the human ability to perceive the world and create visual art based on it.

As the title suggests, Late Night is an ode to the late night. It is a magical time for creatives, not even a time so much as a feeling that a window has opened through which the vessel must channel as much as possible before the sun rises and turns inspiration into a pumpkin. Matt Berry claims to frequently work on music alone because he is most creative at 4:00 AM, and it’s difficult to call others to collaborate at that hour.

Recalling the swanky vibes of Sven Libaek or Lalo Schifrin with their orchestras, Late Night drifts in and swaddles the listener like a warm blanket. It has a reserved elegance in its piano-forward orchestral-pop arrangements, like the most introspective moments of Vince Guaraldi or Charles Mingus. As ever, Wundershined a new light on the dark and allowed us to enjoy his discoveries. This album is a telescope that makes the inconceivable obvious.

7. The Ironsides – Changing Light (Colemine)

Though the band had been around since around the financial collapse of 2008, the seeds for Changing Light were planted in the plague-filled fall of 2020, when bone-rattling bassist Max Ramey asked maestro Louis King to collaborate on a full-length album of cinematic psychedelic-soul instrumentals inspired by mid-century Italian soundtrack and library composers. They had previously worked together in the Sentiments, but this would be more intensive. 

Ramey had been a major player in Monophonics, co-writing the albums It’s Only Us (2020) and Sage Motel (2022), so members of that psychedelic soul-slinging concern helped fill out this project, alongside Odd Bird drummer Dan Ford and guitarists Joe Ramey and James Payne. The orchestra collected the finest available talents from the San Francisco area, with King conducting them via Zoom, and the fluidity of their orchestral rock collaboration is nothing short of the finest instrumentals of David Axelrod and Isaac Hayes. Though there are only eight songs on this album, they are all fully explored, with several stretching over the five-minute mark.

Changing Light seems like it could be a dreamed compilation that distills the most-sampled bangers from a long-lost West Coast instrumental funk label rather than one album by one band, carefully assembled in the North Bay Area of California and recorded for posterity at Colemine’s home Transistor Sound Studios. Despite all of the pandemic delays, pressing issues, touring conflicts, and general detritus in the life of your average recording musician, King found this to be “one of the most creatively satisfying experiences of [his] career”, and the proof is in the pudding. Changing Light isn’t mere entertainment. It is catharsis.