25 Essential Ambient And Drone Albums
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25 Essential Ambient And Drone Albums You Need To Check Out

The best ambient and drone albums can transport listeners to entirely new worlds.

25 Essential Ambient And Drone Albums You Need To Check Out
Jubair1985 for Wikimedia Commons

Ambient and drone music exists on the outskirt of popular music. The former genre, which gained popularity in the late '60s and early '70s due to the abundance of synthesizers, utilizes repetitive sonic patterns to evoke something soothing, unobtrusive, and absolutely beautiful. A typical ambient track might not have much in the way of melody or harmony, but the textures of the synthesizers and the general "feel" of the track is enough to transport the listener to another dimension. The latter genre pretty much does what it says on the tin, a musician will drone on one note for a very, very long period of time, something that eventually leaves the listener completely hypnotized and entranced. This genre hasn't quite experienced the same amount of mainstream success as ambient, you don't see bands like AIR and Cigarettes After Sex popularizing "drone pop", but it's still an important genre nonetheless. Neither ambient or drone are terribly easy genres to get into, so consider this a primer on both of them.

1. Brian Eno - Ambient 1: ​​Music for Airports

Eno has had a long and varied career. His production work is unparalleled, working for artists like Devo, Talking Heads, and U2, and his solo work is brilliant. Here Come the Warm Jets and Another Green World are brilliant pieces of artsy glam rock, but as a solo artist he might be best known for his Ambient tetralogy, which was kicked off in 1978 by the understated Music for Airports. In its purest form, ambient music is a peaceful, serene distraction from the hustle and bustle of modern day life, so it's no surprise that Eno wrote this record to combat the stressful atmosphere of an airport. The synthesizers are beautifully calm, and the compositions are as unobstrusive as they are brilliantly complex.

2. William Baskinski - The Disintegration Loops

It's hard to separate an album like The Disintegration Loops from its context. Legend has it, Basinski was attempting to convert old recordings he made on tape to a digital format. The effort was unsuccessful, as the tapes were damaged to the point that as they passed the tape head, the recording would disintegrate. Basinski decided to record the real-time disintegration of these tapes, because the effect is hauntingly beautiful. The entire project was completed the fateful morning of September 11, 2001, and Basinski watched the Twin Towers fall listening to his loops. Without context, The Disintegration Loops tetralogy is a hauntingly beautiful piece of ambient music. With context, they become almost unbearably sad.

3. Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works 85-92 / Volume II

Aphex Twin is intelligent dance music's resident prankster. His videos are strange, his public persona is deceptive, and his music is generally abrasive and odd. Tracks such as "Windowlicker" and "Come to Daddy", fantastic as they are, make it seem odd that Aphex started his career with two absolutely beautiful ambient records. His debut, Selected Ambient Works 85-92, falls under the genre of "ambient techno", where techno rhythms are combined with ambient textures to wonderful effect. Selected Ambient Works Volume II, released two years later, is purely ambient, with percussion rarely present. Both albums, despite their differences, are both well-composed, well-produced, and utterly stunning.

4. Muslimgauze - Mullah Said

Ambient is an inherently non-political genre of music. After all, artists can't really make a political statement if their music has no lyrics. Muslimgauze, pseudonym of the late Bryn Jones, turns that idea on its head. Jones, a UK native, was fiercly fascinated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and made the bold decision to vent his beliefs and frustrations with entirely non-vocal music. Mullah Said is the pinnacle of a genre called "tribal ambient", where percussion is given much more emphasis than in traditional ambient music. With this added emphasis on percussion, the album is pulsating, dark, and evocative.

5. Chuck Person - Eccojams Vol. 1

I would be remiss if I didn't bring up vaporwave in this article. Vaporwave, in its simplest form, is a style of music and art based around corrupting the pop culture of the '80s and '90s. Musically, this often involves slowing down and distorting '80s and '90s mood music and pop hits. Eccojams Vol. 1, the genre's first release and its mission statement, hits the ground running with a corrupted, chopped & screwed remix of Toto's seminal "Africa". The production, handled by Daniel Lopatin (a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never), transforms these pop hits into surreal drug trips, where certain loops are droned on for ages. It's an acquired taste, but for those intoxicated by the style of vaporwave, it's an easy album to get completely lost in.

6. Earth - Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Edition

Listen to this one with your speakers turned all the way up. Earth are a pioneering band in the genre known as "drone metal", where metal instruments and textures are applied to the ethos and compositional style of drone. That is to say, upsettlingly heavy guitar riffs are layered over guttural guitar drones. It will turn your brain to mush, and you will absolutely love it.

7. Natural Snow Buildings - The Dance of the Moon and the Sun

Natural Snow Buildings emerged out of the "new weird America" movement of the early '00s. Aiming to recreate the freak folk music of Catherine Ribeiro, Exuma, and Comus, new weird America artists threw caution to the wind and made the most blisteringly off-kilter folk music under the son. While contemporaries in the movement such as Joanna Newsom and Sung Tongs-era Animal Collective still used somewhat normal song structures, Natural Snow Buildings took the movement to its logical conclusion, creating a perfect balance of serene folk music and heavy, almost tribal drone.

8. Gas - Pop

Gas is another leading artist in the genre of ambient techno, although his music veers more towards the "ambient" side than Aphex Twin's. Pop is a masterpiece of evocative music. Underneath the techno rhythms are enveloping synths, trees blowing in the wind, babbling brooks, raindrops softly falling. Everything comes together beautifully to truly make the listener feel like they're in the serene scene depicted on the cover.

9. The KLF - Chill Out

In 1988, The Timelords topped the UK singles chart with the novelty hit "Doctorin' the Tardis", which mashed up the Doctor Who theme song and Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll (Part Two)". The same year, the group wrote a manual on how to garner a #1 hit with no real talent. Four years later, the duo, now named The KLF, fired machine gun blanks into the audience at the BRIT Awards and promptly quite the music business. A year later, they burned all the money they earned during their brief career. Sandwiched in between this entire mess is 1990s Chill Out, an ambient album so beautiful and serene you'd have no idea it was made by these madmen.

10. Eliane Radigue - Trilogie de la mort

Radigue's music is radical in its utter simplicity. A student of the French musique concrète movement, Radigue fought back against her peers by paring down their hyperactive sound collages into minimalistic drone works composed for only one synthesizer. Not much happens, at all, but that's the beauty. Radigue has the patience to let her sounds slowly evolve, rather than shoving everything in the listener's face at once.

11. Hoedh - Hymnvs

The late Hoedh's style of ambient music is not comforting, serene, or anything in between. Hymnvs is dark, oppressive, dramatic, and extremely, extremely, extremely cold. There's really no better way to put it, this record makes me feel like I'm freezing to death in a Norse dungeon. For how effortlessly evocative this is, it's easily one of my favorite albums of all time.

12. Stars of the Lid - The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid

The Tired Sounds of... is unique for a drone/ambient record due to the fact that no synthesizers are used. The duo, whose side projects include other great acts such as The Dead Texan, Aix Em Klemm, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, use heavily treated guitars to create the backbones of their compositions, and then layer horns and strings on top of the whole affair. This unique process makes for some of the most serene music in the genre, equally perfect to pay attention and fall asleep to.

13. Tim Hecker - Harmony in Ultraviolet

Hecker is the closest thing there is to a "superstar" in ambient music. "Superstar" is obviously a relative term, but Love Streams, Hecker's most recent album, charted on Billboard right in between Macklemore and the soundtrack to Batman v Superman, which is just a bewilderingly strange thing to think about. Giving a listen to Harmony in Ultraviolet, arguably Hecker's most acclaimed record, should make anybody understand why Hecker has so much popularity—he's a bonafide musical genius. The way he effortlessly fuses together serene ambient with harsh noise and glitch is a sight to behold, and the rest of his discography is equally as good.

14. Boris - Flood

One of the most daring records ever made. Preceeded by two albums of ugly, guttural, Earth-esque drone metal, and followed up by a relatively straight-forward stoner metal, Flood is a beautiful, drifting drone album. The band owes quite a lot to the atmospheric post-rock of bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but they never forget to deliver beautiful ambient segments, or beautifully pummeling metal segments, or even some delightful guitar noodling, Boris has everything covered.

15. Henry Flynt - You Are My Everlovin / Celestial Power

Flynt lived and died by a movement known as "anti-art". The movement pretty much does what it says on the tin, Flynt and his cohorts wished to dismantle the movement of high art and, with influence from the dadaists of the 1920s, replace it with minimalistic, naive outsider art. With You Are My Everlovin / Celestial Power, his 90-minute magnum opus, he does just that. Each piece takes its time to build steam, but when they both reach their climax it's a beautifully crushing mix of drone, minimalisism, hindustani classical music, and american primitive guitar.

16. Ernest Hood - Neighborhoods

This is in no way the most technically or compositionally proficient ambient record, but I dare anybody out there to give this a listen and not feel like they're six years old again. Hood layers field recordings over beautiful ambient synths to create a dream-like vision of childhood, where nothing goes wrong and nothing will ever change.

17. Birchville Cat Motel - Beautiful Speck Triumph

Birchville Cat Motel, the nom de plume of drone wunderkind Campbell Kneale, just put out his 47th record in a 22-year-long career. Despite Kneales propensity to release up to eight records a year, Beautiful Speck Triumph still stands out as his best record. It embraces maximalism in a way most drone is a bit too apprehensive to do, every second of this record is filled to the brim with soaring, magnificent guitar feedback, punctuated by bone-rattling snare drum hits. It's great.

18. Pauline Oliveros, Stuart Dempster & Panaiotis - Deep Listening

"Deep listening" as a concept goes far beyond the confines of this record. It promotes meditation, awareness of one's surroundings, and, as a performer, utilizing the natural sounds of the environment in a performance. The natural, minimalistic sound of Deep Listening follows these concepts to a t, and the album is all the better as a result.

19. Pelt - Ayahuasca

Pelt were another prominent band in the "new weird america" movement, putting specific emphasis on the "weird" part of the equation. Spearheaded by Mike Gangloff, with guitar contributions by the late, great Jack Rose, Pelt wore their influenes on their sleeve. They used instruments from hindustani classical music, their guitar work was heavily indebted to the works of John Fahey, and the soaring electric guitar work is reminiscent of noise rock stalwarts such as Sonic Youth and the Dead C. By the end of the record, you truly feel like you've consumed the titular substance.

20. Virginia Astley - From Gardens Where We Feel Secure

I've spent my whole life as a voracious music listener looking for the perfect "front porch" album. An album for a perfect, sunny day spent sitting on your front porch, drinking coffee and just thinking about life. This is that album. Astley takes influence from impressionist composers Debussy and Satie to create beautiful piano pieces she intersplices with dreamy new age and pastoral nature recordings. Listen to this outdoors, for sure.

21. Popul Vuh - In den Gärten Pharaos

As futile as it is to pinpoint the "first" ambient album, this might be the first album to solely consist of long, extended passages of pure mood music. For being released so early, it's honestly impressive how good this album is. Popol Vuh emerged from the "krautrock" scene, a rather derogatory term invented by British journalists to describe the wave of German experimental rock music coming out in the late '60s and early '70s. In den Gärten Pharaos has several moments that remind the listener of standard krautrock music, mainly regarding the kind of funky, tribal percussion, but this is pure, fantastic ambient through and through.

22. Steve Roach - Structures From Silence 

Structures From Silence is a pioneering album in the genre of "space ambient", which is pretty much exactly what you think it is. It can be easy for albums in the genre to sound too cheesy, or too much like a film score without a film. Roach avoids these common pratfalls with a minimalistic, beautifully melancholic album that really does evoke the mythical feeling of drifting aimlessly through space.

23. Various Artists - I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America, 1950-1990

Various artists compilations put together by labels who really know their stuff are able to unlock doors to cultures and musical scenes the average listener knows nothing about. In 2013, Light in the Attic records released I Am the Center, a massive compilation of long-forgotten new age tracks crafted by long-forgotten musicians. It's a melancholic listen for how frozen in time the whole compilation is, and while new age often gets a bad rap for being "cheesy", this is a sad, contemplative, and reflective listen the whole way through.

24. Tangerine Dream - Zeit

Tangerine Dream are best known for scoring '80s classics such as Thief, Firestarter, and Legend, as well as for being the grandfather of all the '80s-type synth music being released today (looking your way, Stranger Things). This work is all well and good, but the band was at their peak in the early '70s. Every album they released form 1972 to 1979 was absolutely brilliant, and Zeit is their masterpiece, a beautifully spacey exercise in evocative and heavy synth music.

25. Hiroshi Yoshimura - Green

Green does nothing to change what already works about ambient music. This has gained a small amount of notoriety in recent years for being an album commonly recommended by YouTube's algorithm, and it's a complete joy to see it get so much attention. Yoshimura understands subtlety, there is not a single moment of maximalism on this record and it's an absolutely beauty from start to finish.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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