11 Best Ambient Albums of All Time
Some music is meant to be played at a party, to get a crowd excited and on their feet. Other music is written to tell a story, to make you really feel something. Ambient music, on the other hand, is created with one specific purpose: to be background noise.
The birth of ambient music started in the mid-1900s. The genre was born from a desire to set a mood. When you walk into a room, the music playing should match the mood you’re meant to feel, they would argue.
Here, we’ve chosen our 11 favorite ambient albums of all-time. Given the nature of the genre, this list is entirely subjective and based on our preferences. There are dozens of other albums that could have made this list, but these are our top picks!
11. Oval - 94diskont
Oval’s work is an important part of not just music, but the history of technology. At the turn of the century, people were obsessed with where technology was going, especially in regards to data and information. Oval made their music career by sampling “homemade” sounds like skipping CDs. This eventually became its own genre: glitch music.
The trio of Frank Metzger, Marcus Popp, and Sebastian Oschatz created something unique with this record, arguably their best work. If you’re looking for something a little unique and experimental, this is a great place to start.
Brian Eno didn’t invent ambient music. He and others were making quiet, atmospheric music for years before this record. However, this record was the first to use the word “ambient” to describe it.
Music for Airports was recorded to create music that could give a time or place feeling. His goal was to provide a background layer to pair with the mood of the room. This is more common now, but at the time Eno’s work was revolutionary.
This album, in particular, was meant to help diffuse the tension and anxiety that comes with waiting in an airport terminal (where Eno actually was when he came up with the concept). This isn’t the best ambient album on this list, but it laid the foundation for hundreds of artists after him, which earns its spot.
9. The Orb - Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld
The members of The Orb have really made a name themselves in the world of ambient music. Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, their debut, is what started them on that path.
This album is long, jazzy, messy, and beautiful, all at the same time. The album is more than just a bunch of individual ambient sounds. It takes the listener on a journey, guiding you through a galactic world of sounds and feelings.
In the middle of the record, there’s a near half-hour without any sort of rhythm or beat-just an atmospheric space ride. This is deep-space ambience at its finest, and it shouldn’t be missed.
A Rainbow in Curved Air may not have been called ambient upon release, but it set the stage for dozens of artists after. Terry Riley’s virtuosic piano playing and his experimentation with composition and arrangements created something special on this record.
Inspiring artists like Eno to make the future of ambient music, this was an early look into what electronic music could be. The entire album reflects the feeling of dreaming, of going somewhere that’s almost like another world.
If the Orb is taking you to outer space, Riley spends this record bringing you more in touch with your own consciousness.
GAS, a side project of legendary DJ Wolfgang Voigt, is almost synonymous with ambient music at this point. Any of the records he has put out could have made it on this list. POP is another great choice, but we went with his third album, Konigforst.
This record took what he did on his first two outings and switched gears. It took 90s techno fundamentals and brought them into the world of electronic and ambient music.
Voigt is a legend in his own right, and everything he’s created has been a near-masterpiece. You’d be well-served to pick up any of his records, not just this one.
Another classic ambient album, Robert Ashley released Automatic Writing in 1979. It’s a quiet album, almost unnervingly so. The record is pieced together from Ashley’s fascination with involuntary speech.
Over the course of his career, Ashley had a fascination with language and the human voice, and that is no more on display than it is here. A quick peek in the liner of the album shows that Ashely suffered from Tourette’s syndrome, and this comes through in the music.
Vocal elements jump out at you quietly and suddenly before being overtaken by the rest of the track, only to come back down to just the vocals. It’s a masterclass in tension-building, and it deserves its spot as one of the greatest ambient albums of all time.
It was hard to pick just one Tim Hecker record for this list. While many would have opted for Harmony in Ultraviolet, we chose Radio Amor instead. Primarily is because of Hecker’s sheer boldness in experimentation on this record.
He manages to draw emotions out of the listener they didn’t even know they had, all without saying a single word. The sounds here are strange and evocative, painting a picture for you as you listen.
This isn’t your everyday ambient record, but for those who are willing to listen to something that breaks the mold (what little mold the ambient genre has), this is a great choice.
4. William Basinki - The Disintegration Loops I-IV
William Basinki played a bit of a mad scientist on this record. He had a bunch of old analog tapes that he recorded of soft, easy-listening music. He discovered as he played it back that parts of the tape began to “disintegrate,” changing the sound and tone of the music.
As you listen to The Disintegration Loops you find that Basinki kept repeating these tracks until they fell apart. You hear the music as it begins, and you get to follow it as it slowly dies out into something that barely resembles the original track.
It’s a masterclass in creativity and how to make something new out of existing material. Basinki has other records we could have chosen, but the concept here is too good to ignore or leave off of this list.
3. Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works Vol. II
Aphex Twin is not exactly an ambient band, but their Selected Ambient Works albums are stellar examples of the genre. Most would agree that Vol. II is their best effort, but 85-92 is another great work.
This album forgoes any pretense of concept or narrative, opting to just act as the background music that ambient was meant to be. The tracks don’t even have names, opting for numbers 1-24 instead as titles.
Aphex Twin has always held a special place in the heart of electronic music lovers, but their ambient efforts are just as excellent. An absolute must-have in any collection.
Most ambient music is made with electronic sounds and synthesizers. The artist can choose a note, let it ring out, swell, and do other seemingly miraculous things to the sound with different effects. This album, though, takes the opposite approach.
Stars of the Lid, made up of members Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride, use orchestral instruments and layer the notes on top of each other. The sounds swell and build the same way a synthesizer would, but it's all organic, created by real instruments.
The result is a cross between a beautiful orchestral arrangement and something more akin to drone, but it’s a joy to listen to either way. Taking what a synthesizer does and accomplishing that with real instruments is something that few musicians have done, and we would argue none to the level of perfection accomplished here.
1. The KLF - Chill Out
This record embodies what ambient is all about. Some would argue there are albums that are more sonically complex or aesthetically pleasing, but this record is special. It was made to set a mood, and a specific one at that.
The band claims it portrays a train ride across the U.S., but whether you get that or not, it still provides a calming, tranquil atmosphere that few other records can achieve. Ambient background music in its purest form, The KLF achieved something here that other artists have tried to replicate.
Just looking at the album cover begins you on this journey of peace and tranquility. The album was a return to what ambient was meant to be, a place of respite for partiers and anyone who needed to chill out (no pun intended).