Ambient Music wins the year again. After a 2020 which saw the genre unexpectedly rise to the top of my preferences, 2021 was the same story. The cool thing about ambient music is that you don’t really need to focus on it. You can let it ride in the background and go about your business, coming out all the more relaxed for it. I find that it’s great for working, cooking, computing, driving, whatever! And the deeper down the rabbit hole I go the better it gets. And now for my own personal end of year awards 🙂
- Album of the Year: Ulla – Limitless Frame
- Song of the Year: arushi jain – Under the Lilac Sky
- Artists of the Year: brin, Hilyard, Salamanda
- Label of the Year: Seil Records
- EP of the Year: Too many to choose from
- Mix of the Year: halftribe’s Deep Breakfast mix
Ki Oni • Stay Indoors & Swim
Elastic underwater loops from LA! The perfect soundtrack to my final (2 hour!) hot spring session of the year. Under a full moon no less. There was something very aquatic about this music, and sure enough see the title. Except I was outdoors in a riverbed. There’s a cornucopia of activity under the surface of this music, and the way it’s all obscured is just perfect. Not usually a fan of long form ambient, but it’s fitting that half of the tracks go over 10 minutes. Release on Sound as Language in LA.
Salamanda • Sphere
There’s nothing overly tribal or percussive on this list, but that changes with this album. A lovely, hypnotic, contemplative, trancey affair that keeps itself in the ambient territory by forgoing the use of snares. Well at least that’s my own way of classifying ambient music 😉 Salamanda consists of two girls from South Korea who perform live and have released no less than 3 albums and handful of great singles this year (check out their Bandcamp). Released on Mėtron Records (UK).
Brin & Josiah Steinbrick • Bliss Place
A product of the incredibly strong and collaborative LA scene. I’m not usually a fan of short songs around the 2 minute mark, but everything here is so good that it’s more than worth the minimal time investment. The album gives itself a chance to breathe with the 17 minute closer ‘blissspaceofficial’, but the off-grid percussive nature of ‘lexus resist’ is hypnotizing and my personal highlight. Two more incredible artists to follow going forward! Check more of Steinbrick’s beautiful catalog on his Bandcamp.
Ulla • Limitless Frame
Sometimes you know something will be great from the very first note – and that was the case here. That one chord, imbued with so much character and texture, sets the tone for a very rich, textured, and consistent album. But there’s variety too. She throws it off kilter with distorted guitars and other lush effects. The album feels “on the edge”…of something. I get the impression it was labored over carefully until it resonated just right, making for a truly transportive piece of music. Released on Motion Ward in LA. It’s too bad you can’t purchase the songs individually though. Excellent followup to her excellent album last year.
halftribe • Lucent Forms Travelling
First heard the title track opening up his wonderful Deep Breakfast Mix. There is something about a slowly repeated note, with all the right warmth and texture, over and over again, that puts you in a good mental space. The sporadic harp notes really bring it home. Then the title track is one upped by the next song Nighttime Worlds. The entire album is brilliant and I’m excited to follow this artist. Released on Hidden Vibes in Ukraine.
Hilyard • Division Cycle
I’m not usually into dark or drone ambient, but something about this one hit me really deep on first listen. There’s something vaguely mechanical underneath the surface of the raw tones and textures – and it’s completely enveloping. Like someone mentioned on the Bandcamp page: “The division between the so-called good and bad in life is often just a matter of time or perspective…” and this album reflects that duality. Released on Cryo Chamber in Oregon. All of his music is currently Name Your Price on his Bandcamp.
Stijn Hüwels + Tomoyoshi Date
A Distant Fire, A Distant Cloud
I won’t go into details but this one pretty much saved my life this summer, haha. Looking and listening back on it, I can see why the circumstances delivered this one to me. If there is any music on this list that could personify the idea of healing, maybe this it it. But it also feels very much on the edge, as if entering a new world, yet extremely tranquilizing at the same time. Like passing from life into death, or maybe the other way around. Released on laaps in France.
Ashan • Sacred Spring
Enchanting stuff. Early in the year I had bookmarked this with the comment “album of the year?” After finally listening again in November, I can get behind that statement. Usually there are one or two tracks on a release that take me by hold, but in this case it really works as a full album of consistent lush ambient greatness, where it’s truly greater than the sum of its parts.
Released on Inner Islands (Oakland)
kafari • Blanket of Black
Some of the best things in life are indeed free. Not exactly ambient, but close enough. The very best of what you might classify as “coffee shop jazz” – but in an extremely ambient way. Culled from an old piano during the pandemic, these songs really hit the spot when I first heard them, and also saved my life last summer 😉 I’m loving the hi pitched string like lead he’s using on most of the songs. Self-released on his Bandcamp from Portland, Maine.
The Lifted Index • Sanctuary
Another hot spring session, but this time I struck gold on the first attempt, and came out of the springs fully renewed and refreshed. There’s enough texture to keep you interested but not overwhelmingly so. Very feel-good stuff, and the standout release on Seil Records so far this year.
arushi jain • Under the Lilac Sky
How can you deny this? Well you can’t. A beautiful Indian woman with a radical modular rack making “ambient synth ragas intended to be heard during the sunset hours”. It’s beautiful, interesting, complex, adventurous, rich, and more. She reinterprets classical Indian music through a modern electronic framework, resulting in a classic yet futuristic sound book-ended by the Song of the Year. Can’t beat that!
MLO • Oumuamua
So this is a compilation of unreleased works from this duo, mostly from the 90s, and it makes me realize there is so much more digging to do within this genre. Upon discovery, I probably played this one more times back to back than any other release so far this year. Highlight for me is “Sleeper” (below) which develops from ambient into jungle over the course of 12 minutes! Released on Music from Memory in the Netherlands.
taennya • natural serentiy
I was in the local hot spring last night, searching fruitlessly for a good album. Nothing was working until I came across this. Although sounding like warmly enveloping drone ambience at first, you’ll soon realize chord progressions are at play, and beautiful ones at that; ever so subtle, delayed, and stretched. Along with the hotter than usual spring water, it took me to another world. Big ups to this young Russian artist who only has 42 Soundcloud followers at the time of writing! Released on Cached Media in Cleveland.
Mary Lattimore • Collected Pieces II
After her stellar album last year, she’s back with another collection of beautiful tracks. These songs function very effectively as straightforward harp loops that warp every so slightly, washed in delay and reverb. A lot of these songs will be pressed to vinyl on her next album in January, signaling another great start to a new year of ambient music.
perila • How Much Time is Between You & Me
I wasn’t sure whether to include this one on the list but after a 2nd listen, the answer was a resounding yes. Sometimes music works like that; you need to give it another chance and let it sink in. It straddles the line between being other-wordly and enveloping at the same time. This Berlin-based Russian artist has a ton more self-released stuff on her Bandcamp so dig in.
Sam Prekop • In Away
He’s done it again. My favorite ambient artist of the moment is on a tear. After last years’ epic Comma album, he has returned with an EP of self-released songs from recent studio sessions, that arguably push his (already impressive) modular sound envelope a bit further. Highlight for me is the techno jam ‘Triangle’. Self-released from Chicago on his Bandcamp. Be sure to also check out his beautiful, hyptonizing 25 minute Spelling piece on Australian label Longform Editions.
The KLF • Come Down Dawn
Wow. Driving home from work one night, a song from this album came on my Spotify Discovery (which leans heavily towards ambient these days!) and I was instantly taken aback and dove into the entire album. Come to find, this is a re-issue (slightly re-worked) of a classic album from 1990. And it sounds just as fresh today as what I imagine it might have then.
Iu Takahashi • Late in Life
There’s a very strong KMRU quality in this one. Soft, cloudy, major chord progressions that just float by peacefully and serenely. I’m glad I came back to this at the end of the year because it’s amazing release where I just can’t pick a favorite. Released on Regional Attraction in Portland, Oregon.
Innesti • In Letters
This girl definitely deserves a mention. She released two albums this year for $1 each (and there are many more that came before that). Her style is both universal and unique – I’d describe it as ethereal and breathy, loaded with long reverb tails and space, and ghostly vocals mixed in with subtlety, ending with the stunning title track. The songs alternate between light and dark with plenty of room to breathe. Self-released on her Bandcamp. Might just go and scoop up her entire catalog 🙂 And don’t miss this eerie lead single from an album of hers last year.
Andrea Porcu • Music From a Sinking World
Fans of The Caretaker apply here: soft, stretched, muted & otherworldly sounds of yesteryear. Both haunting and incredibly relaxing all at once. I might also add that his output rate is rather impressive. Self-released on his Bandcamp from Sardinia, Italy.
City of Dawn • Ambedo
I was working late tonight, shuffling through Soundcloud, Spotify, and Bandcamp. And nothing was doing the trick – until I came across this. No frills string-like atmospheres that put you at ease and/or help you concentrate on whatever task you have at hand. Released on Healing Sound Propogandist in Indiana.
Blanket Swimming + Gallery Six
Meet the Rising Sun with Infinite Stillness
I was, somewhat frustratingly, having a hard time finding a standout ambient release for the past couple of weeks until this came along. An extremely calming, comforting sound. A lot of birds chirping in the background, occasionally some water moving around, and hey that’s not a bad thing at all. Best song: all of them. Released on Healing Sound Propogandist (Indianapolis)
Brin, Dntel, More Eaze • Futureangelics
A standout release, and not your typical ambience. Somewhat soundtrack-y (in a good way), and full of sounds and textures that will turn your ear. Released on Cached Media in Chicago.
Landon Caldwell • Bicycle Day
Two 20 minute tour de forces (pun intended) that never stop evolving and keep you hooked around every corner. “We grew up in a small town riding bikes as children, then eventually eating acid and riding bikes as teenagers. We wanted to capture the sense of wonder where we always dream to return.” Boom! Released on Mock Records in Los Angeles.
Vivian Koch • Beyond Contact
Not stricly ambient but close enough. And incredible at that! As a label, AD 93 (formerly Whities) almost never fails to impress, or at the very least, turn your head with futuristic sound design. In this case, it does both to marvelous effect. Or shall we say the artist did. Bravo!
Yann Novak • Lifeblood of Light and Rapture
Slow building drone ambience with character.