A List Of The Top Ambient Albums Of The Decade
It’s only 2023 and it’s already been a prolific decade in ambient music, with exciting new labels, artists and boundary-pushing projects emerging on the surface of the genre. There was something about the last few years that seemed to really push ambient music into new territory, resulting in some of the best ambient albums in memory. While it has always been elastic in terms of what it can be, there seemed to be a reinvention of certain tropes: dense layers of field recordings and synthesizer textures that reminded me why I loved the genre so much in the first place—visceral machine loops and live percussion adding structure where you didn’t expect it, surrealist explorations into consciousness-altering soundscapes that reflected our times through distortion, feedback, and silence.
It’s hard to keep up with all the ambient artists who are pushing the genre in new directions. That said, it was extremely difficult to keep things down to just a couple handfuls of releases that sum up the decade in ambient so far. But I’ve scoured the internet for the most noteworthy and best ambient albums of the past few years. After much deliberation (and a lot of listening and re-listening), here are my picks for the best ambient albums of the 2020s so far.
The Best Ambient Albums Of The 2020s
Bitchin Bajas – Bajascillators
Injecting some much-needed brightness into the often austere and inert world of ambient, Bitchin Bajas trot out a sound that’s part beach soundtrack, part beatnik jazz. The band’s 2022 album, Bajascillators, is a relaxing treat of extended melodies and old school analog instrumentation that feels like the musical equivalent of lying back on a beach chair with your favorite drink in hand. At around 10 minutes-plus each, the tracks are long though not slow or plodding; instead they allow for moments of careful listening as well as room for the imagination to run wild in between. Using elements from both modern classical and post-punk aesthetics to inform their tonal palette of overdriven analog warmth, this group has concocted an album full of organic instrumentation that draws you in immediately before taking you on an evolving journey with disparate elements that blend to create an effortless feel. It’s one hell of a ride and makes for one of the best ambient albums of the decade so far.
Claire Rousay – A Softer Focus
This 2021 record is a beautiful experience from start to finish, and surely one of the decade’s best ambients albums. It’s filled with intricate rhythms, layered textures, and an experimental edge that makes for an auditory trip you won’t soon forget. Those looking for one-off tracks will be disappointed with this release, but those who enjoy experiencing a complete journey will rejoice. The longer length of these pieces (both in duration and conceptualization) make it so that your attention is never lost; every minute of music is seamlessly connected to the next. Claire Rousay is one of those artists I feel lucky to listen to and share so early in her career; it’s exciting to imagine what she will bring us next.
CS + Kreme – Snoopy
If you can appreciate a group of talented artists who are willing to experiment with their sound, then you’re in for a treat. CS + Kreme have taken their fans on many journeys over the past couple of years and this album adds another dimension to their artistry. From its dreamlike opening track onwards, Snoopy transposes fascinating combinations of styles into one cohesive production where no two sounds feel artificial or like they don’t belong. Imbuing their signature sound with a boundary-pushing sense of adventure, CS + Kreme have created an album that’s daring and thrilling from start to finish. Snoopy is a work of shifting moods and colors, an exploration of pop archetypes that deconstructs them into a chaotic collage that reflects the messy depth of our feelings. Snippets of hyper melodic synth work shimmer with a fleeting sublimity through the album’s body, while a sludgy tempo and muted percussion further anchors the listener to concrete earth. The album succeeds in seducing you into a dreamworld, where anything is possible and results in one of the best ambient albums of the decade.
Green-House – Music For Living Spaces
Olive Ardizoni, aka Green-House, is a Los Angeles-based experimental music composer who creates delicate, easy-listening ambient synth sounds with a pop sensibility. Her full-length debut, Music for Living Spaces, is a cozy collection of gentle melodies that evoke the magical aspects of nature. The result is a project that infuses you with the same sense of wonderment derived from spending time gazing up at the stars on a clear summer night. This is music meant to be experienced during leisure and contemplation, but that also never lacks an infectiously catchy quality. The album embraces its whimsical qualities by bringing a bit of joyful magic into an otherwise quiet environment. Whether it’s floating through your own home or taking a walk outside on a cold winter evening, Music for Living Spaces fits perfectly within any space you wish to bring new life and vitality into. This one has soundtracked many days for me, easily one of the best ambient albums of the past few years.
Jon Hopkins – Music For Psychedelic Therapy
With Music For Psychedelic Therapy, Jon Hopkins set out to create a collection of music that can be used as background noise for psychedelic trips. The resulting album is as vast and boundless as the open head spaces it was conceived in. In some ways, it operates as a classic ambient record: no vocals, mostly lacking in melodic structure, and built on the tension between repetition and progression. On the other hand, it eschews the traditional rules of melody altogether and instead aims for an ever-shifting resolution that feels much more closely linked to dance music. Its rhythmic groove becomes something of a hallucinatory chant heard just out at the edges of perception. It’s often impossible to decipher where one moment begins and another ends, whether it be with the ambient music or because of your own mind conjuring the sounds together. As the soundscape unfurls, you drift into a drowsy state where time itself becomes meaningless. There’s a sense that this is what expanded consciousness might actually be like: in a perpetual state of awe.
KMRU – Jar
KMRU’s Jar is a record that sits in the space between tonal warmth and melodic complexity, where subtle shifts and gradually rotating rhythmic cycles create something bigger than just another ambient album. Like his previous works, it’s an impressive exercise in repackaging something as seemingly simple as a tonal melody into an entire sonic landscape filled with movement and activity. Each track finds its place within an immersive, cohesive environment that feels instantly familiar to anyone who has listened to KMRU’s previous records like Peel and Logue. From the songs’ shifting sounds to their gentle melodies, these tracks build upon each other in a meticulous way. There’s a lot to love here, with Jar carrying on the fascinating dialogue between its two sides: one is home to immersive soundscapes that sink into your skin; the other is where you find yourself smiling at the smallest of differences. It’s a work that rewards repeat listening and one of the best ambient albums of the decade.
Nicholas Jaar – Cenizas
With Cenizas, Nicolas Jaar crafted a beautifully sparse and melodic body of work, in which he all but abandons any semblance of rhythm to reflect on the nature of silence itself. Cenizas is a powerful album that moves along at its own pace, mostly without a single beat. If you’re looking for something to set the mood and stimulate your mind, this is it. Hauntingly beautiful, it digs deep into the unexplored corners of experimental electronic music, resulting in one of the best ambient albums of the 2020s in the process. From the moment it starts, Cenizas is a rich and rewarding listening experience, both in terms of the quality of the sound and Nicolas Jaar’s ability to invoke deep emotion. The textures can be delicate and ethereal, but they also provide a drone-like focal point over which Jaar’s melodies float like mist. For those who appreciate ambient music with little or no percussion, these tracks are a dream come true.
Space Afrika – Honest Labour
Honest Labour is a good example of how to marry imperfection with beauty. From the vocal arrangements to the rhythmical strings, there is a feeling of relaxation and joy that emanates from this album. The Manchester duo combine field recordings with twinkling tones, warm basslines and layers of vocal harmonies to create music that can feel at once euphoric and distant. My favorite part of Space Afrika’s music is their ability to create meditative moments out of vocal snippets and looped field recordings. They create a structure that’s spacious and complex with interwoven melodies. It’s also a reminder that these two producers are not just soundscape artists, but expert arrangers who know how to balance the right amount of beats and melodies with intimate stories that make you feel something real. When all is said, Honest Labour easily goes down as one of the best ambient albums of the last few years.
Sofie Birch and Johan Carøe – Repair Techniques
Repair Techniques is the result of a unique collaboration between Sofie Birch and Johan Carøe. Joined by their shared passion for analog synthesizers, they spent time exploring, experimenting and playing together, immersing themselves in sound and swelling with the warmth of resonance. Drawing inspiration from these experiences, they then reworked these recordings over a period of time to create an album that encompasses all their curiosities and concerns. At times meditative and sometimes playful, this is a dynamic record that invites us to listen with patience and curiosity. True to form as a slow burner, Repair Techniques is gorgeous in its simplicity. A subtle monument in the history of recorded music – a timeless release that will be cherished in the future and go down as one of the best ambient albums of the decade.
Turn On The Sunlight – Drives To The Beach
Drives To The Beach by Turn On The Sunlight is a beautiful collection that combines modern jazz and ambient music. Featuring the luscious instrumentation of Carlos Niño and Jesse Peterson, this album easily transports you to other worlds and dimensions. The band creates spaces for you to get lost in. Drives To The Beach tells stories of daydreams running wild, taking us on a journey across mysterious lands filled with wonder. It features expansive soundscapes both lush and open with a constant warmth that settles in your bones. One of the best ambient albums of the 2020s, it’s perfect for when you want to relax and take a deep breath, or let your mind wander into different worlds.
William Basinski & Janek Schaefer – … on reflection
William Basinski and Janek Schaefer’s … on reflection is the collaborative effort of two music legends and masters of their crafts. It’s also a labor of love that took eight years to make and a record that reveals itself like time itself: slowly but surely. Working remotely, Basinski and Schaefer crafted a work that explore the mysterious nature of time. Together they create a series of linked pieces that is at once tranquil and unsettling; reflective in tone but also at times startlingly immediate. Moody piano melodies are backed by samples of everyday noise and underlined by synths, while a gentle melancholy infuses the record as a whole. While its five tracks are just 42 minutes long, this record rewards fans of both artists with truly exceptional music.