The 10 Best Ambient Albums

As a longtime nerd of electronic music in all of its forms, compiling a list of the ten best ambient albums is true torture. Please know that I feel appropriately ashamed for leaving out all the classics I inevitably must skip here. However, if this list helps those uninitiated down the path of chilled-out enlightenment, then my job has served its purpose.

The term “ambient” is mostly just another genre-tag we use for convenience — I’m pretty sure some consider Enya ambient as well, so it makes all the great stuff we know as “ambient” that much more trivial. Even the very term itself has sub-genres: “ambient house”, “chillbient” (what is “chillbient” anyway? Forget it, I don’t want to know), “Illbient” (see “chillbient”), “dark ambient”….the list goes on. The one prevailing idea behind this type of music is that it conjures a certain mood and tone of instrumental and relaxed nirvana whilst incorporating samples of every day happenings like bees buzzing, birds chirping, and cows farting (listen to “Sticky End” on “U.F. Orb”). These found sounds only go so far before the human element needs to take charge and converge the atmosphere with samples, synths, and classical origins.

The best ambient music struck its loudest chords in the 70’s and 90’s. In the 70’s, Brian Eno made the single greatest stride in the history of ambient music with a series of exceedingly beautiful vinyl adventures that still hold up to this very day. These works acted as a catalyst to any type of modern beat-less, instrumental music existing. Eno proved that instrumental electronic music can be just as emotional as the most complicated Mozart symphony, or more importantly (in the face of tired rock aesthetics), the longest screeching guitar solo. The 90’s made ambient music even better. The young techno crowd stepped in and showed off their aptitude in studio science while incorporating the latest and greatest in musical technology. This 90’s generation was the first to be influenced by the greatness of the experimental 70’s, and they concocted a heady brew mixed with dance culture. Some of the finest moments in ambient music shimmered from this time period and those precious ideas only continue to gather steam.

Eno once described his ambient output as “environmental music”, as if to say that his music was there to ignore as much as get lost in. An organic approach to ambient music is key — it invites the listener to be just as engaged and proactive as is necessary. It’s evolving music, shifting with moods, allowing us to hear something different each time we listen. To call it formless is missing the point entirely, as we put as much form as our personal experience allows us to. This relative freedom opens huge scopes of possibility built upon exactly what our life experience brings to the music.

Let’s get lost, shall we?

10 Essential Ambient Albums

  1. Terre Thaemlitz

    Soil

    Terre Thaemlits: Soils - Best Ambient Albums

    If you don’t know the name Terre Thaemlitz, it’s high time you did. Thamelitz also records under the name DJ Sprinkles, and has produced some of the most highly soulful ambient music this side of the early 90’s. I highly encourage anyone to investigate this fascinating character’s output and politics, but what stands above all of this is the staggering depth of the music, never more so than here on Soil. The similarities to Aphex Twin are here, but Soil encapsulates feelings of beauty and dread simultaneously, leaving a feeling of unease and unpredictability to each listen. Closing track Cycles is one of her best tracks ever, enticing the listener to sit closer to the speakers with its broken keyboard melody. Yet it is also repelling us with a ghostly voice scratching at the surface as if it were trying to crawl out of the speakers and ruin our bliss. Mood music indeed. Stars Of The Lid have conjured up some amazing tunes in their time, but their mojo comes from releases like this. Thaemlitz is a force not to be ignored, and Soil is an example of a tremendous slice of 90’s ambient that has gone overlooked for far too long.

    Listen


  2. Biosphere

    Substrata

    Biosphere: Substrata - Best Ambient Albums

    Substrata by Biosphere makes most of the best ambient lists, and why the hell shouldn’t it? Equal parts spooky and gorgeous, Geir Jenssen incorporated his early influences of techno and house, and collided it with some of the most haunting soundscapes ever. The magic of Substrata is how Jenssen turns the humans into an alien life form amidst the pulsing electronics — in track “Hyperborea”, a human voice finally materializes to literally “reveal itself”, sounding more strange and foreboding than the streaking electronics that pierce it. Substrata is an intensely personal work of ambiguity, built around claustrophobia, disengagement, and naturalistic fallacy.

    Listen


  3. Brian Eno & Harold Budd with Daniel Lanois

    The Pearl

    Brian Eno & Harold Budd with Daniel Lanois: The Pearl - Best Ambient Albums

    The Pearl is one of the purest ambient albums there is, stuffed with melancholy and quiet beauty. Whether you’re driving home during rush hour, flying high above the earth in a jet, or staring at the azure sky in a field of daisies, The Pearl will right your ship once again. While this is undoubtedly an Eno production with the bubbling loops and nostalgic vibe, Budd’s classical influence transcends the ambient genre and creates something altogether timeless.

    Listen


  4. Gas

    Königsforst

    Gas: Königsforst - Best Ambient Albums

    It was difficult to choose just one Gas release for this list of the best ambient albums. Any one of Wolfgang Voigt’s side project albums would suffice, but I’m choosing this third album in the series due to its sizable shift from the first album, and his unique use of sampling. Perhaps the closest brother to Eno’s Ambient series, Voigt makes the heart ache with his desire to completely encapsulate the listener with strings and melody without even a hint of subtlety. In the hands of a lesser producer this could come off as pompous and pretentious, but the music acts as a mere extension of our own emotions as each track goes exactly where we hope it to go. Königsforst is the best example of how a 4/4 beat can work exceptionally within this ambient framework without sounding like a mere club track. “Track 5”, with its peripheral beat, is grounded by spooky horn calls, and ghostly echoes of some lost orchestra. Chilling, haunting, and absolutely timeless, Königsforst easily makes it into this top 10 ambient albums list.

    Listen


  5. The Orb

    Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld

    The Orb: Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld- Best Ambient Albums

    Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld forever married the ethics of dance culture into the spaciousness of ambient music. In the late 80’s, Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty performed “chill out” sets for the rave kids to come down to, allowing them an opportunity to show listeners a taste of a different sort of electronic music. While Cauty continued on with the KLF project, Paterson culled the remains of many hours of jam sessions, enlisted the help of future electronic wizards like Thomas Fehlmann and Youth to chime in, and all of a sudden “ambient house” was born. This album switches back and forth from the dance floor purity of “Little Fluffy Clouds” to one of the the most recognizable ambient tracks ever, “A Huge Ever Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Center Of The Ultraworld”. At just under two hours in length, this was the first epic ambient experience, and one that changed the landscape forever.

    Listen


  6. Tangerine Dream

    Phaedra

    Tangerine Dream: Phaedra - Best Ambient Albums

    One of the prototypes of electronic ambient music, and the first that Tangerine Dream employed the Moog synthesizer. Taking hours to tune every day, this attention to detail pays in spades as the multi-layered waves of sound proved to be excitingly fresh, and far ahead of its time. Phaedra is one of a few T.D. albums that stands alone in its place and time, gathering no moss and sounding every bit as exciting as it did over 40 years ago. While employing other-worldly sounds and noises, the stark melodies keeps us grounded and always coming back for more. This album was a huge commercial and artistic success in its day, and helped usher forth the proliferation of synthesizers in popular music everywhere.

    Listen


  7. Steve Reich

    Music For 18 Musicians

    Steve Reich: Music For 18 Musicians - Best Ambient Albums

    Some may argue upon Music For 18 Musicians place in the pantheon of best ambient albums, but its approach and delivery to the genre cannot go unnoticed. Based around 11 chords and elements such as human breath, it focuses on a simple pulse for 60 minutes. If ambient music is about extended periods of atmosphere and “environment”, this album is arguably the best of all time in these departments. While the quietudes juxtapose the crescendos, Music For 18 Musicians radiates a visionary stroke of genius influencing all musical structures to come after it.

    Listen


  8. Global Communication

    Pentamerous Metamorphosis & 76:14

    Global Communication: Pentamerous Metamorphosis - Best Ambient Albums Global Communication: 76:14 - Best Ambient Album

    Ok, I’m cheating a bit here by putting two albums in the three spot, but in this case it is absolutely deserving of it. Mark Pritchard & Tom Middleton combined their background of classical training and love of rave music, and created some of the most lovely and striking pieces of ambient music known to humankind with these two releases. While 76:14 needs no introduction with its certified classic status and nods to Tangerine Dream, it’s Pentamerous Metamorphosis that maybe needs a re-evaluation. The album consists of five G.C. remixes from the Chapterhouse album “Blood Music”, but you wouldn’t know that by listening to the albums. G.C. takes the very basest of elements from an 11 track indie-rock album, and transforms them into a five-track, 60 minute journey. Pentamerous Metamorphosis is every bit as brilliant as 76:14, perhaps even more so as listening to the album now proves it to be less dated and more relevant with its starker grooves and minimalist samples. Make no mistake about it, 76:14 is an undisputed monster of ambient music history, but Pentamerous is a better document to the power of remixing, the evolution of ambient house, and the excitement of discovering a stunning album overshadowed by its more publicly revered cousin.

    Listen to Pentamerous Metamorphosis
    Listen to 76:14


  9. Brian Eno With Daniel Lanois & Roger Eno

    Apollo – Atmospheres & Soundtracks

    Brian Eno with Daniel Lanois & Roger Eno: Apollo (Atmospheres & Soundtracks) - Best Ambient Albums

    I try to avoid including two albums from the same act in these lists, but how in the hell do you make an ambient list without at least two from Brian Eno? Eno’s Ambient series of albums are all must-haves in any collection, but Apollo, arguably, is the cream of the crop. More so than the other Ambient albums in the series, Apollo conjured a sense of humanity that very few others could ever equal. With melodies that could break even the coldest of hearts, Apollo proves too impossibly beautiful to comfortably categorize.
    Listen


  10. The KLF

    Chill Out

    The KLF: Chill Out - Best Ambient Albums

    The KLF are perhaps the most rock ‘n roll “band” in the history of popular music — however, that must be saved for another post. The seeds of Chill Out were planted by Jimmy Cauty and Alex Paterson performing their “come-down” sets during the late 80’s rave scene, while Bill Drummond’s influence solidified the timeless beauty of this album. Never before has an album been more of a gateway between the old and the new, escalating disparities such as Elvis and acid house, transposing them over chanting monks and news blips about kids being killed in auto accidents. Chill Out is a capsule of taking every past experience and re-tuning it in a truly environmental way. Floating above the recorded ephemera is the heart-breaking pedal steel guitar of Graham Lee, further humanizing the completely alien experience. The KLF meant this to be the imagined soundtrack of a drive down the American Gulf Coast, and while they had never even been there, it couldn’t sound more authentic. The group used it as a vehicle to coyly promote their own tracks like “3 A.M. Eternal”, “Last Train To Trancentral”, and “Justified and Ancient”, but Chill Out was the moment their imagined concept album took on a much deeper meaning. While Elvis’s ghostly voice wafts in and out about living in the ghetto, and Acker Bilk’s “Stranger On The Shore” brings us back to nostalgic reality, we realize that the music has come full-circle, using all of the elements given to us, and wrapping it up in the most up-to-date package imaginable. The environment, the artistry, the melodies, the influences, and the attitude all come together effortlessly on Chill Out, and without saying a single word.
    Listen


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30 Comments
  • Apr 17,2020 at 16:06

    There are probably so many more that I could add to the list, but you hit it right on the mark with T.D.s Phaedra. It’s just a timeless classic (have the original LP) and it actually went gold in a few countries. How I long for those good old days.

  • Apr 10,2020 at 04:53

    Some of my favorites are
    – Music for Nine Postcards (Hiroshi Yoshimura)
    – async (Ryuichi Sakamoto)
    – Melancholia (William Basinski)
    – Un Collection Des Chainons I (Yoshio Ojima)

  • Dec 11,2019 at 01:42

    axl559 The picture in the title is a still from The KLF’s movie “The Rites of Mu”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRTGfx0z-nc

  • Nov 23,2019 at 04:34

    Please tell me where this picture in the title comes from?

  • Nov 13,2019 at 21:37

    Decent list, mate, but you’re missing Susumu Yokota’s Sakura.

  • Oct 23,2019 at 20:44

    @jbuckf50: Naming only 10 was a nearly-impossible task, believe me. I disagree about Tim Hecker. See, to me ambient music, like any genre, is only as good as what came before it. It was important for me to name off the albums that stand as originators in some sense. Ambient music hasn’t broken much new ground in the past 20 years to my ears.
    @zuthrn23: That’s a great Eno album to be sure, but I thought the other two were more influential.
    @tricil: Nope, no SAW II. As much as I love Aphex, I think he is routinely overrated. I think it’s easy for people to tout Aphex as being hugely influential now because he has become so popular over the years. But as someone who was there in the early 90s as Aphex was coming to prominence, I don’t necessarily think his music has stood the test of time as well as others. Might be because I’ve heard it all so much, not sure.
    @E-Nut: Ha, yeah, picking the right Eno albums is hard! They all should be on there!
    @punkwave: Thanks, punkwave!

  • Apr 5,2019 at 09:23

    Great. I really appreciate your lists. Always an interesting source. It is a plus that you find a link to imediately listen to the music! Really great to discover new/old music.

  • Mar 8,2019 at 05:43

    Off the top of my head.

    Chihei Hatakeyama – Far from the Atmosphere
    Deathprod – Morals and Dogma
    Lustmord anything

  • Feb 20,2019 at 10:26

    Happy to see that I’ve got about 50% of the Albums suggested in my Collection, and the other 50% will be an exciting discovery (Even though I know a few of the Artists, and have other titles by them (example The Orb). And then, there’s the “Why Wasn’t this and That Album Included?”. I’d say that Qluster’s “Echtzeit” (2016), deserves to be on this list.HOWEVER: To rank only 10 Albums from this genre as “the best”, is, carefully estimated; near Impossible! And Brian Enos “Discreet Music” should definitely had been there. That’s the Album that started, and defined the Genre! :-D

  • Feb 20,2019 at 01:46

    Seems odd that Music For Airports is not on the list.

  • Feb 17,2019 at 16:35

    All classics, but seems to ignore the wave of great ambient work that came out in the late 2000s, largely inspired by a classic in it’s own right, Tim Hecker – Harmony in Ultraviolet.

  • Feb 16,2019 at 21:33

    no SAW II?

  • Jul 10,2015 at 05:38

    Needs some Namlook. But good to see some appreciation for some complete masterpieces.

  • Jul 9,2015 at 19:00

    @system-J: Yes, I absolutely love the “Blade Runner” soundtrack, and I considered including it. Really brilliant album in its own right, and thank you for mentioning it!
    @MiloPonsford: It was my pleasure, thank you so much for reading!

  • Jul 9,2015 at 16:01

    Brilliant read! Really enjoyed reading it and found a lot of new music. Thanks a lot

  • Jul 9,2015 at 14:13

    Pretty much all stone cold classics and no self-respecting fan of ambient should be unfamiliar with them. Since you went for the approach of selecting seminal classics I do feel there’s one glaring omission here, which is Vangelis – Blade Runner. The influence that soundtrack (and later album) had on electronic music is almost incalculable, and it still sounds impossibly gorgeous and evocative today.

  • Jul 8,2015 at 09:59

    @risingsun: I agree that “Blood Music” was way more evolved than the “indie rock” tag would suggest, but still in that world, nonetheless. You feel “Pentamerous” was similar to “Blood Music”?? I have to disagree with you there! I do love “Blood Music” for what it is, though — a nice little slice of early 90’s rock any way you cut it.
    @Thesorus: I do love Namlook, and thought about including him. For me, it comes down to albums that represent a shift in the genre, and these albums did in a bigger way, but again, just my take. I also wanted to point out a few that people may not have heard of but no less awesome — Thaemlitz, for example.
    @circushoffman: Love Irresistible Force! I used to buy his records religiously back in the day!

  • Jul 8,2015 at 06:28

    Very interesting. I know nothing about ambient music but I always wanted to approach it.

  • Jul 8,2015 at 06:25

    it’s an impossible task to name just 10. if i were to make a list i would surely include Flying High by The Irresistible Force.Also for the influence MMM had on the whole ambient scene. great list though!

  • Jul 8,2015 at 06:23

    Nice list even if I’m not into the Eno/Budd/Lanois type of Ambient.

    Surprised that there are no Namlook or Fax releases in there.

    Juno Reactor’s Luciana always pops up from time to time; and I never really took the time to listen to it; Seems it is available for streaming now, I will give it a go.

  • Jul 8,2015 at 02:40

    Calling “Blood Music” indie rock is not very accurate: that Chapterhouse album was a very electronic output from them, electronic enough to alienate them from their audience. And apart from Alpha Phase, the rest of the elements in Pentamerous Metamorphosis are clearly recognizable and valid as remixes. Anyway, two of my favourite albums ever.

    BTW, calling the “dated” elements is really unfair. I think that the funky parts in 76:14 are really needed to make it work as a whole piece of art, and I found it really sad that 9:25 was never featured in their live comeback, as I think it is the absolute highlight there: Larry Heard, Spacetime Continuum, The Orb, all at the same time.

  • Jul 7,2015 at 23:27

    ASC’s ambient albums on Silent Season are stunning – got me through medical revision for exams.

    In fact Silent Season really nail the area between dub techno and ambient.

  • Jul 7,2015 at 22:38

    Cool read for sure (I’ve heard 8 out of these 11 and love all of them, gotta check out those others), though I am sad not to see Pete Namlook anywhere on this list. I don’t know about anyone else but it feels like a crime not to bring him up when talking about ambient music, given his huge output and wide influence (though I totally understand if it’s too difficult to narrow down his catalog to just one album). Still wish he’d been mentioned.
    But either way you mentioned a bunch of my all time favorites here, will definitely check out those remaining three :)

  • Jul 7,2015 at 19:38

    @niktho: Fantastic to see! Thanks for the heads up!

  • Jul 7,2015 at 18:25

    This list made it to RA! Thanks for all the tips :)

  • Jul 7,2015 at 15:35

    @JusTodd: Interesting you mention Juno Reactor, a co-worker asked me about that as well! I was never a huge fan of theirs, but I certainly appreciate them!
    @hoveurt: Yeah, this was a tough list! Lots of consternation on my end — how in the world to choose just ten?? Impossible! In the end, I had to go with the ten that mean a great amount to me, and also albums I felt have had a sizable influence on newer ambient acts.
    @ _higgs_: Yes, I have seen “For all mankind”! Doesn’t detract from the brilliance of the album, though. ;)

    Thanks very much for reading, everyone, I truly appreciate your comments!

  • Jul 7,2015 at 14:41

    All of them are just stunning. Agree with them all. But there is one thing that could make it better :)
    Apollo: This was used as the soundtrack for a Laserdisc called “For all mankind”. The sound track is mostly from “Apollo”. But there was an alternate audio channel on the LD which was just the Eno music. This combined with the moon footage was…. sublime :)

  • Jul 7,2015 at 14:20

    Konigsforst is an album for special occasions. Nice to see that make the list.

  • Jul 7,2015 at 11:58

    Nice list. I own a few of these, heard them all. It is kinda hard to peg a list though, with so much to choose from!

  • Jul 7,2015 at 10:32

    Cool read. I have heard 7 of these. Wow. you forgot about Juno Reactor Luciana. This album I believe should have made the list. I will definitely go and check the others on the list. Cheers
    JusTodd

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