25 Influential Ambient CDs



In a 2002 survey by Jeff Towne and Peter Manzi for the (now defunct) New Age Voice Magazine, musicians, DJs critics, promoters, and record label owners were asked to list the recordings that were most influential on the world of ambient music. The top 25 CDs recordings were selected. Excerpts from all 25 of these recordings can be heard in this 5-hour program.

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Here's the original article from the New Age Voice magazine:

The 25 Most Influential Ambient Albums Of All Time
by Jeff Towne & Peter Manzi

Brian Eno confined to bed, harp music on a too-quiet stereo, sounds from outside the windows occasionally overwhelming the melodies: this is the often-cited scene of the inspiration for ambient music as a style. While many others had examined similar musical ideas, this experience inspired Eno to codify the concept, and create a series of albums with compositions specifically intended to blur the boundaries between foreground and background, that existed as an element in a room just like lighting or décor. Eno has said that he wanted to make music that could be ignored or studied equally, that was like a river: always changing, but never presenting any really big surprises. In 1978, the album Ambient 1: Music for Airports formally announced the arrival of a new genre. It's no surprise that this recording ended up as number one in our poll, with a significant margin.

But surely there was ambient music before this. Music has often been used as a background; we're exposed to innocuous music every day in supermarkets, dentists' offices and elevators. And even the earliest musical expressions were likely mixed with surrounding noise, and experienced by inattentive listeners. In 1920 Erik Satie presented his Musique d'Ameublement (Furniture Music) in Paris during an intermission between other works, and is said to have rushed around the room imploring the attendees to not listen. He wanted Furniture Music to be "useful" rather than artistic, and in a manifesto imagined it an integral part of life, warning: "Do not enter a house which does not have furniture music."

There is a functional distinction between this and any purely background music, inoffensive sounds meant to simply soothe or mask. The best ambient music transcends that role, creating an inviting, enveloping soundscape, described as "immersive" by author and musician David Toop.

The aesthetic aspect of music existing as part of the greater environment, not apart from it, has had many manifestations, most notably in John Cage's embracing random sounds as musical. Cage's infamous piece 4'33", for which a musician sits with his instrument on stage, but does not play for that length of time, is in a way the ultimate expression of this idea, as the ambience of the space in which the piece is performed forms the entirety of the musical event.

In the late 1980s, ambient was re-imagined by the European rave scene, as "chillout rooms" featured amorphous, yet rhythmic music, created with the same intent as Satie's work. The KLF, The Orb, Aphex Twin and many other composers and DJs mixed dance music for being still and static music for dancing, creating a scene where ravers could move, converse, sleep or listen equally.

Throughout the years, there have been explorations of similar motifs: music that incorporates or simulates external atmospheres; compositions that explore imagined environments; works that abandon the traditional harmonic, melodic and rhythmic models. Works that have been classified as spacemusic, minimalism, avant-garde, even progressive rock, jazz and techno have intersected and overlapped in amorphous collisions, cloudy edges shifting and resisting definition and categorization. Indeed several of the recordings that were voted into the top spots on this ambient poll could easily be placed in other categories, but in the end the tag "ambient" is going to be a subjective one, more about one's personal experience of the music than any concrete criteria.

Where are the edges? What distinguishes ambient music from spacemusic or new age, minimalism or elevator music? What are the most influential works of ambient music, the pieces that went on to change the way we listen, and the way music is constructed? One can easily hear the effects of this musical movement on rock, dance music and film soundtracks, but what recordings in particular shaped the scene?

We polled a panel of experts, people who have worked in and with this style of music: musicians, reviewers, radio programmers, label-heads and others who have listened carefully for years. We asked them to list the most influential ambient recordings, the records that touched them, and that they felt had the greatest impact on the greater musical world. This would necessarily exclude some obscure favorites, and shortchange some newer works, but we hope that this list will create an overview of the recordings that have shaped much of what we hear today. There will always be arguments about which category a specific work belongs in, if any, but that's part of what's interesting about these results: there are representatives of a wide variety of styles that members of our panel felt fit their definitions of "ambient." For fans of this music there will surely be some old favorites and some records that seem out of place, and for readers unfamiliar with the genre, this article can serve as a good starting point for starting a collection.

1 Brian Eno
Ambient 1: Music for Airports
(Editions EG)
It's no surprise that this 1978 recording topped the list. As the first of Eno's four Ambient albums, this record staked out a new frontier, declaring new land open for exploration. And it's lovely music too. Inspired by earlier tape-loop constructions such as "Discrete Music" and "The Heavenly Music Corporation," the four compositions on Airports are long, slow, cycling patterns of sparse piano and wordless voices. Loops of different lengths combine in unpredictable ways, creating lushly layered clouds of sound, punctuated by poignant silences. John Cage's ideas of indeterminacy loom large, as well as the tenets of minimalism, as the patterns recur but don't quite repeat, creating a flowing pool of sound that is consistently self-similar, yet never quite standing still. The first edition of the LP also presented Eno's manifesto on ambient music, the first formal use of the term. "An ambience is defined as an atmosphere or a surrounding influence: a tint" the notes read, continuing "ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular: it must be as ignorable as it is interesting." These compositions, identified only as1/1, 1/2, 2/1 and 2/2, denoting their positions on a vinyl LP, stand as almost ideal examples of this aesthetic, engaging yet aloof, simple without being simplistic. Although never a commercial success, the record has been popular among musicians, and perhaps by virtue of its status as the first record overtly titled "ambient," there's little doubt that Music for Airports deserves its position here as the most influential ambient album of all time.

2 Steve Roach
Dreamtime Return
This 1988 double-disk masterpiece, inspired by Roach's visits to the Australian outback and his experience with its wilderness and Aboriginal culture (and his work with didgeridoo master David Hudson), is likely Roach's most popular work to date. This journey into Aboriginal mythology (the Dreamtime was an Eden-like period of natural harmony presaged by the arrival of extraterrestrial ancestors) remains an ambient trademark and truly original work. Dreamtime combines tribal percussion, synths, and location recordings of Aboriginal sounds throughout the 14 tracks, brilliantly bringing into focus what the ancient dreamtime period in Australian prehistory may have been like, based on both legend and geological data. This poll brought to our attention an interesting and passionate division that separates Roach fans as to which of his albums is his finest: Dreamtime Return or Structures from Silence (see No. 4).

3 Wendy Carlos
Sonic Seasonings
(East Side Digital)
This 1972 recording predated the categories of ambient or new age music, but using only her Moog Synthesizer and recorded environmental sounds, Carlos created the prototype for ambient recordings on the double LP Sonic Seasonings. In the format of Vivaldi's baroque classic "Four Seasons," Sonic Seasonings remains an aural experience unmatched musically and unsurpassed in originality. "Spring" provides a rainstorm; "Summer" conveys relentless heat; "Fall" visits an oceanside campfire; and "Winter" conveys the bitter coldness of that season's brutal wind. Carlos re-mastered the recent reissue that also contains a previously unreleased 40-minute two-part suite from 1986 titled "Land of the Midnight Sun."

4 Steve Roach
Structures from Silence
One of the pioneers of the American spacemusic scene, initially inspired by German synthesists such as Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream, Roach has explored styles from quiet contemplation to raging sequencer storms, from organic tribal grooves to twitchy electronic rhythms, frequently pointing the way for others to follow. One of his most influential works is the 1984 release Structures from Silence. This recording is a soothing, enveloping soundscape, ideal for quieting the mind and calming the body. The gentle ebb and flow of warm synthesizer textures are based on the rhythm of breathing, and entrains the listeners' own respiration to its serene pace. It's useful: for setting a tone in a room, for aiding in meditation, for easing the transition to sleep, but it's also sensually pleasing.

5 Michael Stearns
Planetary Unfolding
(Continuum Montage)
As suggested by the title, this album, first released in 1980, is often thought of as a classic of spacemusic, portraying the sound of the cosmos itself. But the slowly-evolving swirls of electronic arpeggiations serve equally well as an enveloping atmosphere, setting the tone for journeys in internal space. Stearns's earlier works Ancient Leaves and Sustaining Cylinders were even more ambient, but as some of the first independent spacemusic releases, they were not easily found. In addition to releasing several more CDs that incorporate electronic, acoustic and ambient sound, Stearns has gone on to create many soundtracks for IMAX films and other large-scale cinematic presentations. That same sense of grandeur is heard here, as is the music's ability to amplify images, either on the screen or in the mind.

6 Brian Eno
Ambient 4: On Land
(Editions EG)
Number four in Eno's ambient series, On Land sounds most like what most people would think of as ambient music, incorporating natural sounds, or natural-sounding electronic effects, that evoke tangible environments. Eno's original inspiration for his ambient series came from natural sounds intruding on composed music, but Music for Airports, The Plateaux of Mirror and Day of Radiance had not included these elements. On Land suggests terrain, landscape, the ambience of a place. Even the song titles: "Unfamiliar Wind (Leek's Hills)," "Dunwich Beach Autumn 1960," or "A Clearing" seem to suggest documentation of real or imagined locations, field recordings from an unknown land. Dark, murky thuds and hums, organic whirrs and chirps blend with electronic and acoustic instrumentation to create an engaging, slightly ominous soundworld. Despite perceptions of the style, the first three albums of Eno's Ambient series were not synthesizer-based, instead starting with acoustic instruments, albeit transformed, looped and altered by studio processing. On Land included more electronic timbres, although often indistinguishable from the processed acoustic sounds and effects. This combination of quiet atmospheres and natural sounds best exemplifies the central aesthetic of ambient music to follow.

7 Jonn Serrie
And the Stars Go With You
Jonn Serrie's name is synonymous with spacemusic. The composer is renowned for his numerous works commissioned by planetariums around the world, and Serrie's 1986 debut album And the Stars Go With You reshaped and redefined ambient spacemusic. Serrie was working on the Teacher in Space Project for NASA in '86, and composed musical material for the event. The Challenger disaster affected him deeply, and Serrie expressed his feelings musically-the results becoming his first album. In '88, the album was used in the opening production ceremony of the Christa McAulliffe Planetarium in Concord, New Hampshire, and the music is dedicated to her memory. Although Stars is more often associated with "spacemusic" as opposed to "ambient," the line separating the two subcategories is a blurry one, and many listeners use this album as an atmospheric backdrop, rather than a soundtrack for their own space journeys.

8 Terry Riley
A Rainbow in Curved Air
Rainbow is a gentle, melodic, flowing piece, which swirls like a psychedelic dance. It features the use of Riley's "time Lag accumulator," a two-tape deck delay system. Rainbow features delayed electric organ, harpsichord, and the rocksichord with dumbek providing a sparse rhythmic section. This intoxicating and seeming unending repetition of this music became somewhat of a cult favorite with the '60's counter-culture. His composition In C is often credited with launching the minimalist movement, and Rainbow, meant to simulate his all-night improvised concerts, underscores the similarities between minimalism, psychedelia, and spacemusic. The repeating cycles of minimalism are reflected in Eno's tape loops, Tangerine Dream's sequencers and even Mike Oldfield's cycling structures. This hypnotic piece is a good introduction to Terry Riley's work which integrates repetition, improvisation, drones, classical Indian ragas, alternate tunings and electronics.

9 Harold Budd/Brian Eno
The Pearl
(Editions EG)
Four years after the release of The Plateaux of Mirror, Budd and Eno returned to that earlier format and created another subtle gem, beautiful and melancholy at the same time. Again exploring the interaction of sparse, Satie-like piano figures with electronic processing that blurred and smeared the edges of the sound, Budd and Eno created songs with infinite layers to be explored, despite their minimalist structure. The poetic titles such as "A Stream with Bright Fish" and "Against the Sky" reveal Budd's love of language, and suggest the imagistic, dreamy world the music portrays. Like a pearl, these tunes are simple, yet textured at closer inspection; symmetrical from a distance, yet irregular in unique ways; polished, yet organic.

10 Steve Hillage
Rainbow Dome Musick
An electric guitarist who first came to prominence with the cosmic hippie psychedelic rock band Gong, Steve Hillage has gone on to be an enduring influence in ambient music. Hillage is a master of the "glissando guitar," a technique that incorporates rubbing the strings along the neck of the guitar with a piece of steel, creating a sustained, fluid, voice-like tone. His 1979 release Rainbow Dome Musick features this plaintive sound, floating amidst shimmering electronic atmospheres. The two long pieces, "Garden of Paradise" and "Four Ever Rainbow" are idyllic tone poems, almost static, with subtle variations moving the music forward at an imperceptible pace. Hillage has always considered this music an expression of surrealism, and one can hear that imagistic dream logic on this recording.

11 Paul Horn
Inside the Taj Mahal
A pioneering figure in world music since the '60s, Horn's repertoire ranges from contemporary jazz to ambient. On the flutist's ground-breaking 1969 recording Inside the Taj Mahal, Horn performs his meditative flute in the natural acoustic space of the building's central dome. It's an interesting twist on the ambient concept that the unique character of this recording is based on the specific aural environment of the location, rather than the music alone creating the ambience. It was recorded unconventionally, with one microphone close to the flute and another placed at a distance, deeper in the structure. This resulted in an exaggerated stereo image, one that didn't give an "accurate" picture of the space, but an evocative one. Horn later made recordings inside other sonically unique buildings, such as the Great Pryamid, cathedrals, temples and canyons.

12 Tangerine Dream
Along with Phaedra, this 1975 recording best displays Tangerine Dream's classic sound, reflecting the dark and claustrophobic environment of walled-in Cold War Berlin, while evoking the mysteries of outer space. The mixture of repetitive sequencer cycles and spacey effects that mark this period of the band's work inspired innumerable energetic synthesizer excursions, and perhaps as many quiet explorations of the ambiences of the spaces between.

13 Harold Budd/Brian Eno
Ambient Two: The Plateaux of Mirror
(Editions EG)
This album, along with The Pearl inspired a thousand piano album imitators. But few ever achieved the poignancy and quiet melancholy of the originals. The serene piano performances were processed by Brian Eno in real-time, so Budd could respond to the altered sound as he played. His subtle gradations of touch sent notes cascading into dark echoes, ripples on the smooth plateau of sound. Budd claims to have wanted to make unabashedly pretty music, removed from the cerebral abstractions of the avant-garde, but there's a veil of melancholy shrouding the Plateaux that keeps the music from becoming too sweet.

14 Klaus Schulze
Upon this album's release in 1977, "Crystal Lake," became one of the best-known pieces in all of spacemusic. Symmetrical cascades of sparkling crystalline notes, met with a majestic bassline, resulted in some of the most enthralling electronic music ever recorded. Despite occasional bombast, Schulze's compositions have a restrained, cool, detached feel that allows them to work equally well as quiet atmospheres in the background, or as big-screen feature films for the ears. He described his music as "the background to a mental picture" leaving half of the experience to the listener. Originally a drummer, and at different times a member of both Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel, Schulze is one of the titans of electronic music, his groundbreaking work influencing styles from ambient to techno.

15 Aphex Twin
Selected Ambient Works Volume 2

Richard D. James, the man behind Aphex Twin, emerged from the British chillout scene. An iconoclastic musical experimenter who built his own synthesizers and claimed to create many of his tunes through lucid dreaming, much of his work was built around dancey beats and grating textures. But this CD from 1994 features quiet, mysterious tone poems, shadowy outlines seen from down a foggy street. This is classic ambience in the Eno mold, updated for the rave generation.

16 Klaus Schulze
Another classic from one of the pioneers of the Berlin School of spacemusic, infused with washes of white noise, twittering electronic sound effects and the steady pulse of cycling sequencers. This 1975 recording is dedicated to Richard Wagner, and Schulze aspires to that classical grandeur, even providing a reproduction of his "score" for one of the two side-long compositions. It's a multi-layered chart mapping the positions and structures of leitmotifs and harmonies, alongside diagrams of noise and sample-and-hold filter modulations. His use of decidedly electronic sounds gives Schulze's music an otherworldly feel, and the slowly-building, linear progressions of his compositions are hypnotic and involving, pulling the listener into this imagined space. This was the first of Schulze's albums widely available in America and immediately became a favorite of many in the electronic music scene.

17 Tangerine Dream
Released in 1974, this is the prototypical "Berlin School" space music record, with churning sequencers, lush electronic pads and warbling Mellotron melodies. But there are also long stretches of deep space journeys: collages of timbre and texture. This period of Tangerine Dream's work inspired legions of synthesizer knob-twisters, and pointed the way for countless explorations of tone, freed from the constraints of melody, harmony and rhythm.

18 Steve Reich
Music for 18 Musicians
Music for 18 Musicians features, you guessed it, 18 musicians on pianos, woodwinds, female vocals and various mallet instruments. This 1974 work features a repeated insistent staccato, subtle shifts in the cycles allowing a careful listener to discover new patterns in the matrix of sound. Inspired by the richness of African and Indonesian percussion-based music, and hearing parallels between those cycling forms and his own explorations of repetition through tape music, Reich composed many percussive pieces, most notably 1970's Drumming. 18 Musicians examines some of the same techniques, especially the motif of shifting phase between layers of repeated patterns, but the expanded instrumentation allows this to build to an intoxicating lushness. Similar repeated patterns can be heard in sequencer-based spacemusic, in fact Tangerine Dream's "Love on a Real Train" bears an alarming similarity to this work, although created on very different instruments.

19 Mike Oldfield
Tubular Bells
After stints in rock bands and playing folk music with his sister Sally, Mike Oldfield set out on his own in 1972 with a tape of a long, ambitious instrumental composition he had been working on for several years in his home studio. Though most labels rejected it, up-and-coming entrepreneur Richard Branson chose Oldfield's work to be the first release on his new label:Virgin Records. The resulting album was Tubular Bells, an original blend of symphonic-style rock, classical, folk and world music elements, featuring Oldfield playing over 25 instruments. The album's repetitious structure, with instruments entering and exiting in a smoothly shifting flow, shows a kinship with minimalism and sequencer-based music, converging on the same musical niche from an unexpected direction. Made more famous as the soundtrack to the film The Exorcist, Tubular Bells became one the of greatest commercial success stories in contemporary music, having sold over 20 million copies worldwide, making it the greatest selling contemporary instrumental album ever.

20 Miles Davis
In a Silent Way
Ten years after the classic and cool Kind of Blue, In a Silent Way is pure jazz ambience at its finest, providing stimulating, yet calm soundscapes. On two lengthy tracks, Miles, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Dave Holland, and Tony Williams provide atmospheric solos and magical interaction. This was almost completely unstructured music, with Miles painting spontaneously with the broad palette of talented musicians he assembled. These sessions were sculpted further by Teo Macero, who edited the raw sessions into concise, focused dreamscapes. Four decades has not diminished the importance of this groundbreaking recording.

21 Ashra
New Age of Earth
Guitarist Manuel Gottsching founded Ash Ra Tempel in 1970 with synth pioneer Klaus Schulze and Harmut Enke. Schulze left a year later, but on his own, Gottsching continued plying the spaceways with synthesizers and his signature echoed electric guitar. In 1976, the name shortened to just Ashra, he released New Age of Earth, well in advance of a New Age category existing in record store bins. Tunes such as "Sunrain" are driven by energetic rhythmic sequences, but epic pieces like "Ocean of Tenderness" and "Deep Distance" are slow floats through puffy clouds of electronics.

22 Global Communication
Revisiting the classic mid-70s sound of Tangerine Dream on this 1997 album, Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard inserted just enough contemporary touches to make this a favorite of the hipsters of the 1990's dance scene as well as nostalgic space fans. Ticking clocks and sonar pings, filter sweeps and thick drones duck in and out of unabashedly electronic timbres and cycling patterns that would have seemed familiar two decades earlier, but freed from the excesses of swaggering solos. The tracks and album itself are named simply for the music's durations, a surprisingly abstract statement for this evocative music.

23 The Orb
The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld
(Island Red)
One of the 1980s British dance scene's most eclectic characters, Alex Patterson had a love for punk, dub, world music, progressive rock and spacemusic and had listened extensively to Eno's Ambient records as well. As a DJ in chillout rooms in London clubs, he would integrate older spacemusic with contemporary dance tunes. This 1991 release displays a DJ's sense of collage and layering, combining unlikely samples into surreal soundscapes. This was a new type of ambient music, incorporating dance rhythms and absurd humor, yet ultimately creating the same effect as Eno and Satie had described: useful music, in this case designed for chillout rooms where ravers would relax, talk, sleep or dance, experiencing the music on several levels. This double album yielded two of the enduring anthems of the rave/ambient scene: "Little Fluffy Clouds" built around a sample from a Rickie Lee Jones interview, and "A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain that Rules from the Center of the Ultraworld," featuring the plaintive voice of Minnie Ripperton, sampled from her hit "Loving You."

24 Constance Demby
Novus Magnificat
(Hearts of Space)
This 1986 otherworldly opus from Demby has become a true classic in the new age and spacemusic frontier appealing to a wide variety of music lovers. Rooted in worship music in the western tradition, it's what the liner notes call "Contemporary Classical Space Music." Imagine a huge orchestra and choral work as interpreted by a digital sythesizer. Like Serrie's And the Stars Go With You, Novus is considered to be a high watermark in the subgenre of spacemusic.

25 Peter Gabriel
(Real World)
After his departure from the rock group Genesis in the early 1970s, Peter Gabriel began exploring more cerebral music and incorporating electronic, avant-garde, and world music into his style. Throughout the '80s, he also explored other interests including soundtracks, multimedia projects, and running his own label, Real World. Passion is the soundtrack to the Martin Scoresese film The Last Temptation of Christ, though due to legal complications, it does not share its title. This powerful album resulted from Gabriel's fascination with world and Middle Eastern, Indian and African sounds. These diverse elements are mixed together into untraditional atmospheric collages that somehow sound as if they were always meant to be combined that way. It would be hard to find someone working in the organic electronic field who does not consider Passion one of the greatest achievements in this genre. Despite scores if imitations, Passion remains one of the best albums of ethno-ambient/world fusion music ever made.

* * *
Thank You Judges!
NAV would like to thank the following judges who graciously took the time to participate in this project: Stephen Hill, founder of Hearts of Space; John Diliberto, Producer and host of Echoes syndicated radio; Barbara Taylor, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of NAV; Steve Davis, Co-Producer of Hearts of Space; Howard Givens, founder and President of Spotted Peccary Records; Lloyd Barde, President and founder of Backroads Music; PJ Birosik, founder and President of Musik International; Bryan Reesman, music journalist and NAV writer; Forrest, founder of Waveform Records; Chuck van Zyl, host of Star's End Radio; Steve Roach, ambient composer; Robert Rich, ambient composer; Jeff Pearce, ambient composer; Dave Maier; Ph. D., Columbia University Computer Music Center; Jeff Towne, Producer of Echoes syndicated radio; Peter Manzi, Managing Editor of NAV.

The Ranking Process
To avoid overlooking an important recording, a large pool of influential ambient recordings was created among the judges before each judge cast their votes as to which recordings they thought were most influential. NAV's ranking process considered both the frequency and ranking placement for the recording within each judge's ballot. Because several of the artists who served as judges had their own recordings within the study, it was determined that no one judge's opinion carried enough weight to make an album appear within the charts, or even unjustly ascend the ranks.

* * *
Jeff Towne is the producer of the nationally syndicated public radio show Echoes and a columnist for the NAV.
Peter Manzi is the Managing Editor of NAV. He earned both a BA in music and an MM in historical musicology from the Florida State University School of Music.

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