Influential Ambient CDs
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
all 5 hours>>
Here's the original
article from the New Age Voice magazine:
25 Most Influential Ambient Albums Of All Time
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
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.
Ambient 1: Music for Airports
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.
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).
(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
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
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.
Ambient 4: On Land
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.
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.
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.
Harold Budd/Brian Eno
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.
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.
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.
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.
Harold Budd/Brian Eno
Ambient Two: The Plateaux of Mirror
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld
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
(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.
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