While I like music which is in-your-face, it’s also nice to have something a bit more background. I like to listen to music while writing, and you can’t always be digging hardcore tunes or stuff that requires attention, like Captain Beefheart. Ambient music, nowadays mostly marketed to the post-club smoke-off “chill out” market, with The Orb very much to the fore, is actually a far older subgenre with broad and deep roots. Its very nebulousness allows it to encompass a remarkable range of styles. It’s not just the background listening aspect of ambient music that’s good about it. (Hey, if you want something that’s insipidly undemanding, listen to Coldplay). Ambient music uses techniques that are perhaps not so commonly found elsewhere: giving music space to breathe (Miles Davis and David Gilmour both do this very well), constant repetition, lack of structure (no verse-chorus-verse here), strong visual qualities, and a focus on timbre. Not all of these might be present, but these comprise the general toolbox.
I don’t in any way claim to be any kind of expert: the Wikipedia page on ambient music highlights a whole bunch of acts I haven’t even heard of. Nonetheless, ambient is one of my favourite genres. Here are some of my picks.
1. Spiritualized, “Electric Mainline”
Which I think is a metaphor for smack. Ugh. Regardless, this is a fascinating track. It makes me think of cosmic soup, as though seeing the world, or the cosmos, from such a scale that everything seems a dense stew of cosmological particles. Or something. Nearly eight minutes of inter-weaving loops and drones, it’s a brilliant exercise in texture, atmosphere and control.
2. Aphex Twin, “Lichen”
Richard D. James has two specifically ambient albums, Selected Ambient Works 85-92, and Selected Ambient Works Vol 2. Of these, the former has actual beats and structures, while the latter album is almost entirely ambient textures without tune or form. This is the one I prefer: it’s astonishingly atmospheric in places. This track is called “Lichen”, but actually makes me think of being an eagle floating high above mountains, gliding on thermals and espying the land far below.
3. The Orb, “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld”
I have a great memory of getting absolutely out my face to this song. The Orb are a bit of a cliche, being popular with students and what you might call the crusty section of society. Still, “Little Fluffy Clouds” and this one are both absolute classics. This track has a relatively insistent beat, but with its spacious production and tingling keyboard, it is a brilliant post-club chillout track to mong out to as the sun comes up.
4. Brian Eno, “1_1”
What’s great is the large amount of space here in between the piano chords, which are left to resonate and breathe. This is the first track from Eno’s Music For Airports (1978), which pretty much inaugurated the ambient genre. It’s so simple, but conceiving the idea and executing it with such conviction (others might have hedged their bets with a mushy orchestral wash or metronomic rhythms) is a stroke of genius.
5. Moby, “Heaven”
Moby’s career pre-Play was pretty hit and miss. He had a big hit with “Go”, but his albums didn’t really take off until Play, and even that took a year. He tried various things: alternative rock, hardcore “rave” (it was the early 90s, man) and his 1993 ambient album. This is actually pretty good: it gets a bit samey, but the second track “Heaven” is terrific. Pulsating with low-key electronic beats glistening with vibrato, it’s a fleeting glimpse of the ineffable.