“As ignorable as it is interesting.” That’s the classic definition of ambient music, stated by Brian Eno in 1978 on the sleeve notes to his album Ambient 1: Music for Airports. And he should know, since he basically invented the genre three years earlier with his album Discreet Music. But while Eno’s definition of ambient has been cited continuously in the decades since, the sphere of music he first defined has broadened, especially if you judge by how that word is used by listeners. “Ambient” is now used to describe all kinds of music, from tracks you can dance to all the way to harsh noise. For our exploration of the greatest ambient albums, we polled critics for their favorites, with the suggestion that “ambient” meant, in part, music that creates an environment, something like a cloud of sound, be it soothing, sad, haunting, or ominous. We also suggested that our take on ambient music shies away from heavy rhythms and tends more toward “drifting” than “driving,” which meant de-emphasizing ambient house. And we considered the fact that not all albums in a given artist’s catalogue qualify as ambient. Taking into account our writers’ interpretation of those loose guidelines, here’s our list of the 50 best ambient albums.
There are a lot of albums I don’t know on this list. And, to be honest, I wouldn’t classify all of them as ambient (such as Terry Riley’s Rainbow in Curved Air). But this is a great list, and I’m going to be exploring some of these.