10 Essential Ambient/Classical Albums

Ahead of A Winged Victory for the Sullen and Olafur Arnalds visit to Dublin this month, we take a look at ten of the very best albums of the Ambient/Classical genre. It’s a genre that attracts its fair share of charlatans – a bunch of pretentious song-titles and a sequence of layered one note drones is the lazy option for those seeking to carve out a niche for themselves in this overcrowded space. But the real innovators of the genre are responsible for some of the most beautiful, inspiring and challenging contemporary music being made today, music stripped of everything but its skeletal beauty.

The Blue Notebooks -Max Richter1. The Blue Notebooks – Max Richter
Released in 2004, The Blue Notebooks is album of shiver inducing beauty, leaning heavily towards more traditional classical music. The pieces are predominantly built around piano and strings and feature readings from Kafka and Milosz by actress Tilda Swinton. If that reeks of pretentiousness, don’t let that put you off – one listen, and you will fall under this wonderful albums spell. Sublime.



2. And Their Refinement of the Decline – Stars of the Lidstars of the lid

Arguably the most influential musicians on the ambient/drone scene, Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie continue to make music that pushes the genre in different directions through their various offshoot projects. But it’s their work with Stars of the Lid that spawned a host of imitators. This sprawling, 2 hour double album features great swells of sound, vast soundscapes that fire the imagination. Requires patient listening but up there with the very best of the genre.


Felt -Nils Frahm3. Felt – Nils Frahm

Part of a stellar roster on the pioneering Erased Tapes record label, Frahm has never been afraid to experiment with radical recording techniques in his attempts to create something that stands out from the crowd. For this mini masterpiece, Frahm looked at innovative ways to record the piano which resulted in a uniquely, atmospheric recording. All the sounds that other artists would be at pains to eliminate are retained – every click, every key press compete with the gorgeous, minimalist piano motifs that Frahm creates. Utterly gorgeous.


4. Ravedeath, 1972 – Tim HeckerRavedeath, 1972 - Tim Hecker

The music of Time Hecker edges closer to the category dark ambient – chill out music this is most definitely not. Recorded in a church in Reykjavik, Hecker weaves melodies played on a pipe organ through a fog of heavily treated guitars while piano lines drift in and out arbitrarily. The result is unsettling, sinister and the experience is enhanced significantly listened to on headphones. Has its own darkly seductive beauty.


Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet - Gavin Bryars5. Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet – Gavin Bryars

Originally a 25 minute piece recorded for Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975, this stunning work was later expanded to a 70 minute suite featuring guest vocal from Tom Waits. It’s a hugely powerful, emotive piece of music, built around a haunting recording of an unnamed homeless man singing the repeated refrain of the album title. Bryars took the recording and added a fully formed orchestral work around it – it is not that widely known but many that have heard it have declared it one of the most affecting pieces of music they have ever heard. Hunt it down – it is worth the effort.


6. Maybe They Will Sing for Us Tomorrow – HammockMaybe They Will Sing for Us Tomorrow - Hammock

Prolific Nashville duo Hammock create gorgeous atmospheric guitar-based soundscapes, dreamily ambient and owing a considerable debt to the shoegaze movement. While earlier albums like this one are largely free of any classical influences, more recent releases like Departure Songs (2012) and Oblivion Hymns (2013) feature strings and choirs and are more heavily orchestrated, But it is the sky kissing guitar work on this and Raising Your Voice, Trying to Stop an Echo (2006) that seems more uniquely Hammock. Spellbinding.


Johann Johannsson7. IBM 1401, A User’s Manual – Jóhann Jóhannsson

Icelandic born Jóhann Jóhannsson has done more than most to meld traditional classical music structures with ambient sounds. His heavily orchestrated works are usually thematic, and eschew the more minimalist approach taken by others for a more expansive, cinematic sound. For this record, Jóhannsson explored the notion that a computer could have a soul by recording the decaying sine-wave tones of one of the first computers manufactured. He fused these recordings with elegantly soaring strings to create something with an elegiac, 2001: A Space Odyssey feel.


8. Copia – Eluvium   Copia -Eluvium

Fourth album from Portland musician Matthew Cooper is widely regarded as his finest and one of the best examples of music of this genre. Its a perfect amalgam of ambient, drone and classical, featuring lengthy instrumentals alongside shorter piano pieces. Eluvium recently released the darker Nightmare Ending but Copia remains his crowning achievement to date.


Olafur Arnalds9. And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness – Ólafur Arnalds

Arnalds’ star is on the rise. His music featured recently on the soundtrack of hit TV series Broadchurch and his mournful, melancholic sound seems tailor made for film score work. And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness combines the intimacy of his string quartet based pieces with electronic elements and layered washes of ambient sound. It’s a distant cousin to Sigur Ros circa Valtari and ().



10. Atomos – A Winged Victory for the SullenAtomos - A Winged Victory For The Sullen

Featuring music from the score of Atomos, a dance piece by choreographer Wayne McGregor, this is A Winged Victory for the Sullen’s second album and one of Adam Wiltzie of Stars of the Lids side projects. In partnership with another acclaimed luminary of the scene, Dustin O’Halloran they create something truly special – slowly shifting swathes of low end strings decorated with ambient noises that sound like distant stars colliding. Stunning.


Honourable mentions: Lumiere – Dustin O Halloran; Nepenthe – Julianna Barwick; Riceboy Sleeps – Jonsi and Alex; Romantic Works – Keaton Henson; Disintegration Loops – William Basinski; The Unfolding – Chequerboard; Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill – Grouper; Ambient 1: Music for Airports –Brian Eno; The Pearl – Harold Budd