2017 has been an incredible year for music and that includes the ambient/experimental genre. There were an incredible amount of releases that deserve recognition but, as lists do, I forced myself to whittle things down to just 25 albums for 2017. As an ambient artist myself, this list was incredibly hard to figure out because so many on and off of it are major influences on my own art. Nevertheless, I persisted and came up with some choice offerings from 2017. I hope you enjoy the artists and please, purchase music whenever you can. I cannot wait to hear what the ambient/experimental/neo-classical artists have for all of us in 2018!
1. bvdub: Heartless (n5MD, 2017)
bvdub (Brock Van Wey) is a veteran of the electronic/ambient music scene. Hailing from San Francisco, bvdub has been releasing music for a decade now. Heartless was released on one of my favorite labels, n5MD, and this album was my introduction to Van Wey’s music. Let me tell you, this album is anything but heartless. Emotive and powerful, Heartless is a masterwork of ambient soundscapes and textural compositions. The melodies are mournful but there is hope underneath the haze and sadness. Not only does this entire album speak to me personally, but the cover art does as well. This is the complete package and I cannot recommend this album enough.
2. Thisquietarmy: Democracy of Dust (Midira Records, 2017)
Thisquietarmy has been a continual presence in my life since Wintersleep first hit the music scene in 2005. Towards the beginning of the year, Thisquietarmy released Métamorphose, which is in itself an incredible album, and I thought it might be on this year end list. However, once Democracy and Dust hit my speakers, I knew that this album would take its place. Democracy and Dust is an ambient tour de force that memorializes the death of democracy as we know it. Thumping and harsh at times, it screams the death knell of this valorized ideal and laments the rise of those in power and the crushing of those without it. As the final track on the album is titled “Nobody’s Free Until Everyone’s Free”. Dust and Democracy is timely, purposeful, and gorgeously composed and recorded.
3. Forest Management: The Elevated Quiet (Constellation Tatsu, 2017)
Forest Management is the project of Chicago based artist John Daniel. Ever since getting The Elevated Quiet from Constellation Tatsu, I have been fascinated with Daniel’s output. The Elevated Quiet is an ambient album that is spacious, open, and breathtaking. The soundscapes are sculpted as open, unformed beauty lying bare for all to experience. There is a patience in the compositions and a brilliance in choosing tones and textures. Daniel’s work is subtle but powerful. Elevated Quiet is glacial, glistening, and one of the best ambient albums of the year.
4. City of Dawn: Recovery II (Aural Canyon, 2017)
City of Dawn is the project of Damien Duque from McAllen, Texas. An ambient guitarist, Duque crafts gorgeously uplifting ambient compositions that really speak to the better side of humanity. Recovery II is composed of ambient guitar layers that are bright, hopeful, and healing. As the listener settles into the soundscapes, Duque leads them onto a cloudlike ambient terrain, lifting them up and transporting them.
5. Balmorhea: Clear Language (Western Vinyl, 2017)
I would classify Balmorhea’s work as a neo-classical sort of enterprise boarding on post-rock in places. Hailing from Austin, their work is subtle and on the quiet side, allowing melodies and compositions to speak to the listener without the sort of explosiveness of a Mogwai or Explosions in the Sky. Strings, guitar, gorgeous bass and percussion, and an overall brilliance in composition place Clear Language in my top 5 for 2017. When vocals are brought in, they are very much used as an instrument and part of the orchestration. Pick up Clear Language and you will not be disappointed.
6. Hammock: Mysterium (Hammock Music, 2017)
Andrew Thompson and Marc Byrd are the dynamic duo behind the ambient project Hammock. Their work now sits alongside many of the greats in the genre as they continue to be forerunners in their compositions and the overall quality of their work. Mysterium is the newest entry in their storied catalog, reaching a sort of sacred tone. There is an orchestral feel here, even in the moments where things are stripped down and very simple. Mysterium is majestic and soaring and it continues the tradition of Hammock putting out stellar albums without fail.
7. Hauschka: What If (Temporary Residence Ltd., 2017)
Hauschka is the musical project of Volker Bertelmann out of Düsseldorf, Germany. A composer, songwriter, and experimental artist, Bertelmann’s primarily works with the acoustic piano. Many of the percussive moments and sounds are from working with the strings of the piano. This brings to mind the brilliance of John Cage and other artists like him. The compositions on What If are monumentally inspiring and just impressive. What Bertelmann does with a piano is magical and how he arranges his compositions shows the hand of a master at work. The electronic touches are equally prescient and never overtake the piano work.
8. Yellow6: Running to the Red (merry6mas2017) (Self Release, 2017)
In a long tradition stretching back over a decade, Jon Attwood once again graces the world with another Christmas album. This time, it came in the form of Running to the Red. As Yellow6, Attwood releases beautiful guitar oriented ambient albums that both capture structure while defying it. Running to the Red is another incredible release in a long, consistently beautiful catalog. This album, tremendous from start to finish, is the final album before the 20th anniversary for Yellow6’s releases in 2018.
9. Tapes and Topographies: Signal to Noise (Simulacra Records, 2017)
Tapes and Topographies is the project of Dallas based Todd Gauthreaux. Signal to Noise is Gauthreaux’s third release under the moniker and it is populated with luminous textures and evocative moments brought on through samples. This album feels like a personal sonic diary and the result is just captivating. What Gauthreaux really excels at is sculpting warm sonic environments with electronic sounds and textures. Beautiful, careful, and emotive, Signal to Noise deserves high praise!
10. Quaeschning and Schnauss: Synthwaves (Azure Vista Records, 2017)
One of many releases on this list from Azure Vista Records, Thorsten Quaeschning and Ulrich Schnauss joined together to release Synthwaves, an experimental electronic sonic journey. Sequestering themselves in a room full of vintage synths, sequences, and drum machines, Synthwaves is the impressive result of these two great musicians collaborating with one another. This is the sci-fi soundtrack people dream of making and the sonic soundscapes are breathtaking as they allow your imagination to soar through the void of space and beyond. This is a nostalgia trip for lovers of 80’s electronica and its execution if flawless.
11. Billow Observatory: II:Plains/Patterns (Azure Vista Records, 2017)
Plains/Patterns is the second release for Billow Observatory which is the ambient project of Jonas Munk and Jason Kolb. This is a gorgeously minimalistic album that demonstrates the artists brilliance in arrangement choices. There is a cinematic flavor here but also a deep, abiding contemplative side to it. The soundscapes are open and broad with a pulsating life to them. For each listener, the album will provoke different thoughts and feelings but, to be sure, it is definitely deep and abiding and will take the listener on a beautiful composed sonic journey.
12. Ulrich Schnauss & Jonas Munk: Passages (Azure Vista Records, 2017)
No, I did not purposely place all the Azure Vista releases in a row. They truly came out this way in the list as I contemplated the order into which I wanted to place the albums. Here, Jonas Munk and Ulrich Schnauss collaborate on what was the debut release for the record label. Passages is a mixture of Munk’s deft guitar work combined with the genius of Schnauss’ work on the synths. The combination is magical and everyone should pick this album up as soon as they can!
13. Adam Pacione/Derek Rogers (Aural Canyon, 2017)
This split between Adam Pacione and Derek Rogers really introduced me to these artists’ work and now they are two of my favorite ambient artists. Both artists are based in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and are veterans of what has become a rather robust ambient/experimental scene in DFW. Pacione contributes an almost thirty-minute track for his side of split called “Midnight Summer”. It’s a beautiful demonstration of Pacione’s mastery of drone manipulation and his use of subtle variations. Rogers’ side of the split is three tracks of various lengths each entitled “Sun and Sky, Mirrored” and then numbered 1-3. Full of gorgeous samples and haunting drones, Rogers brings a different sort of beauty to this split. A worthy top album for 2017 indeed!
14. Aidan Baker w. Claire Brentnall: Delirious Things (Gizeh Records, 2017)
Aidan Baker is one of the most prolific artists I have come across and, with that prolific output, is one of the most consistently brilliant as well. Baker’s collaboration with Claire Brentnall. For those of you unfamiliar with Brentnall’s name, she is from the brilliant Shield Patterns. Baker abandons his guitar here and picks up the synth as the instrument of choice, proving his brilliance on this particular interface. Moving from an almost 80’s coldwave feel in the tracks to ambient interludes, Delirious Things proves to be one of the best ambient/experimental albums of 2017 without question.
15. Poemme: Soft Ice (Polar Seas Recordings, 2017)
Poemme is the ambient project of Angela Klimek who hails from Cleveland, Ohio. Her debut appeared in 2017 on Stereoscenic entitled Arboretum but it was her second album in 2017 that caught my attention. Soft Ice is a self-released album and it is blissfully and mind-blowingly stunning. Drifting like fog and mist, the soundscapes Klimek is able to evoke a relaxing, healing, and meditative atmosphere. I highly recommend you check out Poemme’s catalog and I cannot wait to hear what she does this coming year.
16. Orange Crate Art: The Exegesis of Matt Marello (Original Soundtrack) (Self-Release, 2017)
Orange Crate Art is an artist that hails from Malmö, Sweden. This album is indeed a soundtrack to a documentary, but it is also full of wonderous electronic ambient moments and it’s consistently powerful throughout. Twenty-three tracks in total, the tracks are often short thematic pieces that create moods for different scenes. Apart from the film, the music stands on its own. As with all Orange Crate Art works, this ambient and electronic music is supremely composed and executed. Highly recommended.
17. Auburn Lull: Hypha (Azure Vista Records, 2017)
Auburn Lull have been a favorite around Somewherecold for a very long time. This East Lansing, Michigan band sends releases out into the world at a painfully slow pace but when they do it’s always an epiphanic moment. Hypha is their fourth full-length to date with almost two decades since their debut full-length was released. Hypha is an experiment in minimalism with soundscapes stretched out into patient, longing sonic movements. Yes, Azure Vista Records has put out a string of incredible albums and when I found out Auburn Lull would be one of them, I was ecstatic. Get a copy of the vinyl before it is all gone.
18. Brørby/Clausen: Mannen Faller (Katuktu Collective, 2017)
Anders Brørby and Rune Clausen team up on Manner Faller to create a tribute to the Norwegian forests and animals. Hailing from Oslo, the duo deftly combines field recordings, ambient moods, and noise to created suggestive sound pieces. There is certainly an element of wildlife you can feel very powerfully here along with the sense of cold that these Norway brings. Not only is there a sense of the cold, but also a sense of the four seasons, with spring and summer being evoked through bright moments alongside the voices of birds and insects. It is a soundtrack that no only communicates the beauty of the wild but also a healthy dose of reverence and respect for its dangers.
19. April Larson: Up Below (Polar Seas Recordings, 2017)
April Larson always finds a way to captivate me with her tonal and textural ambient choices. Glass-like and almost eerie at times, Up Below boarders at times on scary fantasy but at others on bright revelation. There is a glacial hum that evokes an underworld tone as ghostly ambience slinks through the speakers amid subtle high end. When listening to Larson’s work, turn out the lights, lay down, and turn it up as loud as you can. Her compositions will transport you to other worlds.
20. Aidan Baker: The Silent World (Fuck Labels//Fuck Mastering, 2017)
Aidan Baker is prolific. This is undeniable. What is magical about his work is the consistency of quality he is able to produce. He released six albums in 2017 which include two solo albums and four collaborations with other artists. The Silent World is a brilliant edition to the Baker catalog in the form of three tracks. Here, Baker adeptly molds his guitar’s sounds into brilliant, ethereal moments. Percussion does visit the soundscape but it is sparse and used to really accent what is going on sonically. As always, Baker is a master composer and The Silent World is a worthy edition to anyone’s ambient music collection.
21. Caudal: Slope Land (Katuktu Collective, 2017)
Caudal’s Slope/Land is a mixture of forward thinking percussion and bass with ambient guitar elements breathing life into the sonic spaces of the music. Two long tracks populate this album which are generated by a trio of fantastic musicians: Aidan Baker (yes, he’s here too), Felipe Salazar, and Gareth Sweeney. Hailing form Berlin, the band compose a sort of broken neoclassical ambient style structure, leaving open the possibility of surprise in the building of soundscapes. This two-track album is brilliant in both composition and sound. You should give it a listen!
22. The Ears on the Trees: New Beginnings (Constellation Tatsu, 2017)
The Ears on the Trees hail from Saint Petersburg, Russia and produce a sparce, beautifully composed set of electronic tracks on New Beginnings. Released in October, New Beginnings is The Ears on the Trees’ debut album but not much can be found about the artist online. If one wants to listen to a masterful example of patience in composition, this is one of those albums. This music breaths and allows the listener to sit back, ruminate, and just let go. Constellation Tatsu is one of my favorite labels and introducing me to artists like The Ears on the Trees is why. Give it a listen and buy a tape.
23. Visjøner: Self-Titled (Aural Canyon, 2017)
Visjøner is another masterful artist in the area of electronica and experimentation. This self-titled album is the North Carolina based artist Robert Thompson who also records under Paa Annandalii and Mohave Triangles. Playing with various percussion beats and rhythms, Thompson weaves a hypnotic spell on the listener with synth textures and glowing ambient tones. Perhaps part sci-fi soundtrack, part video game soundtrack, and part dance club backdrop, this self-titled album will entrance listeners throughout. Listen loud and listen often and don’t forget to turn up the bass.
24. Tanner Garza & Funeral Parlor (Aural Canyon, 2017)
On Dark Days, Tanner Garza and Funeral Parlor join forces for a collaboration which results in ambient wonders. Both artists hail from Houston and are on the initial batch release of cassettes from Aural Canyon (many of whom are in this list above). A mixture of brilliant ambience and electronica savvy, it is an exploration in disappointment, depression, and focuses on the dark corners of human existence. While there is a droning darkness here, there is also, at least to my ears, a semblance of hope. Brighter tones move in out of a deeper, more melancholy mix that creates wonderful juxtapositions throughout the entire album. Listen in a dark room alone.
25. Windy & Carl: Blues for a UFO (Self Release, 2017)
Like Shoegaze, there was a mass of brilliant ambient/experimental albums in 2017. In the midst of this massive stack of music is the beautiful Windy & Carl who always inspire and creating sound-worlds that stand out from the crowd. Blues for a UFO, besides being one of the best titles for an album on this list, is a practice in minimalism like only Windy & Carl can do. The title track is almost an hour long, taking the listener on an epic musical journey all by itself. After a period of strumming and singing, the track turns ambient and ethereal and builds subtly from there. The other tracks, “Watching the Stars” and “A New World” play off these same sonic touches, with ambience and melodic song structure appearing. It’s a beautiful album that should not be overlooked.