Ambient 2016

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It was, by many metrics, a terrible, terrible year. But it happened to be an excellent year for ambient music—and that turned out to be incredibly fortuitous, since nothing works better than ambient music when you’re in the mood to close the blinds and crawl under the covers for the next four (or, God help us, eight) years.

There was so much great ambient music this year that it inspired a number of commentators to ask whether we were in the midst of a comeback. I’d venture that ambient music never went away, assuming you knew where to look for it. But it’s certainly true that this year’s crop of quality ambient music amply proved just how varied the form can be. Huerco S. gave us lo-fi ambient techno slathered in tape hiss. Former Emeralds member Steve Hauschildt kept perfecting his blissed-out Tangerine Dreamscapes. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith paired burbling arpeggios with wild vocal processing, while Julianna Barwick looped her own voice into a soft, tenebrous web.

There was a surprising amount of guitar-based music that fit an ambient sensibility this year: Christian Naujoks paid tribute to Durutti Column on a lovely LP for Hamburg’s Dial label; Tortoise member Jeff Parker explored skeletal atmospheres on his solo album Slight Freedom; and super-producer Daniel Lanois spun pure gossamer out of pedal steel on the masterful Goodbye to Language.

One of the year’s most interesting developments in ambient music may have been the return of what Jon Hassel termed “Fourth World” music. Motion Graphics, Visible Cloaks, and the New York duo Georgia all paid tribute to the digital synthesizers and rippling textures of Japanese ambient and new age music of the 1980s; an artist named Slow Attack Ensemble even covered the Japanese duo Inoyama Land’s 1983 song “Mizue” on a beautiful album called Soundscapes for the Emotional-Type Listener. And both Andrew Pekler and the duo of Jan Jelinek and Masayoshi Fujita delved into ideas of otherness and exoticism on their respective albums for Jelinek’s Faitiche label this year.

That’s just scratching the surface; I haven’t even mentioned the ambient-leaning techno from Studio OST (White Material’s Galcher Lustwerk and Alvin Aronson), or the broken-down synthesizer experiments from Kassem Mosse’s Honest Jon’s LP, or the jewel-toned clouds of tone Tim Hecker whipped up, or the spirit-channeling mysticism of Anna Homler and Steve Moshier’s Breadwoman, an early-’80s cassette that the deep-digging RVNG label rescued for contemporary ears. And special mention goes to Sarah Davachi, who is responsible for not one but two of the year’s finest ambient albums: Dominions and Vergers, both of them examples of drone music at its most meditatively breathtaking. If it’s respite you’re craving, you’ll find plenty of escape routes on this two-and-a-half-hour playlist.