On November 9th I heard a lot of mutterings online and off about the inability of art, and especially writing about art, to deal with the current state of the world. Art rarely changes the world, but it does inspire people to take action for change. Writing about music, especially music of resistance, gives those artists some exposure, and hopefully because of that, gets them more listeners and puts money in their pocket. Through interviewing artists and writing about art, we can give some context to their work, and let the world hear what those artists have to say. Art itself is an essential form of human expression and community building, as the aftermath of the tragedy at Ghostship in Oakland demonstrates. It can bring people together in a community where love, support, fun, and even social and political action can be shared. Because of this, it’s more important than ever in Trump’s America.
Ambient and new age music isn’t exactly music that brings people together. It’s often a solitary music, but that’s important too. Time to oneself, actively isolating yourself from the rest of the world and simply focusing on your own well being is an important task in a future that will be filled with stress, depressing events, and post-truths coming from every direction.
Thankfully, 2016 has been a year in which a lot of great ambient and new age music was released, and not just from European white dudes, but from many people of color, reintroducing elements of experimental and jazz music into the genre. I hope that this review of the best ambient and new age music released this year will not only introduce you to how broad and exciting the genre can be, but also helps you fortify yourself for the long, hard, fight ahead. —Sam Ribakoff
Dedekind Cut — American Zen
Dedekind Cut is the recent ambient/new age music alias of Fred Warmsley, who used to make music under the moniker Lee Bannon. This year alone, Fred put out two singles, one split EP with the producer Rabit, a full length album called $uccessor, and this short four song EP. While $uccessor is deservingly getting attention on some year end lists, I’d argue that these lush, slowly moving ambient pieces—partially comprised of digitally manipulated bird songs—is not only one of the best ambient/new age albums of the year, but one of the best albums of the year regardless of genre.
MatthewDavid’s Mindflight — “A Meditation on Events in 2016”
Leaving Records boss MatthewDavid has been a de facto ring leader for the recent crop of musicians putting out ambient and new age music, especially ones based in Los Angeles. His label is the first place to look for new sounds in outsider music of all kinds. But MatthewDavid is an interesting and talented ambient musician in his own right, releasing his debut album as MatthewDavid’s Mindflight this year, and recently releasing a composition called “A Meditation on Events in 2016”, a calm, undulating synth improvisation that radiates with a pale, righteous, fire at it’s center. All proceeds made from the tape go the relief fund for victims of the Ghostship fire in Oakland.
Gifted and Blessed — Emotional Topography
Gabriel Reyes-Whittaker is indeed both Gifted and Blessed. As an artist, he’s done tech-house style jams, minimalist IDM, what he refers to as “technoindigenius studies,” and many more styles under a number of monikers and aliases. His take on ambient music, Emotional Topography, sounds like the sonic equivalent of a warm blanket and a cup of hot chocolate.
Julianna Barwick — Will
Julianna Barwick continued her reign as ambient goddess with 2016’s Will, an album of wordless vocal inflections matched with descending synth and piano motifs that makes you look out the window and appreciate the beauty of a gray sky.
Sela — Sell Your Life/Internet Money, Stress [Side D], Homemade Jams from Jules and Jessica’s Kitchen, S.A.F.E.
Sela is the hardest working dude on Bandcamp. The Vallejo producer released six projects this year, all of them filled with Sela’s trademarked brand of ambient footwork, and all of them worth a listen.
Sage Caswell — Hoop Earring
L.A.’s Sage Caswell finally released his full length debut this year, and it’s full of lush, pulsating ambient house tracks, perfect for moments when the sun peeks through the marine layer.
TRIAC — Here
The L.A. based LINE Imprint normally puts out experimental sound collage records that sound more appropriate for an art installation then personal listening, but the ominous waves of what sound like a compressed and echoed out orchestral interlude on TRIAC’s Here sounds like ambient workout music, if that’s a thing.
The Caretaker — Everywhere at The End of Time
This creepy collection of stretched, reverbed out, and manipulated loops of old British and American jazz and swing 78s isn’t exactly meditation music, but it is excellent mood music for a seance.
Andrew Pekler — Tristes Tropiques
Weird IDM bleeps and bloops that are supposed to mimic—or reinterpret—the sounds of nature. Ambient exotica music for the 21st century.
Huerco S — Quiet Time
Smooth, meditative synth pads puts the listener in the pew of an empty church at the bottom of the Atlantic.
Koen Holtkamp — Voice Model
Like a bunch of musically savvy kids playing toy keyboards over each other.
Laraaji — OM Namah Shivaya, Sun Zither, Tonings, and Celestrana/Deep Chimes Meditation
MatthewDavid and the Leaving Records crew continue their celestially ordained mission of reissuing psychedelic zither master Laraaji’s meditation aid tapes from the ’80s, showcasing his jazz imbued new age style. These are truly inspirational and enlightening sounds.
Pauline Oliveros — Deep Listening
Deep Listening didn’t come out this year, but Pauline Oliveros did pass away this year. Oliveros was a pioneer in experimental electronic music by helping to establish the San Francisco Tape Music Center, and then in ambient music with seminal recordings like Deep Listening. The phrase deep listening started off as a joke, since the album itself was recorded 14 feet underground in a cistern, but the phrase became the basis of a philosophy of playing and listening to music, of listening and digesting the sound and feeling of one’s surroundings; a concept Oliveros championed for the rest of her life. It’s a philosophy of listening to the world with love, empathy, and a good sense of humor.
Here’s a mix of some of the best ambient tracks, including a wonderful ambient loosie from the great AshtreJinkins. Be safe, stay strong, stay compassionate, keep loving, and keep fighting.