Six Gentle, Minimal, and Ambient Albums I’m Listening To
I discovered Brian Eno’s ambient music around fifteen years ago — sometime near the end of my high school years and the beginning of my college ones. It’s a bummer I don’t remember the exact moment, because that discovery marked the start of a fixation (or obsession if you want to be rude about it) with ambient and minimal music. I love the idea of songs gentle enough to have on in the background while I work or write, but compelling enough to deserve my full attention, when I’m in the mood.
I try to not get too wrapped up with genre labels when it comes to this kind of thing. For example, I probably wouldn’t consider Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest an ambient album, but it is certainly unobtrusive enough for me to be able to write while I have it on without it being distracting. I also mostly avoid music with lyrics when I’m looking for minimal music, but even that is not a hard and fast rule. So if you poke through this little article and get the urge to send me an angry message telling me that this or that album isn’t really ambient or minimal or whatever, feel free to do so, just know that I’ll probably just shrug and tell you that you’re right, but also that I don’t care.
If you’re still with me and all that sounds up your alley, here are six albums that have been on heavy rotation for me lately you might also enjoy. I’ve included Spotify and Google Play Music links, if you use a different service I’ll trust you to hunt them down on your own.
“Tides: Music for Meditation and Yoga” by Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
I stumbled on Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith via this video a couple of months ago and was drawn in immediately. I listened to nothing but her handful of albums, on repeat, for weeks.
She’s like if Boards of Canada’s analog lo-fi ambient sound was seamlessly mashed up with Vashti Bunyan’s freak folk sensabilities. (More on Vashti Bunyan in a minute.) An unlikely combination, perhaps, but one that I was thrilled to discover and have since shared with anyone who will listen to me gush.
While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of Smith’s albums, Tides is the best fit for this write up. I love the way the album takes you on a walk through its gentle landscape, partially due to Smith’s mingling of warm music and incredible field recordings. If you listen to this while on a hike through the woods, it might be difficult to tell where the sounds of your surroundings stopp and the music begins.
“Lookaftering” by Vashti Bunyan
I can’t escape this album.
My initial exposure to Vashti Bunyan happened in the middle of a folk music kick I was on a few years ago. Plenty of the music I enjoyed during that time I haven’t listened to since, but I find myself turning on Bunyan’s albums constantly.
Of her three studio albums and one compilation, all of which are fantastic, Lookaftering is my most played by far. The simple, soft melodies, topped with Bunyan’s voice, sounding so delicate it seems like it could break at any moment, is haunting and hypnotic and quietly unforgettable.
It’s the kind of album that might not make an immediate big impression, but it gets under your skin and stays, so you listen to it again, and it digs in deeper, so you listen again, and again, and again…
“Happy Birthday” by Plïnkï Plønkï
Despite a solid five minutes or so of Googling, I couldn’t find much about Plïnkï Plønkï. Is it one person? A duo? An entire band? Couldn’t tell you. But what I can tell you is that this is a unique, wonderful little album. The playful art and title make it seem like something a child might listen to, and that design choice was absolutely made on purpose, but there’s much more going on here.
To me, Happy Birthday sounds like an adult recalling childhood, but not in an overly nostalgic kind of way. It sparks memories of the the good times, sure, but also the sad and somber and boring ones. Long summer days laying on the floor and watching daytime TV because it’s too hot to go outside, sitting in the backseat on road trips, dealing with the loss of your first pet, playing in leaves during the fall, going to your first funeral, moving across the country away from all your friends…
Somehow, Happy Birthday manages to sound sweet and tender while also being strangely haunting. The result is something that might not be for everyone, but moves me in a way that makes me almost uncomfortable. I love it.
“Hav” by Vargkvint
I don’t know how to pronounce “Vargkvint,” the name of this project by Swedish musician Sofia Nystrand. But that hasn’t stopped me from listening to the album she produced under this name, all the time, often back-to-back.
Hav, which translates to “sea,” is a great way to describe how this album feels. It’s like a slowly bobbing trip over the ocean under a full moon — beautiful, stark, and unsettlingly lonely all at once. The vocals are more pronounced here than in other albums I’d usually listen to when I wanted something ambient-ish, but the fact that they are in a language I do not know how to speak helps them sound like just part of the soundscape, as opposed to something that demands specific attention compared with the rest of the music.
Hav, which released this year, is the only full-length Vargkvint album so far. Here’s hoping there is more on the horizon.
“All Melody” by Nils Frahm
Frahm is probably the most well-known of all of the musicians I’ve written abou there, and for that reason, I almost didn’t include this album on my write up. If you’re into ambient music, chances are you already know and love Frahm, in the same way you probably already know and love Brian Eno. But this album is so good, and I’ve listened to it so much recently, I felt like I had to mention it.
All Melody is unique, dramatic, and vibrant and reminds me of some of Max Richter’s work. My favorite thing about this album might just be the occasional, angelic female vocals, which give the album a mesmerizing quality.
I often think about what settings music might fit as I listen, and I enjoy doing the same with this album, although I have a hard time pinning it down. Is it an album that should be played on a space station? Or in a quiet desert as the sunsets and the air begins to cool? I’m not really sure. But I like it.
“The Quiet Observation” by Dmitry Evgrafov
(This album is not currently available on Google Play Music, although some of his others are.)
The Quiet Observation is a delicate piano-centric album with a unique sound. The first track, Shelter, reminds me of Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar score, probably because that’s the last time I can remember enjoying the sound of someone playing the organ so much.
The only not nice thing I have to say about this album is that it’s too short, clocking in at about twenty minutes. A good album should leave you wanting more, but this one makes me feel like things were just getting started when it ends.
Still, it’s an incredible piece of work that’s easy to recommend.
I sincerely hope you find at least one album here that you grow to love as much as I do. And if you know of one or more albums that you think myself or others might enjoy based on this list, feel free to share them here — I am always searching for more music to put into rotation.