From Eno to Aphex: UK ambient music in 7 essential albums
Reshape time and space with these sublime excursions in downbeat.
Sometimes, you want a song to grab you by the scruff of the neck, pull you to the front of a mosh pit, and make you dance. Other times, you want something slightly different. Ambient music is specifically designed not to be obtrusive: it’s for moments of rest or contemplation, or there to simply exist in a space, never dominating, never imposing – a sort of wallpaper for the ears.
But despite this, the best ambient music is never boring – it has the ability to enrich a space, summoning up sublime moods or feelings. Here are some of the best British ambient long-players – ranging from ‘70s progenitors to the post-rave pioneers to contemporary musicians pushing the form in bold new directions.
1. Brian Eno – Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978)
Brian Eno isn’t just a pioneer of ambient music: he invented the term. Formerly keyboardist for glam rockers Roxy Music, throughout the 1970s Eno pursued a solo career that found him increasingly interested in the possibilities of environmental sound. The idea for Music For Airports grew out of a prolonged wait at Cologne Bonn Airport in the mid ‘70s, one in which Eno found himself irritated by the canned music that leaked from the speakers. Instead, he conceived of a music that would perfectly suit the space, communicating a transcendental calmness that, as he put it, would be “as ignorable as it is interesting”. Simple piano and vocal motifs unfurl on phased tape loops, producing a gentle and unobtrusive music that undergoes subtle shifts and changes, repetitive but never monotonous.
2. KLF – Chill Out (1990)
Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s notorious KLF project are more commonly known for banging stadium house hits like What Time Is Love – or for their stunts, which included firing the ceremonial burning of £1 million in notes. But the pair had a softer side, too. In 1990 they released Chill Out, a 44-minute album recorded in a single live take at their Stockwell studios. A patchwork of sounds and styles, lush synths and chiming guitars merge and meld with environmental effects – radio broadcasts, sermons by American evangelists, bird song – and the distinctive rumbling tones of Tuvan throat singers.
As Drummond told X magazine, Chill Out was specifically designed to capture that post-rave experience. “When we're having the big Orbital raves out in the country, and you're dancing all night and then the sun would come up in the morning, and then you'd be surrounded by this English rural countryside ... we wanted something that kind of reflected that, that feeling the day after the rave.”
3. Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 2 (1992)
Released in 1992, Richard D James’ first disc of Selected Ambient Works ostensibly spanned the years 1985 to 1992, developing a primitive but pretty electronic music related to, but somehow distinct from rave and acid house. Its follow up, Selected Ambient Works 2, however, was a quite different beast. It was supposedly inspired by its maker’s experiments in lucid dreaming, a technique in which the dreamer is able to shape the trajectory of his or her own dreams. Almost entirely without beats, its 24 untitled tracks explore translucent textures and haunted, half-buried melodies like a deep-sea diver venturing into a sunken galleon.
4. Global Communication – 76:14 (1994)
It’s no coincidence that so much British ambient music grew directly from of rave culture – ambient music is the yang to acid house’s yin, a necessary corrective once the rush has faded. Global Communication – the duo of Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard – met in Taunton, where Middleton approached Pritchard which he was DJing and struck up a friendship. Before long they were making music, inspired by the new sounds coming out of Detroit and Chicago, but also older progressive names like Jean Michel Jarre and Vangelis. 76 14 – named in true minimalist fashion in honour of the album’s running time – draws from house and techno, but its whirpool synths and ticking clock rhythms form a gently undulating ambient with a deep emotional pull.
5. Burial – Burial (2006)
Much ink has been spilt already on the subject of Burial’s music, but no list like this would be complete without him. His music draws on many sources – jungle, UK garage, film soundtracks and the eerie FX of Metal Gear Solid – but its murky presentation, wreathed in vinyl crackle, makes this music for the headphones, not for the club. His debut album still sounds phenomenal – check the wistful dawntime elegy Night Bus – but it’s worth adding that his later music has more explicitly dipped into ambient realms, particularly the spare, hollowed out 2017 12-inch Subtemple/Beachfires.
6. Bonobo – Black Sands (2010)
Simon Green, aka Bonobo, is a truly omnivorous producer, drawing in sounds and styles from across the world. He grew up surrounded by folk musicians, but found his early sound in hip-hop, and before long he was digging through crates for samples, digging back through the annals of jazz, soul and funk in search of inspiration. Black Sands is a neat summation of his nomadic tendencies, a soulful, lightly groovy take on downbeat that employed myriad samples – from a saxophonist in Barcelona to a set of keys dropped in water – to create its rich, organic sound.
7. The Caretaker – An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (2011)
There’s a concept behind The Caretaker’s music. An Empty Bliss Beyond This World finds Stockport-bred, Berlin-based musician Leyland James Kirby making music that deals the debilitating brain condition Alzheimer’s. The project was also prompted by Kirby’s discovery of some old vinyl records of 1920s ballroom music, which he uses as source material to tease apart and disassemble, making fuzzy, crackly sheets of sound that feel blurry and broken, but still possessed with a glamour and refinement that hasn’t entirely faded. Simultaneously eerie and beautiful, it’s the sound of slipping away with a smile on your face.