Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Music criticism ... via checklist

Ambient music sadly doesn't get a lot of attention in the press. Perhaps because it's not as sexy or glamorous as other forms of music. Perhaps the genre succeeded too well at soundtracking our lives, blending so well into the background that we've forgotten it's there (Satie would be so proud). But I spend a lot of time listening to this kind of music, so I'm always happy whenever I see an article talking about the sound, such as Fact Magazine's recent "20 best: ambient records ever made" article.

But reading through this list of "best" ambient records quickly left me feeling frustrated and annoyed. There's a distinct feeling of going through a checklist here, ticking off albums because they are "important" (a word used several times through the article) or because they represent a particular sub-genre of ambient.

Brian Eno? Check (several times). The Orb? Check. The KLF? Check. Aphex? Check. GAS? Check. Ash Ra Tempel? Check. Kraftwerk? Check. Dub ambient? Check. Dark ambient? Check. Field recordings? Check. Chill out room ambience? Check. (Hey, we're already over halfway to 20!)

It's all here, the artists and sub-genres that you would expect to see name-checked. (Well, okay, I raised an eyebrow at Kraftwerk.) But does it necessarily follow that because these artists and sub-genres are "important", the albums chosen are actually the very best of the ambient genre? Or have they been chosen because the collective wisdom dictates that these are the albums that "should" be chosen?

The omissions are, quite frankly, glaring. What about 'Together Is The New Alone' by Donnacha Costello? Or 'Anima' by Vladislav Delay? But there's no room for these guys when you're filling up the checklist and paying homage to the masters. (At least Vlad gets a mention, in relation to Pole. And while we're at it, why 'Pole 3' instead of 'Pole 1'?)

On top of this, the descriptions of the albums that have been chosen sometimes suggest only a cursory understanding. Eno's 'Ambient 1: Music For Airports' is described as owing something in sound to Arvo Pärt. While there is a touch of classical minimalism to Eno's ambient work, it's a far cry in sound from Pärt's sacred minimalism. Meanwhile, 'Pop,' the final GAS album, is described as, "Post-Basic Channel with tracks that sound like sheets of muted industrial texture." This is completely off-base, with the album sounding neither "industrial" nor "post-Basic Channel."

'Music For Airports' and 'Pop' are indeed both brilliant, and fully deserve to be on a list of "best ambient records ever made." But the descriptions suggest that the writer hasn't fully grasped the albums, and is listing them because everyone else says they're masterpieces and "should" be listed.

And this is what frustrates and annoys me about the article. I have no idea if the writer truly believes these are the 20 "best" ambient records ever made or not. ("Significant" or "important" ambient records? Perhaps, but that isn't what the article claims to be about.) The feeling of a checklist combined with some utterly off-target descriptions calls the whole piece into question.

This style of music criticism sits very uneasily with me. What's the point if all you're doing is just passing on the collective wisdom?


  1. > "Post-Basic Channel with tracks that sound like sheets of muted industrial texture."

    Yeah this is one crappy description. So crap it almost made me fart when I read it.

  2. Is this evidence of churnalism?

    ie, that "most reporters most of the time are not allowed to dig up stories or check their facts - a profession corrupted at the core."

    Online, it's a resource thing. You've got X hours to turn something around in, and if you give it more than a few hours anyway, you end up getting paid a pittance once you break it down to a /hour rate. So you do the least that's passable.

    ...I know from friends of mine that LOADS of info in magazines on 'cool new restaurants' is churned... commissioning editor says 'find me 10 pictures of dolphins with titties' or 'tell me the best place to get a Martini in Reykyavik'.

    What do you do? You google it. And (if it's food, for example) you check Gourmet Traveller and Vogue Entertaining or whatever...

    To some extent, this is how all broadband-accessors get our basic information, is it not?

    Another really interesting article here by Errol Morris on images as weapons....

    ...we need to think about the idea of passability in representation. Thing is, as long as something is passably accurate – given the very real time/money/resource constraints of your average hack – you're wasting your time doing more. And in any case, the last 10% takes 90% of the effort, and if it gets noticed by 5% of people... who cares when it's yesterday's content already?

  3. I read earlier this summer that the BBC has opened a new "college of journalism" for its staff. I think this sort of reeducation is not only smart but absolutely necessary as journalism shifts globally to fill more and different spaces. i hope to see more major news organizations follow suit in the coming years.

  4. i am not sure if the ambient mailing list is still around, but they put out a list in 2005 i think of the best ambient albums up to that date.there where some real gems that i had missed on there.

    quite a few of the top albums are on this list as well.which leads me to believe that the writer didn't go and listen to as many ambient albums as he could, he just did a few google searches and compiled a list of the most mentioned names.

    i am with you on the donncaha, that album is still amazing to this day.

    oh well at the very least, someone will see this list and feel the need to check out a few of the albums.

  5. just to repeat - donnacha's 'together is the new alone' is a truly amazing album. definitely, definitely worth tracking down.

  6. i love the closing track to bits.
    if only my ears didn't complain so much about those superhigh frequencies earlier on. same problem with noto+sakamoto. ouch.

  7. oh wow pole is an ambient artist??

  8. @ Anon: is this a sarcastic remark?

    NB the last track on 'Together...' I was listening to Eno's 'Apollo Soundtracks' the other week, and I swear that Donnacha has purloined the melody from there. Can someone please confirm or deny this?

  9. Also,

    What would some of you guys suggest as your top few ambient albums?

    I'd have to say, I think that the previous Move D & Benjamin Brunn album is creeping up there for me.

    I'd also earnestly counsel you all to seek and obtain a copy of 'Glam' by Mouse on Mars. This is a truly wonderful record.

    I know Cam is AWOL at the moment, but when he gets back, maybe he can suggest this favourites from Kompakt's back catalogue....

    ...and as for those mentioned on the list, I *do* think the KLF's 'Chill Out' is all that. If you haven't heard it, it comes highly, highly recommended.

    Another one which no-one listens to much (or appears to) is R Flugel's collection of his Eight Miles High stuff, 'Catalog'. Not all is ambient, but it's all amazing. Wish RF would do more of this stuff (which doesn't sell) and stop farn-arkling around trying to make another Rocker.

  10. some of kompakts ambient stuff is really excellent, but i end up loving a small amount of tracks and disliking the majority.

    a few of my faves kompakt and not that where not listed.

    blamstrain - disfold
    dettinger - intershop
    markus guentner - in moll
    matt kelly - peridot
    vidna obmana - river of appearance

    this is not even looking at my vinyl and singles.

  11. top ambient albums from 1999 and before, this is from the old ambient mailing list.i could post the whole list but its pretty immense.

    27 VOTES
    Biosphere: “Substrata”

    22 VOTES
    Aphex Twin: “Selected Ambient Works 2″

    19 VOTES
    Brian Eno: “Music For Airports”
    Robert Rich & B. Lustmord “Stalker”

    16 VOTES
    Brian Eno: “On Land (Ambient 4)”
    Global Communication: “76:14″

    13 VOTES
    Thomas Koner: “Kaamos”

    11 VOTES
    Brian Eno: “Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks”
    KLF: “Chill Out”
    Vidna Obmana: “The River of Appearance”
    Woob: “1194″

    09 VOTES
    Autechre: “Amber”
    Future Sounds Of London: “Life Forms”
    Tetsu Inoue: “Ambient Otaku”
    Lustmord: “The Place Where The Black Stars Hang”
    Pete Namlook & Tetsu Inoue: “Shades of Orion 2″
    Robert Rich: “Trances/Drones”

    08 VOTES
    Brian Eno: “Neroli”
    The Orb: “Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld”
    Steve Roach: “Magnificent Void”

    06 VOTES
    Boards Of Canada: “Music Has The Rights To Children”
    Global Communication: “Pentamerous Metamorphosis”
    Tetsu Inoue: “Organic Cloud”
    The Orb: “Orbvs Terrarvm”
    O Yuki Congugate: “Equator”

  12. many of the albums on the list i haven't heard so can't comment on, but SAW by aphex deserves to be there for sure. as does 'the disintegration loops' - the concept/hype around it is bullshit, but it does have some really amazing, unique moments. 3 others that come to mind are the donnacha, plus vladislav's 'entain' and does 'consumed' by plastikman count? perhaps not.

  13. I'm sorry, but to call this list obvious is a bit harsh. Sure there are some popular choices in there but I've never even heard of, let alone actually listened to: the Young Marble Giants, The Disintergration Loops, Main, Bobby Beausoleil, The Caretaker and the BBC comp.

    I'm no ambient aficionado but I'm sure I'm not the only one unfamiliar with much of this list. Props to the writer. And there will always be omissions in Lists - that's half the fun.


  14. i think the point cam was getting at was the list being more generic, rather than obvious. the writer's descriptions of some of the albums - like GAS - perhaps indicate that they've been included because they *should* be there, rather than because the writer really feels and knows they should be.

    plus, from what i do know, i think i'd say 'the disintegration loops' is a trendy/obvious choice, BUT, is also amazing, so a worthy selection.

  15. Thanks to everyone so far for their additions to the list.

    My two cents is that 'Consumed' should be added, Chris. It's such a good album, and it's... well, it's deeeeep techno, such that it might as well be ambient.

    @ Anonymous/Sam: I'm not entirely sure why you feel the need to defend the writer... 'cos they mentioned some things they felt were obscure?

    Wow, they must have REALLY googled their arses off...

    ... I dunno. In some senses we all use the internet to make our opinions seem more passable... when this is presented as authoritative, it becomes problematic.

    If it was

    'My top 20 ambient'


    '20 ambient records deemed important'

    it wouldn't be a problem, I think. It's not the content, it's the captioning.

  16. hmm... still don't understand the beef everyone has for this article. as a list maker you're either slated for being too populist or for being too esoteric. and i thought the writer got the mix about right. couple of curveballs in there too with the carl craig and the kraftwerk. i doubt he googled those.

    (if your're wondering, i don't know this guy).


  17. Marsen Jules - Les Fleurs

    Stars Of The Lid - And Their Refinement Of The Decline

    Mouse On Mars - Glam

    Eluvium - Talk Amongst The Trees
    (full album stream)

    Goldmund - Corduroy Road

    Loscil - Plume
    (incidentally Submers is also fantastic)

  18. I have to agree with anonymous.

    The article just isn't that bad. Sure it's not up to the standard of Wire. But it's ok. There's some stuff i know on there some stuff i don't and may well check out.

    You do better when you write about good new techno.

  19. ambient is such a touchy subject, what one person thinks is ambient the other doesn't.

    all in all making lists like this proves nothing.if you are going to go ahead and make a list don't number your choices and only include albums you have spent alot of time with and can describe how you really feel about them.

  20. A key ambient (I think I hate the term because it's been so overused) release that's seldom mentioned, but is absolutely rich, strange and wonderful is David Toop and Max Eastley's Buried Dreams. It would definitely benefit from reissue as it was released on the long defunct Beyond Records. Another suggestion: Biosphere/Deathprod's Nordheim Transformed. Will check out the Donnacha, given the high praise it's accorded.

  21. couldn't agree more re: the "checklist" aspect of pieces like this. seems all too common these days (which is why blogs like yours serve a great purpose).

    one of the less obvious picks i'd throw on any list would be slowdive's "pygmalion" record. might get classed as some strain of sweater-vest music due to the presence of guitar, but the soundscape/atmosphere/progressions are definitely up the right road.

    also, a pretty rad (if irregular) resource for ambient sounds is asphalt eden's "quiet sounds" podcast, located at

    ... enjoy

  22. nail on head with why I hate the "big tracks" of any decade, specifically techno and house recently. I've always flirted with ambient but can never get really stuck, if you know what I mean. I don't have the time tbh. what about black dog and as one?

  23. "ambient is such a touchy subject, what one person thinks is ambient the other doesn't."

    forreal. is the Rhythm and Sound CD ambient? how about free jazz? minimal classical? experimental?

    ambient is another name not unlike house, techno, or jazz that really encompasses a feeling or approach to the music more than anything else.

    to me, it seems like the "techno" side of ambient is heavily represented here to the detriment of any other forms. i feel like Sade records are more ambient than the Carl Craig or some others that they mention.

    i don't think it is possible to overstate the greatness of SAW2, The Chill Out, or almost any of the early Eno ambient records. i listen to lots and lots of music of all sorts, but those have had consistant plays for more than a decade for me simply because they are so damn good. they should be on any list regarding ambient on general principle alone.

    also, i don't understand why anyone even considers SAW1 an ambient album. it isn't, it's a techno record.

  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

  25. sorry for the delete.

    i think my top 20 would be like this
    (in no order)

    Robert Rich & B. Lustmord – stalker
    Brian Eno - Music For Airports
    Tim hecker - Harmony In Ultraviolet
    Vladislav delay - Entain
    Tangerine dream - Phaedra
    Steve Roach – Structures in Silence
    Bola - Fyuti
    Monolake - layering budda
    Jacaszek - treny
    Wolfgang Voigt - 20' To 2000.November: 20 Minuten Gas Im November
    Gas - Nah und Fern
    Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto - Insen
    Christian Fennesz-Ryuichi Sakamoto - Cendre
    David Morley - Ghosts
    Deaf Center - Pale ravine
    Deep Chord Presents : Echospace - Coldest Season
    FSOL - dead cities
    Murcof - cosmos
    Murcof – Martes

    And to back up chris the Disintegration Loops get an honorable mention as Well as WB’s shortwave music. Oh and i agree on the pole 3 over pole 1.

  26. @ everyone: thank you so much for paying attention and playing friendly so far, always appreciated.

    @ anonymous Sam: the issue to Cam (if I'm not mistaken) was not the quality of the write-up, but the dearth of knowledge and feeling that was behind it, as evidenced from the comments about Gas and others. It felt (and I agree) that the guy was ticking boxes – why does it matter? Maybe it doesn't.

    @ asifindit: yes, well, thanks for the 'back in your box' comment. Let's go back to boosting and praising new releases, shall we? I would have hoped there's room for more than one trope on SSGs. I think there is.

    @ luke: wow, this list comes very close to my sound map, and even closer to Cam's I think (NB the reason I'm playing ventriloquist for Cam is that he's away). I'm interested though – you really dig Cosmos that much? I found that album unlistenable. Perhaps if I was in an IMAX theatre or a planetarium.... but this might say more about my listening practices and habits than anything else, granted.

    @ pipecock: "i don't think it is possible to overstate the greatness of SAW2, The Chill Out, or almost any of the early Eno ambient records."

    I'd say it certainly is, despite their greatness. Witness how irritating boomers are when they talk about Dylan, the Stones or the Beatles and their 'greatness'. You'd think that generation invented greatness, a la 'The First Annual Montgomery Burns Awards for Achievements in the Field of Excellence'

    Some things get massive props (much more than they deserve), somethings get ignored. But then (of course) this is all subjective. A state funeral might not seem inappropriate to a die-hard Bon Jovi fan.

    On the other hand, access to online archives and outlets and the massive zeal for anthologisation means that people have dug through all kinds of substrata looking for gold. Sometimes they find gems, other times they dig up... dirt. A lot of rare groove, it's rare for a reason. Not all soul was even that soulful, it was merely 'soulful'.

    And as for the generally ignored: any of you guys heard of Dalek I?

  27. cosmos is stunning. i see where you are coming from in terms of unlistenability. there are some very prominant sections in it which are quiet confronting.

    i'm love a theme / concept story board in music. even when im dj'ing techno i like to have a consistant theme or bit of a journey.

    Cosmos is one of the most amazing journey albums i have ever listened to. Seriously Murcof is the hottest thing going around at the moment in my ears.

    i have gone really deep trauling through old krautrock, tangerine dream, amon duul, ash ra etc and early electronic sound tracks ie wendy carlos, edward artemiev and still havent found anything as moving as cosmos.

    i now have it on limited vinyl unopened and i think it will stay that way. :)

  28. I'd also like to note that some of the best ambient music is coming out now. the growing modern classical genre is bringing with it some stunning albums and tbh completely knock a few of those albums listed above off their pedistals. Ontop of that there are amazing ambient works by the noise/drone kids too.

    Ambient genre is so full of life at the moment. i seem to get a new amazing album every couple of weeks. when i was writing my list before i realised that albums like SAW and Chillout didnt make the bar as it was more of a sentimental vote over quality of music.

    I would like to see a list written by the kids at boomkat or cyclingdefrost. I seem to have only scratched the surface of what they come into contact with. Seriously this style of music is mammoth at the moment.

  29. @ Problemchild: I agree with you on the overall fecundity of the genre at the moment, especially the electro-acoustic/modern orhestral crossover.

    Has anyone listened to Koss' recent album, or the more recent Saikoss collaboration? It's really outstanding, with a unique Japanese melodic sensibility.

    As for Murcof: I think I'm gonna get it on CD – I had an mp3 copy, and maybe it didn't quite 'work' that way. But perhaps it's also because it's a demanding listen, no? This also reflects on the 'do while' nature of most listening these days.

    How many of you just sit in a room and listen to music? I have a book in my hands, at least, although recently I've been making time to 'just listen'. A lot of DJs would do well to pull off their headphones, stop cueing and searching, and dance to the record that's actually playing.... just my 2 bob.

    And thank you all for a very polite and respectful discussion thus far.

  30. in recent times....

    Aders Ilar - Sworn on Level, I haven't been able to put it down for months

    maybe that's not ambient enough I dunno


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