“I’ll play it first and I’ll tell you what it is later.” – Miles Davis
Ambient Music Guide started life in 1992 as a reference book manuscript.
In 2001 it became a website, in retrospect one of my better life choices.
The years of accumulated grief from shopping it around unsympathetic publishers soon disappeared as the site gained a following and allowed me to grow and revise the content as the years passed.
The site remains non-commercial and fully independent – my aim has always been to educate and turn people on to good music.
The art of the album
Ambient Music Guide’s focus is on reviews of great essential contemporary ambient, instrumental and downtempo albums spanning the 1960’s through to the present day.
You’ll find most of the reviews in the Essential Albums & Artists section, but also in the annual Best Of Year features and – for brand new releases that I think are outstanding – occasionally on the AMG blog feed.
If you’re old enough to remember dull-sounding cassettes and crackly vinyl records, you would appreciate that the arrival of digital recording via compact disc in the 1980’s truly liberated the ambient zone. Quiet passages could be heard in pristine sound quality and free of crackles and hiss; sound effects and deep bass were reproduced in all their dynamic glory; and with a length of up to 80 minutes per disc the format was ideal for extended compositions and uninterrupted listening.
Now in the 21st century the game has changed again: the advent of digital downloads and streaming threatens to redefine the actual concept of the album itself, with users often free to pick and choose what individual tracks they want to purchase.
For now, however, the album format – whether on CD, download or streaming form – remains the prime vehicle of artistic expression in the ambient and downtempo worlds. It remains my main focus.
What I’ve covered and why
“Ambient and downtempo” is a broad church and I want to stress that AMG’s Essential Albums & Artists section is not and never will be comprehensive.
In the early 90’s when I began this project it started in that direction but within a few years I realised the impossibility of the task, whether laboured over by one writer or ten. An attempt at comprehensiveness is fraught with problems. With music that is so wilfully eclectic, just how far do you extend into jazz? Into rock? Into dance music?
Instead, the Essential Albums & Artists section concentrates on a more selective but still wide range of ambient, downtempo and atmospheric releases and artists that I think are fantastic and worthy of discovery. There are usually no complete discographies, except on rare occasions where every release by an artist, series or label happens to float my boat.
Some readers will no doubt find omissions of recordings they feel should have been included; others may disagree with certain inclusions. While I try to bring a certain objectivity to my writing, Ambient Music Guide is ultimately my personal view of music. It is not overseen by an editor or publisher so don’t complain too loudly of perceived prejudices and biases, because what you see is what you get.
I am not a fan, for example, of much of the dissonant music labelled dark ambient, and I’ve ingested more than enough of it in my lifetime to know it’s not a viewpoint simply born of ignorance. Just as music that’s all sweetness and light bores me, an entire album of dissonance and atonality is enough to make me suicidal. It may be intelligent music that gets my respect, but to qualify for AMG coverage it needs more than that; it also needs my love. And besides, as you read through the reviews you’ll see that I do indeed love some music that falls within the dark ambient sub-genre.
So while not comprehensive, what I hope you will find here is depth and breadth of coverage. In addition to album recommendations I’ve also provided a deeper, historical perspective on many of the most significant and influential artists. Points are further illustrated with quotes from artist interviews done over the years, by both myself and other sources.
A definition of ambient & downtempo music
Finally, while keeping in mind that I believe a single definition of ambient to be useless, it seems wise to state some of the common features of the ambient and downtempo recordings I’ve reviewed. In these pages you’ll find music distinguished by some or all of the following traits:
- It’s often instrumental, and when vocal it usually emphasises the timbrel qualities of voice rather than actual lyrics.
- It’s subtle in its forms and invites close listener attention, even if it also works well as background.
- It doesn’t fit easily – or at all – into the mainstream classifications of rock, dance, folk, classical or jazz, and has been misunderstood or at worst ignored by music journalists and reference works in those genres.
- Thanks to jet age travel, the internet and the development of the synthesiser and studio technology this music can offer us musical meetings unheard of before the second half of the 20th Century.
Take a journey
If this guide leads you down even just one musical path previously unexplored, I feel it has succeeded. That path will hopefully lead you down many more. In it’s melding, crossing and subverting of genres the ambient and downtempo universe is mind-bogglingly vast. And with the advent of global on-line CD retailing, downloads and streaming, such music is now easy to hear and buy wherever you live on the planet.
American composer Philip Glass once said:
“One of the most exciting things you could do is discover the art of your own time”.
In these pages there is much to discover, and much that is artful.
All you need is ears and an open mind….
Mike G, founder of Ambient Music Guide