BEST OF 2023 The Best Ambient Music of 2023 By Ted Davis · December 14, 2023

2023 felt like an ambient year—and not necessarily in the musical sense of the word. Over the course of the last 12 months, things in my life, and the world around me, felt like they were constantly on the verge of falling into place. And yet it never quite happened. It feels like this year passed in one anxious blink. Because of that, I found myself gravitating toward darker, more challenging sounds. Where my Best Ambient of 2022 roundup skewed bright and serene, much of the music here is comparably moody. From Laurel Halo’s cinematic tour de force to x.y.r.’s spooky homage to youth, these are the records uploaded to Bandcamp in 2023 that kept lingering in my headphones.

Laurel Halo
Atlas

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

If it wasn’t for Laurel Halo, I might not be writing about avant-garde music today. I discovered the globetrotting experimental artist and DJ while I was in high school. I quickly fell in love with her stark, uneasy debut Quarantine. My infatuation with that dystopian album allowed me to identify the merit in similarly unnerving records, like Radiohead’s Kid A and Burial’s Untrue. Atlasthe first release for Halo’s new label Awe—pushes back on her historically desolate formula. “I would say this record has a sound that is about fantasy and dream logic, and how the two encounter and connect with reality,” she told me in an interview earlier this year. The end result is outwardly pleasant and jazzy, underlined by a wide-eyed essence of mystery. Lead single “Belleville” is particularly warm and otherworldly—one of the most captivating ambient tracks I’ve ever heard. The music on Atlas is centered on orchestral VSTs, and aided by guest features from artists including Coby Sey and Lucy Railton. From front to back, the record is cinematic and honeyed—begging to soundtrack reflective strolls through springtime meadows.

Loscil // Lawrence English
Colours Of Air

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD), 2 x Vinyl LP

Keeping up with Lawrence English can be a daunting feat. The Australian artist churns out groundbreaking sounds at a rapid clip, ranging from detached field recordings to feisty conceptual dirges. While his impressively active label Room40 sometimes backs fairly melodic music, English’s solo work is typically challenging and unpredictable. Colours Of Aira collaboration with legendary Canadian artist Loscil—is the most outwardly pretty record English has been a part of to date. It’s built on the sounds of a 132-year-old pipe organ, which the duo warped into sumptuous pads. Each track is named for a different hue, but all of the music feels like it inhabits the same jasmine-tinted universe. Colours Of Air is a lush, mesmerizing highlight within the scope of two vast catalogs—a record whose beauty has only revealed itself to me more over the course of the year.

Lucy Liyou
Dog Dreams (개꿈)

Merch for this release:
, Vinyl LP

If I’m being candid, I found Lucy Liyou’s 2022 release, Welfare / Practice, more perplexing than gratifying—and I think that may have been the double LP’s objective. Built on eerie text-to-speech voices that confronted themes of gender, family, and heritage, it was a poignant, freaky album that I wouldn’t recommend listening to with the lights off. On Dog Dreams (개꿈)—Liyou’s May full-length for American Dreams—she leaned into her approachable side, without sacrificing any quality. The stunning album is made up of three lengthy compositions, built on dynamic human vocals, virtuosic piano, and nuanced sound design. Aided by production from Nick Zanca and guitar played by Andrew Weathers, the album blurs the line between gusty neoclassical and futuristic musique concrète. Pondering the intersection of sleep, romance, and trauma, Dog Dreams (개꿈) evokes coming to terms with an important realization in the thick of a Nyquil-induced slumber.

Blue Lake
Sun Arcs

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

It’s a comically trite thing to complain about, but when you listen to as much ambient music as I do, the zither can quickly lose its magic. Countless musicians use the Austro-Bavarian string instrument to emulate the cosmic sounds of Laraaji. Yet few are able to soar to his boundless heights. On Sun Arcs, Texas-born, Copenhagen-based musician Jason Dungan (aka Blue Lake) worked with a custom-built 48-string zither to cultivate textures that feel incredibly fresh. One can pinpoint the influence of artists like William Tyler and Steve Gunn; and Blue Lake’s convivial balm is distinctly Scandinavian. But there’s something unplaceable—almost mystical—about Sun Arcs, too; a friend recently noted the similarities between these pieces and the expansiveness of Talk Talk, which I found to be an apt comparison. Paired with clarinet, slide guitar, and drum machine flourishes, Sun Arcs sounds pastoral and sun-drenched. I was present for Blue Lake’s North American debut in November, which was held at William Burroughs’s old apartment in Manhattan. Seeing Dungan casually wander between his instruments reinforced the understated brilliance of the project. While Blue Lake’s output is striking, it seems to emerge from a place of innocent, wondrous joy.

North Americans
Long Cool World

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD), T-Shirt/Shirt, Vinyl LP

The cosmic country universe keeps blowing me away. From Hayden Pedigo to Suss to Seawind Of Battery to Jeffrey Silverstein, countless solid artists found ways to breathe trippy new life into earthy Americana in 2023. My favorite release to emerge from that sphere was North AmericansLong Cool World. The Third Man-issued LP from Los Angeles guitarist Patrick McDermott finds him returning to his moody roots, after veering into comparably wondrous terrain on 2020’s flawless Roped In. If the aforementioned record meandered through a whimsical forest, Long Cool World stares down a bleak, dusty road. It’s aided by slide guitar from Barry Walker Jr., whose vibrant splashes of melody burn bright atop McDermott’s glum, dub-y fingerpicking. In addition to McDermott’s work as North Americans, he runs the imprint Driftless alongside early Oneohtrix Point Never collaborator Joel Ford. While far more organic, the music on Long Cool World inhabits the same grayscale realm as releases from Driftless signees like Airbird and Overland.

Imaginary Softwoods
The Notional Pastures Of Imaginary Softwoods

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

On The Notional Pastures Of Imaginary Softwoods, John Elliott’s music seems to bubble, rupture, and fade at random. The sixth solo album from the Emeralds member continues his streak of using the aforementioned moniker as a place to contrast the ruddy Midwest electronic he came up exploring with his bandmates. This record is New Age-y and fantastical—a contemporary spin on the ‘70s kosmische of Cluster and Klaus Schulze. But The Notional Pastures Of Imaginary Softwoods harbors a uniquely complicated undertone that keeps things fascinating and artful, even at their most sprightly.

Adela Mede
Szabads​á​g

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

Adela Mede’s Szabadság was the most immediately haunting record I heard in 2023. The debut from the Slovakian artist is glum and mossy. It merges Eastern European folk, phonography, and aloof electronics, casting them all in an austere glow. The record draws on themes of unity and rebirth—rejuvenating, even at its darkest. Co-produced by forward-thinking artists Dialect and Lung Dart, Mede’s work here feels singular even when it pulls from ancient tonalities. Listening to Szabadság, I can’t help but imagine sitting alone on some rocky shore beneath an overcast sky.

Jeanette Ogden
Effervescing

Merch for this release:
Cassette

This year, I got into doing ambient DJ sets on the radio and around Brooklyn. When piecing tracks together, I always like to throw a field recording in the mix to add some dynamic variation. Doing this, I have consistently found myself gravitating towards Jeanette Ogden’s Effervescing. The Southern California artist’s debut arrived via Los Angeles label Jungle Gym Records—one of the most interesting experimental electronic imprints active right now. The release is made up of two sprawling tracks, centered on staticky noise and burbling samples. It’s effortlessly enchanting—a warbled snapshot of naturalism.

x.y.r.
Memory Tapes

Merch for this release:
Cassette

Fifteen years in, Not Not Fun remains one of the most exciting labels in the game. The California imprint consistently churns out neon-doused house, ambient, and experimental records from a diverse range of underground players. In 2023, Not Not Fun backed many great records—Andra Ljos’s Megalithic Statues of Vishpakar, Wave Temples’ Panama Shift, Voyage Futur’s In Constant Changeso I’d encourage you to spend a couple hours just zoning out on their page. But if you’re only going to listen to a single Not Not Fun release from this year, I would recommend that it be x.y.r.’s Memory Tapes. The album from Russian producer Vladimir Karpov finds him using vintage, Soviet-era synths to pay homage to bygone youth. The record is twinkling, hazy, and a little eerie, like the score to an art-y film about teenage romance.

ZONDERWERK
babel

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

Listening to babel by ZONDERWERK is like watching stars explode over a patch of navy sky. The latest album from Belgian artists Linde Carrijn and Dijf Sanders initially came to life as the soundtrack to a theater performance from architect and director Steve Salembier. In his piece, the metropolis is imagined as an overwhelming, psychedelic place. ZONDERWERK’s score mirrors this energy; it’s at once measured and fluid. Across seven improvised tracks, metallic synths and bells burst over subtle bass swells and distant pads. Babel is wonky, yet pristine, like watching a straightforward documentary on a fried VHS.

Purelink
Signs

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

At this point, Purelink have firmly cemented their place as the boy band of ambient music. The trio, all in their 20s, craft freewheeling laptop jams that pay startlingly accurate homage to early dub techno. Without a bit of context, I initially thought that Purelink was a relic of the scene that sprung up around the label Chain Reaction in the ‘90s. On their second release of 2023, Signs, Purelink showcase their subdued side. Across the six tracks of the Peak Oil-issued album, cloudy pads and pearly melodies are underlined by deep basslines. Occasionally, sparse percussion emerges from the aural mist, pushing things into clubbier terrain. But for the most part, Signs is better suited for the spa than the afterparty. Listening to the record feels like screaming into a pillow, if the pillow was inside you.

Anthony Naples
orbs

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

Anthony Naples seems to be in a constant state of reinvention. The New York City DJ, producer, and Incienso co-founder rose to prominence in tandem with the early 2010s outsider house boom. An immediate star in a tasteful corner of the nightlife world, he was offered the coveted opportunity to spin at Berghain’s Panorama bar shortly after releasing his first single on Mister Saturday Night Records in 2012. But Naples has slowly strayed from boisterous dance music, exploring left-field beatmaking on 2018’s Body Pill, conceptual techno on 2019’s Fog FM, and a weird strain of post-punk on 2021’s Chameleon. Naples’s latest full-length, orbs, might be his most unique detour yet. “It keeps getting called ambient. There are so many drums on it, so it’s not really an ambient record,” he mused in an interview with DJ Mag. But—with the exception of a few tracks—the record strikes me as remarkably fluid and weightless. Genre descriptors aside, orbs is enchanting. It contrasts smokey melodies with crunchy downtempo grooves and funky basslines. Yet kaleidoscopic synthesizer sequences and mercurial low-end harken back to his prior work. Early in Naples’s career, he both played alongside and remixed Four Tet. The similarities between the two artists are especially clear on orbs, which calls to mind the airier qualities of records like Rounds and There Is Love In You. Not wholeheartedly ambient, rock, or club music, orbs emphasizes Naples’s ability to wander into new territory while staying true to his clear-cut voice.

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