2023 has been a strong year for ambient music. We’ve seen big, splashy albums from some of the biggest names in the genre, although neither Tim Hecker’s No Highs and Laurel Halo’s Atlas sound like blockbusters. We also bid farewell to one of the ambient music’s pioneers, with the delicately searching 12 from Ryuichi Sakamoto. Some of the best ambient albums of 2023 are drony and hypnotic. Others sound like an underwater orchestra.
A good chunk of the best ambient albums of 2023 emphasize the human as much, if not more, than the atmospheric. A number of the 2023 ambient albums we’ve compiled are built around the piano, bringing the genre full circle to its roots with impressionistic composers like Debussy and Erik Satie. That’s not to say ambient music’s forsaken big ideas and heady concepts, though. Heinali’s Kyiv Eternal is a foggy, dreamlike reminder of the tolls of war.
From the ethereal experimentalism of Lucy Liyou’s Dog Dreams to the textural warmth of Approaching Mountain’s Ley, here are our picks for the best ambient albums of 2023.
The 10 Best Ambient Albums of 2023
10. Natalie Rose LeBrecht – Holy Prana Open Game
Ambient music doesn’t need to be futuristic or technological. It can just as easily be ancient, timeless. Natalie Rose LeBrecht’s Holy Prana Open Game is a breathtakingly beautiful devotional album, with its dreamy flutes and soaring vocals. It’s nearly New Age music but minus the materialism and corporate cynicism.
9. Lucy Liyou – Dog Dreams 개꿈
Lucy Liyou’s Dog Dreams is more of an experience than a slight 3-track EP. Dog Days is a fever dream of delicate piano and whispered vocals over slurries of data overload and clouds of atmospheric synth, approximating intrusive thoughts, repressed memories, and the wages of trauma.
8. Mary Lattimore – Goodbye, Hotel Arkada
We’ve all lost a lot the last few years. Mary Lattimore creates an allegory for elegy, loss, and remembrance with the Hotel Arkada, an aging Croatian hotel facing renovation. Lattimore describes her graceful compositions for harp and ambient electronics as “When I think of these songs, I think about fading flowers in vases, melted candles, getting older, being on tour and having things change while you’re away, not realizing how ephemeral experiences are until they don’t happen anymore, fear for a planet we’re losing because of greed, an ode to art and music that’s really shaped your life that can transport you back in time, longing to maintain sensitivity and to not sink into hollow despondency.” It’s like a musical Remembrances of Things Past, transporting you to a lost world of grand hotels and fresh, rolling fields. Plus, it features members of The Cure and Slowdive.
7. Approaching Mountains – Ley
Ley is like what you might get if you were to smash all of the most popular ambient music of the last decade into the Large Hadron Collider. It’s got the powerful textures of Tim Hecker or The Caretaker, the endless minimalist piano of Ryuichi Sakamoto, the euphoric chorales of Laurel Halo all rolled into one gauzy, luxuriant package.
6. Omni Garden – Golden Pear
It’s been a strong year for Portland’s Moon Glyph records, with eight stunning albums of fascinating, therapeutic electronic music. Golden Pear still stands out, though, with its fuzzy warbles and analog textures sourced from labelhead Steve Rosborough’s moog synthesizers. Golden Pear could just as easily have come from 1973 as 2023, and it would still be one of the best ambient albums of the year. A lovely dose of musical tranquility, like an open window on a spring afternoon.
5. Maria BC – Spike Field
A spike field is a series of abstract granite sculptures meant to transcend time and cultural understanding to warn potential visitors away from buried nuclear waste. Maria BC uses the image as a poignant metaphor for how the past continually haunts the future, told with a mixture of layered choral vocals and atmospheric classical piano. Recommended for fans of Grouper or Laurel Halo’s vocal works.
4. Heinali – Kyiv Eternal
It seems we are surrounded by endless war. In the last few months, attentions have turned to the Israeli/Palestine conflict. For the past 666 days, however, focus was on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Heinali’s Kyiv Eternal is a spectral tour through Ukraine’s capitol to help you remember. Ethereal loops dance in and out of the fog, like faces emerging from the fogs of war. Equal parts emotional and atmospheric, Kyiv Eternal never forsakes the humanity that lies at the heart of geopolitical events.
3. Tim Hecker – No Highs
Technology distorts the way we see the world in odd ways. Responding to a status update requires abandoning complicated, nuanced emotions into the primary colors of ‘Like,’ ‘Love,’ or maybe ‘Mad.’ Our smartphones and computers act as a porthole to everything. What emotion should you attach to the same portal that gives you access the entire Coen Brothers filmography and the mind-numbing horrors of war? Furthermore, what’s the correct emotional response when you’re seeing both, at the same time, at all times?
Tim Hecker’s newest is an excavation of this strange, spectral world we’re inhabiting. It’s a strange, indistinct landscape where boundaries seem to dissolve in the mist. It’s an aural evocation of anhedonia told in woodwind, strings, and synth. It’s an oddly tender work from Hecker, best-known for his powerful washes of thought-erasing analog noise. No Highs feels more fragile, ready to fall apart at any moment. It’s a beautifully constructed, conceptual work of ambient sound art.
2. Laurel Halo – Atlas
Laurel Halo’s fifth solo LP is a hazy, diaphonous microverse of aimless piano and distant voices. Like the realm between wakefulness and sleep, everything is blurry and indistinct, with no clear delineation between object and subject. At times haunting, at others sinister, Atlas is also stunningly beautiful. It’s a high point in an already fascinating career.
1. Ryuichi Sakamoto – 12
Although arguments can be made that a work of art should be assessed on its own merits, it’s difficult to make the claim that an album should be utterly divorced from the person who made it and the world in which it was made – especially if it’s the culmination of a life’s work. In April 2023, ambient music lost one of its innovators and leading lights when Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto passed away at the age of 71. 12 is the capstone of a career spanning nearly 50 years and over 300 releases, ranging from synthpop to film soundtracks. It sounds remarkably human in a discography so focused on the technological. Its 12 anonymous tracks sound like delicate, minimalist chamber piano cloaked in fog, mist, and memory. It works just as well on the heart as the head, as all of the best ambient music does.
RIP Ryuichi Sakamoto.