Some Quality Ambient Music

One of the most unrecognized and unappreciated music genres is ambient music; I should know, I hadn’t really listened to an ambient album until this year. It wasn’t out of strong feelings either, it was just a lack of knowledge about what defines good ambient music and what the purpose of ambient music is in relation to other genres. Personally, I ascribe a specific emotion or mood to certain genres, just based on my experiences with them and their energy. For example, I listen to metal to get angry or determined, classic rock to be happy or calm down, hip hop to be challenged musically, classical to feel studious or refined, etc. Previously, I associated ambient music with boring music, simple to make and unimportant. Only recently, when I started listening to the Monument Valley soundtrack on vinyl in my room, did I start to appreciate the unique place of ambient music. Now I want to present three of my current favorite ambient albums and give some thoughts on what makes each one stand out.

Image result for monument valley album cover"If you’ve been keeping up with my posts, you’ll know I already discussed Monument Valley in detail and how much I love it for its style and simplicity. Those same principles work just as effectively on its soundtrack, which is airy, vibrant, and absolutely gorgeous. While some might argue that it belongs in a different genre, I would say that the subtle instrumentation and clear effort put into the sound design and composition place it firmly in the ambient genre. This record has been my first experience with ambient music and it has made me realize that ambient music is meant to be appreciated thoughtfully; each note is placed with purpose and every silence is more expressive, since there are no distractions from the minimal atmosphere. Other music genres often become formulaic (intro, hook, bridge, chorus, repeat), but ambient music is forced to do more with less, leading to really fascinating instrumentation and musical development.

Image result for minecraft volume alpha cover"Another ambient album I’ve been listening to is the Minecraft soundtrack, Volume Alpha by C418. You might be surprised to see another game soundtrack on here, especially one that you wouldn’t recognize if you haven’t played the game. However, it has recently become appreciated as a truly special ambient album; people who play the game might not be able to tell you a song or what it sounds like, but they’ll be able to hear it and tell you exactly where it’s from. Most interesting to me is how well the soundtrack complements the style of the game, but also how well it stands alone. It features a lot of bright piano and synths, along with some really unique instruments that are folksy and adventurous. It’s a great example of the creativity that ambient albums embody, not only in composition but also in atmosphere. Whether in games or as stand alone projects, ambient music is often interpreted as a means of creating atmosphere with background music, but there exist many albums such as this one that are even more interesting and unique when appreciated alone.

Image result for kankyo ongaku album cover"Last but not least is this gorgeous record Kankyo Ongaku (Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990) by various Japanese artists. I never would have found this if it hadn’t been reviewed by theneedledrop, who gave it a very favorable review and piqued my interest. This album stands apart from the first two, not only because it is a stand alone ambient project, but because of its Japanese compositional influences. It fits the common mold of ambient music, featuring crashing waves, chirping birds, and other natural sounds (as expected by the title), but it defies the typical boring stereotypes that usually accompany that style. It does so by being expertly crafted and full of intention; the opening track itself is a testament to the articulate style of the album, featuring precisely placed bells and drones, each with a specific balance and design that creates a thoughtful, meditative space. The whole album is intricate beneath the surface, and requires sharp attention to detail; I listen to it with headphones at night, when everything is quiet and I can truly appreciate every perfectly placed note. This album is the perfect example of what makes ambient music so unique, and I hope that more people can develop an appreciation for these qualities just as I have.

The Soundtrack of My Summer

Do you ever hear a song come on the radio and suddenly you’re taken back in time to when you first heard it? You might have liked it so much that you played it on repeat for the next week, until you got sick of it and never played it again. Then you hear it on the radio and you fall in love all over again, but this time it’s even better, because you remember how great it was listening to it the first time, and it’s associated with a different time in life, where things might have been better or worse, but all you cared about was that one song. I experience this all the time, partially because I overplay things, but also because I’m constantly listening to new music. It’s a great feeling to rediscover a classic, and briefly but vividly remember an amazing moment from years ago. This effect also makes me more conscious about the music I listen to in the present, because I know that the music I listen to now will define my nostalgia in the future. Basically, an over-complicated way of saying that I like to relate certain songs or albums to certain times in my life. This last summer I struggled to find interesting or new music; not that there wasn’t a lot, just hardly anything that I wanted to put on repeat. However, two albums gradually rose to prominence and inevitably became the soundtracks of my summer: “Igor” by Tyler, the Creator and “Relaxer” by Alt-j.

“Igor” came out at the beginning of summer and I listened through it in its entirety the night it was released. It was a memorable project with an amazing atmosphere, unique aesthetic, and bass-heavy rhythms, but I didn’t see much replay value in it at first. It was like reading a book: the first time the story is great and the plot is constantly surprising, but attempting to read it again is daunting and pointless. However, faced with no alternative albums that peaked my interest, I resorted to picking out some of the catchiest, most interesting tracks and started listening to them daily (it was better than nothing, and I can’t live without music). Songs such as “EARFQUAKE”, “WHATS GOOD”, and “NEW MAGIC WAND” became favorites, mainly for their experimental vibes and driving bass lines. Overall the album isn’t bad, but the pitched vocals and gritty aesthetic get old fast, and I was more a fan of his aggressive and dark style on older albums.

The second album I overplayed was “Relaxer” by indie/alternative band alt-j. This album is true to its name, consisting of mostly rhythmic, gentle, and natural songs that feature a lot of acoustic instruments and samples. Only 8 songs long, there isn’t a lot to the album (especially since I can barely stand one of them), but the best ones truly shine, namely “3WW”, “In Cold Blood”, “Adeline”, and “Last Year”. This is an album for long car rides or adventures into the woods; it has a spirit of wandering and mystery that yields endless replay value, as both foreground and background music. It also served as a great contrast to the heavily produced and experimental Igor, meaning I could alternate the two albums and neither of them would get old. The two albums make an unlikely pair, but they complement each other in such a way that helps me appreciate the styles of each. Regardless, these songs came to define my summer: I played them on camping trips, beach trips, long drives, before work, and pretty much any other time I could play music.  Even though they aren’t my favorite albums ever, I can’t wait for that feeling, years later, when one shuffles into my playlist and I can briefly relive the summer of ’19, if only for a few minutes of nostalgia.


The Timeless Appeal of Vinyl Records

April 13th was Record Store day across the world, an annual event created to keep the legacy of records and record stores alive. The local Ann Arbor District library set up a Record Store Day event, including a market of new and used vinyl records from various record shops in Ann Arbor, along with a DJ and other entertainment. I was lucky enough to be able to go, and it was a great experience: I didn’t expect there to be many people, and I was worried it would be an awkward and uncomfortable environment, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was a large turn out. Even more surprising was how diverse the group was, most notably in age. It was interesting to see so many young people talking to the older people about records, and it got me thinking a lot about the role of vinyl records today. They’ve reached an age where they’re obsolete in a practical sense, but have become a symbol of nostalgia and good taste: many people will boast about the unique and superior sound of vinyl records; if they’re being sincere or just trying to sound cool, it can be impossible to tell. Regardless, vinyl records have maintained their spot in popular culture and it doesn’t seem like they’ll be leaving anytime soon.


Personally, it’s easy for me to see why vinyl records have stayed relevant compared to other music formats, such as 8-tracks, cassettes, and CDs. I’ve always appreciated the artistic format of vinyl records: their size alone demands attention and respect, not to mention they can be great examples of quality art and design. They take the concept of album art to an entirely new level by making the entire product a unique piece of art, from the front cover to the back cover and everything in-between. Some of my favorite examples are actually newer albums that are being sold in vinyl record format; I find it especially fascinating that modern musicians are releasing new music on vinyl. Maybe they see the unique artistic potential as well and they want to sell a work of art that will never age. Either way, I hope it’s a trend that doesn’t die out.


(Header Image: Google Images)

Albums featured:

  1. Zaba Limited Edition by Glass Animals
  2. Monument Valley Soundtrack by Stafford Bawler, OBFUSC and GRIGORI

Album Art Aesthetics

Great album art is incredibly powerful, but I feel as if it’s often overlooked by consumer and producer alike. People take it for granted, thinking of the physical representation as just a means to deliver the real product, the music. However, I would argue that the music is only half of the product, and that the music itself is almost entirely defined by its presentation. I’ve always been fascinated by the wide variety of art styles on album covers, but my passion was recently reignited when I saw the album cover for the new Flume mixtape Hi This Is Flume. It grabbed my attention and didn’t let go; the vivid colors, the straight lines and framing of the picture, and most importantly the beautiful painting on the hood of the car. Even though I knew who Flume was and didn’t mind their music, I never really cared for it much. However, I listened to the entire album right when I saw it, that’s how intrigued I was by the cover. My point: it’s all about first impressions, just like meeting a new person. Sure the music is important, but nobody will listen to it if you can’t get their attention first.

Hi This Is Flume – Flume

Beyond being eye-catching, I think an album cover has the power to enhance the music and add an entirely new element to the project. It sets a certain mood and interpretation for the album; you listen to it differently than if it didn’t have an album cover. For example, when I listened to the Flume album I expected it to be interesting and experimental, just like the album cover. As a result, I interpreted it through that lens and ended up loving it. I honestly don’t think I would have cared for it much if I wasn’t already expecting it to be different and experimental. I’m not saying the music isn’t good, I’m saying that the aesthetic of the cover opens up your mind to the music before you listen, and then continues to contribute to the overall feeling of the album. A lot of great albums use this to their advantage (such as the ones in the header image), and it makes a noticeable difference. It really ties the project together as a whole, and turns the album from a collection of songs into a musical journey. When I think back on an album that I loved, the first thing I remember is its aesthetic; the feeling and tone of the album that makes it entirely unique. It’s the album art that always determines this, because it’s the album art that gave the first impression.

Looking towards the future and the increase in purely digital music raises a lot of concerns with me. There’s something to be said for being able to hold the music as a product, and experience it in more ways that just auditory. If you’ve ever listened to a vinyl record or a cassette tape, or even just looked at one and admired its ingenuity, then you know what I’m getting at. Not only does digital music lack these things, I’m also worried that album covers for purely digital projects will more often be overlooked. It’s no longer a work of art that you can hang on your wall or collect; if you’re lucky it’s a thumbnail size image with good resolution. Obviously physical forms of music will always be around, and I’m sure there will still be artists such as Flume who continue to realize the importance of presentation, but I also think that we should all take a minute to appreciate the unique artistic medium of album covers and realize their importance in the art of music.

The Way I See It: Thoughts on Albums Part 2

In a much earlier blog post, I talked about how I feel about the title “The Best Album of All Time.” In some ways, this is an arbitrary title to give a creative piece of work, especially considering how many millions upon millions upon millions of albums that have been made. But it also frames the question in a really unique way. Because beyond asking what your favorite song is, or even what your favorite album is, it’s just slightly more. It may not necessarily be your favorite, but it’s what you consider the best. It’s personal, it reveals your standards, and it reveals who you are, in some weird kind of way.

So this week, I want to talk about what I consider to be The Best Album So Far, since, as we all know, new and exciting music is being created everyday. In some ways, it’s my favorite album, and in others, I just consider it to be a musical masterpiece. And yet, I know that it’s flawed, it’s not perfect, and it’s not a widely shared opinion. But it’s mine, and I want to talk about it, and this is my blog, so ha I win.

Phoenix’s 2013 concept-album-but-also-not-really Bankrupt! probably flew under most radars that year. It’s the year Vampire Weekend released Modern Vampires of New York and Arctic Monkeys released AM, and although a quick search on (I didn’t even know this existed until today) finds a compilation of generally favorable, even highly praised reviews of it, even the slightly more than general indie band might find it hard to remember Bankrupt! because…well…Phoenix was old news. Although Phoenix at this point has been around for years and years and released multiple albums, their claim to fame was Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (another equally brilliant album), along with 1901 that I knew from the car commercial but I’m sure indie fans knew from other things. So then Bankrupt! was, in essence, that dreaded sophomore album.

And to be honest, the first time I heard the lead single “Entertainment,” I was not impressed. As a single, “Entertainment” is catchy, upbeat, fun, synth-heavy indie-pop. It’s likable, it’s pleasing, and made for the general indie population to consume and enjoy. But it’s not in any way brilliant, and it does not speak for the album as a whole.

So what is Bankrupt!? I call it a concept album despite the fact that the only concept seems to be non-concept. And yet, that’s what, to me, makes it so brilliant. When listening to the album all the way through, Bankrupt! changes styles at least 5 times, if not more. It never becomes content with the pop-infused sound of “Entertainment,” coincidentally the first song on the album. It can’t stay there, because that’s not the ending, but the beginning. The album constantly reinvents itself in a way that the listener cannot anticipate nor be completely satisfied with itself. And yet, in direct contradiction to that, none of the tracks feel jarring, or out of place, even when the songs get darker, slower, or vaguer. The album navigates the changes so smoothly that the listener barely even notices these changes.

I have listened to Bankrupt!, as a complete album, well over 100 times. Sometimes, I do listen to individual songs, and I had a phase where I did that. But then I started realizing that when I started with an individual song, even if it’s a few songs into the album, I kept wanting to listen to the rest of the album, rather than switching to some other artist or even another song by Phoenix.

And it’s clear that Phoenix intended the album to be listened to as a whole, as each song flows into the next, often playing the melody for the next song before the previous ends. Which is why it’s easy to see why “Entertainment” failed as a single in some ways – it was never meant to be a single. It was meant to be the introduction to Bankrupt!, with the rest of the album to speak for it.

I also personally love this album because the lyrics are just real enough to matter, and just absurd enough to be indie, always keeping you guessing. I also love the musicality, the way the music sometimes overpowers the vocals, like you’re hearing it live every time. I love everything about this album.

And for some weird, bizarre reason, I find it to be the best album of all time. I come back to it, again and again, and I’m always surprised by it. And that, to me, is enough to qualify it.

So then…I’ll ask again. What’s your best album of all time?

The Way I See It: Thoughts on Albums Part 1

It seems fair, to me, that the same week as the Grammy’s I should be talking about music. Even though I haven’t quite yet gotten to watch the Grammy’s (it’s on my DVR I promise I’ll watch it soon), I’ve seen words flying around my news feed throughout the past week, artists like Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift at odds with each other.

Bu that’s not what I want to talk about this week. We all know that the Grammy’s aren’t necessarily the be-all-end-all, and oftentimes don’t represent the music community as a whole. So instead, I want to talk about something a little bit more personal.

If you run in any type of circle that cares a lot about music, especially alternative/indie/rock music, there’s a conversation that is bound to happen. What is the best album of all time?

That’s quite a heavy burden for someone to bear, to pick the best album of all time. This is more than just a hi, nice to meet you, what’s your favorite song? kind of question. This becomes especially difficult, too, since people who claim to like “good music” often bow down to the rock classics, to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Nirvana, U2, etc. And a lot of times these albums are picked as the best of the best of the best.

But it’s always seemed to me that this question is a thinly veiled disguise aimed at probing if you are “worthy enough” to be considered a true music fan. To navigate this exchange, you have to simultaneously pick something old, perhaps pretentious, highly acclaimed but perhaps not widely known by a general music fan, someone who listens to the radio (because who does that…besides most of the US population).

That’s not how I see this question, though. No, this may not be a first date, could-I-actually-like-you, I’m curious tell me kind of question, but I think asking about someone’s favorite album can be a lot more telling. Something they can listen to over and over again. Something that fits every mood, every whether. Their go-to for when their music runs dry. Not necessarily an album that they listen to constantly, but, even after a year, two, or three of not hearing one song on that album, they can go back to it.

To me, that kind of answer speaks volumes more about who a person is rather than asking them to nominate only one album as the greatest of all time. I think this week’s Grammy’s showed us that there can be vastly different opinions on how to choose an album of the year, much less of all time.

So that’s my version of that question. Simply modified, perhaps not easily answered (can you pick just one?). But I wonder: what’s your favorite album of all time?