I won’t repeat the abundant reflections online about our overstimulated present, the pressing need these days for space and time to rest and be regenerated, why quieter forms of music are useful for this sort of thing, etc. Regardless of whatever specific chaos we’re undergoing at a given moment, times of quietness are inherently valuable. When we can find them, they allow us to take stock of what’s here, listen to the person in front of us, consider our decisions, and truly ask ourselves how we want the days ahead to look.
This is a list of ten albums that are richly imagined and emotionally profound, and they all happen to be well suited for lower volumes. Some of them could be called “ambient music.” That’s completely fine, but I’m not very interested in seeing this music as a numbing agent, a salve, or a retreat from reality. Quiet music shouldn’t automatically be treated like a luxury good, or a means to prolong some shallow, exhausted fantasy about the world. (I wrote about this for Underscore in 2019, and the pursuit of artificial bliss and so-called negation culture still seems like it’s on the rise.) The music’s value is more fundamental.
None of these albums promises salvation or deliverance from the evils that torment us. They may be soothing sometimes, but their greatest value lies beyond whatever calming properties they happen to have. It’s in the detail of vision each album has, the willingness to engage with the world’s particulars, the desire to offer more than a fog of preconceptions about this strange place we share. In a different way, each clears away some of that fog and says, “See this. See me. See your surroundings. Attend to them. They will give you more than your reflection alone ever can.” Quiet music, yes. Perhaps reserved, or even mysterious. But also communitarian.
Secret Pyramid, Embers (Geographic North)
Most of the other albums on this list are fairly restful, or they could be considered that way; Embers definitely isn’t. It’s muted paranoia turned into sound, the eerie feeling of being close to danger even when no direct threat is immediately visible. In that way it mirrors so many aspects of a painful year—the mass illness and death visible in headlines every day and yet often kept out of sight, relegated to hospitals and homes and shelters all strained too far; the cascading effects of insecurity in work and money and housing; the transmission of illness itself invisible; the irreducible suffering going on in private all around. Embers isn’t specifically about any of these things, and at least some of it was probably recorded before 2020 began, so I’m imposing subsequent events onto it here. But like so many great works of art, it offers a way to confront senselessness in whatever form or time it appears.
Sea Oleena, Weaving a Basket (Self-Released)
The first Sea Oleena album in six years—and the first I’d listened to in its entirety—appeared quietly on Bandcamp the day of Halloween. For an artist whose work had become fairly popular during the past decade, these new songs seemed to get no high-profile attention. But when I did a Google search or looked at comments on the Bandcamp page, it was clear that a far-flung assortment of people had been waiting for this, ever so quietly. These listeners wrote about Weaving a Basket like it was a long-awaited dispatch from a friend who’d moved far, far away. And when I listen, I hear a place full of rain and flowers, where the nights remain long and human-made noise is infrequent—a place that someone might construe as an idyll, if they’re not guided by another person who knows it better. A lot of heavy emotions and experiences are gathered here, and that’s especially clear on the song “Carrying.” This is not an escape, but a gentle, compassionate recognition of the heavens and hells we carry with us wherever we go.
Niecy Blues, CRY (Self-Released)
CRY comprises just three songs lasting ten minutes, but it contains a whole album’s worth of emotional movement, from sadness to premonition to exertion to emergence. The song I return to especially is the middle third, “painted seats (for domo),” which expands slowly and with eerie energy; the words “I saw many people / painted seats in corners” rise as if out of a mist. As a whole, CRY begins with spare vulnerability, but it keeps generating its own power, getting more formidable all the time. And even though the music seems to unravel in the final minute, some kind of transformation has taken place by the end, and there’s a new foundation underneath.
Dao Strom, Travelers’ Ode (Antiquated Future)
More than a decade before the arrival of this tape, Dao Strom released an album of alt-folk songs that included an early version of “travelers’ ode.” There it’s sung a capella, high and lonesome, an unsettling lament wedged between wistful evocations of love and American places. Here the song reappears as part of an intricate collage—soft guitars and pianos, recordings made on at least three continents, chopped-up vocal lines, readings by other people. This music is dense with shadows, but it’s also presented with great clarity, like the startlingly vivid clopping sounds at the beginning of “i have traveled.” It has the precision of poetry, and like poetry it rewards close attention.
Blue Divers, Blue Divers (Bedroom Suck)
The profile picture on Blue Divers’ Bandcamp page shows seven people in a low-lit practice space that might also be a living room, with everyone so crowded together they’re almost crawling over one another, having a good time without making a big deal out of it. The music on this album doesn’t represent those conditions—the recording happened after Covid lockdowns began, the photo from the before-times—but like a small gathering of close friends, it’s devotedly casual and yet overflowing with life. It’s melodic and a little jagged like Loren Connors’s gentlest work, and its sounds slide around lazily but converge in a series of richly imperfect moments. It suggests attention to small, serendipitous details—ones that turn a mundane moment into something fantastical.
This Valley of Old Mountains, This Valley of Old Mountains (12k)
There’s something heartening about the thought of two musicians, across a distance of several thousand miles, imagining a third place together. This album by Federico Durand (who lives in a small town in Argentina) and Taylor Deupree (who lives in a small town in New York state) is an act of relaxed world building, all gentle and winsome tones with foregrounded field recordings. It imagines a there that’s not opposite a single here, but instead a there that contains the threads of multiple heres woven together, a collective imagining from far-flung places. And this is imagining with a lowercase “i”: a practice that creates a humble space in the mind, a space full of entrancing subtleties.
Wayne Phoenix, soaring wayne phoenix story the earth (Halcyon Veil)
This is one of the two noisiest albums on the list, but it feels fundamentally shy, which is why I love it. I live in a country where self-confidence is king and hesitation is considered a sign of weakness. So much American music reflects these conditions, but soaring wayne phoenix story the earth—which happens to have been made in London—dares to turn hesitation into grace. The speaker in these songs pauses, mumbles, stumbles over words, and qualifies statements, and the music mirrors these tentative movements of thought. “I don’t know how to pretend anymore,” the speaker says with a shrug at the end of the track “mood,” and the halting understatement—imperfect and vulnerable—is more courageous than most shouted declarations.
Ilyas Ahmed, How to Transform into Complete & Total Silence (Self-Released)
An album of solo guitar improvisations is nothing new, but almost as soon as this one begins, I can feel myself breathing differently. Except for a few minutes early on, Ilyas Ahmed leaves a lot of empty space between notes here, and each gap is like a little nest. He recorded all the parts of this single forty-minute piece early in the morning, and the result is perfect AM listening, especially at those times when it’s hard to confront the day ahead.
tanner menard, san francisco: an audiophony in four movements (Full Spectrum Records)
Set alongside so much prominent experimental music from 2020, san francisco is equal in sophistication and beauty, if not beyond. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that tanner menard originally recorded these pieces more than a decade ago. But when I stop the comparisons and listen on the tape’s own terms, I hear the old Bay Area Rapid Transit sounds and imagine all the times I’ve passed underneath San Francisco’s Market Street: a kaleidoscope of memories and interconnected lives, with hundreds of my public transit journeys overlaid on one another, accompanied by so many friends I haven’t seen in a year or more, and all this life swirling and parting and crashing together again like the sounds here.
David Tagg, Fundamentals of Orchid Biology (Self-Released)
Fundamentals of Orchid Biology originally came out in 2009, and in 2020 Tagg reissued it by hand-making approximately fifty new copies. I heard about it ten years ago, but I didn’t listen to the whole thing until 2019. Now it’s one of my favourite drone albums I’ve ever heard. It’s subtle, rich, and mysterious, but beyond that I find it extremely hard to describe. I’d call it melancholy, but I’m not sure it has anything to do with human emotion as generally conceived. It touches some deeply embedded fragment in the life cycle of all things. There are moments I find uniquely haunting—like the one right around 3:20 in the untitled fourth track—for reasons that words can’t reach. I want more people to find this album and champion it for the long term, but perhaps this music is designed to slip back into oblivion eventually, with no qualms about its impermanence.