A look back at some of the best soothing and strange sounds, as well as some notable newbies, just released at the end of 2018.

The close of the year is a time for reflection, the perfect opportunity to look back at some of the best ambient and chill contributions this year. While there's no way I can include the best in just 15 tracks, I swam through plenty of meditative field recordings and disorienting machinery to choose some definite must-listens.

Ambient's typical undanceable quality allows for a more focused listen. Often, artists will deliver messages of protest or emotion, using the music to tell stories. While this list ranges from peacefully lighthearted textures to harsh political calls of action, I like to think of it as a good example of the genre's unique versatility. Here is one last look at an amazing year!

1. ‘TRAE004”- W [TRUE AETHER]

This track defies structure, starting off with serene, echoing sounds that feel like falling down a well. Crunching “concrete music,” as W refers to it, comes in without warning. These grinding machine clicks and percussions are a reference to the natural sounds in the neighborhood where the album, Susiovet, was recorded. These sounds fight against the ambiance at first, but then they mold together nicely until they exit the track as quickly as they came in.

2. “PARADISE CRANE” (VALENTINO MORA REMIX) - RAI SCOTT [CHURCH]

Where Scott’s original was like a cozy dream, Valentina Mora adds deep, mystical textures, transporting you to an enchanted forest of sorts. The layers of waves, soft drums, and smooth buzzing make for a very euphoric track. Listen to more of Scott’s dubby, soulful melodies on her EP, Detached Observation and Mora’s hypnotizing Transmagnetic album via Spazio Disponibile label.

3. “SANAVERA”- SANA SHENAI [LEAVING RECORDS]

Sana Shenai masterfully transports the listener to some strange realm with this track. You can almost imagine the LA duo with their backs to an audience, conducting an orchestra of trippy drone calls and stretched out synths. An unconventional composition off their EP, Forewarm.

4. “STRIPPED”- WILD ADORATION [NEW ATLANTIS]

The London-based artist combines sultry, reverberating vocals to a soft beat, gradually building with twisting snares. Released in June, her album, EP1, is an alluring journey through techno, electronica, R&B and more.

5. “GNADDR“- CLAY WILSON

Just in time for the winter solstice, Clay Wilson returns with Welcome Back to the Sun, an album that patiently drifts through atmospheric landscapes and states of euphoria. I like “Gnaddr” in particular for its seductive bass, Eastern sounds and smooth, clangy percussions. It stands out from his other tracks, which are more typically “ambient” in that they have more of a spacey feel and don’t really contain a beat. Although “Gnaddr” eventually releases its rhythm and the droning melody fades into blowing wind. 

6. “ECONOMY OF FREEDOM” - YVES TUMOR [WARP]

Boundary-pushing Yves Tumor returned with his album, Safe in the Hands of Love, in September and it was yet another project that showed off the artist's versatility. Primarily categorized as an experimental noise artist, Tumor has made delicate ambient cuts as well as R&B-like grooves. Nearly disorienting at first, “Economy of Freedom” takes its time with reverberating crackling and trills moving in and out of irregular explosions. Distortion brings comfort when a smooth beat slides into the halfway mark accompanied by Tumor’s soulful voice, which carries us to the very end.

7. “NOTHING HERE“ - DITCHDOG [INTRUDER ALERT]

Probably the scariest track off the EP, Done, Ditchdog interweaves her echoing voice with dark static and sharp organic hisses. The Brisbane-based producer’s more abrasive approach is refreshing among artists that combine vocals to a sensory backdrop.

8. “AGGREGATE(EDIT)” - YIALMELIC FREQUENCIES [LEAVING RECORDS]

LA musician, Diva Dompé, creates a meditative state complete with an alien-esque frequency under her project name, Yialmelic Frequencies. Released in May, Her album, Yililok, incorporates her experimental ASMR-fused sound for five varied meditations. Here is a shortened “Aggregate” for now. Visit Bandcamp for its entirety when you’re ready to be elevated. 

9. "OUGON NO YUGE / 黄金の湯気" - 7FO [MÉTRON]

In April, Osaka-based 7FO released his first full-length vinyl release, Moment, via Berlin label Métron Records and it was well worth the wait. The artist has a talent for using organic sounds of guitars and birdsong, as heard in "Ougon No Yuge / 黄金の湯気," and distorting them through warped digital effects. 

10. “SCRYTCH” - LYRA PRAMUK

Made entirely of voices that almost sound like organ pipes, the high pitched octaves fade into deeper tones and echo away, creating a curiosity about this track that is almost disturbing. Consider supporting Lyra Pramuk on Bandcamp where 100% of her profits will be donated to Diversidad Sin Fronteras, a collective focused on denouncing violations of rights against LGBTQ+ refugees on the migration routes of North and Central America. With the current border crisis and inhumane treatment of migrants, it's inspiring to end the year with artists using their talents for good. 

11. “PHYSARUM” - BONAVENTURE [PLANET MU]

Graphic designer turned music producer, Bonaventure uses echoing cries against a twisted background of dissolving snares and sporadic drums that remind me of gunshots. It’s an emotional piece that’s reflective of the violence and oppression endured by people of color, a topic the Afro-European activist never shies away from. While her November EP, Mentor, is primarily sped up and layered with fragments of Coupé-Décalé from the Ivory Coast and Angola's Kizumba, "Physarum" offers a slowed down course for contemplation. 

12. “TELL ME, WHERE DO THE BUTTERFLIES LIVE”- LARA SARKISSIAN [CLUB CHAI]

As the title suggests, this track feels like a magical tale told around a campfire with echoing flutes and distant voices, but leftfield ripples and lasers weave through the soundscape as well, releasing it from any category. The croak of a frog folds into a crickets song, filling in for the sound of butterflies us humans can’t hear. Co-founder of Oakland label, Club Chai, Sarkissian takes inspiration from Armenian mythology for her EP, Disruption, released on December 17. 

13. "FIELD RECORDINGS #4"- HEAVENCHORD [SECRET DOMAIN]

The title of this track and each one off Heavenchord’s October-released EP, Field Recordings, reveals little of what to expect. If you’re a nature lover like I am, you’re in for a treat. #4 begins with soft waves crashing paired with a euphoric melody. But it’s nothing like those sound machines you use for sleep. Distant sounds of a bird and footsteps crossing over puddles are heard as the beat creeps in. Subtle buzzing of a machine twist and click and an echoing deep drum comes in around 4:15 like a heartbeat. 

14. "OLD HANDS"- CALDERA [BOOGIE BOX] 

This spacey, warm track has a retro vibe that makes it perfect for nighttime car rides. Unkempt percussions accompany the seductive melody really well the entire time, making it one of those grooves you'll want to have on repeat. The EP, 13 17, was released via Boogie Box on November 19. 

15. “CEASEFIRE”- NAZAR [HYPERDUB]

Although Nazar’s November EP Enclave is characterized by his signature “rough kuduro” sound, the final track, “Ceasefire,” is a hopeful ambient addition. The political album explores the devastation of the Angolan war and corrupt governments. It's an incredible musical journey beginning with sounds of warning, guns cocking and chants of resistance. Then there is reflection with “Ceasefire” where the producer incorporates chirping birds and lapping waves while his father reads a page, in Portuguese, from his war diary. A perfect ending to the album and this list. 

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