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Soundtrack Music



BRIAN ENO, mid-1970s (photo credit: ERICA ECHENBERG/REDFERNS)

Pretty much everyone has heard of ambient music by now; if asked, the average person will say something like, “Oh, it’s that quiet background music that people use for relaxation and meditation and stuff.” Anyone who follows music or online music sites will likely know that Brian Eno had something to do with the founding/popularization of the genre, and a growing number of listeners may even be able to namedrop some of the more popular artists in this realm, such as William Basinski, Steve Roach, Tim Hecker, Stars of the Lid, et al. Ambient music has been around for roughly half a century (I’ll get to why Brian Eno’s DISCREET MUSIC from 1975 was arguably the first TRUE ambient recording in a bit here), but for most of that time it was very much a cult thing, something that a handful of enthusiasts and enlightened music writers would have quiet conversations about here and there. As the internet evolved and came into widespread use in the mid-to-late ‘90s, the phenomenon of “listserves” and chat groups allowed fellow ambient lovers to find each other and bond over this rapidly growing sonic universe, and it helped that the ‘90s saw some of the most important and influential ambient pioneers of all time releasing major, enduring works… this included such names as Pete Namlook (and his wildly prolific German label FAX), Aphex Twin, Future Sound of London, the Orb and so many, many others. By the early 2000s, specific ambient review pages were springing up all over the internet, and “fan groups” were no longer something reserved just for major pop and rock stars. You could find ambient information pages with just a casual google search by 2010, and virtually any popular ambient artist had a fan page and possibly even a separate Facebook discussion group. The main Brian Eno page on Facebook, “Before and After Ambient,” grew to well over 10,000 members by about 2020, and the genre itself, once a rarefied category, became more and more popular as enthusiasts spread the word electronically and as ambient music began to get used in films more and more. Michael Mann’s HEAT and Peter Jackson’s THE LOVELY BONES were just two of many films whose soundtracks were largely ambient (the latter actually featured Brian Eno substantially). And a curious thing happened when the pandemic struck; when people started staying inside more and more, many of them “found” ambient music and discovered it was perfect for this new, nearly apocalyptic age. The drones, tinkles and strange lush chordings of this electronic sub-genre were a darn good soundtrack for a world in which death or detachment might be uppermost in the minds of average citizens. The New York Times itself published a major piece extolling the virtues of ambient for this modern age, and Brian Eno, godfather of the whole ambient universe, finally saw the ideas he generated that were once frowned upon by snottier critics and snobbier listeners, practically enter the mainstream, now fully embraced by an audience that had their minds opened wider by all that was available. Ambient is now here to stay, and most major music sites regularly publish lists of “Best Ambient Recordings,” with PITCHFORK doing an ambitious piece of “50 All Time Best Ambient” just a few years ago; I recall that list generating a ton of controversy because not everyone agreed on the choices. You expect that sort of thing with Rock, of course. But AMBIENT? Causing people to argue over what mattered most? Bet Eno himself couldn’t have seen THAT one coming.

GAVIN BRYARS, 2018 (photo credit: KATE MOUNT)

So I say all that by way of introduction, but… ambient is a deeply personal and cherished music world to me. And yes, I’m gonna give myself a pat on the back… I was there from the beginning. Listening to TV and movie theme music (STAR TREK was influential for me), and hiking in the woods a lot as a teenager gave me absolute primed receptors for the kind of mysterious, foggy sound world that was about to emerge in the ‘70s. I already knew stuff by Tangerine Dream, Mike Oldfield and a few others, but I discovered Brian Eno in 1975, and that was momentous beyond words. I bought ANOTHER GREEN WORLD like tons of other fans, but it was DISCREET MUSIC that altered my trajectory as a listener. It came out that same year, with a technical essay on the back cover explaining how the music was made, and a weird almost all-black cover signifying this as an OBSCURE LABEL release. That was Eno’s boutique label in which he produced and brought the world a series of experimental works by new composers who were not necessarily otherwise going to find popularity. Among the prominent releases were works by the great Harold Budd (another ambient pioneer), Gavin Bryars (his THE SINKING OF THE TITANIC was groundbreaking) and even Mister Silence himself, John Cage. My favorite version of his landmark piece “In a Landscape” appeared on the Eno-produced Obscure release. DISCREET MUSIC, however, was the biggie for me. Side One was a 20+ minute piece that featured lulling, goosebump-raising minimalist tones that sounded like they were far, far away, the dreamlike beckoning to a place of peace and beauty that you wished SO much you could get to. But only COULD by listening to this album. I loved it not only as a soothing work of musical transcendence, but oddly, it became my “go-to” album for hangovers, of which I had a few during that era. Something about that gentle, entrancing sound was able to make me forget everything else, even discomfort. It’s influence on me cannot be overstated. But Eno was just warming up. I’d have to write a separate article on the man’s huge, overwhelming impact on my life (I wouldn’t even be a modestly successful musician without Eno’s influence), but for now, it’s worth recounting that just a few years after DISCREET MUSIC, Eno put out a little thing called AMBIENT 1: MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS. That was the album where he coined the term “ambient music,” and is generally considered the official START of the genre. PITCHFORK had it as #1 on their widely read list of the classics, and many people have written essays about this potent collection of four shimmery, drifty pieces featuring simple piano melodies, synthesizer and lilting female chorus vocals. I listened to MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS over and over and over, most notably during a time when I was housesitting for my parents’ friends for a six-month period in 1979. But just a year later, came the first of two stellar collaborations with Harold Budd, this one called AMBIENT 2: THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR. Without question one of the most beautiful and tranquil ambient releases of all time, and STILL cherished. And then in 1982, Eno released AMBIENT 4: ON LAND. Sometimes it takes a while for a groundbreaking masterpiece to get its due, for the “new territory” that is staked out to fully get integrated by those who follow in its wake. But I didn’t have to wait, myself. I recognized ON LAND as a breathtaking, visionary leap forward right away; I became obsessed by it, in fact. It was literally a dream come true to experience this album. And so eager was I to thank Mister Brian Eno for what he’d done on this gem of an album, that I wrote him a long, long letter about it. I recall it being nearly 30 pages long. I had a LOT to say. I was in college at the time, and I spent several long sessions composing my letter… about how I’d dreamed of a music that could capture the rich experience of being out in the wilderness, how I enjoyed listening to birdsong and admired how Eno incorporated birds into the sonic fabric of some of his pieces, and how the very mysteriousness of ambient as a form was expanding in bold new ways, far from anything that could be talked about in the same breath as “new age” (which less experienced listeners often did) or the generic “mood music.” Nope, Eno had definitely conjured something brand new here, and my own world would never be the same.


Pleasingly, I was not the only one. While here and there I would run into another Eno fan who was intrigued with his experiments, it wasn’t until the computer age that I began to realize many other people not only loved Eno’s ambient music but in fact, were passionate about the genre itself. It was the late 90s when I learned about “Hyperreal,” an internet listserv for fans of this rapidly growing style of music. As I sit here writing this, I feel overwhelmingly nostalgic about the years I spent communicating with fellow enthusiasts in this group. We regularly exchanged lists of our favorite releases, argued about the difference between “ambient” and “new age,” and turned each other on to new stuff over and over. I learned about Pete Namlook and the FAX label in this group, which was very significant for me personally. And, I hungered for an updated “Most Popular Ambient” list after seeing modest lists done by one or two members in the period before I joined. So, in 2001, I volunteered to do a very intensive “Classic Ambient” survey, in which members would submit their list of ten favorite, or sometimes even twenty favorite ambient recordings of all time. But I wanted it to be even bigger… I decided to also contact some DJs on electronic music shows, and some music journalists who were NOT part of the Hyperreal group. I wanted this survey to really COUNT, for anyone interested in this still “relatively” rarefied type of music. The amount of time I spent on this thing and the good timing of it helped make this one of the most widely read and useful pieces I ever put on the internet. It is STILL online, in fact, though many of the individual pieces other members submitted are long gone, including the entire beautiful website devoted to Pete Namlook. But you can still read my 2001 survey right here:

Having been able to make a small contribution to the contextualization and popularity of ambient made me almost giddy, but I still wanted more. I did another survey five years later that I think vanished into the ether. And then, I repeated my intensive approach for a survey in 2015, right before the “ambient@hyperreal” group scattered in the wind, the victim of a changing world and rapidly evolving internet/social media universe in which there were simply too many groups to even keep up with anymore. The intimacy of Hyperreal and the many friends/colleagues I’d gotten to know there was not to come my way again. Yes, I joined many other groups, and pored through survey after survey of “Best Ambient”, “Most Influential Ambient,” et cetera. There is so much literature on the subject now (though not that many published BOOKS per se), that the connoisseur can just do a google search and find himself with stuff to read for DAYS. I do it often. But the internet – and social media – have taken over our lives these days, in a way that wasn’t quite the case in the early days of the millennium. Something is DIFFERENT now. In those old days, you would learn about what was SPECIAL by talking to a (relatively) small group of peers, checking it out for yourself, and probably buying it. Nowadays, EVERYTHING can be had easily. A millions different web sites will tell you what is truly special, even about ambient. Even REDDIT has ambient pages now, and for deep research, you can go to DISCOGS, which didn’t even exist back in the heady days I spoke of earlier. It’s all available: The music, the opinions, the listings, the “expert” opinions. You just gotta sift through it all yourself. That can be fun still, to be sure. But it can also be really, really tedious.

APHEX TWIN (RICHARD DAVID JAMES), 1994 (uncredited photo)



Anyway, in the spirit of the old days, I present here, for the first time, the complete unedited 2015 survey I conducted of Ambient FAVORITES. Votes came mostly from the members of Hyperreal, a truly dedicated group of ambient listeners that I miss very much. But they also include votes from music journalists familiar with electronic music. Each listing features the artist, the name of the particular album, and then the number of total votes that album received. As with any genre, ambient has branched out into “sub-genres”, something you quickly start to learn about when you explore this sonic terrain. It is beyond the scope of my little article here to go through all that, but here are a few examples: there is something called “dark ambient” (probably just what you think it is), “ethno-ambient,” “ambient classical,” “environmental ambient” (possibly redundant since it is ALL rather environmental, but the idea here is that such recordings tend to include more nature sounds or field recordings), et cetera. “Space music,” “drone” and even “IDM” (which stands for “intelligent dance music”) are recognized labels that very much can fall under the ambient banner. There’s plenty more, believe me.


I guess in conclusion, I would say that ambient has most certainly evolved into its own musical universe, with a zillion pathways you can explore. You could spend weeks on YouTube listening to stuff that is available without spending a cent, or you can find carefully curated Spotify playlists of splendid ambient selections. Or, you can do it old school, and actually PURCHASE the original discs, something I do proudly. That can be a challenge, frankly, as far too many ambient recordings, including nearly the entire FAX catalogue, were released in strictly limited editions. Yes, stuff is available on Ebay, and by God, a lot is still available on Amazon. But get it from the individual ambient labels if you can or the artists themselves. They put considerable effort into making their specialized music… wouldn’t you feel great supporting them? Sadly, I would say that at least half the ambient music made these days is only available via digital download. I know by direct communication with some artists that they just don’t go to the time and trouble to manufacture CDs anymore. But we loved those little plastic discs back in the days of Hyperreal, and some of us still play ’em. If I want my Stars of the Lid or Tim Hecker or Steve Roach or Biosphere or Harold Budd classics, I just go to my nice little shelves, where it’s all in alpha order. And yeah, I love the artwork, the vibes and reading the credits. It’s all part of the experience.

BRIAN ENO, 2018 (photo courtesy: THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

As I said, ambient will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary. 2022 was Brian Eno’s 50th anniversary as an active musician and recording artist… he was a founder member of Roxy Music in 1972, and some consider the first album he made with Robert Fripp the next year, NO PUSSYFOOTING, to be a progenitor of ambient. By any standard, Eno was the first major “name” in ambient. But that aside, if you have a taste for drifty, dreamy, droney (mostly) instrumental music that can transport you out of the dull doldrums of today’s world, it is well worth exploring what this thing called ambient is all about. And here’s what a bunch of us who love this stuff were wild about back in 2015. I present to you the full survey I did at the time, not available previously in this form…


1. Brian Eno – AMBIENT 4: ON LAND (1982) – 34 votes

2. Biosphere – SUBSTRATA (1997) – 27

3. Aphex Twin – SELECTED AMBIENT WORKS VOLUME 2 (1994) – 25


5. Global Communication – 76:14 (1994) – 18

6. Harold Budd/Brian Eno – AMBIENT 2: THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR (1980) –


7. Harold Budd/Brian Eno – THE PEARL (1984) – 14

8. Steve Roach – STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE (1984) – 13

    Stars of the Lid – THE TIRED SOUNDS OF (2001) – 13

10. Tetsu Inoue – AMBIANT OTAKU (1994) – 11

      Steve Roach – MYSTIC CHORDS AND SACRED SPACES (2003) – 11


Brian Eno – AMBIENT 1: MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS (1978) – 10

The KLF – CHILL OUT (1990) – 10

Robert Rich – SOMNIUM (2004) – 10

Steve Roach – DREAMTIME RETURN (1988) – 10

Stars of the Lid – AND THEIR REFINEMENT OF THE DECLINE (2007) – 10

Robert Rich & Alio Die – FISSURES (1997) – 9

Harold Budd/John Foxx – TRANSLUCENCE/DRIFT MUSIC (2011) – 8

Future Sound of London – LIFEFORMS (1994) – 8

Robert Rich – TRANCES/DRONES (1984) – 8

A Winged Victory For The Sullen – A WINGED VICTORY FOR THE SULLEN

       (2011) – 8

Max Corbacho – ARS LUCIS (2009) – 7

Brian Eno – THURSDAY AFTERNOON (1985) – 7

Tetsu Inoue – WORLD RECEIVER (1996) – 7

Pete Namlook – AIR 2 (1994) – 7

Woob – 1194 (1994) – 7

Aloof Proof – PIANO TEXT (2007) – 6

Brian Eno – NEROLI (1993) – 6


        (2009) – 6

James Johnson and Stephen Philips – LOST AT DUNN’S LAKE (2001) – 6

Lustmord and Robert Rich – STALKER (1995) – 6

Steve Roach – THE MAGNIFICENT VOID (1996) – 6

David Sylvian – PLIGHT AND PREMONITION (1988) – 6

Tangerine Dream – PHAEDRA (1974) – 6

Aphex Twin – SELECTED AMBIENT WORKS ’85-92 (1992) – 5


Fripp and Eno – EVENING STAR (1975) – 5

HIA/Biosphere – POLAR SEQUENCES (1996) – 5

ISHQ – ORCHID (2001) – 5

Pete Namlook – SILENCE V (2001) – 5

Vidna Obmana – LANDSCAPE IN OBSCURITY (1999) – 5

Steve Roach – QUIET MUSIC (1986) – 5

Steve Roach/Vidna Obmana – WELL OF SOULS (1995) – 5

Michael Stearns – PLANETARY UNFOLDING (1981) – 5

Tangerine Dream – RUBYCON (1975) – 5

The Dead Texan – THE DEAD TEXAN (2009) – 4

Deaf Center – PALE RAVINE (2005) – 4

Fripp and Eno – THE EQUATORIAL STARS (2004) – 4


Tim Hecker – RADIO AMOR (2012) – 4

Steve Hillage – RAINBOW DOME MUSIC (1991) – 4



Pete Namlook – SILENCE (1993) – 4

Pete Namlook/Tetsu Inoue – 62 EULENGASSE (1995) – 4

Vidna Obmana – RIVER OF APPEARANCE (1996) – 4

The Orb – ORBUS TERRARUM (1995) – 4

Steve Roach – THE DREAM CIRCLE (1994) – 4

David Sylvian – GONE TO EARTH (second disc) (1986) – 4

Tangerine Dream – ZEIT (1971) – 4


Kit Watkins – THOUGHT TONES VOL. 1 (1990) – 4

Autechre – AMBER (1994) – 3

Autumn of Communion – AUTUMN OF COMMUNION (2012) – 3

Biosphere – CIRQUE (2000) – 3

Biosphere – MICROGRAVITY (1991) – 3

Biosphere – SHENZHOU (2002) – 3

Boards of Canada – MUSIC HAS A RIGHT TO CHILDREN (1998) – 3

Harold Budd – AVALON SUTRA (2005) – 3

Stevie B-Zet – ARCHAIC MODULATION (1993) – 3

Carbon Based Lifeforms – WORLD OF SLEEPERS (2006) – 3

Coil – TIME MACHINES (2000) – 3

Alio Die – SUSPENDED FEATHERS (1996) – 3


Brian Eno – DISCREET MUSIC (1975) – 3

Gas – GAS (1996) – 3

Jeff Greinke – LOST TERRAIN (1992) – 3

Tim Hecker – HAUNT ME HAUNT ME DO IT AGAIN (2001) – 3

Tetsu Inoue – INLAND (2007) – 3

Jean-Michel Jarre – OXYGENE (1976) – 3

Thomas Koner – DAIKAN (2002) – 3

Thomas Koner – PERMAFROST (1993) – 3

Thomas Koner – TEIMO (1992) – 3

Loscil – PLUME (2006) – 3


Cliff Martinez – SOLARIS (soundtrack) (2002) – 3

Murcof – REMEMBRANZA (2005) – 3

Pete Namlook – AIR (1993) – 3

Pete Namlook/Tetsu Inoue – SHADES OF ORION 2 (1995) – 3

Pete Namlook/Tetsu Inoue – 2350 BROADWAY (1993) – 3

Pete Namlook/Geir Jenssen – THE FIRES OF ORK (1993) – 3

Pauline Oliveros/Stuart Dempster/Panaiotis – DEEP LISTENING (1989) – 3

Oophoi – HYMN TO A SILENT SKY (2005) – 3


O Yuki Conjugate – EQUATOR (1995) – 3

Jeff Pearce – DAYLIGHT SLOWLY (1998) – 3

Jeff Pearce – TO THE SHORES OF HEAVEN (2000) – 3

Max Richter – THE BLUE NOTEBOOKS (2004) – 3

Riceboy Sleeps – RICEBOY SLEEPS (2009) – 3

Steve Roach/Robert Rich – STRATA (1990) – 3

Steve Roach – DYNAMIC STILLNESS (2009) – 3

Klaus Schulze – MIRAGE (1977) – 3

Klaus Schulze – TIMEWIND (1975) – 3

Shuttle 358 – UNDERSTANDING WILDLIFE (2002) – 3

Sleep Research Facility – NOSTROMO (2001) – 3

David Sylvian – ALCHEMY (1985) – 3

David Sylvian – APPROACHING SILENCE (1999) – 3

Vangelis – BLADE RUNNER (OST) (1993) – 3

Paul Vnuk Junior – SILENCE SPEAKS IN SHADOW (2001) – 3

Yagya – RIGNING (2009) – 3

Susumu Yokoto – SAKURA (2000) – 3

Another Fine Day – LIFE BEFORE LAND (1994) – 2

A Produce – SMILE ON THE VOID (2001) – 2

Olafur Arnalds – FOR NOW I AM WINTER (2013) – 2

Autumn of Communion – AUTUMN OF COMMUNION 2 (2013) – 2

Baked Beans – BAKED BEANS (1993) – 2

William Basinski – THE DISINTEGRATION LOOPS (2002) – 2

Beautumn – WHITE COFFEE (2005) – 2

David Behrman – ON THE OTHER OCEAN (1977) – 2

Biosphere – DROPSONDE (2005) – 2

Thom Brennan – SILVER (2005) – 2

Thom Brennan – VIBRANT WATER (2000) – 2

Gavin Bryars – THE SINKING OF THE TITANIC (1975) – 2

Harold Budd – THE PAVILION OF DREAMS (1978) – 2

Harold Budd – THE WHITE ARCADES (1988) – 2


Carbon Based Lifeforms – HYDROPONIC GARDEN (2003) – 2

Carbon Based Lifeforms – TWENTYTHREE (2011) – 2

Cluster and Eno – CLUSTER AND ENO (1977) – 2

Max Corbacho – BREATHSTREAM (2008) – 2

Danna and Clement – NORTH OF NIAGARA (1995) – 2

Deep Space Network and Doctor Atmo – I.F. 2 (1994) – 2

Vladislav Delay – ANIMA (2001) – 2

Alio Die and Antonio Testa – REVERIE (2012) – 2

Fennesz – BLACK SEA (2008) – 2

Edgar Froese – YPSILON IN MALAYSIAN PALE (1975) – 2

Future Sound of London – ISDN (1994) – 2

Peter Gabriel – PASSION (soundtrack) (1989) – 2

Gas – KONIGSFORST (1998) – 2

Gas – ZAUBERBERG (1997) – 2

Gas – POP (2000) – 2

Global Communication – PENTAMEROUS METAMORPHOSIS (1993) – 2

Harmonia – MUSIK VON HARMONIA (1974) – 2

Jon Hassell – DREAM THEORY IN MALAYA (1981) – 2


          THINGS… (1987) – 2

Heavenly Music Corporation – CONSCIOUSNESS III (1994) – 2

Tim Hecker – HARMONY IN ULTRAVIOLET (2009) – 2

Tim Hecker – RAVEDEATH, 1972 (2011) – 2

Hecq – NIGHT FALLS (2008) – 2

H.I.A./Biosphere – BIRMINGHAM FREQUENCIES (2000) – 2


          (1978) – 2

H.U.V.A. Network – EPHEMERIS (2009) – 2

Tetsu Inoue – ORGANIC CLOUD (1995) – 2

Tetsu Inoue – ZENITH (1994) – 2

Tetsu Inoue/Jonah Sharp – ELECTROHARMONIX (1994) – 2

Irezumi – ENDURANCE (2008) – 2

The Irresistible Force – FLYING HIGH (1992) – 2

The Irresistible Force – IT’S TOMORROW ALREADY (1998) – 2

Johann Johannsen – FORDLANDIA (2008) – 2

James Johnson – SURRENDER (1999) – 2

James Johnson/Robert Scott Thompson – FORGOTTEN PLACES (2001) – 2

Journeyman – MAMA 6 (1994) – 2


Koda – MOVEMENTS (2004) – 2

Thomas Koner – AUBRITE (1995) – 2

Kraftwerk – AUTOBAHN (1974) – 2

Loscil – FIRST NARROWS (2004) – 2

Loscil – SEA ISLAND (2014) – 2

Loscil – SUBMERS (2002) – 2

Lull – COLD SUMMER (1994) – 2

Marconi Union – A LOST CONNECTION (2008) – 2

An Mlo Production – LO (1994) – 2

Modeste – A MOUNTAIN OF CONVENIENCE (2009) – 2

Pete Namlook – SILENCE II (1993) – 2

Pete Namlook – SPRING (1994) – 2

Pete Namlook – SUMMER (1995) – 2

Pete Namlook/H.I.A. – S.H.A.D.O. (1997) – 2

Numina – SANCTUARY OF DREAMS (2004) – 2

Vidna Obmana – THE SURREAL SANCTUARY (2000) – 2

Vidna Obmana – THE TRILOGY (1996) – 2

Oophoi – ATHLIT (2002) – 2

Oophoi – THE SPIRALS OF TIME (1998) – 2

The Orb – POMME FRITZ (1994) – 2

Stephen Philips – DESERT LANDSCAPES (1998) – 2


Robert Rich – BELOW ZERO (1998) – 2

Robert Rich – HUMIDITY (2000) – 2

Robert Rich – NEST (2012) – 2

Terry Riley – A RAINBOW IN CURVED AIR (1969) – 2

Steve Roach – ATMOSPHERIC CONDITIONS (1999) – 2

Steve Roach – MIDNIGHT MOON (2000) – 2

Steve Roach – ARTIFACTS/ORIGINS (1994) – 2

Steve Roach/Vidna Obmana – ASCENSION OF SHADOWS (1999) – 2

Steve Roach/Robert Rich – SOMA (1992) – 2

Steve Roach/Vir Unis – BLOOD MACHINE (2001) – 2

Bruno Sanfilippo/Mathias Grassow – CROMO (2010) – 2

Paul Schutze – APART (1995) – 2

Jonn Serrie – AND THE STARS GO WITH YOU (1988) – 2

Adham Shaikh – JOURNEY TO THE SUN (1995) – 2

Shuttle 358 – OPTIMAL (1999) – 2

Solar Fields – EXTENDED (2005) – 2

Solar Quest – ORGSHIP (1994) – 2

Spacetime Continuum – ALIEN DREAMTIME (1993) – 2

Stars of the Lid – AVEC LAUDENUM (2002) – 2

Michael Stearns – THE LOST WORLD (1995) – 2

Saul Stokes – OUTFOLDING (2000) – 2

Saul Stokes – ZO PILOTS (1998) – 2

Tim Story – BEGUILED (1991) – 2

Sun Electric – 30.7.94 LIVE (1995) – 2

Suspended Memories – FORGOTTEN GODS (1992) – 2

David Sylvian/Holger Czukay – FLUX AND MUTABILITY (1989) – 2

David Tagg – WAIST DEEP IN SEAS OF MILK (2007) – 2

Vangelis – BEAUBOURG (1978) – 2

Vangelis – L’APOCALYPSE DES ANIMAUX (1973) – 2

Various Artists – A STORM OF DRONES: THE SOMBIENT TRILOGY (1995) – 2

Wagon Christ – PHAT LAB NIGHTMARE (1994) – 2

A Winged Victory For The Sullen – ATOMOS (2014) – 2

Woob – WOOB 2 (1995) – 2

Zero Ohms – 369 (2013) – 2



STEVE ROACH, 2022 (photo credit: FRANK BEISSEL)

As I stated in my main essay about ambient music, there’s a tendency towards “Best of” lists that seems more suited to this genre than others. Ambient is NOT a universally adored style of music; it’s generally quiet, non-flashy and suitable more for private reflection than the kind of communal involvement prevalent in rock & roll or country, for example. It’s rare to find ambient connoisseurs passionately debating ANY particular issue… most agree Brian Eno was either the godfather or the “chief contextualizer” of the genre (unequivocally he’s the one who NAMED the genre), and you might see the occasional thread about whether it can still be called “ambient” if it has vocals or drums; I remember debates about that back in the Hyperreal days early in the millennium, along with the always fascinating “How does ambient differ from new age?” discussion. I like that one, myself. But fans take this music PERSONALLY, and they love their lists. In the three giant surveys I did in the Hyperreal era, participation was pretty enthusiastic, and everyone wanted to know what everyone ELSE voted for. Nowadays, you can hop on the DISCOGS site or “Rate Your Music” and find lists of global ambient favorites with just a few clicks. Yes, people are still listmaking, and it does my heart good to see that this genre I love so much still has a large following, and even shines a light on obscure or new but maybe under-promoted releases quite often. For anyone ignorant enough of the style to say something like “Isn’t it all just a bunch of droney background noise or synthesizer squiggles?”, well, we enthusiasts will respond “NO!” very aggressively. If you spend any time at all exploring the ambient world, you’ll find startling variety. Sure, synthesizers and keyboards are used routinely, but so are strings (“ambient classical” is a thing), guitars, cellos, brass, field recordings and yes, vocals sometimes. Part of the thrill of being an ambient lover is finding stuff that sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. When Eno released the landmark ON LAND, reviewers and fans alike marveled at how you couldn’t even TELL what the instrumentation was at times. It’s often in the MIXING of the sounds that sheer magic would result and prove to be transportive; that is something Eno instinctively pursued.

TIM HECKER, 2016 (photo credit: PAWEL PTAK)

So absolutely NO, it does NOT all “sound alike.” Ambient has crappy, weak recordings just like any other genre, and it also has stone classics like work produced by Eno, Biosphere, Robert Rich, Stars of the Lid, Tim Hecker and many, many others. I tend to think that when a fan makes his list of favorites in the ambient realm, it will consist of albums he’s played many, many times and developed a personal connection to. Ambient GROWS on you if you let it, and it’s adaptable to a wide variety of listening situations. I’ve played it in my car while traveling, in my room while resting or working on a project, and in the old days, I’d offer it as suitable music for small gatherings where everyone wanted something “pretty” or evocative in the background. I had a couple of spectacular experiences in that context when I used to visit friends who lived in Colorado. Ambient can be the ultimate “scenic music” for a scenic setting. And it has the ability to SURPRISE the listener who has an open mind and receptive ears. I love that about this genre, truly.

PETE NAMLOOK (uncredited photo)



One more thing to note before I share my list of favorites. Although it seems to be accepted these days, much to the chagrin of some of us, that CDs are no longer the most desirable music format, right up until a year or two before the pandemic they were still the main way that ambient music was sold and “discovered.” There were boutique labels out there like Hypnos, Infraction and the now-defunct but highly influential FAX label in Germany. Some other fantastic labels like Kranky Records in Chicago put out stellar ambient releases along with indie rock and flat out experimental titles; they became the home for Stars of the Lid and many others. Steve Roach, a “superstar” of the genre releases a ton of stuff on the big label Project, as well as his own personal “Timeroom” editions based in Arizona. So you could generally FIND the CDs if you sought them out, but… the limited sales potential of ambient caused many artists to release only limited editions of their work. FAX was known all along for this; label head Pete Namlook realized he could keep his costs down by releasing titles in editions of just 1,000 or 2,000. If they were popular enough to sell out, he had a separate label agreement to reissue such titles. That it happened QUITE often tells you that ambient had its devoted followers, for sure. And in the last few years of Fax (Namlook passed away in 2012, pretty much ending an entire sonic empire), Namlook released editions in a limitation of just 500. Nearly all of those sold out, with almost NO reissues, making many titles highly sought after and ultra expensive on Ebay, DISCOGS and elsewhere. Good luck even finding a lot of that stuff nowadays. The point is, the uniqueness of ambient and the way the internet allowed even obscure artists to be talked about and to get attention, meant that a high “collectibility quotient” was part of what drove more dedicated ambient fans to seek out various titles. I will always be grateful I followed an impulse one day years ago to purchase an evocative sounding limited edition on the Infraction label titled A WARM WOODEN HOLLOW. It was by an Ohio-based artist named Milieu. This release went on to become one of my absolute, all-time favorite “Blue Diamond” ambient recordings. But you simply cannot get it anymore at ALL; the artist himself has no more copies (I know, because I corresponded with him). So, this is the sort of thing that keeps ambient fanatics on their toes. Even a decade after Pete Namlook’s death, fans are seeking out his music and sometimes paying big bucks to do it. Sure, YouTube and other sites have made it possible to listen to a whole universe of ambient music without paying a cent. And virtually EVERY ambient artist either has a BANDCAMP presence or makes their music available as digital downloads quite reasonably. But if you want to OWN the music, on the CD (or in rare cases, vinyl) where you also got the artwork, and have it displayed properly on a handsome shelf, well, that often proved to be the most enjoyable place to have your ambient collection and revisit it in a tangible manner whenever you liked. That’s how I still do it. And I doubt I’ll give up my collection any time soon, because it truly enhances my life.


In every ambient survey I was involved with, there was some flexibility about how MANY “favorites” you submitted; most people went with ten or twenty, some of them complaining that it was hard to narrow it down to even THAT. On DISCOGS, I routinely see lists of “top 40,” “top 50” and even up to 100 favorites at times. There is a ton of music out there, folks! I saved in my email my own list of “20 All Time Favorites” which stayed fairly consistent after roughly 2012 or so. For our purposes here, I’m only going to share my TOP 10, as I find that a worthy enough challenge, and wanted to see if I’d still argue my case for each of my inclusions. Each is a bonafide gem, a work I not only can listen to any time but positively REVERE. Ambient is genuinely a compelling musical universe to explore if you have that kind of receptivity in your genetic makeup. So here then are some of the greatest titles produced in the genre, according to ME.

BRIAN ENO, 1982 (video capture courtesy BBC TWO RIVERSIDE)

Brian Eno: AMBIENT 4: ON LAND Mysterious, dense landscape music that was so overwhelming to me, I wrote several essays about it and a long letter to Eno himself. The absolute fulfillment of a kind of “dream music” I imagined for years during expeditions out in nature. Eno had already raised the bar so high with DISCREET MUSIC and AMBIENT 1: MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS. But ON LAND created its own fresh spooky universe that only a handful of artists have been able to emulate.

Harold Budd/Brian Eno: AMBIENT 2: THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR Eno’s two collaborations with piano visionary and heir to the throne of Erik Satie, Harold Budd (THE PEARL is their second collaboration) are now legendary, and routinely make almost everyone’s list of favorites. You’ll see how high they place on the 2015 survey I did. I could have included either album on my list, but I’m going with this 1981 release for its stark minimalist beauty and the fact that the title track is still my very favorite short ambient piece of all time, which is saying a lot.

Aphex Twin: SELECTED AMBIENT WORKS VOLUME 2 This two-disc set has the distinction of being potent enough to inspire one of those little books in the popular 33 1/3 series, in this case a book by Marc Weidenbaum. Weirdo British electronica whiz Richard D. James has released music under different names for nearly a quarter of a century, and VOLUME ONE of the above title was a more accessible, influential and popular electronica album overall. But SAW II, as we enthusiasts call it, is a massive collection of highly original pieces inspired by lucid dreaming; it’s unsettling, diverse and absolutely devoted to its mission of giving the listener a strange and haunting ambient universe to explore. My experience listening to it through headphones on an overnight train journey out west is something I will NEVER forget.

Milieu: A WARM WOODEN HOLLOW God, do I cherish this out-of-print title. A few times listening to it while driving through winery country endeared it to me on a deep level. It has a blissful “aesthetic vagueness” to it that is perfect for a scenic drive, and Brian Grainger, the wunderkind behind this entity as well as others, including Coppice Halifax, has a knack for conjuring beautiful, unexpected soundscapes that he gives you time to revel in. It’s very hard to describe this brand of ambient. It’s melancholy, yearning and foggy, and unusually original for a primarily keyboard-based sound.

Robert Rich: TRANCES/DRONES Deep, immersive “widescreen” ambient. Rich has been a consistent composer/producer for decades, and his music often achieves a sonic depth that is unparalleled. What you get here are long, dark drones that could be suitable for meditation or a generally restless night. You’ll find yourself floating far away to this stuff, whether you intend that or not.

Pete Namlook: AIR 2 I personally regard the Fax label’s genius founder as the main person besides Brian Eno who truly “understood” the vast potential of what was being called “ambient” music. Namlook was THE most prolific composer/producer of the genre, with several HUNDRED titles to his credit if you include all the collaborations that also bore his name. AIR 1 and AIR 2 quickly became classics of “ethno-ambient,” featuring tribal percussion, French and Arabic sounds often hard to pin down, shakers and rainsticks, and all sorts of other instrumentation. AIR 2 is beautifully listenable and hypnotic, and certain to be unlike anything you’ve ever heard. It’s intended to be a “journey without moving,” although something will sure move inside you when you listen to this masterpiece.

Steve Roach: MYSTIC CHORDS AND SACRED SPACES Roach is the MASTER of modern ambient exploration. He’s the most prolific living composer in the realm, and his Timeroom studio in the southern Arizona desert is now legendary, as are his rare live concerts. MYSTIC CHORDS is a massive four-CD set that includes both short pieces and side-long sonic journeys; it’s completely and totally immersive. And I love it especially for pieces like “Wren and Raven” which use bird calls and other natural sounds in the most organic, hypnotic manner. You probably can’t even get through all this epicness in one sitting, but as a powerful, richly textured ambient journey, it has very few peers.

Stars of the Lid: THE TIRED SOUNDS OF STARS OF THE LID Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride seem like humble, ordinary guys, but together they created a strings-based ambient entity that rapidly earned them a large cult following. They truly created their own style, and largely let their expansive, haunting music speak for itself. This very popular album, a two-record set with a striking yellow cover, has sad-sounding titles like “Requiem for Dying Mothers,” “Austin Texas Mental Hospital” and “The Lonely People (Are Getting Lonelier)”. Whatever you might imagine such music to sound like, chances are it DOES, or goes beyond that. At least a few moments in this set are among the most beautiful moments I have ever heard in ANY musical genre, and the works of SOTL nearly ALWAYS rate high in lists of ambient favorites.

Koda: MOVEMENTS If there is such a thing as “friendly, reassuring ambient,” this disc might be a good example. The music here is not headed for outer space or darker realms of the imagination; instead, it is grounded, ethereal tonally accessible music for what’s here and now, observable right in front of you. It soothes, whereas an artist like Aphex Twin or Lustmord might terrify. Another gem on the always reliable Infraction label, this summation from the Amazon page should suffice: “MOVEMENTS is a work of drifting, beautiful and ethereal soundscapes with a lightly classical leaning and it really does do the job in style… there’s a deeply enthralling tone to the whole work.”

James Johnson/Stephen Phillips: LOST AT DUNN’S LAKE I’m not sure how available this one is anymore, but I’m choosing it because it SO captures the feeling of being in a remote cabin on the shore of some northern lake while a consistent rain falls. Repetitive, moody and delicate, this is a good example of ambient’s ability to totally capture a specific mood and setting. Back in the Hyperreal glory days, the members would exchange recommendations and often write lovely things about their favorites. A guy whose name I can’t remember wrote an incredibly haunting description of this album and how it took him back to days of camping with his father when he was young, somewhere in Minnesota or Wisconsin. Wish I could find that passage. It was perfect to convey the sleepy, nostalgic mood of this “lost” ambient classic.



A tip of the top hat and genuflection to Miss Peggy Lee, today celebrating the centennial of her birth. Peggy has long been one of my very favorite singers, from the day a friend turned me onto her album SUGAR ‘N’ SPICE in 1984. In the years since, I have delved deeply into her catalog, which is truly a gift that keeps on giving. Peggy was a towering figure in 20th century popular music. A singer for the ages, she was also one of the most accomplished lyricists in music history, and mostly at a time when very few women were songwriters, much less singer/songwriters. She was an innovator throughout her six-decade career, and, like most great artists, was restless, experimental, uncompromising, and a perfectionist. It is said she ran her sessions with no patience for lip, or amateurs. One simply did not question Miss Lee’s taste, or decisions, if one wanted to stay on her record.


As someone who really values great vocals, I find Peggy’s oeuvre to be an indispensable primer on what makes a great singer a great singer. Frankly, most current singers leave me cold – I’m distracted and irritated by the faux emotion, self-indulgent delivery, calculated moans, endless vocal gymnastics at the expense of melody, and puzzling lack of awareness of what THE SONG is asking for. Peggy never exhibited such rookie behavior; she accomplished what every song called for with the exact opposite approach – rich tone, perfect pitch, intuitive timing, impeccable phrasing, and thoughtful understatement. She was a master of the “less-is-more” style, which I find much more moving than the egoic wailings we are frequently inundated with now. Peggy’s voice flourished across so many styles and genres – pop, jazz, cabaret, torch, blues, and comedy/novelty – while always remaining utterly singular and instantly recognizable.


It would be impossible to summarize her long career here, suffice to say it is very telling that it closely mirrored that of Frank Sinatra’s throughout the decades. They both had their introductions as singers fronting the top big bands of the swing era – Frank with Tommy Dorsey and Peg with Benny Goodman – with both quickly becoming breakout stars on their own. Both dominated the charts as solo artists in the 1940s. Peg scored over twenty Top 40 songs in that decade, with her “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)” the number one song of 1948, and Capitol Records’ top-selling single for sixteen years, until the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1964. Both branched into acting in the mid-50s with Oscar-nominated performances (Frank for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, Peg for PETE KELLY’S BLUES), and both also pioneered the concept album during this period (Frank with IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS, and Peg with BLACK COFFEE). Both managed to survive the explosion of rock and roll, maintaining a consistent chart presence throughout the ‘60s – indeed, they were really the only two singers from the big band years to remain commercially viable through that decade, even recording songs that are now considered amongst their best work. And both were ultimately defined by seminal songs late in their games – Frank for the testimonial “My Way” and Peg for the existential “Is That All There Is?” – which finally garnered her a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance in 1969, at the height of the classic rock era.


As a songwriter, Peggy is up there with the greats. She collaborated with many giants of the form – Harold Arlen, Mel Tormé, Victor Young, Cy Coleman, Sonny Burke, and Duke Ellington. Her songs graced numerous films, among others THE JAZZ SINGER (1952); TOM THUMB (1958); ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959); THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING (1966); WALK, DON’T RUN (1966); THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER (1968); and, of course, Disney’s LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955), for which Peg composed the songs, and sang and voiced the parts of the female characters, not to mention two very devious Siamese cats. So many of her songs are timeless standards: “It’s a Good Day,” “Golden Earrings,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “Johnny Guitar,” “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” “Mañana,” “He’s a Tramp,” and “I Love Being Here with You,” just to name a few. And while her career-defining hit “Fever” was originally penned by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport, Peggy added two original verses (“Romeo loved Juliet… ” and “Captain Smith and Pocahontas… ”) for her definitive version, and also came up with the idea to transpose the key up a half-step for each verse, which perfectly communicated the “rising temperature” motif. When the dust settled, her songs had been recorded by the cream of 20th century crooners and canaries: Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Nat “King” Cole, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, June Christy, Mose Allison, Della Reese, Jack Jones, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior, Annie Ross, Elvis Presley, Nina Simone, Mark Murphy, Dionne Warwick, Michael Feinstein, kd lang, and Madonna.


If you’ll indulge me a few anecdotes I feel speak to Peg’s unique impact: She gave Quincy Jones a commercial biz leg-up in the early ‘60s, hiring the jazz wunderkind to arrange and produce for her. She gave her longtime lover Robert Preston singing lessons in preparation for his role as Harold Hill in THE MUSIC MAN. She was a favorite of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, charting one of their gems, “I’m a Woman” in 1962, which stands with Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” as a proto-feminist anthem. Jerry and Mike claim that a few years later she threatened to have their legs broken if they didn’t give her “Is That All There Is?” (which also became the first hit to feature Randy Newman, who was arranger). She was the inspiration for “Miss Piggy” on THE MUPPET SHOW and essentially the genesis of the Jessica Rabbit character in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, her immortal “Why Don’t You Do Right” the song Jessica breathlessly sings to a mouth-agape Bob Hoskins. In addition to cutting nearly every substantial tune from the Great American Songbook, she recorded songs by rock/pop innovators Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Jimmy Webb, George Harrison, John Sebastian, Buffy Saint Marie, and Ray Davies. Paul McCartney, a huge fan, specially wrote the song “Let’s Love” for her in 1973, one of her last singles. kd lang, one of today’s most acclaimed singers, considers Peggy to be a primary influence. Peggy’s nightclub performances are the stuff of legend – extended residencies at Basin Street East in New York in the early ‘60s attracted a veritable who’s who of show business glitterati nightly. The Beatles were said to have wanted to attend when they first came over to do the Sullivan Show, but knew that Beatlemania would overwhelm the club and respected her too much to disturb. And finally, Peggy sang at Louis Armstrong’s funeral. Mic drop.

PEGGY LEE at the first Grammy Awards, 1959 (photo credit: WILLIAM CLAXTON/courtesy: DENMONT PHOTO MANAGEMENT

If you have the time (and who doesn’t, these days?) I implore you to explore this incredible artist. Recommended albums: BLACK COFFEE (1956); DREAM STREET (1957); BEAUTY AND THE BEAT (1959); BASIN STREET EAST (1961); and MINK JAZZ (1963). Below, please find several songs and videos that I hope bring Peggy’s brilliance into deeper perspective.


First, here is an amazing film of Peggy at Basin Street, performing “See See Rider” with a presence that is, in a word, riveting. Tell me she doesn’t have the most expressive face this side of Elvis.

Peggy’s celebrated score for Disney’s LADY AND THE TRAMP in 1955 remains among her best known and most beloved work. It’s easy to hear why. Both the lyrics and vocal delivery are laced with lighthearted humor and cleverness. The two most famous songs from the movie – “He’s a Tramp” and “The Siamese Cat Song” – easily rank with the very best in the entire Disney animated film canon.

“He’s a Tramp”

“The Siamese Cat Song”

A wonderful example of Peggy’s singular approach to the blues, “I’m Looking Out the Window” is a simple sad chord progression in no hurry whatsoever to reach its destination, and only becomes a blues number because of the way Peggy interprets it. She takes what would be a straightforward melody and bends it into a poignant lament on waiting for a love that never arrives. Note that her take on this tune uses the same structural trick as her version of “Fever,” bouncing the key up a step with every other verse. This would normally produce a sense of hopefulness, or at least growing excitement. Peggy tempers this expectation by phrasing the lines more and more languidly as the song progresses.

One of the great, and still mostly overlooked, tunes from the standards era, this longing ballad (written by THE WIZARD OF OZ composer Harold Arlen in 1941) was recorded by nearly everyone, but never became a sizable hit for anyone. Among those who cut “When the Sun Comes Out” were the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, June Christy, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, and Nancy Wilson. Notably, it was one of Barbra Streisand’s earliest recordings, the B-Side of her first single, 1962’s “Happy Days Are Here Again” (later re-recorded for THE SECOND BARBRA STREISAND ALBUM in 1963). But to my ears, Peggy’s version is the best of them all. She never strays from the melancholy feeling the lyrics demand, never falls prey to affecting a “big finish” beyond allowing her voice to become more emotional as the narrative builds. The arrangement rightly follows suit. This is a song that is meant to evoke, not entertain, and Peggy’s version does just that, perfectly.

A great example of how to subtly turn a jazz number into relatable pop, “I’m Gonna Go Fishin” is a co-composition by Peggy and Duke Ellington featured in the classic Jimmy Stewart courtroom drama ANATOMY OF A MURDER in 1959. Peggy’s lyric masterfully matches the jazzy intervals while winking at the listener throughout. She’s out to “catch me a trout,” alright, and her vocal supplies all the needed innuendo even if one can’t discern the barely concealed true intent in the lyric.

Paul McCartney loved Peggy, and composed this soft nugget for her in 1973, where it became one of her last singles and the title of the album on which it was featured. “Let’s Love” is unmistakably a McCartney melody, but Paul clearly strove to create a song that would allow for and accent Peggy’s personal style. This is one that every Beatle fan should know and serves as both love letter and testament to Peggy’s bedrock influence on the pop artists and songwriters—at least the respectful ones—who followed in her footsteps.

Peggy should absolutely be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and not just as an influencer, but as a singer who deftly made the transition from easy listening into the more hard-edged styles of the rock era. This recording alone should be enough to deem her worthy. Written by the great songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller, “I’m a Woman” ranks with their best, and Peggy simply hits it out of the park.

Peggy’s two most famous songs show the wide range of her talent as a vocalist, bringing precisely the right emotion to the needs of each. “Fever” is the quintessential torch song, and Peggy sings it with a brusque beguile that is always on the verge of boiling over while maintaining a shrewd detachment. This wise woman schools us on sex as she works us into a lather. Conversely, “Is That All There Is?” is the ultimate world-weary take on life and loss and the eternal question of “to be, or not to be.” I remember being stunned, at the age of nine, by the directness of this song, as I realized what Peggy was really singing about. This is one of the most unique songs to dominate the 20th century pop charts, and Peggy sings it like someone who has lived it. Because she had.


“Is That All There Is?”


(October 14, 2018; THE FOX THEATRE, Saint Louis MO)

Celebrity deaths are not new and I tend to ponder such passings for only a short time before moving on. Exceptions, of course, do happen. The first that really – make that REALLY – affected me was the plane crash that took the lives of Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and other members of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s entourage. Groucho Marx, a couple of months earlier, was big but… the deaths and the devastation to the entire Skynyrd band shook me. Others – Glen Buxton, Rick Nelson, Johnnie Johnson, Johnny Cash, David Bowie – all had profound affects on me, as did the untimely deaths of three musicians I had considered friends: God Lives Underwater vocalist David Reilly, and drummers Dustin Hengst and John “Beatz” Holohan of Damone and Bayside, respectively. With all of these (and a few others), my personal feeling of loss was palpable. All of them pale, however, to the majestic hole left by the departure of Prince Rogers Nelson in April, 2016. He always seemed to be so relatable. Not just to me or his legions of fans, but to those outside of his music’s scope, as well. Heck, even my Dad sat through and liked PURPLE RAIN. So, this was an evening that I knew I must be a part of. I was not disappointed!


The show was delivered in two parts, as the project’s curator, the Roots’ Questlove, announced (via a recorded introduction). The first would highlight “deep cuts,” while the second half would feature the hits. The deep cuts came mostly from the movie UNDER THE CHERRY MOON. While the material – “Christopher Tracy’s Parade,” “I Wonder U,” “New Position,” among them – are fairly unknown to me, as I wasn’t a big fan of the movie, but having been arranged and orchestrated by Clare Fischer, they, seemingly, were no-brainers for this show. In a brilliant move, Quest had approached Fischer’s son, Brent, as he had worked with his father on several Prince projects. The first half also featured fairly different takes on songs like “Controversy” and the 1999 album cuts “Automatic” and “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute).” Complete surprises were the unreleased compositions “It Ain’t Over ‘til the Fat Lady Sings” and “All My Dreams,” leftovers from the UNDER THE CHERRY MOON sessions. More than twenty minutes into the show, “Nothing Compares To U” was the first song that I really recognized straight off. I certainly don’t mean to slight the talented band accompanying the orchestra; however, “Nothing Compares To U” was the first time that one of the group stepped forward for any type of sustained exposure as electric violinist Ginny Luke delivered a brilliant solo. For the first time, “1999” got some folks on their feet, shaking off the staid, almost sterile orchestra feel of the evening. Miss Luke, likewise, was on her feet, delivering the first minimal vocals of the evening, as well as a bit of booty shakin’ of her own. Bassist CJ Alexander, drummer Skeeter, electronic percussionist Titus Johnson and a still unidentified guitarist, steadfast all night long, seemed energized by the crowd, pushing into new heights of rocking funkiness. If this first half dealt us a somewhat laid-back take on the Prince legacy until the end, that ending certainly did bode well for part two.


Totally eschewing that “stay in your seat, this is an orchestra” stuff, as “Let’s Go Crazy” kicked off part two, the front of the stage was crashed by a slew of hearty revellers. A Prince-worthy solo by Luke ended the number. “When Doves Cry” turned into a massive sing-along, with the Fabulous Fox crowd raising their voices as one. It was, for me, the first truly moving moment of the evening, though certainly not the last. As Ginny Luke became more involved with the crowd, I mentally noted that she had turned into quite the show-stopper. “Little Red Corvette” sounded like it was made to be played in this orchestrated fashion. Mister Alexander delivered an absolutely amazing bass solo and the guitarist (does ANYBODY know this guy’s name?) definitely proved his funky mettle. The inherent funkiness of His Royal Purpleness continued on a cool version of “Kiss.” Though an odd choice (in my opinion) of “Starfish and Coffee” kinda slowed things down at just the right time before spilling into a majestic “Take Me With U.” A snippet of “Irresistible Bitch” followed before morphing into “Raspberry Beret.” The symphony took over for an incredible interlude that led into… the Revolution doing “Purple Rain?” Yes, at this point, the live band sat out and let the legendary moment from PURPLE RAIN speak for itself. Though we had been seeing images and visual cues of Prince all night, his voice literally (and, yes, I have used that word properly) sent a chill down my spine, put a lump in my throat and brought a tear to my eye. In fact, there were several audience members wiping away the tears during this one. The orchestra continued to accompany as Prince’s solo hit. It is, without any doubt in my head, one of the greatest, most soulful guitar workouts in the history of rock, funk, soul or any other genre of music. As the live band joined in, the already overwhelming emotions merely intensified. It was a brilliant finish to an absolutely stunning show! But, wait… after most of the musicians had quit the stage, the video screens came alive again, with the Man himself delivering those familiar words: “I ain’t done yet. Chalk one up for the Kid!” As Prince and the Revolution launched into “Baby I’m a Star” before the band and orchestra joined in amidst an insane light show. While the tune and the presentation was cool, it almost seemed anti-climactic after the stirring “Purple Rain.” My thanks go to Questlove and the Prince Trust for bringing this vision to life and for the band, conductor James Olmstead and the local musicians of the orchestra for an unforgettable evening celebrating the one, the only Prince.



(Ruminations of a music junkie, by KEVIN RENICK)

It’s interesting how certain albums come to mean so much to you, the longer you are an active music fan. From 1976 to 1979, I worked at a major record store, which increased my access to all kinds of new and upcoming artists. I also began to read music magazines obsessively, so I was able to follow the music scene really attentively. Hundreds and hundreds of albums crossed my path during that time and beyond. I went to college from 1980 to 1983, and that, too, brought a ton of new artists into my life. So-called “new wave” music ruled at that time, with artists such as Elvis Costello, the English Beat, the Clash, the Cars and many more finding favor among people I hung out with, and my friend Tina Carl and I began trading and sharing and even dancing to a lot of the music at that time. There was so much stuff I loved, but the sheer volume of it probably prevented most of it from becoming INFLUENTIAL. And that is my focus here: what were the albums that actively, in a meaningful way, became an influence on my life and creative journey? So, here is part two of that list of 25, carrying us from the late 70s to the present…



This is the second time I am cheating by calling a TIE between two albums. I pretty much HAVE to, because each of these albums by the New York new wave group fronted by David Byrne was HUGE for me. FEAR OF MUSIC came out while I worked at Record Bar, in the summer. It was an amazing piece of work, quirky as hell, rhythmically unique and heavily atmospheric. Songs like “Air,” “Cities,” “Animals,” “Drugs” and the new wave dance anthem “Life During Wartime” were like catnip for my ever-growing interest in offbeat music. And the hypnotic piece “Mind” became the unofficial breakup song for me and that girl who looked like Joni Mitchell. I loved this band, and the fact they were produced by my new hero, Brian Eno, was a bonus. But the following year, while I was attending Webster University, the incomparable REMAIN IN LIGHT came out. Influenced by African high life music, and featuring Eno again as producer and even co-writer of many of the tracks, this was just a full-on masterpiece of innovative modern rock. I absolutely went gaga over it, and “Once In A Lifetime” remains, to this day, one of the most instantly captivating weird songs ever recorded. Topping things off, MTV was becoming a going concern, showcasing this new “music video” art form to a fast-growing, interested public, and the Heads’ video for this song got huge attention. My friend Ted Moniak and I also discussed this album at length in college, and I remember him taking a long verse from the song “Crosseyed and Painless”, and writing the lyrics on a piece of paper which he posted on a door in the theatre conservatory to make a point. These were major, heady days of music listening for me, always intense, always communal. REMAIN IN LIGHT is truly one of the greatest and most interesting albums of all time, and that coincided with it being influential for me in its awesome creativity, its often dark and globally inclusive mood, and a palpable sense of ALL things truly being possible now. It made me want to learn about ethnic music, and my mind just kept opening more and more…



I didn’t know anything about Nick Drake when he was alive and making music (1969-1974). It was some years later that I learned about him through my friend, Ted. The doomed British singer/songwriter, who died at the age of 24 either through suicide or an accidental drug overdose (theories differ on that), was an instantly compelling new “find” for me. Nick always sounded like he was apart from the rest of humanity, a lonesome figure who couldn’t fit in and related more to nature and quiet moments than anything else. I probably identified a little too much with this, I have to say. FIVE LEAVES LEFT was his first album, and it’s one of the best debut albums ever. I love every song on it; “Time Has Told Me,” the gorgeous “River Man,” “Cello Song” and “Fruit Tree” are just a few of the timeless, intimate songs on this album. I began performing “River Man” as a musician myself some years later; the mood of isolation combined with a deep reverence and connection to nature, was a recurring and potent theme in Nick’s music. Also, the way his career never took off (fame eluded him during his lifetime; it took a clever Volkswagen commercial using his song “Pink Moon” to catapult him to real fame after his death) and the aching solitude made me start thinking much more about the uncertainties of being an artist and the pain of being perhaps too sensitive. This is essential singer/songwriter stuff, and will likely always be one of my top 10 albums of all time.



I already covered Eno’s album DISCREET MUSIC, which found him inventing a new kind of music that baffled many listeners and critics at the time. And in 1979, he basically announced ambient music as an “official” new genre with the release of MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS, labeled as “Ambient 1” in his new series at the time. That album was influential, for sure, but 1982’s ON LAND was so far ahead of the game in this genre, so much farther than his own DISCREET MUSIC, in fact, that in a way, my life instantly changed right then and there. If DISCREET MUSIC had made me feel like dreams had come to life, ON LAND recreated the experience of being lost in nature, and thinking about the most private and long-gone of memories while doing so. It was a series of rather lengthy pieces with titles such as “Lizard Point,” “The Lost Day,” “Lantern Marsh” and “Unfamiliar Wind,” all of which were made in such a mysterious process that almost no recognizable instruments appeared on them. Eno had traveled deeply into new, mysterious musical territory, and in these heady days before the internet, finding albums like this and maybe, just MAYBE encountering another human being who liked it, made you part of a cult in a way. I was utterly, utterly shocked and amazed that an album like ON LAND, which vividly captured the way I felt when I was out in nature, watching birds and feeling the glorious solitude of my surroundings, could exist. I had literally never been so affected by an album before, and I went a little nuts. I started collecting every article and review of Eno I could find, even compiling a scrapbook. More significantly, I decided I had to write to Brian Eno himself and express my admiration. It was a crazy, bold impulse, but I was unstoppable; I wrote about a 25-page letter to Mister Eno telling him about how I had long dreamed of a kind of cinematic, pastoral music that would evoke landscapes and the mysteries of life, and how in awe I was that HE had single-handedly created this music. Late in 1982, one day when I was at Webster University, I was flabbergasted when Eno answered my letter. He was warmly appreciative of my enthusiasm, hand-wrote a 3-page letter to me, and shared some of his thoughts about this bold new music that was happening. We corresponded several times, and it was a highlight of my life. It’s possible that ON LAND is, in fact, the MOST influential album of my life, it depends on how you want to measure these things. But the way this album combined many of my interests, veered sharply into unknown and haunting new sonic territory and carried with it an entire new philosophy about recorded musical art, was to change the big picture for me forever. And the time I played it on my car stereo at sunrise while driving into the Grand Canyon National Park, is one of the most unforgettable listening experiences of my entire life.



Ah, the Cocteau Twins. Their fans sigh and swoon at the mere mention of this so-called “shoegaze” band (a lousy label that some critic made famous, even though none of the dreamy sounding bands saddled with that label could stand it). You’re lucky in life if you meet friends who introduce you to some new band that goes on to really affect you, a band you might not have encountered otherwise. That was the case with my first introduction to this ethereal Scottish trio. Liz Fraser, the sublimely gifted female singer who fronted the band, sang like no one else EVER, not even singing understandable lyrics until the last years of the band. Instead, fans were treated to wailing, intoning, swooping and soaring, shiver-inducing tones and unearthly vocal bursts that were uncategorizable. With her partner at the time, Robin Guthrie, who conjured one of the most recognizable and groundbreaking painterly guitar sounds to ever come along, the Cocteau Twins (joined by bassist Simon Raymonde on most of their albums) earned in instant cult following with their visionary sonic palette. Many of their albums are now considered classics, but VICTORIALAND, a largely acoustic and sparsely played recording, has some of their most singularly beautiful moments. It’s music that is not easy to describe. In many ways, it is ambient, because Liz Fraser does not sing understandable lyrics, and the overall mood, a haunted one, is what you respond to most. The music is wintery, solemn and desolately beautiful, filled with mystery and destinations unknown. Some friends and I listened to it one day while we were all sprawled out on the floor together at a party, in a totally receptive mood. There was a sense of discovery at this time in the mid 80s that was magical, and by the time the internet came along and music like this was analyzed and discussed to death by countless pundits, some of that mystery went away. But the Cocteaus’ powerful music endures (though they disbanded in the late 90s), and Robin Guthrie is now a prominent ambient musician and soundtrack composer, continuing the awesome legacy of this pioneering band.

How it influenced me: By proving that truly wondrous music could render lyrics irrelevant, by emphasizing mystery over almost everything else, by demonstrating that a female voice could power a kind of “new form of ambient,” and by partially inspiring me to start writing my first novel, a story about a girl who worshipped this band, and happens to get embroiled in a supernatural murder mystery. Not sure if the novel will get finished or not, but if it does, I am contacting Robin Guthrie to compose the score.



This Athens, Georgia band became heroic in the ’90s for their status as one of the ultimate college bands and for helping to create the very notion of what “indie rock” meant. Michael Stipe had a unique, stylish approach to vocals (in the early days he utilized a kind of beguiling mumble), and there was something about the SOUND of these guys that was able to keep growing an audience year after year. “Losing My Religion” became their most classic song, but in 1992, they released AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE, an evocative song cycle about loss, change and disillusionment. Three of my favorite themes! This was an autumnal album, one that I played constantly and featured regularly on road trips with a couple of friends. It was conceptually solid, deeply moving and strangely comforting. I reacted most to the melancholy songs like “Try Not to Breathe” (a painful song about an old person’s last moments), “Sweetness Follows” (heartbreaking song, with potent cello playing, about the aftermath of a death in a family) “Nightswimming” and a personal favorite, “Find the River.” This album made me cry a few times, and I have to mention in particular that the song “Sweetness Follows,” a truly haunting piece, was something I listened to on the fateful day I found out that a close friend, and the founder of a publication I had written for, was killed in a horrible car accident coming home from Chicago. I was on the highway the same day, maybe an hour behind her, and didn’t find out ’til the next day what happened. It was a huge, tragic event. There were many upbeat REM songs, and I had fun growing with them album after album for almost 30 years. But it was their softer, more intimate songs that ultimately affected me the most. I don’t play this album that often because it brings back some painful memories, but it definitely had an impact.



Considering that most non-aficionados consider “ambient” to be nothing more than background music, something probably with repetitive droning or tinkly keyboards and not much variety, it’s a huge surprise to discover that there’s actually a HUGE diversity of sounds and approaches in the world of ambient releases. That topic will be discussed in depth another time on this site, but I have to include a Pete Namlook album on my list because Pete, like Eno, created an entire world of ambient releases. He launched a private German record label called Fax in the early 90s, and began releasing limited-edition recordings that became collectors items fairly quickly. The releases spanned the musical spectrum from straight ambient to stuff heavy on beats to weird experimental things to jazz stylings and beyond. Fax fans were challenged by all this and discussed Pete’s work on several key websites. One of the best pairs of ambient recordings on Fax was the first two volumes in a series called AIR. These were meant to be expansive, “ethno-ambient” projects that included instrumentation far beyond mere drones and keyboards. AIR 2, in particular, was a spectacular album. It’s hard to even describe, because it constantly changes, from hypnotic travelogue soundscape (with subtle rhythms) to breezy synth to chanted middle-eastern sounding vocals to glassy, wind chimey stuff and more. “Traveling Without Moving” is the subtitle of the work overall, but it is so filled with diversity, and so enthralling to listen to while driving, that it became a personal landmark for me. I played the entire thing in my car while driving in the mountains of Colorado one evening, with some dangerous conditions happening, and it was one of the most amazing cinematic experiences of my life. This is real musical art, raising the notion of “ambient to a much, much higher level.”

How it influenced me: By creating a bold, fascinating new vision of what ambient could be, and by allowing me to lure friends and other newbies into the ambient “fold” by providing a stellar, immersive and unforgettable listening experience.



Radiohead took the music world by storm with this album. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and it was said to be an epic meditation on millennial angst and the growing encroachment of technology in our lives (with the subsequent alienation we were sure to face). I was utterly enthralled with this recording; it really did achieve some sort of pinnacle of creativity for a rock album. Having always loved high, emotive male voices, Thom Yorke’s singing on stunning tracks like “Paranoid Android,” “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” “Let Down,” and “Lucky” was spine-tingling, and the arrangements (and production by Nigel Goodrich) maximized the emotional impact. I listened to this one over and over; it was a thoroughly modern rock masterpiece that took me back to the days of listening to Pink Floyd, Yes and the Moody Blues when I was a teen. The underlying anxiety about the future and the ups and downs that were soon to come with the pervasiveness of the internet and other technologies, were deeply ingrained in the musical aesthetic of this record.

How it influenced me: By announcing a new candidate for “Best group in the world,” showcasing powerful new songwriting and arrangements in a neo-prog rock idiom, and reminding me clearly of the power of writing music that echoed the times and tried to make people think and feel about our fate as humans.



This is the only Missouri album on my list, and at this writing, it is out of print, sadly. The trio of guitarist Steve Newman, upright bassist Brian Capps and drummer Les Gallier, based in Springfield, play roots music that blends barroom country and early rock and roll into a snappy, lively formula that is a genuine pleasure to listen to. But that’s not why the album is on my list. It’s here because the album came out when I was an active music journalist for a publication called NOISYPAPER, and I was assigned to review a show by the Domino Kings. I met Brian Capps and struck up a friendship with him. Just a few years later, when I saw Brian in concert again, I was about to endure one of the most painful relationship breakups of my entire life, and Brian’s songs not only served as a bit of a soundtrack for this period, they made me want to dance through the heartache. The Kings were (and still ARE) crack musicians, capable of playing the kind of alcohol-fueled, lost-at-love rave-ups that patrons have been dancing to and enjoying for years. On this album, the Capps tunes “Borrow A Lie,” “Alice” (a wickedly catchy stomper about a bad, bad woman), “Don’t Be Indifferent” and “Steppin’ Out Again” all deal with the kind of women and relationships that tear a man’s soul apart. As this happened to me at the end of 2003 and the first part of 2004, I got to hear Brian Capps perform live several times, with most of these tunes in the mix. And he was kind enough to discuss relationships with me and tell me his own stories of romantic woe. Very cathartic and significant. Additionally, the Kings’ music increased my awareness that Springfield, Missouri was a center of musical vitality. Not far in my future at this point was a deep connection and involvement in that city that would affect my own music career dramatically.



It’s funny how one little action can end up leading to something much bigger, something you couldn’t predict. By 2002, I was working at an advertising agency, getting into the groove of internet communication and browsing, and trying to learn about new music and discover new things. I had read a few things about Norwegian music, just sort of casually, and I ended up purchasing a CD called THIS IS NORWAY on impulse. It was a compilation of Norwegian pop and rock bands, and there was a track by a band called Ephemera on there. I had never heard of them, and knew nothing about them. The song, “Last Thing,” featured several female singers offering beautiful, tight vocal harmonies, and unusually crystalline keyboards and production. It stood out, and I wanted to know more about this group. Nothing by them was available in the US, but I ordered this album, BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE. Lordy. It so far exceeded anything I could have expected, that it’s hard to put into words. It was like realizing your eyes have been impaired for a long time, causing you to never see certain details, and then being given a pair of stunning new glasses that brighten up the entire world, with colors, details and landscapes you were never aware of appearing vividly before you. The three women of Ephemera – Christine Sandtorv, Ingerlise Storksen and Jannicke Larsen – are singer/songwriters of peerless, diamond-pure talent. Since I have an interview with Ingerlise pending, I’ll save most of my thoughts for that piece. But I was bowled over by this magical trio from the start, and they are one of my absolute favorite musical groups in the world. On BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE, tracks such as “Act,” “Air,” “Bye” and the title track are such heartbreakingly beautiful, with emotive, delicate singing and a level of purity that I had almost never heard on an American record. I love literally every song this band has recorded, and I came to the conclusion early on that they don’t really know how good they are. They are some kind of magical musical goddesses that simply do what they do, and trust that some people will like it. Ephemera opened up a new world to me, the world of Scandinavian pop music, which I would, within a year, be writing about regularly for a couple of different publications. They actually changed the way I LISTEN to music, because after absorbing the beauty of their vocals and the genius production techinques of their producer, Yngve Saetre, I could no longer respond the same way to typical American pop records. Here’s how passionately in love I am with Ephemera’s music. If there was a fire or a coming tornado, and I could only save a limited number of CDs from my collection, I’d grab an armful of ambient CDs and then use my other hand to grab my small stack of Ephemera CDs. They have been a HUGE, huge influence, and when I became a musician, I kept their intimate vocals in mind at all times as I advanced in my own career.



I never, never found so-called “Christian groups” musically interesting; the vast majority of what I heard in that vein seemed like the most shallow, over-reverent, musically insipid crap I could imagine. Nothing against Christianity, only something against boring music. But Lord God almighty! The Danielsons changed that in a big way. It is, of course, not cool or even accurate to call them a “Christian” band. In fact, they are so weird and arty that their first label, a Christian one called Tooth and Nail, dropped them after one album. Instead, Daniel Smith, the composer and frontman for this band along with a rotating cast of family members and friends, began to attract a following from the fringes of indie rock and outsider music. Smith has a very, very high voice, and he makes it even higher by singing one of the highest falsettos in the history of pop music. It is showcased on several tracks on this amazing, visionary album. But the entire album is notable for the focused PASSION on display, the extremely original songwriting, and the sense of communal empathy that pours from the whole thing. Less important than the Christianity of the band is their deep, poignant humanity and concern for the well-being of everyone, meaning every single listener. They really don’t PREACH per se, they simply share their souls, and they do it with powerful music that ranges from Beatles to Beefheart in influence. I’ve tried to share Danielson music with various friends, and it is honestly too much for a lot of them. When Smith ascends to that remarkable falsetto and starts ranting about something in the modern world, it results in a singular, aggressively original sound that is not meant for all. But the humanity and intensity of this album is undeniably hypnotic, emotional and yes, quite beautiful. Some of their later albums, although I like all of them, are at times spotty. But TELL ANOTHER JOKE… is a masterpiece to me.

How it influenced me: By demonstrating that religious themes on an album can be musically riveting, that the subject of confessed vulnerability (one of my favorites) is worth examining, and that weirdness and focused passion are absolutely compatible bedfellows, something I have kept in mind ever since.



I decided to include this one among some of the final “candidates” for this list because it was a crystal-clear example of a dark, depressing album being cathartic at a time when I was lost. The very offbeat, non-commercial style of Ms Germano is an acquired taste, but fans of originality and darker artsy/folksy stuff can find a lot to love in her work. LULLABYE… was released to little fanfare late in 2003, right as I was breaking up with a girl named Star in an unexpected manner. I went into a downward spiral for a time, and this record is about just that, a downward spiral. Although I’d found other dark, sad albums in the past to be compelling, such as stuff by Neil Young, Lou Reed, Joy Division and others, Lisa Germano really let her worst fears and sorrows hang out, and the album was willfully uncommercial. Yet it had a lot of fragile beauty on it. There were some verses, and eerie sounds (inspired by struggles with alcoholism, reportedly) on this album that could absolutely get under your skin. One verse that almost brought me to tears, was “Without you here/Without your love/The world’s just THERE/It doesn’t move me.” The songs are generally short, and Ms Germano really sounds like she is fighting off a breakdown, which oughta sound familiar to anyone who has suddenly lost their love, or found themselves on the wrong end of a battle with substance abuse. This is not a fun album, but I’ll never forget how it provided therapy and catharsis during a pretty rotten four month stretch for me.

25. In order for this list to have a sense of “completeness” for me, I have to put FILM SOUNDTRACKS


for the final slot. I don’t mean loose collections of songs, I mean orchestral scores. I grew up with film music and I love it, and my brother is one of the most knowledgeable film soundtrack buffs in the country; he writes a column about it. Film music has been described as the “first cousin” of ambient music; it’s generally instrumental, generally evocative and mood-setting, and able to be created in many different musical idioms. Watching movies and TV shows all my life, I have to say that I always noticed the music, and the mood-enhancing nature of movie music got deeply into my psyche. When I write songs now, there is always part of me that hopes to capture something subtly cinematic. There are tons of soundtracks in my collection, but to round out this list of influences, I will pick three different ones: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the beautiful Elmer Bernstein score for the classic Gregory Peck movie (with a main theme that everyone loves and remembers); DANCES WITH WOLVES, a rapturous, Western-themed score by John Barry that covers as much terrain as the epic film itself does, and NEVER CRY WOLF, by the prolific Mark Isham, whose 1983 score was one of the first ambient soundtracks ever. Isham stated in interviews that he was influenced by Brian Eno, so… it figures I could identify with his movie work!






Although it didn’t feel right to place this on the main list of 25, I need to include Robynn Ragland’s record because, first of all, it was one of the most well-written and well-produced collections of songs by a local artist during my early years as a writer, first for NOISYPAPER, and then for PLAYBACK STL and fLUSH. Appreciating artists in Saint Louis wasn’t always easy, but Robynn made it a cinch. Her true significance for me was that we became close friends, and she really encouraged me with my own writing and creative pursuits. And in a twist that neither of us could have foreseen, when I had my surprising success with the UP IN THE AIR song, Robynn became my manager for a few years. She was singularly responsible for my spectacular trip to Japan to promote the movie, and I could hardly forget something like that!



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For whatever reason, the quiet Beatle’s solo records always seemed to get the short-shrift in the good ol’ US of… with, not only fans of the Fab Four, but with the critics, as well. I guess a lot of people found the albums a little… patchy. That’s a fallacy that persists still, maybe because George wasn’t as outrageous or outspoken as John Lennon (comparatively, his solo material and career was wildly more uneven); wasn’t as “Aw, shucks” self-effacing as Ringo Starr; wasn’t as readily accessible as the Pop Meister General (some would say, the Schlock Meister General), Paul McCartney. He was just… well… George. Honestly, some of the criticism can probably be traced back to George’s first two solo records and, maybe, his embracing Hinduism at a time when such spiritual enlightenment was not readily accepted by America’s Christian majority. This beautifully produced set (including a hard-bound book) should go a long way in dispelling the belief, by some, that George Harrison’s music was somehow… less. Here, we’re going to examine each of the records singularly and on their own merits, beginning with…

George Harrison, 1967 (photo courtesy of and copyrighted by THE HARRISON FAMILY)
George Harrison, 1967 (photo courtesy of and copyrighted by THE HARRISON FAMILY)


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Somewhere out there, there exists a movie called WONDERWALL, starring the beautiful Jane Birkin as, somewhat fittingly, Penny Lane. Birkin was probably best known for being a scenester and, generally, for being a scantily clad (if clad at all) scenester; she famously appeared nude with an equally nude Brigitte Bardot in a bedroom scene for a 1973 movie called DON JUAN (OR IF DON JUAN WERE A WOMAN) (I know that most of you men are currently away, Googling the movie title for pictures of that scene… I’ll be here when you get back). But… I digress! As there was a movie called WONDERWALL, it seems only fitting that there should be a WONDERWALL soundtrack. And, there is.

George Harrison WONDERWALL MUSIC (photo credit: ASTRID KIRCHHERR/photo courtesy of and copyrighted by GEORGE HARRISON ESTATE)
George Harrison WONDERWALL MUSIC (photo credit: ASTRID KIRCHHERR/photo courtesy of and copyrighted by GEORGE HARRISON ESTATE)

WONDERWALL MUSIC, aside from being that soundtrack, is an historic piece of musical history: Not only is it the first solo album by George Harrison, it is the first solo album by ANY Beatle, as well as the first release on the lads’ own Apple Records imprint. Even more history-making is the fact that George doesn’t play on the album; he’s credited with writing, arranging and producing only (kinda like John Williams on his numerous soundtrack albums). However, several experts on the Beatles and their music (including Bruce Spizer in his book, THE BEATLES SOLO ON APPLE RECORDS) cite Harrison as providing guitar and mellotron, as well as mentioning appearances by Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Peter Tork (yes… THAT Peter Tork!). The album was recorded at the end of 1967 (and released a full year later, about a month before the movie opened), so George’s work here is heavily influenced by Indian music, into which he had immersed himself after a trip there earlier in the year. There are more than a few of the traditional, droning Indian ragas on display here and, even within the more Western-oriented rock music (credited to the Remo Four), it’s an integral part of the mix (the lone exceptions being the aptly titled “Cowboy Music” and the langorous, piano-driven gypsy love theme, “Wonderwall To Be Here”). Most of the tunes don’t really stick around to be too annoying and too interesting (12 of the original 19 tracks are less than two minutes each), but a couple of those shorter numbers, I wouldn’t have minded to see fleshed out a bit (“Red Lady Too,” “Guru Vandana” and, a track purported to feature either Clapton and Harrison or Clapton alone, “Ski-ing,” which couples with a much more traditional Indian piece called “Gat Kirwani”). Of the longer tracks, “Drilling a Home,” with its jaunty, playful tin-pan alley sound and “Dream Scene,” which is studio deviltry from Harrison – taking three distinct pieces (recorded in London and Bombay), splicing, dicing and looping them together, with various instruments dubbed over the top. You’ll get a very definite “Revolution 9” vibe from the track, which was apparently recorded some months before the Beatles recorded their trippy sound collage. WONDERWALL MUSIC may not be as readily accessible as some of George’s later albums, but it is still quite listenable. Which isn’t bad, considering that, by all accounts, the movie it provided the soundtrack to was virtually unwatchable.

The Remo Four WONDERWALL MUSIC (publicity photo)
The Remo Four WONDERWALL MUSIC (publicity photo)

Of course, then, there are the bonus tracks, because… well, there are always bonus tracks, right? The Remo Four provide “In the First Place,” a wholly Western, mildly psychedelic George-as-Beatle track (which features an odd, very wobbly piano sound, compliments of Tony Ashton). It’s the only true vocal number recorded for the soundtrack and could very well have been a hit single if it had been released in 1968. “Almost Shankara” is a spry, bouncing Indian tune. I could imagine this one popping up in some period movie, as a sheik brings in dancers to entertain his dinner guests. What I’m guesing must be the original, instrumental version of “The Inner Light” completes the trio of bonus tracks. Without Harrison’s vocals, it almost sounds like a completely different song than the version first heard as the B-side to the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” single.


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Barely six months after breaking ground with WONDERWALL MUSIC, the quite Beatle is back with another, even more experimental album of solo music. The music on ELECTRONIC SOUND was so experimental, in fact, that it barely even touched the outer fringes of what was then considered music (even by drug-addles hippies), forcing Apple Records to create a subsidiary label – Zapple – just to release it (as well as John and Yoko’s UNFINISHED MUSIC NUMBER 2: LIFE WITH THE LIONS). I guess when you’re a Beatle, though, people give you a bit more latitude than if you were one of Freddy’s Dreamers.

George Harrison ELECTRONIC SOUND (uncredited photo)
George Harrison ELECTRONIC SOUND (uncredited photo)

Thirty-five years later, though, and music’s kinda caught up with George. Listening to the two long tracks (“Under the Mersey Wall” is almost 19 minutes long; “No Time Or Space” comes in a tad over 25 minutes) in a world that has since brought us such obnoxious oddities as Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber and music by such outre artists as Throbbing Gristle, the Residents and Tangerine Dream, the album sounds pretty darn good. So, what, exactly was going on in the mustachioed dome of Beatle George that prompted the recording of these noisy soundscapes? Well, as we are all wont to do when we get a new toy, we wanna play with it; George was no different. Having acquired a Moog III synthesizer, he fully intended to put it to use. The first piece, “Under the Mersey Wall,” is the better of the two tracks. It’s more cohesive and, as befits George, is a little more pastoral. When the piece was over, I wasn’t even aware that I’d been listening for over 18 minutes. The second piece is another animal all together. While I generally like the skrees and electronic farts of such music, I found it hard to listen to; at one point, I actually thought that the track must be close to being over, only to discover that there was barely seven minutes gone.It ain’t awful, it just seems to stay a bit too long. Interestingly enough, an electronic innovator and musician named Bernie Krause claims that “No Time Or Space” is actually him teaching George the ins and outs of the Moog III synthesizer. Krause further claims that he didn’t know that he was being recorded until the album was released. The album credits do read, “Recorded in California; with the assistance of Bernie Krause,” so there is some validity to the fact that he did at least work with George in some capacity on the track. I’m guessing that these two numbers were the only ones created/recorded for the album, as there are no bonus tracks on the new reissue. That really doesn’t matter, though, if you’re into this very early, psuedo-Krautrock stuff.


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Harrison’s third album is, for all intents and purposes, his first proper solo album, filled with the sort of tunes that one would expect from a now-former Beatle. The album was a sprawling three-record set, comprised of (mostly) unused songs written for latter-day Beatles releases. George has been quoted as saying of the set, “I didn’t have many tunes on Beatles records, so doing an album like ALL THINGS MUST PASS was like going to the bathroom and letting it out.” While the record may not be perfect, it’s hardly filled with disposable (or flushable) material… though there are those that would question that remark as regards the third record’s “Apple Jam.”

George Harrison ALL THINGS MUST PASS (photo credit: BARRY FEINSTEIN)
George Harrison ALL THINGS MUST PASS (photo credit: BARRY FEINSTEIN)

By the second song, “My Sweet Lord,” it’s obvious that this is going to be a special album. Released as the lead single from the record, the tune marked another milestone: It was the first solo Beatles single to reach number one in both the US and the UK (it topped the charts worldwide). The production, a joint effort between George and Phil Spector, is everything that John Lennon had hoped for when he and Spector began work three years later on what would eventually become the ROCK ‘N’ ROLL album. The sound of ALL THINGS… is as sparkling and vibrant as one would expect from a Spector production, highlighted by Harrison’s airy vocals and brilliant slide guitar work. And, of course, as mentioned elsewhere, being a Beatle (or, by this time, ex-Beatle) does have its advantages; George had the cream of the crop to pick from, as far as musicians to help bring the record to fruition: Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker, Dave Mason and Alan White (the former Plastic Ono Band and future Yes drummer) all make appearances alongside, seemingly, a cast of thousands. The album has plenty of now-familiar highlights, including “What Is Life,” the loping Bob Dylan tune, “If Not For You,” the light country lilt of “Behind That Locked Door,” the Dylan-esque paean to adoring fans, “Apple Scruffs,” the strident, almost giddy pop of “Awaiting On You All,” and the rocking “Art of Dying,” which seems to be the inspiration for the BAND ON THE RUN tune “Missus Vanderbilt.” As far as the “Apple Jam” segment, it is exactly what it sounds like: Harrison jamming with Clapton, drummer Jim Gordon, bassist Carl Radle and keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, the players that would go on to become Derek and the Dominos. As a piece of rock history, I suppose it has a place here but, as I was never a big jam band kinda guy, these tracks don’t get much playing time around here.

George Harrison ALL THINGS MUST PASS (photo credit: BARRY FEINSTEIN)
George Harrison ALL THINGS MUST PASS (photo credit: BARRY FEINSTEIN)

There are bonus tracks – the same five (demos, alternate takes and a totally disposable 2000 remake of “My Sweet Lord”) that have been on most CD reissues since the remastered version from 2001, which brings me to my primary problem (the only problem, really) with this version of ALL THINGS MUST PASS: I don’t like the sequencing. I don’t really care for bonus material showing up in the middle of things; I would much rather see such things nailed to the end of the original album. I have a couple of fixes that would have worked better for me: First, the first two albums fit nicely onto one CD (trust me, I’ve done the math), which leaves the looser “Apple Jam” material of the third record and the bonus tracks for a second, shorter CD; second, you put the first three sides of the original on disc 1 and the final three (with bonus material) on disc 2, allowing for a more even distribution (time wise) of the material. I would probably opt for the first solution, for exactly the reasons stated; it just makes more sense to me.


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After two albums of experimental music and the three record set ALL THINGS MUST PASS, which was comprised mostly of songs left over from his time in that other band, as well as the enormous undertaking that was the Concert For Bangladesh relief effort and a world tour, our George was ready to get back to the business of making (new) music. It took nearly three years to follow up ALL THINGS… with the spiritually upbeat LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD. Although the album is highly enjoyable and features a few exceptional tunes, the strain of filling an entire album alone shows. The one consistent running throughout the record’s eleven tracks is the exceptional guitar playing; George has always flown under the radar, talent-wise, because he was surrounded by players like Eric Clapton and Dave Mason or the overpowering personalities of McCartney and Lennon in the Beatles but, the fact was: George Harrison was one of the best guitarists on the face of the planet, mastering and artfully playing in any style the song and the arrangement dictated.

George Harrison LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD (uncredited photo)
George Harrison LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD (uncredited photo)

The opening track, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth),” a great song with a hopeful message – and reminiscent of “My Sweet Lord,” both melodically and lyrically – was another number one single for George. Possibly the best tune on the album, “Sue Me, Sue You Blues,” is a murky, stomping rocker with a swampy slide slithering through out and a great boogie piano over it all. The lyrics are a reaction to the various legal actions taken by the four Beatles, their various management teams and shared holding companies (Apple Records and Apple Corps among others). It stands as one of the meanest (in the nicest kind of way) lyrics ever written by George Harrison. Other stand-out numbers include the pumping title track, the beautifully lilting acoustic love song, “Be Here Now” and the majestic “Try Some, Buy Some,” highlighted John Barham’s soaring orchestration. Overall, the set does tend to an awkward sameness, but is saved by George’s imaginative guitar work and vocal sincerity.

George Harrison LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD (photo credit: MAL EVANS)
George Harrison LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD (photo credit: MAL EVANS)

The bonus tracks are the two B-sides from the 2006 reissue, “Miss O’Dell,” from the “Give Me Love… ” single and “Deep Blue” from the “Bangladesh” single. As an added bonus, the A-side of that single is presented for the first time anywhere since the 1992 reissue of Apple’s THE BEST OF GEORGE HARRISON package. I must admit that though there are fewer bonus cuts here than on ALL THINGS MUST PASS, this is definitely the better selection, particularly “Bangladesh.”


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With DARK HORSE, George is back in the saddle (so to speak), after a busy year touring, writing and recording, all the while producing several outside projects. The wear and tear was showing, as George fought a worsening bout of laryngitis that drastically affected his vocals. The record may actually give some an indication why George never had more than a couple of songs on the Beatles’ albums; DARK HORSE ain’t all great, but…it ain’t all bad, either. It definitely has problems. This is an instant where Harrison may have been better off staying away from the studio, giving himself time to heal and to write a few more songs to choose from; a writing partner may have helped at this juncture in George’s career, as well. But, having said all of that, let me add that the stuff that works tends to work very well.

George Harrison DARK HORSE (uncredited photo)
George Harrison DARK HORSE (uncredited photo)

The record starts strong with “Hari’s On Tour (Express),” a complex instrumental that coalesces funky rock and boogie woogie with a little country honk with some “smooth Jazz” horns over the top. There’s a very odd, virtually deconstructed cover of the Everly Brother’s “Bye Bye, Love, apparently a shot at Eric Clapton and George’s ex-wife, Patti, who both inexplicably appear on the album. I gotta be honest: That one is hard to listen to. These, on the other hand aren’t: “So Sad,” a jangly Wilbury-esque mid-tempo rocker; “Ding Dong, Ding Dong,” a moderately rocking, rather nonsensical song that mysteriously gained an additional “Ding Dong” in the three days since the song was released as a single; the title track, also released as a single, is a solid rocker, with George’s voice sounding very ragged, which actually helps here. There are moments on the other four tracks where you’ll think, “Okay, that sounds pretty cool.” The problem is, those “Oh, wow!” moments aren’t sustained for the entire song.

George Harrison DARK HORSE (photo credit: TERRY DORAN)
George Harrison DARK HORSE (photo credit: TERRY DORAN)

Things are a bit short on the bonus material, but one, a strong acoustic demo of “Dark Horse,” has never been released and, the other, “I Don’t Care Anymore,” the B-side to the “Dark Horse” single in the States and the flip of “Ding Dong” just about everywhere else, is seeing its first CD release. Both are worth a listen.


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So, maybe, in retrospect, a layoff to recover from laryngitis wouldn’t have been a good thing. EXTRA TEXTURE (READ ALL ABOUT IT) sees George morphing into a Vaudevillian version of James Taylor. There is probably a really good album between DARK HORSE and EXTRA TEXTURE… because, again, there is gold amongst the dross.

George Harrison Extra Texture (photo credit: HENRY GROSSMAN)
George Harrison Extra Texture (photo credit: HENRY GROSSMAN)

The first UK single from the album, “You,” is a strong opener, with a ’60s American pop music vibe featuring horns and that charging Motown percussion sound. “This Guitar (Can’t Keep From Crying),” the first US single is a “sequel” to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and, despite the goofy name, features some nice piano and an awesome slide solo from George. It’s probably most evident here than any other track on the record that Harrison is suffering some lingering effects of his illness. For whatever reason, George invisioned himself a soul crooner on “Ooh Baby (You Know That I Love You),” aiming for a smooth Teddy Pendergrass or Smokey mid-’70s soul vibe. Needless to say, it doesn’t work. At all! The sound of “Tired of Midnight Blue” moves between an archetypical soft rock piano thing and a bluesy, hand-clapping guitar groover with the bass laying down a funky underpinning that is hard to ignore. There are some good ideas floating around in there which would probably make a couple of pretty decent songs. As they are, “Tired of Midnight Blue” is just a jumbled mess of missed opportunities. “Grey Cloudy Lies” comes on sounding like a slowed down, more somber mix of “Hey, Jude” and “Let It Be,” the doleful tone creating one of the most memorable songs on the entire record. One of the better tracks, album closer “His Name Is Legs (Ladies and Gentlemen)” is a heartfelt ode to George’s long time pal, Larry Smith of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. It’s a goofy, jiving number that brings back memories of the fun-loving atmosphere of the Beatles’ A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and HELP! Movies and features Legs himself, doing his Doo-Dah thing.

George Harrison EXTRA TEXTURE (uncredited photo)
George Harrison EXTRA TEXTURE (uncredited photo)

The sole bonus track is a “reconstructed” demo, originally offered to Dave Stewart in 1992, a reiteration of “This Guitar (Can’t Keep From Crying).” It features George’s acoustic accompaniment and vocal tracks, Stewart’s overdubbed guitar from ’92 and, from a session in 2002, drums from Ringo, guitar from George’s son, Dhani (of which, more later) and vocals from Kara DioGuardi were added. On the whole, this version is superior to the original, as it features a stronger vocal performance from George and heavier, more substantive backing. Harrison’s solo on the original and Stewart’s here… well… it’s a toss up; both are of the finest kind. Had the majority of EXTRA TEXTURE had this sound (or, at least, a close 1975 technological approximation), it may have fared better over the years.

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The exclusive DVD features plenty of archival material, most of which seen (and heard) before as bonus material on various reissues of the individual album. It’s kinda cool to have them all in one place, though. The highlight is, of course, a new seven-and-a-half minute feature called (what else?) “George Harrison – The Apple Years,” lovingly directed by George’s wife, Olivia. While all of the albums are housed in extravagant replicas of the original sleeves, the DVD is cradled in a beautiful book with new essays and rare images.I can’t honestly say that this DVD is worth the price of admission alone but, as you can’t get it anywhere except THE APPLE YEARS, 1968-1975 box set…

Dhani Harrison (uncredited photo)
Dhani Harrison (uncredited photo)

The entire project, meant to complete and compliment THE DARK HORSE YEARS, 1976-1992 set released in 2004, was overseen by George’s son, Dhani, and ably assisted by Olivia. Dhani comments: “I am so happy that what we started a decade ago by releasing THE DARK HORSE YEARS… is now complete with the release of his first six albums as THE APPLE YEARS… .” Dhani spearheaded a premier group of engineers as the music was digitally remastered from the original analogues. Each album is released individually, as well, with the upgrade in sound, for those fans who already have one or more on CD already or for the casual listener who may not want to jump in with both feet on such a huge package.