Review: Various Artists, ‘Pop Ambient 2016’

By Geeta Dayal  |  NPR

Wolfgang Voigt contributes to Pop Ambient 2016, which comes out Nov. 13.
Wolfgang Voigt contributes to Pop Ambient 2016, which comes out Nov. 13. Courtesy of the artist


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Note: NPR’s audio for First Listens comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

In the liner notes to his 1978 album Music For Airports, Brian Eno wrote that ambient music should be able to “accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” Music, after all, didn’t have to be like loud rock ‘n’ roll, blaring from your speakers. Ambient music could be like a soft wash of color, or a subtle whiff of perfume — something that added itself to the atmosphere without necessarily announcing itself.

The Pop Ambient series, launched by the Cologne label Kompakt in 2001, is an annual compilation of lush ambient textures, packaged in a pastel-tinted case featuring photos of flowers in full bloom. Several of the tracks on Pop Ambient 2016 suggest nature and the changing of the seasons. In general, the series showcases the gentler, more melodic side of ambient electronic music, with nothing too dark or jarring. There are few beats, if any, and no vocals. Think of it as a hazy soundtrack for falling asleep and dreaming, or as mellow instrumental music to play during a dinner party, or as a calming balm to get through a difficult work day. But there’s richly varied and sometimes revelatory music on here, crafted by a high-profile raft of contributors.

Highlights of Pop Ambient 2016 include contributions by the noted German sound artist and musician Stephan Mathieu, the electronic music legends in The Orb, and label cofounder Wolfgang Voigt. (Voigt is known under many different aliases; longtime fans of ambient music may know of his string of enigmatic ambient techno albums, recorded under the name Gas.)

Mathieu’s stately, slow-moving opener, “April In Oktober,” gives way to The Orb’s hallucinatory sample collage “Alpine Dawn.” Fans of The Orb’s classic 1990s material — such as the genius 1995 album Orbus Terrarum — will find a lot to love in this track, which travels through its own miniature sound world in the span of six minutes.

Perhaps the biggest surprise on Pop Ambient 2016 is the music of the relative newcomer Thore Pfeiffer — particularly the soaring, expansive “megamix” of Voigt’s “Rückverzauberung.” A solo track by Pfeiffer, the aptly titled “Idyll,” closes Pop Ambient 2016 with a layered melody and many small details. It’s elegant in its complexity, but softly soothing at the same time.

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First Listen: 'Pop Ambient 2016'

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April im Oktober (Stephan Mathieu)
Artist: Various Artists
Album: Pop Ambient 2016
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