Is it possible for us to escape to anywhere right now? For many of us cooped up at home, binge-watching TV shows and plugging into live-streams fill the time and take us to places we literally can’t access at the moment. But music remains the greatest escape available to us.
For those of us who make music and work within the industry, the act of creating and releasing sounds can feel like a “job,” but at the end of the day, the reward is the chance for listeners to take those creations and bring them home to fall deep inside them. When I think of the music that calms me the most – that takes me to some other, softer place far from the living room in which I hear it – modern classics from the realms of ambient, drone, and vocal music stand out in my mind. Albums that hit the spot right now tread the line between background music and engrossing works that demand our full attention. Music that feels too treacly or full of pep might land flat, while sounds that contain some nuanced inkling of dissonance or uncertainty to contrast their beauty hit just right.
I put together a list of works that fill the void for me now – music that soothes while still activating my brain and inviting me to dig deeper into what I’m hearing. Most releases here fall within the last 15 years or so, while some represent mid-20th-century artists whose work has recently demanded reassessment in the modern landscape. All these albums share a sense of tenderness, a rejection of any emotional filtering, and a glimpse through a portal to some other parallel space that reflects our lived experience, no matter what obstacles might lay before us right now.
H. Takahashi – Escapism [Not Not Fun, 2018]. Japanese ambient maestro and architect by day H. Takahashi has released music at a rapid clip over the last five years or so, with each album expanding his vision of hushed electronic music that somehow manages to calm you while remaining consistently dense and active. His tracks, all of which he composes on a iPhone on his commute to work in Tokyo, unfold as spreads of interlaced music box tones, synth arpeggios, and swathes of gorgeous drone texture. Images of bubbles and seascapes permeate his music and its accompanying album artwork, reflecting the percolating, watery nature of his compositions. His excellent 2018 album Escapism, released via L.A.-based mainstay experimental label Not Not Fun, offers the most concise and effective look into his catalog, while living up to the mental escape embodied by its name. Takahashi excels in the realm of high definition sound design, exploiting software synths and digital audio work stations to their fullest potential. Each tone he presents subtly shifts in timbre and presence over the course of its spiraling path through the mix, airing out momentary melodies before being subsumed into another patch of electronic input. A feeling of natural ebb and flow defines his work, which feels like a system of clouds and waves interacting off in the middle of the ocean with no human present to witness it.
Key tracks: “Sink,” “Sustainable.” Htakahashi.bandcamp.com/album/escapism.
Mark McGuire – A Pocket Full of Rain [Pizza Night, 2009]. A former member of trendsetting ambient/drone trio Emeralds and a prolific solo artist in his own right, Cleveland-based guitarist Mark McGuire’s catalog spreads through over 50 releases in the last 13 years or so. His music ranges from stark drone exercises to vocal-laden pop-guitar jams to his true bread and butter: extended sessions of effects-soaked guitar performance captured live in layers stacked together with the use of a guitar loop pedal. His album A Pocket Full of Rain portrays this approach perfectly, nearing the endlessly recursive song structures of such antecedents as guitar-loop progenitor Manuel Göttsching and minimalist keyboard god Terry Riley. McGuire’s music is elementally sweet and lovely, but never saccharine. His work captures a brand of Midwestern humility and subtle beauty, while never straying into any form of showboating of his clearly prodigious guitar skills. A Pocket Full of Rain feels like a descendent of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s collaborations such as Evening Star and No Pussyfooting, music characterized by tiers of guitar melody played once and then frozen in a loop for the rest of the song, like phrases sunk into amber and preserved against the elements. McGuire knows exactly how to channel the guitar alone into fully realized tracks that cover every part of the stereo spread and harmonize beautifully with themselves, as each new chord structure or melody gels together into a backdrop for him to eventually solo over in majestic fashion.
Key tracks: “Extended Forecast,” “The Marfa Lights.” YouTube.com/watch?v=89WhpRqQaXY.
Keserbai Kerkar – Kesarbai Kerkar 1944-1953 [Mississippi Records, 2013]. An eminent vocalist and performer within the Indian classical tradition, Kesarbai Kerkar sang within the genre known as khyal, a term that means “imagination.” The style focuses on long lines of vocal improvisation, essentially showing off a singer’s full register and melodic sensibilities within the context of a slowly flowing harmonic progression. In short, her music offers some of the most gorgeous and transfixing vocal performances in recorded history, to the point that she was selected as one of the artists featured on the Voyager Golden Record that was launched into space in 1977. One listen to the collection of her work reissued on Portland’s Mississippi Records in 2013 immediately demonstrates why the curators of that interstellar project thought that her music might appeal to whatever aliens might happen upon it some day. Though each four-minute-or-so excerpt presented here captures only a small chunk of her extended sessions, many of which typically stretched beyond the 20- or 30-minute mark, the tracks here hone in on the highlights of her performances, saturated with constantly flowing vocal lines and melodies that seem impossible emerging from a human voice box. The overall effect is narcotic, calming, and even a little bit haunting, as Kerkar leans into a mood of dark otherworldliness. If you want to dig deeper, I recommend scoping out her full extended sessions, available on YouTube in various forms.
Key tracks: “Nat Kamod: Nevar Baju Re,” “Goud Malhar: Maan Na Kari.” Canary-Records.bandcamp.com/album/kesarbai-kerkar-1944-1953.
Ariel Kalma & Robert AA Lowe – We Know Each Other Somehow [RVNG Intl., 2015]. A meeting of legends from different generations spearheaded by the label RVNG’s FRKWYS series, which pairs up modern musicians with artists that they consider to be antecedents to their work, We Know Each Other Somehow links up French New Age composer and electronic music master Ariel Kalma with American synthesizer wizard and contemporary luminary Robert AA Lowe (a.k.a. Lichens). The album spreads out over six tracks, three of which pass the 15-minute mark, that embody a sense of trance-like focus and electro-acoustic grandeur, animated by Kalma’s keyboards and horns alongside Lowe’s modular synthesizers. Tracks such as “Magick Creek,” with its field recording of a bubbling body of water planted against percolating synth figures, float through unending helices of beautiful melody and raw electronic texture. The pairing of Kalma and Lowe proves especially appropriate because both of them are consummate vocalists in addition to being deep electronic heads, and their vocal lines weave together through these recordings as additional layers of mystical harmony against the machine tones. When bursts of throbbing low end bass input or spreads of gently fluctuating arpeggios fade their way into the mix, as if to remind us that this is a modern synth album and not solely a sojourn in an ancient forest temple, we hear different eras of ambient music colliding in real time, all to whisk our minds away to some lush internal space.
Key tracks: “Strange Dreams,” Magick Creek.” RVNG.bandcamp.com/album/frkwys-vol-12-robert-aiki-aubrey-lowe-ariel-kalma-we-know-each-other-somehow.
Grouper – Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill [Kranky, 2008]. What list of quarantine-friendly, soul-calming music would be complete without Grouper? Liz Harris’ recordings orbit the world of lo-fi bedroom folk, mind-erasing drone, and hiss-saturated field recordings while hinging above all on her frank and beautiful vocal performances. To put on Dragging a Dead Deer is to sink into your bed and let Harris’ music overtake the atmosphere of the room, to notice the way the light refracts through the windows as it casts over the floorboards. Though dark on the surface, with its disembodied washes of static and vast oceans of reverb, Harris’ compositions prove so memorable in their melodies and her spellbinding delivery that over time the album stands out more as a singer/songwriter folk album than any sort of experiment in drone music. When the veil of reverb lifts a bit for tracks such as “Heavy Water” and we hear her lyrics more clearly, the effect is stunning. “I’d rather be sleeping / I’d rather fall in your tidal waves / right where the deepest currents go,” she coos over multi-tracked guitar chords, and we sink with her into the surf.
Key tracks: “Heavy Water / I’d Rather Be Sleeping,” “Invisible.” Grouper.bandcamp.com/album/dragging-a-dead-deer.
Hakobune – Mizukagami [Sacred Phrases, 2015]. If you’re looking for music so spectral and hushed that it barely registers as being made by a human, that seems more like the call of some ancient whale leagues beneath the surface of the ocean than the input of hands on an instrument, look no further than contemporary Japanese ambient kingpin Hakobune. Another wildly prolific artist, with over 75 releases to his name in the last 12 years or so, Takahiro Yorifuji makes music with a guitar and a battery of effects pedals that sounds like the embodiment of the act of smearing paint across an empty canvas. His tracks typically swell and build slowly over the course of 10-plus minutes, airing out individual chords through wells of reverb and delay, to the point that any trace of the original guitar performance is consumed by the almost synth-like, effected swirl of tones. Virtually any album in his catalog offers a good place to start, but 2015’s Mizukagami feels like a peak in his output over the last five years. Characterized by his traditional torrents of slow-churning guitar, these tracks seem to progress at a slightly faster pace than some of his more static works. But in Hakobune time, that “faster” pace still moves at a glacial clip, slow enough to dilate the flow of time around you.
Key tracks: “Nagasaki,” “Yamagata.” Hakobune.bandcamp.com/album/mizukagami.
Terry Riley and Don Cherry – Köln: February 23, 1975 [unreleased]. A holy grail of minimalism, free jazz, and sacred ambient music, the union of legendary minimalist composer and keyboard guru Terry Riley with free-jazz trumpeter and composer (and long-standing Ornette Coleman band member) Don Cherry stands as something of a miracle in both of their catalogs. Never officially released in any format, but widely bootlegged and readily available on YouTube, the live concert represents a meeting of two masters of their craft whose chosen disciplines never seemed to necessarily overlap before, but whose combination makes complete sense in practice. Here, Riley’s endlessly whirring keyboard lines and fleet-fingered networks of arpeggios glisten in mostly major keys, like a spread of nebulae firing off in the distance of space as seen from the top of a solitary hill in the wilderness. Over this animated backdrop, Cherry has total freedom to solo on his trumpet like his life depends on it, matching Riley’s optimism with bright, open phrases and torrents of tumbling melody. When Cherry sits out for a moment and lets Riley take over, allowing him to soar into rapid-fire lines one or two steps removed from Indian classical music, big-band jazz, or even the blues, the titan of 20th-century music demonstrates that his hands-on keyboard skills are just as prodigious as his compositional chops for large ensembles. You get the sense that the two of them were beaming to each other while performing, glancing over at one another as if to say, “This right here … . This is it.”
Key tracks: “Descending Moonshine Dervishes,” “Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector.” YouTube.com/watch?v=i6449e2LsUI.
Ai Aso – Lone [Ideologic Organ, 2014]. Maybe I’m saving the best for last here, but no album embodies the stasis of shelter-in-place while keeping one foot rooted in hope and simple, unadorned beauty than Japanese singer-songwriter Ai Aso’s Lone. A document of a live performance that found Aso on stage with her guitar, keyboard, and a microphone, the album has the rare distinction of being a concert recording in which virtually no crowd noise is present aside from some applause at the end of each take. Her music is so quiet and delicate that any movement of a chair, any slight cough would be picked up in the final take, so you can hear a pin drop in whatever Tokyo café this was recorded in. Aso’s music thrives in a state of deconstructed singer-songwriting in which guitar chords sound out one note at a time at a hyper-deliberate pace, with each note highlighted and allowed to sound out on its own into the emptiness. Her voice drapes over her slow guitar figures like a down blanket, casting off in breathy phrases and whispers. In the show-stopping closer "Land," she intones “君が必要なんだ。君と回りたいんだ,” which translates to “I need you. I want to spin around with you.” And we are all there, spinning around with her in the slow arcs sketched out by her guitar and voice.
Key tracks: “Agenda,” “Land.” YouTube.com/watch?v=uFaVmDhJWrM.