The best ambient music from the Bay Area in 2021
Modular synth princess Arushi Jain, techno producer Christina Chatfield, pedal steel guitarist Chuck Johnson, death metal veteran Leila Abdul-Rauf, and more
Ready for another year-end list? How about seven?
In celebration of all the great music released by Bay Area artists over the past year, we’ll be sharing daily wraps of our favorite releases of 2021. You won’t receive an email every day, but every day we’ll publish a new list at whitecratesf.com highlighting the best music from the Bay Area across a wide variety of genres, including dance, downtempo, folk, hip hop, metal, and rock.
“Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”
So it was defined in 1978 by Brian Eno in the liner notes to his seminal album Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Since then, ambient music has evolved into a fully formed genre that is as “ignorable as it is interesting.” When I suggested hosting a live ambient music event in my backyard, my own close friends questioned its purpose. After all, what are you supposed to do while listening to ambient music?
Well, you can take a bath. Or you can clean the house. Or you can drift off to sleep. Or you can write a text message, or a poem. You can read about the latest global catastrophe, or you can simply sit, ruminating on the privilege of life and the certainty of death, breathing deeply in and out, and thanking the universe for this moment.
Read on for the best ambient music from the Bay in 2021, or shuffle the playlist.
Under the Lilac Sky - Arushi Jain
“One of my secret — and not-so-secret — goals is to make people fall in love with Indian classical music.” Arushi Jain was born and raised in New Delhi, moved to San Francisco to study at Stanford, and is now based in New York City. But it was during her studies in the Bay Area that she found her sound. On this warm, sunset-tinged bath of bliss, Jain blends Indian classical music with the rich tradition of modular synthesizer music in the west. Under the Lilac Sky is a masterpiece.
Another Entrance / Messages from One of Deeper Within - Channelers
“Kept within a framework, but free to wander.” Oakland artist Sean Conrad—who runs ambient label Inner Islands and produces under multiple project names—released two great albums under his Channelers alias. With ambient new age goodness composed during the same sessions, Another Entrance and Messages from One of Deeper Within apply a wide variety of mostly acoustic instruments (guitar, electric organ, harmonium, low Irish whistle, mellotron, piano, dulcimer, glockenspiel, and voice) plus a single analog synth on the latter album to slowly manifest soundscapes of peace and introspection.
Sutro - Christina Chatfield
Christina Chatfield, one of the longest-standing techno producers and performers associated with As You Like It, stepped away from dance music to deliver Sutro. Inspired by SF’s landmark TV and radio antenna Sutro Tower, the hourlong album is quiet and hypnotic—the perfect listen for a late night headphone trip. If you’re a fan of Gas, Dettinger, or even local ambient dub techno duo Night Sea, you’ll love this.
The Cinder Grove - Chuck Johnson
One of my favorite underlying themes of this list—and ambient music in general—is that there are so many musical styles that can serve as entry points. Whether it’s Indian classical, techno, or metal, all paths lead to ambient. If you come from the country folk world, there are few sounds as beloved as the pedal steel guitar. And one of Oakland’s best is Chuck Johnson, who tends to gorgeous and vibrant ambient folk pieces on their newest full-length, The Cinder Grove.
EMPATHY - Joel St. Julien
Joel St. Julien—a Haitian-American composer, sound artist, and musician that has been based in San Francisco for nearly two decades—explores the balance between restraint and emotion on one of the best ambient albums of the year, EMPATHY. It’s a striking work meant to be taken in whole, opening with a four-part meditation on the tranquil yet sometimes-noisy title track before shifting into a calming second half weighted with extended pieces “The World is Ending (again)” and “Full Moon.”
Indian Unclassical Vol. 1 - Kush Arora
“Fractured rhythms, consuming drone, and poignant echoes of virtuosic Indian music.” On Indian Unclassical Vol. 1, the first volume in a new series for the Only Now project, Berkeley artist Kush Arora weaves together “heavyweight experimentation and traditional Indian heritage.” Though predominantly ambient, the album winds its way through industrial and charred metal soundscapes, defying definition. Half the proceeds for this release go to Manav Sadhna for their work strengthening underprivileged communities in Ahmedabad in western India.
Phantasiai - Leila Abdul-Rauf
Best known as the guitarist, vocalist, and co-founder of the death metal band Vastum—which was formed in SF in 2009 and has toured internationally—Oakland artist Leila Abdul-Rauf released her fourth solo ambient album this year. On Phantasiai, her “pandemic album,” the artist sings and plays piano, trumpet, and glockenspiel, manipulating the live instruments into a dark, ethereal work exploring the psyche and its disintegration. And we were honored to have her perform live at Fall Mass.
Angel Tears in Sunlight - Pauline Anna Strom
A year ago this month, SF electronic music composer and producer Pauline Anna Strom was found dead in her apartment. Though not a household name, Strom had for decades released insightful, synthy, experimental new age music as Trans-Millennia Consort, earning her plenty of fans in the underground. Sadly, she died suddenly, just as she was gaining more wide and well-deserved recognition. A month later came Angel Tears in Sunlight, an enchanting, bittersweet farewell from the artist.
Live at Fall Mass - Shipwreck Detective
Shipwreck Detective (aka Dev Bhat) is a musician, composer, sound designer, and copywriter born in San Jose and currently living in San Francisco’s Sunset District. Though their last full-length album came out more than two years ago, the artist has continued honing their immensely satisfying analog-based ambient soundscapes throughout the pandemic. Live at Fall Mass is a recording of their 30-min performance at the first ambient showcase hosted by White Crate, so yes, we’re biased. It’s soaring, radiant, and full of joy.
Looking for more? Like clockwork every season, Oakland-based Constellation Tatsu releases ambient music by artists from around the world. The upcoming winter batch, which welcomes the year on January 4, will include works by Melbourne artist Alex Albrecht, Tokyo artist Soshi Takeda, and Oslo-Santiago duo Julia Gjertsen & Nico Rosenberg. But you can also dig into their deep back catalog, exploring ambient from the perspective of dance, folk, classical music, and beyond.