Textbook ambient music is not necessarily good ambient music. If I can’t get lost in the soundscape or play it to get lost in something else, I have little use for it. Good ambient, then, is deep-focused. Not only does it simply fill the background, physical or mental, it works as music should. It moves you. It makes you want to listen to it closely.
At his ambient best, Aphex Twin* (one of at least two brilliant autodidacts of 90s electronica, the other being DJ Shadow) is the definitive link between Eno and Boards of Canada. Selected Ambient Works Volume II outshines Volume I because it dares to drone for minutes on end, and except on two tracks it dispenses with beats altogether. The album is good if not great ambient, because (in addition to having the qualities I just mentioned) it shimmers with its scratches intact. On nearly every untitled cut, dissonance (i.e., darkness, the jarring note or effect) looms.
For those of us who spin through the dirty metropolis, locked and lonely in our spinners, Selected Ambient Works Volume II is a trip to Cloud City…and back.
*The catalog, which is daft, deft and dense all at once, has two main modes: oft-unsettling and balmy ambient, and deeply disturbing, jerk-jokey death-dub.