Labradford — Fixed :: Context (2000) Spotify
Modern ambient sounds from Virginia, this is actually the group's final album (well, so far, anyway). It's very quiet music that builds, but never really releases its tension. Just have a listen to the eighteen minute sidelong opener to get an idea of what I'm talking about. It's mostly guitars making the sounds, with a smattering of low key electronics and keyboards (dig that fender rhodes there, fellas). It does feel kind of samey after a while, like maybe the songs are just one long intro. But hey, when something's as lovely as 'Up to Pizmo' you won't find me complaining. Kind of like a sparser Sigur Rós, without vocals. I can dig it, especially at three AM. Key tracks: the gorgeous 'Up to Pizmo' and the melancholy closer 'Wien'
Pan American — 360 Business / 360 Bypass (1999) YouTube Spotify
Mark Nelson's concurrently running project to Labradford can be a bit more song-oriented at times, or sometimes just as ambient. Also, he sings. The opener is a ten minute ambient techno workout, which melds into the dreamy sound collage turned proper song 'Code.' Deep, ambient house grooves pop up later on and there's not much more to say other than that this is mood music. Key tracks: 'K. Luminate' and the dubby jazz on the twelve minute closer 'Both Ends Fixed'
Pan American — Quiet City (2004) YouTube Spotify
This one starts off with unmistakably Labradford-esque guitar arpeggios on 'Before', but don't think Mark is rehashing his old band's ideas because the very next track is the ambient dub trip 'Wing.' Song lengths are overall shorter this time out, with only two of the album's eight tracks venturing off into 8+ minute territory. It's less beat-focused than 360 Business / 360 Bypass and Mark takes a few more vocals than before (mostly just whispering), making this is an even calmer affair. Key tracks: the gorgeous centerpiece 'Skylight' and the redemptive closer 'Lights of Little Towns'
Pan American — Cloud Room, Glass Room (2013) YouTube Spotify
If you hadn't guessed by now, all these PanAm albums are really similar-sounding and are a definite acquired taste, but if you like that sound, you'll like 'em all if you like one. The sound of this album is a bit more poppy, but the average song length is about six minutes, so Mark did away with any chances at accessibility. 'Relays' has a really nice little ambient house bass groove to it. Key tracks: 'Relays' and the noisy closer 'Virginia Waveform'
Stereolab — Instant 0 in the Universe (2003) YouTube Spotify
This is basically the single for '...Sudden Stars.' It's definitely of a piece with Margerine Eclipse, but maybe a bit more bouncy in overall mood. Is it just me or does the clavinet on the middle portion of 'Mass Riff' sound vaguely like 'Superstition'? Helluva tune, in any case. Short and sweet, like all of the Groop's EPs. Key tracks: the bookends '...Sudden Stars' and 'Mass Riff'
Steve Tibbetts — Natural Causes (2010) YouTube
This guitarist has been kicking around the ECM roster since the early 80's. And like a lot of folks on the label, what he plays can't rightly be called jazz, nor classical, nor new age, but it has shades of all three. Have a listen to the multi-movement 'Padre-Yaga' to get an idea of what he's up to. Marc Anderson accompanies on hand percussions of all sorts throughout. It kind of has that Michael Hedges quality to it where it might appear to be simple background music, but is actually quite challenging when you focus your listening. Not quite in the Fahey-esque school of acoustic picking, either, as it's a bit too ethereal for that. Whatever, some really gorgeous playing, melancholy as it may be. Very soundtracky, as well. Key tracks: the steel drum-enhanced 'Lakshmivana' and the appropriately titled closing tracks 'Lament' and 'Threnody'
Abdullah Ibrahim — Cape Town Revisited (1997) YouTube Spotify
The great pianist Abdullah Ibrahim in a live trio setting and from the opening notes, I've rarely heard him sound happier — and that's saying something for this guy. The three part suite 'Cape Town to Congo Square' is the centerpiece here: part one (the funky as all get out 'African Street Parade'), part two and the redemptive third part. There's a reason I buy up everything I see when it comes to this guy. He's one of the most unique voices to ever play his instrument. Just purely happy music, guaranteed to put you in a good mood. Key tracks: the 'Cape Town to Congo Square' trilogy, 'Water from an Ancient Well' and a funky version of 'Soweto'
The Lilac Time — Paradise Circus (1989) Spotify
It's been too long running that the only Lilac Time album I've had was the first one. Where that first album had a bit of a folk rocky slant to it, this second album is a much more produced jangle pop affair. The pedal steel and pizzicato layers on 'If the Stars Shine Tonight' is a good indicator of what's going on here. Elsewhere, lots of accordion and banjo. The big, emotional centerpiece 'Father Mother Wife and Child' is worthy of a listen. Overall, nothing all that amazing happens, but the tunes are all solid (maybe a tad overproduced, but it was 1989, after all). Key tracks: 'Father Mother Wife and Child' and the opener 'American Eyes'