For more than a decade, Kompakt has only slightly tinkered with the formula which yields its annual Pop Ambient collection. Now on its 14th edition, the compilation continues to be curated by label co-founder Wolfgang Voigt and still largely depends on a revolving cast of producers, with regular contributors such as Mikkel Metal, Marsen Jules, and Thomas Fehlmann (along with Voigt himself, both under his own name and as Gas) appearing on Pop Ambient's latest incarnation. While the label's steadfast dedication to the original aims of the series is admirable, it may also explain why, in a rapidly changing musical environment, Pop Ambient can't help but seem less and less vital with each new arrival.
Speaking purely in musical terms, Pop Ambient 2014 is one of the strongest editions in recent years. The return of Ulf Lohmann (a name early-aughts Kompakt listeners should be familiar with) after a six-year hiatus is certainly welcome, and the German producer bookmarks the comp with two of its more unique pieces, boding well for his new stockpile of work, which is poised to trickle down from the label throughout the year. In addition, Thomas Fehlmann and Marsen Jules turn in predictably worthwhile efforts; veterans to the form, they seem to have figured out what balance of textural space and melodic linings fit perfectly on these collections. Furthermore, Wolfgang Voigt himself again delivers some of his own compilation's highlights with the almost aggressively droning "Ru?ckverzauberung 8" (Ru?ckverzauberung being a recurring name/theme in his work) and an "Ambient Mix" of The Field's "Cupid's Head" under his highly regarded Gas moniker (it's worth nothing that the remix first appeared as a b-side on the vinyl-only Cupid's Head / The Gas Remixes 12" late last year). Serving as Pop Ambient 2014's second-to-last piece, the gorgeously stretched 10-minute composition accomplishes the tall task of living up to Gas' reputation as one of ambient techno's most consistently brilliant projects.
Still, although the record offers up its share of musical high points, there is something lacking about Pop Ambient 2014. Somehow, the act of simply putting these compositions together in compilation form seems to do each contribution a bit of a disservice. Almost all of the artists featured here have the chops to make more complete works, and to relegate the talents of a Thomas Fehlmann, a Ulf Lohmann, or a Gas to simply be partial components of what is essentially a glorified playlist ultimately draws away from the impact of their compositions. When the Pop Ambient series started in 2001, it may have made more sense to string together the highlights from disparate and limited ambient releases in the Kompakt catalog, but in today's electronic music realm, ambient music is no longer a hard-to-find commodity or an afterthought of a label's catalog. One need only to look at the success of imprints such as Editions Mego, Spectrum Spools, and Kranky, or artists like Tim Hecker, Oneohtrix Point Never, and the now-defunct Emeralds trio, to see that ambient electronic music is a style that can be appreciated in its full form by a wide range of savvy music listeners, not just electronic music connoisseurs. One is left to wonder then, what is gained (or, for that matter, lost) by only offering the bite-size chunks Kompakt does on in its annual ambient compilation.
With all that said, there is surely still value to Kompakt's long-running Pop Ambient series. At its core, the collection continues to prove that ambient and experimental electronics do not always have to be aggressive or bizarre, but can also be rendered into beautiful compositions that provide listeners with a musical platform for quiet and unhurried introspection. As a series, Pop Ambient may gradually be losing its vitality, but its musical perspective does not have to. Moving forward, an adjustment to the delivery platform would do much to make Pop Ambient's sound more relevant.