In my experience, most of the Windham Hill catalog was good sounding elevator music. Much of which only an audiophile could love (sound over music).
I was in college during most of the period you referenced and had the following on vinyl:
WH-1014 - Passage - William Ackerman 
WH-1017 - Breakfast in the Field - Michael Hedges 
WH-1030 - Southern Exposure - Alex De Grassi 
WH-1032 - Aerial Boundaries - Michael Hedges 
I was just starting to get serious about my gear during those days. I had an Onkyo TA-2090 that was a highly regarded cassette deck at the time and had transferred most of my vinyl to tape, as I refused to bring my gear into the dorms. Enjoyed listening to mix tapes of many selections from these albums as study music.
Yes, they were well recorded albums at that time. The importance to me was that they were selections I used in my learning process while experimenting with quality source reproduction.
Some great responses.
Listening to all of the releases again has made me appreciate the music anew. Most of the albums sound great, and I've found all but one or two very worthy musically.
I've found that listening on vinyl and turning up the volume makes for some fairly intense listening. My wife, on the other hand, loves Windham Hill, but does treat it like background music.
Michael Hedges, Aerial Boundaries - One of the great albums of all time. Hedges redefined acoustic guitar. I believe this is up there with Kind of Blue, Dark Side of the Moon and Sgt. Pepper as a must have for any music lover.
Alex de Grassi - Turning: Turning Back and Slow Circle. Terrific solo guitar.
An evening with Windham Hill Live - Various Artsts. Great cross-section of music, well recorded, and upbeat.
Shadowfax - Shadowdance. Fusion - with an eastern touch.
Liz Story - Solid Colors. If all new age piano were like this, it would be redefined as modern classical compositions.
George Winston - Winter Into Spring. I know, Autumn is the favorite, and may be the better album, but I've played it too death, and Winter Into Spring seems to hold up better.
I've also had a few surprises with the catalog - Robbie Basho is awesome and intense. His vocal album Visions of the Country was never re-issued, but is worthy, and unlike anything else on Windham Hill. David Qualey's Soliliquy is a classically-influenced album that still sounds fresh and thoughtful.
In short, if it's been a while since you've played your Windham Hill albums, take them out for a new listen.
Windham Hill was a child of the 70's.
The Hippie era was just passing, and the 'mystical' era of the 70's was starting. Along with the flowering of free love/ (and sex) was an increase in interest in the occult/yoga/ eastern religion.
Windham Hill fit right in. Narada eventually joined Winham Hill in making and distributing the stuff. (I know, I was Narada's first part time employee.. when it was just a distribution company.. in the basement of a bookstore!) Windham Hill was mostly sold in 'eastern bent' bookstores and as ads in the backs of Yoga Journals and other new age magazines.. The dude who thought up Narada, asked my boss (the Yoga bookstore owner) to join up with him BECAUSE he know the buyers' mindset. (the typical 'new age' bookstore owner!) I left in 1980, and that is about when Narada started recording it's own artists instead of selling others juust as a distribution company.
The stuff could be disparaged as mystical elevator Musak.. but it filled a purpose, sold a LOT of music, and is still interesting musically.
@Justlisten - I'd love to have more details about the studio at the house in Belmont. Not everything was recorded at the Music Annex. Different Fur, Mobius Recording in San Francisco were used. Shadowfax recorded in LA, two albums were recorded in Seattle, and so forth. Now Will Ackerman has an awesome recording studio called Imaginary Roads in Vermont. He continues to win Grammys as a producer.
Um, no. No whale cries.
It's funny though. Over the years the label has lost the artistic credibility it once had. The songs have been recycled time and again on compilations, but the original albums are long out of print, and so if you weren't into music at the time, you could easily confuse Windham Hill with any of the imitators.
Because I so clearly remember the original vision of the label in the early 80's, I tend to think of Windham Hill more in the vein of ECM or MA recordings - not Narada or the Environments series.
Windham Hill faced a problem of success - they created a genre which could be done badly - and the competition watered down the vision and distracted listeners from the artists. I remember that by the early 90's Narada's less artistically significant catalog was handily outselling Windham Hill.
Also, Will Ackerman, who founded the label, became more removed from the label over time, and not all of the later works had his distinct musical imprint.
Nonetheless, I think the first 50 or so albums truly represent a great moment in American music - and there are several gems in the next 50 as well. That's a lot of good records for one small label.
Yes, some of the Windham stuff is sleepy, but "An Evening with Windham Hill Live" is anything but. IMO, it's their best album. From an audiophile perspective, it's superb. I don't know any other acoustic album recorded as well. It captures subtle details that are lost in most recordings. There's a distinct feeling of being in the room with the musicians. I highly recommend this gem on vinyl.
The mention of Michel Hedges here has made me feel good today as i read through this thread. Thanks guys!! I must try and find that Red Rocks DVD as i have tried to find the "Artist Profile" that was available on VHS but never printed to DVD. That is such a shame. I spoke with Michael Manring (who was Hedge's bass player often and a great person) about this matter one on one and he told me it was down to one individual making all of these decisions and he kind of shook his head about it all but didn't go much further. So i am surprised to hear that there is a Red Rocks DVD out there of Michael Hedges. I will be trying to find that one now!
Cool project & great posting's. Have to agree, certainly many of the WH are of audiophile quality and ahead of their time in some regards. I was on a spiritual quest to the east back in 80 and many a WH cassettes were copied & passed around. Many of those discs still take a spin in our house to this day. Winston's "Plains" in HDCD is one of the best recordings I've heard.