50 Best Albums of 2019

• • •

40. Boreal Massif – We All Have An Impact

Sometimes a record comes out of nowhere and sends my brain reeling back to more formative pleasures, reliving the sense of awe that came along with hearing, for example, trip-hop and idm for the first time as a teenager. An expansion in taste and possibility like that gets more and more rare as you age. So when I checked out the new project from Pessimist (whose self-titled album should have been on my 2017 list), a duo with Loop Faction and a mysterious and earthy name, I was struck by the most peculiar nostalgia for that formative feeling. Specifically, it was the way that this music seems to echo the patient, extraterrestrial weirdness of the more hip-hop influenced edge of 90s idm. I remembered hearing early Boards of Canada for the first time, Two Lone Swordsmen, even – as the Bandcamp page mentions – B12 and other first generation Warp Records mainstays. For a teenager growing up on rock and rap, only discovering electronic music thanks to movie soundtracks, that was life changing. For a thirtysomething dad who listens to pretty much everything he can get his hands on, this album doesn’t exactly do that. What it does, is conjure the darkness, the mystery and menace and sheer alienated atmosphere of the best of those pioneering albums. It actually sounds like the way all that wildly new stuff sounded to a small town midwestern kid at the turn of the century. The future! But so accessible, so tangible, so easy to slip into. That’s how I’d describe this album, too.

• • •

39. Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated

I didn’t get into much new pop in 2019 but I can say one thing for certain: nearly every track on Dedicated got stuck in my head for days at a time. This is shimmering, ecstatic dance pop with uniquely almost-minimalist production – a sort of ideal midpoint between the sophisti-pop of mid-80s David Sylvian (or recent CFCF projects) and the pure joyous abandon of Kylie Minogue at her peak. She’s the pop goddess that Taylor Swift wishes she could be, so it’s criminal that she doesn’t get a fraction of the attention. I don’t have anything to say that could convince you more than this song, though:

• • •

38. JPEGMAFIA – All My Heroes Are Cornballs

I can’t really imagine saying something that would put more meaning to a recommendation for All My Heroes Are Cornballs, one of my biggest listening surprises of the year, than JPEGMAFIA’s own note on the album’s release:

This album is really a thank you to my fans tbh. I started and finished it In 2018, mixed and mastered it in 2019 right after the Vince tour. I don’t usually work on something right after I release a project. But Veteran was the first time in my life I worked hard on something, and it was reciprocated back to me. So I wanted thank my people. And make an album that I put my my whole body into, as in all of me. All sides of Me baby. Not just a few. This the most ME album I’ve ever made in my life, Im trying to give y’all niggas a warm album you can live in and take a nap in maybe start a family and buy some Apple Jacks to. I’ve removed restrictions from my head and freed myself of doubt musically. I would have removed half this shit before but naw fuck it. Y’all catching every bit of this basic bitch tear gas. This is me, all me, in full form nigga, and this formless piece of audio is my punk musical . I hope it disappoints every last one of u.

• • •

37. Oren Ambarchi – Simian Angel

While it took me until the relentless rhythmic stomp of Hubris (best of 2016) to fall in love with Oren Ambarchi – retroactively getting me into all his prior output – I’m finding myself more into him than ever with the relatively placid Simian Angel. This two-long-track set moves through nonlinear space with a hushed, playful experimental mood, all bouncing live action percussion, synth-textured guitar swerves, and satellite transmission organ drones. It’s constantly searching, flipping, backing up, and turning – there’s little preplanned logic to the way these pieces unfold, but every shift and mutation feels natural and earned. The album feels as alive as anything he’s ever recorded, and remains one of the most enigmatic releases of the year.

• • •

36. DJ Python – Derretirse

DJ Python returned with this lengthy, subtly evolved EP two years after his groundbreaking “deep reggaeton” debut Dulce Compañia, an album that capped off the 32 best dub techno albums ever made list. To say that I was anticipating this is a hyperbolic understatement; the second after it dropped, I feel like I’d already spun it a half dozen times. The music here leans back, soaking in the humid atmosphere created on his debut, growing further away from recognizable dance structures and signposts. It has as much in common with the best Boards of Canada daydreams as it does with the cavernous genre in which I played its predecessor, arriving at a sort of platonic ideal for getting lost in a warm, thoughtful, lightly propulsive head space.

• • •

35. Young Marco – Bahasa

Young Marco is one third of balearic improv supergroup Gaussian Curve, with Gigi Masin and Jonny Nash. He dropped the legendary two-part compilation Welcome To Paradise: Italian Dream House 1989-93 a couple years ago, a manifesto on euphoric house music. He’s remixed some of the genre’s best dance tracks into billowing, sun dappled mist castles. He works at the nexus of some of my favorite artists, making some of the most soothing and sumptuous music around. So when he released a solo album on Island of the Gods Records, documenting his time with the indigenous people of Indonesia, tracing back his own familial roots, he created my favorite project yet. The synths, guitar, drum programming, and of course gamelan fill in a cosmic rain forest narrative, exotic and yearning, questing, beautifully crestfallen and heartbreakingly hopeful.

• • •

34. Saariselka – The Ground Our Sky

The words “pastoral ambient” always conjured something very specific in my mind, usually hovering near a Flying Saucer Attack album, until the release of Chuck Johnson’s Balsams in 2017. The softly swooning music made on pedal steel guitar reminded me of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois’ timeless chestnut “Deep Blue Day” – but vaporized and blown up to a thousand times its size, tinged with an American western mysticism. It still applies to this new project, a collaboration with longtime OU favorite Marielle Jakobsons (organs, synths, etc), but there’s naturally a lot more going on. Pitched exactly halfway between her more active compositions, often deploying a small chamber’s worth of instrumentation, including rare vocals, and his laser focused minimalism, these six dreamy songs form some of the most grounded and frankly emotional ambient music made this decade. This is ambient music my mom would have adored and maybe cried to, and she thought that Stars of the Lid were purely for sleep. She didn’t mean it in a bad way; she appreciated surprisingly out-there music for a small town Michigan mom born in 1950. I just think she’d end up looping this a lot. If I had to guess at what she’d say, it would be that this is romantic ambient music.

33. H. Takahashi – Sonne und Wasser

Sonne und Wasser is the gentlest, purest listening experience on this entire list. It feels glowing, suspended somewhere between a warm kosmiche dream in the vein of Hans-Joachim Roedelius (featured on April 2019 mixtape Vertigo of Time) and soft, billowing environmental music reminiscent of Hiroshi Yoshimura (featured on January’s Cosmogony mixtape.) So it’s easy to see why I fell instantly in love. I listen on headphones while reading. I play it in the kitchen while making breakfast for my son, the grey clouded light coming in through the small window. I listen on a long drive that could be tense but ends up kind of pleasant. It’s more than that, though.

• • •

32. Moodymann – Sinner

If there was an audiobook of the dictionary, this little album from Moodymann would play when you get to the definition of “slaps.” Because there’s nothing that slaps harder than Sinner in 2019. The ferocious drums, the weapons grade bass, his stream of consciousness half-whispered flow, it all just snaps together with a fuck it let’s dance energy that feels at once effortless and deeply calculated. This is a return to more straightforwardly funky deep house after the kaleidoscopic self titled album in 2016; while he isn’t even trying to innovate here, he’s absolutely shredding when it comes to that kick in the gut feeling.

• • •

31. Laurie Spiegel – Unseen Worlds

I (and pretty much everyone) discovered pioneering electronic composer Laurie Spiegel with the reissue of her brilliant, massive, way-ahead-of-its-time debut album The Expanding Universe near the beginning of this decade. Its nearly three hours of space warp minimalism were crafted on the unique GROOVE System at Bell Laboratories; when it quickly became unavailable, she was deprived of the entire process used to create her music up to that point. This set her on a mission to create her own toolset for music creation, something that could never be taken away because of right issues or scarcity, something purpose built for the kind of sounds she wanted to make. Thus, the Magic Mouse – An Intelligent Instrument was born on a then-cutting edge Mac computer. Despite its obviously personal design, Magic Mouse became popular among her contemporaries and was turned into a commercial product available for Mac, Amiga, and Atari computers of the time – and it’s still in use today by some artists. This is all to preface the fact that Unseen Worlds, which was completed in 1991 but never commercially released, is one of the most pure creations on this entire list. Its genesis in software that the artist herself crafted makes it sound, unsurprisingly, like nothing else in 2019, much less nearly three decades ago. This is ambient / drone / synth music for exploring the dark realms of outer space and inner mind, an intriguing, introspective dream sequence that’s shorter and much sharper than its predecessor.

• • •

50-41  |  40-31  |  30-21  |  20-11  |  10-1

11 thoughts on “50 Best Albums of 2019

  1. Pingback: 20 Best Ambient Albums of 2019 | Optimistic Underground

  2. Pingback: Best Techno of 2019 | Optimistic Underground

  3. David! Thank you so much for this gift — I’ve learned about SO much new (to me) music over the past couple of years. To pay it back a little tiny bit, a few albums you should absolutely check out. And I’d love your thoughts on them:

    1. Akasha System // Echo Earth — came out 12/19
    2. Hector Plimmer // Next to Nothing – came out 10/19
    3. Earth Boys // Mythic Music – came out 6/19
    4. East of Eden // East of Eden – came out 10/19

    Happy listening, all.

    – Eric

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for such kind words! I’m so happy to know I helped connect you with great music. And also thanks for the suggestions – I haven’t heard any of these. Putting them on my to-listen list right now and I’ll definitely get back to you about them. Cheers!!

      Like

  4. Pingback: Emergence [mixtape] | Optimistic Underground

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.