50 Best Albums of 2019

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30. Ulla Straus – Big Room

Tactile and warm as an embrace from a lover, this hypnotic debut from Ulla Straus is some of the most openly beautiful music I’ve heard all year. Big Room dissolves the world around as well as the best Gas albums but it always feels more grounded, more real, retaining its deeply human presence – something much of the straightforwardly pretty ambient music of the world never even attempts, much less achieves. By the end of track two, I knew I needed to share this magic as soon as possible, so I included it on the Hypersleep mixtape in October. I fell for her that quickly. You probably will too.

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29. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – Tracing Back the Radiance

Having already given us some of the best shoegaze in decades with the third best album of 2017, On The Echoing Green, Cantu-Ledesma is back. Of course, this comes collaborations with incredible artists like Félicia Atkinson and Alexis Georgopoulos aka Arp, both featured on the Off World mixtape last year. So he’s been busy leaning in both a more pop and a more serious, experimental direction. Yet nothing prepared me for the quietly overwhelming power of Tracing Back the Radiance. This music can feel merely relaxing, gentle, a sound environment when played quiet, but turned up properly, it’s revealed as elegantly layered abstract orchestration, a complex web of organic and electronic sounds harmonizing, structured as a literal sound cloud. This is what “modern classical” should mean. Music as invigorating and surprising as it is ready to echo through the halls of an opera house. But don’t just trust me. Take a look at the lineup that conjured this understated majesty before hitting play:

Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – Effects processing, Vibraphone.
John Also Bennett – Flute
Marilu Donavan – Harp
Chuck Johnson – Pedal steel guitar
Gregg Kowalsky – Synthesizer
Mary Lattimore – Harp
David Moore – Piano, Organ.
Meara O’Reilly – Voice
Jonathan Sielaff – Bass Clarinet
Roger Tellier Craig – Synthesizer, Effects processing
Christopher Tignor – Violin

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28. Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis

I’ve always found it difficult to describe Matana Roberts’ emotionally wrenching, conceptually dazzling avant jazz music. I’ve even found it difficult to listen to sometimes – she makes some of the heaviest stuff I’ve put in my ears over the last decade. But I’ve never even slightly hesitated when it comes to recommending her to anyone who can hear. Every entry in her Coin Coin series has been an unflinching, soul-scarring, utterly devastating experience, bursting with life and love and pain and anger relating to the history of black folks in America, from slave ships to today. But they have each, in their own wildly different ways, been an explosion of joyous musicianship and radical creativity, the kind of jazz that makes historical free jazz by the likes of Don Cherry and John Coltrane seem relatively tame, if not more approachable. Because while she continually inverts, detonates, and reinvents the art form, she always leaves the windows and doors wide open, inviting everyone in for a listen. No jazz expertise required to get crushed under this mountain of feeling.

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27. Donato Dozzy – 12H

Donato Dozzy is something of a godfather in the world of techno, having crafted one of the best dub techno albums ever made as one half of Voices From The Lake and dropping dozens of groundbreaking, emotionally overwhelming solo albums and singles, including a rework of Bee Mask’s triumphant When We Were Eating Unripe Pears that became even more acclaimed than the original. Last year’s “Cleo” kicked off the ZONE mixtape. His live performances are legendary. So when he released a two hour album culled from a sound installation for the Music Bridge, by Armando Trovajoli in Rome under curation of MAXXI director Bartolomeo Pietromarchi, I was expecting something maybe low key but obviously enjoyable. But this might be the best thing he’s done since that legendary VFTL album, a minimalist masterpiece that gets better the further you get into it. Originally this music was meant to translate the architecture of the bridge and was played via 12 speakers spread along its length, to be heard as visitors passed through. But it works completely divorced from that context – though maybe it helps to accompany something. For me, it became my favorite writing soundtrack of the year. But it’s more than background pleasantness – this is vital, sumptuous, often dazzling techno that takes its time to do its thing. It flows as one long piece and is meant to be experienced as such, but don’t feel bad if you have to pause it a few times to get through it all.

• • •

26. Kyle Bobby Dunn – From Here to Eternity

This is the massive, monolithic, three hour ambient drone mountain that Kyle Bobby Dunn has been climbing his whole career, mapping out its every contour and crag, dusting its surface with snow and ice and true blue soul-rending heartbreak. While many ambient drone artists aim to deliver frigid stillness, Dunn infuses the entire experience with an empathetic warmth. This isn’t merely a blue atmosphere to wallow in; the music ebbs and flows with the power of a grand symphony emerging from the clouds. Slow motion harmonic glaciers push through these subtly epic pieces, barely perceptible movement that affects herculean change over the course of a track, a side of vinyl, the entire arc of the album. At any given second, it’ll find you in snowblind, melancholic bliss, lost and unaware of the passage of time; but it keeps moving, sliding toward oblivion or transcendence or both. Like all the best ambient music, it works fine at lower volumes for reading, relaxing, or just staring out the window on a grey day. But turning up the volume allows all the myriad pieces to become visible – guitars, organs, pianos, synthesizers, a small army of processing, sampling, and sound treatments – and renders this seemingly vaporous ascendance in staggering tactility.

• • •

25. Shed – Oderbruch

Just a couple weeks ago, Shed dropped his finest album since his 2008 debut, one of the best dub techno albums ever made. He’s been a consistently brilliant producer in the years since, but for the most part he refined his sound into something more widescreen, more elegant than the dark blueprint he laid out with Shedding the Past. Here, with Oderbruch – named after the region in East Germany where he grew up – he comes with a whole new expansive outlook and some attractive new colors to play with. It’s not so much that he’s left behind the urban structures and gone pastoral, but that he’s elevated to a space far enough above to capture both settings, industrial and bucolic, in the same instant. His deeply personal twist on techno, crackling with drum breaks, ambient textures, and an orchestral sense of scale, has never felt so warm and inviting.

• • •

24. 36 – The Lower Lights

This is a massive wealth of mournful, rousing, cybernetic deep dream music and it’s one of the easiest albums to which I surrendered all year. 36 basically ticks every box on the “how to win David over in like five seconds” checklist across these panoramic 100 minutes. Every new track bursts with a new twist on shimmering, neon drenched arpeggios and moody synth pads, ascending and soaring and feeling all magical all the time. It’s got that sad-but-hopeful otherworldly high that I’ve chased since a childhood drenched in 80s scifi and space movies. It just needs to be heard, because the appeal is dead simple and hits instantly. Also, I’m counting the The Lower Lights and its companion, Beneath the Lower Lights as one album because that’s how they’re presented on streaming, where I first heard them. But you can hear each half below for yourself:

• • •

23. Moor Mother – Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes

Moor Mother was one of the final artists I discovered this year, asking for hip-hop suggestions on twitter because I simply hadn’t kept up with the genre as much this year. Sure, I’ve listened to a ton of it in 2019, but most was made long before this year. Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes was a suggestion that really caught my eye, especially coming from multiple unrelated friends. My first reaction was that this wasn’t exactly hip-hop. My second reaction was that this was the afrofuturist explosion I never knew I was waiting for. The album is a pure detonation of righteous fury and reinvention, firing backward and forwards via time travel, tearing up accepted cultural narratives and reframing the urgent scarcity of a future that seems to grow dimmer every day. “After they come for me they gonna come for you,” she intones over a crunchy, foot stomping beat before the maelstrom of grit abruptly gives away to old-timey samples of folk songs, of African spiritual songs, knob-spinning synth patterns, and eventually the monster drums all over again. It’s overwhelming, aggressive music that leans more toward the Tetsuo: The Iron Man side of cyberpunk aesthetics while carrying forward in the spirit of avant jazz forebears like Alice Coltrane and Matana Roberts. With help from fellow Philadelphian producer King Britt (aka Fhloston Paradigm), Justin Broadrick, Saul Williams, and more, the album packs more detail and care and heart wrenching feeling into 34 minutes than most albums never even attempt in an hour. There’s a whole new world of potential in here.

• • •

22. Shanti Celeste – Tangerine

I’ve been onto Shanti Celeste’s euphoric production style ever since her “Being” single made the perfect connective glue between the starry deep house and extraterrestrial techno halves of the Deep Future mixtape in 2017. With short EP and single releases scattered across recent years, her most substantial projects were the acclaimed live performances in clubs and festivals around the world. One in particular, a three-hour dual DJ set earlier this year at Lente Kabinet Festival with number one album of 2017 artist Call Super, became one of my most-listened recordings of any type over the course of 2019. I simply couldn’t get enough. So when she finally dropped a full length debut album in November, I practically fell over myself to listen again and again. Here, she unfolds all the other sides of her artistry that are kept in the periphery on stage, those loose, lucid moments of starbound transcendence and contemplation, wiggly aquatic electro, kalimba-led excursions into a predawn rainforest. These leftfield twists add a sense of wholeness and narrative completion to her sound, rendering it as cinematic as it is propulsive. Tangerine is a dance album to live a whole day to. It slowly wakes with the sunrise, stomps through breakfast with abandon, cruises outward lost in thought, always returning again and again to the irresistible beat structures to pick up momentum. Her words on the Bandcamp release page put it plainly: “When I made music for EPs, sometimes I felt restricted. I would think too much about creating the moments on the dancefloor I love – seeing visions of ecstatic people hugging, I didn’t give myself free reign to express all of myself. Writing an album made me feel free of all this because it seemed like an open-ended project. I could just keep creating until I felt like stopping”.

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21. Andrew Chalk – One Long Year

I don’t.. I can’t. Uh, fuck. What do I even say about this? Ambient music that really nails me on a spiritual level. One Long Year sounds like how Terrence Malick movies make me feel. It feels hushed, holy. It’s beatific. It sounds ancient and instant, springing to life from a strand that’s always been there. It reminds me, at times, of those little pauses on later Talk Talk albums, when everyone takes a breath and the atmosphere just dangles there for a second – stretched out across yawning sunrise progressions and twinkling dream melodies, barely there and all around. It’s maybe a little hard to get hold of a copy, but it’s worth it.

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

10 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

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