50 Best Albums of 2019

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10. Move D – Building Bridges

The deepest deep house album of the year, as big and welcoming as it is highly specific and varied. These nine tracks span the last two decades of David Moufang’s storied career as a dj and producer, showing off some of the most sharply rendered visions of deep house from every angle. There’s moody dub weirdness, propulsive midwestern stomp, off-kilter robot groove, and even a live-wire vocal track about equality and revolution with the nearly-as-legendary Fred P. Other luminaries interlocking in the morphing groove include D-Man, Thomas Fehlmann, and Benjamin Brunn. Each adds a distinct shade to the central spirit, bending it one way or another, but the seamless illusion holds: this felt, upon first listen, like the work of one solo artist. It certainly didn’t come across as a compilation reaching from 1999 to today. But that might be a testament to the consistency of Move D’s vision – he sounds unmistakably like himself across time and style borders, with strong collaborators or alone. And he’s made, to these ears, the best album experience of his career.

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9. Daniel Guillén – Inner Vision

Daniel Guillén, the man who gave the world Lunaria, stepped out from behind the moniker this year for his most personal and profound album yet. Inner Vision could play like a manifesto for the ambient artist, whose Buddhist approach to music creation has always felt as natural as breathing to me. It takes everything great about his prior works, the new age atmosphere and the relaxed optimism and enthusiasm for life, and infuses it with an urgency and newfound depth. While the songs here feel more meaningful, they also ascend to even greater heights of aesthetic beauty. My favorite track, “Rainbow,” already appeared on my recent Hypersleep mixtape. This is pure cosmic love from the depths of the sound universe, enveloping the listener in a sense of oneness and calm, acceptance and balance, the very essence of aural pleasure. It needs to be heard to be believed.

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8. Teebs – Anicca

For more than a decade, Teebs has made some of the most unapologetically gorgeous music on the planet. His distinct sound felt utopian from day one, and he’s only gotten better at creating it. With five years and counting gone by, I was afraid that maybe he’d moved on from making records, or that he’s have lost his touch if he hadn’t. But nothing could have been further from the truth: Anicca is Teebs’ best album yet, by a long shot. While he’s always worked with the same uniformly celestial palette, he slowly became a better composer, songwriter, and even sound designer. If the very color and texture of his sound is what made it so magnetic ever since that first listen, it’s become easier and easier to love every time he dropped a new set. His songs have grown more emotional and naturalistic. They’re somehow even more intricately beautiful. The vocal features, including Panda Bear and Anna Wise, fit more naturally than they ever have before – they’re not guest stars on a producer’s album, but fundamental pieces of its construction. Despite using an extremely familiar tool set, he’s made a giant leap in one album – even if it did take half a decade.

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7. Yu Su – Roll With The Punches

泉出通川为谷 / Roll With The Punches is a 32 minute EP that made perhaps the biggest impact-per-second of anything I heard in 2019. Kaifeng, China born Yu Su recorded the album outside her home of Vancouver, in Coast Salish territory after developing much of its content during live performances over the prior year. This origin really comes through when hearing the naturalistic flow and mesh of disparate elements, from modular synth to towering hand drums and splashing water samples. Cavernous reverb cocoons the rainforest-anthem vibe sustained across these five tracks, flush with dubbed out bass, synths, and even some exquisite guitar texturing on the massive “Tipu’s Tiger,” courtesy of fellow local musicians Pender Street Steppers. I’m constantly reminded of the opening sequence in Akira Kurosawa’s final film, Dreams: a little boy wanders outside of his home despite warning from his nanny that he must never witness a fox wedding in the nearby woods. Of course, he does, and a little bit of danger and a whole lot of magic ensues. It’s based on Japanese folklore, and plays out like a live action anime. In a loosely similar fashion, Yu Su explains that the title of the album is “a metaphor translated from an old Chinese proverb, that roughly translates as ‘The Spring flows over plains and The Valley is born’. The proverb explains the origin of ‘The Valley’ and also speaks of a very Daoist abstraction in which the ‘Thousand Things’ are born and will eventually co-exist in the metaphysical system of ‘The Valley’” You’ll know exactly what she means when you listen to this beguiling, whimsical, unambiguously euphoric set.

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6. Our Lady of the Flowers – Holiday in Thule

This is what happens when the ghosts of dub techno meet in the middle of nowhere in the depths of winter and have themselves a little seance. Absolute legend and personal favorite producer Rod Modell aka Deepchord joins bandmates Kevin Dunham, Jeri Frantz, Erinn Pegan, Jay Buckets, and Warren Doss in a mystical conjuration of thudding infrasonic bass, lo-fi knob twiddling, Tibetan gong feedback, field recordings of religious ceremonies, and a lattice of dream logic that ties it all together. To listen is to submerge yourself in this miasma of memory, freefalling without movement, suspended in between gaseous and solid states. The dub is palpable, but the techno side of the equation has drifted off into the aether, more of an implied echo than a functional element of the sound. It’s music for haunting and being haunted – not by ghosts, but by time itself. Press play and enter this beautiful greyscale little pocket world, and surrender to its pulsing hypnosis. I’ve done so off and on since its release in January, and it’s remained at the forefront of my mind when I think about this year in music. Perhaps it couldn’t be further from the zeitgeist in terms of style, but Holiday in Thule has captured the essence of life in 2019 more than anything I’ve heard hyped all year.

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5. Rrose – Hymn To Moisture

After nearly a decade of increasingly intricate and radical techno compositions, Rrose has finally dropped a proper full length debut album, and it is monumental stuff. Hymn To Moisture is a challenging, densely rewarding, darkly sophisticated listen, the kind of music that sounds great at first, only to unfold and grow with each successive spin, revealing its unstable core, odd microtonal tunings, and willingness to dissolve the line between noise and pure tone. Like the hypnotic cover art, the hour of music here conjures the sometimes strangely dazzling material of which this planet is composed. It’s bedrock, it’s oceanic, it’s sharp and supple and hot to the touch, cool to the ears. This is techno for watching volcanoes erupt from the inside, rocketing up through the plume of molten earth and floating with ashes on the wind across continents on a gust. It’s as alien as life itself when you get down to the molecular level, and just as mathematically inevitable feeling. The release page mentions a reverence for genre pioneers like Jeff Mills, Pan Sonic, and Plastikman alongside composers of darker, odder fare such as Laurie Spiegel (#31 on this list), Eliane Radigue, and Phill Niblock, and I can’t argue with those reference points. But I will say that fans of Demdike Stare, Sandwell District, and the Northern Electronics roster (Acronym, Abdulla Rashim, D.Å.R.F.D.H.S., etc) should feel compelled to listen.

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4. Octo Octa – Resonant Body

Full disclosure: I’m cheating a little bit here. Octo Octa may have released one of the best albums of the year in Resonant Body, but her For Lovers EP from March was also one of the best deep house records I’ve ever heard, so I had no choice but to include them both. Still, I didn’t want to steal a spot on the big list from another deserving artist – and there are SO many amazing artists I had to leave off that it kills me – so I am combining their massive impact on 2019. Although they kind of stand as the twin peaks of house music for me this year, they couldn’t be much more different in tone and structure. For Lovers is a tender embrace, soft and vulnerable, warm and sensual optimism flowing through its 23 minutes. Breakbeats enter softly behind a veil of comforting synth pads, dub drums and cavernous atmosphere prop the three tracks open, beckoning us all within. So much develops over such a short course that it demands replays – and just might be my most played album of the year at this point, its addictive rhythm drawing me back every couple weeks at the least.

Having such a brilliant release would have been plenty to satisfy most fans, myself included, but then she went ahead and dropped Resonant Body, a radical shift into ecstatic power, breakbeat worship, massive synth tones, and towering dancefloor presence. The album simultaneously yanks me into the here and now of the global DJ vanguard while dipping the nostalgia centers of my brain into some of the first electronic dance music I ever encountered as a kid in the early 1990s. I feels like a loaded gun of positivity and kinetic joy, ready to spread a sense of communal love and care and acceptance at rapid fire speed. It’s built with such complexity and precision, such an alchemy of juxtaposed textures and timbres, that it works just as well for moving your body as well as your mind. I’ve spent dozens of afternoons with my son in the kitchen, the living room, jumping around to this album, feeling the sun pour over us, just letting go and taking pleasure in the very act of being present and loose and dancing with abandon. I’ve also spent many mornings hunkered over my desk, pounding out articles for clients, the refrains of “move-your-body-to-the-sound” taking on a more philosophical bent between my ears as the propulsive beats push me to get work done. I feel like I could never do the mood here justice, so please, just listen. You’ll get the same beatific smile on your face in no time.

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3. CFCF – Liquid Colours

Liquid Colours is a potent, luxuriously appointed sequel to CFCF’s endless-flowing 2015 balearic masterpiece Colours of Life, itself one of two albums he put on my list that year. He describes the process himself pretty well, and I’ve listened to it so many times that I’ve lost all perspective, so I’ll CFCF explain why this is kind of a perfect, timeless, endlessly pleasurable listen.

Liquid Colours started just like The Colours of Life, as a simple challenge to myself to see if I could follow through on a continuous 40 minute suite in one style. Much like COL, it was a break in working on another more involved, complicated album. I was interested in ‘corporatized’ pop jungle — totally inauthentic to the genre’s roots. The jungle tracks on ‘Ray of Light’, Everything But The Girl, Towa Tei, Bahamadia, each member of YMO has respectively released some solo work exploring the genre. Bill Laswell plowing his fucking bass over a DJ Spooky remix of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion or something. TV interstitials, ads. At its most oversaturated, jungle and d’n’b was briefly the sound of capitalism. In fact once while I was in the middle of working on the album I had to make a call to some customer service line or other, my bank or something, and the on-hold music sounded exactly like this record I was making! I really knew I was onto something then.

Like The Colours Of Life, I’m being very sincere with the musical approach by focusing on song-craft, but there’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek, slightly satirical thinking in there too. I know I’m doing it wrong, I know it’s stupid, I just think it’s more honest when I do it this way. I’m paying homage and teasing at the same time. One track is kind of a piss-take on Boards of Canada, it’s like ouroboros’d nostalgia loop – the 60’s viewed from the 80’s viewed from the 00’s viewed from 2019. I was also thinking about Roni Size’s New Forms; it won the Mercury Prize, it was viewed as this groundbreaking, futuristic work. It’s a really great record, but it’s fascinating to think now about the status it had compared to now. You can picture some young New Labour minister spinning it on his Discman between policy meetings. Just totally failed optimism.

I love all these things. I get excited to take influence from things in a sincere way while also acknowledging why they are slightly ridiculous. I love the cast-off Spooky/Laswell JSBX remix sitting on a CD-single somewhere (it doesn’t exist). My friends give me weird looks because we’ll be record shopping and I’m blowing $2 on a Fantastic Plastic Machine single. There’s a risk of coming off like an ironic-hipster-trash-peddler, but I have genuine affection for this stuff because it is dripping with undeniable life and sincerity.”

I feel pretty much everything he says here in my bones.

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2. Visible Cloaks, Yoshio Ojima & Satsuki Shibano – FRKWYS Vol. 15: serenitatem

Visible Cloaks have appeared on both the best albums of 2017 and maybe my favorite mixtape I’ve ever made, Astral Blues, but I still feel like I haven’t talked about them enough – not considering how innovative, questing, and spiritually refreshing their music has been to me over the past few years. So it’s kind of ironic that it took their collaboration with Yoshio Ojima (featured on this year’s Vertigo of Time mixtape) and Satsuki Shibano, two veterans of the 1980s Japanese ambient scene, to get me talking again. It’s also kind of poignant, since this album is the latest installment of RVNG’s cross-generational FRKWYS series of albums, one of my personal favorite philosophical sub-labels.

Every single album I’ve heard since volume 7 with Borden, Ferraro, Godin, Halo & Lopatin and volume 8 with Blues Control & Laraaji in 2011 has been a mind altering experience on some level or another. Most releases span genreless chasms of sound, shapeshifting and elusive; in a literal sense they are stretched between experimental and progressive artists from wildly different generations who nonetheless carry a similar spark. The pairings are always inspired, but this time they’ve made an ad hoc supergroup that I wish would keep creating music together for years. I’ve got hope it could happen, if not regularly. After all, it was Spencer Doran, one half of Visible Cloaks with Ryan Carlile, who curated this year’s Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980​-​1990, the retrospective compilation that brought this unique and profoundly affecting era of music to a greatly expanded new audience.

The whole thing is just so delightfully unpredictable. Even when I’m on my twentieth listen, I’m still caught off guard by the sudden computer elements, the disembodied electro computer voices, the blinding contrast between achingly beautiful UFO drones and the plinking, right-up-to-the-ears presence of rain drops hitting a windowsill puddle. But far more than the sensory time travel, there’s a sense of raw, spiritual yearning at the heart of this music. I’m reminded of my”this song is a sentient being!” reaction to hearing Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock for the first, tenth, fiftieth time. The songs here all feel alive: they’re a family, all making their own choices and trying out new hobbies, but cut from the same cloth. They each exhibit a highly specific trait while retaining common core attributes, a tree with new fruit on every branch. Yeah, it’s a silly metaphor but it’s what keeps coming to mind.

I should probably just stop and paste the bit where they totally nail it in tl;dr fashion on the release page:

serenitatem reaches unseen stratums — a pure synthesis of artistic vision, technological sophistication, futurist ambition, and, occasionally, ancient polyphony.

• • •

1. Function – Existenz

Existenz is the best techno album I’ve heard in years. I mean it. As menacing and mystical as anything from Demdike Stare, as bomb-dropping dynamic as anything Andy Stott has blasted, and most of all, as hypnotic, blackened, and cosmic as the legendary Sandwell District album, Feed-Forward. Since he was a big part of that project, it’s not surprising that Function dips into similar deep waters as that 2011 opus; the revelations here come from the way he folds in a constellation of techno-adjacent genres into one seamless, sustained post-cyberpunk mood across nearly two full hours. He shifts angles from track to track, folding in hyperspace synths, neon glowing electro, anti-gravity house, arpeggiated dystopias, linking subspace portals between the very heart of these disparate moods, existing in several at once, traveling without wavering from a central dub techno laser beam.

I know this is a lazy move but I’ve been working on this list for a while now and here, at the final album, I find myself smiling at some of the copy on label Tresor’s release page. I’m going to share the good part here, because it says everything I’ve been trying to say and honestly, after writing over 11,000 words, I’m just eager to get this great music in front of you. Here:

Cosmic synths soar and swoop in ‘Pleasure Discipline’ through towering stacks of rhythm that stutter and creak to a halt before rebooting, a firm robotic response to human intervention. ‘Zahlensender’ reflects a spatial tetris of urban life, as digitalization set within an XYZ matrix confronts the sprawling city. Constant arpeggiated meditations echo synaptic transmissions, effecting a dissolution of boundaries. ’The Approach’ recalls the unification of the self, a state of delirium non-subjective and smooth, as all connections and functions give way to simple intensities of feeling, crossing the threshold into spirituality. ’Golden Dawn’, featuring Stefanie Parnow, marks a further elevation of dubbed-out euphoria, as once more positive rays emerge. His ode to the effortless short-trip urban navigation ‘Kurzstrecke’ finds Function in motion, upfront and bold, snapshots of conversation and flickers of light. ‘Ertrinken’ finds metallic bass jabs swamping snipped synthetic voices, with hidden stores of emotion set as a nod to the history of vocoders as a tool for encrypted military communication. House icon Robert Owens features on ‘Growth Cycle’ and ‘Be’, entrenching a celebratory atmosphere over Function’s clubwise leanings. Closing track ‘Downtown 161’ reflects the unmistakeable filtered and squashed interjections of television, and sampled dance vocals – a sound for the curious, dreamers and dancers.

Now I just want to emphasize how huge Existenz is for me: I discovered Sandwell District’s lone full length shortly after its late 2010 release and I wasn’t ready for it. I was still getting more seriously into techno, finally recognizing the genre on which I had some kind of preternatural grasp, sifting its signature works out from the confusing pile of genre discourse on the internet. I’d grokked Carl Craig and The Orb and all sorts of acts in between, but I was still on the verge of the level of Basic Channel and Deepchord. Feed-Forward‘s abyss-of-industrial-beats futurism wasn’t going to hit me for a couple more years, when the entire world of the genre finally unfolded for me. Now, this type of admittedly specific techno music is a kind of soul nourishment for me, the connective tissue between all the other stuff I listen to, the web I fall back on when I need to just let go these days. But it’s incredibly rare that new releases add to my internal canon of Albums To Feel That Way To. So I wasn’t remotely expecting a two hour behemoth to be exactly what I needed, the next big step beyond that masterpiece. Right there at the tail end of the year, here it comes: the sound I’d been waiting for. Even better than a hyper-focused exercise, it was a varied, wild, defiantly narrative album experience, replete with twists and turns, the perfect balance of variety and singularity. One of the only albums that comes to mind when comparing its unique balance would be Drexciya‘s 1999 masterpiece, Neptune’s Lair. Kind of impressive to think that one also dropped on Tresor, exactly twenty years ago.

Every time I’m listening and I think, for the briefest second, that maybe I’m overrating this album, I hang suspended. In that moment the music rolls on and my brain stops ever so slightly, and there’s just enough room for the essential brilliance of Existenz to rush in and overwhelm any doubt. It is a true unicorn in the music world: something that I anticipated that ended up being far better than I could have hoped for, much less merely better than I was expecting. When you see a new album from a great artist is going to be two hours, you hope for the best, but there’s rarely a time when it truly fills the time with end-to-end superlative sound design and profoundly satisfying song craft. This is it. This is the one. This is the grand, deep techno experience to cap off the decade. It’s also my album of the year.

I’m tired. Watch this clip and then start blasting Existenz at high volume.

• • •

This year I’m doing something new, so stay tuned over the next few weeks. I’ll be covering my two biggest genres, techno and ambient, with their own lists. Basically, I could have filled the entire top 50 with quality releases under these tags, but I wanted to give a broader, more accurate picture of my listening in 2019 – so I saved some of the best for their own lists.  Rest assured, if you did not see your techno or ambient favorites, they’re probably going to be found there. In addition, I’ll be posting a “best older music I discovered in 2019” type of list, because some of the best music I heard all year was merely new to me. That’s all for now folks. Thank you so much for reading.

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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

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