50 Best Albums of 2020

While I decided not to number the best albums of the year, I still found myself feeling head over heels in love with a small subset of albums – the most personal of personal favorites, the music that spoke to my soul more than anything else released in 2020. So I’ve decided to collect them on this final page in a discrete top ten. While everything, absolutely everything on this list is worth the time to listen, explore, and engage, these ten albums sit closest to my heart and, in prior years when I numbered everything, would each compete for the number one spot. Just as everything that came before, these are placed in the order which I first heard them. Any of the following could be considered the Optimistic Underground top album of the year.

• • •

Jeff Parker – Suite for Max Brown

Suite for Max Brown was the first new album I heard in 2020 and throughout this decades-long hell year has remained one of my most consistent listens. I come back again and again, running my fingertips over its shifting surfaces and leaning in closer to different tracks, tracing the influences back and thinking about the multitude of rivers that fed into this heady delta. There’s hip-hop influenced modern jazz, sure, but also fuzzy krautrock-inspired jams, sampling, synths, drum machines, a nod to Joe Henderson, and even a straight up John Coltrane cover. I swear, the second “After the Rain” ended, I knew this would be one of my favorites. There’s so much variety tucked into less than forty minutes, but it all feels so cohesive – Parker lays a vaporous electronic web over the whole thing, unifying every tangent through the same questing, progressive vibe.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

K-Lone – Cape Cira

The songs on Cape Cira feel organic and natural yet entirely synthetic at the same time, a living matrix impossibly grown into a single cohesive environment. All the motion and bass of K-Lone’s dance friendly singles have been subdued in favor of delicious low key melody and warm field recording textures. I press play and feel like I’ve awoken in some sun dappled rainforest – not the Amazon, but some mystical, off world place found in a JRPG tucked deep in my memory. Bird calls and analog hiss imperceptibly fill out the space around the sparse percussion and liquid ambient pads. It all feels so luxurious and soothing, as much relaxation soundtrack as healing meditation. For a year in which we weren’t going to the club or partying with friends, it was the perfect house record. Pure escapism without the crowds, the hedonic communion. Instead it feels like communion with nature, mediated by the gentlest of digital magic.

I loved Cape Cira so much that I used tracks from it on both the Jungle Bump and Love Will See Us Through mixtapes this year.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Mourning [A] BLKstar – The Cycle

Colossal afrofuturist rhythm and horns and clarion call vocals and crunchy beats and an entire cavalcade of tactile elements march though the speakers during every one of these eighteen tracks, all snowballing into one of the most powerful listening experiences of the year, of any year. Coming along in the middle of May, as the simmering tensions in the US were primed to boil over as the pandemic ramped up, The Cycle lucidly painted the pain and struggle and weirdness and joy of life here and now better than anything else in 2020. There are so many voices, so many textures and colors and sounds, it feels positively alive from end to end – there’s a hint of danger here in the production, the multitude of perspectives, like anything could happen at any moment. The shuffling palette lends a sense of constant surprise and delight that balances the achingly heavy lyrics; no matter how dark this goes, it remains a rapturous listening experience.

I really like the understated introduction the band left on their website when the album was launched: “The Cycle is Mourning [A] BLKstar’s testimony to the time and space in which it was collectively created. It is a humble addition to the long legacy of James Baldwin’s adage of the artist as witness. It is our song cycle in a time that just may need a song or two in support of and in love and power to the living.”

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Shinichi Atobe – Yes

The elusive Japanese technomancer has dropped his best album yet. As usual, the recordings simply showed up on a CD in the mail at the DDS offices, with track names and no other information. This time, apparently, he included a photo for the cover. Atobe is still meshing his original Chain Reaction (Basic Channel, Vainqueur, Porter Ricks) vibe with Chicago deep house momentum, but he’s blended a surfeit of new ingredients to the mix, including gritty cyberpunk textures reminiscent of Detroit legends Drexciya or Dopplereffekt and a vast, wide open atmosphere you could find on a DJ Sprinkles album or almost anything from Mule Musiq in recent years, muted high hats echoing over the softest ambient pads. There’s a hint of sadness in the cascading piano loops and the sunshine of bright optimism peeking through the crackle & hum – especially on the title track. “Yes” is the most uplifting thing he’s produced, and it sets the album on a trajectory around the world for its remainder: spelunking through humid jungles, dancing over choppy seas, and ending in a downright funky neon-blasted club space. The greatest pleasures lie in the micro details, molecular construction of these deceptively simple tracks; repeat listens reveal a greater sense of wonder and awe at their compact power. I feel pretty comfortable calling this his best album yet.

“Lake 3” appears on the Love Will See Us Through mixtape.

Listen and buy on Boomkat.

• • •

Vague Imaginaires – L’ile D’or

“The music of Grenoble gardener Denis Morin aka Vague Imaginaires cross-pollinates modal synthetics, equatorial ambience, and drum circle minimalism into ecological fantasias of “natural forces and enchanted worlds,” seven of which comprise his spacious debut, L’île D’or.” I mean, how can I top that short and sweet descriptor of this album without expending way too many words for a listicle like this?

L’île D’or is dream music of the highest order right here. The closest analogue to anything on this list would be the K-Lone album, but where he anchors his rainforest daydreams in the muted pulse of house music, Vague Imaginaires uses it as a launching pad to soar far out into uncharted dimensions, parting the mists of time and rushing right into sound environments seemingly untouched by human hands. Progressive new age? Housey fourth world? Tribal kosmische? I have no idea what to call this, but I know it speaks to a part of my music tastes that has never been so acutely satisfied before.  This debut album combines wide eyed cosmic wonder and earthen rhythm in a way that sends my thoughts spiraling outward, unable to focus in the most pleasurable way.

The album was recorded as Morin awaited the birth of his daughter, and it marches out of a mystic forest to a beat somewhere between, as he says, ritual and lullaby, spirit vine questing and chill-out tent meditation. Throughout, we hear field recordings from Guyana wilderness and the sound of birds, wind, and all sorts of obscured wildlife. Close you eyes and picture magic glowing lagoons shrouded in mist and vines, the moon peeking through the vast canopy above. There’s a close-up intimacy to the production despite its vast scale soundstage, hitting some platonic ideal of the connection between the inner and outer self. Or maybe it’s just super trippy, gentle, beguiling music that I’m having a hard time pinning down.

Vague Imaginaires appeared on the Jungle Bump mixtape, albeit with a song from a shorter EP release called L’Île Sous l’Eau, with a more overtly electronic atmosphere. It’s also very much worth checking out.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Shawn Rudiman – Conduit

The label page offers a simple Artist Statement from Rudiman, and I kind of love its low key simplicity: “Conduit contains moments from the last two or so years of my life. There have been a lot of trying times and ups and downs in there. These moments are the exhaust of that life. Some more subjective than others. We are simply conduits for whatever flows through our cores. We tap into it. We allow it to flow through us. As it takes shape, we select its forms and hone its output. We are simply conduit for our work. Maintain the Flow State.”

To describe the music, though? This is panoramic, neon infused techno with a dramatic flair and relentless future pulse. It’s pure, unfiltered ear candy with a genuine sci-fi tilt. Imagine Ghost in the Shell with a techno soundtrack layered in between and within the existing, tender Kenji Kawai score. Now imagine that combination swallowed up into the galactic sized synth pads of a prime era Tangerine Dream album like Rubycon or Phaedra. You’re getting closer. There’s a tangible emotional core to this music that takes it way beyond mere cyberpunk set dressing; it’s an album that I fell into and wound up feeling a lot of things, about being a father, about the relative isolation of pandemic life, the way things seem to be shifting here in America towards a permanent depression. The first time I heard it was while running errands around the city on a rainy day. I ended up just sitting in my car at the grocery store parking lot listening until it ended, unable to bear the thought of stopping and going inside to the noise and crowds and all the fog on my glasses from wearing a mask. And then I listened again on the way home. I admit I’m an easy mark for the genre: I unabashedly love techno in nearly all its permutations, and I’ve got a soft spot for so many subgenres and sounds. But it takes something extra special to make me flush with genuine emotion within techno’s framework – it’s usually a more heady, kinetic thing for me, all brains and body with little feeling involved beyond calmness and contentment. Conduit flows right though me, cascading over every pleasure point a techno album can touch. From the few friends who I’ve got to check it out, it seems that it’s not just me.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Shabason, Krgovich & Harris – Philadelphia

I feel intimidated writing about this album, it means so much to me. In a list full of music that I freely call healing and meditative and emotional balms, Philadelphia takes the cake. This is ground zero for how the year turned around for me and my mental state, with a gentle approach like waves of empathy washing over my brain every time I listen. It’s a seemingly low key affair that touches on the small tactile joys of everyday life to induce some kind of euphoria about just living, even when it’s being limited by a roaring pandemic. It almost sneaks in a sense of relief and acceptance and oneness before you can even realize what’s happening. The final track echoes and you’re left feeling healthy and alive and thankful for just being able to hear this music now.

For a bit about how it sounds, I’ll just share what I wrote in the Love Will See Us Through mixtape, where I placed the title track of this album: Aside the fact that Joseph Shabason’s signature sax & synth music has been a favorite for a few years now, this new trio demonstrates the most perfect emotional response to the sort of vast, culture-wide despondency happening so much this year. It’s an invitation to awe and wonder in the everyday, boring elements of life, absorbing the supposedly mundane and vibing in frequency with the world. It’s also a delightful ambient-jazz-dadrock hybrid that sounds like nothing else out there.

For what the album means to me, I must quote Colonel Briggs, talking to his wayward son Bobby, on Twin Peaks.

A vision I had in my sleep last night – as distinguished from a dream which is mere sorting and cataloguing of the day’s events by the subconscious. This was a vision, fresh and clear as a mountain stream – the mind revealing itself to itself. In my vision, I was on the veranda of a vast estate, a palazzo of some fantastic proportion. There seemed to emanate from it a light from within – this gleaming radiant marble. I had known this place. I had in fact been born and raised there. This was my first return, a reunion with the deepest wellsprings of my being. Wandering about, I was happy that the house had been immaculately maintained. There had been added a number of additional rooms, but in a way it blended so seamlessly with the original construction, one would never detect any difference. Returning to the house’s grand foyer, there came a knock at the door. My son was standing there. He was happy and care-free, clearly living a life of deep harmony and joy. We embraced – a warm and loving embrace, nothing withheld. We were in this moment one. My vision ended. I awoke with a tremendous feeling of optimism and confidence in you and your future. That was my vision; it was of you. I’m so glad to have had this opportunity to share it with you. I wish you nothing but the very best, always.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Angel Bat Dawid – LIVE

This live album makes the hair stand up on my neck, it sends a warm shock down my spine. It’s a punch straight to the heart, all fury and explosive playing and most of all a very real sense of communal love. The audience energy builds along with the music until we reach a grand singalong on the fourteen minute “We Are Starzz,” with Dawid belting along and encouraging the crowd to rise up and join in, until it all erupts in ecstatic catharsis. The heightened energy is sustained all the way through the end, a continuous wind pushing through every track, right until the soul eviscerating end. This is transcendent jazz, a giant neon sign announcing Angel Bat Dawid as a major force in the music world. It’s funky, it’s playful, it’s aggressive and relaxed by turns, it’s got serious swing, it spares plenty of room for sax, clarinet, and flute solos, it steps down to a hush to allow her righteous vocals to grab all attention and yank it onward. It’s almost everything I like in jazz in a relentless blastoff. It’s also at its core a potent scream against the history of racism and violence black folks have faced for four hundred years in the West, a history that seemed to be crashing against the world of 2020 in a way that never felt so obvious and open before. I’m just going to include a quote from Dawid herself about the hours before this show was recorded:

“The morning at the Duke Ellington Hotel was the result of a buildup of things… The insensitive way the festival dealt with Viktor… to mean stares walking down the street with my Brothers… A man came up to all of us and said he was frightened by our group. I went to another shop and they told me ‘don’t go to East Berlin because they don’t like Blacks’… Berlin was leaving me feeling very isolated and angry. So the morning we were leaving this hotel, with its homage to Black musicians in every room… They had a piano in their bar area and I decided to play a tune, sing and praise, to leave on a good note. Deacon Otis was filming it as our way of just walking in love, no matter what. As I was singing someone on the staff runs up to me red face and angry saying ‘ma’am please don’t do this in the lobby this is not allowed!’ And I just went the fux off. I had had enough of the reprimands… I just couldn’t be my genuine Black self anywhere in Berlin without someone reprimanding me…”

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Jon Collin & Demdike Stare – Sketches of Everything

I entered 2020 falling in love with the music of Norwegian jazz guitarist Terje Rypdal (seriously, his 1980 album Descendre is probably my most listened album of the year), then threw myself deeply into all the incredible new music coming out as the pandemic began and all my social engagements, pretty much everything I did outside the house, ground to a halt. We all withdrew into our homes and ourselves. I had the fortune of spending lockdown with my wife and son, and I can’t even imagine doing this without them. I recall every single day the extreme pain of my loneliest years, holed up in an apartment by myself and sinking through the floor with depression. Sure, I enjoy time alone, but living totally alone is a kind of hell for me. My heart goes out constantly to all my friends out there who can’t have the refuge of a packed show to attend or even just a pub to chill with strangers this year. It’s desolate out there, all the more so if you’re facing it alone.

I say all this to preface the fact that Sketches of Everything feels like the most perfect “alone” music possible right now. It’s unassuming, slow building, radically low key in some respects, especially for Demdike Stare, who have often shaken my house with shambolic noise swarms and pulverizing industrial bass. With the addition of Jon Collin’s echoed-through-time guitar sound, structurally jazz but texturally crumbling-Americana, the temporary trio transformed into a bubble universe built for meditation, reflection, a total clearing of the mind and a reset button for the day. Driving alone as the days turned cold and skies went grey, sitting with my headphones in the dark at night while my family slept, hearing Sketches of Everything felt like discovering the antidote for the 2020 blues. Ironic, because this is a blues record in some ways – an ambient, dub rumbling, wind blasted blues, but still. You don’t listen to this record so much as sit inside it, let it soak into your skin, freeing your thoughts and lifting that background anxiety for a little while.

Listen and buy on Boomkat.

• • •

DJ Metatron – Loops of Infinity (A Rave Loveletter)

Traumprinz returned this year under multiple guises, dropping three killer full length albums of undefinable beat science along the techno-house spectrum, but it was the monumental Loops of Infinity (A Rave Loveletter) that wound up resetting my entire understanding of his vast and varied output. Like his Prince of Denmark release 8, one of the best dub techno albums of all time, this one is a massive affair, covering 90+ minutes through endless permutations of a laser focused sound-idea. Unlike that dark monolith, however, this album is relentlessly colorful, with a casual, accessible approach that sees the listener ramping up through a series of rave-indebted sketches before launching into a more proper-album feeling space. While some fans have noted that there could have been some editing to really sharpen the experience, I think the loose preamble works as a slow tumble into the conceptual depths of the album. It’s so unassuming at first, even after twenty-plus minutes that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a sort of outtakes experience. Every loop is an earworm, uniquely powerful, but there seems to be no grand arc. Then the title track finally hits and cruising speed is achieved: you’re locked in for a timeless rave odyssey rendered in widescreen grandeur, undulating and zooming through endless permutations of a sound that’s never felt so immediate and vital, at least not since the heyday of E pills and neon pacifiers and the mythologized, deeply infused sense of brotherly love for all the world around.

This is a highly specific sound, but Traumprinz, as DJ Metatron has made the emotion behind it as universal as the drugs tried to make it seem back in the 1990s. I don’t expect it to be a record for everyone, but to me its very specificity imbues it with a power not heard in some of the other, more obviously universal experiences here. If your ears and your body are prepared to accept the style he’s working with, this album will feel like a miracle by the time it winds down after the length of an entire movie.

The only official place to grab a copy is Traumprinz’ All Possible Worlds site, where it’s sold out, but you can certainly find it elsewhere. I’m still holding out hope I can find a copy of the vinyl for a reasonable price, somehow, somewhere. I know a couple folks who grabbed it and they know how envious I feel.

• • •

Thank you all for reading, and I sincerely hope you find some music to fall in love with here, and that some of these artists find new fans and some sales thanks to my help. You’re all so important to me.

PS: I’ll be dropping another list with 50 more albums I think you need to hear very soon. I couldn’t help myself this year, there was simply too much amazing, well deserving music.

• • •

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Top 10

10 thoughts on “50 Best Albums of 2020

  1. I’ve been waiting for this post since summer. There was so much great music this year you could certainly make another top 50
    Of different records. Appreciate your work dude

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your list, as always, is on point this year, David. You can really tell you live with these albums, and it’s reflected in your writing. I would say it was an exceptional year for ambient and experimental music, but I wonder if my opinion is heavily influenced from the difficult personal circumstances most of us faced this year. I think I actively sought out abstraction in my listening as an escape/distraction. I probably discovered more new artists than in any prior year, so there’s one 2020 bright spot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Gabe. I think I’ve tended toward this music more than average for a long time, but it began with a lot of the same reasons that I’ve seen so many others getting into it in 2020, as refuge, as healing, as escape. I always want to share what’s been helping me, and it felt like this past year more people were on the same wavelength as far as music, and that’s indeed a very positive thing nestled in the trash fire of a year <3

      Like

  3. Pingback: 50 More Best Albums of 2020 | Optimistic Underground

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