50 Best Albums of 2017

2017 was easily the most definitive year of my entire life. This year, I became a father. I got married. Everything changed, including the way I appreciated music.

It wasn’t my tastes; I didn’t suddenly drop my love for techno and weird jazz to become a dad rock connoisseur, despite in fact making a dad rock mixtape. No, it was a subtle shift in weight, a slight refocusing on what aspects most affect what I love about music. I’m still largely into the same genres and artists as before, but I now feel drawn to facets of sound and meaning that I shied away from before. I’m more interested in peeling back the meaning behind what I’m loving, searching for a thread to pull, an arc to follow. Slowly but surely, I recognized the colors emerging from the stories that built these pieces of art.

It’s not that I wasn’t interested in the behind-the-scenes or the history before becoming a dad; it’s simply that I now find myself automatically working recursively when I’m emotionally struck by something, running down the fibers of time that brought it to my attention, trying to work out a map for my own journey forward in this new life role. I’m living for more than myself finally, and although it feels vulnerable to have my heart living outside my body, it’s incredibly rewarding. I’ve felt more energized, more creative than I have in years. I made five new mixtapes between winters. I began running for the first time. I started writing fiction again. Oh and, along with my wife, I’ve been raising a child pretty successfully for half a year so far. Even more than ever before, I can’t wait to experience what happens next.

Speaking of my wife, that’s her in the header picture above. I thought the image of her, pregnant, hiking in the late winter sunset, encapsulated the way I felt about 2017. All that nervous possibility and raw beauty surrounding the long shadow down the path ahead, feeling real warmth after too many frozen months.

This year, like every year, was bursting full of new, exciting, brilliant music. It only takes some effort and desire to find it all. In another first, I barely read any music journalism, kept up with no major release schedules, and missed out on most of the hype 2017 had to offer. I have only the faintest ideas about what other people hold up as the best music of the year. To me, these 50 albums mattered more than anything else I heard all year, give or take a few. For a more comprehensive picture of the year, be sure to check out 50 more must-hear albums of 2017.

Let’s begin the countdown. These are the 50 best albums of 2017.

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30 Best Albums Of 2016

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Looking back at what a shit year 2016 has been, it’s no wonder I published more music writing than ever before. As the months wore on I found myself swiping away more and more real news in my feed and just getting lost in Bandcamp and other music sources. I wasn’t really trying to bury my head; I was looking for a better way of thinking.

The world is what it is, but I can frame it and focus on it however I choose. Immersing in the toxicity of bad news and worse reactions changed my perception one way, so I aimed to change it another way. Art has been a life sustaining tonic all my life, a refuge sought in times of stress, loneliness, and most of all, deep frustration. If I’ve hit a brick wall, I know that obsessing about the problem won’t help. I need to detach, breathe, and follow something made to surprise. A good story or song is something to be lost in, sure, but it grants perspective. It can bend the light just so, showing me a new way to see.

Perspective also comes from travel. The simple but profound act of experiencing other parts of the world can never be overestimated. This is where the image at the top of this list comes in. It’s Greenland, as seen from my plane back home to the United States from Ireland a month ago. I happened to open the window shade during the brief window when we were passing over the very tip of the continent-sized island. It felt like magic.

I’m entering 2017 with hope that good news can happen and that we can press on, even when our heroes are gone. I look around and I wonder who the future heroes are going to be. Those people will be standing against the dark tide and risking everything. They’ve got new ideas to replace the scary old ones that never quite die.

Looking back on the past year of music, I see a lot of new ideas and new perspectives on old ones. The best kind of music always elicits surprise, even if it’s made in a familiar way. There’s a flash of feeling, a rush of blood, and it clicks. Everything on this list mattered to me and I hope some of it can matter to you.

Let’s begin the countdown. These are the 30 best albums of 2016:

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32 Best Ambient Albums Ever Made

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Here it is, the Optimistic Underground list of best ambient albums ever made. Inspired by all the discussion surrounding Pitchfork’s list of the genre, I decided to lay out my favorites. This is a sound that I’ve been in love with my whole life, so the only problem was narrowing it down.

Lots of people like ambient music for lots of reasons. Some love to fall asleep to it. Some are fascinated with the granular detail of slow songs. Some enjoy the way that it can dilate time, shifting perception for vast stretches of just being there.

I love it for all of these reasons, and for the way it can utterly transport my mind in a way that frees me to have breakthrough thoughts, little eurekas, the kind of ideas that spring up during a long bike ride or a mediation session. Ambient music is contemplative music, for all intents and purposes. It’s music to think about, and think to.

Update 8/18: I’m now organizing this list into chronological order based on some quality feedback from friends and readers. I think this will help give context to the music as we move through the years, giving a sense of narrative from the earliest releases to the latest. To be completely honest, I’m not sure why I chose random order when I first wrote this list – I’d like to send a message two years back to ask myself. I’ve learned even more in the time since, so I’ll likely bring future updates to this list.

In the meantime, I thank you for reading and I hope you find something new to love, maybe an entire genre. Some of these albums are definitely more canonical or officially beloved than others, but I consciously choose to ignore the popular, limiting narratives about the genre. The important thing is that these are all incredible works of music that deserve your attention, and that every piece here exemplifies a facet of ambient music, from its core to its outer fringes. Every single album here is a definitive example of the power and possibility of ambient music.

For more exploration, try the 32 Best Dub Techno Albums and Every David Bowie Album Ranked lists or see the Optimistic Underground best of the year collection for a load of gems.

On with the list. These are the best ambient albums ever made:

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