My favorite neighborhood basketball hoop.
Hi. Welcome to the Optimistic Underground album of the year list for 2019. Every single release here is something special, worth your time to listen, worth every minute I spent writing it all down in the hopes that you’ll check it out.
These fifty albums were painfully carved down from over one hundred twenty – I keep an open document every year, adding a name every time I feel deeply struck on any level. There’s always so much incredible music to love every year. Too much to catch it all. So that’s why I keep doing this every year; I find so many treasures in others’ lists. If any of these artists make a new fan with my help, I’m happy. That’s all I’m here to do. They enrich my life so much, and I try to spread the love.
I wouldn’t rank anything if I thought it’d be just as effective, but let’s be honest: ranking makes a list more interesting. Plus, I feel far more strongly about some of these albums than others. So, while the exact numbers may not matter so much, the general direction of the list does. The albums at the top are the ones I’ve spun more than anything, the ones I most clearly see myself looping years into the future.
As with every year, there’s always an overabundance of magical music; the trick is just finding it, and finding the time to hear it all. I’m just one person so I know I’m forgetting loads of great releases – please let me know what I’m missing in the comments.
Be sure to check the 20 best ambient albums and 25 best techno albums of 2019 if you’re a fan of either genre, want to catch up, or just want to get into them. I simply had too many great examples of both this year, so I made a couple extra lists to better cover them.
Anyway, here are the 50 best albums of 2019. I hope you find something special.
It’s October, my birth month. The time of the year when everything in Michigan melts into cold mush and outdoor summer adventure turns to quiet moments by the window, watching leaves fall on the wet grey world. When I think of autumn, I think of decay, decomposition, death, dissolving. There’s a kind of freedom in that sense of letting go. Giving yourself over to an experience, a long slide into the dark of winter, a plunge that turns gelid and snowblind before it ends.
I don’t romanticize this time with hot apple cider or maple brushed bonfires in the backyard, but I do have a sort of entropic affection for the way life near the forty fifth parallel changes so completely within a month. So I made a mix to kind of sound like how this time feels. Because I’m a total dork, I called it Hypersleep.
As I hastily but pretty spot-on wrote as my upload finished, it’s a deep dream dive from atmospheric future techno through a wormhole of ambient, drone, and new age, toward an altogether weirder, experimentally tinged genre-agnostic ending. These 80 minutes are meant to feel like one long freefall that gradually slows and transforms as it goes deeper and darker. The final pieces are so far from the first, stylistically & emotionally. Listen when you want to feel different than you do right now.
Press play to hear it now:
Meltdown may come as a surprise to a lot of listeners. It’s not ambient, it’s not techno, it’s not modern, and it’s not really all that cosmic. But this set of disco-funk-electro-synth floor stompers has a lot in common with the type of music typically shared here. The relentless dance pulse, the future-synth textures, and the lonely nighttime neon vibes are all here. And like all great music, it is deeply psychedelic.
Because a large part of my musical heart belongs to house music and its endless permutations, I always wanted to explore some of the genre’s roots in a mixtape. Especially because it’s long since become sort of synonymous with a white, European audience, I wanted to emphasize the distinctly black and queer origins of the sound. That doesn’t mean there are no white folks in this set; some of the funkiest musicians to play were caucasian as can be. It just means that my ears were focused most directly on the space where disco and funk met Hi-NRG and synth pop, where artists of color were pushing music production forward in a way that the wider world wasn’t always ready for. The tracks here, for my money, feel utterly fresh while undeniably evoking their era: the years surrounding 1982, when I was born.
Vertigo of Time is a free fall through the last four decades of deep dreaming psychedelia, evoking the spiritual high of meditation, the twinkling of the stars at night, and a deep communion with nature itself. This is a drumless mix of weirdo new age, German kosmische synth exploration, Japanese environmental music, and ambient jazz. It is an attempt to connect the most visionary pieces of early electronic music with its genealogical descendants through the unreliable persistence of memory. All feeling and mood, drifting from concrete thought and action, moving toward that unattainable ideal of pure being.
To put it simplest: this mixtape is made for floating inside your mind or a sensory deprivation chamber or just relaxing by yourself in the dark, reading on the train, or whenever time gets soft enough to push outside and stay a little while.
This is a special occasion. One of my favorite current projects, UK duo Seahawks, have crafted a mix for exclusive release here on Optimistic Underground. This hour-long set conjures a celestial, funky, freewheeling spell that feels precision crafted for my tastes despite being composed of mostly new-to-me artists and tracks. It’s a treasure that I’m beyond excited to share.
I’ve now released 18 mixtapes here on Optimistic Underground, but before today I’ve never shared one made by anyone else, much less an artist I adore.
Cosmogony can be described as a model constructed to study the origin of the universe. In this case, I wanted to put together a mixtape for charting the path of fourth world jazz, new age, ambient, and kosmische synth music from its origins in the 1970s on up through today. This stuff is kind of my bread and butter, the music that’s always looping between new releases and old favorites alike. Press play and close your eyes.
Fall into the zone. Techno gone weird, stoned, spaced out, turned into a sentient god of some sort. Lose track of time. Think about all sorts of crazy stuff. This is a journey through two hours of the most atmospheric, advanced species of techno today.