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.
Here it is, the Optimistic Underground list of the best dub techno albums ever made. Recently I realized there were no definitive lists or guides for ushering new fans into the genre I love most. The few I found were anemic, narrow, and boring; nobody was doing dub techno justice. So here I am, trying to do just that.
The magic of this genre is that its best and brightest examples are not only impressive musical monuments; they’re easy to love and loop and listen forever. This isn’t an academic compilation based on importance or history; it comes from a deep affection for a living, breathing sound.
Dub techno was born with such a defined aesthetic that many early examples sounded like they were from the same artists. Some of them actually were. In fact, you’ll see a few artists represented under different names on this very list. It’s not for a lack of options out there; techno artists tend to switch up identities as soon as they find a new direction in sound. So on a sensory level, for all intents and purposes, they really are distinct musicians. Basic Channel is not 3MB is not Maurizio is not Rhythm & Sound is not Moritz Von Oswald Trio is not Borderland… you get the picture.
You may notice that this list holds many compilations standing in as albums. In a genre so deeply associated with the 12″ single format, many early dub techno artists became known to the wider world via compilation CDs. This is where the hermetic genre feel becomes an advantage: these compilations often evoke the feel and structure of planned album releases. They’re as cohesive as anything recorded in the album format and undeniable highlights for the genre.
Some of the biggest fans of dub techno are the ones who want to keep it pure, holding a very narrow range of sound as the platonic ideal, accepting little variation and dismissing anything that comes later. They hold up the few original masterpieces as paragons of the sound and dismiss anyone who came along in the following decades. These folks come at music with a prescriptivist attitude, battling for how they think music should be, rather than appreciating how it is. I believe they’re wrong.
When it comes to music, just like grammar, I’m always a descriptivist. I love when genres splinter into dozens of permutations as they migrate and adapt to their new environments. When it comes to dub techno, I hear masterpieces in every era, from the obvious touchstones of the 1990s on up through last year. This sound comes in more than one shape, a fact made crystal clear as we follow its timeline below. This list is arranged in chronological order so you can follow along from when the genre broke ground through the myriad branches that grew as it matured. Accordingly, the music gets weirder and more varied as time goes on.
On with the list. These are the best dub techno albums ever made:
When you’ve been deeply lost in the world of techno for years, it takes something really special to capture your imagination, hooking you for days, even weeks on end. Omonimo is one of those rare creations, a unified set of tunes that immediately leapt into the pantheon of great techno albums.
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.
On with the list. These are the best ambient albums ever made:
This week seemed to rush by, with the dying embers of summer swirling all around me. It’s been flush with great music, lots of bicycling, and a really fantastic sandwich.
A pair of short hip-hop albums defined my listening, along with a darkly mysterious little techno release that I’ll share. But most of all, I watched the Netflix show Stranger Things in its entirety. I was utterly floored.
This week brought some genuine surprise to the music world. Frank Ocean finally crashed the hype train into public view, dropping his long-awaited sophomore album on a weekend night. After four years, nobody expected it to appear so randomly, but here we are.
This is the state of music in 2016. The pendulum of control is truly swinging back in favor of the artists. Everything else I discovered this week was courtesy of the artists themselves, broadcasting personally on Twitter, Bandcamp, and other open platforms.
The past two weeks rolled with dark gravity, anchored by the massacre in Orlando that saw 49 people killed in an LGBT dance club. It may be only the latest in a nearly constant string of mass shootings in the US, but it’s the most devastating in my lifetime. I’ll never forget the gut punch of hearing the news.
It’s important to seize on the image of us at our worst, not just to examine how and why, but so we can truly appreciate us at our best. Still, it’s just as important to grasp the good news when we have it. With that in mind, I want to share the great musical discoveries I made in the past couple weeks.