Memory Coalition [mixtape]

Memory Coalition is a mix of some of the best melancholy deep house and soul melting ambient tracks that have warmed and elevated me like nothing else over this long, heavy winter. The snow’s been piling up here in Michigan like it hasn’t in years and life.. hasn’t gotten any easier than it was last year, for my family at least. This stuff is a little nostalgic, a little spacey, full of atmospheric grooves, unmoored from time.  It’s the kind of music that’s perfect for when you’re feeling sad and you’re okay with that, but you still want to blend in a little taste of wonder and awe.

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50 More Best Albums of 2020

Lake Michigan in fog, January 2020

50 just wasn’t a big enough number to contain all the music that deserved serious attention and acclaim at the end of this interminable year. It’s a nice, round number and makes for a substantial but not overwhelming list. But I think 100 is also a nice, round number, so here we are: 50 more albums that absolutely deserve a close listen in 2020 and beyond. Please excuse the awkward title.

I’ve already gone over why this year was particularly hard for me – beyond the pandemic – in the 50 best albums of 2020 post, so I’ll just keep it brief now: I heard a LOT of music this year, as always, and I fell in love with so much of it. So many artists made a positive impact on my headspace, my disposition, my life during this trying year. This music helped me keep my head above water, helped me center myself and find little moments of grace to take a breath, step back, and start again. These albums were the soundtrack to my days, working at home, raising my son, navigating the world with a mask on and sanitizer in my pocket, six-plus feet from everyone else at all times. They filled my home while I helped homeschool my son, focused on repairs and cleanup and all sorts of things I suddenly had more time for, with nowhere to go and no friends to see for the majority of the time. They were there with me in the dark nights alone while everyone else slept, trying not to let the despair inside. This music is all meaningful and powerful and deserves to be heard by as many people as possible.

(I’ll be adding blurbs for each of these as the holidays go on, but for now I just wanted to get it out there so everyone can check out this music while they’ve hopefully got a little free time. Just picture me like this by the end)

I hope you find joy in here just as I have.

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50 Best Albums of 2020

Lake Michigan in fog, January 2020

Hi. Welcome to the Optimistic Underground album of the year list. I think it’s safe to say that 2020 has been a disaster. Regardless, I feel spoiled by all the incredible music we got this year. It’s meant more than ever to me. I almost quit this blog because it felt so unimportant in the face of everything, but the music kept me going. It’s corny, but it’s true. So here we are.

I don’t want to go over a checklist of all the things we’ve got in common, beyond the pandemic. I do want to take a moment here to say that the year has taken a toll in ways that I wasn’t always prepared to handle – my father died suddenly, someone close to me tried to commit suicide, and my son was diagnosed with a medical disorder that we’re still grappling with and seeking a permanent treatment. This was on top of some health issues, sudden home schooling, and plenty of stuff that doesn’t need mention on a music blog. I’m here to share some of the best music I heard all year, because I think it all deserves to be heard by as many people as possible. I want these beautiful artists to connect with the people who will appreciate them most, and vice versa. Because despite all the hard things that have happened this year, both to myself and the world at large, I’m looking at the final stretch with warmth in my heart and a small core of confidence that, while things may not always be alright, I can definitely handle it when they get rough – and I’ll be here for my family and friends no matter what.

So, in light of how tough I’m sure it’s been for most of us – because the pandemic isn’t stomping on us in a vacuum, it’s piling on top of everything else we all have to face every day – I decided to forgo numbering the albums this year. It’s always felt a bit cruel to pit artists against each other in that way, make the arbitrary distinction that one album is better than another, and it’s been downright painful having to make those choices at the end of every year. I love this music and these people and I can’t speak for anyone’s taste but my own. It’s always been the case here, but I want to make this explicit: I don’t believe these albums are objectively the best of anything; that doesn’t exist. I do believe that everything here is incredible and touched me on some level, emotional or intellectual or physical or whatever, and I need other people to hear it too, to feel elevated and healed like I do. Because this is healing, and these albums all played a part in keeping my head above water in 2020. If it wasn’t for this music, I don’t know if I’d be in such an okay place by now.

[Update: don’t miss 50 More Best Albums of 2020]

I did include a top ten at the very end, because even among this incredible crop, there were a handful of albums that touched my soul like nothing else. They’re not ranked either. I just want to warn you and tip off the folks who have to see number one first :)

Here we go. Albums are listed in the order I first heard them:

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Love Will See Us Through [mixtape]

This is my last mixtape for 2020, and that’s young me on the cover. I named it Love Will See Us Through after the ghostly refrain in the very first track you’ll hear. I think I need it to be true as much as the singer does, echoing beyond the rhythm and ambient waves. This one’s a little bit wistful house, a little bit ambient jazz, and a little bit new age dream. It’s sort of my sad dad mixtape, composed solely of music that’s helped my darker thought trains turn cathartic over the course of this year.

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Jungle Bump [mixtape]

Hey friends, here’s my latest mix. I named it Jungle Bump. This is a colorful blend of woozy deep house, epic ambient, melancholy techno, and all sorts of genre-agnostic magic that fits between world music and new age and humid environmental bliss. It’s meant to conjure the specific type of daydream euphoria I associate with getting lost in the sprawling weird world of JRPGs, without using music that actually comes from or sounds like those games.

So really, it’s the soundtrack to a certain shade of nostalgia that runs through memories of exploring spaces that don’t exist, from early childhood on up through today, now playing with my own kid on my lap. It’s a warm feeling, utterly lost but totally relaxed, at peace, vibing with existence – and it’s a place I go to in my head when I need to calm, re-center, check myself, whatever. I figure that’s something we can all use now and I hope this music conveys it well.

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Ecstasea [mixtape]

Here’s my latest mixtape. I’m calling it Ecstasea for a number of reasons, firstly because I just like the way it looks, hovering there over the warm neon purple glow of an oilplatform in a roiling ocean. It’s also a cheeky punmanteau that neatly describes the music within: all endless liquid rhythm and blissful abandon. I had no greater ambition with this mix than to gather some of my favorite transcendental deep house and techno tracks and sequence them for maximum joy. No concept, no specific era – just a vibe that I know and love, riding beat crescendos and chill valleys up to an ecstatic, jazzy finale.

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Echo Station [mixtape]

Echo Station begins on a city street with the honk of a car horn giving way to bird calls and dogs barking. There’s a gathering of synth sprinkles, footsteps, the low drone of far off conversations, and then a voice speaks closely in your ears. It’s time for peaceful adventure. Lean into the membrane of your normal day and push through, fall into the world, wander off the path and into the forest. Let go. As the final words of this welcome message say:

“I get off the train at a station that I usually just pass through on weekdays.”

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