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. I’ll be back with a list of 50 more albums to check out, but for now, here we go.

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

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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.

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 all sorts of thoughts, 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.

As of right now, I can’t imagine setting a strict order for these albums. So they’re not numbered. Some are definitely more beloved than others, but the important thing is that these are all incredible works of music that deserve your attention. Every single album here is a defining example of the power and possibility of ambient music.

These are the best ambient albums ever made:

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Best of 2015: 25 More Great Albums

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I hear a lot of great music almost every day, and it really adds up. I might not be rich or famous, but my life is wealthy with incredible music. I want to make everyone else as wealthy, too. Every single year, there are so many great albums that I’d recommend anyone, far more than I’d feel comfortable putting on a top ten list.

So here we are, my “honorable mention” list of 2015 albums. Every one of these albums are worth your time. Unlike my top list, they appear in the order that I heard them.

After you’ve checked this out, make sure to see the 17 Best Albums of 2015 here.

Read on to hear the best of the rest of 2015:

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Gr◯un土 – Vodunizm

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When I saw the name Gr◯un土 on a list of recently released albums, my first thought was to pass right on by. After all, there are countless indistinct artists with unpronounceable ascii-fun names. Then I saw the cover art and was intrigued. Something called to me. I found a stream of Vodunizm and a smile immediately crept across my face.

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Deepchord Presents Echospace – Liumin

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This is one of the best dub techno releases of all time. It’s a nighttime ride through the sonic world of an imagined Neo-Tokyo, on the bleeding edge of an inevitable cyberpunk reality. It’s a propulsive dream.

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Rod Modell and Michael Mantra – Radio Fore

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Photo: Marie Staggat

I’ve been familiar with Rod Modell via his Deepchord Presents Echospace project for several years now. 2007’s The Coldest Season is often cited as a monument of dub techno; icy beats, muted atmosphere, and warm rounded analog bass flesh out an album that bumps against the limits of control.

His second Deepchord album, Liumin, is one of my favorite techno releases of all time. This time the beats are more pronounced, evolving from broken radio tuner waves into a futuristic cityscape stomper.

However, I’d somehow missed his absolutely blissed-out meditation music, crafted with Michael Mantra over a decade ago. Listen to this half hour of pure alien serenity now:

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Deepchord Presents Echospace – Ghost Theory [hypnotic video]

I stumbled across this ominously bespoke track today while falling through a youtube hole. Understated dub techno sprawl from Deepchord Presents Echospace.

I began following an Intrusion link from a fine German friend, stepping through the nocturnal Detroit world one related video at a time.

This might be one of the more tightly controlled meditations from Deepchord Presents Echospace, but it’s ventilated, heaving, and not a little bit spooky despite itself. This video  highlights the sort of mindscapes you’re bound to fly over with this tune on high volume. Dark, specific, filled with cavernous negative space. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.

If you find yourself falling, just look around.