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.
Hi. Welcome to the Optimistic Underground list of the best ambient albums of 2019. Of course, I’m just one person so this is the list of music I personally heard – and I know I missed a LOT. But I also heard an incredible amount of brilliant music. Far too much to fit on the 50 best albums of 2019, in fact. Because the two genres I listen to most, ambient and techno, composed a great deal of the albums I had saved over the year, I decided it would be a good idea to give them each their own list. So here we are.
Although some of these albums were on the main list and some were not, consider them all equally and highly recommended for any ambient music fans. From pure dreamy drone workouts to more knotty, experimental stuff, there’s a broad range of experiences here. Even still, it’s only a glimpse at the vast expanse of what this genre is capable of producing. Many fans and artists have different definitions of what, exactly, ambient music is. To me, it’s an open idea, encompassing a whole ecosystem of sounds that can be placid, nervous, swooning, sad, beautiful, even triumphant. I made a list of the 32 best ambient albums ever made a few years ago and, while I could probably swap any of them out for another beloved record, I stand by every choice completely. Similarly, I can’t recommend the below albums enough.
[Techno fans: don’t miss the 25 best techno albums of 2019.]
When there simply wasn’t enough room to include everything I loved in the year, I made a new list. A specific list. Here we go, in alphabetical order:
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:
I say it every year because it’s always true: this year has been great for music. All it takes to find the greatness is an open mind and a set of ears. And a little help from your friends. So to begin, I want to thank all my friends around the world for the tips and the tunes.
More than any recent year, in fact, I had a tough time sorting out all my favorites and cutting them down to only fifty for this list. It’s tough, but it’s also fun. Weighing these pieces of music against each other feels so unfair, but so personal. Deeply personal, in fact. There’s no one here but me, so keep in mind that everything is here because of one man’s opinions. Naturally, I’ll miss some things – so as always I welcome suggestions. Soon I’ll have a secondary list of all the other great albums I heard this year. In the meantime, I hope you read and enjoy and find some new stuff to enjoy here. This is a labor of love, and I just want to share the joy.
Speaking of joy, the header image is a photo I took of my son on one of the last warm-enough days before winter. I love being a dad, and I can’t wait to share music with my kid. For now he mostly just spazzes out to anything I play. Kids are great because they don’t have any prejudices about music. If it moves them, it moves them.
In the past I’ve gotten too verbose with these intros, so I’m keeping it short and sweet. Thank you for reading. These are the best albums of 2018.
Before this year, Kyle Bobby Dunn’s singular shade of ecstatic ambient drone music managed to flit by in the periphery of my tastes. His album releases seemed like big occasions to many friends, but I only listened, it seemed, in the midst of ambient playlists and random spins through Spotify or Youtube. I always enjoyed what I heard, but my attention was swamped by the constant snowblind bliss of the experience – the entire point of listening to hours of ambient music at a time, lost in headphones.
For someone who wrote a list called the 32 best ambient albums ever made, I was hilariously surprised by how quickly I fell in love with his sound. The two tracks on this split LP, by Dunn and Wayne Robert Thomas, make a convincing case for the power of sustained ambient drone in the year 2018.
Dedekind Cut, one of the most exciting experimental composers working today, has released his most accomplished set yet, an industrial ambient juggernaut that folds all his prior rough edges into an interstellar discovery vehicle. Tahoe is music for travelling beyond, informed by a deeply honest sense of what it’s like to be alive right now in this weird world.