An Act of Love is a gentle midnight surprise, music as pulsing revelation birthed in the moment between waking and tumbling into dreams. It comes on ominously before dissolving into inescapable rhythm, leaving a breadcrumb trail through memory toward some warm place half-recalled.
Looking back at what a shit year 2016 has been, it’s no wonder I published more music writing than ever before. As the months wore on I found myself swiping away more and more real news in my feed and just getting lost in Bandcamp and other music sources. I wasn’t really trying to bury my head; I was looking for a better way of thinking.
The world is what it is, but I can frame it and focus on it however I choose. Immersing in the toxicity of bad news and worse reactions changed my perception one way, so I aimed to change it another way. Art has been a life sustaining tonic all my life, a refuge sought in times of stress, loneliness, and most of all, deep frustration. If I’ve hit a brick wall, I know that obsessing about the problem won’t help. I need to detach, breathe, and follow something made to surprise. A good story or song is something to be lost in, sure, but it grants perspective. It can bend the light just so, showing me a new way to see.
Perspective also comes from travel. The simple but profound act of experiencing other parts of the world can never be overestimated. This is where the image at the top of this list comes in. It’s Greenland, as seen from my plane back home to the United States from Ireland a month ago. I happened to open the window shade during the brief window when we were passing over the very tip of the continent-sized island. It felt like magic.
I’m entering 2017 with hope that good news can happen and that we can press on, even when our heroes are gone. I look around and I wonder who the future heroes are going to be. Those people will be standing against the dark tide and risking everything. They’ve got new ideas to replace the scary old ones that never quite die.
Looking back on the past year of music, I see a lot of new ideas and new perspectives on old ones. The best kind of music always elicits surprise, even if it’s made in a familiar way. There’s a flash of feeling, a rush of blood, and it clicks. Everything on this list mattered to me and I hope some of it can matter to you.
Let’s begin the countdown. These are the 30 best albums of 2016:
I love finding an album that can be experienced like a hot bath. There’s nothing quite like that feeling of discovering a new piece of music that I know I’ll be luxuriating inside for the next few weeks.
Lunaria has made one of the finest examples of this type of album that I’ve ever heard. Naturally, I had to ask all about it.
When Juan Atkins and Moritz Von Oswald hooked up for a joint album in 2013, it seemed like a weird dream, the answer to an unasked question. These two legends seemed so far apart, physically and musically, yet somehow produced low-key dub techno magic.
Now they’re back with a followup that seems to strike an even better balance of their respective styles. It’s called Transport.
I say this with no reservation: Steve Hauschildt is one of the most creatively generous artists working in electronic music today. His work is utterly timeless, unmoored from trends and familiar signposts alike. On his latest album, Strands, he seamlessly blends the entire spectrum of dreamy synthesizer music into a breathless futuristic rush.
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:
So it goes and so it goes, and in some bleak moments, the world seems a bit more abrasive this year. Sometimes I retreat entirely into art and fiction, absorbing as much beauty and weirdness as I can before having to emerge to responsibility. It’s inevitable, it’s cathartic. It’s where things change.