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.
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.
This is the biggest mixtape I’ve ever made. I’ve pieced it together with every bit of leftover energy and stolen time as my life has been radically changing during these inescapably hot and humid Michigan summer days. I’ve been in transit, in transition, floating in zero gravity between two planets, my comfortable old past and my hard-won future. I’d been building this sound mood for weeks and I had to call it Off World.
This strange time has me thinking about my fondest fictional memories of adolescence, hours at home and across the galaxy spent wandering through virtual lands, riding the long arc of a grand narrative while taking plenty of time to slow down and soak in the uncanny beauty of it all. So I started making a mixtape that would reflect both the epic nature of my changing circumstances and the liminal experience of waiting while a major life process plays out. Most of all, I wanted it to remind me of that specifically youthful feeling of spending days at a time lost in the beguiling worlds of my favorite RPGs, no responsibilities to tether me to the real world. Yep. Here we go.
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:
Quadrant Dub is one of the most transcendent pieces of music ever recorded. It stands as perhaps the most important dub techno recording of all, the pinnacle of an entire genre and a beacon for artists to follow for decades. Created in 1994 by Basic Channel, the German due composed of Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, this 12″ has done more than stand the test of time; it charges onward, curating its own timeline outside of everyday reality.
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.
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: