Well, we survived another year of this pandemic and things seemed to get progressively worse and weirder as the months rolled on. But in 2021 as in every year, there’s always such an overabundance of brilliant music that I’ll never, ever get around to hearing half of it even if they stopped making the stuff after the calendar rolls over this time. But I always make sure to share the stuff that made a big impression on me, the stuff that moved me and opened my mind, the stuff I love. So here we are, with fifty incredible albums that everyone needs to hear.
Just like last year, this list is unranked. Albums appear in the order I discovered them, whether at release or months later. Except for the top ten, which appears on the last page – that’s a small group of albums that touched me just a bit deeper, spending significantly more time playing than the rest. I really can’t emphasize enough how everything here is fantastic, but I felt compelled to highlight a handful that totally ran me over in 2021, because there were definitely some artists who destroyed me in the best way possible.
But seriously, everything here is incredible and worth your time. Let’s go:
Airborne Lagoon is a spiritual trip into equatorial mystery zones, through the healing waters of some deep forest pool, finally reaching a place of transcendence and acceptance. Reaching a save point in the depths of a long journey and feeling your whole being revived on a warm updraft into the clouds. Japanese fourth world jazz explorations, cosmic arpeggiated synth bliss, hazy dust floating in a sunbeam, chamber whispers, the sounds of birds, insects, and water, water always.
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.
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.”
Dream Shelter began a few weeks ago when I put together a few tracks that really vibed well, but it wasn’t until the gravity of the global pandemic hit me that I could tie it all together into a proper mix. I needed the sound of adventure and I felt drawn to a very specific mood that I ended up finding spread across an odd gathering of scenes and sounds.
This is music for pure escape when you can’t leave home. Genre-agnostic tunes sourced from across the globe from 1978 to 1995. It’s hard for any of us to handle something so world altering, but I truly believe that the right music can help. We’ve got a long way to go, so I just want to spread the love and good feelings. We’re all in this together.
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.
Cosmogony can be described as a model constructed to study the origin of the universe. In this case, I wanted to put together a mixtape for charting the path of fourth world jazz, new age, ambient, and kosmische synth music from its origins in the 1970s on up through today. This stuff is kind of my bread and butter, the music that’s always looping between new releases and old favorites alike. Press play and close your eyes.