50 More Best Albums of 2020

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.

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50 Best Albums of 2020

Lake Michigan in fog, January 2020

Hi. Welcome to the Optimistic Underground album of the year list. I think it’s safe to say that 2020 has been a disaster. Regardless, I feel spoiled by all the incredible music we got this year. It’s meant more than ever to me. I almost quit this blog because it felt so unimportant in the face of everything, but the music kept me going. It’s corny, but it’s true. So here we are.

I don’t want to go over a checklist of all the things we’ve got in common, beyond the pandemic. I do want to take a moment here to say that the year has taken a toll in ways that I wasn’t always prepared to handle – my father died suddenly, someone close to me tried to commit suicide, and my son was diagnosed with a medical disorder that we’re still grappling with and seeking a permanent treatment. This was on top of some health issues, sudden home schooling, and plenty of stuff that doesn’t need mention on a music blog. I’m here to share some of the best music I heard all year, because I think it all deserves to be heard by as many people as possible. I want these beautiful artists to connect with the people who will appreciate them most, and vice versa. Because despite all the hard things that have happened this year, both to myself and the world at large, I’m looking at the final stretch with warmth in my heart and a small core of confidence that, while things may not always be alright, I can definitely handle it when they get rough – and I’ll be here for my family and friends no matter what.

So, in light of how tough I’m sure it’s been for most of us – because the pandemic isn’t stomping on us in a vacuum, it’s piling on top of everything else we all have to face every day – I decided to forgo numbering the albums this year. It’s always felt a bit cruel to pit artists against each other in that way, make the arbitrary distinction that one album is better than another, and it’s been downright painful having to make those choices at the end of every year. I love this music and these people and I can’t speak for anyone’s taste but my own. It’s always been the case here, but I want to make this explicit: I don’t believe these albums are objectively the best of anything; that doesn’t exist. I do believe that everything here is incredible and touched me on some level, emotional or intellectual or physical or whatever, and I need other people to hear it too, to feel elevated and healed like I do. Because this is healing, and these albums all played a part in keeping my head above water in 2020. If it wasn’t for this music, I don’t know if I’d be in such an okay place by now.

[Update: don’t miss 50 More Best Albums of 2020]

I did include a top ten at the very end, because even among this incredible crop, there were a handful of albums that touched my soul like nothing else. They’re not ranked either. I just want to warn you and tip off the folks who have to see number one first :)

Here we go. Albums are listed in the order I first heard them:

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50 Best Albums of 2019

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.

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50 Best Albums of 2018

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.

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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. For a more comprehensive picture of the year, be sure to check out 50 more must-hear albums of 2017.

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

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Shigeto – The New Monday

The New Monday is an eclectic set of rhythm vehicles caught in traffic somewhere between hip-hop, spiritual jazz, and the psychedelic fringe of techno. It fully invests in several directions at once, offering a warmly disorienting maze in its ping-ponging structure. This is Shigeto returning to Detroit, trying on its signature sounds, and realizing they fit better together than anything he’s done before.

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Boards of Canada – Seeya Later

Boards of Canada are one of the most unique groups in modern music. Even a casual fan could spot their sound in a matter of seconds. Since their first album, they’ve called Warp Records home, but they’ve never been comfortable in any of the genres that legendary label is known for.

Weaving between neon-drenched hip-hop and menacing techno throb, they’ve charted a singular sound that is utterly approachable from any angle. It’s weird electronic music that your mom, your little brother, anyone can instantly nod along to. With that in mind, I present their best early track, Seeya Later, with a beguiling fan-made video:

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