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.
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.
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.
I’ve been thinking lately about this hazy constellation of subgenres I listen to most and realized I’d love to be able to give it a name. Something simple to tag every post I make about this, to me, wholly definable little sound world that I return to always. It’s balearic, it’s techno and house, it’s jazz, it’s a descendant of both German kosmiche soundscapes and 4th world new age ambience. It’s a nebulous but powerful force roving between all of these sounds.
And although no music needs a label, it’d be really useful to name this sound. That way, I could say: Seahawks’ mini-album Starways exemplifies this genre better than anything I’ve heard in a long time.
Every day, I’m becoming more and more the person I decided I would be. There is no immutable, core me – at least, not on a long enough timeline. It’s freeing to realize this and to reflect upon it every once in a while.
They say that no matter what you’re writing about, you’re always revealing yourself. A moment on this blog tells you I keep my mind on the future, and I keep its aim true with a steady diet of sci-fi, art, music, and stories all filling in the aesthetics of the great beyond. It’s impossible to create anything without these influences pouring out. So it goes, with another mixtape: Until the End of the World.
When I was ten years old, I chose the alto saxophone as my instrument for school band. I kept at it through high school, but gave up when my interests turned elsewhere. I still own that sax, but I haven’t touched it in years.
If only I’d known that it could create otherworldly music like Joseph Shabason does on his masterful debut album, Aytche, I’d probably still be playing today.