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.
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.”
Vertigo of Time is a free fall through the last four decades of deep dreaming psychedelia, evoking the spiritual high of meditation, the twinkling of the stars at night, and a deep communion with nature itself. This is a drumless mix of weirdo new age, German kosmische synth exploration, Japanese environmental music, and ambient jazz. It is an attempt to connect the most visionary pieces of early electronic music with its genealogical descendants through the unreliable persistence of memory. All feeling and mood, drifting from concrete thought and action, moving toward that unattainable ideal of pure being.
To put it simplest: this mixtape is made for floating inside your mind or a sensory deprivation chamber or just relaxing by yourself in the dark, reading on the train, or whenever time gets soft enough to push outside and stay a little while.
This is a special occasion. One of my favorite current projects, UK duo Seahawks, have crafted a mix for exclusive release here on Optimistic Underground. This hour-long set conjures a celestial, funky, freewheeling spell that feels precision crafted for my tastes despite being composed of mostly new-to-me artists and tracks. It’s a treasure that I’m beyond excited to share.
I’ve now released 18 mixtapes here on Optimistic Underground, but before today I’ve never shared one made by anyone else, much less an artist I adore.
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.
Dedekind Cut, one of the most exciting experimental composers working today, has released his most accomplished set yet, an industrial ambient juggernaut that folds all his prior rough edges into an interstellar discovery vehicle. Tahoe is music for travelling beyond, informed by a deeply honest sense of what it’s like to be alive right now in this weird world.
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.