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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Love Will See Us Through [mixtape]

This is my last mixtape for 2020, and that’s young me on the cover. I named it Love Will See Us Through after the ghostly refrain in the very first track you’ll hear. I think I need it to be true as much as the singer does, echoing beyond the rhythm and ambient waves. This one’s a little bit wistful house, a little bit ambient jazz, and a little bit new age dream. It’s sort of my sad dad mixtape, composed solely of music that’s helped my darker thought trains turn cathartic over the course of this year.

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Jungle Bump [mixtape]

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.

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Echo Station [mixtape]

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.”

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Dream Shelter [mixtape]

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.

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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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Hypersleep [mixtape]

It’s October, my birth month. The time of the year when everything in Michigan melts into cold mush and outdoor summer adventure turns to quiet moments by the window, watching leaves fall on the wet grey world. When I think of autumn, I think of decay, decomposition, death, dissolving. There’s a kind of freedom in that sense of letting go. Giving yourself over to an experience, a long slide into the dark of winter, a plunge that turns gelid and snowblind before it ends.

I don’t romanticize this time with hot apple cider or maple brushed bonfires in the backyard, but I do have a sort of entropic affection for the way life near the forty fifth parallel changes so completely within a month. So I made a mix to kind of sound like how this time feels. Because I’m a total dork, I called it Hypersleep.

As I hastily but pretty spot-on wrote as my upload finished, it’s a deep dream dive from atmospheric future techno through a wormhole of ambient, drone, and new age, toward an altogether weirder, experimentally tinged genre-agnostic ending. These 80 minutes are meant to feel like one long freefall that gradually slows and transforms as it goes deeper and darker. The final pieces are so far from the first, stylistically & emotionally. Listen when you want to feel different than you do right now.

Press play to hear it now:

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