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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Vertigo of Time [mixtape]

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.

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Cosmogony [mixtape]

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.

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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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Don Cherry’s Spiritual Jazz Masterpiece: Brown Rice

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Today is Don Cherry‘s birthday. He would have been 79 years old. To celebrate the inimitable jazz explorer’s life, I’m sharing my favorite album of his.

Here’s Brown Rice streaming in full. It’s one of the most warmly engaging releases of the entire free jazz universe and, as such, is a great entry point for those who have yet to experience the furthest reaches of the genre.

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Kamasi Washington will detonate modern jazz with The Epic

Who is Kamasi Washington? He’s the guy who made all of the fantastic sax sounds that you loved on both recent (and brilliant) Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar releases. Albums You’re Dead and To Pimp A Butterfly would feel utterly lacking without Washington’s input; his freewheeling tones form the sharp jazz edge cutting through both masterpieces.

This 14 minute tune is but a small piece of the upcoming, appropriately-titled debut album The Epic – it looks to be a sprawling, three hour affair aiming to throw down the gauntlet for modern jazz. In a genre valued for innovation and stratospheric ambition, the traditional live jazz band has been laying in stasis for a couple decades now. Real innovation has come from beyond left field, from electronic artists playing with jazz forms and ideals while never really touching the live band setup. Washington could change that perception.

As Flying Lotus himself put it, “everybody is trying to do the same shit. I don’t want to hear ‘My Favorite Things’ anymore.

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As a hardcore fan of the genre myself, I couldn’t put it any more plainly. This tune, along with a new exclusive song featured on Revive (I hope to have a copy streaming here soon) have jumpstarted my hopes for a new generation of the kind of wildly psychedelic, expansive, weird jazz that sits near and dear to my heart. Fans of later John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and especially Pharoah Sanders are highly encouraged to listen right now.

One last thing: Washington has been featured on this site before, as part of the Miguel Atwood-Ferguson ensemble. The band included Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Rebekah Raff, and Chris “Daddy” Dave, some of the best jazz musicians alive today. Their live take on Drips//Take Notice is one of the greatest live jazz performances recorded in the past few decades, if that’s any indication of this man’s talent.

Alice Coltrane – Divine Songs

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This is a glowing gem known only to those who have burrowed deep enough into the inimitable catalog of jazz legend Alice Coltrane.

“Divine music is the sound of true life, wisdom, and bliss.  This music transcends geographical boundaries, language barriers, age factors; and whether educated or uneducated, it reaches deep into the heart and soul, sacred and holy…” – Alice Coltrane

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