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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Meltdown may come as a surprise to a lot of listeners. It’s not ambient, it’s not techno, it’s not modern, and it’s not really all that cosmic. But this set of disco-funk-electro-synth floor stompers has a lot in common with the type of music typically shared here. The relentless dance pulse, the future-synth textures, and the lonely nighttime neon vibes are all here. And like all great music, it is deeply psychedelic.
Because a large part of my musical heart belongs to house music and its endless permutations, I always wanted to explore some of the genre’s roots in a mixtape. Especially because it’s long since become sort of synonymous with a white, European audience, I wanted to emphasize the distinctly black and queer origins of the sound. That doesn’t mean there are no white folks in this set; some of the funkiest musicians to play were caucasian as can be. It just means that my ears were focused most directly on the space where disco and funk met Hi-NRG and synth pop, where artists of color were pushing music production forward in a way that the wider world wasn’t always ready for. The tracks here, for my money, feel utterly fresh while undeniably evoking their era: the years surrounding 1982, when I was born.
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.