32 Best Dub Techno Albums Ever Made

Here it is, the Optimistic Underground list of the best dub techno albums ever made. Recently I realized there were no definitive lists or guides for ushering new fans into the genre I love most. The few I found were anemic, narrow, and boring; nobody was doing dub techno justice. So here I am, trying to do just that.

The magic of this genre is that its best and brightest examples are not only impressive musical monuments; they’re easy to love and loop and listen forever. This isn’t an academic compilation based on importance or history; it comes from a deep affection for a living, breathing sound.

Dub techno was born with such a defined aesthetic that many early examples sounded like they were from the same artists. Some of them actually were. In fact, you’ll see a few artists represented under different names on this very list. It’s not for a lack of options out there; techno artists tend to switch up identities as soon as they find a new direction in sound. So on a sensory level, for all intents and purposes, they really are distinct musicians. Basic Channel is not 3MB is not Maurizio is not Rhythm & Sound is not Moritz Von Oswald Trio is not Borderland… you get  the picture.

You may notice that this list holds many compilations standing in as albums. In a genre so deeply associated with the 12″ single format, many early dub techno artists became known to the wider world via compilation CDs. This is where the hermetic genre feel becomes an advantage: these compilations often evoke the feel and structure of planned album releases. They’re as cohesive as anything recorded in the album format and undeniable highlights for the genre.

Some of the biggest fans of dub techno are the ones who want to keep it pure, holding a very narrow range of sound as the platonic ideal, accepting little variation and dismissing anything that comes later. They hold up the few original masterpieces as paragons of the sound and dismiss anyone who came along in the following decades. These folks come at music with a prescriptivist attitude, battling for how they think music should be, rather than appreciating how it is. I believe they’re wrong.

When it comes to music, just like grammar, I’m always a descriptivist. I love when genres splinter into dozens of permutations as they migrate and adapt to their new environments. When it comes to dub techno, I hear masterpieces in every era, from the obvious touchstones of the 1990s on up through last year. This sound comes in more than one shape, a fact made crystal clear as we follow its timeline below. This list is arranged in chronological order so you can follow along from when the genre broke ground through the myriad branches that grew as it matured. Accordingly, the music gets weirder and more varied as time goes on.

For more exploration, try the 32 Best Ambient Albums and Every David Bowie Album Ranked lists or see the Optimistic Underground best of the year collection for a load of gems.

On with the list. These are the best dub techno albums ever made:

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Astral Blues [mixtape]

Zero gravity dance music for lonely cosmonauts. Or utopian jazz for the spiritually dazed. Interstellar beach techno? I don’t know; I’m calling it Astral Blues.

I like to think of it as a fever dream night out on the town, in love and half-crazed, blurred under neon lights and bursting with energy, connected to the earth and the heavens and all that hormonal stuff that makes us feel larger than life, self-mythologizing the way forward.

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Seahawks – Starways

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.

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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. I’ll be back with a list of 50 more albums to check out, but for now, here we go.

Let’s begin the countdown. These are the 50 best albums of 2017.

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Call Super – Arpo

Imagine a planet of warm woodwind tones, humid, echoing percussion, and laser-etched neon synth shards, settling like confetti over a rubbery techno landscape. The second Call Super album zooms all over this place, restless as a pinball, crossing and recrossing the the edges of its established territory every few minutes. Arpo constantly shifts its appearance using only a handful of evocative elements, erupting in a parade of unexpected delight with every subsequent track, sounding as cohesive as it is unique.

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Replicant [mixtape]

Replicant began as an imaginary soundtrack to Blade Runner 2049 – weirder, noisier, darker, and more futuristic than the music in the film. I watched it and loved it, but kept thinking that they played it safe with the score. I thought I could do better with a mixtape; rather, some of my favorite artists already have already mapped this sound out.

But then the mix gained a life of its own as it neared completion. It got more perseonal as it grew. Now I can say that it is simply my cyberpunk dream score for life in 2017 and beyond.

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Robert Hood – Paradygm Shift

Robert Hood is back with a new album that fires directly at his Detroit techno roots, serving as an evolved sequel to his iconic 1994 groundbreaker, Minimal Nation.

Unlike most examples of a “back to basics” album, this one hits just as hard as its inspiration, textured with two decades of stylistic evolution. Far beyond a throwback album, Paradygm Shift is a deep genre exploration, coloring the darkest corners of pure techno, highlighting the fresh pleasures this genre still has to offer.

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