What a year, right?
To put it lightly, COVID-19 threw a monkey wrench into everything, inducing nostalgia for those days when we took for granted things as simple as going to work, shopping, and going out to eat.
Not anymore. Lately those activities have become options again—but in a limited way, and with a long list of precautions.
And the impact of the pandemic on the concert world has been devastating. When the lockdown began earlier this year, live performances ground completely to a halt, and while we’ve started to see the occasional COVID-compliant event, for all intents and purpose the concert world will remain on pause until a vaccine becomes widely available.
The recording industry has also been thrown for a loop. Release dates have been postponed, some indefinitely, and it seems like albums that actually did come out have had a hard time getting noticed. Even well-known artists feel neglected. Imagine what it’s like for those musicians who previously paid the bills by touring or playing gigs around town.
So while we should have a top ten list every year, we really needed one for 2020. In spite of all the chaos in the music industry (and, come to think of it, the world), plenty of new music was released in 2020, and much of it was memorable. And just as songs we listened to during high school or college now conjure up memories of that time period, the music we’re hearing for the first time now will remind us of this bizarre stretch of time.
You’ll notice we don’t have a top ten list that lumps all the genres together, which in our case would translate into classical, jazz, and various forms of pop or roots music. If we did make an all-inclusive 2020 list, however, I know what my top pick would be. Data Lords by the Maria Schneider Orchestra left a deep impression on me the first time I heard it, and it continues to fascinate me. The first half of the 2-CD set dives right into the dark forces behind the “data-hungry digital world” while the second half is cleansing and cathartic. Data Lords has gotten some good press in the jazz world, but I would also recommend it to fans of classical music, who might savor its rich, intricate arrangements. And music fans from the pop world should be aware that Schneider’s collaboration with David Bowie on “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” from Blackstar influenced the sound of the first half of Data Lords.
In the end, though, regardless of what genre anyone favors, Data Lords is simply a powerful piece of music that responds to our current situation as convincingly as any album I have heard. It’s more than just a record—it’s a cultural touchstone.
Ten Best Rock Albums of 2020
The Covid quarantine provided space to contemplate the big issues. Drive-By Truckers kicked the year off with the prophetically titled The Unraveling, an eloquent Southern-rock take on political division, gun violence, and racial strife. Social justice informed Steve Earle’s The Ghosts of West Virginia. Bob Dylan’s epic Rough & Rowdy Ways waxed poetically on America’s crisis of the soul. The literate pop of Everything Else Has Gone Wrong by Bombay Bicycle Club reflected the zeitgeist. The reissue of Buffy Ste. Marie’s 1969 experimental folk album Illuminations included her trippy cover of Leonard Cohen’s mystical “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot.” Neil Young’s long-lost Homegrown pondered affairs of the heart. Dream-pop star Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher was an introspective Joan-Didion-like gem. The title track of the Doors’ The Soft Parade: 50th Anniversary Edition dished a nine-minute sermon on man’s relationship with God and skewered society’s ills. Come On Up to the House: Women Sing Waits tempered Tom Waits’ sad ballads with much-needed tenderness. And Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, Richard Thompson, Iggy Pop, and other roots and rock artists teamed up on If You’re Going to the City: A Tribute to Mose Allison, which is imbued with the wry wit of the late jazz philosopher.
- Bob Dylan: Rough & Rowdy Ways. Columbia.
- Neil Young: Homegrown. Warner.
- Steve Earle & the Dukes: The Ghosts of West Virginia. New West.
- Buffy Ste. Marie: Illuminations. Craft/Vanguard.
- Various Artists: If You’re Going to the City: A Tribute to Mose Allison. Fat Possum.
- Phoebe Bridgers: Punisher. Dead Oceans.
- Drive-By Truckers: The Unraveling. ATO.
- The Doors: The Soft Parade: 50th Anniversary Edition. Elektra/Rhino.
- Various Artists: Come On Up to the House: Women Sing Waits. Dualtone.
- Bombay Bicycle Club: Everything Else Has Gone Wrong. Caroline.
Letters From Isolation Row:
Ten Best Rock Albums of 2020
My quarantine year? I spent it by tapping into a rich vein of fresh analog and digital delights. Interestingly enough, each album title on this list could serve as a succinct statement on the year that was (not was). Secret Machines returned from alt-rock limbo with explosive results, while Norah Jones searched for, and found, the lost connective chord. Three refugees from the Jellyfish universe, dubbed (naturally) The Lickerish Quartet, delivered pure aural confection laced with signature bite. Fiona Apple reached for the stars and cut emotional-baggage bait. Canadian songwriter Julian Taylor reconnected with his Mohawk and West Indian roots to unlock a deeper shade of soul. Bob Dylan grizzled his way through a smoldering 2-LP cocktail laced with sage and bile. Styx drummer Todd Sucherman stepped outside his progressive-beat template and tapped into a budding sensitive seam. My Morning Jacket entered the echo chamber to revisit a pain gusher, and country upstart George Shingleton blended Nashville tradition with Skynyrd honky-tonk. But 2020’s leading candidate, the dearly departed Canadian rock icon Gord Downie, ensnared my aural heart forevermore with minimalist sonics and visceral lyrics from the great beyond.
- Gord Downie: Away Is Mine. Arts & Crafts.
- Secret Machines: Awake in the Brain Chamber. TSM Recordings.
- Norah Jones: Pick Me Up Off the Floor. Blue Note.
- The Lickerish Quartet: Threesome Vol. 1. TLQ/Label Logic.
- Fiona Apple: Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Epic.
- Julian Taylor: The Ridge. Howling Turtle.
- Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways. Columbia.
- Todd Sucherman: Last Flight Home. Aqua Pulse.
- My Morning Jacket: The Waterfall II. ATO.
- George Shingleton: Out All Nighter. Rock Ridge Music.
Ten Best Roots Music Albums Of 2020
When it was most needed in this pandemic year, music offering reflection, spirituality, courage, and hope was most pronounced in the wide world of roots music. Start with the most soaring, stirring affirmations of salvation and redemption in the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ magnificent 150th anniversary celebration, Celebrating Fisk!, wherein the choir’s powerful voices are raised in service to moral instruction and perseverance through troubled days. Catching the temper of the times, Fingerprints, the first solo album from Rod McCormack, delivers tender considerations of love and relationships. Similarly introspective, Sierra Hull’s 25 Trips finds the fascinating mandolin virtuoso offering unvarnished reflections on her first quarter century. Rising Chicago blues artist Ivy Ford takes a hard look at herself at the ripe old age of 27 in Club 27. Reflections on a life lived full measure are found in the vintage country tunes comprising Step Back in Time, wherein Jamie Dailey accompanies his 73-year-old father’s picking and singing. Veterans Steve Earle, Jim Lauderdale, Albert Cummings, Jay Willie & James Montgomery, and especially Rev. Luther Barnes leading the Restoration Worship Center Choir all offered, in their own ways, soulful illumination in a very dark time.
- Fisk Jubilee Singers: Celebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album). Curb.
- Rod McCormack: Fingerprints. Sonic Timber.
- JB & Jamie Dailey: Step Back in Time. Pinecastle.
- Sierra Hull: 25 Trips. Rounder.
- Ivy Ford: Club 27. Ivy Ford.
- Rev. Luther Barnes & the Restoration Worship Center Choir: Look to the Hills. Shanachie.
- Steve Earle & the Dukes: Ghosts of West Virginia. New West.
- Albert Cummings: Believe. Provogue.
- Jay Willie & James Montgomery: Cadillac Walk. Zoho Roots.
- Jim Lauderdale: When Carolina Comes Home Again. Yep Roc.
Ten Best Jazz Albums of 2020
In a year that brought us a pandemic and social lockdowns, fraught social justice and election climates, hurricanes in the Southeast, and wildfires in the West, listening to music at home has been a saving grace, a cultural refuge, and perhaps the most unmitigated way to immerse in art. Recorded music can draw us into a world somewhat insulated from the stress and fatigue of 2020. These ten jazz-related recordings offer unique, absorbing realms of texture, atmosphere, and emotion, none more explicitly and boldly than Data Lords, Maria Schneider’s orchestral manifesto. The recordings on this list tilt heavily toward starkly intimate settings: Shipp’s solo piano; Sanchez and Crispell’s piano duets; Davis and Laubrock’s piano and sax duets; Dixon and Taylor’s trumpet and piano duets; and the convention-defying small ensembles of vocalist Serpa (with harp, sax, and piano), pianist Bley with saxophonist Sheppard and bassist Swallow, and Thumbscrew (guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara). But it also celebrates big arrangements (Schneider), heady postmodern compositions (Mitchell), and psychedelic improvised fusion (guitarist Cline and friends) that expand the possibilities of collective power and its promise of hope.
- Maria Schneider Orchestra: Data Lords. ArtistShare.
- Sara Serpa: Recognition. Biophilia.
- Angelica Sanchez & Marilyn Crispell: How to Turn the Moon. Pyroclastic.
- Roscoe Mitchell w/Ostravská Banda: Distant Radio Transmissions. Wide Hive.
- Nels Cline Singers: Share the Wealth. Blue Note.
- Matthew Shipp: The Piano Equation. Tao Forms.
- Thumbscrew: The Anthony Braxton Project. Cuneiform.
- Ingrid Laubrock + Kris Davis: Blood Moon. Intakt.
- Carla Bley/Andy Sheppard/Steve Swallow. Life Goes On. ECM.
- Bill Dixon/Cecil Taylor: Duets 1992. Triple Point.
Ten Best Jazz Albums of 2020
My list this year features artists who exhibited grand ambitions. Whether it was the grandiose expression of guitarist-composer Pat Metheny, who recorded his cinematic From This Place with a core quartet in the studio and then surrounded the band’s tracks with orchestral accompaniment after the fact, or composer-arranger Maria Schneider creating harmonically rich, moving music representing the digital and natural words in her 2-CD magnum opus, Data Lords, artists in my 2020 list pushed the envelope in myriad ways. Take Australian saxophonist Troy Roberts, a longtime NYC resident. Not only did he create overdubbed saxophone sections himself on Stuff I Heard, he also played upright and electric bass on all the tracks. Saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin reached new personal heights on Pursuance: The Coltranes, her tribute to two towering icons, John and Alice Coltrane. Guitarist Jeff Parker blended James Blood Ulmer and 1970s Stevie Wonder in his provocative Suite for Max Brown. Trumpeter Ron Miles crafted a wholly unique sound on Rainbow Sign. Guitarist Lionel Loueke’s solo seven-string acoustic guitar re-imagining of Herbie Hancock compositions on HH was as unprecedented as it was audacious. And fellow septuagenarians Dave Liebman, Randy Brecker, and Marc Copland joined the stellar rhythm tandem of Joey Baron and Drew Gress to form a bona fide supergroup on Quint5t.
- Pat Metheny: From This Place. Nonesuch.
- Maria Schneider: Data Lords. ArtistShare.
- Jeff Parker: Suite for Max Brown. Nonesuch/International Anthem.
- Liebman/Brecker/Copland: Quint5t. InnerVoice Jazz.
- Lakecia Benjamin: Pursuance: The Coltranes. Ropeadope.
- Troy Roberts: Stuff I Heard. Toy Robot Music.
- Lionel Loueke: HH. Edition.
- Ron Miles: Rainbow Sign. Blue Note.
- John Scofield: Swallow Tales. ECM.
- Eddie Henderson: Shuffle and Deal. Smoke Sessions.
Ten Best Jazz Albums of 2020
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, I haven’t been able to attend live music performances since February, but it has caused me to do more stay-at-home listening to the CDs I receive as a reviewer and buy as a fan. My tastes lean toward musicians who write hip compositions, swing hard, and solo with passion, and I also gravitate toward drummers who bring the fire. It’s no surprise, then, that I was looking forward to drummer Ralph Peterson’s latest, where he celebrates the legacy of the late drummer/bandleader Art Blakey by gathering together 14 former Jazz Messengers to play compositions they wrote in the Blakey tradition, and the Messenger Legacy delivered. When I heard that Criss Cross Jazz label founder Gerry Teekens had passed away in October of 2019, I wondered if that meant the end of this label that has provided me with so much memorable listening, but this year they released an excellent quartet date led by veteran guitarist David Gilmore. I was familiar with trumpeter Jason Palmer prior to 12 Musings for Isabella, but those performances deepened my appreciation of his artistry. I had never even heard of Russian drummer Sasha Mashin when I received his CD, but because of my familiarity with trumpeter Josh Evans and pianist Benito Gonzalez, I listened, and that also impressed me with its passionate playing.
- Ralph Peterson and the Messenger Legacy: Onward and Upward. Onyx.
- Black Art Jazz Collective: Ascension. High Note.
- Jerome Jennings: Solidarity. Iola.
- Sasha Mashin: Happy Synapse. Rainy Day.
- Orrin Evans: The Intangible Between. Smoke Sessions.
- Jason Palmer: The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella. Giant Step Arts.
- Bobby Watson: Keepin’ It Real. Smoke Sessions.
- David Gilmore: From Here to Here. Criss Cross Jazz.
- Billy Childs: Acceptance. Mack Avenue.
- Kenny Barron/Dave Holland Trio: Without Deception. Dare 2.
Ten Best Classical Albums of 2020
“The time is out of joint,” said Hamlet long ago—and it may be years before we set things right in the music world. Happily, there have been some palpable hits amid the year’s general paralysis. Among the surest have been six boxes of single-layer SACDs from Japan containing all of Bruno Walter’s stereo recordings for Columbia, brilliantly remastered by Andreas K. Meyer. The later releases in the series were delayed, but Sony still got them out. It also delivered a 75-CD tribute to violinist Isaac Stern to mark what would have been his 100th birthday.
Collectors were fortunate to finally see Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s magisterial readings of Debussy on a Blu-ray Audio reissue from DG. In a normal year there should have been more of these from Universal—like Karajan’s Boris, Solti’s Rosenkavalier, the Britten War Requiem—so we hold our breath.
Or, in the case of DG’s 4-CD “Deluxe Edition” of Lang Lang’s Goldberg Variations, we hold our nose. While I’m no fan of the pianist’s playing, and while the album is tarted up with vanity photography and copy that reads like a prospectus for a world cruise, it’s a laudable attempt to treat the medium with respect and to turn what could have been just another recording into a treasurable keepsake. Other treasures from smaller labels make up the rest of this list.
- Bruno Walter’s Mahler. Sony.
- Bruno Walter: Mozart and Haydn. Sony.
- Isaac Stern: The Complete Columbia Analogue Recordings. Sony
- Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli: Debussy. DG.
- Bach: Goldberg Variations. Lang Lang. DG.
- Spellbound: The Classic Film Scores of Miklós Rósza. NPO/Gerhardt. Vocalion.
- Jason Vieaux: Dance. Azica.
- Sibelius: Kullervo. FRSO/Lintu. Ondine.
- Lang: Prisoner of the State. NYP/Van Zweden. Decca Gold.
- Bruckner: Mass and Motets. Cleobury. King’s College.
Ten Best Classical Albums of 2020
Three soloists make technical mastery of their chosen instruments seem secondary to exceptional musical outcomes. Violinist Tessa Lark, who grew up with Appalachian fiddle music, performs a recital of Telemann, Schubert, Kreisler, Ravel, and a fiddle tune of her own. The appealingly tart sound of Xenia Löffler’s baroque oboe animates a disc/download of concertos and symphonies by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. And Marc-André Hamelin applies his astounding virtuosity to finger-busting piano arrangements of operatic material by Liszt and Thalberg.
Must-have chamber music releases include symphonically scaled readings of the two Brahms String Sextets by an ensemble of German orchestral players and the latest from Eighth Blackbird. A recently “discovered” Philip Glass composition from the 1970s is brought to light, and a program of turn-of-the-last-century orchestral showpieces by Dukas and Roussel receive brilliant readings by a regional French ensemble.
Lastly, for vocal music, there’s Pulitzer-winning Caroline Shaw’s Is a Rose; the technical tour de force Lost Voices of Hagia Sofia; and a spectacular new studio recording of Peter Grimes.
- Tessa Lark. Fantasy. First Hand.
- C.P.E. Bach: Oboe Concertos. Löffler. Harmonia Mundi.
- Liszt & Thalberg: Opera transcriptions and fantasies. Hamelin. Hyperion.
- Brahms: String Sextets. WDR SO Chamber Players. PentaTone.
- Singing in the Dead of Night. Eighth Blackbird. Cedille.
- Glass: Music in Eight Parts. Philip Glass Ensemble. Orange Mountain Music.
- Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Polyeucte. Roussel: The Spider’s Feast. Rophé. BIS.
- Shaw: Is a Rose. The Listeners. Von Otter/McGegan. PBO.
- Lost Voices of Hagia Sofia. Cappella Romana, Lingas. Cappella Romana.
- Britten: Peter Grimes. Skelton, Gardner, Bergen PO & Ch. Chandos.
Ten Best Vinyl Reissues of 2020
Anyone hoping to pin down the ten best reissues for 2020 knows you can take that assignment in just about any direction you want. In other words, you’d better set parameters—and I did. Rather than search for obscure reissues by overlooked musicians, I focused on albums where well-known artists from the rock and jazz worlds were in peak form. So Capitol’s new reissue of the self-titled second album by The Band (whose music and sonics Alan Taffel praised in Issue 308) is a no-brainer—it’s arguably the best album the group ever recorded, but I would have left Islands off this list. I wouldn’t have included David Bowie’s Pin Ups, but The Man Who Sold the World is classic Bowie. Some listeners might question whether Love and Theft, a 2001 release, is top-shelf Bob Dylan. I considered it a return to form as soon as it came out, and listening to Mobile Fidelity’s remastered vinyl pressing deepened that conviction. The band sounds great, and you can hear, as clearly as if you were in the studio, how connected the musicians were, and how inspired Dylan was during those recording sessions. Wander over to Wayne Garcia’s review in the music section and you’ll see what another long-term Dylan fan has to say about Love And Theft.
- John Coltrane: Giant Steps. Atlantic/Rhino.
- Di Meola/McLaughlin/De Lucia: Friday Night in San Francisco. Columbia/Impex.
- The Band: The Band 50th Anniversary Edition. Capitol.
- Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto: Getz/Gilberto. Impulse/Analogue Productions.
- David Bowie: The Man Who Sold the World. Atlantic/Rhino.
- Bob Dylan: Love and Theft. Columbia/Mobile Fidelity.
- PJ Harvey: Dry. Too Pure/Beggars Archive.
- Irma Thomas: After the Rain. Rounder/Craft.
- Spiritualized: Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. Fat Possum/Vinyl Me, Please.
- Jackie McLean: It’s Time. Blue Note Tone Poet Edition.
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