Can I be perfectly honest for a second? I almost didn’t write this blog post. This year has been unbelievably challenging and draining on so many levels—COVID, protests, wildfires, murder hornets… need I continue? For a good while, a year-end wrap-up of my favorite albums from 2020 seemed like an almost pointless, even naive, undertaking.
Truth be told, though, music was one of the main things that helped me get through this “dumpster fire” of a year, and there was so much great stuff released despite (or in spite of) the state of the world. I truly believe that it deserves proper recognition. In fact, it quickly became a challenge to narrow down my initial list. Once I began thinking about my favorite releases from this year, the list grew to almost 40 candidates. Not bad for a year such as this!
Since this was such a “wonky” year (boy, is that an understatement!), this list is also a little wonky. Due to the presence of so many streamed music events, both live and pre-recorded, I decided to include some of those as well. As a result, this year’s list showcases 10 of my musical favorites from 2020—6 albums and 4 music streams. Once again, though, there were a ton more things that I could have selected. A handful of other favorites appear at the bottom of this post as “honorable mentions.”
Same as years past, each listing is accompanied by a short blurb and an audio or video clip. (In a few cases, there’s even a full recording.) If you like what you hear or see, I highly encourage you to support the artists by purchasing the album or donating directly to them and/or the performing organization. Artists need our support now more than ever, and financial contributions are one way to show our gratitude and help guarantee a return to concert venues once it’s safe.
Before launching into the list, an amusing anecdote: I was recently perusing through some old blog posts and noticed that in December 2017 (the year I started this blog), my first end-of-year album wrap-up began as follows: “It’s absolutely no question that 2017 was a heck of a year. Political tensions, violence, scandals – no year in recent memory has seemed as fraught with discord and turmoil as this one.” Oh to be a time traveler and inform my 2017 self what a “heck of a year” really looks like.
Anyway, here are my favorite albums and streams from 2020. In no particular order…
String Orchestra of Brooklyn & Eli Spindel – afterimage (Furious Artisans)
I am a sucker for concert programs that juxtapose old and new music, and this album scratches that itch perfectly. Released in January (pre-pandemic), afterimage perfectly pairs two recent works by Christopher Cerrone and Jacob Cooper with older pieces by Paganini and Pergolesi. The newer works are a particular highlight. Cooper’s expansive, time-suspending reimagining of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater emerges seamlessly from Cerrone’s luminous High Windows, a concerto grosso-like showcase for string quintet and orchestra. Add in phenomenal performances by the Argus Quartet, singers Mellissa Hughes and Kate Maroney, and the String Orchestra of Brooklyn, and you’ve got an album that I had on repeat many times throughout the year.
Los Angeles Opera – Lift Every Voice: A Conversation Hosted by J’Nai Bridges
One of the lowest points of 2020 (besides pretty much everything else) was a painful, long-overdue reckoning with America’s history of racial injustice. On June 5, mere days after the murder of George Floyd and the explosion of protests nationwide, Los Angeles Opera hosted a roundtable discussion with six remarkable opera singers—Julia Bullock, Karen Slack, Morris Robinson, Russell Thomas, Lawrence Brownlee, and J’Nai Bridges. The resulting conversation was a sobering, candid, and deeply moving conversation about racial inequity in the arts and the extraordinary challenges faced by artists of color in an overwhelmingly-white field. It remains to be seen whether this and similar discussions held throughout the classical music world will spark lasting change, but for now, they are a stark reminder of how far we (and the arts) have to go in achieving “liberty and justice for all.”
NPR Music – Tiny Desk (Home) Concerts: Julia Bullock & Christian Reif
NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts are some of the best-looking and sounding music videos out there. So, when the world went into lockdown in March and live music became all but impossible, it’s only natural that they continued to produce some truly outstanding mini-concerts, all recorded from artists’ homes. Personal highlights include outings from Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson and musical whiz kid Jacob Collier (see below for more), but this short recital by soprano Julia Bullock takes the cake. Accompanied at the piano by her husband, Christian Reif, Bullock offers a set of timely songs by Franz Schubert, Billy Taylor, and others. Perhaps my favorite moment comes in her rendition of Kurt Weill’s “Wie lange noch” (“How much longer”). At 6:07, Bullock’s gorgeous voice catches slightly on the German word “Wahn”—”delusion”—fitting, perhaps, for a year that has put science, reason, and compassion at frightening odds with selfishness, politics, and yes, delusions.
Brinton Averil Smith & Evelyn Chen – Exiles in Paradise: Émigré Composers in Hollywood (Naxos)
I’ll admit, I have a slight bias towards this choice since my dissertation topic centers around its very premise—European émigré composers who fled to Los Angeles in the 1930s and 40s. Even so, this release is fantastic. Short gems by well-known émigrés such as Stravinsky, Korngold, and Schoenberg sit comfortably alongside the works of lesser-known figures like Ernst Toch, Louis Gruenberg, and Leopold Godowsky. Cellist Brinton Averil Smith and pianist Evelyn Chen offer sensitive and compelling performances of this music, most of it unjustly ignored until now.
Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kirill Gerstein, Mark Stone, Christianne Stotijn & Thomas Adès – Adès Conducts Adès (Deutsche Grammophon)
English composer Thomas Adès writes some of the most compelling and effective classical music today. This album is sure-fire proof of that. Performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conducted by the composer, this release features two recent works by Adès—his witty, Gershwin-esque Piano Concerto and the macabre tone poem Totentanz. The latter work is worth the price of the album alone. Based on a 15th-century German frieze that was destroyed in World War II, Totentanz sees the personification of Death leading people from every level of society to their untimely grave, from the loftiest pope all the way to the lowliest child. Adès music is by turns terrifying, humorous, and touching, as each figure is forced to unwillingly—or willingly—participate in this “dance of death.” Though it was premiered in 2013, listening to this work in a year that has seen the deaths of over 1.5 million people worldwide has given it a renewed, even chilling, immediacy.
Los Angeles Philharmonic – SOUND/STAGE
Classical music is not often lauded for its ingenuity, but this year, many arts organizations stepped up to the plate and created some truly great live-streamed and pre-recorded content. One such example was the Los Angeles Philharmonic and their dazzling SOUND/STAGE series, a set of nine mini-concerts—most led by Gustavo Dudamel—that were released throughout the fall. Filmed at the local (and distancing-friendly) Hollywood Bowl, the orchestra’s programs were typically “LA Phil,” encompassing classics, lesser-known gems, and newer works (including a U.S. premiere by Thomas Adès). There were even some ventures into the jazz and pop realms, with episodes dedicated to performances by Andra Day, Kamasi Washington, and Chicano Batman. While the production and camera angles could get a bit over-the-top at times, these were still a remarkable product and helped fill the deep void left by the absence of live music this year. *Sigh.* One day…
International Contemporary Ensemble & Christopher Rountree – Missy Mazzoli & Royce Vavrek: Proving Up (Pentatone)
I had the privilege to hear this fabulous chamber opera at the Aspen Music Festival back in 2018 (a.k.a., “the before times”). And man, what a performance it was. Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s Proving Up, which is based on a short story by Karen Russell, follows a fictional pioneer family’s efforts to “prove up,” or legitimize their Nebraska homestead in the 1860s. The result—captured here in a fantastic recording with the original cast—is a gripping, psychological portrait of the elusive “American Dream” and the dark toll it can take on those seeking to attain it. Mazzoli’s music is appropriately atmospheric, mixing modern and folk elements into a brilliant, kaleidoscopic whole. It’s not the most uplifting listen, but it’s deeply affecting and always interesting.
Choir of Merton College, Oxford & Benjamin Nicholas – Sleeper’s Prayer: Choral Music from North America (Delphian Records)
American choral music performed by a British college choir. Makes sense, right? In all sincerity, the performances captured here are so pristine and well-balanced, that you can’t tell that it’s a group of twenty-somethings singing. Seriously, it’s THAT good. The album showcases several selections from composers Nico Muhly and David Lang but also features works by Philip Glass, Libby Larsen, and Stephen Paulus. (There are even a few solo organ selections for you “pipe fans” out there!) It’s difficult to pinpoint a favorite track, but sleeper’s prayer by David Lang was one particular selection that I kept on repeat early on in the pandemic, the perfect antidote for many anxious, sleep-deprived nights.
Jacob Collier – Djesse Vol. 3 (Hajanga Records)
OK, I realize that my blog is largely dedicated to classical music, but this album is just so freakin’ FUN that I couldn’t not include it. Djesse Vol. 3 is the fourth studio album from 26-year-old musical polymath Jacob Collier, whose music was the most surprising and delightful of my pandemic discoveries. (Shout out to my friend Tanner Cassidy for introducing me to the many wonders of Jacob Collier!) This particular release is a bit more on the “pop-y” side compared to some of Collier’s other ventures, which lean more towards jazz, but honestly, he’s so incredibly talented and his sound world is so mind-blowingly multiplicitous (say that 10 times fast!) that it fits in perfectly. Plus, this music just straight-up slaps. Case in point: put on the track below, forget the anxieties of 2020, and have your own private little dance party. Go ahead, no one’s watching…
Jamie Barton, Ryan McKinny & Kathleen Kelly – Das Rheingold: Coronadämmerung
I am a firm believer that classical music can be fun, and this short “reimagining” of Wagner’s Das Rheingold is picture proof of that. Recorded from their respective homes in the early days of the pandemic, bass-baritone Ryan McKinny and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton humorously depict god-and-goddess/husband-and-wife duo Wotan and Fricka as a frazzled, modern-day couple in quarantine, resigned to communicating over FaceTime. Even if your German is limited to non-existent (like mine), it’s still an amazingly hilarious watch. And let me tell you, seeing Wotan eat leftover pizza while crying over Downton Abbey is a 2020 mood if there ever was one.
- Sarah Willis & Havana Lyceum Orchestra – Mozart y Mambo (Aplha Classics)
- Yuja Wang, Gustavo Dudamel & Los Angeles Philharmonic – John Adams: Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (Deutsche Grammophon)
- Giancarlo Guerrero & Nashville Symphony – Christopher Rouse: Symphony No. 5, Supplica & Concerto for Orchestra (Naxos)
- Víkingur Ólafsson – Debussy – Rameau (Deutsche Grammophon)
- Houston Grand Opera – David T. Little: Vinkensport, or The Finch Opera