Favorite Albums (and Streams) of 2020

Favorite Albums (and Streams) of 2020

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.

Reaching the end of 2020 like…

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.

Continue reading “Favorite Albums (and Streams) of 2020”

Symphony of a Dozen: Classical Music in a Post-COVID World

Near the end of John Mulaney’s 2019 Netflix special John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, the character “Mr. Music” (a fabulously-dressed Jake Gyllenhaal) bursts through the door, kicks over a flower pot, and proclaims, “Hey! It’s me, Sack Lunch Bunch—Mr. Music!” What follows is one of my favorite streaming-platform moments from last year (tied with Baby Yoda, of course). Perhaps it’s better viewed than explained…

If there were an official mascot of 2020, the coronavirus would obviously take first place, but an unhinged Mr. Music could easily be a close runner-up. He is the year in a nutshell—at least, so far—someone who simply wants to live out their life but is met with failure and disappointment at every corner. (Though, the realities of the year have been way less hilarious than Jake Gyllenhaal waiting for a toilet bowl to refill.) Or perhaps we are all Mr. Music, just trying our best in these insanely difficult times.

Mr. Music trying his best

OK, so what’s the purpose of this hot take, besides an excuse to talk about John Mulaney? (I mean, it is.) Well, there’s a small, but eerie piece of foreshadowing in this sketch. Towards the beginning, as Mr. Music begins explaining to the Sack Lunch Bunch that music can be found everywhere (a very John Cagean concept if you ask me), he suddenly cries, “Follow me… but also give me space!” What was probably a brilliant, off-handed improv on Gyllenhaal’s part could unintentionally be a motto for the future. As soon as a successful vaccine for COVID-19 is released, we’ll all be enthusiastic and raring to get back out there. To embrace our friends and family. To go out in public without masks. To get back to life. BUT—we will still have to be careful for a time until this deadly virus is eradicated completely.

Once we reach what I’ll call the “cautious normalcy” of the post-COVID era, some facets of society will face more significant challenges than others. For our purposes here, the question must be asked: what will classical music look like in a post-COVID world? What will live music look like in general? Will it even be possible anymore?

Continue reading “Symphony of a Dozen: Classical Music in a Post-COVID World”

Happy Birthday, Lenny!

Happy Birthday, Lenny!

Today—August 25, 2018—would have marked the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein. One of the most (if not the most) distinguished American-born classical musicians, Bernstein succeeded in almost every aspect of musical life. He composed both “serious” classical pieces and lively theatrical works, sometimes even bridging the gap between the two. He conducted orchestras worldwide and served as music director of the illustrious New York Philharmonic for eleven years. He made hundreds of recordings, which encompass everything from canonic works to his own compositions. To top it all off, he was a fine pianist and a charismatic music educator, introducing both children and adults to the wonders of classical music.

giphy
Lenny in his element!

Bernstein’s life was not without its flaws, though. His personal life was often complicated and marred with controversy. (Some aspects would undoubtedly raise more than a few eyebrows in the climate of the current MeToo movement.) He smoked almost constantly. He could occasionally be short-tempered and confrontational in rehearsal—one of my favorite clips, albeit a cringe-worthy one, involves Bernstein dealing with a miscast José Carreras during a recording session for West Side Story. It’s clear that Bernstein’s larger-than-life personality could sometimes get the better of him.

However, there’s no question that Bernstein succeeded in bringing classical music to millions of people, and his wide-ranging achievements are being celebrated this year by orchestras around the world.

Continue reading “Happy Birthday, Lenny!”