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.

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Reflections on the Problems of Programming

Today’s post comes courtesy of a guest author, Tanner Cassidy, one of my good friends and colleagues at UC Santa Barbara. Tanner is currently working on his MA/PhD in music theory and is also a talented saxophonist, conductor, and composer. Below, he reflects on an issue that I have written about before on this blog and will continue to address in future posts—the problem of uninspired programming in classical music.

Tanner Cassidy

This past week, I was emailed notifications that both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the LA Opera have announced their seasons for the upcoming ’20/21 season. To my dismay, I found the upcoming seasons from both organizations to be underwhelming, relying on overplayed hits and lacking in diversity. CSO’s email advertises a night of Italian opera favorites (at best, no doubt only as fresh as Puccini), a performance of Amadeus with live score (a wonderful experience I just had there a couple of years ago), and a list of concert highlights for the season. The newest piece on this list is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a piece nearing its 107th birthday. Besides this, other composers featured are Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and Strauss, with some of their most oft programmed (and hence blandest) pieces scheduled.

LA Opera paints a similarly safe picture, with Il Trovatore AND Aida in the same season. Verdi wrote 25 operas, and yet the best we can apparently do is program the same few that are always performed. Verdi is juxtaposed against two German operas, Don Giovanni and Tannhäuser, also works programmed (perhaps) too often. Rossini also makes an appearance, with his La Cenerentola on the schedule. A work also performed frequently, at least it’s a secondary classic (unlike its cousin, the excessively performed Barber of Seville). Finally, the final opera of the season is by Missy Mazzoli, titled Breaking the Waves. The only break from the monotony of tradition and “classics.”

Why do I mention any of this? Wonderful and innovative work is happening all over if you’re willing to look. What’s the point of whining about what these major institutions are programming?

For me, it seems to reflect a growing conservative trend in these particular organizations, one that I’ve begun to notice trickle down to smaller local organizations. For example, Beethoven’s 250th birthday this year has had a horrible impact on innovation in programming. One of the most oft-performed and esteemed composers in the history of European classical music, Beethoven does NOT need any more attention on these organizations’ calendars. If anything, the occasion should be marked by a season-long moratorium on his music. Despite this, CSO is advertising in bold lettering that next season is featuring the Missa Solemnis, one of the few orchestral works not performed by the orchestra this current season (this season excessively has featured all the symphonies and all the piano sonatas, because God knows we never see Moonlight Sonata performed).

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