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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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?

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Diversity. Now.

Like countless people across the nation and the world, I am shocked, angered, and grieved by the recent events that have unfolded in the United States. The needless murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many others are a sobering reminder that there is so much work to be done to dismantle systemic racism, implicit biases, and other systems of power that unjustly discriminate against people of color and other underrepresented groups. This is a significant historical moment, and coming together alongside these communities to mourn, listen, learn, and help enact positive change is more crucial now than ever.

As I’ve processed the events of this past week, my mind has occasionally turned to thinking about some of the similar, deep-seated systemic issues facing the classical music industry. I’ve written about diversity problems in classical music programming on this blog before (which you can read here), but now is the time to address it once again.

While many arts organizations are making great strides in the realm of diversity (such as the LA Phil), noticeable changes across the board are still not apparent. Works by women and composers of color are still programmed infrequently or appear on one-off, “themed” programs. Women conductors are still somewhat of an anomaly, even more so for black conductors and performers. Some opera companies and singers still insist on using blackface for specific roles, despite issues of racial and cultural appropriation. Certain instruments—such as brass—are still implicitly or explicitly gendered and widely considered to be appropriate only for men and boys. (To the people who think the tuba is a “guy’s instrument,” look up Carol Jantsch right now.) And of course, recent sex scandals surrounding James Levine, Charles Dutoit, Plácido Domingo, and others have done nothing to improve classical music’s image, making it seem skeevy, disingenuous, and out-of-touch with society.

Despite the progress that has been achieved, it’s clear that widespread discrimination, harassment, abuse, bias, and economic barriers still lurk beneath the industry’s seemingly pristine surface. These are complex and frustrating issues, and conversations must be had about how to hold the industry to a higher standard and make classical music fairer and more inclusive for ALL, whether it be composers, performers, administrators, or listeners. Something has to be done. But what?

Continue reading “Diversity. Now.”