Every time I heard new music that was just absolutely beautiful—either a song or an entire record—I wept.
The ability to be moved by art made us hold on tightly to our humanity, in a year that attempted to kill it. When scientists are able to get some distance from this year and really crunch the numbers on how much trauma the world absorbed, that figure will be another milestone reached for those who made it out alive.
When it came to groundbreaking, new music: It had to be exceptional in order to get my head around it. Much like everybody else, my focus was set on family and friends staying safe and healthy.
Attention for the obsessive relistening pattern waned in comparison with other years. In random conversations with label bosses, publicists, musicians, writers, DJs, and editors, familiarity seemed to be a healing balm of sorts. A salve to combat mental stress.
Jazz, classic rock, R&B, fusion, soul, funk, breakbeat, dub, golden era hip-hop, early house, and techno pushed vinyl purchases through the roof globally, like never before. Consumers sought out good memories to help outride the bad. Vinyl records along with nostalgic playlists were the time machines boarded, jettisoning worries away, revisiting brighter days. If just for a couple of hours.
All that being said, the music never stopped being released, and so much of it was exceptional. All of these records were completed before lockdown began, but resonated keenly throughout it. These are 10 of the Best Albums that struck our fancy in a year that was like no other.
Irreversible Entanglements, Who Sent You? (International Anthem)
This free jazz combustible outfit made up of members from DC, Philadelphia, and New York met during a Musicians Against Police Brutality concert in 2015, protesting the murder of Akai Gurley by an NYPD officer. Fast-forward to 2017, the International Anthem label and New Jersey punk label Don Giovanni jointly released their self-titled début album.
The follow-up Who Sent You? was released right around the beginning of the COVID shutdown this year. “This album functions as a heat-sealed care package for the modern Afrofuturist’s pre-flight machinations,” it says in the liner notes. Soothsaying to all of us that at some point, we gotta push back against racism, police brutality, Orange 45, economic disparity, gay rights, trans rights, the health care system, and everything that flew out of control, Bizzaro this year.
Fortified by MC/poet Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother, saxophonist Keir Neuringer, trumpeter Aquiles Navarro, bassist Luke Stewart, and drummer Tcheser Holmes these musicians gave flight to Ayewaʻs words-filled with bang-up agitation and seething anguish-via shuttering bass patterns, thundering ornate percussion accents, and call to arms horn charts.
According to the elders, 2020 came close to feeling like 1968, not quite, but in the vicinity. Irreversible Entanglements, by way of this punk-rocking application of jazz, with cut/bleed precision, over the course of five pummeling tracks, foresaw and foretold the oncoming hellscape of a year in flux.
For that alone, they deserve a Nobel Peace Prize.. and I’m not f*ckig kidding. (For more great music from this year, see Daniel Bromfield’s picks here.)
Andy Shauf, The Neon Skyline (Anti)
The ability to share stories that are relatable, displaying the human condition—taking personal hits—but in a quiet matter of fact manner…Sheesh. I had no idea how much solace Andy Shauf, with his warbled Saskatchewan accent and biting observations, could provide.
But The Neon Skyline, with its soft-rock AOR veneer, Shauf’s inviting tenor, and laugh-out-loud stories delivered by a very poor-situation-reader character, was the local bar holding court this year for so many. Or the fire pit in the back, where friends crack a couple of cold ones and mull over exes and situations handled poorly with the camaraderie of interested listeners. Under the guise of smooth moving arrangements, Shauf paints a moving picture.
Jyoti, Mama, You Can Bet! (eOne Music/SomeOthashipConnect)
Georgia Anne Muldrow’s musical connectivity among soul, funk, blues, hip-hop, poetry, and jazz rivals Stevie Wonder’s run in the ’70s, possibly stronger. (If you’re too young to remember: Stevie ran that decade, go ask your Momma, she’ll tell ya.) Jyoti, a name given to her by the late great Alice Coltrane, means ‘divine light’ in Sanskrit. Being the daughter of two jazz musicians—Ronald Muldrow, guitarist with Eddie Harris for 10 years, and Rickie Byars-Beckwith, who performed as the lead singer of the New York Jazz Quartet and also sang with Pharoah Sanders Ensemble—Georgia Ann was wired as a truth speaker from day one.
No matter the genre, Muldrow’s been ahead of the outrage that became CNN breaking news this summer, calling out police brutality and the murder of innocent black people since her 2005 beginnings. Jyoti connects recent injustices to jazz, the classical American artform, especially how it took up the cause during previous times of social unrest. This record, along with the past several released by Muldrow since 2015, documents “the work” that is non-stop for this brilliant Black artist. She keeps pushing different ways to phrase the same conversation. From beat-tapes to Mingus compositions, Muldrow continues.
Yves Tumor, Heaven To a Tortured Mind (Warp Records)
When all the aliens started to disappear in 2016—David Bowie and Prince, with their multi-plural identities—who knew another one was about to emerge? Yves Tumor has been on the outskirts of everything for a couple of years now. It only makes sense that in the same year Eddie Van Halen passes, Tumor unleashed the glam-rock-meets-MPC anthem “Gospel For A New Century” with foreshadowing horns, boom-bap foundation, and Marc Boland/Tyler The Creator punk-as-fuck demeanor. Rock ain’t dead yet, hip-hop production and glitter just had to eat it, give it 2020 drip.
Come for the fire and brimstone on Heaven To a Tortured Mind, there is plenty here to watch the world burn to, but make sure to check for the bonafide instrumentals “Hasdallen Lights” and “Asteroid Blues,” which point to another side of Tumor’s genius.
Jeff Parker, Suite For Max Brown (International Anthem)
The concepts which evolved into Suite For Max Brown, prolific guitarist Jeff Parker’s tribute to his mother, were engineered during his fall 2018 residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito. Parker, a member of Chicago-based experimental rock outfits Tortoise, Isotope 217, and the recently reunited Chicago Underground Quartet, juggles modernity with antiquated forms of what Miles Davis once called social music. Presenting the 21st century Romare Bearden-type jazz collage IRL. (After too many years of hearing friends brag on and on about the genius of the band Tortoise, I finally got smacked upside the head with the beauty.)
Fusing live improvisations with backing drum loops, Parker has extended that idea of what sampling beats can be and do, releasing a wildly futuristic presentation of jazz-adjacent arrangements that still emote. Astral blues, soul, and post-rock phrasings coming from that guitar: This is 2035’s sound of jazz captured into a time capsule for the now.
Roisin Murphy, Roisin Machine (BMG)
When the Irish singer-songwriter and record producer Roisin Murphy was asked earlier this year in NME about the current disco revival characterized by new albums from Dua Lipa and Jessie Ware, she put her stance on front street. “Lovely, good for them—but I’m back to snatch their wigs! To me, disco can be anything. It is a disco record I’ve made, but my idea of it is very broad. I can easily think of Depeche Mode and Sylvester as disco.”
And with that, we have Murphy—“disco queen” to “electro-pop icon”— letting folk know, she doesn’t make her music in the cloud. Roisin Machine, her masterwork of, tribute to, and reckoning with the artform writhes with chuggy, dubbed-out, blissful snares and bass-lines. No tasteless platform shoes and afro wigs here, ya dig? Conceived 10 years ago, the project has been released in singles form since 2012, and it still bangs with authority. Crazy right? Well, maybe not. Filled to the teeth with pitched-down 4/4 euphoria lavishness, the project is sustained via pragmatic build.
The Machine was constructed with help from longtime collaborator and friend DJ Parrot a.k.a. Crooked Man, no line-up packed with collabs or remixes here at all. Murphy reminded NME, she isn’t trying on the disco cape, like a prop, to see if it fits. “Five minutes into a gig with me, love, and you’re not even gonna remember the pandemic.”
Khruangbin & Leon Bridges, Texas Sun EP (DeadOceans/Columbia)
Dropping an EP with fellow Texas native Leon Bridges was not the expected move for East Asian surf-rock, psychedelic, Persian funk, Jamaican dub, disco-to-go strut, kraut-rock bouillabaisse trio Khruangbin (pronounced KRUNG-bin). But the trio of Laura Lee Ochoa on bass, Mark Speer on guitar, and Donald “DJ” Johnson on drums heard Bridges while crossing paths on different tours and magically made some tunes they thought he’d fit perfectly on.
Texas Sun is a four-song project where both parties appear to have leveled-up, providing each camp with something that was previously missing. Finally, one of the best rhythm sections working in rock today flirts will all the possibilities of having a commanding lead vocalist anchoring their global funk compositions… And Bridges gets the well-deserved percussive ensemble partners—a millennial Sly and Robbie—allowing his trademark raspy vocals the chance be selective. He’s no longer doing all the heavy lifting. Those harmonies, that groove, puts the bass-weight respect on it. I’ll keep following all the stubborn left turns this little band keeps taking.
Josey Rebelle, Josey in Space (Beats In Space)
DJ Josey Rebelle is one of Britain’s most esteemed DJs—her BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix was voted the best of 2019 by listeners—and her style embodies the yin and yang of Afrofuturism. Josey in Space, her 20-song, one-hour compilation (the second installment of the Beats in Space curated mix series) celebrates US house and techno history along with UK soulful bass, breaks, and beyond. Rebelle allows for an absorption period before making transitions, assuming most of these tracks are unknown to a wide swath of listeners. By letting the records go a bit longer in the mix—a smattering of house, techno, breaks, jazz, soul, and related electronic music—she properly enunciates their stories.
“Josey urges you to listen closely to the story, to feel the energetic shifts in style, sound, speed, mix; up, down, rough and smooth,” the liner notes correctly outline. By letting those pieces of vinyl speak their talk, this medley of polyrhythms and frequencies, causing sheer rave euphoria in some glorious stretches, forms one global electronic sound, borne out of the African diaspora. Truly a rare one-of-a-kind set meant for dancing and record-digging.
Thundercat, It Is What It Is (Brainfeeder)
Thundercat has made two successful albums over the past couple of years that play a teeter-tot game of laughs and cries-fart jokes and death. All the while still wanting to hang out and get weird until all hours of the night. Nobody can deny his genius bass playing chops; they are scary Jaco Pastorius mental.
But Stephen Lee Bruner can also construct pop-songs that connect to a whole other demo, far outside the jazz world that is his usual slot. It Is What It Is, while not as great as last year’s Drunk, is so much more vulnerable for the obvious Mac Miller death he’s been grieving over. The album solidifies ole Thundie as a bonafide star who attracts all types. Musicians, fans, and purveyors of popular culture dig on his funk, jazz, hip-hop, EDM swirly. Fortifying a character who seems authentic, to a certain point.
Jayda G, “Both of Us/Are you Down” (Ninja Tune)
The four tracks on “Both of Us/Are U Down” not only remind us of how tuned-in Jayda G is to classic Chicago and Detroit Black dance music—house and techno—she rewinds the clock to an era that relied on strident piano chords, bursting with resonance, that made the ’90s version of the genre so distinguishable.
Garnering a late-in-the-year Grammy Nomination for dance/electronic music, her roots and sound cover the underground and mainstream without compromise. The British Columbian is one for the future.