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2020, on the record.

Several lists celebrating some of the most extraordinary contemporary and classical recordings and archival releases that arrived in 2020, making the year more resonant and harmonious.
2020, on the record.


Photograph: Sarah Hennies

Making a list of any year’s most memorable recordings is a foolhardy endeavor, not least because no one could hear all of the releases that come out in any given calendar year (even this one), nor even all of the consensus buzz titles. Besides, as I wrote somewhere else a year ago: Is consensus what we’re after? Isn’t discovery more important, more useful, more compelling?

You won’t catch me referring to my year-end lists as the Best Records of 2020. It also would be imprecise to say favorite, but it’s closer. Basically, here are three lists of records that came out this year, representing three very broad, slightly slippery categories, each including 10 exceptional records that affected me most—the ones that lingered and called to me time and time again, yielding new rewards each time I revisited them. Following those is one more list: an honor roll of 50 more outstanding, wholly worthy recordings, all of which contributed to making 2020 a better year.

Another Timbre, Astral Spirits/Astral Editions, New Focus, and Pyroclastic were my labels of the year in 2020. And in case you missed yesterday’s newsletter, I cited AMPLIFY2020: quarantine – by any reckoning the most extensive recording project of 2020 – as one of the year’s most significant musical events.

10 contemporary music recordings.

Sarah Hennies - The Reinvention of Romance - Two-Way Street (Astral Spirits)

Tyshawn Sorey - Unfiltered (self-released)

Aisha Orazbayeva - Music for Violin Alone (SN Variations)

Clara Iannotta - Earthing - JACK Quartet (Wergo)

Wendy Eisenberg - Auto (Ba Da Bing)

Sarah Hennies - Spectral Malsconcities - Bearthoven; Bent Duo (New World)

Speaker Music - Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry (Planet Mu)

A.F. Jones - A Jurist for Nothing (Gertrude Tapes)

Alex Dowling - Reality Rounds (Carrier)

Patrick Shiroishi - Descension (Thin Wrist)

10 classical music recordings.

Spektral Quartet - Experiments in Living - compositions by Johannes Brahms, Arnold Schoenberg, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Sam Pluta, Anthony Cheung, Charmaine Lee, and George Lewis (New Focus)

Frederic Rzewski - Songs of Insurrection - Thomas Kotcheff (Coviello)

Barbara Hannigan - La Passione - compositions by Luigi Nono, Franz Joseph Haydn, and Gérard Grisey - Ludwig Orchestra (Alpha Classics)

Ralph Vaughan Williams - Symphony No. 3 (“Pastoral”); Symphony No. 4 in F minor - BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins (Hyperion)

Luigi Nono - La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura - Marco Fusi, Pierluigi Billone (Kairos)

Brooklyn Rider - Healing Modes - compositions by Ludwig van Beethoven, Matana Roberts, Reena Esmail, Gabriela Lena Frank, Du Yun, and Caroline Shaw (In a Circle)

Ethel Smyth - The Prison - Sarah Brailey, Dashon Burton, Experiential Chorus and Orchestra/James Blachly (Chandos)

Federico Mompou - Música Callada; James Rushford - See the Welter - James Rushford (Unseen Worlds)

Morton Feldman - For John Cage - Darragh Morgan, John Tilbury (Diatribe)

Víkingur Ólafsson - Debussy – Rameau (Deutsche Grammophon)

10 archival releases.

Prince - Sign O’ the Times (Super Deluxe) (Warner Bros.)

Jon Gibson - Songs & Melodies 1973-1977 (Superior Viaduct)

George Lewis - Rainbow Family (Carrier)

Ruth Anderson - Here (Arc Light Editions)

Black Unity Trio - Al-Fatihah (Gotta Groove)

Charles Curtis - Performances and Recordings 1998-2018 (Saltern)

Beverly Glenn-Copeland - Transmissions: The Music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland (Transgressive)

Cecil Taylor & Tony Oxley - …being astral and all registers – power of two… (Discus Music)
Cecil Taylor & Tony Oxley - Birdland, Neuburg 2011 (Fundacja Słuchaj)

Company - 1983 (Honest Jon’s)

Honor roll.

Ambrose Akinmusire - on the tender spot of every calloused moment (Blue Note)

Susan Alcorn - The Heart Sutra (Arranged by Janel Leppin) (Ideologic Organ)

Newton Armstrong - The way to go out - Séverine Ballon, Plus Minus Ensemble (Another Timbre)

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil - The Fantastic Mrs. 10 (Intakt)

Anthony Braxton & Jacqueline Kerrod - Duo (Bologna) 2018 (I dischi di angelica)

counter)induction - Against Method (New Focus)

Sarah Davachi - Cantus, Descant (Late Music)

Du Yun - A Cockroach’s Tarantella - JACK Quartet (Modern Sky)

David First - The Consummation of Right and Wrong (Important)

Garcia Peoples - Nightcap at Wits' End (Beyond Beyond Is Beyond)

Randy Gibson - Distant Pillars, Private Pillars (Galtta)

David Grubbs & Taku Unami - Comet Meta (Drag City)

Judith Hamann - Peaks (Black Truffle)

Irreversible Entanglements - Who Sent You? (International Anthem)

Clarice Jensen - The experience of repetition as death (130701)

Junk Magic - Compass Confusion (Pyroclastic)

John Kolodij - First Fire • At Dawn (Astral Editions)

Catherine Lamb - Prisma Interius VII & VIII - Harmonic Space Orchestra (Sacred Realism)

Matt LaJoie - Everlasting Spring (Flower Room)

Ingrid Laubrock - Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt (Intakt)

Myriam Leblanc - Vivaldi: Luce e Ombra - Ensemble Mirabilia (Analekta)

Okkyung Lee - Yeo-Neun (Shelter Press)

Liza Lim - Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus - Klangforum Wien (Kairos)

Napalm Death - Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism (Century Media)

Tristan Perich - Drift Multiply (New Amsterdam/Nonesuch)

Anastassis Philippakopoulos - piano works - Melaine Dalibert (Elsewhere)

Prana Crafter - MorphoMystic (Cardinal Fuzz)

Brendon Randall-Myers - dynamics of vanishing bodies - Dither (New Focus)

Eric Revis - Slipknots Through a Looking Glass (Pyroclastic)

Robert Rich - Neurogenesis (Soundscape)

Vanessa Rossetto - self-care (Unfathomless)

Marc Sabat - Gioseffo Zarlino - Harmonic Space Orchestra (Sacred Realism)

Matthew Shipp - The Piano Equation (Tao Forms)

Matthew Shipp Trio - The Unidentifiable (ESP-Disk’)

Linda Catlin Smith - Meadow - Mia Cooper, Joachim Roewer, William Butt (Louth Contemporary Music Society)

Cory Smythe - Accelerate Every Voice (Pyroclastic)

Sarah Kirkland Snider - Mass for the Endangered - Gallicantus (New Amsterdam/Nonesuch)

Nick Storring - My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell (Orange Milk)

Thumbscrew - The Anthony Braxton Project (Cuneiform)

Toshiya Tsunoda/Taku Unami - Wovenland 2 (Erstwhile)

Maya Verlaak - All English Music Is Greensleeves - Apartment House (Another Timbre)

Jennifer Walshe - A Late Anthology of Early Music Vol. 1: Ancient to Renaissance (Migro)

Webber-Morris Big Band - Both Are True (Greenleaf Music)

Wet Ink Ensemble - Glossolalia/Lines on Black (Carrier)

White Boy Scream - Bakunawa (Deathbomb Arc)

Immanuel Wilkins - Omega (Blue Note)

Nate Wooley - Seven Storey Mountain VI (Pyroclastic)

Luiz Henrique Yudo - Chamber Works - Apartment House (Another Timbre)

Spencer Zahn - Sunday Painter (Cascine)

John Zorn - The Turner Etudes - Stephen Gosling (Tzadik)