This list contains a listing of albums that had an impact on my in 2020. Note that these are not releases that necessarily were released in 2020, just things that I discovered, rediscovered or that resonated with me for one reason or another.
1. Sign O’ the Times Deluxe Edition – Prince (2020)
How could I not begin with this? LOL. My favorite Prince album (and IMO the BEST Prince album) was finally remastered and there were a lot of goodies on it. I mean ALOT. As I said after it came out, this edition was better than the Purple Rain edition simply for all of the extras. The absolute best thing on the entire release for me was (and still is) “All My Dreams.” Even as a bootleg, it has been in my top 10 Prince songs for years, so to have an “official” version of it is awesome. Also, “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker (with horns)” was a surprise because I had not heard that version before, so I was rather giddy to hear it. There are so many other gems on this release, it would be difficult to list them all. However, it is worth noting that the Antwerp concert included is a precursor to the Sign of the Times movie, with a couple of differences. With over 8 hours of music, this has been something that has been on steady repeat.
2. What’s Going On — Marvin Gaye (1971)
When I was in active ministry, while writing politically or emotionally charged sermons, I almost always listened to this album. At the beginning of the pandemic, I lost about 5 or 6 people within a 2-week time span and I felt overwhelmed. Listening to this album came naturally. Marvin’s commentary on social injustice and upheaval coupled with hope for the future always seems to bring me a weird measure of comfort. While the title track, “Save the Children” and “Mercy, Mercy Me” are all songs that stand out, “Inner City Blues” is always the song that hits me in my musical core. Between the lyrics and vocals, it is my opinion that Inner City Blues is Marvin at his absolute best. Given that Rolling Stone recently updated it’s 500 greatest albums and named this as #1, it becomes more poignant that more than 50 years later, it is still an accurate social commentary.
3. Channel Orange — Frank Ocean (2012)
My son and one of my besties have been after me to listen to Frank Ocean for some time now. Over the summer, I finally decided to give him a try and I am kicking myself for waiting so long. I think Ocean is proof that good, quality music is still being produced. He channels many of the greats such as Marvin Gaye, Prince, Chuck D and others and wrap them in a modern bow that while remembering what music used to be, Ocean is showing us what music can become. I still need to explore this entire catalogue as I have only listened to this and Blond, but Ocean is certainly someone to pay attention to.
4. Junjo — Esperenza Spaulding (2006)
This is another in the “why did I wait so long” category. I have noticed Spaulding from a far and caught some things here and there but never really sat down and listened to her. It seems that I have a fondness for women bass players, given my affinity for MeShell NdegeOcello and Rhonda Smith. What I appreciate most about Spaudling is that I feel a lot of passion and earnestness in her playing. The arrangements she uses on this album are rooted in the best of traditional jazz but with the right amount of modern spin to make it feel new and interesting. Her skills as a bass played, whether upright or electric, are top notch and I believe those skills are showcased best on this album. Most certainly, I am wishing I started listening to her earlier.
5. More Than This: The Best of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music — Roxy Music (1995)
As a rule, I typically don’t do a lot of compilations or best-of albums. Obviously, every now and then I make an exception, this being one of them. This combination of hits from the group and the lead singer makes it somewhat difficult to ignore. I have been a fan of Roxy Music since the mid-late 80’s during my New Wave fascination and became familiar with Ferry’s solo work due to his presence on the 9 ½ Weeks soundtrack. While this collection only covers 20 songs, it highlights some of their best work, and Ferry’s vocals are consistent throughout the time period covered in these recordings (1972 to 1994). While a couple gems are missing (most notable Valentine, a solo Ferry effort) this gives a good examination of the impact of Roxy Music and why Ferry is one of the best crooners to come out of the 80’s. I found myself several times over the year really paying attention to “More Than This,” and while it’s a romantic based song, I couldn’t help but to think that given the state of the world this year, we deserved more than what we were getting. In that way, that particular song gave me a sense of hope (at times).
6. Black Radio — Robert Glasper Experiment (2012)
Someone else I didn’t start listening to when I should have. I had so many friends telling me about Glasper for so long. For some reason, I ignored them. Then quite by accident, I ran across the cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and I found it such an interesting take on that grunge rock classic, I had to listen to the whole album. And once I did, I was sucked in and went through the entire catalogue. All I can say is this dude is brilliant. While somewhat reminiscent of Guru’s Jazzmatazz series, Glasper effortlessly combines jazz, hip hop and R&B, showing the connections between the genres. He features my favorite hip hop artist, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) but also showcases Lalah Hathaway (who can sing the phone book) and MeShell. Even the appearance of Erykah Badu, whom I do not care for, is a pleasant experience with the cover of “Afro Blue,” originally made popular by John Coltrane. There is something culturally uplifting about this album. It’s musically very pro-black, but in a way that celebrates the complexities of black culture and shows us that music showcases the best of black culture.
7. Fetch the Bolt Cutters — Fiona Apple (2020)
I don’t know why I like Fiona Apple. But I do. From the first time I heard “Criminal” from her debut album, I have been drawn to her. She has an amazing voice, even though I don’t always like it. What I will say is that I don’t think she gets the credit for being an amazing songwriter and producer. Released in July of 2020, it was her first album in 8 years, a comeback of sorts. What gets me with this release is that is has some of the most unusual and unconventional drum and percussion tracks I have heard in some time. Coupled with her throaty, pleading, borderline angry vocals at time, the lyrics of the album scream for a freedom from oppression, repression and escaping the traps we find ourselves in. I think this album was an unintentional commentary on not only COVID but also the racial strife the country was experiencing over the summer. I found myself coming back to it collectively, find some solace in her intonations and vocalizations, along with wondering what in the hell was she using to create the percussion through most of the album.
8. Memories of Flying — Ingrid Chavez (2019)
I may not know why I like Apple, but I know why I love Ingrid Chavez. The former Prince protegee has been a favorite of mine for many years. While she does music, her truth strength is as a poet and spoken word artist. Her lyrics are couched in metaphors and similes and imagery where the meaning you get from her songs on first listen are different on subsequent listens. Ironically, the weakest song on this album is her tribute to Prince, “You Gave Me Wings.” The rest of the album, especially ”Snow-Blind,” “All The Love in the World” and “Light Rays” are the true standouts. Chavez is someone where you can feel her emotions on her albums, and it is obvious that she was in a good and happy place emotionally in the writing and recording of this effort. For that reason, this year, this album gave me hope.
9. New Moon Daughter — Cassandra Wilson (1995)
I honestly believe that Cassandra Wilson is one of the most underrated vocalists/singers in modern music, period. Her deep, throaty voice is able to convey the emotions of whatever she is thinking without fail. I first became enamored with her from her appearance on the Love Jones soundtrack (“You Move Me”) and from there, I tried to collect as much of her music as possible. This is my favorite of all of her albums and her cover of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is one of my favorite versions of this song, tho her version is more evocative of Nina Simone’s version. Given the events of the summer, with all of the racial unrest, it spoke to me in a way that I both needed and wanted this past summer. Even thought this is probably has the darkest mood of all of her albums, it shines as a masterpiece of jazz based vocalizations. Also covered on this album is The Monkees “Last Train to Clarksville,” again showing that she can make anything her own, no matter the origins.
10. Strange King of Love — Love and Money (1988)
I have a love/hate relationship with this album and this group. Their imagery was unsettling for a time. I interpreted some of their lyrics as being rife with “devil worship” and even though my personal theology is a little different, sometimes it is still a bit uncomfortable for me. But once I get over that, I am reminded what a great album this is. The title track, “Halleluiah Man,” and “Jocelyn Square,” are another example of great European 80’s pop, but still with the punk sensibilities from the 70’s. This is truly an album that despite my better nature, I love this album and love listening to it when it comes around.
11. Letter from Home — Pat Metheny Group (1989)
This is one of my top albums of all time and I always turn to it when I need a sense of peace and reassurance. From beginning to end, this album evokes a sense of comfort and reassurance with me. While usually I am partial to piano and saxophone on jazz recordings, Metheney’s guitar synthesizer has created some of my favorite instrumental compositions over the last 30 years. I’m not going to highlight or mention any specific track because this is one of those albums that is best listened to from beginning to end. This is truly one of my comfort albums and we needed a lot of comfort this year.
12. A Tribute to Loleatta Holloway: The Salsoul Years — Loleatta Holloway (2013)
The only reason people say Donna Summer is the Queen of Disco is because she sold more records. But for my money, Loleatta is the true Queen of Disco. Her gospel influence vocals and bombastic voice have very few equals. Her releases on the Salsoul label still generate regular plays among house and dance DJ’s around the world. She is still sampled by hip hop and R&B artists on a regular basis, yet she does not get the credit she deserved. There are so many gems on this compilation, such as “Hit and Run” (but not the album version), “Love Sensation,” “Runaway,” “Catch Me on the Rebound,” and of course, “Dreamin’.” Because towards the end of “Dreamin,” if you aren’t moved to “stand up” and be taken to church, something is wrong with you. This showcases why House Heads and Disco aficionados still want to dance and bob our heads and lose ourselves in the vocals and music. There was no better compliment to her voice than the Salsoul Orchestra and those songs still stand the test of time.
13. Collaborations — Jill Scott (2007)
What can be said about Jilly from Philly that hasn’t already been said. She is a great lyricist, poet and vocalist. She knows how to express herself both through her voice and her lyrics. And while her solo albums are all great, this one, showcasing how she works with other artists truly show the greatness of Ms. Jill Scott. The highlight for me with this album will always be the duet with Common, “8 Minutes to Sunrise,” which showcases a shoutout to those of us who hung out in Hyde Park through the late 90’s. Her cover of “Good Morning Heartache” with Chris Botti is brilliant, along with her duets with Lupe Fiasco and Sergio Mendes. There is very little that she cannot do, and this shows that when it comes to collaborations (see what I did there) she can always hold her own.
14. Ride Like the Wind — Citrus Sun (2018)
Citrus Sun is a side project of the acid jazz band Incognito that is really just another version of Incognito. Same writers, same musicians and some of the same vocalists. All of the things that make Incognito one of my favorite bands are right here on this release. However, I was blown away by the cover of Christopher Cross’s “Ride Like the Wind,” featuring my favorite Incognito vocalist, Imaani. Leader Bluey Maurick has always excelled at creating amazing covers and this version ranks up there with his top covers. The Krabi Suite, covering the last 5 tracks on the album is another piece of what makes Incognito great, where each of the tracks (in my opinion) are addressing a different emotion (love, loss, fear, joy and hope). This is why this ranks as one of the best Incognito releases and why Incognito continues to be an amazing band.
15. Maggot Brain – Funkadelic (1971)
What can I say about Maggot Brain that hasn’t been said already? To be honest, nothing. So let me be repetitive. Eddie Hazel’s guitar work on the title track is nothing short of brilliant. It is easily one of the best guitar performances ever. Period. No debate. It is emotional, it is soaring, it is redemptive. There are not enough words to describe the immensity of this track and how it has influenced so many who came behind him. It is simply an amazing song, amazing album and listening to it will not allow you to view guitar work the same.
16. Hadestown – Original Broadway Cast Recording (2017)
As most everyone knows, I got engaged this year. The highlight of my year, no doubt. When we first started dating, we were trading music…LIKE YOU DO. And she shared this with me. Let me say, I don’t like musicals. I am not a Broadway fan. Most musicals bore me to tears. When I was first asked to listen to this, my fiancée explained to me why this soundtrack resonates with her so much and why she wanted me to listen to it. And I got it. I still get it. While I cannot listen to this without thinking about her, I also hear the great vocal performances, the New Orleans inspired jazz, and the invoking of the gods. Listening to this album is comforting primarily because it reminds me that in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of social upheaval, that while I lost friends and family members this year at unprecedented rate, this year I also got to ask the this amazing woman to marry me and for some crazy ass reason, despite everything, she said yes. If that couldn’t comfort me, nothing could.