The vital need for music has never been greater, at least in this century, than it was in 2020.
Of course, music is essential at any time, whether as a a brief diversion or an immersive experience, a cause for boisterous celebration or quiet contemplation, a cry of despair or a lifeline of hope.
During a global pandemic, the value of music grows exponentially. This holds especially true when that pandemic has shuttered concert venues of all sizes.
Untold numbers of musicians have lost their jobs. So have concert promoters, stagehands, audio engineers, lighting operators, security guards, merchandise vendors, tour bus drivers, backstage caterers and the thousands of other professionals who make concerts and festivals possible — and who, in turn, rely on concerts and festivals for their livelihoods.
As COVID-19 surged, ebbed, and surged again, I sometimes found myself enveloped in an unfamiliar silence. Rather than listen to music each day, as I normally would have, I thought of favorite songs and albums, then "played" them — so to speak — almost note for note in my head.
That is precisely why, when I wrote in May about now fewer than 68 records that changed my life, I didn't have to hear them again before writing about them.
Other records, some of which I had not heard in years, also sprang back to life in an instant when I thought of them. I immediately recalled how they made me feel when I first heard them and how I felt during subsequent listens. Happily, at no point did I recall Brazilian crooner Morris Albert's uber-treacly mid-1970s hit, "Feelings," at least not until writing this sentence.
In many instances, I even recalled where I bought the records that I can cue up almost instantaneously in my memory.
Of course, buying records in person largely harks back to a time when no week was complete without browsing at Off The Record in Hillcrest or Tower Records on Sports Arena Boulevard (or, way back in the day, at Arcade Records downtown), no visit to Los Angeles complete without stopping at Aaron's and the Tower store on Sunset Boulevard, no visit to New York finished without visiting Other Music and the adjacent Tower outlet store.
It was at that outlet store where, in a matter of minutes, I came across jazz piano favorite Kenny Barron's long out-of-print 1975 concept album, "Lucifer," along with a rare import album by Brazilian polymath Carlinhos Brown and the final Milli Vanilli album, "Rob & Fab" (on which Fab Morvan and the now deceased Rob Pilatus ill-advisedly did their own vocals).
I bought "Lucifer" and the Brown album, and passed on "Rob and Fab." What I would give now for the chance to browse again in Other Music, Off The Record or Aaron's — all of which are now defunct — or Tower (which has recently ben resurrected as an online-only operation) or Virgin, or...
Happily, San Diego still offers an array of record stores — including Folk Arts, M-Theory, Vinyl Junkies, Lou's, Record City, Cow, Spin, Nickelodeon and more — that are now operating under social distancing guidelines. As Vinyl Junkies manager Heather Johnson told the Union-Tribune in August: "There is a definitely a heightened desire and demand for music. And we have kids buying turntables who are so young that their parents didn't grow up with turntables and barely know what they are!"
Alas, some brick and mortar record stores in other cities have gone out of business. They were battered into submission by a combination of the pandemic and the constant rise of streaming, a handy means of accessing music for those who don't mind audio compression or the fact that most subscription streaming services pay artists a fractional pittance for their work. But I digress.
It remains to be seen if, in the future, we will be able to listen to any of our favorite music from 2020 without thinking of the pandemic or of the national reckoning on social and racial injustice that took place. Some songs — such as Mickey Guyton's "Black Like Me," H.E.R.'s "I Can't Breathe" and Tyler Childers' "Long Violent History" — provide indelible musical portraits of the past year that deserve to be appreciated for decades to come.
Here are some of the pop, jazz and beyond albums that helped me through a year we'd all like to forget — albums which, I am confident, will sound as inviting and compelling in good times as they do in wrenchingly bad times.
Best pop albums of 2020
1. Fiona Apple, "Fetch The Bolt Cutters" (Epic)
2. Bob Dylan, "Rough and Rowdy Ways" (Columbia)
3. Phoebe Bridgers, "Punisher" (Dead Oceans)
4. Lido Pimienta, "Miss Colombia" (Anti)
5. Chris Stapleton, "Starting Over" (Mercury Nashville)
6. Jeff Parker & The New Breed, "Suite for Max Brown" (Nonesuch)
7. Moses Sumney, "Grae" (Jagjaguwar)
8. Taylor Swift, "Folklore" (Republic)
9. Natalia Lafourcade, "Un Canto por México, Vol. 1" (Sony Music Mexico)
10. Run The Jewels, "RTJ4" (BMG)
Honorable mentions: Static Shapes, "Give Me the Bad News" (Bandcamp); Bonny Light Horseman, "Bonny Light Horseman" (37d03d); The Chicks, "Gaslighter" (Columbia); Waxahatchee, "Saint Cloud" (Merge); Childish Gambino, "3.15.20" (RCA)
Best jazz albums of 2020
1. Charles Lloyd, "8 Kindred Spirits, Live at the Lobero" (Blue Note)
2. Maria Schneider Orchestra, "Data Lords" (ArtistShare)
3. Keith Jarrett, "Budapest Concert" (ECM)
4. Liberty Ellman, "Last Desert" (Pi)
5. Ambrose Akinmusire, "On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment" (Blue Note)
6. Sun Ra Arkestra, "Swirling" (Strut)
7. Rudresh Mahanthappa, "Hero Trio" (Whirlwind)
8. Dave Douglas, "Dizzy Atmosphere" (Greenleaf Music)
9. Charles McPherson, "Jazz Dance Suites" (Chazz Mack Music)
10. Steph Richards, "Supersense" (Northern Spy)
Honorable mentions: Joel Ross, "Who Are You" (Blue Note); Redman Mehldau McBride Blade, "RoundAgain" (Nonesuch); Immanuel Wilkins, "Omega" (Blue Note); Peter Kronreif & Wayfarers, "Aeronautics" (Fresh Sound New Talent); Christian Sands, "Be Water" (Mack Avenue)
(c)2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune
Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.