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Best of 2020: WRTI's Favorite Classical and Jazz Albums of the Year

Unsplash/Mat Reding

We salute the many artists who released recordings in a year when music never mattered more. Our hosts and content producers have shared a favorite classical and jazz album from 2020, and a specific track from each one. Enjoy!

Watch the YouTube videos below and listen to our picks on Spotify—2020 Favorites— Classical Spotify playlist and Jazz Spotify playlist.

Heather McDougal's pick: Compositrices, from Juliette Hurel (flute) & Hélène Couvert (piano). Quite simply - this album singlehandedly won me back over to the flute after having fallen out of love with so much of what's been written for it. If there's an album we could equate to an hour of happy, shiny rainbows, this is it! Here is Clémence de Grandval's Suite for Flute and Piano: 

Bob Perkins' pick: Passion Flower from John DiMartino. "Chelsea Bridge" is a Billy Strayhorn composition that is just great!

Debra Lew Harder's pick: Víkingur Ólafsson's Debussy and Rameau. Icelandic pianist Ólafsson brings brilliance, wit and clarity to an unusual juxtaposition of two French masters from different epochs: Claude Debussy, from the Impressionist era, and Jean-Philippe Rameau from the High Baroque. Víkingur's 2020 release for Deutsche Grammophon is intriguing and always a sonic delight. Here is Rameau's "Tambourin"

Maureen Malloy's pick: Cory Weeds, Day By Day. "Tangerine" is a classic tune, but Cory's treatment of it here is refreshing. With David Hazeltine on piano, "Tangerine" gets a dash of spice and a nice back beat.

Mark Pinto's pick: The Long 17th Century, from Daniel-Ben Pienaar, piano. An astonishing variety of keyboard music from a single century, played convincingly, idiomatically, and with high polish on a modern instrument. Here are Buxtehude's Variations on "La Capricciosa"

Bliss Michelson's pick: Sharon Isbin's Strings for Peace. Sharon Isbin has had a busy 2020 and this latest from her showcases her ongoing ability to work in other genres. Like many artists of her generation, she is able to look beyond western classical music and blend her knowledge with artists from from Eastern traditions. Here is "By the Moon"

Kevin Gordon's pick: John Williams in Vienna. Listen here to the "Imperial March," the definitive performance of Darth Vader's theme music.

Bob Craig's pick: Dreams of Flying by Janis Mann. This is a special album by the L.A. based singer that focuses on understanding lyrics to well written songs. For my specific track, I've chosen "Wichita Lineman," a Jimmy Webb composition that was a big hit for Glen Campbell in 1969. It also showcases how the balance between pianist (Kenny Werner) and Ms. Mann defines the songwriter's intention.

Susan Lewis's pick: The Singing Guitar. Kile Smith's new version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," a movement in his work, The Dawn's Early Light, considers our national anthem from the point of view of a young Native American woman. 

Jessica Schultz's pick: After Silence, VOCES8. "The Road Home" by Stephen Paulus just touches me deeply.

Ryan Gottlieb's pick: Color of Noize by Derrick Hodge. Color of Noize is a transformative album where my favorite song, 'Looking at You,' is a hauntingly beautiful piece of music; one that I use to close out each "In a Mellow Tone" program on Sunday nights, right before midnight. The sparingly used lyrics "tomorrow's another day; it's all gonna be ok" are just too perfect.

Courtney Blue's pick: Pursuance: The Coltranes by Lakecia Benjamin. Transfiguration  is the title of the 1978 Alice Coltrane album which contained the original version of her composition, 'Prema.' On Lakecia Benjamin's exploratory new album, Pursuance: The Coltranes, the saxophonist expands upon the music of John & Alice, unveiling new territory and elevations within the original groundwork while still remaining respectful to the masters. Here's her adaptation of Prema

So much music has lifted us this year, including the following examples from albums we featured.  Check out all our Classicaland Jazzalbums of the week here, many of which feature stories, and commentary, or interviews with the artist. 

The Intangible Between, Orrin Evans, and the Captain Black Big Band. Here's the title track: 

City Lights, by Lisa Batiashvilli and Nikoloz Rachveli.  Travel the world through Lisa's musical memories, with a nod to Charlie Chaplin in the title and with music by Chaplin himself.  

Carnival of the Animals, by the Kanneh-Mason siblings, narrated by poet Michael Morpurgo and actress Olivia Colman.  The water of an aquarium becomes as mysterious and magical as the sea in this movement. 

Time OutTakes, The Dave Brubeck Quartet's unreleased (until now) tapes from the 1959 sessions. 

Amici e Rivali,  Lawrence Brownlee and Michael Spyres. Two great American tenors celebrate Rossini in an album that includes this lively duet from The Barber of Seville:

Ella's Lost Berlin Tapes?, Ella Fitzgerald.  In the dead of winter, it's nice to think about summertime: 

Artemis, from the all-female jazz supergroup Artemis, a septet including clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, drums, bass, piano and voice. Here's their rendition of "Cry, Buttercup, Cry"

Loveletter, Jimmy Heath. The legendary saxophonist, who died on January 19, 2020, left us a loveletter.  Here's "Fashion or Passion." 

Gypsy-Americana, The Hot Club of Philadelphia. Here's "Dance Me to the End of Love," featuring vocalist Phyllis Chapell. 

Some of These Days, by Lara Downes. An album of American music inspiring hope and perseverence.  Here's the title track, a piece by Florence Price.   

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.