Best of 2020: KCBX DJs pick their top albums and songs

Dec 29, 2020

Credit Photo by Marisa Waddell

The DJs at KCBX clearly love to explore and enthusiastically share new music. Here are some of their picks for the top albums and songs of 2020.

Neal Losey, KCBX Music Director – The Morning Cup & Night Train
While I appreciate everyone who did a top ten list, I don't really do 'em. My brain doesn't work like that. Everything with me is sort of just off the top of my head, as it happens. I also have succumbed to being a music director for 25 years and I sort of think of music in terms of what I like to play on my show instead of what I like personally. For instance, played the Jason Isbell a lot on my show because I know people liked it. Number of times listened to at home = 0. What did I listen to at home? Lots of Johnny Guitar Watson. So, top ten albums on the Morning Cup this year? Probably Khruangbin “Mordechai”, Fretland “Fretland” and Jason Isbell “Reunions.” And everything else tied for fourth. Top song? Maybe “Beautiful” by The Two Tracks.
 

Marisa Waddell, KCBX Program Director – The Road Home (top albums)
Like Neal, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the end-of-year top ten list concept. It’s really hard to pick ten, when I started with three single-spaced pages of great albums. And that’s just stuff I play on my show. I’d put Khruangbin’s “Mordechai” among my personal favorites, but it doesn’t really fit what I do on The Road Home. I must admit, though, that I love to read other people’s top ten lists. I think it’s a great way to discover new music. So, here’s what I whittled down as the top albums from The Road Home in 2020, in no particular order:
Seela Misra “ Cool”-I haven’t played it much yet, because I discovered it late in the year, but expect to hear much more of this one from the husky-voiced, Austin-based, Canadian-born daughter of Indian immigrants. The songs on “Cool” exhibit her broad tastes and abilities—with influences ranging from folk and R&B to pop and country. To top it all off, Seela created an animated video for each song on the album. Check this one out for the song “Bad at Good.”
Waxahatchee “Saint Cloud”-Alabaman Katie Crutchfield released her fifth Waxahatchee album in spring, and it caught the attention of a lot of people right away, including Barack Obama, who put her song “Can’t Do Much” on his year-end list. Her lyrics are poetry, and her melodies dig in and hold on.
Brent Cobb “Keep ‘em On They Toes”-Irresistible, stripped-down roots country from a philosophical songwriter with a muted sense of humor and a warm, comforting voice.
Lori McKenna “The Balladeer”-This one grabs my attention each time I hear it. Every single track is a winner. In fact, it’s probably my favorite album of the year. Lori McKenna knows how to write a song, and has won Grammys for her skill. Even if you think you don’t like country music, I think you’ll like this one.
Molly Tuttle “But I’d Rather Be With You”- Singer Molly Tuttle is a superstar guitarist in the bluegrass world. But there’s not a lot of bluegrass on this album. These are creative indie folk covers of songs by a broad range of artists from the Grateful Dead to FKA Twigs to Rancid to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. We do get to hear Tuttle’s impressive guitar pickin’, though, especially on her super fun cover of “She’s a Rainbow” by the Rolling Stones.
The Mavericks “En Español”-I’m biased, I know. Almost every new Mavericks album makes it onto my year-end list. I can’t resist Raul Malo’s nearly operatic voice and the band’s tight, rich, hot arrangements that swing like crazy. This is the band’s first album entirely in Spanish.
Fretland “Fretland”-Named for its lead singer, Hillary Fretland, this young band from Snohomish, WA offers up an incredibly strong first album. It’s indie Americana/country/folk music with powerful vocals, beautiful harmonies, sometimes sweet acoustic and sometimes big fuzzy guitars, and thoughtful lyrics.
Raye Zaragoza “Woman in Color”-Here’s another album that I didn’t stumble over until late in the year. But after one listen, I knew it would go on this list. This is a protest album. It’s full of songs about being a woman (“Fight Like a Girl”), immigration (“Change Your Name”), and what she calls “the dysfunction of American power structures.” Zaragoza was born in New York City, but now lives in LA. Her mom is a Japanese immigrant and her dad has Mexican and Native American roots. Her identity informs her songs and she embodies what America is and what Americana music can be.
Sturgill Simpson “Cuttin’ Grass”-Sturgill Simpson is proving himself to be an amazingly versatile artist who changes his approach to music with every release. His last two albums won Grammy awards in the Americana and Country categories, and now he’s tackling bluegrass with the same aplomb. “Cuttin’ Grass” is a very generous 20 tracks with a killer band that includes Sierra Hull, Stuart Duncan, and Tim O’Brien.
Secret Sisters “Saturn Return”-These are grown up songs about family, relationships (both good and bad ones) and living life with its challenges and rewards. The gorgeous sister harmonies of Laura and Lydia Rogers are guided and supported musically by the album’s producers Brandi Carlile and her bandmates, the Hanseroth twins. And you can sure hear their influence on this record. That’s a good thing! It’s a beautiful album through and through.
Bonus local band: SLO County Stumblers “All the Good Times”-This is a fun and varied collection of old time fiddle tunes and songs from very talented players Casy Meikle (fiddle/vocals), Stuart Mason (guitar/vocals), Daniel Bohlman (banjo) and Jerry James (bass). Almost as good as the music and playing are the notes from Meikle about each song, its history and the band’s take on it.
 

Janelle Younger – The Broken Spoke Folk Show (top albums)
In looking over my Top Ten list for this year, I’m noticing a common theme – nostalgia. Lots of music that hearkens back to some half-known mythical musical glory days. Sign of the times. It was a strange year for music-makers. Some of these albums were released pre-pandemic; others were recorded in home studios, or groups were assembled virtually. One thing is for certain – difficult times make for good music.
10.  Jake Blount “Spider Tales-While a bit rough around the edges, this album provides an introduction to a musical scholar who has dug up some coal in the form of traditional songs, and has polished and compressed each tune into a diamond.  Looking forward to hearing more from Jake Blount in years to come.
9. Stuart Duncan, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile, featuring Aoife O'Donovan “Not Our First Goat Rodeo”-The second outing from this loose group of super-talents is a pleasure from beginning to end. You can just imagine the high fives after every recording session – “Dang, we knocked that one out of the park, too!” So much fun hearing fine musicians enjoying themselves.
8. Ben Harper “Winter is for Lovers”-His first-ever instrumental album showcases Harper’s evocative lap-steel guitar for a rich and emotional journey to cities around the world, from Verona to Manhattan.
7. Brent Cobb “Keep ‘Em On They Toes”-Brent Cobb sounds like the best friend you never had. Well-crafted lyrics that go way deeper than you’d think, with a voice like country maple syrup over a short stack of buckwheat pancakes.
6. Ray La Montagne “Monovision”-Self-produced, self-engineered, and he plays all the instruments. Each song is a visit to a different era; it’s time-travel via the “next” button.  Derivative? Yes, but gorgeously and impeccably so.
5. Sylvan Esso “Free Love”-The call-back here is to the best electronic music of the 80’s and early 90’s, but fresh, free, and far less structured and formulaic.  Sylvan Esso is producer Nick Sanborn and singer Amelia Meath, also a member of Mountain Man, who can do no wrong in my book.
4. Possessed by Paul James “As We Go Wandering”-Konrad Wert, who performs as Possessed by Paul James, is earnest, honest, and raw on this collection of handcrafted songs, with an edgy sensibility that keeps the lyrics from falling off the cliff into sentimental soup.
3. Sam Amidon “Sam Amidon”-Sam Amidon interprets traditional folk music as if he were an ethnomusicologist from outer space, and it’s the best thing ever. In the past, he could occasionally be a bit mournful, but this album is lighter and brighter. Traditional tunes and cover songs are revisited, with a cameo from Beth Orton on one track.
2. Mapache “From Liberty Street”-This album, too, is a shot of nostalgia, but here it’s the two-part harmonies that recall the echo of a familiar past. These guys are out of Southern California, and these sun-drenched tunes are warm, bright, and well-crafted.
1.This is the Kit “Off Off On”-Kate Stables is This is the Kit.  An exception to my other picks, this album has nothing to do with the past and everything to do with the future. Her music is innovative and unexpected, and the instrumentation surprises: woodwinds and banjos, brass and piano, all backing her clear, melancholy voice. It has been three years since 2017’s Moonshine Freeze, and it sure has been worth the wait.  You’ll find that this collection of songs - some angry, some pensive, and some full of driving energy – will seep into your consciousness around the edges, and you’ll find new facets with each listen

Fred Friedman – Jazz Liner Notes (top albums)
Artemis “Artemis”
Bob Dylan “Rough and Rowdy Ways”
Sharon Isbin “Strings For Peace”
Bill Frisell “Valentine”
Keith Jarrett “Budapest Concert”
Delfeayo Marsalis & The Uptown Jazz Orchestra “Jazz Party”
Leon Bridges & Khruangbin “Texas Sun”
Gregoire Märet, Bill Frisell and Romain Collin “Americana”

Monica Fiscalini - Jukebox Revival (top albums)
File under California Kids: Jesse Daniel “Rollin’ On” and Jaime Wyatt “Neon Cross” do their country influences proud.
File under The Pacific Northwest’s The Band: Western Centuries “Call the Captain”. They were supposed to play Live Oak 2020. Next time?!
File under Canadian Born, but born for Americana: Whitney Rose “We Still Go to Rodeos” and Tami Neilson “Chickaboom!” are a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll and a whole lot of fab.
RIYL interconnected short stories: Andy Shauf “The Neon Skyline”. Indie Pop, I suppose.
Comes back swinging after a case of COVID: Sturgill Simpson, “Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1.”
Nashville writer nails it behind the mic: Waylon Payne “Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me”
They wrote a song for everyone: “Texas Sun” on an EP from Khruangbin and Leon Bridges was an instant classic.
Early adapter: Dale Watson didn’t miss a beat when he started streaming his “Chicken S#!+ Bingo” live from Memphis on Sundays. Fans from around the world tune in to chat, bet on the winning plop and hear Dale and his socially-distanced band honky tonk all afternoon.
 

Tom Di Santo – Speak Low (top albums)
(no particular order)
Thelonious Monk “Palo Alto” (recorded in October of 1968 but just released in 2020)
Khruangbin “Mordechai”
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers “Just Coolin'” (recorded in 1959 but just released in 2020)
London Grammar “Californian Soil” (won't be available on vinyl until 2021, but has been release digitally this year)
Al Di Meola “Across the Universe”
Natalie Haskins “Puhidua” (New Times Music Awards Album of the Year 2020)
Chick Corea “Plays”
Ceu “Apka”
M. Ward “Migration Stories”
Leon Bridges with Khruangbin “Texas Sun” EP
 

Laura Joines – Citizen Sound (top songs)
Arlo Parks “Hurt”-British singer-songwriter and poet from West London
Binki “Wiggle”-Pennsylvanian who mixes pop, indie, dance, hip-hop, R&B and more into his own unique blend.
Bakar “Hell n' Back-Bakar melts indie, rap, rock, and punk into the same musical pot.
Beauty School Dropout “Make it Through the Night”-Beauty School Dropout is a new band based in Los Angeles (full disclosure: producer and guitarist Bardo Novotny, who grew up in SLO, is Laura’s son).
Goth Babe “Moments/Tides” and “End Summer” Griff Washburn—aka Goth Babe—lives in his camper in the Pacific Northwest where he writes mellow songs that evoke his vagabond lifestyle.
Jelani Aryeh “Stella Brown”-Alternative R&B musician from San Diego
Remi Wolk “Disco Man”-New artist from Palo Alto, California
Role Model “Notice me” and “Blind”-Honest new music from Tucker Pillsbury, better known under the moniker ROLE MODEL
Sault “Wildfires”-Sault is a British music collective that makes a mixture of R&B, house and disco.
Verzache “Talk”-Zach Farache is a singer, songwriter, producer and instrumentalist based in Toronto.
 

Laura Joines – Pickin’ Up the Tempo (top songs)
Bonny Light Horseman “Deep in Love”
Brent Cobb “The World is Ending”
Chris Stapleton  “Starting Over”
Drive-by Truckers “21st Century USA”
Gillian Welch “Peace in the Valley”
Jake Blount “Where did you Sleep Last Night”
Lillie Mae “Brightest Star”
Margaret Glaspy “Stay with Me”
Sunny War “She just don't care”
Waxahatchee “Can't Do Much”

 

Rick Mathews-Freedom Jazz Dance (top albums)
Pat Metheny “From This Place”
Joshua Redman “RoundAgain”
Wynton Marsalis & JALC Orchestra “The Ever Fonky Lowdown”
(at least read the libretto)
Tony Allen & Hugh Masekela “Rejoice”
Artemis “Artemis”
Ron Miles “Rainbow Sign”
Bill Frisell “Valentine”
Jake Reed “Reed Between the Lines”
Harold Lopez Nussa “Te Lo Dije”
Christian McBride Big Band “For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver”

bonus: “Blue Note Re:imagined”-Compilation of covers of classic Blue Note artists performed by current UK scene jazz talents.
 

Craig Russell-KCBX In Concert (top songs and works)
To see Craig’s comments about each selection below along with his translations of some lyrics, click here.
1. Pablo Alborán, “Cuando estés aquí,” (Whenever you might be here) Nominated for Best Pop Song at Latin Grammys, 2020—a direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
2. David Chesky, The Abreu Dances, esp. the “Abreu Dance No. 1.” Chesky Records.
3. Diego Torres (feat. Catalina García), “Amenece,” (The Sun Arises) released Aug 28, 2020.
4. Kany García & Nahuel Pennisi, “Lo que en tí veo,” from Mesa para Dos, May 27, 2020.
5. Nahko and Medicine for the People, “Honor the Earth,” from Take Your Power Back.
6. Carlos Vives and Rubén Blades, “No Estás Solo: Canción para los Enfermos” (You Are Not Alone: A Song for the Critically Ill).
7. Chris Brubeck, “Affinity: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra” with guitar soloist Sharon Isbin and The Maryland Symphony Orchestra, dir. by Elizabeth Schulze, on the CD Affinity: World Premiere Recordings [of] Brubeck, Brouwer, Lauro, Tan Dun, Danielpour, on Zoho.
8. Callie Bennett, “Hope,” (featuring Larry Dunn), from the album Awake, Arise, Shine. A single, released on Aug 15, 2020—a direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
9. Twin Flames, “Giants,” on their album Omen. The song’s refrain applies perfectly to the COVID-19 crisis.
10. Pitizion y Greeicy [Rendón], “No Pasa Nada” (Nothing to Worry About), cool video done on cell phones during the pandemic. Premiered. May 4, 2020. WOW.
 

David Figueroa – Trotamundos (top albums)
Tony Succar “Raices Jazz Orchestra”
Pacific Mambo Orchestra “The III Side”
Natalia Lafourcade “Un Canto Por Mexico: Vol I”
Harold Lopez Nuna “Te Lo Dije”
Seu Jorge / Roge “Night Dreamer Direct-to-Disc Sessions”
Checo Acosta “El Rey De Carnaval”
Natalie Greffel “Para Todos”
Silvia Iriondo “Pasionarias”
Muerdo “Fin De La Primera Vida”
La Conquista Del Espacio “Fito Paez”

 

Jim Dee – Global Spin (top albums)
Les Amazones D'Afrique: Amazones Power
Tamikrest “Tamoait”
Groupe RTD “The Dancing Devils of Djibouti”
Khruangbin “Mordechai”
Dhafer Youssef “Sounds of Mirrors”

 

Andy Zink – Global Spin (top albums)
Natalia Lafourcade “Un Canto por Mexico, Vol.1”
Hamilton de Holanda “Canto da Praya”
Fabiano Do Nascimento “Preludio”
Wood Brothers “Kingdom in my Mind”
Lionel Suarez “Cuarteto Gardel”
Oumou Sangare “Acoustic”
Dafins Prieto Sextet “Transparency”
Chick Corea “Plays”
Bill Frisell “Valentine”
Khrunangbin & Leon Bridges “Texas Sun” EP

 

Several KCBX music hosts have been on hiatus from their shows this year, due to the pandemic, but they’re still enthusiastically listening to new music. Three of them sent in lists:
 

Sal España – Beyond the Fringe (top albums)
1. Sparks “A Steady Drip Drip Drip-Almost 50 years in, Ron & Russell Mael release what is arguably their finest album.
2. Malfet “Alban Arthan”-Luscious gothic ambience from Los Osos.
3. Jim Ottaway “When Eternity Touches Time”-A wonderful mix of electronic styles from Australia.
4. Jon Durant & Robert Jurgendal “Across the Evening”-Spacey guitars and world textures.
5. Bill Nelson: Old Haunts-Legendary British multi-instrumentalist's latest mix of vocal and instrumental tracks peppered with his trademark guitar work.
 

Leslie Thompson – Pickin’ Up the Tempo (top albums)
Jason Isbell “Reunions”
Khruangbin “Mordechai”
Monophonics “It's Only Us”
“On the Road, Tribute to John Hartford”
(various artists)
Sarah Jarosz “World On the Ground”
Joshua James “Dreams of Karen”

Felicia Lewis – Night Train substitute host
Top albums
Giveon “Take Time”
Gregory Porter “All Rise”
Fantastic Negrito “Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?”
Top songs
Giveon feat. Sando Aalegra “Last Time”
Giveon “Stuck on You”
Lianne La Havas “Paper Thin”
Gregory Porter “Everything You Touch Is Gold
Gregory Porter “Long List of Troubles”
Thundercat “Unrequited Love”
Jorga Smith “By Any Means”
Cleo Sol “When I’m In Your Arms”
Fantastic Negrito feat. Tarriona “Tank” Ball “I’m So Happy I Cry”
The Suffers “Take Me to the Good Times”

Some of our DJs play almost exclusively old releases. Here are some of the older songs and albums that attracted them this year:

John Walsh – Pacific Standard Time (top songs)
"I get along without you very well" Nina Simone
"Guess who I say today" Nancy Wilson
"I should care" Nat King Cole (remastered)
"Skylark" Aretha Franklin
"Singin' in the Rain" Jamie Cullum
"If I should lose you" Nina Simone
"I'm glad there is you" Ella Fitzgerald
"If I only had a brain" Robbie Williams
"In the wee small hours of the morning" Curtis Stigers
"If you could see me now" Sarah Vaughan

Carl “Sonny” Leyland – Rhythm Retrospective (top songs)
1. Coleman Hawkins Swing Four “The Man I Love”
2. Red Nelson (& Clarence Lofton) “Cryin' Mother Blues”
3. Little Donnie Bowshire “Rock & Roll Joys”
4. Art Tatum “Tatum Pole Boogie”
5. Will Bradley Trio “Down The Road Apiece”
6. Roosevelt Sykes “The Honeydripper”
7. Don Byas “Annie Laurie”
8. New Orleans Feetwarmers “Sweetie Dear”
9. Chuck Berry “Oh Baby Doll”
10. Bud Powell “Tea For Two”

Dan Wardlow – Audio Aftermath (top albums)
Here's a Top Ten List for Audio Aftermath Radio ... given the program's retro perspective, the newest of these albums is 47 years old! They're albums that I've been drawn to in 2020, and which have inspired sets of music on the program. Presented here in no particular order:
Genesis “Selling England By The Pound” (1973, the band at its zenith with peak performances by vocalist Peter Gabriel and guitarist Steve Hackett)
Bonnie Raitt “Bonnie Raitt” (1973 debut album, sets the stage for an amazing career)
Caravan “In The Land Of Grey And Pink” (1971, epitomizes the whimsy and wit of the Canterbury music scene)
Chris Farlowe “The Last Goodbye” (1969, a compilation by the best of the “blue-eyed” English soul singers)
Cream “Fresh Cream” (1966, because Clapton, Bruce, and Baker…)
Dave Alexander “The Dirt On The Ground” (1973, much under-rated blues pianist from Marshall, TX)
Joanne Vent “The Black And White Of It Is Blues” (1969, a big talented voice in blues who pre-saged singers like Eva Cassidy)
Love “Forever Changes” (1967, sometimes when a band is on the cusp of a breakup they make their best music)
Small Faces “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake” (1968, an unfathomable fairy tale concept album with elements of psychedelia, metal, and ambitious studio production)
Jimi Hendrix Experience “Electric Ladyland” (1970, a farewell from a genius)