Now that we are a full month into 2021, I was able to spend sometime reflecting on the wonderful music that was released in 2020. There is a lot of variety here and therefore impossible for me to rank them, so these albums are in no particular order. I narrowed it down to my favorite ten 2020 albums, plus best EP, best pop album, best contemporary album, and several runner-ups.
BEST PROG-ROCK ALBUMS OF 2020:
Abel Ganz- The Life of the Honey Bee and Other Moments of Clarity Really beautiful songwriting all around here. The whole album took me on a journey- which is a really important for me when it come to rating an album.
Haken- Virus The 17-minute “Messiah Complex” (split up over five tracks) is worth the price of admission alone! In my opinion, every Haken album since The Mountain has been one of the best of the year. A conceptual sequel to their previous album Vector, Virus is the stronger of the two so this makes my Top 10 without question.
Kansas- The Absence of Presence Their impressive comeback album from 2016, The Prelude Implicit, was in my top 10 from 2016. Although I can’t figure out which one I like better, this one is definitely made my list for 2020’s Top Ten. Had I put my picks in order, I would probably put this as my favorite of the year (For sure in the top 3), just because this album is the strongest contender of my most enjoyed prog sub-genre (symphonic). And an extra bonus, I enjoyed the addition of keyboardist Tom Brislin, who I’ve been a fan of since seeing him perform with Yes and then discovering his band Spiraling.
Kyros- Celexa Dreams A wonderful album full of great energy, wonderful production, and excellent songwriting. A nice mix of mainstream potential with prog-rock. As a keyboardist myself, I admire much of the keyboard sounds they use and there are a lot of 80’s sounding beats as well as music that would fit quite well as soundtracks to Sega Genesis games. “Rumour” and “Sentry” are super catchy tunes, but my favorite is the 14 minute “In Vantablack”.
Magenta- Masters of Illusion This is one of my favorite releases from Magenta so far. Love the synths, soaring melodies, and outstanding performances from the entire band especially lead vocalist Christina Booth. Her powerful, yet easy on the ears tone, is perfect for the music that accompanies her. The cinematic arrangements are masterfully mixed and produced. This is great old-school prog reminiscent of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and Pink Floyd.
Neal Morse- Sola Gratia We always know that we’re going to get a quality album from Mr. Morse, pretty much no matter what he comes out with, and this is no exception. You get all the usual proggy Morse-isms, plus a few unexpected and refreshing sounds, but this one doesn’t change the game. Mike Portnoy, as always, kills it on the drums, and Randy George’s bass performance is excellent. The quality of the mix is excellent and has a wide scope of dynamics, and since it is a Rich Mouser mix, it sounds fantastic using a nice pair of headphones. Neal exudes so much passion into his vocal performance, but the choirs and background vocals are sort of dry and lacking energy comparatively.
Once and Future Band- Deleted Scenes Even though the title sounds like this would be a B-side collection, it definitely doesn’t sound like that at all. This one is so extremely enjoyable. Sounds like an English band from the 70’s, but I discovered they are from San Fransisco. It’s Beatles meets Burt Bacharach, meets jazz fusion with old school production and vibes from the Steely Dan universe, and really cool harmony vocals straight out of The Who and Beach Boys. This is their 2nd full length album, the first being their self-titled album in 2017.
Pattern-Seeking Animals- Prehensile Tales Wonderful sophomore effort from Ted Leonard, Dave Meros, John Boegehold and Jimmy Keegan. While their debut album was a strong one, they have definitely outdone themselves with this release. This is a super fun listen that takes many directions. My favorite track is “Here in my Autumn” and longest track “Lifeboat”.
Pure Reason Revolution- Eupnea This one is a very enjoyable listen. Supposedly this is their first album in 10 years- well worth the wait- Well, I just found out about them so I didn’t wait much, but their fans seem very happy. Both the dark and melodic pop-like melodies and edgy riffs reminded me of Porcupine Tree. I’m not familiar with PPR’s other two albums, but this one was definitely a surprise. I can’t really pick a favorite track- it’s pretty wonderful from beginning to the end.
Wobbler- Dwellers of the Deep Excellent retro prog! A lot of early Yes influences complete with vocal harmonies we don’t hear very often. Not just a carbon copy of their influences, the tracks are masterfully done. This was my first time discovering this group, and I’m now stoked to check out their back catalogue.
BEST PROG EP:
Thrailkill- Detach Very impressive heavy instrumental prog-metal in the wheelhouse of Haken, with many influences of jazz and fusion as well. The are six tracks over the period of twenty minutes and twenty seconds, but they all flow into each other as one piece… yes, that’s right- it runs 20:20 and came out in 2020. I’m guessing this was done on purpose, but doesn’t matter- it’s really good- well constructed and masterfully performed. It boasts a really unique album cover too!
BEST NON-PROG CONTEMPORARY ALBUM:
Chris Opperman- Chamber Music from Hell Maybe it’s not exactly prog-ROCK, but it certainly is still progressive. Chamber Music from Hell is a contemporary classical concept album about a post-human civilization and the music that follows. The music is mostly instrumental, but together with the 32-page booklet- it tells the entire story and completes the experience. There are some Frank Zappa influences in the music and in concept. Zappa musician Mike Keneally and drummer Marco Minnemann are among the guest performers. Prog artist Dave Kerzner is also credited as engineering some tracks.
An excerpt from the liner notes, which gives you a little more insight into what this is about:
Ever since the first major label signed an algorithm to a twenty-album deal with the goal of making the analog people(s) more productive in the workplace, music has remained a large part of AI culture. While the sports community initially heavily resisted the intrusion of advanced technology, the music community embraced it. Fans mostly just wanted relatable lyrics, familiar harmonies, and cool beats from incredibly good-looking artists with compelling back stories. Eventually, improvements in AI made it possible to successfully and consistently provide these songs through algorithms and procedurally enerated names, images, and backstories. Once all of the biggest venues were equipped with holographic technology, there was no longer any need to work with the analog people(s). A large component of pop music was always the spectacle, and the holograms could consistently deliver the kinds of shows that the analog people(s) could never even dream of. After taking over the music industry, it was simple to expand into the film and television markets. They eventually even began to be accepted in sports thanks to proliferation of broadcasts about how unsafe sports were for the analog people(s). Plus, slam dunks from the opposite side of the court are pretty cool. Now that the analog people(s) are gone, the target market of these products has shifted to the syn-cons themselves. They prefer complexpan-chromatic music with nearly incomprehensible beats and the excessive use of arpeggiators. There are still plenty of paypoor clips to be made in the entertainment industry of 2XXX, after all!
BEST POP ALBUM:
Whitney Tai- Apogee I discovered Whitney Tai this year and was immediately captivated with the songwriting. The music, lyrics, and production are on an exceptional level which all wanna-be-pop artists should inspire to. There is obviously a lot of passion here and much of the lyrical content has a haunting poetic vibe, and compliments the mood of the music itself.
BEST RE-RELEASE OF 2020:
Djam Karet- Burning The Hard City/ Suspension & Dispslacement (Special Edition)
This 3-CD reissue showcases their 1991 releases Burning The Hard City and Suspension & Displacement and comes with a bonus disc of archive material from that same era. Although the music is 30 years old , the new master sounds incredibly fresh. Great packaging too, prog collectors will definitely love this one. The physical release is limited to only 450 copies.
BEST ALBUM RUNNER-UPS:
Airbag- A Day at the Beach This is my first time listening to Airbag. Really enjoyed the experience from beginning to the end. This one is an album that feels like a complete piece of work. Cool electronica mixed with prog and concise songwriting. This one came super close to making my Top 10.
Amuzeum- New Beginnings Soon after the sad news of hearing L.A. band Heliopolis broke up, we received the exciting news that 4 of the 5 members would form an entirely new band. While not as strong as Heliopolis’ only studio album City of the Sun, this one is a strong contender, almost making it to my top 10. Like Heliopolis’ release, this one has wonderful 70’s era prog feels along with positive vibes.
Days Between Stations- Giants If I made a top 10 list in 2007, DBS’s debut album would have made the list. Their new album, sounds like a very different band, most likely due to to Yes’ own Billy Sherwood’s influential producing and lead vocals. Colin Moulding, who appeared on their previous album In Extemis, also sings lead on a track. These songs were obviously written specifically for these singers, as we get a taste of modern Yes/ Billy Sherwood solo albums, and XTC consecutively.
Esthesis- The Awakening Mostly mellow in nature and nothing too obtrusive if you’re doing other work which requires some brain energy. The mix and production is very warm and organic. Don’t let the fact that it didn’t make my top ten fool you. This is one you definitely should check out.
Fernando Perdomo- Out to Sea 3 Not as solid as Fernando’s first Out to Sea, but compliments Out to Sea 2 really well, and is a great listen if you want to check out some vintage sounding instrumental prog-rock.
Flower Kings- Islands If you’re a fan of The Flower Kings, you’re going to love this 21-track, 90 minute album. Most of the tracks are great, but the main reason for me not putting it into the Top Ten list is that the album feels more like a bunch of really cool tracks and instead of a cohesive album. It’s well performed and mixed though, and there’s a lot to love here.
Lunatic Soul- Through Shaded Woods Mariuz Duda from Riverside preforms all vocals and instruments. It’s not a very long album, but you get six carefully crafted tracks.
There you have it, folks! Make sure to check it all out! And support all these great artists, because in case you hadn’t heard, 2020 was a rough one! (Bandcamp Friday is just a few days away!)