Best Prog Albums of 2020 and More

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!)

Kruekutt’s 2020 Favorites: New Albums

Here are the albums of new music from 2020 that grabbed me on first listen, then compelled repeated plays. I’m not gonna rank them except for my Top Favorite status, which I’ll save for the very end. The others are listed alphabetically by artist. (Old school style, that is — last names first where necessary!) Links to previous reviews or listening/purchase sites like Bandcamp are embedded in the album titles. 

Nick D’Virgilio, Invisible: No echoes of Big Big Train or even Spock’s Beard to be heard here. D’Virgilio’s long-awaited latest focuses on classy, soulful rock and pop with R&B undercurrents, reminiscent of nothing so much as the pre-Nirvana mainstream; the progginess is in the extended structures, the virtuoso playing and the overall concept. The down to earth storyline, a redemption narrative with some nifty twists, definitely helps make Invisible appealing and relatable.  But it’s the musical means D’Virgilio uses to build out the story — emotive singing, consistently powerful drum work, polished electric piano, loops, bass, bass synth and guitars — that seal the deal. As a result, every single track grabs on tight from the start — not just revealing more depth and emotional resonance with every repeat, but also relentlessly propelling the album forward.

I Am the Manic Whale, Things Unseen: I remain blown away by the energy, humor and sheer delight these young British proggers bring to their story-songs; this third album sounds like their best yet, with crystal clear production by Rob Aubrey.  There’s wickedly cheery satire in “Billionaire” and “Celebrity”, a brooding, atmospheric trip to Narnia in “The Deplorable Word” and unbounded delight in the gift of children in “Smile” and “Halcyon Days”.  Not to mention IAtMW’s very own train song, “Valenta Scream”, laying down a challenge to Big Big Train with (in my opinion) the best lyrical simile of 2020: “Making it look so very easy/Eating up the distance like a cheese sandwich.”  Really. (Check out their free compilation of covers and live-in-studio tracks, Christmas Selection Box on Bandcamp, too.)

Kansas, The Absence of Presence: A real leap forward for a revitalized band; appealing melodies, heady complexity and breathtaking power unite for maximum impact, and it’s a joy to hear all the way through.  Each band member has upped his game multiple notches — David Ragsdale, Zak Rivzi and Rich Williams peel off one ear-catching riff and solo after another, Ronnie Platt sings with smooth, soaring power and commitment (evoking Steve Walsh while being utterly himself), and I could listen to Billy Greer and Phil Ehart’s rolling, tumbling thunder all day.  New keyboardist Tom Brislin is the perfect match for this line-up, dishing up just the right lick no matter what’s required — pensive piano intros, crushing organ and synth riffs, lush textures, wigged-out solos, you name it. Stir in a new level of collaboration in the writing, and you get Kansas unlocking a new level of achievement, making excellent new music more than 40 years after their initial breakthrough.  Recommended without hesitation.

Lunatic Soul, Through Shaded Woods: The perfect Hero’s Journey for this frustrating year. Mariusz Duda’s latest holiday from Riverside’s post-prog heads straight for Mirkwood — ominous, lowering music, echoing the colors and contours of Slavic and Scandinavian folk. Playing all the instruments (frenetic acoustic strums; decorative baroque keys; tasty metallic riffs and electronica accents; unstoppable primal percussion) Duda penetrates the heart of his melancholy, only to discover his greatest obstacle: himself. At which point “Summoning Dance” pivots, echoing Dante lyrically as it turns toward the soul-easing finale of “The Fountain.” Imagine Bela Bartok and Jethro Tull collaborating on a sequel to Kate Bush’s “The Ninth Wave,” and you’ll have some idea of how unique and special this album is. (The bonus disc — currently only available as a Bandcamp download link above and as a Polish import — is essential listening too, especially the hypnotic minimalist epic “Transition II.”)

Pat Metheny, From This Place: State of the art jazz composed and performed at the highest level, this is a unified work of formidable emotional range and intelligence: instantly accessible, inescapably substantial — and above all, incredibly moving. Metheny, pianist Gwilym Simcock, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Antonio Sanchez ride the exhilarating ebb and flow of ten new tunes, their rich interplay locking together with sumptuous orchestral overdubs for awe-inspiring, high-intensity results.  From This Place communicates like mad; confronting knotty, pensive questions of culture, identity and hope, it’s also a deeply satisfying culmination to Metheny’s career-long pursuit of transcendence — music both of its time and potentially timeless, gripping at first acquaintance, deepening its impact with every further listen. 

Hedvig Mollestad, Ekhidna: The Norwegian guitarist takes her incandescent blend of heavy rock and avant-garde jazz to the next level, triumphantly meeting the challenges inherent in writing for a bigger band and a broader sonic palette. Ekhidna is a bracing blend of tumbling rhythms, killer riffs and brain-bending improv that goes down remarkably smooth, but leaves a fiery aftertaste. Writing for an accomplished sextet of players, Mollestad’s new music doesn’t avoid the expectations raised by its evocation of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, sometimes confronting classic genre strategies head-on, sometimes blithely subverting them. Named for the she-dragon of Greek mythology (also called “the mother of all monsters”), this album is monstrous in the best sense — a musical rollercoaster ride suffused with heat, light and heart, recombining the raw materials of jazz-rock and extending its reach into realms of vast new potential. A real breakthrough, and Mollestad’s best effort to date.

Markus Reuter, Fabio Trentini and Asaf Sirkis, Truce: Utterly bracing, a cold slap in the face that kicked off 2020 in the best way possible.  Recorded live in the studio on a single day by touch guitarist Reuter, bassist Trentini and drummer Sirkis,  this is the unfiltered, mind-boggling sound of three virtuosos throwing caution to the winds and just going for it. From start to stop, the music they make is unbeatably heavy, head-snappingly varied, and vividly compelling — whether on the searing stomp of a title track, the brutal mid-tempo funk of “Bogeyman”,  the abstract balladry of “Be Still My Brazen Heart”, or the Police-ified dub freak-out of “Let Me Touch Your Batman”.  Listening to Truce is an hour-long thrill ride with tons of substance to chew on — one you need to experience for yourself, more than once.

Sanguine Hum, A Trace of Memory: Rarely does eccentricity sound so graceful as in the hands of Joff Binks, Matt Baber and Andrew Waismann. Sequenced as a seamless whole, the seven tracks on A Trace of Memory trace a playful trajectory; no matter the giddy succession of off-kilter riffs, the complex counterpoint of Binks’ guitar and Baber’s keys, or the intensity of the musical climaxes, the ebb and flow is consistently welcoming, yet always subtly stimulating. Freed from the broadly goofy, conceptual conceit of Now We Have Light and Now We Have Power, Binks can explore a more allusive lyrical style and spare melodic lines that soar instead of patter; less is definitely more in this context. Sanguine Hum has hit new heights here; listening to this album is like watching clouds travel unhurriedly across a clear sky, and it makes me smile every time. In 2020, this may be the closest you can come to hearing the harmony of the spheres.

Maria Schneider Orchestra, Data Lords: There’s no question in my mind that composer Maria Schneider (based in jazz but embracing musical terrain beyond category) and her orchestra have reached a new artistic pinnacle on this album. Conveying both the bleak potential of online life blindly lived and the bounteous beauty of the life around us we take for granted, Schneider conjures up slow-burning tone poems that, as they catch fire, blaze with fear and dread — but also with hope and joy. Throughout there’s a symphonic sweep, a supple rhythmic foundation and a seamless flow of inexhaustible melody; Schneider’s compatriots inhabit and animate her music with dedicated unity and thrilling improvisational daring; and the high-definition sound lovingly unfolds all of the music’s sophisticated, profoundly moving beauty with breathtaking clarity.

Secret Machines, Awake in the Brain Chamber: Way back in 2004, Secret Machines’ Now Here Is Nowhere was one of that year’s most compelling albums, a ferocious collage of droning space-rock riffs, rampaging Zeppelinesque grooves and unsettling, dystopian lyrics. A stalled major-label career and a revolving door of personnel dissolved the band’s momentum, capped by guitarist Benjamin Curtis’ passing in 2013 — but somehow, this magnificent beast is back. On Awake in the Brain Chamber, brother Brandon Curtis writes the songs and supplies keys, guitar and bass (as well as his patented, heartbroken vocal sneer) while drummer Josh Garza fills all available frequencies with his customary thunder. Whether they’re uptempo sprints (“Dreaming Is Alright, “Everything’s Under”), widescreen ballad-paced crawls (“3, 4, 5 Let’s Stay Alive,” “So Far Down”), or determined drives into the middle distance (“Talos’ Corpse,” “Everything Starts”), these eight taut, sharp tracks hit the sweet spot between hard rock and modern-day psychedelia — tight, mesmerizing, absolutely exhilarating. This one will get your blood flowing.

Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You: As his career trajectory flared, climbed, peaked, then settled into the long tail of legacy-rock stardom, Springsteen never really stopped exploring his core concerns: the ins and outs of freedom and community, their costs and their consolations.  The good news here is that Letter to You digs deeper, pondering the price of escape, love, friendship, loss, grief and jubilation, remembering friends now dead, reviving songs once abandoned. When Bruce has something big to write about, he can cut straight to your heart, even from a secluded home studio in deepest New Jersey, and he’s done it again here. With the E Street Band on fire behind him, Letter to You could be the basis of a tour to top them all for Springsteen; but even if that never comes to pass, this album is something special, a hard-rocking reminder that yes, our days on this earth are numbered — but also that love is strong as death.

Three Colours Dark, The Science of Goodbye: This new collaboration between vocalist Rachel Cohen (Karnataka, The Reasoning) and keyboardist/guitarist Jonathan Edwards (Karnataka, Panic Room) proves elegant, introspective and strangely irresistible; there’s brooding power to the music and a darkly compelling lyrical vision to match.  Lured by Edwards’ lush, disconcerting settings into Cohen’s brave, quietly harrowing narratives of pain, bewilderment, and self-doubt, you wonder how you’ll make it out — which makes the album’s cathartic finale even more delicious. From claustrophobic onset to the inspiring end, The Science of Goodbye rings true as both testimony and art, as Three Colours Dark follow the light that seeps through the cracks in everything to a new day. 

and my favorite new album of 2020 . . .

Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Songs of Yearning/Nocturnes: I have never before heard anything quite like this album, and found myself returning to it all year.  This loose creative collective from Liverpool has pursued “echoes of the sacred” across three decades, striving to access sonic space where transcendence can invade a stiflingly measured-out world.   Songs of Yearning and the limited bonus album Nocturnes (still available as a pair at Bandcamp) both stake out new territory where rumors of glory can run; brimming with rough-hewn beauty and deep mystery, pairing audacious scope with quiet, insistent appeal, this music is primal and postmodern in the same eternal instant.  As the idols of prosperity and progress continue to totter around us, RAIJ’s latest feels like genuinely good news — a sacramental transmission from, then back to, the heart of creation.

— Rick Krueger

Kruekutt’s 2020 Favorites: Not Necessarily New Albums

This year, I’m starting off my “best of” retrospective with albums that aren’t technically “new” — compilations, live albums, reissues and (re)discoveries from previous years — that grabbed me on first listen, then compelled repeated plays in 2020. I’m not gonna rank them except for my Top Pick, which I’ll save for the very end. The others are listed alphabetically by artist. (Old school style, that is — last names first where necessary!) Where available, listening opportunities are linked in the album title or included below my summary via Bandcamp, YouTube or Spotify.

Big Big Train, Summer’s Lease (compilation) and Empire (live): This year, I’ve bought music from even more far-flung corners of the world than usual — including Big Big Train’s Japanese-only retrospective. Disc 1 features various rarities on CD for the first time: re-recordings old and new (including excerpts from my intro to the band, the Stone and Steel Blu-Ray), plus the “London Song” sequence from Folklore in all its sprawling glory. Disc 2 leans into the post-Underfall Yard era with a solid mix of epics and, um, shorter epics, plus an unreleased instrumental as dessert. It’s all impeccably curated, and (in retrospect) a fitting capstone to the work of recently departed Train crew Dave Gregory Rachel Hall and Danny Manners. In a similar fashion, Empire is a fond farewell — the last concert played by this incarnation of the band (including Cosmograf’s Robin Armstrong) before COVID-19 killed off their first-ever North American tour. Which makes the entire show, brilliantly performed as always, even more poignant, from the rocket-fueled opener “Alive” to the romantic, spiraling coda for the best version of “East Coast Racer” yet. Sorry, there’s something in my eye . . .

The Firesign Theatre, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All (rediscovery): This spring, my big brother Bob pointed me back to this 1969 classic — quite possibly the single most insane comedy album ever recorded. The half-hour long title track’s surrealistic road trip morphs into a wickedly irreverent (yet oddly touching) patriotic pageant, with stopover cameos from Lewis Carroll and James Joyce; “The Further Adventures Of Nick Danger,” memorized and mimed to by me and my roommates back in college, is a hallucinogenic smoothie of hardboiled detective drama, time travel and the Beatles’ White Album. “Wait a minute — didn’t I say that line on the other side of the record?” Believe me, you need to find out.

Pat Mastelotto and Markus Reuter, FACE (discovery): My New Year’s resolution was to become a MoonJune Music subscriber through Bandcamp; twelve months later, it’s still one of the best musical decisions I made. In recent years, touch guitarist Reuter has become a major contributor to Leonardo Pavkovic’s ongoing quest to “explore and expand boundaries of jazz, rock, ethnographic, avant, the unknown and anything between and beyond,” frequently joined by King Crimson drummer Mastelotto (his partner with Tony Levin in Stick Men). The 2017 FACE (not actually on MoonJune) stands out in the duo’s catalog: a single, 35-minute instrumental travelogue that swiftly spans the globe and its myriad rhythms, aided and abetted by Steven Wilson and associates of David Lynch, Tool and the Rembrandts. Blink with your ears and you’ll miss the transitions from theme to theme and place to place; this one both demands and thoroughly rewards my attention every time. Hopefully, the excerpts linked above will convince you — don’t hesitate to hop on board!

The Neal Morse Band, The Great Adventour Live in Brno (live): every bit as impressive as when I saw this show in Detroit the same year, the NMB’s concert take on The Great Adventure is even tighter, more driven and more finely honed than the studio version. Kaleidoscopic contrasts of rhythm, instrumental color, vocal textures (mainly from Morse, guitarist Eric Gillette and keyboardist Bill Hubauer) and tonality mesh effortlessly with drummer Mike Portnoy and bassist Randy’s George’s badass forward propulsion, mirroring the lyrical highs and lows of the journey to John Bunyan’s Celestial City. The result is sustained, extended, unforced ecstasy in the Czech audience, capturing how Morse’s recent work embodies the ongoing ideal of American revivalist religion. A journey worth taking, whether you caught this in person or not.

Jaco Pastorius, Truth, Liberty and Soul: Live in NYC (live, archival, discovery): 2020 was the year I came across Resonance Records, where “jazz detective” Zev Feldman has been unearthing incredible archival treasures for nearly a decade. Jaco Pastorius single-handedly revolutionized electric bass playing in the 1970s; this 2017 release captures him in 1982, fresh from his boundary-busting stint in jazz-rock titans Weather Report. Fronting a big band of great players — the best New York horns, the drum/percussion duo of Peter Erskine and Don Alias, Othello Molineaux on steel pans and harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielmanns — Pastorius mixes classic tunes with his own soulful writing. It’s a mighty, bubbling noise — jazz, funk, rock, reggae, swing and more, with a groove that never stops and heart behind the flash. Irresistible for anyone with a pulse!

Porcupine Tree, In Absentia (deluxe reissue): Not the Porcupine Tree album that hooked me (that was Deadwing, promised its own deluxe box next year) but, looking back, my firm favorite of the band’s late period. Freshly signed to the American label that brought us Trans Siberian Orchestra, Steven Wilson and company made the polar opposite of a sentimental holiday album, focusing on the inner motivations of — serial killers? What makes that work? Well, how about: the full-on debut of Gavin Harrison’s stylish, rhythmically slippery drumming; Richard Barbieri’s off-center, arresting synth textures and solos; Colin Edwin’s relentless, incomparably steady bass workouts; Steven Wilson’s reignited love of metal slamming up against the songcraft developed on Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun, as well as a fixation with Beach Boys-tinged harmonies? Oh, and a clutch of superior tunes that became perennial favorites, both on the main album (“Blackest Eyes,” “Trains,” “The Sound of Muzak”) and the bonus disc (“Drown With Me,” “Futile”). Add in subtle yet superb remastering and you have a near-perfect example of how these boxes should be done.

Pure Reason Revolution, The Dark Third (reissue): At a time when progressive rock’s troops were thin on the ground, PRR provided reinforcements — and a breath of fresh air. It’s still hard to believe a major label released The Dark Third back in 2006; the effortlessly evolving long-form suites, the sweet-and-sour pairings of lush soundscapes and jacked-up beats were a vivid variant on Pink Floyd’s classic palette that turned the bass and drums up to 11. Jon Courtney, Chloe Alper and their cohorts weave the webs of melody and harmony; Paul Northfield’s co-production brings out the cavernous bottom end. The new bonus disc includes both the intriguing student work that led to Sony signing PRR and outtakes that showed up in different forms on later albums. Always an booming, blissed-out listen, now more inviting than ever.

Tears for Fears, The Seeds of Love (reissue): A marvelously all-over-the-place, widescreen record. Unabashedly pop but also fearlessly expanding the TFF sound into psychedelia (the title track was everywhere back in 1989), soul (big shout-out to Oleta Adams and Tessa Niles, who pushed Roland Orzbaal and Curt Smith to new vocal heights on “Woman in Chains” & “Swords & Knives”), jazz (Nicky Holland & Adams serve up stunningly tasty piano), world music (Jon Hassell’s superlative trumpet on “Standing on the Corner of the Third World” & “Famous Last Words”) and even a touch of prog-funk on “Year of the Knife.’ The squeaky-clean remaster (plenty of headroom and dynamic range) is dandy, but if you need more, the super-deluxe set linked above includes some dynamite rehearsal recordings.

and my Top Pick . . .

Ella Fitzgerald, The Lost Berlin Tapes (live, archival): My recent listening has tacked in the direction of mainstream jazz; if I had to speculate as to why, I’d say I might be looking for less tension and more release during my unobligated time. But what’s on offer is a factor as well. Instead of baking sourdough bread or taking up acoustic guitar during the time of COVID, it’s as if jazz musicians and aficionados have all dug deep in their closets and simultaneously unearthed long lost vintage recordings — which record companies eager to fill their distribution pipelines have snapped up and launched into the wider world. 

This, in my view, is the best of that harvest: an astounding, life-affirming 1962 concert buried in the archives of Ella Fitzgerald’s manager until now. Ella and her fellas (Paul Smith on piano, Wilfred Middlebrooks on bass, Stan Levey on drums) are at their absolute peak, in tune with each other and with an extroverted, enthralled Berlin audience. Every note of this concert radiates warmth and inner joy, even when the mood darkens on torch songs like “Cry Me A River” and Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache.” And when Ella swings on “Jersey Bounce,” jumps on “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie,” digs into Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah, I Love Him So” (resulting in an immediate, complete encore!), then breaks into her trademark scatting on “Mack the Knife,” well, she is unstoppable. I have had no finer feeling listening to music this year; whatever may ail your soul, I believe that The Lost Berlin Tapes are good medicine for it.

But wait, there’s more! Watch for my “new album” favorites from 2020 coming soon . . .

— Rick Krueger