Favorite Albums of 2020

At the end of each year, I compile a list of my favorite music albums, mainly to document what I enjoyed listening to, but also to share with others.

I’ve been a subscriber to streaming music services for a while, and although I love the convenience of streaming and having just about every new song and album ever released at my fingertips, I’ve found it difficult to really get attached to anything new, simply because there’s so much new music coming out all the time. I find that it’s easy to get lost in all of the new releases and not get a chance to really listen for an extended time and allow the music to sink in.

2020 was a strange year. The global pandemic caused by COVID-19 really hurt the music industry and slowed the release of new music due to the inability to have concerts. Many industries that are tied to music (physical record shops and venues such as clubs and bars) were also hurt by the slow down. Still, some artists were able to flourish during this time as they found new and innovative ways to reach their audiences.

At work (at a school), my job was considered essential, so I went in each day to an empty campus. It was a surreal experience. I likened it to being on spring break for 9 months. For the most part, no one else came into the area I work in but me. I listened to a lot of music during this time, but found myself gravitating toward downtempo, lo-fi and ambient grooves as the year progressed.

These are the albums and artists that I’ve spent the most time with, and/or have connected with over the past year. I’m showcasing a lot more compared to previous years because I listened to a lot more music in 2020.

Full disclosure: Purchasing any of the music using the links below will give a small percentage of the sale to my wife.

Takuya Kuroda - Fly Moon Die Soon album cover

10. Takuya Kuroda - Fly Moon Die Soon

I’m fairly new to Brooklyn-based, Japanese trumpeter Takuya Kuroda, having seen his album featured prominently in the jazz section at Tower Records stores in Japan and briefly listening to his previous release, Zigzagger. When Kuroda released the single Change (featuring Corey King) it made me want to explore his music. Kuroda blends elements of jazz, Neo-soul and hip hip with his solo improvisations. I love Miles Davis, and I’d like to imagine that Mr. Davis would enjoy what Kuroda is doing.

Hot tracks: Fade (featuring Corey King), Abc, Change (featuring Corey King).

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon

beabadoobee - Fake It Flowers album cover

9. beabadoobee - Fake It Flowers

Beatrice Laus, the Philippines-born, London-raised singer songwriter goes by the stage name beabadoobee. I listened to her Space Cadet EP in late 2019 and enjoyed the dirty pop sound she created. Her debut release Fake It Flowers continues where the EP leaves off and puts a full band behind her familiar feeling vocals. It’s a real 90’s vibe with introspective, personal lyrics.

Hot tracks: Care, Worth It

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon

Nakamura Parking - Mikazuki Drive album cover

8. Nakamura Parking - Mikazuki Drive

This is an album of melodic J-Rock straight from the streets of Ikebukuro, Japan. Literally! Let me explain. During a vacation to Japan back in 2018, my wife and I were walking back to our hotel, when we spotted a crowd of people gathered around someone busking on the sidewalk. To our surprise, it was a 4 piece rock band, using small battery powered amps and electric instuments… and they sounded great! I was so impressed by their energy, tight sound and musicianship, that I purchased their CD when the performance was over. Flash forward to 2020, and they’ve released their first full album!

Hot tracks: Ether Halo, Weekend Tokyo, Kaisou Rider

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon

Khruangbin - Mordechai album cover

7. Khruangbin - Mordechai

The mighty trio Khruangbin (pronounced “krung-bin”) are back! And this time, with vocals! Making their much anticipated return, after 2018’s breakthrough album Con Todo El Mundo, their new release, Mordechai brings more of that groove, funk and moody atmosphere that I love. I didn’t know how lyrics/vocals would work within the context of what I knew about the band, but the end result feels like home. I’m glad they decided to release this album even though they couldn’t tour behind it in 2020.

Hot tracks: Time (You and I), Father Bird, Mother Bird, Pelota.

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon

Hotei - Soul to Soul album cover

6. Hotei - Soul to Soul

Tomoyasu Hotei, also known as just Hotei, is probably best known in the US for his song “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” that has been featured in commercials, video games but most notably in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. But if you’ve never heard of him before, the only thing you need to know is that he’s a fantastic guitarist. Soul to Soul finds Hotei collaborating with Japanese artists like Kazuya Yoshii, Kobukuro, and Glim Spanky, as well as international acts like Carlinhos Brown, Marc Lavoine, Calogero and Yang Kun. The title track has one of the tastiest guitar solos of the year!

Hot tracks: Soul to Soul (featuring Kobukuro), Dangerous (featuring Kazuya Yoshii), Find a Way (featuring Incognito All Stars).

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon

AC/DC - Power Up album cover

5. AC/DC - Power Up

I don’t think I need to say too much about this one. It’s AC/DC. You already know that it’s gonna kick ass. No need to comment on their age, or past personal or personnel issues. I’ve learned to just accept and love the fact that they still love making music and sharing it with the world.

Hot tracks: Just put the whole album on repeat.

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon

Horizon Terminal - Saturn Return album cover

4. Horizon Terminal - Saturn Return

Jonny Ma (aka Metic) and Aaron Lam formed the duo Horizon Terminal in Hong Kong during the spring of 2018. While so much of the downtempo music that I listen to relies heavily on repeated electronic sampled loops, this duo bring their music to life by incorporating keyboards and guitars to looped grooves.

Hot tracks: Boketo Bay, Escape Velocity

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon

Vulfpeck - The Joy of Music, The Job of Real Estate album cover

3. Vulfpeck - The Joy of Music, The Job of Real Estate

Tracks from this album were released as singles throughout 2020, so it never felt like a complete album to me. Apple Music claims that 3 on E featuring Antwaun Stanley was my most played track of 2020, and I believe it! It’s such a great track and Antwaun’s falsetto is so smooth. If you enjoy the R&B funk and quirkiness of Vulfpeck’s previous albums, this one will not disappoint.

Hot tracks: 3 on E (featuring Antwaun Stanley), Test Drive

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon

Metic** - *Neon City Memoirs - Part One album cover

2. Metic - Neon City Memoirs - Part One

Jonny Ma goes by the stage name Metic and is the other half of the duo Horizon Terminal. I happened upon his music after someone had shared a post of him playing guitar over a lo-fi, looped groove on Instagram. Neon City Memoirs: Part One is an album you can put on and set to repeat while you work. It pairs well with Horizon Terminal’s Saturn Return, also featured above.

Hot tracks: The Fall to Reason, Moon Trail

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon

Normally, there is a single album that I name my favorite, but I really couldn’t choose just one this year.

Cory Wong - Elevator Music for an Elevated Mood album cover

1. Cory Wong - Elevator Music for an Elevated Mood

Cory Wong is on fire! He put out 7 albums in 2020! SEVEN! Elevator Music for an Elevated Mood is a follow up to 2019’s Motivational Music for the Syncopated Soul (which was also in my top albums post last year) and was released in January of 2020.

As usual, Wong brings the funk with this release, but he also brings some extra catchy songs that seem to get stuck in your brain. Guest vocals by Cory Fry, Phoebe Katis and Rachel Mazer balance out the melodic instrumentals. Saxophonist extraordinaire Dave Koz provides the right touch to make this an 11 track wonder.

Hot tracks: ALL OF THEM! Seriously!

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon

Dae Han - Blue album cover

1. Dae Han - Blue

Drummer Dae Han’s album surprised me. Spanning jazz, house and hip hop, this collection of tracks sounds like it was made in New York, but it was produced right here in Hawaii (where I live), and released through Aloha Got Soul records. Han has performed with Japanese rapper Shing02 and was asked to organize a band when jazz trumpeter Takuya Kuroda performed at the Blue Note Hawaii. No loops needed when Han lays the groove out on drums. Put this on and kick back and ride this smooth groove.

Hot tracks: DC2NYC, Blue (featuring Nicholas Kaleikini)

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Aloha Got Soul

Jon Batiste & Cory Wong -  Meditations album cover

1. Jon Batiste & Cory Wong - Meditations

John Batiste, band leader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert teams up with Cory Wong of Vulfpeck fame to create a beautiful, gentle… meditative soundtrack for your work day featuring only keys and guitar.

This is the album that I didn’t know that I needed, but I’m so glad that I found. I’m so grateful that it was released when I needed it the most. It was May, just a month into the COVID-19 pandemic, and I was going into an empty office everyday. The soothing sounds of this album were sometimes on repeat for the whole day.

A few of the tunes written by Wong that I was already familiar with, feature new arrangements. Like it’s title, this album deserves a deep meditative listen.

Hot tracks: The whole thing!

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon

Special Mention

As a huge fan of Atarashii Gakkou no Leaders aka ATARASHII GAKKO!, I need to show my support by featuring these three singles that were released in 2020. All three are great, and take the Leaders in a different direction compared to their previous two full releases. I’m looking forward to a full album of new material from them in 2021!

Atarashii Gakkou no Leaders aka ATARASHII GAKKO!Ontona Blue - Single cover

Atarashii Gakkou no Leaders aka ATARASHII GAKKO! - Otona Blue - Single

SUZUKA channels her best Akina Nakamori! A funky, sexy tune… or is it?

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon Japan

Atarashii Gakkou no Leaders aka ATARASHII GAKKO! Quesera Sera - Single cover

Atarashii Gakkou no Leaders aka ATARASHII GAKKO! - Quesera Sera - Single

I was lucky enough to see the Leaders perform this song live for the first time in December 2019. We also were gifted a limited edition CD single with original art by SUZUKA on the back. Quesera Sera is a catchy, happy song that may have you humming along.

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon Japan

Atarashii Gakkou no Leaders aka ATARASHII GAKKO! Koibumi - Single cover

Atarashii Gakkou no Leaders aka ATARASHII GAKKO! - Koibumi - Single

Another new direction and sound for the Leaders. This one was written by MUTEKI DEAD SNAKE.

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon Japan

Lo-fi and Downtempo Favorites

I can’t always listen to regular music when I’m working and need to concentrate on specific tasks. If you’re like me and want to concentrate but don’t need lyrical content, here are some smooth grooves to play in the background. These have hit the mark throughout 2020.

Jay Cass - Jungle
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

Yadava - It Rains Here
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

Casiio - Wondering
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

Bugseed - Random Walk
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

Tommy Guerrero - Soul Food Taqueria
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

Lettuce - Resonate
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

Men in Grey Suits - Village Eater
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

Hiroshi Fujiwara - Slumbers 2
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

Lianne La Havas - Lianne La Havas
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

See my Favorite Albums of 2019 here.