The 10 Best Bay Area Albums of 2020

KQED Arts & Culture's top 10 Bay Area albums list of 2020 features Thao & The Down Down Stay Down, Dougie Stu and The Seshen (left to right). (Courtesy of the artists)

2020 threw the music industry for a loop. So many listeners said they had a hard time keeping up with new releases. Instead, old favorites became their emotional-support companions as they navigated a completely new reality. The artists themselves also had to make difficult adjustments: many asked themselves whether it was worth it to drop projects they recorded in the before-times. Were songs about pre-pandemic life still relevant? Did fans want music that reflected what was going on in the world or an escape?

As the year progressed, the answer proved to be a combination of both. Some of our favorite music gave us catharsis, some reflected our pain and some offered a joyful vision of what’s possible.

Below, KQED Arts & Culture contributors give us their top Bay Area albums of the year. Whether you’re into rap, indie rock, classical, jazz, folk or pop, there’s something for you on this list.

And, it’s worth noting, independent artists are cut off from touring and need our financial support now more than ever. So if you like what you hear, consider buying it on Bandcamp or iTunes. —Nastia Voynovskaya


Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, Temple (Ribbon Music)

We children of immigrants carry the weight of our parents’ struggles on our shoulders; they sacrificed so much, so we feel the pressure to repay them by achieving the American dream. Thao Nguyen flips the narrative with her piercing howl on the title track of Temple, where she writes from the perspective of her mother, who fled Vietnam as a war refugee. With lyrics like “I lost my city in the light of day / Thick smoke and helicopter blades,” the punchy dance-rock track creates images of destruction, loss, survival and hope so visceral, they send chills. It’s a theme especially resonant during a year filled with a different kind of grief, where many of us have had to say goodbye to loved ones and old ways of life. Temple’s hard, driving rhythms and fuzzed-out guitars give voice to necessary conversations about immigration, queerness and the quest to live fully in one’s power. —N.V.

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The Jacka, Murder Weapon (The Artist Records/EMPIRE)

After Dominick “The Jacka” Newton was killed in 2015, his manager PK pieced together old recordings for his posthumous album, Murder Weapon. Although Murder Weapon was recorded over the span of a few years, it still sounds current. It might help that it features well-known lyricists Styles P, Curren$y and Grammy nominee Freddie Gibbs, as well as The Jacka’s long-time collaborators Husalah, Rydah J. Klyde and producer RobLo.

The album is full of heavy bass lines and the gangsta-lifestyle lyrics you’d expect from The Jacka. There are references to drug consumption and distribution on “They Know What This Is” (featuring Paul Wall and Boo Banga) and evidence of extraterrestrial life on “Ancient Astronaut” (featuring Killah Priest). “We Outside,” a standout track with a catchy hook sung by what sounds like a chorus of children, is a bit ironic for 2020—but keep in mind it was released before shelter-in-place orders came down. When the Pittsburg-based MC drops the biographical bar, “Love me cause I’m gangsta, but I’m really trying to teach Islam,” I was reminded of my appreciation for an artist who so passionately balanced his human flaws and religious beliefs. —Pendarvis Harshaw


Discos Resaca Collective and Mariposas Del Alma, Y Te Cuento (self-released)

The first full-length album from cumbia collective Discos Resaca is a masterclass in what makes the Bay Area yell, “Wepa!” Y Te Cuento (And I’ll Tell You) melds traditional cumbias from Central and South America with hip-hop and oldies to create a sound that’s powerful in its imagery and danceability. Hometown party anthems like “Cumbia de San Jose” tell the story of the local South Bay scene, while “Chupacabra” and “Se Va El Agua” employ the evocative storytelling traditions of cumbia.

Resaca cool things down on the album’s title track, a pensive tribute to lost loved ones, and on the DJ favorite “I Love You For All Seasons,” a mid-tempo cumbia sung by three Oakland sisters known as Mariposas Del Alma. The collective features accordion master Ivan Flores, percussionist Wilson Posada, conguero Pedro Rosales, producer Xian Ballesteros and guitarists Fabian Martinez and Erik Molina, in collaboration with rapper Deuce Eclipse and Philthy Dronez. —Jessica Lipsky


James Wavey, Babe (self-released)

The 2020 release Babe from Oakland-based rapper and producer James Wavey, a.k.a. Alleyes Manifest, takes the listener on a smooth, sonic journey through blurred genre barriers, like a vintage mixtape that flows in fun and unpredictable ways. The project calls to mind snippets of lowrider oldies, Stax Records classics from RZA’s Shaolin Soul Selection, nu-jazz and hip-hop. Wavey suavely layers his verses over warm samples warped with reverb and delay. The result is a catchy and soulful album presented in 10 short but flavorful tracks that are perfect for solo kitchen dance parties. —Masha Pershay


Kronos Quartet, Long Time Passing: Kronos Quartet and Friends Celebrate Pete Seeger (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)

At a time when this country seems to be closing in on itself, the Kronos Quartet’s careening exploration of the music and ideas of great American folk bard Pete Seeger opens up possibilities. The ever-peripatetic San Francisco string quartet has a knack for collaborating with some of the world’s most interesting musicians. Long Time Passing enables us to listen to even the most picked-over songs from the Seeger cannon—“If I Had a Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome”—in a way that feels both edgy and comforting.

The album approaches transcendence not with these lovely covers of Seeger’s songs, but rather with a pair of contemporary, original tracks inspired by Seeger’s life. San Francisco born-and-raised composer Jacob Garchik’s spiraling “Storyteller” weaves snippets of Seeger’s singing and speaking voice, riffing on subjects as varied as his work with ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and Marlene Dietrich’s German-language take on “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (“Sag’ mir, wo die Blumen sind”). And the version of folksinger Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” which singer Meklit performs with quiet intensity above long, spartan string chords, recalls what it means to be human in the face of disaster. —Chloe Veltman


Shy’An G, Let Me Go (STP)

If you prefer a more lyrical flavor of hip-hop, look no further than Shy’An G, a Berkeley rapper and producer whose Let Me Go positions her as a multifaceted artist to watch. In an era where a “scam or be scammed” philosophy seems to touch all aspects of American culture, Shy’An G raps with a refreshing sincerity about trying to forge an honest path in a broken world. On the project, her rhymes move freely between motivation, social critique and clever witticisms. Thoughtful gems like “Who gets offended by generosity? / Hard work, patience, agility” from the somber, piano-driven “Remember This Day” sit comfortably beside the bass-heavy rambunctiousness of “Don’t Lose Focus” (a standout line: “My grandma in her 80s and she still rock stilettos”). Fans of Rapsody, Noname and Anderson .Paak should add Shy’An G to their collections. —N.V.


Dougie Stu, Familiar Future (Ropeadope)

It takes a certain degree of humility to do whatever is necessary to elevate an ensemble’s sound for years before finally taking the helm of your own project. Doug Stuart has been that humble sideman, a vital bass and keyboard player on some of the Bay Area’s best and most eclectic acts: Bells Atlas, Meernaa, Brijean and astronauts, etc. On Familiar Future, his debut as Dougie Stu, we see the crowning moment the multi-instrumentalist and composer has been working towards.

A cool and collected free jazz exploration with Stuart as bandleader, Familiar Future calls upon a diverse cast of stellar musicians to enact his vision. “Henny” feels deftly inspired by Bob James’s iconic “Nautilus,” with Stuart’s far-out bass dancing alongside Jeff Parker’s guitar, Hamir Atwal’s jazzy drums, Rob Shelton’s hazy Korg synth and the violin/cello combo of Shaina Evoniuk and Crystal Pascucci. “BB’s Birthday” shines as Stuart’s finest arrangement, with Marcus Stephans’ flute and Brijean Murphy’s congas taking us into space. As its title suggests, Familiar Future is an album about knowing where the road goes but biding your time to strike at the right moment. Stuart and his players have found it. —Adrian Spinelli


Mahsa Vahdat, Enlighten the Night (Six Degrees Records)

Unable to pursue her career in Iran, where women vocalists are largely banned from performing solo in public, Mahsa Vahdat has found a place to thrive in the Bay Area. Last year she and her sister, vocalist Marjan Vahdat, collaborated with Kronos Quartet on a gorgeous album exploring themes of displacement and exile, Placeless. Living in Berkeley with her husband, multi-instrumentalist and arranger Atabak Elyasi, she crafted a breathtaking collection of new songs on Enlighten the Night. While working mostly within classical Persian modes, she weaves a numinous musical mélange with the Norwegian jazz trio of pianist Tord Gustavsen, bassist Gjermund Silset and drummer Kenneth Ekornes. Her compositions illuminate the work of beloved Persian poets like Rumi, Hafez and Omar Khayyam while also drawing on essential 20th-century Iranian writers like Nimā Yushij and Mohammad Ebrahim Jafari, the great poet and painter who provides the words for the quietly ecstatic opening piece “The Act of Freedom.” —Andrew Gilbert


The Seshen, CYAN (Tru Thoughts)

It feels like an eternity ago when The Seshen debuted the short film to accompany the release of their third LP, CYAN, at San Francisco’s Rickshaw Stop in late February. Lead singer Lalin St. Juste appeared equal parts raw, hopeful, emotive and mystical in the film. She seemed both at peace and nearly coming apart at the seams at the foot of the ocean’s crashing waves. CYAN explores the many dimensions of depression, and today it feels prescient considering St. Juste is not alone in taking a long hard look at ourselves and what the heck is happening around us. The album jostles us gently on the synth pop swing of “Close Your Eyes,” and comforts us with the sea foam-like rhythm of “Faster Than Before” and hypnotic depths of “Still Dreaming.” Producer Akiyoshi Ehara sets up canvases for us to splash into like gooey oil paints as we navigate through St. Juste’s elegant neo-R&B delivery. The album’s moments of beauty recall that late-February night show, when we had no idea what was about to hit us. —A.S.


Ismay, Songs of Sonoma Mountain (Ismay Music)

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In 2017, something spared Petaluma from the fires. It wasn’t a first responder, a quick-thinking housemate or even a sign from above. Sonoma Mountain, where songwriter Avery Hellman lives on a ranch, seems to have protected the North Bay town: Fires have a hard time descending downhill, and Petaluma contains less fast-burning vegetation than surrounding areas, which bought firefighters time. Hellman’s debut full-length album, recorded under their folk project Ismay, is set on Sonoma Mountain, and spends its eight tracks saying thank you to the land. Opener “A Song in Praise of Sonoma Mountain” imagines the flora and fauna of the ranch singing their own expressions of joy, while “When I Was Younger I Cried” uses river rocks and mountain sides as metaphors for gender identity. It’s an utterly lovely feat of folk imbued with gentle gratitude for Northern California. —Jody Amable