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The 10 best L.A. albums of 2020

The L.A. band X.
The original lineup of L.A.'s X recorded one of the best albums of 2020.
(Photo illustration by Ross May / Los Angeles Times; Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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For reasons too obvious to note, those of us with any sense spent an inordinate amount of time surrounded by four walls and consumed with well-founded dread. Time crawled. Doomscrolling made it worse. Sometimes the only way to distinguish one Blursday from the next was by recalling what series or Ben & Jerry’s pint you binged on.

Los Angeles musicians, as usual, stepped up when we needed them most, filling the sheer volume of unstructured time with organized, or joyfully disorganized, noise. Best, the wide-open days and nights allowed for the kind of deep, uninterrupted listening that rewarded patience. Below, 10 of the best albums by Los Angeles-based artists.

Movie theaters closed. Broadway went dark. Concert venues fell silent.

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1. Jyoti, “Mama You Can Bet!” (SomeOthaShip)

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Jyoti, “This Walk”

The third album in a jazz-focused series that the Grammy-nominated artist born Georgia Anne Muldrow began under the Jyoti moniker in 2010, “Mama You Can Bet!” serves as revelatory reinforcement of the native Angeleno’s vision. The daughter of session musicians, she was given the Jyoti name by spiritual-jazz legend Alice Coltrane, and “Mama You Can Bet!” is infused with a similar spirit. Muldrow treats her rhythms with a structural looseness that suggests producer J Dilla’s wobbly work. At first, the wooziness feels unpracticed, as if she’s reaching for a sound she can’t quite capture. But as the album evolves, the beats lock into place. Then, like eyes adjusting to 3-D glasses, the full measure of her intentions are revealed.

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2. X, “Alphabetland” (Fat Possum)

X, “Water and Wine” video

Rock ’n’ roll is riddled with reunited has-beens eager to tap nostalgia in exchange for one last paycheck. History shows that it’s a terrible, horrible, rotten idea. What’s never been a bad idea is X’s version of rock ’n’ roll, which has long featured hard, distorted energy fired by the back-and-forth disharmony of Exene Cervenka and John Doe. This, the first album to feature the two alongside founding members Billy Zoom and D.J. Bonebrake in 35 years, feels not like a reunion (which it’s not, as they’ve constantly toured as a unit) but a charged, furious continuation.

On Wednesday, the original members of Los Angeles punk band X dropped their first new studio album in 35 years, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

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3. Dinner Party, “Dinner Party” (Sounds of Crenshaw)

Dinner Party, “Freeze Tag”

At the end of last year, a quartet of Grammy-nominated L.A. jazz and hip-hop players — Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper and 9th Wonder — converged in a studio to make a contemporary soul-jazz record. Propelled by 9th Wonder’s beats, the unit wove themes including desire, love and betrayal into a lush seven-song cycle. The pinnacle, and one of the best songs of the year, is “Freeze Tag,” a searing indictment of racist profiling and state-sanctioned oppression.

See more coverage of 2020's best music

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4. William Basinski, “Lamentations” (Musex/Temporary Residence)

William Basinski, from his album “Lamentations”

Masterful minimalist composer and tape manipulator Basinski’s newest work furthers a stylistic approach typified in his most famous work, 2014’s “The Disintegration Loops.” Filed in the “ambient” vertical of your favorite streaming service, the dozen tracks on “Lamentations” drift as if on the verge of becoming unmoored, with gradual, churning shifts. Grim? Yep. It’s been a grim year. But “Lamentations” doesn’t mean endless dirges. Basinski understands the way that tones and frequencies interact as they hit eardrums, and the result are compositions that, listened to at proper volume, send shivering, sonically comforting beams through the body.

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5. Drakeo the Ruler, “Thank You for Using GTL” (self-released)

Drakeo, “Pressure”

South L.A. rapper Drakeo the Ruler recorded his album via telephone line from the L.A. County Men’s Central Jail. Each of the 19 tracks on "... Using GTL” is a three-person collaboration among a low-fidelity Drakeo using his daily phone privileges, producer Joogszn weaving in minimal rhythms and laser-gun sounds and the anonymous female voice of the inmate telephone system GTL reminding them that the call is being recorded. Many songs end with the voice saying, “Thank you for using GTL.” Not only is the whole thing a testament to Drakeo’s skills at tapping his muse within a tortuously oppressive environment, but it’s woven together to indict the American criminal justice system, and the ways in which the gears of commerce profit from essential human needs.

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6. Eddie Chacon, “Pleasure, Joy and Happiness” (Day End)

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7. Blu & Exile, “Miles: Music from an Interlude Called Life” (Dirty Science)

Eddie Chacon, “My Mind Is Out of Its Mind”

Los Angeles crooner Chacon hit peak commercial popularity a few decades ago as half of the duo Charles & Eddie (“Would I Lie to You”) but stepped away from the music business decades ago. This year Chacon reemerged at age 54 to craft a smooth vintage R&B record specific to this stage of his life. The accurately titled “Pleasure, Joy and Happiness” is all of the above. Produced by John Carroll Kirby (Solange, Frank Ocean), it’s as intimate as a series of quiet-storm Sade jams or a flock of whispered Prince ballads.

Blu & Exile, “Roots of Blue”

The third album from producer Exile and rapper Blu was eight years in the making. An expansive work that plays like a double LP and features more footnote-worthy references than a David Foster Wallace essay, the “Miles” of its title references both the jazz trumpeter and the measurement of distance. Unlike the two-minute sprints that rule Spotify’s Rap Caviar playlist, “Miles” prefers endurance to speed. At more than nine minutes, for example, centerpiece “Roots of Blue” is a virtual marathon, an epic poem that lyrically moves from the dawn of civilization through Nubia, across the Atlantic on slave ships, through blues music and into the present.

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8. Jhené Aiko, “Chilombo” (Def Jam)

Jhene Aiko, “Born Tired” video

Aiko’s Grammy album-of-the-year-nominated third studio album rolls like an hourlong monologue during a midnight cruise from Ladera Heights to Sunset Boulevard — with the occasional cellphone interjection from collaborators. A meditative contemporary R&B album that explores the ins and outs of a relationship — Aiko and rapper Big Sean lead a high-profile life together — “Chilombo” is an exquisitely produced work that wraps her commanding voice in velveteen pianos, synths, minimalist rhythms and lots of bottom-end wobble. Her line to a lover in “None of Your Concern” could be aimed at potential listeners: “I want better for you moving forward / What’s better for you than me?”

Novena Carmel and Anthony Valadez will take over the morning show for interim host Anne Litt. They are the show’s first Black and Latino hosts.

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9. Clipping, “Visions of Bodies Being Burned” (Sub Pop)

Clipping, “Visions of Bodies Being Burned: Enlacing & Pain Everyday”

The trio, featuring Grammy- and Tony-winning actor Daveed Diggs, best known for his role in the original production of “Hamilton,” and musical collaborators William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes, has carved its own doom-laden plot in the rap landscape. Featuring startled door bangs, high-pitched skids and squeals, rhythmic chaos typified by an obvious disinterest in traditional snare-on-two-and-four patterns (or any snare at all, for that matter) and lots of sinister bass, “Visions of Bodies Being Burned” is a genre-bending, challenging work, both musically and thematically.

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10. Sam Gendel, “DRM” (Nonesuch)

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Sam Gendel’s take on Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”

Los Angeles multi-instrumentalist Gendel released two albums in 2020 for the respected New York label Nonesuch, the first being “Satin Doll,” and whatever your mood this year — scared, furious, desperate, isolated or maniacally happy — he had a curiously beguiling track for it. “DRM” features more “vocals” and “lyrics,” if you can call them that. Gendel mumbles and coos, sighs and hums, occasionally exhaling a Vocoder-ed phrase. His take on Lil Nas X’s soon-to-be-standard “Old Town Road” precisely captures his viscous instrumental approach. Across “Satin Doll,” he transforms jazz standards by Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and others into rubbery, drunken explorations. Jazz? Hip-hop? Experimental beat music? Yes.

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