Thornton alumni and faculty releases celebrated as best music of 2019

members of MUNA

MUNA are listed on multiple reviews of the best music of 2019. (Photo: Matteo Mobilio)

As the year comes to a close, USC Thornton faculty and alumni find themselves on countless reviews of the best music of 2019 – and even the decade. Here is a roundup of some of the most notable credits for these artists who continue to make their mark on their genres.


Pop sensation King Princess – the stage persona of non-degreed Popular Music alum Mikaela Strauss – has dominated a number of year-end lists with her debut album Cheap Queen. MTV, Indypendent and PopCrush all named Cheap Queen one of the best albums of 2019, and it also ranks on Billboard’s list of the year’s top LGBTQ albums alongside fellow Thornton alums MUNA. This completes a year of career-making moments for Strauss, who recently made her debut on Saturday Night Live.

Electro-pop trio MUNA, made up of alumni Katie Gavin ’15, Josette Maskin ’16, and Naomi McPherson ’15, who formed as students in Thornton’s Popular Music program, earned top rankings for their latest album, Saves the World, released earlier this year. In addition to placing among Billboard’s top LGBTQ albums, Saves the World was named among the best albums of 2019 by Billboard and Paper Magazine. MUNA’s song “Number One Fan” ranks as one of the year’s top songs by both Billboard and PopCrush.

Faculty and alumni of the Jazz Studies program have also earned honors for recent releases. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire (MM ’07) was listed among JAZZIZ Magazine’s best songs of 2019 for his song “particle / spectra,” alongside faculty members Peter Erskine and Edwin Livingston for “Cosmic.” Akinmusire’s album A Rift in Decorum was also credited as one of the best bay area albums of the decade by KQED radio.

Jazz Studies faculty member Sara Gazarek’s new album Thirsty Ghost, which recently earned her first-ever GRAMMY nominations, was named one of the best albums of 2019 by JazzTimes magazine.

Photo of Sara Gazarek

Sara Gazarek received her first GRAMMY nominations for her album Thirsty Ghost, named one of the best albums of the year by JazzTimes. (Photo: Shervin Lainez)

Acclaimed composer, Composition faculty member, and alum Andrew Norman (BM ’02, MM ’04) received his share of rankings for his piece “Sustain,” a Pullitzer Prize finalist which also recently earned GRAMMY nominations. NPR lists the piece’s LA Phil release as one of the top 10 classical albums of the year, and The New York Times names it as both one of the 25 best classical music tracks of the year, and one of the best digital-only releases.

Finally, our alumni continue to make their mark on the art of film scoring, with Composition alum Michael Abels (BM ’84) and Screen Scoring alum Ludwig Göransson (GC ’08) earning honors for their already widely-praised scores. Both were named to The Wrap’s roundup of the best film scores of the decade – Abels for Us, and Göransson for Black Panther.

Empire magazine lauded Abels for the “instantly iconic” remix of “I Got 5 On It,” which they named one of the best soundtrack songs of the year. Abel’s Us score was also credited by Collider as one of the 10 best film scores of 2019, alongside the score for 1917, composed by USC Thornton Board of Councilors member Thomas Newman.