One of the most prevalent myths about music is that there is a single, monolithic culture dictated by big record labels and the top 40, which they control. The reality is that it’s been more than twenty years since the American top 40 had any relevance at all. Because there are many cultures around the world where commercial radio isn’t completely off limits to music with genuine artistic content, audiences there haven’t completely tuned out like they have here. Which, ironically, perpetuates the myth of a shared musical culture that everyone can more or less agree on.
At the other end of the telescope is the myth that the culture has splintered, that everyone has his or her own individual playlist that’s completely different from everyone else’s. The truth is that it’s always been like that. Sure, Americans who went deep into niche genres like polkas or Scottish bagpipe music or, for that matter, even reggae, thirty years ago, may have been less likely to share those interests because back then that would have been “weird.” But that didn’t keep people from listening to all that stuff anyway. And much as there are still plenty of folks who can’t get enough of one particular style, from metal to bluegrass, those people have always been the exception rather than the rule. Which is where this list comes in.
Bookmark this page and visit often. Virtually every link here will take you to a stream or a free download of each song. Like this blog’s year-end Best Albums and Best Concerts lists, this isn’t an attempt to be definitive: every year, there are way more songs and albums than anyone can digest and more concerts than anyone can possibly see. This is an attempt to find some of the diamonds in the debris, and if you investigate what’s here, you’ll be reminded that it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Isn’t sharing fun!
The literally most shattering musical moment of 2013 was back in May, at a concert in Chelsea when the One World Symphony premiered a piece for timpani, gongs and bass drum by their composer/conductor Sung Jin Hong, written as a real-time depiction of an atomic bomb detonating. Lingering with a firestorm of waves for what seemed minutes on end, it captured that catastrophic horror more evocatively than words could possibly have expressed. It’s not clear if this has made it to the web or not, although the orchestra has some live footage up at youtube.
Deciding on the best song of the year is a usually a crapshoot. This year, there was one that stood out from all the rest and that’s West Allis, by Matthew Grimm. West Allis is the Wisconsin town where 43-year-old David Carter shot himself, and his body went undiscovered in his own home for four years. What confounds Grimm is that no one had any idea what had happened until the city repossessed the property, broke the lock on the front door and found the body. What’s most striking about this song is how straightforwardly Grimm plays it: it’s a catchy, briskly shuffling powerpop tune, not a dirge. The genius of it is that Grimm just tells the story. He leaves the implications, the crushing alienation and despair, to the listener to consider. From Grimm’s album Songs in the Key of Your Face.
And the rest of the list is pretty fantastic for plenty of other reasons. As with the Best Albums and Best Concerts lists, there’s no numerical ranking here. That’s because trying to rank music from across the musical spectrum – what’s better, art-rock, honkytonk, third-stream jazz or noir folk? – is inevitably apples and oranges. It also pits artists against each other, and pisses off pretty much everybody who isn’t at the very top of the list. Like the two other best-of lists here, these songs are listed more or less in chronological order of when they first appeared here, if at all.
Amanda Palmer – The Bed Song
A sad, elegant chamber pop ghost story that does double duty as cruelly accurate depiction of WASP male-female dynamics. From Palmer’s lavish Theatre Is Evil album. Play it/free download.
Mike Stinson – Lost Side of Town
Most songs about being down and out sound absolutely fake. This has the ring of authenticity, a nonchalantly Dylanesque midtempo tune which manages to be funny but really bleak at the same time. When Stinson hits the refrain “down, down, let myself down,” it’s a moment worthy of Hank Williams. From the Houston Americana songwriter’s album Hell & Half of Georgia. Play it.
LJ Murphy & the Accomplices– Pretty for the Parlor
The legendary New York noir rocker has a reputedly phenomenal new album due out next year and this might or might not be on it; it’s grimly bouncing, Americana-tinged tale of a sniper hellbent on picking off a few poor suckers in some outer-borough hell. Murphy and band slayed with this at the Parkside last month.
Hannah vs. the Many– Poor Leander
A corrosively poignant account of two probably irreparably damaged souls hell-bent on NOT making things work, set to marauding noir cabaret rock: From their latest ep Ghost Stories. Play it.
Beninghove’s Hangmen– Rattlesnake Chopper
This could be the Hells’ Angels’ theme, a slowly marauding, minor-key biker rock groove with lurid neon horn harmonies and an absolutely sick Eyal Maoz guitar solo followed by…a theremin solo. Title track to their 2013 album. Play it.
Walter Ego– Build It Up Again
A wickedly catchy Ray Davies-esque janglerock tune that takes the Sisyphus myth into the 21st century. Not officially recorded, but it’s been a staple of his live show in recent months.
The Kronos Quartet and Mariana Sadovska – Chernobyl: The Harvest
The world premiere of Sadovska’s chiling, angry suite at Lincoln Center Out of Doors in July built to a diabolical dance, the Ukraine-born singer’s voice rising from stunned horror to indignance and wrath. Watch the video.
Mike Rimbaud – Funkyshima
Not particularly funk but creepy as hell: “Got Indian point down the Hudson way, built on a fault line from an earthquake.” No songwriter has chronicled New York more aptly than this guy has over the last couple of years; let’s hope he’s not being prophetic this time. Watch the video
Ward White – Neighbors
Not the minor Rolling Stones hit but a blithely macabre, sarcastically Burt Bacharach-tinged segment from White’s symbolically loaded new surreal murder mystery chamber pop concept album, Bob. Play it.
Sharon Goldman – Silent Lessons
The acoustic tunesmith’s careful, precise but wounded vocals absolutely nail the “four in the morning of your soul” ambience of a woman sleepless and alone, abandoned and embittered and sobered by the reality that she isn’t blameless in how she ended up there. Title track from her latest album. Watch the video.
Bryan & the Aardvarks– These Little Hours
This Lynchian pastoral jazz nocturne starts with a simple, tiptoeing lullaby theme and sends it sailing with a slow ultraviolet swing, part Milt Jackson ballad, part Jeff Lynne anthem. From their album Heroes of Make Believe. Play it.
Drina Seay – Chase My Blues Away
A slow, torchy, absolutely sultry ballad that wouldn’t be out of place in the Neko Case catalog. Seay has a stripped-down vocals-and-guitar version at her site; she and her full band killed with this at Zirzamin back in March. Play it/free download.
The Lost Patrol – Chance of Rain
A morbidly gorgeous, twangy 60s garage tune lowlit by frontwoman Mollie Israel’s brooding, elegaic vocals: “A chance of rain/Still remains/You tried in vain/To wash away/All the days you left behind.” From the cinematic band’s latest album Driven. Play it.
Jail Weddings – It’s Not Fair
The noir rockers take this from a Bulgarian intro to ba-bump cabaret to a phantasmagorically epic anthem. From their new album Meltdown: A Declaration of Unpopular Emotion. Watch the video
Kotorino – Murderer
Frontman Jeff Morris and harmony singer Ellia Bisker duet luridly on the best and most menacing track track from their new album, Better Than This. It’s a crime-jazz number that illustrates why the perfect crime requires a lone perpetrator. Play it
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Construction-Destruction
The seemingly inevitable decline of New York from world-class city to sterile gentrifier suburb as chronicled via state-of-the-art, cinematic big band jazz, from lushly airy apprehension to a horror film theme. From their majestically grim album Brooklyn Babylon. Play it
The Steep Canyon Rangers – Las Vegas
They’re a bluegrass band, but this is the best track on their latest album Tell the Ones I Love, a twistedly carnivalesque hi-de-ho noir swing tune.
The Snow – Dirty Diamond
Subdued wee-hours duet – part countrypolitan, part noir cabaret, solace for anyone stuck on the corporate treadmill. From the Brooklyn art-rockers’ latest album Disaster Is Your Mistress. Play it
Changing Modes – Down to You
Keyboardist Grace Pulliam sang the hell out of this coldly vengeful chamber pop swipe at a selfish guy, from the band’s latest album In Flight, at Spike Hill back in January. Play it
Chicha Libre – Rica Chica
A wickedly catchy, chromatically bristling, luridly surreal and sexy cover of the Peruvian hit by legendary psychedelic cumbia/surf band Los Shapis. From the all-covers album Cuatro Tigres. Play it
Pierre de Gaillande – Wine
De Gaillande’s translation of Le Vin, by Georges Brassens – one of the alltime great drinking songs – recast as a klezmer-tinged romp. As Brassens tells it, his parents found him under a vine, “not the cabbage patch like all of those average Joes…if cows made red wine, I’d milk them before breakfast.” From the Bad Reputation, Volume 2 Brassens tribute album. Spotify link
Tipsy Oxcart – Me First
Trickily original Balkan theme with a hard-hitting, catchy chorus, moody clarinet solos, a a searing violin break and an absolutely sizzling accordion solo from the Brooklyn band’s album Meet TIpsy Oxcart. Play it
The Larch – Welcome to the Institute
The Brooklyn psychedelic popsters slayed at Bowery Electric this summer with this unreleased track, which pokes fun at internet spin doctoring with some LOL funny backing vocals and then finally one of frontman Ian Roure’s signature spiraling, Richard Lloyd-esque guitar solos.
Mark Sinnis– It’s Been a Long Cold Dark Lonely Winter
A darkly slinky minor-key Hudson Valley gothic bluegrass tune by the dark baritone crooner and leader of long-running rockers Ninth House. He killed with this with his acoustic band at his NYC show this past Fall on Houston Street.
Lorraine Leckie – Bliss
A bitterly glimmering tale of an old couple who are anything but loving, from Leckie’s elegant new chamber pop collaboration with social critic/writer Anthony Haden-Guest, Rudely Interrupted. She and the chamber pop version of her band the Demons held the crowd rapt with this at the Rockwood this summer. Play it
Mac McCarty – Henry
“Henry, oh Henry, go down to your mother’s grave,” folk noir songwriter McCarty sang almost gleefully midway through his band’s careening set – at Sidewalk, of all places – this past October.
MWE – Kara Gozlu
The Bay Aread band do this Turkish traditional song as a diptych; the first part featuring Balkan sensation Eva Salina on lead vocals, the second part as a long, dancing jam. From their new album Second Wind. Play it
Jerome O’Brien – If I Laugh Anymore I’ll Break
A bouncy reinvention of the former Dog Show leader’s slyly exuberant celebration of pre-gentrification nocturnal entertainment and a highlight of his Zirzamin gig back in May. Play it
Sarah Jarosz and Ran Blake – Tender As a Rose
At Symphony Space this past March, the all-purpose Americana chanteuse and the noir piano legend left absolutely no doubt that the Abbey Lincoln classic was a murder ballad.
Trio Tritticali – Zeima
Violist Leanne Darling’s artful new arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab bellydance classic, yet another of the many brilliant performances from this past year at Zirzamin
Mary Ellen Childs – The Gathering
The harrowing climactic scene from the composer’s latest album Wreck. about a crew trapped inside the last watertight container of a sunken freighter at the bottom of Lake Superior
Hee Hawk– Cover That Man (Basketball)
Late 50s cool Miles through the prism of Angelo Badalamenti, shifting from a slowly lingering noir sway to swing and back again with a tinge of dusky Ethiopian spice. From the Massachusetts pastoral jazz band’s latest album. Play it
Little Worlds– Etude No. 79
The Brooklyn avant jazz band’s version of this Bartok etude opens as creepy baroque and builds to a a richly noir theme over drummer Tim Kuhl’s hypnotically tumbling vamp. From their latest collection of Bartok pieces, simply entitled Book 2. Play it
Outernational– Here Is the Rose
The title track from the New York band’s latest ep paints an eerily ambiguous nocturnal desert rock picture that foreshadows as much potential disaster as hope for “messengers of a whole new world” where the children of immigrants might actually be embraced rather than shunned. Play it
The Brooklyn What– Hot Wine
Written by founding member Billy Cohen – who died young in 2010 – this one blasts through a surreal, oldtime swing-spiced Coney Island narrative about saving innocent children from an evil mayor who’s trying to boil them in oil. Title track to the band’s phenomenal 2013 album. Play it
Richard Thompson– The Snow Goose
One of Thompson’s classic epics, a wintry, surreal, emotionally depleted Britfolk tableau from the iconic Britfolk-rock songwriter/guitarist’s brilliant latest album, Electric. Watch the video
Raphael McGregor– Southern Border
The Brooklyn steel guitarist’s instrumental works its way stealthfully from a ghostly desert theme to a biting klezmer clarinet interlude, then morphs into dark, intense, psychedelic Greek surf rock interlude. From his 2013 album Fretless. Play it
Band of Outsiders – Dead Reckoning
Television and Lou Reed may both be history but these 80s New York garage-pychedelic-punk legends are still going strong; this vivid dying-of-the-light epic reflecting on a Lower East Side of the Mind, 1983 or thereabouts is the standout track from their album Sound Beach Time and evokes both those acts. Watch the video
Sean Kershaw– Grass Is Always Bluer
A creepy, galloping, aphoristic southwestern gothic tale set in the here and now that evokes Kershaw’s previous dark rockabilly band the Blind Pharaohs number. From his album The Aussie Sessions. Play it
Rachelle Garniez – God’s Little Acre
At Barbes on her birthday back in March, the inscrutable accordionist/multi-instrumentalist/chanteuse delivered a moody, expansively minimalist soul/gospel take of this cruel exploration of the dilemma of whether or not to reconnect with an old suspect on Facebook. From her latest album Sad Dead Alive Happy. Spotify link
Mumbo Gumbo– Swimming Pool Blue
Here’s another great Rachelle Garniez momemt, from the long-lost, recently reissued 1989 album by the NYC alt-country pioneers and cult favorites, who also springboarded the career of Joe Flood. Play it
Rita– Yeladem Zim Sincha (Children Are a Joy)
This feral Romany-rock romp is completely at odds with its saccharine title, the band exploding out of a biting Galia Hai viola solo midway through the Israeli art-rock bandleader’s high-voltage show at the United Nations back in March. Rita’s youtube channel
Jeffrey Foucault– Everybody’s Famous
A cynical, bluesy, Leonard Cohen ish look at celebrity and microcelebrity and wannabes up and down the scale, from the Americana rocker’s latest album Horse Latitudes. Watch the video
Jeanne Jolly– Round and Round Again
The strongest and hardest-hitting song on the North Carolina Americana singer’s album Angels begins as a gentle, wistful waltz, then explodes in anguish on the chorus. She slayed with this at Drom in December. Watch the video
Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas– Big Town
This oldschool soul song is noir to the core, from a simple bass/piano/baritone sax intro to a gorgeously wounded turnaround, the Detroit singer/bandleader glad that she has such a big city where she can hide away in her misery. From her latest ep Demons. Play it
Preservation Hall Jazz Band – August Nights
A haunting minor-key soul ballad set on the “sorry side of the street,” following a series of modulations with moody sax and trumpet solos – noir music doesn’t get any better than this. From their album That’s It. Watch the video
Chicago Farmer– Everybody in This Town
It sounds like the Wallflowers backing John Prine, frontman Cody Dieckhoff contemplating the rougher side of smalltown life and how everybody’s business is everybody else’s. From the album Backenforth, IL. Play it
Kagero – Rockstar in a Grocery Store
The violin dances down the scale and sets off the tale of a guy who can only afford breakfast in Chinatown and may never be able to take a real vacation, but nothing’s gonna stop him from playing with his band every nigh. From their new album Gumbo du Jour. Watch the video
Pete Galub– 300 Days in July
This hypnotic art-rock anthem slowly builds a hallucinatory, regret-drenched summer ambience. “So many drugs in the water supply…walking on water, those were the days when we just let it all slide,” the powerpop guitar maven lament. From his album Candy Tears. Play it
Karikatura – Bailarina
Nicking the riff from the famous Algerian freedom fighter anthem Ya Rayyeh, the latin ska band turned it into an unexpectedly angst-fueled reflection by a guy who’s probably more infatuated with a dancing girl than he should be. It’s too loud to talk over the music, all my friends are drunk and I don’t like the idea of other guys hitting on you, the poor dude laments. A highlight of their show at SRB almost a year ago.
Wormburner– Today Might Be Our Day
On the Celtic side of anthemic 80s rock, U2 without the strident vocals and empty slogans. And it’s got a story, in this case a smalltime hood on the run from the law. A limited-edition vinyl single also available digitally. Play it
The Handsome Family – Owls
An acerbically droll Edward Gorey-ish folk tune about an old guy losing it in his McMansion with “the clawfooted tubs, the room of rare orchids, the glass hall for my guns, statues of pharaohs twenty feet tall, crystal chandeliers, rare paintings of clowns.” From the noir Americana duo’s latest album Wilderness. Watch the video
Karen Hudson– Mama Was a Train Wreck
This darkly shuffling Americana rock tune looks back in shellshocked anger at dysfunctional family hell, reaching fever pitch with a smoldering Steve Antonakos guitar solo. From the new album Sonic Bloom. Watch the video
Avi Fox-Rosen– Plastic Los Angeles
A spot-on spoof of phony-sensitive Counting Crows style janglerock. the cynically sentimental lyrics are a hoot, but the music is even funnier. Fox-Rosen put out an album a month this year, all of them thematic and often hilarious; this is from April’s, which was the best. Play it/free download
A Conspiracy of Beards– Who By Fire
The Bay Area choir’s version of the Leonard Cohen classic at Drom this past May began with the lyrics making the rounds of the voices, anchored by a resonant mantra of “who” – the effect was spine-tingling. Watch the video
Mike Marlin– Skull Beneath the Skin
The dark British crooner’s deadpan vocals and allusive lyrics here could be friendly encouragement to hang out and jam, but turn out to have somewhat different implications. From his latest album Grand Reveal. Play it
Amy Allison and David Scott – Coming Up the River
A brief, imagistic, Celtic-inflected narrative that could be about the Civil War or more recent but equally grim events. From their album new album Turn Like the World Does. Spotify link
Raya Brass Band– Let the Crickets Decide
The best song on the Brooklyn Balkan brass band’s latest album This Train Is Now has evilly bubbling trumpet, misterioso alto sax that eventually goes screaming with bent notes and microtones and then a sprint to the finish line. Play it
Emel Mathlouthi – Ma Ikit
The title is Arabic for “Not Found;” “I cannot find a melody strong enough to break human hatred,” the dark Tunisian rock bandleader intoned before building the song to an imploring, exhausted crescendo at the Alliance Française this past May. From her album Kelmti Horra (“Freedom of Speech”). Watch the video
Wooden Indian Burial Ground– Waltz for Eldritch
Funereal, marching, shiveringly twangy guitar set to a zombified acoustic guitar-and-piano tune from the Portland, Oregon dark psychedelic/garage band’s latest self-titled album and cassette. Play it
The Sideshow Tragedy– The Bet
Otis Rush’s Double Trouble remade as noir punk blues – Dimestore Dance Band’s Jack Martin guests on guitar along with the band’s formidable frontman Nathan Singleton. Play it
Big Lazy– Swampesque
A brand-new Bernard Herrmann-style 6/8 blues that noir guitar genius Steve Ulrich’ss recentl resurrected cinematic instrumental trio has been slaying with in concert all year.
Sexmob – Amarcord
Arguably the most epic and sepulchal of the Nino Rota film themes reinvented by trumpeter Steven Bernstein and his noir jazz quartet on their phenomenal Rota tribute album, Cinema Circus & Spaghetti. Watch the video
Dawn Oberg– End of the Continent
The catchiest and most metaphorically crushing tune on the Bay Area pianist/chanteuse’s latest album, Rye, a biting series of earthquake metaphors and gospel-tinged piano. Play it
Eva Salina – Avliga Pe V Gradinka
A Greek tune whose title means “the oriole sings,” it might be the most gripping song on the haunting Balkan singer’s new album Eva Salina Solo, resolute yet fragile and sung completely a-cappella. Play it
Lily Henley– Two Birds
A catchy, wickedly anthemic but doomed series of flight metaphors set to tricky metrics and spiky mandolin. From the eclectic Balkan/Americana singer/violinist’s new album Words Like Yours. Play it
Mild Mannered Rebel – You Smiled So Sweetly
A brooding string quartet of sorts and requiem for bandleader Mavrothi Kontanis’ father. sung in a richly low, suspenseful, elegaic alto by the ubiquitously brilliant Eva Salina. From the haunting Greek-flavored psychedelic band’s new album Ear to the Sky. Play it
Serena Jost– Sweet Mystery
Deftly orchestrated powerpop over an irresistible Motown groove enhanced by the sepulchrally soaring vocal harmonies. From the art-rock cellis/bandleader’s album A Bird Will Sing. Play it
Tribecastan– Gnossienne No. 1
The kitchen-sink rockers’ version of Erik Satie’s iconic theme nicks the Chicha Libre arrangement right down to the bolero rhythm, a wood flute replacing Josh Camp’s Electrovox; still, it’s a great song. From their album New Songs from the Old Country. Play it
Robin O’Brien – Catalina
A haunting, rainy-day psych-folk rock anthem with a delicious George Reisch janglerock guitar solo on the way out. From the cult heroine singer’s new album Dive Into the End of the World. Play it
John Hodel– Tuesday Morning in a Bar
A classic of underground NYC acoustic tunesmithing: “He’s probably still sleeping during his first 150 proof shot; by 7:45 in the AM, there’s probably a few hundred things he forgot.” It was the highlight of the final show this blog booked at the late, lamented Zirzamin last July. Cover version
Eilen Jewell – Only One
The Idaho-born noir Americana chanteuse Jewell brought it down and let her voice tremolo out a little at the end to match lead player Jerry Miller’s creepy guitar on a slow, achingly Lynchian version of this torchy ballad out back of City Winery in July. Watch the video
Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside – They Told Me
“Never gonna apologize for being so intense, how the hell would that make any sense?” the noir garage rocker sneers on the opening track of her band’s new album, Untamed Beast. Play it
The Leisure Society – The Sober Scent of Paper
A morosely waltzing Sylvia Plath homage, Botanica noir filtered through the misty prism of 70s Britfolk. From the British chamber pop band’s new album Alone Aboard the Ark. Play it
Salaam – Lima Sahar
A catchy, Bollywood-flavored shout-out to the first woman to compete on the Afghani verison of American Idol, whose rapid rise to fame was derailed by misogynists in her own family. She subsequently went into hiding and has not been heard from since. From the Indiana-based Middle Eastern ensemble’s latest album Train to Basra. Spotify link
Black Sea Hotel – The Forest Is Shaking and Swaying Part 1
The title track from the innovative Brooklyn Balkan a-cappella trio’s second cd is packed with otherworldly close harmonies, spine-tingling microtones and ornamentation, a new arrangement by the band’s Sarah Small. Play it
The Bright Smoke– Sea Level
A rare song that’s Joy Division-influenced without being slavishily imitative. “Do you know what it’s like to wake up after trying not to wake up again?” frontwoman Mia Wilson asks. From the new album Virginia Et. Al. Play it
The Frank Flight Band– Cat
The longest song on this list echoes Rhode Island psychedelic legends Plan 9’s Dealing with the Dead, the Doors, Stranglers and Blue Oyster Cult in over twenty minutes of savagely guitar-fueled psychedelia. From the British band’s latest album Remains. Play it
Ghosts in the Ocean – Black Eyed Dog
Noir singer Carol Lipnik and pianist Matt Kanelos killed with their jaggedly percussive cover of Nick Drake’s Black-Eyed Dog at several shows this year, a showcase for some cruelly difficult crosshanded work by Kanelos.
Keith Top of the Pops – Morrissey Will Never Forgive Me
Let’s end the list with a funny song: the comedic British crooner’s Smiths spoof is spot-on, right down to the faux Johnny Marr guitar and litany of hilarously recontextualized Morrissey quotes. Watch the video