New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: December, 2015

The 50 Best Albums of 2015

Seven or eight years ago, everyone was predicting the demise of the album. That hasn’t happened, and as long as we have recording technology, it won’t. A few other predictions from the past decade, however, have come true. Albums these days tend to be shorter, and artists are releasing fewer of them. And as a result, they’re consistently better, since acts are no longer contractually obliged to record labels to churn out product regardless of whether or not they’ve got first-class material ready to go. A couple of artists on this list are on boutique labels, but everybody else is independent.

On this page you’ll find a link to stream each album in its entirety. Whenever possible, those links are to ad-free sites like Bandcamp or Soundcloud so you can multitask in comfort without having to ride the fader to mute the ads. Considering the vast number of albums released in any calendar year, you shouldn’t regard this list as gospel. It is, however, an informed survey based on careful triage followed by a sampling of several thousand releases, and then a locked-in, analytical listen to the best 500 or so, from this past January up to the present date. A LOT of time went into this. For purposes of keeping the list under control, none of the many thousands of excellent jazz, classical and avant garde releases are represented here. Realistically, there’s a limit on how much territory a single blog can cover.

The one collection that packed the most mighty wallop – a pretty quiet one, actually – and wins the title of best album of 2015 is Who’s Counting, by Rachelle Garniez. With gallows humor, terse piano, accordion and spare acoustic guitar, it’s the New York songwriter’s shortest, most intimate and darkest album, a masterpiece of existentialist rock, grim explorations of mortality and global carnage juxtaposed with jaunty, sultry, cabaret-flavored set pieces. This is the second time a release by Garniez has topped this list: her 2007 album Melusine Years ranked #1 that year at this blog’s predecessor. Stream it at Spotify

As far as the rest of this rich crop is concerned, there’s no ranking here, since there are so many styles to choose from. Seriously: what’s better? Carol Lipnik‘s otherworldly art-rock, Twin Guns’ savage garage-punk and horror surf, or Hungrytown‘s magnificently pensive folk noir? Apples and oranges, right? These albums are all so good that they can stand alongside anything here.

Les Sans Culottes- Les Dieux Ont Soif/The Gods Are Thirsty
The New York-based faux-French rockers deliver their most satirical, bitingly hilarious, spot-on critique yet…in French, of course, with a harder, more guitar-fueled edge than the retro 60s psychedelic pop they’re known for. Stream it at Soundcloud

Regular Einstein – Chimp Haven
Velvet-voiced, wickedly lyrical janglerock songwriter Paula Carino is another artist who topped the Best Albums of the Year list at this blog’s predecessor. In her case, that release was 2010’s Open on Sunday. This is her first new one – since the 90s, in fact -with her original New York band, packed with delicious double entendres, bittersweet narratives and tricky time signatures. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Bright Smoke – Terrible Towns
Haunting singer/guitarist Mia Wilson’s full-length debut with this atmospheric, blues-infused art-rock project ranks with Joy Division for angst-fueled, white-knuckle intensity. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Sideshow Tragedy Capital
Guitarist/frontman Nathan Singleton brings a ferocious, bitterly apocalyptic lyrical sensibility to his fiery gutter-blues band. Stream it at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Love, Crime & Other Trouble
Jeff Morris of the phantasmagorical Kotorino and Ellia Bisker of dark chamber pop band Sweet Soubrette join forces on their debut full-length release, a lyrically and historically rich mix of murder ballads and tales of relationships gone spectacularly wrong. Stream it at Bandcamp

Carol Lipnik – Almost Back to Normal
The best album by the best singer on this list, a launching pad for her spectacular four-octave vocal range, backed by luminous, hypnotic piano from Matt Kanelos and strings by Jacob Lawson. Allusive apocalyptic themes of natural and manmade disaster and post-9/11 terror linger in the distance. Stream it at Mermaidalley.com

Ember Schrag – The Folkadelphia Sessions
Hypnotically Beatlesque art-rock, smoldering Macbeth-inspired narratives and a killer Great Plains gothic anthem by the style’s most lyrical and distinctive practitioner. Stream and download it free from the Folkadelphia page

Twin Guns – The Last Picture Show
A mighty leap for the ferocious power trio, including but not limited to their Cramps-style stomp. This one’s a lot more psychedelic and noir surf-oriented. Stream it at Bandcamp

Lorraine Leckie & Pavel Cingl – The Raven Smiled
Spare and surreal yet majestically enveloping art-rock and Slavic folk noir sounds from the Canadian gothic songstress and Czech violin wizard. Stream it at Bandcamp

Rachel Mason – The Lives of Hamilton Fish
One of the darkest albums on this list, this lush, evocative mix of historically-inspired janglerock and folk noir traces the seeemingly unconnected lives of two early 20th century figures who shared the same name: a serial killer and the scion of a famous New York political legacy. Stream it at Bandcamp

King Raam – A Day & a Year
A majestic, brooding Iranian art-rock record by the pseudonymous expat baritone crooner and bandleader. Lyrics in Persian. Stream it at Soundcloud

Fernando Viciconte – Leave the Radio On
The noir rock bandleader originally hails from Argentina; this haunted, doomed concept album, with significant contributions from REM’s Peter Buck and others, could be the great lost Steve Wynn release. Stream it at Bandcamp

Litvakus– Raysn: The Music of Jewish Belarus
A rousing, exhilarating mix of rare Jewish dance numbers,lively originals and morose folk tunes from the badlands of Polesia, in the corner where Belarus, Poland, Latvia and the Ukraine meet. One of the best party albums on this list. Stream it at Bandcamp

Raya Brass Band – Raya
Another awesome party album, the third release by the New York Balkan group is their most original, stylistically and emotionally diverse one yet, incorporating Ethiopian and latin sounds into their rapidire chromatics. Stream it at Bandcamp

Tipsy Oxcart – Upside Down
A fat rock rhythm section anchors these deliriously edgy minor-key Balkan, Turkish and Jewish themes and originals. Stream it at Bandcamp

Marianne Dissard – Cologne Vier Takes
The southwestern gothic/art-rock chanteuse and bandleader at the top of her uneasy game, in a mix of richly atmospheric yet intimate versions from her darkly lyrical catalog. Lyrics in French. Stream it at Bandcamp

Tom Warnick & the World’s Fair – Side Effects
The well-loved noir rock cult figure turns in a characteristically diverse mix of ghoulabilly, noir swing, soul and blues, all with his signature black humor and a luridly smoky band behind him. Stream it at Spotify

Matt Keating – This Perfect Crime
Getting away with murder is the loosely interconnecting theme on this typically diverse blend of janglerock, Stonesy stomp, Americana and soul-infused sounds, all with Keating’s richly sardonic, literate lyricism. Stream it at Mattkeating.com

Tracy Island – War No More
The long-awaited full-length debut from captivating singer/multi-instrumentalist Liza Garelik Roure – former leader of deviously psychedelic popsters Liza & the WonderWheels – is her catchiest and most pensively colorful yet, fueled by husband Ian Roure’s sizzling lead guitar. Stream it at Lizasongs.com

Bliss Blood & Al Street – Unspun
The iconic noir torch song heroine builds lowlit, lurid, delectably lyrical ambience in an intimate duo recording with her longtime flamenco-inspired six-string guy. Stream it at Bandcamp

Orphan Jane – A Poke in the Eye
Deviously witty, creepy noir cabaret and circus rock from this irrepressibly theatrical, Brecht/Weill-inspired New York crew. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Universal Thump – Walking the Cat
Famously recorded at Abbey Road Studios, frontwoman/keyboardist Greta Gertler has never written with greater wit or purist pop chops than she does here with her lush chamber pop/art-rock project. Stream it at Bandcamp

Sarah Kirkland Snider – Unremembered
The most lavishly orchestrated album on this list features vocals from Padma Newsome and Shara Worden throughout a mix of brooding, sweeping art-rock reflections on harrowing childhood experiences and similar trauma. Stream it at Bandcamp

Goddess – Paradise
The latest release by the phantasmagorical New York art-rock band captures them in creepily enveloping psychedelic mode. Stream it at Bandcamp

Bobtown – A History of Ghosts
Eerie, sepulcural Appalachian folk tunes, creepy newgrass, retro soul, murder ballads, black humor galore and exquisite four-part harmonies from the band that might be the best folk noir act around. Stream it at Bobtownmusic.com

Mike RimbaudPut That Dream in Your Pipe and Smoke It
Yet another provocative, surrealistically lyrical, tight powerpop and retro new wave record from one of the most fearlessly funny, spot-on chroniclers of post-9/11 global society anywhere. Stream it at Spotify

Hungrytown – Further West
The most elegantly arranged and arguably best album by poignant Americana songstress Rebecca Hall and multi-instrumentalist Ken Anderson’s plaintive folk noir band Stream it at Spotify

The Sway Machinery – Purity & Danger
One of the great guitar albums on this list, this richly textured, intricately arraanged, soaring collection of anthems sees the band venturing further from desert rock toward cantorially-inspired psychedelia. Stream it at Spotify

The TarantinosNYC – Surfin’ the Silver Screen
Catchy, fun, vividly cinematic surf rock, spy themes and psychedelic soul from one of NYC’s most original instrumental units. Stream it at Spotify

Dalava – their debut album
Guitar polymath Aram Bajakian and his haunting singer wife Julia Ulehla combine to reinvent stark traditional Moravian themes with an electric edge. Stream it at Bandcamp  

Patricia Santos – Never Like You Think
The auspicious, intense, eclectic soul-infused debut by the charismatic cello rocker and Kotorino member. Stream it at Bandcamp

Eleni Mandell – Dark Lights Up
Los Angeles noir soul, bittersweet torch song and Americana by an icon of dark retro songcraft. Stream it at Spotify

The Whiskey Charmers – their debut album
Twin Peaks C&W, Appalachian gothic, dark blues and jangly rock from this shadowy, female-fronted Detroit dark Americana band. Stream it at Thewhiskeycharmers.com

Figli di Madre Ignota – Bellydancer
High-energy, Gogol Bordello-esque circus rock and Romany punk songs with hilarious, satirical lyrics in Italian and English. Stream their “spaghetti Balkan” sounds at Soundcloud

The Frank Flight Band – The Usual Curse
The British counterpart to Blue Oyster Cult reach back into the vaults for this haunted mix of Doorsy art-rock, shapeshifting psychedelia and unexpectedly macabre gothic sounds. Stream it at cdbaby

Dawn Oberg – Bring
The irrepressible parlor pop pianist/chanteuse at the top of her sardonic, lyrically rich game in this mix of personality portraits and psychopathological analysis. Stream it at Dawnoberg.com

Jennifer Hall – her debut ep
An intriguing, auspicious mashup of noir soul and art-rock from the powerfully nuanced Chicago song stylist and her excellent, eclectic band. Stream it at Spotify

The Grasping Straws – their debut album
Edgy songwriter/guitarist Mallory Feuer’s snarling, hard-hitting, scruffy, defiantly lyrical first full-length effort goes in a more straightforward, less jazz-inspired direction than the band’s initial ep. Stream it at Bandcamp

Ben Von Wildenhaus– II
Southwestern gothic, slinky bellydancer noir themes and Twin Peaks atmospherics from the loopmusic guitar master and esteemed noir soundscaper. Stream it at Soundcloud

Naked Roots Conducive – Sacred521
Cellist Valerie Kuehne and violinist Natalia Steinbach’s tormentedly cinematic, surrealistically intense art-rock dives menacingly and blackly amusingly into themes of alienation and ahwer despair. Stream it at Bandcamp

Lions – their debut ep
A slinky, trippy mix of Ethiopian grooves, Israeli stoner rock jams and cinematic themes. Stream it at Bandcamp

George Usher & Lisa Burns – The Last Day of Winter
Intense, autumnal purist powerpop, blue-eyed soul and psych-pop tunesmithing from two highly regarded, veteran songcrafters. Stream it at Spotify

Banda de los Muertos – their debut album
Epic, ornate, richly arranged, reinvented Mexican brass band ranchera themes and sweepingly majestic, blazing originals from trombonist Jacob Garchik’s imaginative big brass ensemble. Stream it at Spotify 

Spanglish Fly – New York Boogaloo
A hard-hitting, wickedly arranged, cleverly crafted update on classic 60s salsa soul from this irrepressible, danceable, psychedelic New York outfit. Stream it at Bandcamp

Curtis Eller & the New Town Drunks – Baudelaire in a Box: Songs of Anguish
Intriguing new translations of classic, surrealistically creepy Baudelaire poems set to starkly bluesy, phantasmagorical tunes by the charismatic circus rock bandleader and the Eastern Seaboard noir group. Stream it at Bandcamp

Elisa Flynn – My Henry Lee
The darkly eclectic songwriter and hauntingly luminous chanteuse’s most spare, terse album blends starkly funny individualist anthems with more pensive material and a classic murder ballad. Stream it at Bandcamp

Fireships – their debut album
Imaginatively arranged Americana rock and chamber pop with a fearlessly aware, Dylanesque, populist lyricism. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Amphibious Man – Witch Hips
Enigmatically lo-fi, twistedly Lynchian, surf-tinged reverb rock. Like nothing else on this list and yet in a way like an awful lot on this list, in terms of general darkness. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Honeycutters – Me Oh My
Oldschool female-fronted honkytonk with a newschool, sharply literate, defiantly populist lyrical edge. Stream it at Spotify

The Old Ceremony – Sprinter
Folk noir and serpentine, intricately arranged, Lynchian art-rock and chamber pop from Django Haskins’ darkly eclectic band. Stream it at youtube – but BE CAREFUL – a loud audio starts immediately when you click the link, mute the sound before you do

For more yummy clickbait, other 2015 lists here include the forthcoming playlist at the Best Songs of 2015 page and the Best New York Concerts of 2015 page.

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An Intimate Show with Art-Rock Guitar Legend Martin Barre

by David Koral

I used to hold onto my concert ticket stubs, when such things existed. But if the nosebleed-red cardstock from the 1979 Jethro Tull show at Madison Square Garden is still around, it’s likely at the bottom of a landfill, keeping Staten Island warm. I couldn’t help thinking back to it prior to the show last Saturday night, when I overheard some longtime fan lament how it wasn’t right that Martin Barre, who had played large venues in the past, should now appear on such a small stage at the Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side. But back then, as I recall, from an elevation of a mile or so, Martin Barre and his bandmates appeared more or less as stick figures.

Not the case in this ground-floor space, however. On the contrary, it was a great opportunity to see Jethro Tull’s longtime guitarist up close and personal. Taking the stage promptly at seven, he struck the graceful warm-up pose one might expect from a seasoned club performer: with his left arm extended outward, like a ballerina or a Greek statue, he touched a toe to the digital tuner on the floor, and he was ready to rock.

And were those really the opening notes to “To Cry You a Song” I heard? Yes, I do think so. In Dan Crisp, Martin Barre has found a clear-voiced front man with a strong stage manner and well-honed guitar chops, who effortlessly harmonized the lead line on his drool-worthy black Les Paul Custom. Dan was given the first solo, but in no time, Martin was working the neck of his gray Paul Reed Smith, shredding faster than any metalhead I’ve ever seen while anticipating new chord positions and adeptly rolling back the volume to restore dynamics. Watching his fingers like a hawk, I couldn’t help but wonder what gauge of strings he uses; with every subtle touch they bent and quivered, producing sweet squalls through the Marshall cab backed against the wall.

The band continued the momentum with “Minstrel in the Gallery,” but simmered down with the title cut of Barre’s new solo album, Back to Steel. Ably backed by the pulsing bass of Alan Thompson and the steady beat of George Lindsay, the intricate guitar interplay between Martin and his foil recalled Dokken and the mid-’90s progressive metal band Extreme.

Experimenting in the same vein, they covered “Eleanor Rigby,” combining light arpeggios and Spanish guitar figures to re-imagine the refrain from the Beatles’ psychedelic classic. “The English are people of so few words,” Martin said as an introduction, explaining the major difference between “bollocks” (rubbish) and “amazingly bollocks” (the Beatles, in his opinion). It’s a distinction worth bearing in mind, to avoid winding up in a fistfight.

“I take out the bits of songs I don’t like and leave in the ones I do,” he said, revealing a keen sense of humor and setting the stage for what would be the climax of the show. What parts does he like? “Only the guitar solo.” With that, the band launched into a taut rendition of the “Poet and the Painter” section of “Thick as a Brick,” and smoothly transitioned to the “Childhood Heroes” passage.

“We’re just another cover band,” Martin said, introducing tunes by Warren Haynes and Porcupine Tree, before picking up his mandolin for an adaptation of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” that strangely recalled Songs from the Wood. In a black T-shirt and jeans, he looked so much younger and leaner than those very woolen country squires on the cover of Heavy Horses or Bursting Out.

The show concluded with tasty versions of old favorites such as “Teacher” and a bluesy version of “New Day Yesterday.” At the beginning of the show, Martin’s ax was polished so bright you could see your face in it, but rock ’n’ roll does involve sweat, and by the end, great big bullets were rolling off his forehead and onto the flaming maple top.

So, finally, all of us middle-aged teenagers stomped hard and cheered real loud. And guess what happened? He decided to come back out to do an encore, “Locomotive Breath,” with chukka-chukka so delicious it was worth the price of admission, and proving once and for all that flute solos are not necessary for honest rock ’n’ roll.

Linda Draper Plays One of the Year’s Most Memorable Shows, Then Hits Williamsburg on the 28th

Liz Tormes and Linda Draper made a calmy intense twinbill back in October, each folk noir tunesmith playing solo acoustic at the American Folk Art Museum. It was good enough to make this year’s Best New York Concerts page – obviously a list that reflects only a tiny sliver of the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of concerts that took place in this city this year, but a very fun evening all the same. Both performers can be hilarious, but this particular show was more about songcraft than devastating one-liners. Draper is at Pete’s on December 28 at 10 PM, followed by lush, sparklingly anthemic Americana parlor rock band the Hinges, who are sort of the Pacific Northwest version of Hem. Tormes is most likely done for the year, at least as shows are concerned, although she has a long-awaited new album in the works.

Tormes played first, setting a tone for the night immediately with her uneasily catchy major/minor changes and blend of Americana and purist 60s pop. Gently and methodically, she worked her way up from hypnotically lowlit. minimalist post-Velvets ambience to an understatedly sardonic waltz, alluding to those who might want the limelight more than they deserve. Dancing hints of 80s new wave lit up a simmeringly exasperated nocturne about being kept up by noisy Lower East Side neighbors, inspired by real events during Tormes’ long tenure in that neighborhood. Through the purposeful stroll of Don’t Love Back and a similarly bittersweet, middle-period Dylanesque backbeat anthem, Tormes tied all her influences together with her plush, matter-of-fact vocals, rising and sailing from time to time but mostly mining a richly allusive midrange, resolute if wounded in places. It was a set for survivors, optimistic in the face of everything that had come before.

Draper didn’t waste any time picking up the pace with the rousing anti-conformity entreaty Modern Day Decay, the title track to her new album due out early next year. She went toward classic Britfolk with the next number and its broodingly descending vocals over an insistently steely fingerpicked minor-key hook. Likewise, the insistent C&W-tinged sway of Take the Money and Run underscored its defiance, an escape anthem in search of fellow travelers. She kept the energy in the red with an especially amped take of Broken Eggshell, her lyrically torrential, crescendoing shout-out to gentle, everyday iconoclasms. As she tells it, eggshells are to be stepped on, not tiptoed around.

She worked an uneasy resolve as enigmatic open chords shifted back and forth with warmer major changes, then went into the snidely tongue-in-cheek stroll of Sleepwalkers, a considerably uneasier escape anthem: Draper is no fan of the meh-ness of the walking dead. Then she shifted gears and evoked the bittersweet jangle of Matt Keating – with whom she’s enjoyed a memorable collaboration in recent years – with a new song, With the new album due out soon, Draper is likely to air out even more auspicious new material at Pete’s.

Murder and Mayhem in Brooklyn, Again

One of Brooklyn’s most unique music scenes is growing in the wilds of Fort Greene, where noir chamber pop connoisseurs Charming Disaster – Ellia Bisker of the darkly catchy Sweet Soubrette and Jeff Morris of the lushly orchestrated, latin-tinged, phantasmagorical Kotorino – host a monthly salon where artists from many different genres get together to explore the darkest side of songwriting. It’s only fitting that the latest installment of Murder Ballad Mondays would take place on the darkest day of the year, this December 21 at 8 PM at Branded Saloon. Featured artists include enigmatic art-rock cellist/chanteuse Serena Jost, haunting High Plains gothic songstress Karen Dahlstrom (of folk noir stars Bobtown), the luridly theatrical, Brechtian Orphan Jane, Americana singer-songwriters Karen Poliski and Terry Radigan and others.

One explanation for the monthly extravaganza’s popularity could be that the artists here don’t limit themselves to old Appalachian folk songs or Child ballads. They’re pushing the limits of how far murder ballads can go: who knows, maybe this could become more than a demimonde. As the turnout here proves, there’s no shortage of material, not to mention people who like creepy music. This past month’s lineup, in particular, featured some of New York’s elite songsmiths, who turned in some pretty amazing performances.

Jessi Robertson, with her impassioned, otherworldly, rustic blues voice, got the night started on a strong note with a morosely stately waltz. “Should have burned it to the ground, dance in the dark…it’s a sad old story,” she intoned, low and gloomy. Then she referenced Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles over a mesh of watery, open guitar chords.

Sharply literate Americana parlor pop chanteuse Robin Aigner followed with an almost gleeful take of Delia’s Gone – springboarding off the Johnny Cash version – and then reinvented Neil Young’s Down By the River as a brooding minor-key waltz. In between, she sang a brand-new song, a swinging, catchy oldtimey strut: “I can’t shut you up, I can’t shut you out but I can shoot you and put you in the ground,” she grinned, explaining that the victim was a composite of ex-boyfriends rather than a specific individual. Yikes!

Jessie Kilguss made her US debut on harmonium (she played it on her most recent European tour) on a riveting, soaringly enveloping take of the Nick Cave version of the old standard Henry Lee. as well as making her way through a rapt, stark take of an original, Hell Creek, backed by guitarist John Kengla’s icy, late Beatlesque chorus-pedal guitar. Guitarist Arthur Schupach led his Donald & Lydia duo project through another take of Henry Lee, this one based on the Jolie Holland version. Speaking of which, that’s who Ellis Dodi frontwoman Erica Diloreto brought to mind, throughout a mix of material including a hilarious acoustic punk tune where she dropped a whole slew of f-bombs on a clueless ex.

Juliet Strong played kinetic, rippling gospel and ragtime-fueled piano on a couple of originals, while Charming Disaster tantalized the crowd with a single tongue-in-cheek number about a couple of ghosts in love, pulsing with intricate, sophisticated vocal call-and-response between Bisker and Morris. And a familiar bass face from the Lower East Side scene took a haphazard turn on piano, drawing some chuckles with a bitter 6/8 ballad about killing the tech-obsessed, micromanaging boss from hell. A ghoulabilly number about doing in the sleazy front guy from a hydrofracking operation didn’t go over as well. And a cover of a brand-new, as-yet-untitled Karla Rose & the Thorns serial killer narrative – done as a dirgey bolero with horror-film chromatics – capsulized the danger of a guy with Lou Reed vocal range plundering the repertoire of an immensely more powerful singer. Which speaks to Murder Ballad Mondays’ value as lab for experimentation as much as entertainment.

Meet Darkly Noisy, Catchy, Up-and-Coming Castle Black

Castle Black are the kind of band you want to catch on the way up. Right now, the power trio are running on inspiration. They’re pushing the limits of their chops, careening through a bunch of styles – oldschool punk, abrasive post-Bush Tetras postpunk and noisy later-period Sleater-Kinney indie aggro, to name a few – on their way to really crystallizing a sound of their own. If this is as far as they get, they’re a lot of fun live. If they keep at it, they’ve got a high ceiling. Both guitarist Leigh Celent and bassist Lisa Low sing; drummer Matt Bronner is the kind of uncluttered rock player a band like this needs. Right now they’re making their way up from crappy venues – their youtube channel has a lot of good live stuff from the odious Bitter End, for example – to good places like Matchless. Their next gig is tomorrow night, December 19 at 8 PM at Leftfield, the old UC Lounge space at 87 Ludlow St. just south of Delancey; cover is $10.

At this early point in their career, they’ve got the tunes, and a consistently dark vision. All a band like this needs to do is keep playing, and grow beyond just playing scales, or noise when just a little something from outside the box would set them apart from the rest of the pack. The stuff at youtube is tantalizingly haphazard. There’s Premonition, which has a sludgy country feel and then picks up steam; the epic Dark Light: A Plague Revisited, with the eerie foreshadowing of its opening hook, to a series of unexpected up-and-down tempo shifts; The Next Big Thing, with its trippy, oscillating white noise and mashup of stoner metal riffage and viciously chugging oldschool punk rumble. Song of Winter is the simplest of the songs, and catchy as it is, sounds like a very early one. Someone Hear Me shuffles and careens along over a noisily embellished blues scale as the cymbals build a hailstorm behind the roar. Doing Time Pass puts a noisier spin on a vintage Gang of Four riff and then goes in a more straight-up direction.

They’ve also got an ep, Find You There, streaming at their music page. The opening track, This Old Town builds from an aching, tense postpunk verse into an ominously lingering chorus, an allusive tale of kicking around a hopeless place where bad accidents happen, and you’re so numbed by the pain that you feel nothing when they do. It’s their best song so far. There are also cleaner studio versions of Doing Time Pass and The Next Thing, plus their funniest number, Psychic Surgery, sort of the early Go-Go’s doing boogie rock.

A Second Sick, Reverb-Drenched Disc of Holiday Dub from Super Hi-Fi

Super Hi-Fi play live dub reggae. Their signature sound blends the twin-trombone frontline of Rick Parker and Curtis Fowlkes (of Lounge Lizards/Jazz Passengers fame) into a moodier, sometimes noir-tinged take on vintage Lee Scratch Perry or what the Skatalites were doing in their quieter moments during the golden age of Jamaican ska. When the band started, they had more of an Afrobeat feel, no surprise since bassist/bandleader Ezra Gale led first-rate, second-wave Bay Area Afrobeat band Aphrodesia. These days, they’re a lot slinkier and more low key. From their doomy and seriously excellent debut album, Dub to the Bone, you’d have no idea just how funny this band can be…unless you also know the follow-up to that, Yule Analog Vol. 1, a snarky collection of dub versions of Christmas carols. Sure enough, when the band went into the studio, they did enough of those to fill not one but two cds  – four album sides, considering that the band is known for their vinyl releases – of this shit. And they’re back, with Yule Analog, Vol. 2 – streaming at Bandcamp – and a show in the front window at the intimate, laid-back Bar Chord in Ditmas Park on December 19 at 9.

The previous collection opened with a theme that Jethro Tull was known for pilfering – are you laughing yet? This time it’s Simon & Garfunkel. OK, not a Simon & Garfunkel original, and not with the samples or the antiwar message. What it does have is tons of reverb on the guitar, gently oscillating organ, a rhythm section that sways rather than skanks along and meanderingly goodnatured ska-jazz trombone solos. It sets the stage: the most recurring joke here is the cat-and-mouse game about what song they’re playing and how far they go with it.

O Come All Ye Faithfull (with the double L in “faithfull” – oldschool 90s stoner humor?) doesn’t do that as much, and after awhile the carol has you reaching for the fast-forward. The Christmas Song takes a very, very, very familiar Irving Berlin theme toward swing, with a wry Mitch Marcus tenor sax solo that fades just when it seems like there’s a serious punchline on deck. But the Tschaikovsky theme is killer: who else would have thought to wring Jamdown noir and ambient noise from the Nutcracker?

Gale and drummer Madhu Siddappa keep What Child Is This very close to the ground for a bit until the screams from Jon Lipscomb’s guitar signal another chorus: it’s not hard to imagine this epically delicious plate emanating from the Black Ark in a cloud of ganja smoke circa 1976. They follow that with a funny ska song, Please Santa Bring Me an Echoplex, the album’s only vocal number.

The rest of the tracks are versions of the early songs, and each is an improvement. O Come All Ye etc. gets a black-hole spin through the Echoplex. The Tschaikovsky grows into a mind-altering blend of the baroque, King Tubby and postbop jazz. There’s also the noisy What Version Is This?  [memo to self – isn’t there a carol called It Came Upon a  Midnight Clear?] and a brief Echoplex Reprise. The joke works better before or after December: as heavy disguises as these songs wear, it’s hard to avoid reaching holiday smarm saturation point this time of year. Unless you do your grocery shopping and other retail stuff where this blog travels – in that case, that means salsa, bachata, reggaeton and Polish hip-hop. All of which have never sounded better than they have this month.

An Auspicious Mashup of Art-Rock and Big Band Jazz and a Lincoln Center Show by the NYChillharmonic

Rare as it is for a woman to lead a large jazz ensemble, it’s rarer still for a big band to be led by the singer. Sara McDonald, composer and leader of the NYChillharmonic, blurs the line between art-rock, chamber pop and big band jazz. She sings in a tersely modulated alto and writes lustrous, slowly shapeshifting, moodily lyric-driven songs. The group’s debut album, credited to McDonald herself, is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing the Lincoln Center Atrium this Thursday, December 17 at 7:30 PM. The echoey space ought to be hospitable to this group’s methodically rising, often epic swells, slow tempos and cinematic sweep. As always, getting there early is a good idea if you want a seat, or for that matter, if you want to get in at all since management never lets the place fill to capacity.

Based around looping Darcy James Argue-esque phrases, the album’s opening track, Dead the Trees is a gently lush, lavishly orchestrated, global warming-era apocalyptic waltz. “No one was thinking, no one intervened…smitten with greed,” McDonald intones understatedly, letting the message speak for itself. Guitarist Martin Wessalowski’s lingering, brooding phrases mingle with the increasingly majestic tectonics of the orchestra as the second track, Plans – also a waltz – rises toward peak elevation. Grounded by Lukas Voith’s elegant piano, another gracefully grandiose waltz, Isobel, has a soaring catchiness and enigmatic mix of tense drama and wistfulness that brings to mind Greta Gertler’s similarly lush art-rock band the Universal Thump. It isn’t til the final cut, the evocatively balmy, clave-fueled Sand Castles, that McDonald airs out her torchy side, vocally or otherwise, and it’s worth waiting for, in fact all the way through an amped-up but ultimately misguided cover of a pointless Grizzly Bear bossa ripoff. It’ll be fun to find out what else McDonald has come up with in the roughly year-and-a-half since this album came out.

A Walk in the Dark with Mary Halvorson

What’s the likelihood of getting to see guitarist Mary Halvorson trading riffs with pedal steel icon Susan Alcorn, building an alchemical stew from there? Along with a familiar and similarly-minded crew including erudite trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson; polymath trombonist Jacob Garchik; the even more devious Jon Irabagon on alto sax; tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and her irrepressible deadpan wit; groovemeister bassist John Hebert, and potentially self-combustible drummer Ches Smith? It’s happening tonight and tomorrow night, December 15-16 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM when Halvorson leads this killer octet at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $22.

Who’s the best guitarist in jazz? Pretty much everybody would probably say Bill Frisell. But how about Halvorson? Within the past year or so, she’s released a drolly noisy, politically spot-on art-rock record with People as well as a methodically-paced, texturally snarling trio album by her Thumbscrew trio with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, al the while appearing on a slew of other artists’ records. To get an idea of what she’s likely to do with a larger crew alongside her, your best reference point is probably her moodily orchestrated 2013 septet masterpiece, Illusionary Sea (Spotify link).Halvorson’s latest album, Meltframe – streaming at Firehouse Records – is a solo release, a playlist of radically reinvented standards and covers by colleagues who inspire her, tracing something of a career arc for an artist who rather dauntingly hasn’t reached her peak yet.

What’s most striking here is how sad, desolate and often utterly Lynchian these songs are. Halvorson’s own material is hardly lighthearted, but her sardonic sense of humor so often shines through and shifts the dynamics completely. She doesn’t do that here: it’s a raptly bleak and occasionally harrowing late-night stroll, almost a challenge as if to say, you think you really know me? This is me with my glasses off. The material spans influences readily identifiable in Halvorson’s own compositions, including the AACM pantheon, similarly off-the-hinges guitarists past and present, the blurry borders of rock and jazz songcraft…and Ellington.

The album opens with a carefree but blazing fuzztone bolero-metal take of fellow six-stringer Oliver Nelson’s Cascades. Avant jazz singer Annette Peacock’s original recording of Blood is a lo-fi, careless mess of a vignette: Halvorson’s take is twice as long, segueing out and then back into the previous cut in a brooding flamenco vein, distortion off and the tremolo up to maintain the menace.

She shifts gears, sticking pretty close to the wistful pastoral shades of guitarist Noel Akchote’s Cheshire Hotel, but with a lingering, Lynchian unease that rises toward fullscale horror as it goes along. Ornette Coleman’s Sadness blends hints of the gloomy bridge midway through Iron Maiden’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner into its moody modalities, an apt setup for her lingering deep-space/deep-midnight interpretation of Duke Ellington’s Solitude.

Ida Lupino, a Carla Bley tune originally recorded by her husband Paul Bley, returns to a nebulous Spanish tinge amid the hazy, strummy variations on Sonic Youth-style open chords, Halvorson playing clean with just the hint of reverb. She keeps that setting as she spins, spirals and then lets her chords hang around McCoy Tyner’s Aisha, one of the more deviant interpretations here. Then she cuts loose with a brief blast of distortion and saunters off toward the deep end of the pitch-shifting pool.

Platform, a Chris Lightcap composition, gives Halvorson a stepping-off point for some gritty crunch and wryly Maidenesque grand guignol. When, by Fujiwara plays off a loop of enigmatically chromatic chords; it sounds like something a drummer might write on an unfamiliar instrument. The album closes with a pensively pitch-shifted, Dave Fiuczynski-esque cover of Roscoe Mitchell’s Leola. Guitar jazz doesn’t get any more individualistic or intense than this in 2015.

The Sway Machinery Release Their Richly Psychedelic New Album on a Killer Multi-Band Bill at the Knitting Factory

You might think that a song titled You Will Love No One But Me would be a creepy tale about a stalker. As the title track to the Sway Machinery’s new ep – streaming at Soundcloud – it’s a characteristically eclectic, warmly tuneful mashup of reggae, Afrobeat and psychedelia, frontman Jeremiah Lockwood’s enigmatic, deliciously jangly guitar solo at the center. Like most bands in this century, the Sway Machinery have recorded sporadically, if memorably: their previous album Purity and Danger, from earlier in the year, is a sparkling, psychedelic masterpiece, and this one picks up where that one left off. They’re playing smack in the middle of one of this year’s most enticing and eclectic bills on December 16 at around 9 at the Knitting Factory: country blues guitarist/songwriter Jon LaDeau opens at around 7, followed by funky psychedelic Ethiopiques band Nikhil P. Yerawadekar and Low Mentality, the Sway Machinery and then the People’s Champs, who lately have taken a hard turn from funk into Afrobeat at its most psychedelic. Advance tix at the box offfice, open on show nights, are a bargan at $10.

Beyond the title cut, the Sway Machinery ep’s other tracks are just as choice. Kith & Kin bubbles and dances on the wings of Matt Bauder’s sax and Jordan McLean’s trumpet up to Lockwood’s eerie, lingering minor-key twelve-string phrases, an uncanny approximation of a Middle Eastern kanun that works like a charm in the context of this Ethiopiques-tinged tune. Can’t Help But Stare veers from hints of garage rock, to reverb-drenched dub reggae over the steady pulse of bassist Yerawadekar and drummer John Bollinger, up to an almost stadium-rock grandeur.

This Kiss Blooms But Once a Year is the most straightforward and hard-hitting song here, Lockwood’s biting guitar and expressively melismatic baritone welded to a groove that’s part ominously foreshadowed Ethiopiques and part Marquee Moon-era Television. The final cut, My Beloved, is the most unselfconsciously gorgeous, a brass-spiced, simmeringly guitar-fueled, pouncing update on an ancient cantorial theme. As is typical with this band, there are allusions and frequently less oblique references to the Hasidic music that Lockwood came up in – his grandfather, Jacob Konigsberg, was legendary as a choir leader and soloist in that demimonde, and remains a profound influence in the group’s work as well as the guitarist’s many solo and theatrical projects.

Miwa Gemini Plays Her Smart, Surreal, Uneasily Enigmatic, Jangly Rock at a Rare Afternoon Show

Miwa Gemini is sort of the missing link between Shonen Knife and Calexico. She’s got the endearingly surreal lo-fi Japanese janglerock thing down cold, but she also has a southwestern gothic side. She likes waltzes, but these days it seems that she likes boleros even better. Her quirky sense of humor, along with the birittle vibrato that trails off as her voice reaches the end of a phrase, bring to mind Melora Creager of Rasputina. Gemini’s clangly, reverb-tinged minor-key guitar fits in among the many bands haunting the northern fringes of desert rock, like And the Wiremen. For those of you who might be stir-crazy after spending the evening in while the annual Santacon puke-a-thon made so many of us prisoners in our own homes, Gemini is playing the small room at the Rockwood at 4 (four) PM today, December 13. It’s a pass-the-tip-jar situation.

At her most recent show, at Branded Saloon last month, Gemini and her trumpeter had the misfortune to follow a sizzling set by another duo, cellist-vocalists the Whiskey Girls. Charismatic belter Patricia Santos aired out her powerful and spectacular vocal range throughout a mix of sultry blues, an in-your-face kiss-off song or two and a murderous oldschool soul narrative, all the while playing slinky basslines, ominous deep-well washes of sound and challenging harmonics that required a lot of extended technique. Tara Hanish carried the lead lines with her elegantly serpentine, sometimes baroque-tinged phrasing while adding similarly spot-on high harmonies on the vocal side.

After all that, you might think that Gemini would have been anticlimactic, but she wasn’t. As a guitarist, she didn’t waste notes, using lots of simple, catchy descending lines and uneasy chromatics. As a singer, she projected strongly despite being under the weather after taking a red-eye flight back from a West Coast tour. Some of the duskiest, darkest material seemed to be new, while much of the rest of the set drew on Gemini’s most recent album, Fantastic Lies of Grizzly Rose. It’s a trippy narrative loosely centered around an imperturbably adventurous imaginary muse and possible alter ego – or wishful alter ego. Gemini and her bandmate jangled and soared through the briskly uneasy border-rock shuffe Goodnight Trail, then later on (or before – the memory is fuzzy on this), made a hypnotic Steve Wynn-style low-key groove out of the psychedelic soul ballad The Other Half of Me. Gemini has done a lot of different styles, from oldtimey to swing to garage rock and psychedelia over the years, but she’s never sounded more eclectically tuneful than she has lately.