New York Music Daily

Music for Transcending Dark Times

Category: balkan music

New Takes on Rare, Otherworldly Klezmer Recordings to Ease Your Lockdown Pain

Among the glut of musical webcasts that have sprung up since the beginning of the lockdown, one of the most fascinating and entertaining ones is klezmer violinist Ilana Cravitz‘s Nign a Day project, streaming daily at her webpage. She’s assembled an allstar team of string players from around the world, each playing a half-hour solo program of lively dances and party music from the legendary Moishe Beregovski collection. Many of the artists involved offer insights into the nuts and bolts of these stark, ancient songs as well as the occasional archival clip.

Beregovski was a Russian counterpart to Alan Lomax. Beginning before World War I and continuing until about 1950, Beregovski assembled a vast collection of Jewish folk tunes from across what was then the Soviet Union. Tragically, that heroic preservation work essentially cost him his life. Stalin found out about him and had him imprisoned in the gulag in 1951. In 1956, his health broken, Beregovski was released; he died in obscurity five years later.

His collection of wax cylinder recordings was rediscovered in Kiev after the fall of the Soviet Union and has since become a source of global fascination. Cravitz’s project is at about the halfway point now; New York’s Zoe Aqua and Deborah Strauss are featured on May 14 and 15, respectively. The performances are archived at Cravitz’s youtube channel. Thanks to May 10 guest Alicia Svigals for the heads-up about this.

A Long-Awaited, Darkly Brilliant Gem of a Debut Album From Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore

Over the past couple of years, trumpeter Ben HolmesNaked Lore trio became one of the most consistently edgy, entertaining bands in the Barbes scene. Considering how many dozens of other great artists rotate through Brooklyn’s best (and currently shuttered) music venue, that’s a major achievement.

But Holmes has been a mainstay, playing everything from klezmer to ska there since the zeros, and guitarist Brad Shepik and multi-percussionist Shane Shanahan have long resumes in jazz that slinks toward the Middle East. With this group, the goal is to reinvent old klezmer themes and introduce new ones. If you’re a fan of old Jewish folk tunes from across the diaspora, you’ll hear a lot of familiar minor-key riffs here, beamed down to a completely new planet. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp.

They open the album with a diptych, Invocation 1/Snake Money, an airy, spacious, allusively chromatic trumpet solo leading into a suspensefully pulsing, flamenco-tinged groove. From there Shepik’s fleet-fingered flurries and Shanahan’s snakecharmer beats underpin the bandleader’s lively, spacious, klezmer-infused phrasing. Ibrahim Maalouf’s most upbeat work comes to mind.

The second track is titled 543, a Smile, and Bullshit, reflecting Holmes wry stage presence as well as the whole group’s immersion in Balkan music. This one has a tricky groove that seems Macedonian, deliciously biting upper-register chords from Shepik, trumpet floating and trilling uneasily overhead..

Shepik plays clanging, overtone-laden Portuguese twelve-string guitar in the steady, jauntily strolling, tantalizingly gorgeous Swamplands Chusidl and sticks with it in the hypnotically circling Interlude on Avenue J, a throwback to the more postbop jazz-inflected style Holmes mined on his Balkan jazz record Gold Dust.

Another crystalline, unsettled trumpet taqsim, Invocation II leaps and bounds, introducing The Dust of Unremembering; Shepik runs a moody acoustic guitar loop as Shanahan fires off machinegunning riffs and Holmes hangs low and ominous, a stormcloud above all the scampering.

The Sunbeast Emerges, with its moody bolero tinges, is another killer track: it sounds like a Serbian take what could be a catchy, incisive Michael Winograd tune, no surprise considering how much time Holmes has spent in the clarinetist’s band. Shepik’s spiraling, spine-tingling solo is one of the album’s high points.

Two Oh No’s and an Oh! no No! is not a Yoko Ono paraphrase: it’s a dusky, Indian-flavored theme built around a Shepik chromatic loop, Holmes moodily choosing his spots over Shanahan’s clip-clop attack, the guitarist adding a wickedly Middle Eastern solo.

First We Were Sad, Then We Danced is a pretty self-explanatory hora, a high-voltage concert favorite: the trio add smoldering flamenco flavor and then an absolutely surreal new wave rock pulse. They wind up the album with the unselfconsciously poignant waltz All Together, a subtle mix of klezmer, pastoral American jazz and the Balkans.

All of these guys have done great work over the years but this is a high point for everybody in the band. No wonder they’ve stuck together so long. If it makes sense to put up a best albums of 2020 page at the end of the year – if New York still exists at the end of the year, if we all exist – this will be on it.

Calmly Yet Adventurously Exploring Slavic Vocal Traditions with Kitka

All-female Bay Area choral ensemble Kitka love exploring vocal traditions from Eastern Europe to parts of the former Soviet Union. Beyond that eclecticism, they distinguish themselves with their collective vocal range: this unit has strong contraltos to balance out all the soaring highs. Their vast twenty-two track album Evening Star is streaming at Bandcamp. Although a lot of their material is very rhythmically sophisticated, there’s a mystical, reassuring calm to much of it, a welcome antidote to the terror of the coronavirus scare.

The opening medley of Bulgarian carols is a lot of fun, with a very cool contrast between an increasingly complex, stately web of counterpoint and a triumphant “wheeee” bursting from every corner of the stereo picture. That contrapuntal complexity returns again in songs from Romania and Latvia.

They have just as much fun with the eerie close harmonies and swooping, melismatic ornamentation of several more Bulgarian and Serbian tunes. They spice a Latvian round with strange, surreal, looming percussion. In one of the Ukrainian tunes, a couple of the group’s most distinctive voices add striking timbres over an increasingly delirious backdrop anchored by boomy bass drum. The group interpolate a a Greek tune – with a swooping, melismatic Indian flavor- within a brooding Appalachian-tinged folk song, the only one from these shores here.

The album also includes a calm, Renaissance-tinged Russian hymn; a spare, hypnotic Georgian piece and a triptych of Yiddish lullabies over a wafting midrange drone. There are love songs, laments and a peasant work song. Among all the solos, the single mightiest one is at the end of a steady, swaying Ukrainian number. They wind up the album with a Yiddish tune and finally break out the accordion, memorably. In the centuries before the magic rectangle took over the collective imagination, this is what people used to do with their time.

A Brooklyn Brass Legend Keeps on Blasting at Barbes

It was so much fun to just sit and actually listen for once to Slavic Soul Party on a Tuesday night.

That’s the trouble with Barbes. The original Brooklyn Balkan brass band’s weekly residency there goes back to the bar’s second year, fifteen years ago. If you’ve seen them since then, you inevitably run into friends, who give you the choice of either dissing them or not paying attention to the band. And you can’t dis your friends.

Slavic Soul Party’s Golden Fest time slot a couple of weeks ago was on the early side: usually they play the big ballroom, late. That show turned out to be more of a jam, the group eventually forsaking the stage for the center of a shifting morasss of circling dancers. The band’s second set of their final January Barbes installment was more straight-up minor-key intensity than Balkan chromatics,, at least for the first few songs.

The catchy tuba basslines are key. The first number had a simple four-chord progression that’s been used in a million rock songs: you wouldn’t normally associate Neil Young with music from Eastern Europe, but some riffs are catchy no matter where you come from.

As usual, the place was packed. Was that Matt Moran who took that almost venomously crescendoing trumpet solo toward the end of the set? It was hard to see. As usual, the band took over the center of the room at one point, forcing anybody who wasn’t already either dancing or intent on the music to get into it, or get out.

The difference this particular night, and maybe what ultimately differentiates the band from their Eastern European influences is that there was less rat-a-tat and more straight-up blast – other than from the two standup tapan drums, at least. The second song had more of a bite; from there they edged their way toward a funky strut and eventually a WONK-wonk tuba bassline that got everybody chuckling. Finally, they hit a crackling, stairstepping pulse that, in the hands of a rock band, would have been close to Black Sabbath. Then they went back to the syncopated minor-key bounce.

Slavic Soul Party play Barbes just about every Tuesday; their next gig is tomorrow night, Feb 4. Officially, the show starts at 9; sometimes they hit at the stroke of nine, other times not til about 9:30. Cover is $10; as with all shows at Barbes, all the money goes to the band.

Symphonic Lushness and Edgy Intensity from Wildly Eclectic Accordionist Simone Baron

Accordionist Simone Baron‘s debut album The Space Between Disguises, with her group Arco Belo – streaming at Bandcamp – has the lushness and epic sweep of classical music, the edge of the Balkans, the rhythmic complexity of jazz and the vividness of a film score. Just when you think it couldn’t get more eclectic,  she throws in brief interludes with loops and snippets of found sound in between songs. There are thousands of bands across Europe who mash up all these styles, but few here in the US.

The lush string overture introducing the album’s opening cut, Post Edit Delete, alludes to a famously overcast weekend song made famous by Billie Holiday. Then the group tipetoe through a Balkan-tinged violin theme. Baron plays piano on this particular number, dancing through the moody mist.

With its hazy swells and a coy bass/violin conversation, Angle of Incidence is more astringent, Baron’s accordion doubling bassist Mike Pope’s bubbly lines midway through. Who Cares is a gorgeously dark pastoral jazz vignette fueled by banjo player Mark Schatz’s enigmatic frailing. Dramatically incisive low-register piano, biting violin, austerely swirling strings, a bit of funk and warily unsettled accordion percolate throughout the epic mini-suite Passive Puppeteer.

The melancholic, singing quality of the strings and acccordion as the album’s title track gets underway is stunning; then all of a sudden it’s a loopy, marionettish dance that grows more haunting and lush. Baron reinvents Walter Bishop, Jr.’s Those Who Chant with an elegant gallop, then takes her time with the sweepingly plaintive Valsa, by Brazilian accordionist Tibor Fittel. The album’s concluding diptych, Buciumeana/Kadynja juxtaposes a gorgeous, klezmerish Moldovan theme with a Romanian folk dance appropriated by Bartók, complete with creepy music box-like piano and a killer handoff from accordion to violin.

A tour de force from a group that also includes drummer Lucas Ashby and the strings of Aaron Malone on violin and viola, Bill Neri on viola, Peter Kibbe on cello, plus violinists Nelson Moneo, Laura Colgate and Ellen McSweeney.

Haunting, High-Voltage Balkan and Middle Eastern Sounds from Oud Mastermind Mehmet Polat

One of the most richly dynamic albums of recent months is Mehmet Polat‘s Quantum Leap, with his eclectic band Embracing Colours. The oud virtuoso and composer’s latest releas, a mix of influences from Andalucia to the Balkans and the Middle East is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening track, Expanded Lives, is stunningly intense, a wounded minor-key anthem that builds to a long, flamenco-tinged, flurrying crescendo from the bandleader. Accordionist Bart Lelivelt joins the dance as it reaches a peak, then the rhythm section – bassist Hendrik Müller and drummer Joan Terol Amigo – pull the song back to more elegant drama.

They don’t waste a second to segue into Dancing Statues, a suspenseful accordion-bass conversation setting off a fiery, pulsingly insistent Balkan dance with a deliciously edgy, chromatic accordion solo, with the bandleader adding his own scampering, misterioso lines. Playing the Time Away is more pensive, with a series of carefree oud/accordion exchanges.

The band stay in animated dance mode with the tricky metrics of Falseta Mesopotámica, Polat firing off a percussively incisive solo, singer Ciğdem Okuyucu adding her spacious, ripely melismatic voice to the mix. They follow with Segue – good as that joke is, this bridge is a particularly interesting one, shifting from a kinetic scramble to a wary, brooding bowed bass solo, picking up with renewed intensity and eventually coming full circle.

Trumpeter Eric Vloeimans’ airy microtones join with the accordion to introduce the slow, stately, Palestinian-inflected anthem All Connected: with the trumpet moving into stark blues, it could be the album’s most hauntingly gorgeous track.

The aptly titled, saturnine Breathing Again is another stunner, Polat’s allusively chilling, spacious solo giving way to Imamyar Hasanov’s plaintive, imploring kamancheh fiddle. The quote at the end is too good to give away: let’s say it’s a happy ending appropriate for the current political climate.

The band follow Polat’s steady, sternly catchy solo piece Conveyed Emotions with Contemplation, a big, powerful, serpentine, Balkan-spiced showstopper. Then Polat and Müller edge their way into the shapeshifting Entropy – with the exchanges between Polat’s soaring vocals and Michalis Kouloumis’ stark violin, it’s the closest thing to current-day, electric Black Sea jazz here.

Lelivelt’s portentous accordion taqsim kicks off A Deserved Distraction – it seems designed as a welcome, pedal-to-the-metal diversion in the wake of so much haunting intensity. The group close with Aftermath, a grimly beautiful tableau that wouldn’t be out of place in the Mohammed Abdel Wahab catalog: Polat’s insistent, minimalist solo is impossible to turn away from. What a breathtaking record.

Polat’s next concert is on January 31 at at the Lutherkirche Sudstat, Martin-Luther-Platz 4 in
Cologne, Germany.

The Ava Trio Jam Out Slinky, Gorgeously Overcast Middle Eastern-Tinged Themes

Baritone sax, bass and drums – just the idea of two low-register instruments with a beat is enticingly mysterious. That was Moisturizer’s lineup, Morphine’s too. The Ava Trio – baritone saxophonist Giuseppe Doronzo, bassist Esat Ekincioglu and percussionist Pino Basile – extrapolate dusky, often haunting Middle Eastern-tinged themes with them. Some of their album Digging the Sand– streaming at Bandcamp – reminds of Matt Darriau’s Paradox Trio, elsewhere the extraordinary Brooklyn maqam jazz group Ensemble Fanaa

The album’s opening number, Cala Dei Turchi, brings to mind Morphine in a particularly brooding moment, although Doronzo’s tone is more balmy than Scott Colley’s smoky, often jabbing attack. Basile gives it a slow, sober sway with spare, hypnotic accnts on his bedir frame drum while sax and bass hint at and finally go deep into a haunting Turkish-flavored theme with a surprise ending.

How hopeful is Espero? The group kick it off with a punchy, syncopated, Romany-flavored tune, diverge and then return with more of a clenched-teeth, uneasily circling focus. Rising from airy washes to a warmly exploratory solo sax interlude, the trio shift back and forth between a bubbly, loopy groove and more unsettled terrain in the epic Fadiouth.

The album’s title track begins with a couple of explosions and drony, scrapy bass, Basile’s cupaphon friction drum enhancing the stygian ambience, Doronzo choosing his spots for moody, distantly Ethiopian-tinged melody. Ekincioglu opens Tosun Kacti with a low, warpy solo before the band leap into a cheery Balkan circle dance of sorts bookending variations on a mournful, marching interlude.

Doronzo’s masterful midrange melismas take centerstage in the increasingly intense, bouncy Balkan-flavored Ayi Havasi. They stay in the same vein with a terse plaintiveness throughout the slightly more subdued Anamoni and close the record with the lively, dynamically shifting, deliciously catchy Distanze, Doronzo switching between sax and keening, bagpipe-like mizmār oboe for the jajouka-influenced bridge. Whether you call this jazz, Balkan or Middle Eastern music – it’s really all of the above – it’s one of the most delightful albums of recent months.

Golden Fest: Best New York Concert of Whatever Year You Can Remember

It was early, a little before six, upstairs in the Rainbow Room Saturday night at the big finale to this year’s Golden Fest. A young mom with bangs in a simple black top and pants swung her daughter by the wrists. The two pretty much had the whole dance floor to themselves, and the little kid was relishing the attention. A friend of her mom’s joined them and took over the swinging.

Then the little girl decided she wanted to show off her dance moves – and schooled the two adults in how to get down to an edgy minor-key Balkan tune, in 7/4 time. Over the course of the next eight hours or so, she wouldn”t be the only preschooler who had those kind of moves down cold.

Many of those kids’ parents, or the kids themselves, are alumni of the annual Balkan Camp immortalized as the idyllic setting of Josephine Decker’s horror film Butter on the Latch. It seems like a great place to learn Romany dances or sharpen your chops on the accordion, or zurla, or gadulka. But not everyone who goes to Golden Fest every year goes to Balkan Camp, or has roots in the old country, or in Eastern European music. They just like minor keys, and chromatics, and what a lot of western musicans would call weird tempos (and eating and drinking too – there’s lots of both). Over the course of two nights every January, this is New York’s most entertaining music festival, year after year. At the risk of being ridiculously redundant, you’ll see this on the best concerts of 2020 page here at the end of the year.

The little girl, her mom and her friend were dancing to the sounds of Rodyna (which, appropriately, means “family”). That particular song had a rustic northern Greek or Macedonian sound to it, the women in the band singing stark and low, bouzouki player Joseph Castelli adding a bristling edge. A floor below, the Navatman Music Collective were joining voices in leaping, precise harmony throughout an ancient Indian carnatic melody.

Indian choral music at a Balkan music festival – with harmonies, no less? Sure. Over the years, Golden Fest has expanded beyond Serbian and Romany sounds to embrace music from all over: Egypt, Spain, and now, India. That’s where Romany music started, anyway. As the members of New York’s original Balkan brass band Zlatne Uste – who originated the festival, and were the centerpiece of the Friday night edition – view it, it’s all just good music.

To hell with the overcrowded, touristy Copacabana – this is the real Globalfest.

When careening Russian Romany dance band Romashka took the stage at about half past six, the big ballroom was pretty empty. As frontwoman Inna Barmash and violinist Jake Shulman-Ment took a couple of breathtaking cadenzas, was this going to be the year nobody came to Golden Fest?

Ha. About half an hour later, just in time for everybody to hear guitarist Jay Vilnai slink his way through an eerie, pointillistic solo, it was as if the floodgates broke and half of Brooklyn busted through the doors. In what seemed like less than five minutes, it was impossible to get through the expanding circles of line dancers. This party had a plan.

To the extent that you can bring a plan to it, anyway. Much as Golden Fest is one-stop shopping, a way to discover a couple dozen great new bands every year, there comes a point where Plan A and Plan B go out the window and you just have to go with the flow. In an age where social media is atomizing and distancing everyone from their friends, it’s hard to think of a more crazily entertaining way to reconnect with people you haven’t seen in months.

So this year’s agenda – to hang on the dance floor and catch as many of the headliners as possible, like a lot of people do – didn’t last long. Until the first distractions came into view, it was a lot of fun to discover Orchester Praževica, their surfy guitar and shapeshifting dance tunes from the southern side of the Danube. After them, it seemed that Slavic Soul Party spent as much time off the stage, in the middle of the floor surrounded by the circling hordes, as they did onstage. This time they didn’t do the Ellington, or much of the hip-hop stuff, as they’ve played in years past here; this was as close to traditional as this untraditional brass band gets.

While the Elem All-Stars were keeping the dancers going with their tight, purposeful Romany tunes, the first of the distractions led to some drinking – at Golden Fest, you really have to pace yourself – and a side trip to the atrium to see Wind of Anatolia playing their achingly gorgeous, lush mix of Turkish folk themes and cinematic originals.

The decision to give Danish klezmer band Mames Babagenush the main stage paid off mightily. They’d just played a bunch of relatively intimate Manhattan club dates the past weekend, so this was their chance to use the big PA and really rock the house, and their energy was through the roof, particularly frontman/clarinetist Emil Goldschmidt. Upstairs, legendary Armenian-American multi-reedman Souren Baronian and his band weren’t as loud but were just as mesmerizing, the bandleader’s burbling, microtonal sax and duduk matched by oudist Adam Good and bassist Michael Brown’s slinky riffage.

Gauging the most opportune moment to join the food line (Golden Fest has a buffet starting at around 10) was more of a challenge this year – but so what, that only opened up the door for more music. The first-floor Chopin Room is where most of the wildest bands on the bill play, whether onstage or, like more and more of them seem to do, under the big chandelier. Representing Brooklyn for the umpteenth year in a row, Raya Brass Band scorched and blasted through one pulsing, minor-key original after another. Greek Judas‘ set of searing heavy metal versions of classic Greek rembetiko gangster anthems from the 20s through the 50s had some people scratching their heads at first, but by the time they hit their second song, the room was packed once again. One of the security guys couldn’t resist giving the group the devils-horns salute and joined the dancers on the edge. Frontman Quince Marcum has never sung with more Athenian fury than he did at this show; Good, meanwhile, had put on a mask, put down his oud and strapped on a Strat.

By the time midnight struck, Lyuti Chushki – Bulgarian for “Red Hot Chili Peppers” – were keeping the dancers twirling in the ballroom, the food was down to babagenoush, pitas and an irresistible but short-lived spread of ajjar (a sort of Turkish red pepper hummous). In the top-floor room, Zisl Slepovitch (hotshot clarinetist the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof) and his similarly sizzling klezmer band Litvakus were leaping to the top of their respective registers for a lickety-split, nonstop series of what could have been traditional Ukrainian tunes but were probably originals.

By one in the morning, if you’ve done things right, this is where the booze finally starts to kick in and the dilemma of where to go really hits home. The allstar Amerike Klezmer Brass in the ballroom, Klezmatics reedman Matt Darriau‘s five-piece Paradox Trio downstairs, or singer Jenny Luna’s haunting Turkish ensemble Dolunay? If you last any longer, you might discover that the calm, thoughtful-looking individual seated next to you during one of the early sets is actually a member of What Cheer? Brigade, the feral, gargantuan street band who took over both the stage and the dance floor to close the night. Meanwhile, there was a much quieter Turkish quintet still going strong on the topmost floor. You want to dance? Great. You want to chill? Golden Fest has you covered. Looking forward to 2021.

Partying Around New York with Mames Babegenush

Danish klezmer band Mames Babegenush played Drom Friday night at around midnight. Saturday they were at Mehanata, the notorious Lower East Side Bulgarian bar, until the wee hours. Sunday they played an afternoon show in the basement of Gustavus Adolphus Church in Gramercy, then took the party a few blocks north to the Carlton Arms Hotel. They’d played the church in the past, beginning with the day after the honcho there had seen them late one Saturday night at the old Zebulon in Williamsburg – and invited them to play the next day. And they took that gig. Fatigue and alcohol do not seem to affect these guys at all.

Bracing Jewish minor-key folk dances are the loosely connecting thread among the band’s often exhilarating catalog of originals and popular standards from throughout Eastern Europe, Spain, the Middle East and the Balkans. Throughout about three hours of music yesterday, there were all sorts of wry conversations, lots of sparring, spine-tingling solos and a couple of sprints to the finish line. One of the best of the solos was a slinky, bristling chromatic series of climbs and descents, using a horn voicing, and played by bassist Andreas Mollerhoj. Bass solos are usually a bad idea; this guy got all of two throughout the afternoon and left you wanting more.

One of this band’s most distinctively unorthodox features is drummer Morten Aero’s kit. He kept a steady thud going with his right foot on a kickdrum, a snare and hi-hat set up to his left where he’d rattle off vaudevillian rimshots, often using his hands for hypnotic Middle Eastern beats. Straight in front of him was a tsmibl, the Ukrainian Jewish zither that may be the forerunner of both the Hungarian cimbalom and the Iraqi santoor. As he hammered the strings, they seemed both a little muted and a hair sharp, consistently across the scale, adding a subtle and absolutely otherworldly edge, especially in the music’s quieter moments.

Clarinetist and bandleader Emil Goldschmidt matched precision to dynamics, whether soloing or harmonizing with the sax and flugelhorn. Lukas Bjorn Rande shifted between a welcome, smoky grit on tenor sax and a gorgeously plaintive tone on alto, obviously influenced by the great Bulgarian player Yuri Yunakov, a guy he’d had the good fortune to study with. On flugelhorn, Bo Rande reached for the rafters with imploring, searing cadenzas and a handful of slithery, electrifying trills, often matched by accordionist Nikolai Kornerup.

Throughout the set, influences from Romanian brass music, to Andalucian balladry, Turkish laments, suspenseful Ukrainian horas and relentlessly flurrying Greek hill country music filtered through the songs, seldom staying in one place for long. Maybe the greatest thing of all about Jewish music is that it’s so well-traveled, and this group completely get that. The only weird thing was that nobody other than the band members were on their feet dancing (although this generation’s most dangerous American klezmer clarinetist, Michael Winograd, was in the house and bouncing in his seat). Mames Babegenush are at Golden Fest this coming Saturday night, Jan 18 at 8:55 PM (they run a tight ship there) in the big ballroom, among dozens of similarly high-voltage bands from across the Balkans, Mediterranean and Middle East.

The 50 Best Albums of 2019

This is a playlist, plus one last record at the very end that can’t be heard anywhere online but might be the best of all of them. You can listen to everything else here, almost all of it ad-free: it couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

Lots of triage was involved. A very ambitious listener with a dayjob that allows for multitasking can hear maybe eight or nine hundred new albums a year, all the way through. An insanely dedicated blogger can hear bits and pieces of maybe five thousand more. That’s about the limit of what one human can do. You may see a few stragglers here which were technically 2018 releases but got overlooked that year. If your favorite album from 2019 isn’t here, that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good…and it might just turn up here next year.

Other than the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Being chosen as the #50 band out of 50 is like getting picked last for kickball, and that’s kind of mean. Besides, if an album is one of the fifty best out of the literally hundreds of thousands released every year, it has to be damn good. Here we go!

Big Lazy – Dear Trouble
The subtlest, most desolate and ultimately most dynamic album from a group synonymous with cinematic noir menace. Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s sense of irony has never been more refined, and the rhythm section of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion has never been slinkier. Ulrich is the only musician in history who has been on three albums rated #1 for the year here. Listen at youtube

Changing Modes – What September Brings
Best album of the year with lyrics, the New York art-rockers’ finest, most cinematic, and most political release, a savagely lyrical, spot-on reflection on Trump-era narcissism and repression, laced with shapeshifting instrumentals and frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam’s disquietingly lush harmonies. Listen at youtube

The Bright Smoke – Gross National Happiness
The title reflects frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson’s signature, withering sarcasm. It’s the band’s most savagely political record, a grimly allusive measure of Trump-era inequality, despair and resistance against all that, with a haunting Joy Division undercurrent. Listen at Bandcamp

Karen Dahlstrom – No Man’s Land
The best short album of the year, with metaphorically-loaded, sharply picturesque narratives referencing apocalypse, smalltown anomie, late-night despondency and a ferocious, defiant anthem for the Metoo era from the powerful Bobtown alto singer and Americana songstress. Listen at her music page 

Hearing Things – Here’s Hearing Things
The best debut albun of 2019, by Brooklyn’s funnest dance band, mashes up horror surt, Booker T & the MG’s, twisted go-go music, Afrobeat, Ethiopiques and the Doors, with organ, sax and surf drums. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – These Times
Steve Wynn‘s iconic, feral, influential psychedelic guitar-duel band’s quietest, most allusively political and arguably most brilliantly lyrical album. Not bad for a group who put out their first record back in the 80s. Listen at youtube

Michael Winograd – Kosher Style
Unsurpassed for his sizzling clarinet chops, Winograd is also a very colorful composer. With sabretoothed chromatics and slashing minor keys, these new klezmer tunes run the gamut from blisteringly fun to mournful to sardonic, and the band is killer. Listen at Bandcamp

Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
Here’s another world-class clarinetist and ensemble playing an especially dynamic, inescapably vivid take on one of the most iconic, haunting pieces of classical music ever written (much of it composed in a Nazi prison camp). Riveting as it is, it raises questions as to how fair it is for this blog to rank it alongside the rest of the artists here. Listen at Spotify

Layale Chaker – Inner Rhyme
The brilliant violinist writes vivid, intense, often hauntingly beautiful compositions built around the rhythmic sophistication of classical Arabic poetry, equal parts Lebanese, Egyptian and western classical music, with occasional detours toward jazz or film score atmospherics. Listen at her music page

Los Wembler’s de Iquitos – Vision Del Ayahuasca
With almost all of their original members, this iconic psychedelic cumbia jamband from the heart of the Peruvian Amazon are as wildly trippy and original as they were fifty years ago. Along with Hearing Things‘ debut, this is the best party record of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

Miguel Zenon and the Spektral Quartet – Yo Soy la Tradicion
The formidable alto saxophonist teams up with one of the world’s edgiest string quartets for a mix of acerbic works with an unselfconsciously Bartokian intensity Listen at their music page

Rev. Screaming Fingers – Music for Driving and Film, vol iII (The Desert Years)
Dusky, loping southwestern gothic tableaux, twangy noir Americana, a little horror surf and ominous big-sky themes from these great guitar instrumentalists. Listen at their music page

Girls on Grass – Dirty Power
Like a female-fronted Dream Syndicate, guitar goddess Barbara Endes’ band rips through paisley underground psychedelia, spaghetti westen themes, snarling new wave and garage rock, with a defiant, politically fearless lyricism Listen at Bandcamp

Russ Tolman – Goodbye El Dorado
Jangly, vividly lyrical western noir rock: disappeances, shattered Hollywood dreams, dead-end kids who don’t have a prayer, and roadtrip anomie from the leader of 80s legends True West. Listen at youtube

Julia Haltigan – Trouble
Turns out that the torchy mistress of Manhattan noir is just as fluent with new wave and vintage CB’s-style powerpop, throughout these tales of nocturnal prowling in the East Village before it was yuppified and whitewashed. Listen at Bandcamp

The Felice Bros. – Undress
This could have been the great lyrical, populist record that Springsgteen made in between Born to Run and Darkness: surreal political broadsides, down-and-out characters and death lingering over everything. Listen at Bandcamp

Jay Vilnai – Thorns All Over
Poet Rachel Abramowitz supplies the lyrics for this haunting, mysterious collection of new murder ballads, over the guitarist/bandleader’s cold starscapes, Lynchian dirges and a relentless, lingering guitar menace. Listen at Bandcamp

Karine Poghosyan – Rachmaninoff & Stravinsky
Nobody plays the Russian Romantics with as much insighful flair as this irrepressible virtuoso. As with Raphael Severe above, it is fair to rate this ravishingly intuitive, picturesque performance of achingly beautiful Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableaux and punishingly difficult Stravinsky piano transcriptions against the current-day artists here? Listen at Spotify

Dina Maccabee – The Sharpening Machine
Epically eclectic, trippy art-rock, chamber pop, pastoral themes and occasional coy new wave from this shapeshifting violinist and songwriter. Listen at Soundcloud

The Sirius Quartet – New World
This adventurous, microtonally-inclined string quartet’s collection of original compositions is a fierce concept album in defiance of the current fascist climate in the US. Listen at Spotify

Yale Strom’s Broken Consort – Shimmering Lights
The un-cheesiest Hanukah instrumental record ever made, the violinist-bandleader’s new arrangements blazing with ferocious solos and bracing Middle Eastern modes. Listen at rockpaperscissors

Eleni Mandell – Wake Up Again
The iconic dark Americana and torch singer’s most hauntingly political album is a series of narratives set behind bars, inspired by her experiences teaching songwriting in the prison-industrial complex. Listen at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Spells & Rituals
The constantly shapeshifting murder ballad and dark rock superduo dive further into latin noir, 60s Britrock and even garagey psychedelic sounds, all with their colorfully dark lyricism. Listen at Bandcamp

Noctorum – The Afterlife
Lush, characteristically lyrical, jangly art-rock from iconic twelve-string guitarist Marty Willson-Piper – late of Australian psychedelic legends the Church – with a similarly allstar backing band. Listen at Bandcamp

Laura Carbone – Empty Sea
Bleak, Lynchian panoramas, highway-of-death narratives and some guitarishly snarling gutter blues from one of this era’s great noir singers. Listen at Bandcamp

Unnatural Ways – The Paranoia Party
A grimly surreal, volcanically noisy, rhytmically disorienting concept about contact with aliens from guitarist Ava Mendoza’s searing doom/art-rock power trio. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Maureen Choi Quartet – Theia
Epically twisting, high-voltage, flamenco and Romany-inspired string band music from the violinist and her equally eclectic ensemble Listen at Bandcamp

Budos Band – V
The imaginative Afrobeat and Ethiopiques instrumentalists’ most doom metal-inspired album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

JD Allen – Barracoon
A big comeback of sorts for this era’s most potent tenor saxophonist, scorching his way through a Zora Neale Hurston-inspired mix of ominously modal, tersely evocative protest jazz tunes with a new trio. Listen at youtube

Nancy Braithwaite – To Paradise For Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway
The classical clarinetist and her dynamic, nuanced chamber ensemble explore stunningly imagistic, darkly clever, tersely crafted pieces by a now Rhode Island-based, nonagenarian composer whose work has never been released on album before. A major rediscovery. Listen at Spotify

Fabian Almazan – This Land Abounds with Life
A glittering, epically cascading eco-disaster themed concept album from one of this era’s most tunefully virtuosic jazz pianists and his dynamic rhythm section Listen at Bandcamp

Doomstress – Sleep Among the Dead
Pervasive gloom, minor keys, purposeful guitar and unusual elegance from frontwoman Alexis Hollada on the Texas doom metal band’s debut album. Listen at Bandcamp

Bobtown – Chasing the Sun
Bewitching three-part harmonies from Katherine Etzel, Karen Dahlstrom and Jen McDearman and folk noir songwriting that’s just a hair less relentlessly dark than the material that put them on the map. Listen at Bandcamp

Petros Klampanis – Irrationalities
Slinky, brooding, Middle Eastern and Greek-inflected ballads and more kinetic, pulsing material from the eclecic bassist and his excellent trio. Listen at Spotify 

The Well – Death & Consolation
Grim, Sabbathy dirges, paint-peeling Stooges sonics and ornately macabre heavy psychedelia from this Texas band. Listen at Bandcamp

Jason Yeager – New Songs of Resistance
A short parade of first-class pan-latin singers deliver the pianist’s protest jazz reinventions of classic nueva cancion from across the Americas in the 70s, alongside some chillingly lyrical, politically-fueled instrumentals. Listen at Bandcamp

Amy Allison – Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun
A characteristically bittersweet, brilliantly crystallized, lyrical collection of rarities and outtakes by the inimitable Americana singer. Listen at youtube

Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith – Mummer Love
Rousingly hypnotic North African grooves and immersive atmospherics behind acerbic, often savage poetry by Patti Smith and one of her big influences, Arthur Rimbaud. Listen at Bandcamp

Andplay – Playlist
The meticulously focused, tightly intertwining, colorful violin/viola duo negotiate the dynamic twists and turns of pieces by David Bird, Ashkan Behzadi and Clara Iannotta on their debut ep. Listen at Bandcamp

The Shootouts – Quick Draw
Spot-on, classic 1965-style honkytonk, hard country, Bakersfield twang and a little rockabilly from this slyly aphoristic Akron, Ohio band. Listen at Soundcloud 

The Ragas Live Retrospective
Members of the paradigm-shifting Brooklyn Raga Massive, who put all kinds of radical new spins on classic Indian raga themes, captured live in the studio over more than sixteen hours worth of music. Most of it is sublime; nobody at this blog has listened to the entire record yet. You can start at Bandcamp

Sarah Pagé – Dose Curves
Hypotically shimmery electroacoustic psychedelia and an Indian raga performed on the concert harp. Unselfconsciously magical,  cutting-edge stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Zosha Di Castri – Tachitipo
Vocal ensemble Ekmeles, the Jack Quartet, pianist Julia Den Boer, percussion ensemble Yarn/Wire  and a chamber orchestra join the thoughtfully eclectic pianist/composer in a diverse mix of acerbic, socially relevant compositions and art-songs. Listen at Bandcamp

Funkrust Brass Band – Bones & Burning
Sizzling Balkan chromatics, undulating New Orleans grooves and a pretty relentless sense of doom on the theatrical, sprawling brass band’s latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

Castle Black – Dead in a Dream
The ferocious female-fronted power trio look back to the most darkly ambitious of the first wave punk bands with their surreal, often haunting latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Manimals – Multiverse
Crunchy, catchy powerpop and a darkly pervasive Bowie influence on the new album from New York’s’ most entertainingly theatrical band. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 compilation
Digitized and somewhat sonically tweaked field recordings of icons like Howlin’ Wolf and cult figures like Magic Sam, shredding and wailing in their element onstage, captured by a college kid with a cheap tape recorder. Listen at Bandcamp

Beat Circus – These Wicked Things
One of the first and best of the carnivalesque rock bands of the 90s, back and revitalized with a lavish, darkly picturesque southwestern gothic concept album. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Sometime Boys – The Perfect Home
A characteristically enigmatic mix of distantly Americana-influenced, slinky originals and imaginatively reinvented covers from New York’s most charismatic, kinetically psychedelic band. Listen at Bandcamp

Locobeach – Psychedelic Disco Cumbia
Truth in advertising: trippy chicha, serpentine highway themes and some woozy dub from this tropical supergroup led by members of Los Crema Paraiso and Chicha Libre. Listen at Bandcamp 

Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee – The Newest Sound You Never Heard
Recorded live and in the studio for Belgian radio in 1966 and 1967, these radical reinventions and a handful of originals by the iconic noir pianist and the shatteringly subtle jazz singer rival the brilliance of their iconic 1961 debut. Not streaming anywhere but available on vinyl.