New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: blues music

The 100 Best Songs of 2019

This is a playlist. Click on each song title to hear it

Like the Best Albums of 2019 and Best NYC Concerts of 2019 lists, this doesn’t follow any particular order, or ranking. Most of these tracks are listed in the order they were received here (which doesn’t coincide with release dates for those songs which actually had them). Bottom line: if something’s good enough to make the top 100 of the year, it’s worth hearing. There’s a LOT of music here: you might want to bookmark this page and come back later. The point of this is not to regurgitatef the Best Albums page but also to include material by other artists who may not have put out an album this past year… or ever.

The best song of 2019 reflects the vast backlash against the Trumpie fratboy rape culture unleashed by the election three years ago. With just her acoustic guitar and her powerful alto voice, Karen Dahlstrom‘s defiant, gospel-infused No Man’s Land empowers everybody:

No man’s words can still my voice
No man can tell me where I stand
No man’s will can take my choice
I am no man’s land

In the year of Metoo, it’s a rare political song that isn’t strident or prosaic. It’s also the title track to her new album. Dahlstrom sings with folk noir harmony trio Bobtown, who you might see on this list a little bit later.

And there’s another song on that record that was too good to leave off the list. After the Flood, set in a post-Katrina New Orleans, examines apocalypses both global and personal.

The rest of the list also reflects a lot of wrath at rightwing corporate entitlement and gig economy-era fascism. If you need to get stoked for the 2020 election, crank this stuff.

Changing ModesRocket
A sinister surveillance state parable by the protean art-rockers which brings to mind X at their most rockabillyish. “Tell me why the failsafe signal failed/Tell me why the driver never broke a sweat,” co-frontwoman Wendy Griffiths wants to know.

Changing ModesFire
The band’s most savagely dystopic song, with a mutating backbeat stomp and wary chromatics from the baritone sax. “Caught by friendly fire/As drones divide the sky/You’ll just give in if you never ask why”

Changing Modes – Glide
The group’s cynicism reaches redline with this sardonically twinkly boudoir soul-tinged nocturne, Griffiths fixing her crosshairs on slacker apathy
All of these from the album What September Brings

The Bright SmokeAmerican Proletariat
A harrowing, darkly atmospheric, blues-tinged gig-economy narrative. “I fear this more,” frontwoman Mia Wilson intones, than “the employ of and the company of torturers and slumlords…an empire on its knees”

The Bright SmokeModel Citizen 
The band shift from unsettled indie chords to a starkly sarcastic minor-key interlude: “I can help you lose everything you won…you model citizens are out for blood.”

The Bright SmokeOne Hundred Years
This looks back to the gritty gutter blues the band were exploring earlier in the decade: “It’s been a banner year/It’s open season on the weak”

The Bright SmokeMauretania
Quincy Ledbetter’s oscillating bassline propels a desperate Joy Divison-esque tableau where everyone expects a “top down trickle down, but it never came.”
All of these from the album Gross National Happiness

Big LazyDream Factory
Drummer Yuval Lion ramps up a loose-limbed slink with his flurries as Andrew Hall runs a trancey blues bassline, frontman Steve Ulrich’s baritone guitar pulling the song deeper into the shadows

Big LazyRamona
With dubby accents from Marlysse Simmons’ organ, this is one of the spare, overcast bolero-ish tunes that Ulrich writes so well

Big LazyCardboard Man
This one features Marc Ribot, a rare guitarist who can go as deep into noir as well as Ulrich, adding eerily flamenco-tinged touches. The exchanges between the two, switching in a split-second between styles, are expertly bittersweet

Big LazyExit Tucson
A tense, morose quasi-bolero with all kinds of neat, rippling touches pinging through the sonic picture around Ulrich’s sad broken chords, disconsolately reverberating riffs and a long, forlornly shuffling solo

Big Lazy Fly Paper
Gloomy noir cinematic theme with a deliciously disorienting blend of tone-bending lapsteel, furtive guitar multitracks and a trick ending. It’s the most Twin Peaks of any of the songs on this list

Big LazySing Sing
Peter Hess’ baritone sax adds extra smoke beneath Ulrich’s lingering, macabre tritones
All of these from the album Dear Trouble, rated #1 record of 2019 here.

Hearing ThingsTriplestep
Coalescing into a menacing mashup of Ethiopiques and a death row strut, saxophonist Matt Bauder gets the Pink Panther to cross over to the dark side, up to a defiantly soaring alto solo that makes a killer coda.

Hearing ThingsWooden Leg
A subtly sardonic horror theme in the same vein as Beninghove’s Hangmen, Bauder fluttering furtively in the low registers as the band picks up steam: it’s the album’s most deliciously noir epic.

Hearing Things Transit of Venus
The Brooklyn surf/dance band’s first and most trippily macabre adventure in Ethiopian jazz,

Hearing ThingsStalefish
A more traditional, horror surf take on Turkish psychedelia, guitarist Ava Mendoza firing off slashing chords over baritone guitarist Jonny Lam’s snappy, evil basslines.
All of this from the album Here’s Hearing Things

Chicha LibreGnossienne No. 1
The legendary Brooklyn psychedelic cumbia band reunited for a South American tour and did a couple of darkly trippy Barbes shows to warm up. This quasi-bolero version of the macabre Erik Satie classic was the encore for night two. From their iconic 2008 debut Sonido Amazonico

The Dream SyndicateBullet Holes
A catchy backbeat hit over a classic Steve Wynn two-chord verse, contemplating the ravages of time and knowing where the bodies are buried

The Dream SyndicateStill Here Now
A bitterly gorgeous, resolute midtempo anthem that picks up with incisive piano and distantly unhinged sheets of Jason Victor guitar, building to a tantalizingly savage solo

The Dream SyndicateBlack Light
Spare, resonantly jangly guitar and eerily blippy keys over a midtempo swing groove in this dissociatively dark psychedelic tableau All these from the album These Times

Loreto AramendiRachmaninoff: Prelude in C# minor
The Spanish organist slayed with this majestic, haunting arrangement at Central Synagogue back in May. She also did a killer (sorry) version of Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. Neither of these clips were recorded on organs as powerful as the one at the synagogue, but the performances are almost as much of a thrill

Claudia NygaardMe Too
She’s got one last date with the rapist – in the graveyard. Most grimly funny and spot-on Americana rock song of the year. From the album Lucky Girl

Enzo Carniel’s House of EchoChaoides
The French noir cinematic jazz trio killed with this at Nublu 151 back in January. Slowly and methodically, guitarist Marc-Antoine Perrio added washes to darken the fog, finally introducing a few portentous, lingering chords from his Fender Jazzmaster
From their debut album

The Felice Bros – Days of the Years
Grimly autobiographical images of rock road warrior escape from upstate New York blue-collar hell…and a slight return, set to steady acoustic Springsteenian rock.

The Felice Bros – Holy Weight Champ
A defiantly surreal account of fighting the debt collector

The Felice Bros – Socrates
The philosopher’s last words recounted in song for any rugged individualist paying attention in the Facebook surveillance age
All of these from the album Undress

Dawn ObergIt’s 12:01
A parlor pop piano smash namechecking a litany of people murdered by the San Francisco Police Dept: “Past time, motherfuckers, to change the guard at the gate.” She slayed with this at the Rockwood back in September

Amanda Palmer – The Ride
Creepy circus metaphors taken to their logical, early 21st century personal and political extreme in over ten minutes plus worth of elegang neoromantic piano art-rock.“Everybody’s reaching to put on a seatbelt but this kind of ride comes without one”
From the album There Will Be No Intermission

Jay VilnaiThe Night We Met
The macabre final diptych on the guitarist/composer’s new murder ballad album Thorns All Over has Oscar Noriega’s moody clarinet rising over creepy, lingering belltones, minimalist guitar lurking in the background, descending to a glacially waltzing dirge.
From the album Thorns All Over

Joanna WallfischLullaby Girl
Capped off by an ornately gritty glamrock guitar solo, this big art-rock anthem could be peak-era mid-70s ELO. Wallfisch’s allusively imagistic portrait of an unnamed musician’s grimly elusive search for some kind of inner peace packs a wallop. How far do you think she traveled…

Joanna WallfischRoad Trip
This tensely pulsing, real-life account of her California tour by bike has a crushing existential subtext:
“I change my background story every time somebody asks/I have worn so many masks”
From the album Blood & Bone

Layale ChakerUshaq
A stark, intense, chromatically haunting Middle Eastern instrumental anthem set to an increasingly fluttering beat and a bass drone
From the violinist’s album Inner Rhyme

Rev. Screaming Fingers Monsoon Gully
Snarling, distorted, serpentine guitar leads set to a gently tumbling cha-cha beat in this noir guitar instrumental theme

Rev. Screaming FingersDance of the Dust
Speaking of funereal, the organ beneath the loping, savagely crescendoing desert tableau adds immensely to the ominous ambience. From the album Music for Driving and Film, vol iII (The Desert Years)

Michael WinogradDinner in Bay Ridge
Don’t laugh, this is a killer song from the pyrotechnic klezmer clarinetist’s latest release. It’s a soberly syncopated, gorgeously wistful, crescendoing number, the group weaving around the melody as it winds out.
From the album Kosher Style

Joshua GarciaPockets Full O’Gold
A chillingly metaphorical, Phil Ochs-influenced catalog of stuff a guy keeps buying, set to terse fingepicked solo guitar. “I’ll buy me a family and I’ll buy some friends…I’ll never buy sadness, I’ll leave that all to you.” And it gets better. He killed with this at the American Folk Art Museum last winter

Laura Carbone – Empty Sea
A slinky, lush 6/8 noir anthem with Carnival of Souls organ and a vast, bleak panorama of guitar texture

Laura Carbone – Nightride is a sparse highway-of-death tableau – like the he Dream Syndicate  stripped to the bare bones – rising to a garagantuan, swirling coda. Both tracks from the album Empty Sea

Charming DisasterBaba Yaga,
A shout out to the popular mythological Russian witch from the protean, wickedly lyrical noir superduo with a scampering horror surf-tinged groove

Charming DisasterBlue Bottle Blues
A swinging, distantly menacing number about poisoning, with strings and droning harmonium; frontwoman Ellia Bisker’s sultry tones enhance the sinister ambience over guitarist Jeff Morris’ gorgeously bittersweet guitar jangle
Both tracks from the album Spells & Rituals

Natalia SteinbachThere Is No Demon
An evil march, the art-rock/avant garde violinist/singer as one-woman string quartet
From the album Waterlynx

Unnatural WaysMost of All We Love to Spy
More than nine sometimes skronky, sometimes crushingly ornate minutes of scorching Ava Mendoza guitar chromatics over drummer Sam Ospovat’s precise but relentlessly thumping syncopation.
From the album The Paranoia Party

Dina MaccabeeEven When the Stars Align
After an ueasily charming glockenspiel solo, the art-rock violinist/singer’s vocals dance over a slowly swaying, spare web of textures. “I’m still a million miles away.”

Dina Maccabee–Tall Tall Trees
An unselfconsciously gorgeous late Beatlesque anthem set in a theatre where the show never starts; Roger Reidbauer contributes a deliciously spiraling, dipping guitar solo
From the album The Sharpening Machine

Roosevelt Sykes – Dirty Mother for Ya
The blues pianist revisits his ridiculously funny 1934 hit. ”Some people call it suggestive. Actually, I have no control of your thoughts. Listen to the words so you don’t get the wrong understanding,” says one of the only two dead artists on this list. From the Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 compilation

Beat CircusThe Last Man (Is Anybody Out There​?​)
A surreallistically swinging, apocalyptic, Lynchian blend of beat poetry and a Balkan-tinged chorale set to menacingly orchestrated desert rock. Think of how empty all those “luxury’ condos will be in the next five years.
From the album These Wicked Things

Girls on GrassBecause Capitalism
“Capitalism ruins everything worth doing,” lead guitarist/frontwoman Barbara Endes intones over a stabbing Motown beat, to a guy who’s only in it “For the cash, and the underage ass”

Girls on GrassCommander in Thief
“I come from superior genes,” the narcissist-in-charge brags over a swaying Flamin’ Groovies drive, the faux bombast of the guitars matching Endes’ sardonic lyric
Both tracks from the album Dirty Power

Budos BandThe Enchanter
A gorgeous vintage 60s Ethiopiques tune with growly, snarling tremolo guitar: Sabbath meets Mulatu Astatke

Budos BandPeak of Eternal Night
Big swells and a deliciously doomy theme whose Ethiopian roots come into bracing focus in the dub itnerlude midway through
From the album V

Binky Philips & the Planets – Blink
A desperate narrative that could be a Vietnam War tale, or apocalypse by gentrification.”This will not stand from where I’m sitting!”
From the album Established 1972 NYC

Kinan Azmeh The Fence, the Rooftop and the Distant Sea
Back in May on the Upper West Side, the great Syrian clarinetist teamed up with Brooklyn Rider cellist Michael Nicolas for an achingly gorgeous duo performance of this elegaic exile’s suite with an almost macabre cello interlude laced with sepulchral harmonics, ending as a poignant Arabic ballad. This clip is the version for clarinet and string quartet

Fabian AlmazanEverglades
An allusively gorgeous, thirteen-minute neoclassical jazz piano epic, with a broodingly emphatic bass solo, the chords rising with a crushing intensity. Is this about fighting alligators…or alligators fighting to survive?
From the album This Land Abounds With Life

Curtis EllerRadiation Poison
Don’t let the bluster of those of jump blues-inspired horns fool you: this is about an invisible killer. The charismatic banjo player may reference Nagasaki and the New Mexico atom bomb tests, but in the post-Fukushima era, the song has even more relevance. “Everybody’s been exposed.”
From the album Poison Melody

NoctorumPiccadilly Circus in the Rain
A bleakly gorgeous, syncopatedly swaying portrait of quiet working class desperation in real estate bubble-era London. “There’s no creative work amid the swarming bees”
From the album Afterlife

Russ TolmanKid
A searingly spot-on account of a girl from a broken home whose teachers think that she “might be talented at art,” but her refrain is “Please don’t make me go home.” The janglerock backdrop, with Kirk Swan’s incisive terse guitar fills and Robert Lloyd’s mandolin, is a little more gentle and sparkly than the bandleader’s legendary psychedelic band True West
From the album Goodbye El Dorado

Sharon GoldmanSunset at the Border
Over brooding parlor pop, the purist acoustic tunesmith connects the dots between the North American refugee crisis and Gaza wallbuilding.
From the album Every Trip Around the Sun

Rose Thomas BannisterHeaven Is a Wall
A shapeshifting fable about border walls packed with the cynically appropriated Old Testament imagery that the psychedelic Great Plains gothic songstress loves to use to drive a point home. She killed with this at Union Pool back in September with her band

Yale Strom’s Broken ConsortO Mighty Stronghold
Whoever thought a Hannukah standard could be so epic: Moroccan flair, sweeping strings, biting oud and an exhilirating violin-cello duel.
From the album Shimmering Lights

Theremin NoirCarlotta’s Portrait
The Bernard Hermann theme from Hitchcock’s Vertigo is rich with aching, increasingly enigmatic piano from Uri Caine and morose violin from violinist Mark Feldman as bandleader/keyboardist Rob Schwimmer puts the quavering icing on the cake with his theremin.They slayed with this at Greenwich House Music School in October – at the group’s first-ever show, twenty years after they’d released this on album

Son of SkooshnyStaying In
One of the alltime great baseball songs ever written – hang in there til you get to the end, where janglerock icon Mark Breyer puts everything in perspective, at his haunting, unflinching best. Getting there is a ride that brings to mind the 2016 World Series (Breyer’s beloved Cleveland Indians went down ignomimously to the typically cellar-dwelling Chicago Cubs).

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog Fuck La Migra
A punk rap that needed to be written…and it’s a good thing that this guy did it, with a little Texas blues thrown in for maximum context.
From the album YRU Still Here

Bobtown – Hazel
It’s an old down-to-the-river tale updated with an allusive current-day angst by this era’s most devilish folk noir harmony trio.
From the album Chasing the Sun

The Manimals – The Maze
Vintage Bowie mashed up with dissociative psychedelia and slashing powerpop, a surprisingly dark diversion from New York’s most unpredictably theatrical female-fronted rockers.
From the album Multiverse

The Long RydersHad a Dream
“I had a dream that Trump was dead,” guitarist Tom Stevens intoned in the psychedelic Americana legends’ slashingly updated take of this cynical MTV-era video hit at WFMU’s Monty Hall last year

Los Wembel’s de IquitosLamento Salvatico
Slinky, catchy minor-key psychedelic cumbia with layers of eerie wah-wah and jangle, lots of reverb and suspicious noises flickering through the mix from the timeless Peruvian Amazon band largely responsible for inventing the style.
From the album Vision del Ayahuasca

The Echo Session – Mystery Man
First-class retro 60s jangle-psych from Scotland, evoking the Pretty Things circa SF Sorrow

WarishVoices
A Queens of the Stone Age influenced punk stomp with tasty chromatic menace and hints of horror garage rock
From the album Down in Flames

Jason YeagerReckoning
A creepy, carnivalesque anti-imperialist protest jazz anthem: with a tune and a vocal this coldly dismissive, who says revenge songs need lyrics?
From the pianist’s album New Songs of Resistance

Petros KlampanisThalassia Platia
What seems to be a wistful, Middle Eastern-tinged jazz waltz turns out to be far more conflicted, with its aching lushness and a biting, upper-register bass solo
From the bassist’s album Irrationalities

Petroloukas Halkias and Vasilis Kostas – Palio Zegorisio
Centuries-old Greek hill country psychedelia with a tricky dance groove, shifting from major to minor and back, from the iconic clarinetist and his lauto-playing protege
From the album The Soul of Epirus

47soulMachina
A slow, ominously emphatic shamstep anthem and searingly imagistic account of Palestinian life under the occupation. “Sold out by the left, right when you left, why, you’re not filming?” They totally ripped with this in their Lincoln Center debut in October
From the band’s latest album Balfron Promise

The Red Room Orchestra Laura Palmer’s Theme
The noir cinematic ensemble and Twin Peaks theme reinventors slayed with this at Symphony Space back in February

Julia HaltiganMind Eater
“I don’t even wanna stay connected,” the luridly torchy New York bandleader sings in this relentlessly troubled new wave look at a world on the express track to self-destruction.

Julia HaltiganWool
A hazy. slowly swaying, noir-tinged nocturne where you can “lose your mind in the summer heat, waltz yourself down the broken street…passing through scenes that I know too well…”
From the album Trouble

Miguel ZenonViejo
A lush, sweeping, aching increasingly symphonic ballad with hints of Satie, Bartok and Angelo Badalementi – and a final dance – from the intense alto saxophonist and string quartet
From the album Yo Soy la Tradicion

Holy GroveBlade Born
A slowly swaying early 70s-style riff-rocker, guitarist Trent Jacobs searing through a thicket of triplets, then toward Sabbath menace and finally a hallucinatory nitrous hailstorm
From the album Live From The World Famous Kenton Club

The NYChillharmonicEasy Comes the Ghost
Percolating, bubbling synth and circus-rock piano phantasmagoria, shifting through a polyrhythmic maze to a determined disco strut that ended sudden and cold: a welcome, energetic coda at their Joe’s Pub show after a mostly subdued day at the Charlie Parker Festival

Amy LaVereNo Room For Baby
A hazily defeated, starkly orchestrated portrait of dead-end blue-collar struggle from the Americana bassist/bandleader.
From the album Painting Blue

The Sirius QuartetNew World
The edgy string quartet sarcastically juxtapose contrasting references to Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Shostakovich’s harrowing String Quartet No. 8: look how far we haven’t come, violinist/composer Gregor Huebner seems to say
It’s the title track to their latest album

The New Thread QuartetMichael Djupstrom: Test
A four-sax epic that shifts swiftly from moody ambience to increasingly agitated overlays, bagpipe-like flourishes, noirish trills, poltergeist flickers and sharp-fanged close harmonies. Bernard Herrmann would have been proud to have assembled this deliciously sinister tableau.
From their album Plastic Facts

Doomstress Your God Is Blind
”You’ve been deceived,” frontwoman Alexis Hollada snarls in this shapeshifting slap upside the head of warmongering religious nuts, rising to a spine-tingling outro.
From the Texas metal band’s album Sleep Among the Dead

Firebreather – Our Souls They Burn
A sludgy one-chord intro morphs into a dense, almost-galloping, menacingly hypnotic theme. If you can’t get enough of creepy chromatics, this song is for you.

Big EyesTry Hard Kiss Ass
A cynical powerpop slap at gentrifier yuppie careerist losers from this kick-ass powerpop band
From the album Streets of the Lost

The Diplomats of Solid Sound – Brave New World
A subtly Tex Mex-tinged, lushly orchestrated, cynically spot-on oldschool soul take on how social media and online dating are killing romance. Here’s a live youtube clip
From the album A Higher Place

Funkrust Brass BandUncanny Carnival
A dark Balkan-tinged anthem with a quote from the busker-rock playbook that’s so obvious but also such a good joke that it’s surprising that other brass bands haven’t used it
From the album Bones & Burning

Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith Farewell
A steady, quasi trip-hop groove slowly emerges as Smith intones Arthur Rimbaud’s harrowing self-penned obituary
From the album Mummer Love

Nusrat Fateh Ali KhanHaq Ali Ali
Longest song on this list, over twenty minutes of broodingly chromatic, Middle Eastern-tinged modes and bristling vocal cadenzas that tend to be more incisive and brief than the late great qawwali icon usually indulged in. The group take it doublespeed at about the eight-minute mark and don’t look back
From the album Live at WOMAD 1985

The Sometime Boys – Painted Bones
Lead guitarist Kurt Leege’s mournful washes of slide guitar, Mara Rosenbloom’s pointillistic electric piano and frontwoman Sarah Mucho’s brooding, gospel-tinged vocals mingle over a nimble bluegrass shuffle beat
From the album The Perfect Home

The Plaster CrampApartment 23
Like a more fleet-footed Botanica, a grisly art-rock narrative about an unwanted discovery. “His car sat on the wrong side of the streeet” |
From their debut album

Ashley Bathgate– Robert Honstein: Orison
A slow, gorgeous, tectonically shifting soundscape, textured top to bottom with gravelly murk, fleeting echoes, keening overtones and echo phrases from the cellist’s multitracks
From the album Ash

Michaela AnneIf I Wanted Your Opinion
An unexpectedly fierce oldschool honkytonk feminist anthem: she makes it clear that the last thing she wants is to be judged on looks
From the album Desert Dove

LocobeachEres Una Rata
The psychedelic cumbia supergroup’s big hit, a venomous dis with some classic, trippy, reverb-drenched keyboard work.
From the album Psychedelic Disco Cumbia

Sarah Pagé Pleiades
A softly pulsing deep-space raga, akin to a sitar drifting gently further and further from earth to the point where the vastness becomes terrifying
From the cutting-edge concert harpist’s album Dose Curves

AlltarSpoils
Hailstorm guitar tremolo-picking and a slow, evil chromatic riff set off relentless crush and lo-res distortion ,with a final rise from super-slow, to just plain slow and ceaselessly grim
From the doom metal band’s album Hallowed

The WellSabbah
Opening with a sitar-like drone and then hitting a stomping drive and a doomy, catchy Children of the Grave chromatic theme, with a little Ozzy and some unhinged Ron Asheton proto-punk
From the album Death and Consolation

Jaimie BranchPrayer for Amerikkka,
A ferocious stoner protest jazz diptych: stark gospel sway, venomous hip-hop speaking truth to power, lush strings and a flamenco-infused stamped out. Damn.
From the album Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise

Amy Allison This Prison
A typically metaphor-loaded chronicle of depression, done as classic honkytonk with flangey guitar: Allison admits that this cold, lonely place might keep her out of trouble, but she needs to break out – if only she can find that missing key
From the album Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun

Zosha DiCastriCortege
A processional for chamber orchestra that juxtaposes frantic, Bernard Herrmann-esque terror with steadier motives and suspenseful atmospherics, drawing on the ancient Roman wartime siege narrative that inspired Leonard Cohen’s song Alexandra Lost.
From the album Tachitipo

Nancy Braithwaite – Edith Hemenway: To Paradise For Onions
This menacingly neoromantic suite for clarinet and small ensemble are a David Lynch title theme waiting to happen, with a Duet for the End of Time at the end. Not bad for a piece by a nonagenarian composer whose work has never been previously recorded
Title track from the new album

Joel HarrisonBallad of Blue Mountain
Tightly unwinding, cleverly looped, Terry Riley-ish vibraphone, lingering clouds of guitar and sax passing through the sonic picture, and Indian sarod building slowly to a forceful peak.
From the album Still Point: Turning World

Mara Connor No Fun
Retro Orbison noir with punchy acoustic guitar and strings on the chorus: a classic sound for those who’ve never heard of the Stooges

Above the MoonFight the Sea
Kate Griffin’s fierce, angst-fueled twin-guitar attack propels this insistent twin-guitar stomp,
“Can’t see the forest through the trees…fight the ways that you can’t fight me.” They slayed with this at Marcus Garvey Park back in August
From the album Patterns You Create

The Eastern Blokhedz Baba
Having come this far, it’s time for this blog to get nostalgic. This is a psychedelic pop take on Brighton Beach Russian barroom music. Guitarist Wade Ripka’s irrepressible faux Soviet band didn’t play this at their May Barbes show but they did at the one before that. Maybe you had to be there

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.

A Characteristically Rich, Diverse Year of Shows at Manhattan’s Best Venue for Acoustic and Folk Music

The American Folk Art Museum won the annual award for Best Manhattan Venue here back in 2016. It would be just as easy to say that again in 2019. Impresario Lara Ewen‘s mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series is still the most transit-accessible way to discover new songwriting and traditional music talent in this city, artists from all over the world covet playing in the museum’s rich natural reverb…and you can get a glass of wine here for a third of what it would cost you at Rockwood Music Hall.

As you would expect at a museum whose equally amazing exhibits document folk art and outsider art spanning the past few centuries, there’s plenty of folk music here. But even the oldtime sounds extend well beyond the world of fingerpicked front-porch acoustic guitar tunes. The best traditional show here this year was by singer Vienna Carroll, a historian whose insights into a set of rousing blues, gospel and string band songs reflected the triumphs of African-Americans over 19th century slaveowner terrorism and racism rather than the more common narrative of endless suffering. Queen Esther, a Folk Art Museum regular, reaffirmed that same fearlessly subversive esthetic at a couple of shows in February and July, featuring both Eastern Seaboard blues and soul-tinged originals.

Other entertaining oldtime folk shows included sets by the harmony-driven Triboro in May, as well as Irish tunesmith Brendan O’Shea (whose defiant, populist originals were even better) in July. Of all the original songwriters here, the most shattering was Karen Dahlstrom, whose November set featured a lot of material from her latest release No Man’s Land (a lock for best short album of 2019).  With her fearsome but meticulously nuanced alto, she aired out the fiery, gospel-infused title track, a Metoo-era broadside, as well as the metaphorically haunting After the Flood – a look at both personal and global apocalypses – and a new number, My Benevolent Destroyer, a chilling portrait of a broken marriage through the prism of imperialist domination.

Joshua Garcia, with his flinty voice and harrowing, Phil Ochs-inspired narratives, put the struggles of new immigrants and battered women in potently political perspective, along with the most chillingly allusive song about the Hiroshima bombing ever written. Miriam Elhajli sang in both English and Spanish, looking outward at the grim political climate as well as more inwardly, with intricate guitar fingerpicking and some intriguing jazz and Latin American riffs.

Niall Connolly held the crowd rapt with his brooding, tersely crystallized songs of struggle and emotional abandonment and rage against the Trumpies (a reaction that ran high at practically every show here this year). Soulstress Dina Regine, who played here in both April and June, was much the same, thematically, although her music draws more on classic 1960s American grooves.

How torchy singer Jeanne Marie Boes managed to get so much epic power and range out of her tiny keyboard is a mystery, although her towering, angst-fueled ballads and a couple of detours into darkly majestic blues had a relentlessly direct intensity. With her resonant chorister’s voice and deadpan surrealism, cellist/singer Meaner Pencil a.k.a. Lenna M. Pierce (she got her stage name the online anagram generator, she explained) was just as gripping, in a completely different vein.

Songstress/acoustic guitarist Kalyani Singh illuminated a dark inner world with a similar, often minimalistic focus, while southwestern singer Kate Vargas got the crowd going with singalongs and innumerable chances to have fun with beats. And Feral Foster – who runs the Jalopy’s longtime Roots & Ruckus series – didn’t let being under the weather get in the way of a characteristically haunted, expertly fingerpicked set of grim Nashville gothic laments and ballads.

The American Folk Art Museum’s Free Music Fridays series resumes January 10 at 5:30 PM with the soaring, brilliantly lyrical Linda Draper. There’s also an ongoing free series of guitar jazz concerts most every Wednesday at 2 PM with Bill Wurtzel and bassist Jay Leonhart.

Revisiting a Searing, Classic Blues Record by JD Allen

You don’t typically expect a blues album to be tenor sax, bass and drums. Nor, in 2016, would anyone have expected JD Allen, this era’s most individualistic titan of the jazz tenor, to make a blues record. Yet he did – and his Americana album (streaming at Spotify) remains one of his two or three best releases, right up there with 2008’s game-changing I Am I Am, which signaled that Allen would go on a roll that he remains on to this day. He’s playing Smalls tonight, Dec 9 at 10:30 PM, leading a quartet: it’s rainy, it’s professional night and an ideal circumstance to catch his relentless, restless modal power. Cover is $25. If you feel like making a night of it, drummer Dan Pugach‘s imaginatively arranged nonet open the evening at 7:30.

Allen opens the album with the slowly ambling Tell the Truth Shame the Devil, playing sparely, spaciously, with a restrained optimism, matched by drummer Rudy Royston’s judicious, minimalist counteraccents and bassist Gregg August’s similarly spare, walking lines and occasional devious harmony. In the album liner notes, Allen asserts with his usual acerbity that traditional African-American blues is hardly limited to the blues scale and the hallowed 1-4-5 progression, although in this cas that’s mostly what this tune is about, the bandleader waiting until the last verse before really pushing the edges.

The first of the album’s two covers, the classic Another Man Done Gone has August bowing stern, stygian responses to Allen’s brooding, characteristically modally-tinged lines as Royston prowls and tumbles: it perfectly capsulizes the interplay this band enjoyed over the course of a long run that lasted more than a decade. Likewise, August’s anguished, cello-like phrasing captures the horror of the song’s narrative, an innocent man kidnapped into the prison-industrial complex.

Allen solos judiciously and somberly over August’s terse, incisive vamp and Royston’s similarly restrained, tumbling drums throughout the third track, Cotton, up to a catchy, anthemic turnaround and finally a lusciously crescendoing coda fueled by Royston. August’s simmering chords drive an ominous Middle Eastern-flavored vamp in Sugar Free to a suspiciously blithe swing and a jaunty, New Orleans-spiced bass solo until Allen brings it all back home.

Bigger Thomas is one of those wickedly incisive, catchy “jukebox jazz” tunes that Allen started firing off one after another about a dozen years ago: as it shuffles along, he brings in the gritty modalities again. Opening with August’s slow, spacious six-chord theme, the album’s title track could be Jimi Hendrix without the distortion and the noisy effects, maybe a psychedelic interlude from Axis: Bold As Love.

Over a boomy, loose-limbed shuffle groove, Allen teases that he might leave the brooding passing tones of Lightnin’ behind, but he doesn’t. There’s a little Howlin’ Wolf in there along with some venomously funny interplay with the rhythm section. The album’s second cover, Bill McHenry’s If You’re Lonely, Then You’re Not Alone, gets a spacious, wistful treatment: beyond August’s brilliantly distilled bassline, most people would be hard-pressed to call this blues. The trio close with Lillie Mae Jones, an upbeat variation on a favorite, enigmatic modal riff that Allen uses a lot: imagine if Booker T. Jones’ axe was sax instead of organ.

Whether you consider this blues or jazz, this defiantly unsettled, frequently angry salute to a treasured but misunderstood American tradition remains one of the best albums of the decade. Although Allen has recently moved on to a new trio, and some surprisingly more trad gigs as a sideman with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and other big names, this more than any other recent release captures him at his dark, majestic best.

The Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange Create the Newest Sound Around

Every month, the Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange plays the freshest material you can hear anywhere in New York. That’s because almost all of the Brooklyn collective’s songs are brand new. Ringleader Lorrane Leckie hosts a weekly salon where a rotating cast of some of the best songwriters you’ve never heard of – and some that you definitely have – workshop new material, then they take it to the stage in Williamsburg. Leckie in particular has been working on new material for her upcoming show on Nov 24 at 7 PM with her ferocious, psychedelic band the Demons at the Mercury. Fellow guitarslinger and charismatic singer Mallory Feuer’s equally ferocious band the Grasping Straws open the night at 6; cover is $10.

The October Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange lineup was typically diverse and just as interesting. Leckie debuted a forlornly strolling tribute to her recently departed French bulldog, Eloise, one of the more memorable musician mascots in this city in recent years. LJ Murphy, the group’s cleanup hitter, recast a couple of broodingly aphoristic older tunes as vintage soul music. Another first-class singer, Paul Anthony, went just as deeply into Sam Cooke-tinged soul.

The edgiest new material of the night was from Jeannie Skelly, one of the group’s strongest singers and guitarists. Her first number was a hilariously vindictive anti-fascist rant; the second was just as amusing, an apparently true story about an old friend who returns from his world travels a changed man: he’s become a vegetarian supremacist!

Carly Spell, a relative newcomer, held the crowd rapt with an allusively haunting chronicle of addiction and its most dire consequences. Likewise, Sara Hurwitz‘s poignant opening number, assesseddiminishing hopes for artistic community in a city completely devastated by gentrification. Lead guitarist Robert Troise added some neat bluegrass flatpicking on that one.

Eve Blackwater got everybody laughing and singing along to one of the funniest and most explicit fuck-you anthems written in recent months. Eric Richmond took the crowd back to a 1979 of the mind with a bleakly imagistic, tightly composed, Graham Parker-esque new wave tune. Teresa Toro, the latest and brighest addition to another collective, the Bushwick Book Club, brought down the lights with a couple of understatedly torchy, jazz-inflected numbers. Feuer also set aside her usual firepower for an enigmatic, more dreampop-flavored tune. And Sarah Murdoch, who might be the most powerful singer of the entire bunch, validated the argument that she’s just as nuanced and intense a blues singer as she is with jazz and Americana.

The Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange’s monthly show continues at Pete’s tonight, Nov 11 at 6 PM, so you won’t have to worry about the L train going down on your way home.

Epic Big Band Surrealism and a Jazz Standard Gig From the Michael Leonhart Orchestra

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra‘s previous album traced the epic journey of a swarm of butterflies all the way from Mexico to Egypt. Breathtaking as that trip over the top of the globe was, Leonhart’s new album with the ensemble, Suite Extracts Vol, 1 – streaming at Spotify – goes in a completely different direction, although in places it’s even more swirlingly atmospheric. If the idea of big band versions of songs by Spinal Tap, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Wu-Tang Clan and Howlin Wolf are your idea of a good time, you should hear this record. Leonhart and the group are at the Jazz Standard on Nov 12, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $30.

The album opens with an exuberantly brassy Afrobeat arrangement of the Nusrat classic Alu Jon Jonki Jon, punctuated by cheery sax solos. Things get more surrealistically entertaining from there. The first of a grand total of six tunes from the Spinal Tap soundtrack, the wryly titled La Fuga Di Derek turns out to be a moody piece for Sara Schoenbeck’s bassoon and Pauline Kim’s pizzicato violin. Schoenbeck’s desolate solo intro to Big Bottom offers absolutely no idea of where the song is going: as you would expect, Leonhart has fun with the low reeds, and also adds an accordion solo from Nathan Koci. From there, they segue into a one-chord jam that’s ostensibly Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman. Most of this actually makes more sense in context than it would seeem to, Leonhart’s chart following a similar trajectory from spare and enigmatic to an extended, achingly shreddy sax break over mutedly snappy bass chords.

Likewise, The Dance of the Maidens at Stonehenge has repetitive low brass bursts bookended by lots of African percussion: it’s as sardonic as the original. As is the medley of Jazz Odyssey and Lick My Love Pump, a brooding accordion solo bridging the ominous opening soundscape and the majestic, sweeping arrangement of the film score’s most sarcastically poignant tune. The final Spinal Tap number, The Ballad of St. Hubbins is the album’s vastest vista, Robbie Mangano’s spaghetti western Morricone guitar over postapocalyptic Pink Floyd atmospherics.

The Wu and their members are first represented by the Ghostface classic Liquid Swords, reinvented with forlorn Ray Mason trombone over grey-sky ambience, with darkly Balkan-tinged accordion: RZA would no doubt approve. Da Mystery of Chessboxing vamps along, alternately gusty and blithe, hypnotic and funky, while Liquid Chamber provides a launching pad for a slashing, Romany-flavored violin solo from Kim.

The diptych of ODB’s Shimmy Shimmy Ya and Raekwon’s Glaciers of Ice is the album’s most distinctively noir track, all ominous rises and falls. The concluding tune is a beefy take of Fela’s Quiet Man Is Dead Man and Opposite People, which could be Antibalas at their most symphonic. And Leonhart recasts the Howlin Wolf hit Built for Comfort as a slow, simmering, roadhouse fuzztone groove evocative of Quincy Jones’ 1960s film work.

Leonhart conducts and plays trumpet, mellophonium and bass harmonica; the rest of the group also includes Kevin Raczka and Eric Harland sharing the drum chair, Elizabeth Pupo-Walker and Daniel Freedman on percussion; Joe Martin and Jay Leonhart (Michael’s dad) on bass; Nels Cline on guitar; Philip Dizack, Dave Guy, Jordan McLean, Carter Yasutake and Andy Bush on trumpets; John Ellis, Ian Hendrickson-Smith, Chris Potter, Donny McCaslin and Jason Marshall on saxes; Sam Sadigursky and Daniel Srebnick on flutes and Erik Friedlander on cello.

A Haunting, Politically Fearless Solo Acoustic Album From Folk Noir Supergroup Bobtown’s Karen Dahlstrom

Karen Dahlstrom may be best known as one of the trio of brilliant songwriters in the three-woman frontline of folk noir supergroup Bobtown, but she’s no less haunting as a solo artist. Her 2011 debut solo release, Gem State is a concept album set in frontier Idaho – and may be the only record of its kind. Dahlstron’s long-awaited follow-up, No Man’s Land – streaming at her music page – is the best short album of 2019 by a country mile. Dahlstrom’s vocals, sometimes stark, sometimes plaintive, sometimes completely devastated, are nothing short of shattering. If anything, they’re even more nuanced than the harmonies and gale-force gospel wail she’ll cut loose with Bobtown from time to time (for a serious thrill, dial up Dahlstrom’s gospel noir tour de force Battle Creek). Likewise, she paints a relentlessly dark series of tableaux equally informed by oldtime blues, gospel and bluegrass. But this is a distinctly 21st century record, relentlessly bleak yet defiant. Dahlstrom’s next New York gig is. Nov 15 at 5:30 PM at the American Folk Art Museum.

Although the record is just guitar and vocals, that’s all these songs need. Dahlstrom’s imagery in the first track, After the Flood packs a potent a political message as a personal one. Set in a post-Katrina New Orleans, Dahlstrom sets the scene at an old cathedral that managed to survive, then she shifts to the old quarter:

Over a bottle of Four Roses in a bar on Saint-Louis
We trade our stories and compare our scars
The deepest wounds will never show
Wonder if we’ll ever know
If our disasters are written in the stars
He shows me the numbers tattoed on his chest
With a look he meant to bring me to my knees
But he don’t know the half of it
More than I would dare admit
I’ve weathered storms worse than these

Cottonmouth Blues, a muted minor-key sway with more than a hint of St. James Infirmary doesn’t seem to be about the aftereffects of smoking weed; it’s a metaphor for shyness. It’s classic Dahlstrom, deviously working an oldtime sex-and-drugs vernacular in the here and now.

The delicately fingerpicked Goodbye, Espanola is a more pastorally bluesy tale of hope from escape from a dead end-southern town where pollution hangs in the air and “The hot rod kids keep low to the ground, never seem to go anywhere.”

The sleepless, despondent narrator of the gentle, mournfully waltzing final number, Broken Golden pleads for the nameless tunesmith she’s stuck on to give her

…something I can cling to when night gets cold
Put words in my mouth and thoughts in my head
Paint me a picture and send me to bed

But it’s the album’s gospel-tinged title track that’s the best of all of them here – and might be the single best song of 2019. The album version on Bobtown’s latest release has mighty harmonies from Dahlstrom’s bandmates Katherine Etzel and Jen McDearman. But there’s more seething anger and resolute determination in this spare, all-acoustic take of Dahlstrom’s fearless feminist anthem. In the year of Metoo, it transcends gender boundaries:

No man’s words can still my voice
No man can tell me where I stand
No man’s will can take my choice
I am no man’s land

You’ll see this ep on the best albums of 2019 page here, too.

Guitarslinger Phil Gammage Goes Back to His Dark Blues Roots Again

Phil Gammage may be best known as the lead guitarist in legendary CB’s era postpunk band Certain General, but he also has a substantial body of work as a bandleader. Over the years, he’s done everything from dark Americana to electric blues. With his latest album, It’s All Real Good – streaming at Spotify – the guitarslinger/crooner revisits the spare acoustic sound of his Live at Little Water Radio ep from a couple of years ago. He’s playing the release show tomorrow night, Sept 5 at 9 PM at 11th St. Bar. Then on the 9th he’s at Shrine at 9, and on the 30th he’s at Cowgirl Seahorse in the South Street Seaport at 7.

The album’s opening track, Naked in the Rain is a stripped down acoustic bossa, Kenny Margolis’ accordion and Michele Butler’s backing vocals filtering through a song that’s kind of low-key considering that it’s about dancing around nude.

With David Fleming’s chuffing, reverbtone blues harp, the title track is a sarcastic, bawdy blues that draws a straight line back to Sonny Boy Williamson – or even further. Likewise, Dancing on Top of the World is a sardonic, Waits-ish barhopping narrative. Luck Don’t Pass Us By comes across as an acoustic take on the apocalyptic gutter blues of 80s bands like the Gun Club.

Fueled by Margolis’ darkly bluesy spirals, Hellcat Magpie is a colorfully creepy circus-rock waltz. Then skinny Elvis meets Jimmy Reed in the muted, crepuscular Second Time Around.

Wandering Stars has a slow southwestern gothic sway, while Give Away is slow, spare and Orbisonesque. Gammage closes the album with Let Love Begin, his counterintuitive chords over Tony Mann’s shuffling drums. Gammage’s voice has grown a little flintier over the years, and the music here is quieter than most of his back catalog, but he can still conjure up as much distant menace as ever.

Cedric Burnside Plays His Individualistic Take on a Classic Mississippi Blues Style at Lincoln Center

Early during his show at Lincoln Center last night, guitarist Cedric Burnside related a story he’d originally heard from his grandfather, iconic hill country bluesman RL Burnside. See, there was this guy who was twenty-two years, still living with his folks. His parents strongly suggest that it’s time for him to find a wife and move out. So he meets a girl and brings her home. Dad takes one look at her and says, “You can’t marry that girl. She’s your sister. But don’t tell your mama, she doesn’t know.”

So the guy goes out and brings another girl home: same deal. At the end of the week, the guy’s mother starts giving him a hard time about not finding a girl and moving out. At this point, the guy spills the beans and tells her what his dad said. His mom’s response is “You can marry either one of those girls if you want, because he ain’t your daddy.”

Much as the younger Burnside draws on a hundred years of revelry and rustic party music, he has his own distinctive sound. Where his “big daddy,” as he called him, played with a careening sway and built a wall of sound with his guitar, this Burnside has a much funkier, incisive, rhythmic attack and a no-nonsense, direct vocal style. And he also plays acoustic, opening the show solo, utilizing an open tuning for a number that was like the source code to early 70s boogie rock, his vocals doubling the catchy bassline at the turnaround.

He followed with a spare, percussive take of RL Burnside’s snide dismissal of a backstabber, Just Like a Woman. He built the next tune by getting the guitar humming with slow hypnotic hammer-on riff, then he’d hit a driving downward progression. He put on his slide for Feel Like Going Home, a more driving, passionate update on the Muddy Waters acoustic version.

Burnside went back to hard-hitting, spare mode for Life Can Be So Easy and its chorus of “Summertime is hard, it’s hard to stay cool,” something Mississippians know a little bit about. Then he brought drummer Brett Benton up and switched to a Les Paul copy for We Made It, sticking with his usual percussive attack, bassline alternating with spare chords: where this guy comes from, this stuff is dance music.

Beyond the open tunings and hypnotic vamping, hill country blues has its own rhythms: bouncier than your typical shuffle but not quite straight-up funk either, and his next couple of numbers worked that hard-swinging style. In the ba-bump tune after that, he revealed that he doesn’t take every gig he’s offered. Going back to the RL Burnside catalog, he did Going Down South with a lot more punch and incisive riffage than the original.

After a thumping warning to “keep your hands off that girl, she don’t belong to you,” he switched to Strat for a number that on the surface was about not missing out – there was another level there, too, the kind of things you might do on a Holly Springs front porch. Meanwhile, it was strange that nobody was up dancing like crowds usually do here. Where were the kids?

The next show at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is next Thursday, August 22 at 7:30 PM with whirlwind tropical accordion star El Rey Vallenato Beto Jamaica and his band. Get there early if you’re going because he’s a force of nature and this show will sell out fast – and it’s free!

Rare 1969 Live Recordings From a Hall of Fame Caliber Blues Festival Lineup Now Available on Vinyl

Half a century ago, Michigan blues fan Jim Fishel brought a low-budget analog tape recorder, a handful of cassettes – and a couple of fresh sets of bulky C batteries – to the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. One can only wonder if he was aware just how much history he was going to capture. The highlights of those field recordings have just been released on vinyl for the first time ever on vinyl, in two volumes streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a goldmine of rare and often unusual performances by some of the greatest blues artists of all time.

The sound quailty varies. A handful of numbers – including J. B. Hutto savagely chopping his way through the Elmore James soundalike Too Much Alcohol, and Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins swinging I Wonder Why – are so trebly that when the guitars are cooking, with the reverb all the way up, it’s painful to listen to them at high volume on headphones. But others are surprisingly good quality – digital tweaking is most likely responsible for a surprising amount of bass presence. And many of the performances are amazing. These artists aren’t pandering to a stoned hippie audience – they’re kicking out the jams just like they’d been doing for decades on the chitlin circuit.

Barrelhouse pianist Roosevelt Sykes’ hilarious hokum blues Dirty Mother For Ya – which he proudly recalls recording for Decca Records in 1934 – opens the album. Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup contributes a raw, fresh take of So Glad You’re Mine, just guitar and drums. Junior Wells sends a shout to his blues harp mentor, the late Sonny Boy Williamson, with an expansive performance of Help Me. B.B. King sings a wrenchingly impassioned version of I’ve Got a Mind to Give Up Living after introducing it with a long, unexpectedly upbeat solo.

Mississippi Fred McDowell’s shuffling, twangy slide guitar interpretation of the folk staple John Henry turns out to be more about jaggedly leaping riffage than the story itself. “I plays it different from other folks, you know, I plays it so you can understand it,” he deadpans. Longtime Muddy Waters pianist Pinetop Perkins shows off a punishing left hand in his signature boogie-woogie instrumental.

“The Original Howlin’ Wolf and His Orchestra” get seventeen minutes to seemingly make up a couple of tunes on the spot – and assail an unresponsive sound guy to “Wake up over there!” Hearing the Wolf backed by brass is quite a change, and lead guitarist Hubert Sumlin’s searing solo reminds why he was Jimi Hendrix’ favorite player.

A suave, thirtysomething Otis Rush delivers the elegant Great Migration chronicle So Many Roads. Muddy Waters, in rare form as a showman, tells the crowd he’s going to take them back to the 40s – when he’d run out of a barbershop after a pretty woman on the street – then takes his time with Long Distance Call.

Interestingly, it’s harpist Charlie Musselwhite and band who veer the closest to jazz here, with the jump blues instrumental Moovin’ and Groovin’. T-Bone Walker is all over the place but just as sophisticated throughout a careening, eleven-minute Stormy Monday, then returns to do the same behind Big Mama Thornton’s unleashed wail on Ball and Chain.

Magic Sam turns in one of the night’s most feral numbers with I Feel So Good (I Wanna Boogie). Shirley Griffith’s spare, precise take of Jelly Jelly Blues is the biggest throwback to the old delta style here. One of only two acoustic performances here is from Big Joe Williams, whose high-voltage Juanita strangely doesn’t seem to grab the audience.

Sam Lay’s version of Key to the Highway doesn’t take many chances with the Muddy Waters original. The band follow Lightning Hopkins’ unpredictable changes in Mojo Hand with aplomb; then James Cotton works the dynamics of his blues harp instrumental Off the Wall up and down for fifteen increasingly interminable minutes. The album winds up with Son House prefacing his iconic Death Letter Blues with some oldtime blues history, then giving an impressively shivery treatment, solo on acoustic with his slide.

Obviously, you can’t expect a field recording to be perfect, sonically or otherwise, and this isn’t. Clifton Chenier was every bit as proficient at blues as he was at zydeco, so the cajun ballad Tu M’a Promis is out of place. A pretty pointless Luther Allison interlude is haphazardly edited, and the Big Mojo Ellum tune could have been left on the cutting room floor. The piano goes further and further out of tune, intros and outros get chopped off, there’s audience chitchat and a couple of quaint moments where the tape stops and then restarts. Still, for diehard electric blues fans, this is a must-hear and it’s a great introduction for kids who’re just getting into the music.