New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: chamber pop

Transcendence and Trials at Winter Jazzfest 2020

One of the high points of Winter Jazzfest 2020 was a rock song.

Don’t read that the wrong way. Firing off clanging, reverb-fanged minor chords from her white Fender Jaguar, Becca Stevens sang her steadily crescendoing anthem I Will Avenge You with just enough distance to make the inevitable all the more grim. Connections to a famous hippie songwriter and steampunk Broadway show aside, it was validating to see her pack the Poisson Rouge to open last night’s Manhattan marathon of shows.

She’s lost none of the livewire intensity she had in the days when she used to front a surrealistically entertaining cover band, the Bjorkestra, ten-odd years ago. Her own material is just as artsy and outside-the-box: it’s what would have been called art-rock back in the 70s, but with a 90s trip-hop influence (Portishead at their most orchestral) instead of, say, Genesis. Drummer Jordan Perlson and bassist Chris Tordini gave a snap to the songs’ tricky metrics, lead guitarist Jan Esbra adding terse colors, keyboardist Michelle Willis bubbling and rippling and soaring with her vocal harmonies. The songs ranged from an uneasily dancing setting of a Shakespeare text from Romeo and Juliet, to a dizzyingly circling ukulele tune, to Tillery, the subtly soukous-inflected anthem that Stevens typically opens with. “Without love there is nothing,” was the singalong chorus. True enough: that’s why we do this stuff.

A few blocks east at the Zurcher Gallery, singer Sara Serpa raised the bar impossibly high for the rest of the night, or so it seemed at the moment. With barely a pause between songs, she led a tightly focused lustrous quartet – longtime partner and saturnine influence Andre Matos on guitar, Dov Manski on piano and analog synth, and Jesse Simpson on drums – through a glistening, sometimes pointillistic, sometimes shatteringly plaintive set of songs without words.

Serpa didn’t sing any actual lyrics until the unexpectedly playful final song, relying instead on her signature vocalese. While she’s best known as a purveyor of misty, airy, frequently noir sonics, she’s developed stunning new power, especially on the low end – although she used that very judiciously. The most haunting song of the night came across as a mashup of Chano Dominguez and Procol Harum at their most quietly brooding, with a ghostly avenger out front. Matos’ steady, purposeful, meticulously nuanced chords and fills anchored Manski’s often otherworldly textures and eerie belltones as Simpson maintained a steady, suspenseful flutter with his bundles.

Over at Zinc Bar, trumpeter Samantha Boshnack led a New York version of her Seismic Belt septet, playing shapeshiftingly emphatic, anthemic, eco-disaster themed material from her fantastic 2019 album of the same name. The music seemed to still be coalescing, but that observation might be colored by the situation where the bar wasn’t letting people stand in the inner room close to the band, as they had in the past, and what was being piped into the front area through a couple of tinny speakers wasn’t enough to compete with a chatty crowd. The bandleader’s soulful, cantabile tone rose and fell gracefully and mingled with the sometimes stark, occasionally lush textures of violinist Sarah Bernstein, violist Jessica Pavone, bassist Lisa Hoppe, expansively dynamic baritone saxophonist Chris Credit, pianist Kai Ono and drummer Jacob Shandling. Boshnack’s voice is full of color and sparkle, just like her horn: she should sing more. Chet Baker may have left us, but Boshnack would be a welcome addition to the trumpeter/singer demimonde.

That there would be such a packed house in the basement of a snooty new Lafayette Street tourist bar, gathered to see the debut of pedal steel paradigm-shifter Susan Alcorn‘s new quintet, speaks to the exponential increase in interest in improvisation at the highest level. That the band had such potent material to work with didn’t hurt. Alcorn’s tunesmithing can be as devastatingly sad as her stage presence and banter is devastatingly funny.

Drummer Ryan Sawyer – most recently witnessed swinging the hell out of a set by Rev. Vince Anderson a couple of weeks ago – sank his sticks into a diving bell of a press roll that Alcorn pulled shivering to the surface in a trail of sparks. Violinist Mark Feldman’s searingly precise downward cadenza out of a long, matter-of-factly circling Michael Formanek bass crescendo was just as much of a thrill. Guitarist Mary Halvorson echoed the bandleader’s sudden swells and sharply disappearing vistas with her volume pedal.

There was a lot of sublime new material in the set. They began with a poignant, 19th century gospel-infused minor-key number that disintegrated into a surreal reflecting pool before returning, austere and darkly ambered. An even more angst-fueled, lingering diptych began as a refection on a battle with food poisoning, Alcorn deadpanned: from the sound of that, it could have killed her. Later portraits of New Mexico mountain terrain and a Utah “circular ruin” gave the band plenty of room to expand on similarly stark themes. The coyly galloping romp out at the end of the catchy, concluding pastoral jazz number offered irresistibly amusing relief.

Winter Jazzfest has expanded to the point where it seems it’s now a lot easier to get in to see pretty much whoever you want to see – at least this year, from this point of view. Even so, there’s always triage. Matthew Shipp at the Nuyorican, what a serendipitous match…but the Nuyorican is a good fifteen-minute shlep from the Bleecker Street strip, just on the cusp of where a taxi driver would think you’re really lame for not hoofing it over to Alphabet City.

Cuban-born pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa and his irrepressible quartet at Subculture were much closer. There’s always been a fine line between salsa and jazz and for this show, this crew – with Mayquel Gonzalez on trumpet, Gaston Joya on five-string bass and the bandleader’s brother Ruy on drums – sided with bringing the first kind of party. In a spirited duet, it turned out that the bandleader’s bro is a more than competent and equally extrovert pianist, when he wasn’t riffing expertly on his snare like a timbalero. The group shifted from long, vampy, percussive cascades to classically-flavored interludes, including a catchy Leo Brouwer ballad that Lopez-Nussa used as a rollercoaster to engage the crowd. What a beautiful, sonically pristine venue, and what a shame that, beyond a weekly Sunday morning classical concert series, the space isn’t used for music anymore. They probably couldn’t put the Poisson Rouge out of business – who would want that bar’s cheesy Jersey cover bands, anyway – but they could steal all their classical and jazz acts.

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

Darkly Multistylistic, Cinematic Cello Themes and a West Village Show from Ian Maksin

Cellist Ian Maksin writes catchy, often gorgeously cinematic songs without words. His music is stylistically vast, drawing on sounds from the Balkans to the Middle East to Latin America. He’s more dynamic than you might expect from someone who plays a low-register instrument and is also a rare cello player who excels at blues. There’s still time to get an advance ticket to his show tomorrow night, Jan 5 at 7 PM at the Poisson Rouge: you can get in for $20.

His new album Sempre is streaming at Bandcamp. The title track is an elegant cello take on minor-key Russian barroom balladry, Maksin overdubbing his moody, resonant lines over a lithely plucked bassline. Similarly, the nostalgic waltz Blues au Jardin du Luxembourg has more of a balmy Black Sea summer afternoon undercurrent than any distinctive Parisian flavor.

Vancouver Rain comes across as a loopmusic piece, Maksin’s biting chromatics and blues bookending a break in the clouds signaled by percussionist Andrew Mitran. The brief, acerbically tiptoeing Summer Garden could be Django Reinhardt at his most classical and chromatic.

Maksin is a one-man low string section throughout the tensely spacious, achingly soaring Respiro. The album’s longest and most hypnotic song, Lacrimae Novae begins as a medieval responsory of sorts, then Maksin brings in layers of broodingly chromatic, baroque-tinged melody.

Per Me, Per Te has contrasting layers of cautiously dancing pizzicato against uneasy resonance, set to a familiar four-chord progression: it could be a theme for a real weeper of a movie. Sunset on the Cascade is a pensive Russian/Brazilian mashup with light, Indian-flavored percussion. Maksin winds up the record with the soaringly crescendoing Brand New Page, its acerbically off-kilter chords recalling the edgy new wave-era bedroom pop of Young Marble Giants. Fans of this era’s most accessible, incorrigible Romantics – Ludovico Einaudi, Yann Tiersen et al. – ought to get to know Maksin.

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.

The Tune Have Fun Reinventing Ancient Korean Sounds at Lincoln Center

There’s been an explosion of psychedelic folk-rock coming out of Korea recently, and Lincoln Center has become one of the best places in New York to see it. Last night all-female quintet the Tune made alternately slinky, swaying and galloping themes out of ancient chants, dance tunes and peasant songs. Yujin Lee’s elegant neoromantic piano imbued the sound with a western classical lustre: there were times when the music sounded straight out of the UK circa 1974. But as translucent as their melodies are, the group have an enigmatic side: “Nobody knows us except us,” frontwoman Hyunkyung Go grinned. As the night went on, she turned out to be very funny: it’s been awhile since such an amusing band played here.

She opened the evening’s first song with a crystalline, quasi-operatic delivery over stagely, shapeshifting percussion and Lee’s piano ripples. With two small gongs, plus mallets on the drums, the polyrhythms grew more complex, the vocals considerably grittier as the thump picked up. Echoes of vintage American soul music, the witchy art-song of Carol Lipnik and maybe 70s art-rock like Genesis emerged.

A rhythmic, shamanistic invocation gave way to more moody classical lustre, percussionist Minji Seo’s thumb piano clicking along with the keys as their frontwoman wailed like a Korean PJ Harvey before backing away for Seo’s otherworldly taepyungso oboe. Then Go picked up her melodica as the band pulsed along gently, Seo’s piri flute adding austere color.

The shaman song after that had an imploring edge, shreddy taepyungso and a galloping triplet beat: that one really woke up the crowd. Lee switched to a vibraphone setting as the thicket of percussion – Haneol Song on drumkit, Soungsoun Lee on janggu barrel drum and Seo on a medium-sized gong – grew more hypnotic.

The song that followed, Port of Strangers had an unsettled, even aching quality, the unease of immigrants on new land transcending any linguistic limitations even as Go reached out her arms as if to welcome everyone there. But when she picked up a kazoo, she couldn’t keep from cracking up on the first verse of Youth Song, an undulating, minor-key workingperson’s blues (and drinking person’s blues) lowlit by echoey Fender Rhodes piano. Yet it wasn’t long before she got serious, singing in passable Spanish, going down on the the floor to get a clapalong going.

Go messed shamelessly with the audience, who’d been handed branches to keep time during a lively round that finally wound up with a mighty dancefloor thump and a wild taepyungso solo. The encore was a rousing mashup of oldschool 60 soul and Korean polyrhythms.

The next free concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is Nov 14 at 7:30 PM, where wildly popular india classical composer, violinist and singer Caroline Shaw joins forces with the Attacca String Quartet. Get there on time if you’re going.

Carol Lipnik and Tareke Ortiz Channel the Spirits on Halloween at Lincoln Center

Thursday night at Lincoln Center, Carol Lipnik emerged from the back of the room, irridescent in a shiny gown, like the Chrysler Building under a blood moon. Opening the night with her distinctive version of Harry Nillsson’s Lifeline. she was working the crowd before she could be seen. “Hello, is there anybody else here?”

As he would do all night, pianist Matt Kanelos played with a neoromantic poignancy matched to steely focus. Lipnik’s crystalline voice – widely acknowledged as the best in New York – has never sounded so rich,, from the shivery vibrato in her upper register, all the way to to a stern contralto, four octaves and counting. Her songs have a phantasmagorical yet often extraordinarily subtle social relevance. She spread the wings of her gown: “Welcome to the seance!”

The duo followed with Tom Ward’s brisk, shamanistic, menacingly chromatic minor-key anthem Spirits Be Kind to Me.At the end, she pulled a simple, rhythmic invocation – “Spirits!” from the crowd. Then she got them howling, literally, with a spare, desolate take of Michael Hurley’s The Werewolf.

Kanelos imbued The Oyster and the Sand with Moonlight Sonata glimmer as Lipnik pondered the price of beauty extracted from the ocean, rising to achingly operatic heights over sampled coastal sounds. Coney Island born and raised, ocean imagery pervades her repertoire. Then the two made an elegantly sardonic, vintage soul-infused romp out of a Halloween staple, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Put a Spell on You..They’d return to more obscure Halloween fare with a doomed take of Dylan’s The Man in the Long Black Coat a little later on.

Mexico City-based crooner Tareke Ortiz then took a page from Lipnik’s playbook, emerging even more slowly from the opposite side of the room in a Viking outfit, horns and lavish facepaint as his pianist, bassist and drummer built ominous, neoromantic ambience. “We travel tragically, toward the cold of our own voice, when it comes from outside ourselves. From the girl next door, from a window across the street, fom a dark alley and the wrong turn, from beyond the clouds and stars above, or from beyond the border,” he mused introducing an enigmatic, bolero-esque torch song.

The pianist switched to accordion for the carnivalesque waltz I’m Going Nowhere, which did double duty as defiant immigrant anthem and workingman’s lament. He and the group went back to slowly swinging latin noir cabaret to contemplate jealousy, then mined the Sylvia Rexach catalog to raise the angst factor. From there he invoked the muted, dashed hopes of refugees.

Lipnik and Kanelos returned for the circus rock of Freak House Blues, a big clapalong hit with audience. Her next song was steadier and more hypnotic: a simple “How?” was the nmantra.

“The last message received from the Mars Rovers was, ‘My bettery is low and it’s getting dark’ and this is a reenactment,” Lipnik explained, then brought the robot vehicle to life…for barely a minute.

With its sharp-fanged chromatics and grimly metaphorical call to fight, most menacing number of the night, Halloween standards notwithstanding, was The Things That Make You Grow, After a plaintively macabre take of the doomed tale of the Two-Headed Calf (who’s destined for a museum rather than the slaughterhouse), Ortiz returned with dark, abandoned love ballads and then a slowly coalescing song told from the pont of view of someone who goes into the desert knowing they may never be coming back.

Lipnik and Ortiz then joined forces to mash up stately mariachi and birdsong, and closed with a noir cabaret take of the Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer. By now, Lipnik could make this crowd do anything:, reaffirming that “We are vain and we are blind””is just as true now as it was in 1979. What a great way to get away from the amateurs and have a real Halloween.

The next free concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is Nov 7 at 7:30 PM with shamanistic all-female Korean art-rock band The Tune. Get there early if you’re going.

Witheringly Elegant, Ruthlessly Funny Protest Songs From Dawn Oberg

What’s more Halloweenish than the prospect of Donald Trump NOT being impeached? Think about that for a second. Dawn Oberg, arguably this era’s most entertaining protest songsmith, played a guardedly optimistic, elegantly venomous set at the Rockwood last month that evoked what the world would be like under another Trump administration. It was as grim as you would expect, but Oberg’s irrepressible sense of humor wouldn’t quit. In times like these, you have to laugh, right?

It had been six years since anybody from this blog had seen the Bay Area singer/pianist in concert. The first time was at the infamous Bar East, where she played to basically two people: this blog’s owner, and the coked-up soundguy. The New York gigs have gotten better since then, and Oberg’s voice has grown richer and more velvety, like a good single malt. And her writing has never been more excoriatingly funny.

Playing wide-angle gospel chords and intricate, jazz and blues-inflected ripples, she briskly made her way through a bristling set. Not all of the songs were political. She opened with her usual Old Hussies Never Die and followed that with Whiskey Priest, one of her many character studies, this a shout out to a liberation Christian with a fondness for spirits (much of Oberg’s catalog looks to the bottom of a glass, darkly).

Idiot for Love was a rarity, a wry, guardedly optimistic love ballad, followed by the similarly upbeat, pouncing, quietly devastating End of the Continent, a cynical tale of abandonment and alienation told in California seismological imagery. And with the disarmingly catchy Angel Rant, Oberg offered robust, rebellious empathy for anyone spiraling into a dark night of the soul.

Then she dug into the political satire, ruthlessly, one song after another: the relentless cynicism of I’d Love to Be Wrong; the withering Nothing Rymes with Orange (title track of her fantastic protest song ep from last year), and possibly the best song of the set, the furious, defiant it’s 12:01, namechecking everyone  recently murdered by the SFPD: “Past time, motherfuckers, to change the guard at the gate.” The funniest song of the set was Mitch McConnell, wherein Oberg pondered what horrible things a turtle could possibly do to be compared to that troglodyte.

Oberg’s next gig is, Nov 14 at 6 PM at Martuni’s, 4 Valencia St. in San Francisco.

Jenifer Jackson Returns to Her Catchy, Poignant Psychedelic Pop Roots

Of all the songwriters who built their careers in the incredibly fertile crucible of the Lower East Side New York scene in the late 90s and early zeros, Jenifer Jackson is one of the most prolific and arguably the best. Over the years, she’s moved from Beatlesque psychedelia to stark, brooding pastoral pop, bossa nova and harrowing, majestic art-rock. She’s also been a poineer of the DIY house concert tour circuit Her move to Austin in the early part of the decade springboarded a deep dive into Americana. Her latest album Paths – streaming at Bandcamp – is a return to the catchy, anthemic, eclectic psychedelic pop she made a name with early in her career. Jackson has a pair of New York gigs coming up next month. She’s at the Owl on Nov 3 at 8, then the next night, Nov 4 at the same time she’s at the big room at the Rockwood.

On the new record, her voice is more nuanced than ever; her lyrics are characteristically crystallized, imagistic and loaded with subext. There’s a restrained angst in her delivery as she soars up to the chorus on the elegantly waltzing opening track, Things I Meant to Tell You, Jim Hoke’s flute and Chris Carmichael’s one-man string quartet adding a stark baroque touch. As usual, Jackson lets the images of returning to a dusty room after a trip speak for themselves. It packs a gentle wallop.

There’s a delicate web of acoustic guitar fingerpicking beneath the orchestration in the tender early-dawn scenario First Bird. Then the band – which includes Brad Jones on guitars, bass and keys, Pat Sansone on guitar and mellotron and Josh Hunt on drums – picks up the pace with Back Home, a big, electric, organ-driven backbeat rocker. “The silence almost made me lose my mind,” Jackson confides: the tradeoff between organ and twelve-string guitar in the break is absolutely luscious.

Travelled Together, a bittersweet breakup ballad, has wintry, vintage 60s orchestration and Laurel Canyon psychedelic pop ambience: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Judy Henske catalog. Sultry Memory is a summery psychedelic soul ballad with shimmering vibraphone: it has the enigmatic lushness of Jackson’s classic 2007 Outskirts of a Giant Town and the lush Philly soul of Got To Have You, two standout numbers from Jackson’s vast output over the years.

Hey, Good is a wistful, hopeful, sprightly tune with ukulele and just a hint of brass: it could be a charming lost acoustic McCartney miniature from the White Album. Jackson brings back the electricity and the backbeat in Written in Stone: imagine the Byrds backing the Mamas & the Papas.

Jackson likes to put a good old-fashioned hard country tune on every album, and What Good’s a Memory is a picture-perfect vintage 60s tune, right down to the saloon piano and pedal steel. She wraps up the record with a country gospel-flavored piano ballad, Hail and Farewell. In a time where the brain drain out of New York stalled or even destroyed so many music careers, it’s testament to Jackson’s sheer talent (not to mention persistence) that she’s been able to stay on a creative tear that just won’t quit.

[If you’re looking for today’s Halloween installment, take a trip back to October 21 of last year for an underrated, darky psychedelic 2013 release – amazingly still available as a free download – by a New York band who should have gone a lot further than they did]

New Music Duo andPlay and Cello Rocker Meaghan Burke Put on a Serious Party at the Edge of Chinatown

How do violin/viola duo andPlay manage to create such otherworldly, quietly phantasmagorical textures? Beyond their adventurous choice of repertoire, they use weird alternate tunings. Folk and rock guitarists have been doing that since forever, but unorthodox tunings are a relatively new phenomenon in the chamber music world. At the release party for their new album Playlist at the Metropolis Ensemble‘s second-floor digs at 1 Rivington St. last night, violist Hannah Levinson and violinist Maya Bennardo – with some help from their Rhythm Method buds Meaghan Burke and Leah Asher, on harmonica and melodica, respectively – evoked a ghost world that was as playful and bracing as it was envelopingly sepulchral. Anybody who might mistakenly believe that all 21st century serious concert music is stuffy or wilfully abstruse needs to check out the programming here.

The party was in full effect before the music started. A sold-out crowd pregamed with bourbon punch and grapefruit shots. As the performance began, Levinson sent a big bucket of fresh saltwater taffy around the audience, seated in the round. The charismatic Burke opened with a brief solo set of characteristically biting, entertainingly lyrical cello-rock songs. Calmly and methodically, she shifted between catchy, emphatic basslines, tersely slashing riffs, starry pizzicato and hypnotic, loopy minimalism. The highlights included Hysteria, a witheringly funny commentary on medieval (and much more recent) patriarchal attempts to control womens’ sexual lives, along with a wry, guardedly optimistic, brand-new number contemplating the hope tbat today’s kids will retain the ability to see with fresh eyes.

Dressed in coyly embroidered, matching bespoke denim jumpsuits, andPlay wasted no time introducing the album’s persistently uneasy, close harmonies  with a piece that’s not on it, Adam Roberts‘ new Diptych. Contrasting nebulous ambience with tricky polyrhythmic counterpoint, the duo rode its dynamic shfits confidently through exchanges of incisive pizzicato with muted austerity, to a particularly tasty, acerbic, tantalizingly brief coda.

Clara Ionatta’s partita Limun, Levinson explained, was inspired by the Italian concept of lemon as a panacea. Playful sparring between the duo subtly morphed into slowly drifting tectonic sheets, finally reaching a warmer, more consonant sense of closure that was knocked off its axis by a sudden, cold ending.

The laptop loops of composer David Bird‘s live remix of his epic Apochrypha threatened to completely subsume the strings, but that quasar pulse happily receded to the background. It’s the album’s most distinctly microtonal track, Bennardo and Levinson quietly reveling in both its sharp, short, flickeringly agitated riffs and misty stillness.

The next concert at the space at 1 Rivington is on Oct 11 at 7:30 PM with composer Molly Herron and the Argus Quartet celebrating the release of their new album “with music and poetry that explore history and transformation.” Cover is $20/$10 stud.