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Category: nashvillle gothic

Faithless Town Release the Best Freedom Anthem of 2022 So Far

There’s been a lot of great freedom music released this year, but the best song of the bunch so far is Atlanta band Faithless Town‘s Live Free. It’s a defiantly swaying protest anthem, a mashup of ELO and peak-era Oasis, a bittersweet symphony for 2022. Frontman/guitarist Gene Owens reminds that now is not the time to be riding the fence:

Open your eyes
And see the lies
That you’ve been told
Your mind doesn’t belong to you anymore
Fear is not a virtue
It’s time to be brave
Do you wanna live free or die as a slave’

And the video is inspiring, a montage largely taken from the Highwire coverage of the London protests last summer.

The song is the centerpiece of the band’s new album Into The Light Vol.1, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s the first part of a full-length record that’s on track to be finished later this summer. The band have been through some personnel changes, but the current lineup of Owens with Aaron Rogers on lead guitar, Nathan Rudolf on bass and Vic Fischer on drums is arguably their strongest ever. Owens’ smartly crafted tunesmithing spans from punkabilly to Americana to lyrical, singalong stadium rock, occasionally bolstered by organ or strings behind the twin-guitar attack.

The opening track is Berkshire, a stomping, Celtic-tinged punk tune that brings to mind Stiff Little Fingers or Wormburner. The group follow with Not Goodbye, a soaring, bittersweet anthem in the same vein, with a tantalizing, slashing Rogers guitar solo at the center

What I’m Dreaming Of is a swaying, distantly Beatlesque, midtempo salute to being openminded in an era of endless divide-and-conquer: “Don’t trust the TV, don’t believe your feed,” Owens cautions. The band take a detour into a vein they explored earlier in their career with Coal Mining Man, a Nashville gothic-flavored workingman’s lament about the decline of the domestic coal industry.

They go back to a Reducers-style garage-punk punch with Someone to Think Of and close the record with Do Not Comply, a relentless, hard-hitting, cynical singalong:

One shot to buy your freedom
Two shots to go outside
Three shots to see your family
Four shots and then you die
Do not comply
See through their lies
Do not comply or you’ll die

Faithless Town’s next gig is May 27 at 9 PM at Smith’s Olde Bar, 1578 Piedmont Ave NE in Atlanta with swamp rockers Handsome Jack; cover is $10.

In Memoriam: Dallas Good

One of the world’s most mesmerizing, versatile guitarists, Dallas Good of the Sadies died Friday shortly after being diagnosed with an undisclosed coronary condition. He was 48.

Good and his guitarist brother Travis led the Sadies from stardom in their native Ontario to global fame, beginning in the 90s as one of the more bluegrass-oriented of the wave of bands in the alt-country movement. Over the years, they moved further into psychedelic rock, developing a jangly, eerily reverb-drenched sound they called “northern gothic.” They collaborated and recorded with a wide range of artists including Neko Case, Andre Williams and Gord Downie.

Dallas Good was equally adept at twangy country fills, nimble bluegrass flatpicking, serpentine surf rock and long, searing psychedelic passages. Although he propelled the band’s songs to a volcanic intensity onstage, he was the rare lead guitarist whose style was built on subtlety rather than flash. In recent years, he had become the group’s primary songwriter. Sharing lead vocals with his brother, he had a strong baritone voice and a flair for vintage suits.

Offstage, Good was a thoughtful, erudite presence, a connoisseur of vintage guitars and amps, with an encyclopedic knowledge of music that ranged far beyond the band’s many stylistic influences.

In an eerie stroke of foreshadowing, the Sadies’ final single, recorded last year, was titled Message to Belial (a Biblical name for Satan). “The end of all nations, the darkest of ages has come,” the brothers harmonized over the band’s usual plaintive, ominous wash of jangle and clang. Deepest condolences to his family, his bandmates Sean Dean and Mike Belitsky, and everyone who had the good fortune to know him.

A Fascinating, Colorful Coffee Table Book by Nashville Gothic Crooner Mark Sinnis

For those who think of Mark Sinnis as one of the most prolific songwriters on the dark side of country music, there’s a lot more to the story. Sinnis chronicles that turbulent and colorful career in a new coffee table book packed with rare, previously unpublished photos along with original handwritten lyrics, show flyers and newspaper concert listings. Limited edition signed copies are available for fifty bucks.

It’s an amazing historical artifact. In so many ways, Sinnis’ personal story mirrors the history of rock music in New York since the late 1980s. At the peak of his popularity here, he fronted Ninth House, who began as a sleek, haunting art-rock group, then took a detour into haphazard jamband territory and eventually reinvented themselves as a tight East Coast counterpart to Social Distortion,

In the meantime, that popularity waned. Sinnis went from headlining Saturday night shows at just about every club in the East Village, to playing sparsely attended off-nights at a Financial District titty bar, before getting brain-drained out of the city in 2008. What happened?

The paper-and-polaroids trail starts in 1988, when Sinnis founded the Apostates, a punk band with a promising lyrical edge, who didn’t stay together long enough to find a distinctive sound. And yet, they were getting decent gigs, playing venues like the World, which booked acts like the Pixies and Jesus & Mary Chain.

Those shots of Sinnis holding a cheap red knockoff Fender bass, sporting long hair and not a single tattoo, are almost comical considering his current rig and look. But a couple of pages later, the tattoos are starting to creep up the arms, and he’s playing a vintage Rickenbacker. And Ninth House are on fire, with a New Years Eve gig at CB’s Gallery.

For Ninth House, it’s a long trail down from from there. As their old stomping ground was erased in a blitzkrieg of gentrification, they held on as long as they could, with a long-running monthly Saturday night residency at the old Hank’s in Brooklyn. Yet as bad as the gigs get for Ninth House, Sinnis is busy honing his craft at a solo artist at acoustic venues all over town, developing the “cemetery and western” sound he’s best known for today.

After an aborted stay in the Hudson River Valley – where he managed to assemble a crackerjack honkytonk band – Sinnis has found a new home and a new band in the coastal college town of Wilmington, North Carolina. And most recently, he’s switched fulltime from rhythm guitar or bass to lead guitar, a welcome development for a brilliantly melodic, economical player.

Many but not all of Sinnis’ supporting cast pop up throughout the book. There’s lead guitarists Bernard SanJuan, with his thousand-yard stare, and Keith Otten flexing his signature sunburst Les Paul. There’s a rare shot of violin goddess Susan Mitchell playing cello, and a playful vocal duet in the studio between Sinnis and Randi Russo (they nailed it on the first take). Longtime keyboardist and then drummer Francis Xavier, guitarist J.D. Fortay, pedal steel player Brian Aspinwall, banjo player/bagpiper Stephen Gara, drummer Michael Lillard, violinist Shirley Lebo and many others are all represented.

Sinnis’ lyrics can be fascinating: his writing has become much more straightforward, in keeping with the Americana tradition, but many of the older songs are absolutely brilliant. There’s an awful lot to sift through here, with rewarding results. Case in point: notice how Sinnis switched the first line of the chorus of Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me from “You got what you wanted,” to “Realize and confront it.”

These days, Sinnis owns the picturesque, retro music-themed Beale Street Barber Shop in Wilmington, where he and other North Carolina bands play frequently on the stage in the back, when he’s not making records at Sun Studios or videos at Hank Williams’ grave.

The Funniest and Most Serious Songs of the Week

Time for another short self-guided playlist today: half a dozen songs in about eighteen minutes. Click artist names for their webpages; click song titles for audio.

The most hilarious one that’s come over the transom here in the wake of the hissyfit that Neil Young (and maybe his hedge fund handlers) threw about Rogan and Spotify is Sold Man, Curtis Stone and Media Bear’s parody of Neil Young’s Old Man. They nail everything, right down to the whiny falsetto:

Locked down in this 5G town
Live alone in the metaverse
Klaus Schwab’s coming for you…
I’m alone at last when I failed to cancel Rogan

Download it for free here

On a more serious note, Dr. Dan Merrick has just released the protest song Wrong’s Not Right, a catchy update on classic 1950s-style country gospel. When’s the last time you heard a country gospel song that mentioned beer – and not in a disparaging way?

On an even more serious note, Dietrich Klinghardt just wrote a beautiful, haunting Appalachian gothic-tinged protest song, Angels Come:

A wealthy clique controls our leaders
And the internet, the media west and east
Are these billionaires ordained by God to lead us?
Behind their eyes we sense the mark of the beast

Last year, Lydia Ainsworth recorded a trio of songs from her Sparkles & Debris album with a string section. If you liked the Pretenders’ Isle of View orchestral record, you’ll love the new version of Halo of Fire: “Allow your thoughts to roam as freely as they desire”

On the mysterious side, Terra Lightfoot and Jane Ellen Bryant team up for Somebody Was Gonna Find Out. Find out what? It’s a good story, open to multiple interpretations. Two acoustic guitars, two voices: see if you can figure it out.

Let’s wrap this up with Elle Vance‘s La Beaute de la Vie – with Tayssa Hubert on vocals – which is part Edith Piaf, part reggae. It works. Go figure. This is the French version; sadly, the English version is autotuned.

Slashingly Lyrical, Darkly Amusing New Americana From Goodnight, Texas

Goodnight, Texas play sharply lyrical Americana with a mix of oldtime acoustic instrumentation and snarling electric guitars. Frontmen Avi Vinocur and Patrick Dyer Wolf can both spin a great yarn and have a sense of humor. Is their new album How Long Will It Take Them to Die – streaming at Bandcamp – a reflection on the plandemic? Actually not. It’s a mix of cynically amusing pre-bluegrass sounds, bristling highway rock and Nashville gothic. It’s also the best album of the year so far for 2022.

The first track is Neighborhoods, a 19th century front porch folk march with imaginative acoustic/electric production values. It’s a Tom Waits down-and-out scenario without the cliches:

My days are little neighborhoods where different people live
Never two to intertwine, not a damn to give
For anyone or anything outside of what they know
My days are little neighborhoods and in between I go

Hypothermic is a Nashville gothic masterpiece, a creepy fugitive’s tale and an instant contender for best song of 2022:

Gas up
With a credit card
And an alias
That I learned this morning
Dead flies
Round the heat lamp
No receipt, please
Hide face from the camera
Peel out
On a snowbank
But I landed
And I’m back on the highway
Northbound
To Alaska
Hypothermic
Where the sun can’t find me

The band follow that with Gotta Get Goin’, a funny stomping open-tuned oldtime string band tune with a surprise ending. They take a wryly choogling boogie tune into newgrass territory in Borrowed Time: Chuck Berry and Tony Trischka make a better mashup than you might expect.

The stark down-and-out ballad I’d Rather Not is a desperado scenario as Wilco would have done it in the late 90s. Don’t Let ‘Em Get You could be a ramshackle early Okkervil River-style revolutionary anthem, or could be lockdown-specific: “Comes a day when they shed their skins and everything you ever caught up in believing in.”

Jane, Come Down From Your Room, a sad country waltz, is a witheringly detailed portrait of trans-generational trauma. Lead player Adam Nash’s pedal steel sails over the spare layers of acoustic guitars and banjo in To Where You’re Going, bassist Chris Sugiura and drummer Scott Griffin Padden holding the shambling tune on the rails.

Solstice Days – “When the sky was overcast, and the present felt like the past, walking down a road that says Do Not Enter” – has a slow sway and a persistent sense of longing. The closest track to standard-issue 90s alt-country here is Sarcophagus: “Was it time for for examining or was it time for celebration?” is the operative question.

“If I’m gonna catch hell for speaking my mind, I might as well make it count,” is the big message in the album’s centerpiece, Dead Middle, a metaphorically loaded highway narrative which absolutely nails the existential questions and divergent realities screaming out for resolution in 2022. The concluding title track turns out to be a cynically humorous number with lingering hints of western swing.

Midwestern Rock Legend Sam Llanas Haunted by the Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels

If Sam Llanas never put out another album, he would still be a first-ballot hall-of-famer. As co-leader of heartland rockers the BoDeans, he built a body of work to match any other songwriter active since the 80s. But Llanas shows no signs of slowing down, and like his colleague James McMurtry, he just keeps putting out great records. His latest is Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels, which isn’t’ online yet. It’s arguably his best solo release, and has moments that will rip your face off.

As the title implies, this is a haunted record, filled with regrets and disillusion, although there are plenty of upbeat moments as well. Much as it’s mostly acoustic, the atmosphere is lush and sparkling with layers and layers of guitar, mandolin, accordion and what sounds like autoharp. Llanas,, Mike Hoffmann and Sean Williamson handle the stringed instruments; Michael Ramos plays keys and accordion, with Susan Nicholson on violin.

Much as Llanas is hardly known for playing covers, he opens the album with an absolutely gorgeous, lushly jangly, bittersweet reinvention of the old Civil War folk song Shenandoah. The first of the originals, Lonely Girl, begins starkly and grows more nocturnally starry: it could be a prequel to an older song in the Llanas catalog, Two Souls.

Days Go By is classic Llanas, a big two-chord anthem on a more intimate scale and an angst-fueled look back on lakeside bonfires and people gone forever. His voice is still in great shape, as everybody who watched his webcasts during the lockdown noticed, and he really airs out his upper register in Straight to Hell, a brisk, gloomy country shuffle with a spiky twin guitar solo midway through.

One Summer Night is an aptly shimmery but propulsive take on Orbisonesque Nashville gothic pop. Here Comes the Dawn is next, a hopeful, catchy, gently bouncing pre-daybreak theme. A Place in This World could be an Everly Brothers tune, a fond look back at childhood influences: Llanas’ dad was a bass player, and the Mexican community in Waukesha, Wisconsin was fertile ground for musical cross-pollination.

Llanas goes back to early 60s Lynchian pop sounds in Down Here in the Cold: it’s imploring, but it’s also hopeful. Rave On is an upbeat, Willie Nile-ish pop tune – is that a glockenspiel, or just a Casio?

Autumn Is Falling is an anthem for our era, a metaphorically-loaded reflection on the grim passage of time. With its cheery, doo-woppy hooks, the most retro song here is Got Love. The big hit here is Bring Me to Light, a weary but defiant freedom fighter’s anthem flavored with chiming twelve-string and soaring slide work from Hoffmann. Llanas winds up the album with Wedding Ghost, a morbidly waltzing Louvin Brothers-style narrative: it’s a classic of its kind.

Grimly Lyrical, Darkly Jangly Americana Rock Tunesmithing From Janet Simpson

The ramshackle, embroidered cover art for Janet Simpson‘s new album Safe Distance – streaming at Bandcamp – is pure American gothic, a cowboy trying to lasso a snake. That speaks volumes for Simpson’s worldview and irreverent outsider persona. Her songs draw a straight line back to the glory days of the so-called “paisley underground” rock of the 80s: Americana twang, punk spirit, psychedelic ambience. Simpson’s tales of hard times on the forgotten fringes are starkly lyrical and often chilling. She plays guitars and keys and has a great band behind her: Will Stewart on guitars, Robert Wason on bass and Tyler McGuire on drums. This is one of the best rock records of the year.

The opening track, Nashville Girls sounds like the Dream Syndicate with a woman out front, a clanging, vampy, wickedly catchy, caustically picturesque sendup of the kind of clueless trust fund kids you see in any gentrified neighborhood. Stewart’s uneasy chorus-box guitar solo wafts in, a fresh breeze straight ouf of the 80s; Simpson overdubs some whooshy synth on the way out. It’s a hard act to follow, but the rest of the record holds up.

The blend of jangle and clang in the second cut, Slip, is just as delicious: it could be the Gun Club at their most focused mid-80s peak, taking a stab at a hypnotic, nocturnal waltz. Alcohol permeates these songs like George Jones’ breath: Simpson’s battlescarred narrators medicate 24/7. Case in point: Reno, a pulsing, honkyonk-flavored tale that turns far much darker than you would ever think.

Simpson layers hazy keys and spare guitars for suspenseful, nocturnal ambience in Awe & Wonder, a brooding, completely ambiguous look at trying to rekindle what seems to be a pretty dead romance.

She wails to the top of her range over a steady, tense backbeat iu I’m Wrong: “I wander off sometimes it’s so easy to let myself fall through the cracks,” she muses. The baritone guitar solo out is an unexpected treat.

As an offhand portrait of despondency while everybody’s out having fun, Aiu’t Nobody Looking packs a calm wallop: and that fretless bass is a trip. The album’s title track is not a snide lockdown reference but a sobering account of a blackout hookup set to a marching waltz beat:

Dancing the line as if it was straight
A callous ballet, the border so fine
On the border so fine between two awful states

Simpson goes back to portraits of terminal depression in the spare, fingerpicked Black Turns Blue:

I’ve been drinking all my feelins it’s so much easier than dealing
The world’s so pretty when I’m reeling I’d rather stay where I can’t see

The album’s most hauntingly allusive song is Double Lines, a Nashville gothic drinking-and-driving tale right up there with Ninth House’s Follow the Line. Simpson offers up the spare, mostly acoustic Silverman as a mea culpa to someone who could have been a safe harbor.

Mountain, a Memphis soul tune, is an unexpectedly optimistic scenario. The album’s final cut is Wrecked, a subdued but defiant, distantly Tex-Mex flavored tune:

Maybe I’m barely hanging on
Maybe I’m wrecked, but I’m not too far gone
Maybe the edge is right where I belong
I’m not a fighter but I’m a dancer
And it might be a grave I’m dancing on

A Look Back at Abigail Lapell’s Searing, Brilliant Getaway Album

Abigail Lapell’s 2019 album Getaway – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most brilliantly lyrical, tersely melodic original folk albums of recent years. Her vocals are usually understated, so when she rises to the rafters with righteous wrath, it takes your breath away. Sandy Denny is the obvious influence. Likewise, there’s a smoldering anger here. Abandonment is a persistent theme. This is not music for the faint-hearted but it is an elixir for anyone who’s ever been screwed over. And the tunesmithing, and musicianship, and arrangements, are sharp and purposeful. Time may judge this a classic.

The album’s first track, Gonna Be Leaving begin with Lapell’s warpy, trebly hollowbody blues guitar over Lisa Bozikovic’s stately piano and a vocal line that in classical music would be called a rondo. It sets the stage for the rest of the album: there’s a crushing irony in how the protagonist’s escape foreshadows the antagonist’s subsequent departure.

Ask Me No Questions a brisk waltz with distant echoes of early Fairport Convention. The ending is crushing – it’s too good to spoil. If vindictive is your thing, this is your jam.

Lapell’s circling guitar voicings in Devll in the Deep are nothing short of gorgeous in this otherwise tormentedly crescendoing anthem, Rachael Cardiello’s viola adding bracing bursts of color. Lapell switches to piano for Leningrad, an even more witheringly cynical, wintry ballad: “I come from a better place, but I don’t have far to fall,” she alludes.

With its spare, fingerpicked guitar and fluttering mellotron, Sparrow for a Heart is the closest evocation of Sandy Denny here, Rebecca Hennessey adding somber trumpet. Christine Bougie’s keening lapsteel floats over Lapell’s steady strums in the spirited yet haggard road narrative Halfway to Mexico.

The tricky rhythms and Lapell’s blippy keyboards underscore the surreal milieu of UFO Song: like David Bowie, life on Mars seems to be an improvement…until the narrator here sees the spaceship.

Lapell builds a hypnotic backdrop with her accordion in Runaway, an atmospheric take on oldtime Appalachian folk. Likewise, Down by the Water is a spare, harmony-fueled front-porch folk number.

Lapell’s hammer-on guitar sparkles darkly under the brass section in Little Noise: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Linda Thompson catalog. The album’s final cut is Shape of a Mountain, rocky terrain as metaphor for a defiantly individualist and weatherbeaten heart, set against a starkly resonant full-band backdrop.

The 50 Best Albums of 2020

This is a playlist, plus a small handful of albums that can’t be heard anywhere online. You can listen to everything else here, the majority of it ad-free. It couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

What’s most obvious about this list is that the music rarely reflects the fascist nightmare of 2020. Most of these albums were recorded in 2019, or right before the lockdown. Although there’s been an unprecedented amount of archival live material dumped on the web in the past six months or so, only five of the picks on this list fall into that category.

The other obvious and disturbing trend is that there’s less rock music on this list than there’s ever been since this blog went live in 2011. That’s because many of the albums here – almost all of those being either jazz or classical releases – were recorded with nonprofit or government money, or by the few remaining record labels. It’s impossible to count the number of artists who relied on tour money to fund their records and were unable to put out new albums because of the lockdown.

Beyond the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Albums are listed in rough chronological order of when they were reviewed here, which seldom coincides with official release dates, if such dates existed. Ultimately, the big takeaway here is reason for optimism: 2020 may have been hell, but artists around the world somehow found a way to keep putting out new music.

The number one album of the year, with a bullet, is the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s Data Lords. It’s the big band composer’s darkest and most fearless album, and arguably the most relevant record released in the past year. In the end, it’s very optimistic. Everything on this vast, sweeping collection was written and recorded before the lockdown, but Schneider prophetically and mercilessly pillories and parodies the tech Nazis behind it. This comes across as the most improvisational release Schneider has ever put out, but knowing her, everything here could just as easily be composed all the way through. Her rage and satire are as venomous and funny as anything Shostakovich or the Dead Kennedys ever recorded. And after she’s done savaging the would-be architects of the New Abnormal, the album’s second disc celebrates the beauty and grandeur of nature and the real world – rather than the virtual one – with characteristic lushness and a side trip to Brazil.

The best short album of the year was The Living End, by Karla Rose. Karla Rose Moheno, of irrepressible swing trio the Tickled Pinks, may be best known for her nuanced, smoldering vocals, but it’s her similarly subtle, often haunting songwriting that sets her apart from the legions of great singers around the world. This is just a fraction of what she has in the can: if the rest of it is this good, the full-length record is going to be amazing. There’s some starry soul, a little streetwise New York rock and a rampaging southwestern gothic-tinged anthem that you will see on the best songs of the year list. Listen at Spotify

Another album that stands apart from the rest of the list is Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975. It’s a gargantuan triple-disc set comprising material from two concerts in Germany, each with a completely different but brilliant lineup, getting a first official release after floating around the web for years and in the cassette underground before then. On one hand, it’s completely unfair to compare the other albums here to these sizzling, epic performances by a guy who was probably the greatest bassist in the history of jazz and definitely one of the ten greatest composers of alltime. On the other, this will give you goosebumps. Listen at Spotify

Ward White – Leonard at the Audit
Witheringly funny, hyperliterate, semi-linear narratives set to catchy janglerock with sinister cinematic overtones from the king of implied menace in rock tunesmithing. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – The Universe Inside
Steve Wynn’s legendary, noisy, dueling psychedelic band’s trippiest, most cinematically desolate, epicaly jam-oriented album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

Ted Hearne  – Place
A crushingly satirical, cruelly hilarious, minutely detailed exploration of how gentrification has destroyed Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with a backdrop of surreal avant garde sounds, art-rock and protest gospel music. Listen at Bandcamp

John Ellis – The Ice SIren
The brilliant jazz saxophonist takes a brilliant and unexpected plunge into the waters of noir cabaret and chilly cinematics, with a sweeping big band behind him. Listen at Spotify

High Waisted – Sick of Saying Sorry
Guitarist Jessica Louise Dye’s band makes a shift from surf rock to gorgeously bittersweet powerpop and other retro sounds. Listen at Bandcamp

Péter Szervánszky/Szekesfovarosi Orchestra –  Bartok: Violin Concerto No. 2
Like the Mingus record, this is probably an unfair addition to the list. But it’s spellbinding, and the only album the Hungarian virtuoso ever appeared on, recorded on an x-ray plate under the Nazi invasion in 1945. Listen at Spotify

Alina Ibragimova/Russian State Academic Symphony Orchestra  – Shostakovich: Violin Concertos No.1 and 2
In the year of the lockdown, these two fiercely antifascist, poignant pieces have never had more cultural resonance. Not streaming online.

Alban Gerhardt/WDR Symphony Orchestra  Shostakovich: Cello Concertos No.1 and 2
It makes sense to pair this iconic, scathingly angry, wickedly sardonic and thoughtful interpretation with the ferocity of the one above. Listen at Spotify

Gregg August  – Dialogues on Race
The powerful jazz bassist’s haunting, majestic big band explore the divide-and-conquer implications of racism and the the 1955 murder of Emmett Till with somber grace. Listen at Bandcamp

Niv Ashkenazi – Violins of Hope
The virtuoso violinist teams with pianist Matthew Graybil to celebrate obscure, poignant repertoire by composers murdered or imperiled during the Holocaust. Listen at Spotify

Balothizer – Cretan Smash
They make slashing psychedelia and thrash metal out of classic, haunting Greek revolutionary and hash-smoking anthems from the 20s and 30s. Listen at Bandcamp

The Psychedelic Furs – Made of Rain
A grimly swirling, potently lyrical return to form by one of the greatest bands who defined the new wave and goth movements of the 80s. Listen at Spotify

Steve Wynn – Solo Acoustic Vol. 1
What do you do if you’re an icon of noir-tinged, careening rock and you can’t tour like you always did until the lockdown? You reinvent those songs, many of them iconic, as equally menacing acoustic numbers. Wynn has seldom sounded so stark, or so dark.  Listen at Bandcamp

Ben de la Cour – Shadow Land
A concept album of sinister mini-movies and murder ballads from the dark Americana crooner and bandleader.Listen at Bandcamp

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore – their debut album
The first trio record by the soulful, often haunting Balkan and klezmer trumpeter with guitarist Brad Shepik and multi-percussionist Shane Shanahan was worth the wait. Listen at Bandcamp

Sylvie Courvoisier – Free Hoops
One of the elegant pianist’s most menacing yet also one of her funniest albums with her long-running trio featuring Drew Gress on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums. Listen at Bandcamp

Summoner – Day of Doom Live
The year’s best heavy psychedelic rock record is a cannon of doom metal riffs, searing two-guitar epics and gritty bass. Listen at Bandcamp

Morricone Youth – The Last Porno Show: Original Soundtrack
What an absolutely gorgeous, sad score, evoking the fatalism of a decaying porn theatre with echoes of Tschaikovsky, David Lynch noir and ornate 70s psychedelia. Listen at Bandcamp

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Chunky Shrapnel
An appropriately epic double live album by these anthemic, quirky, Middle Eastern-fixated Australian psychedelic road warriors. The best possible advertising for their live show: when we take our world back from the lockdowners, we can see them live again. Listen at Bandcamp

Vigen Hovsepyan – Live in Paris 2017
The impassioned Armenian guitarist/singer fronting a ferocious band with duduk player Harutyun Chkolyan and pianist Havard Enstad in front of a packed house on a barge docked along the Seine. The slashing minor-key energy is through the roof: you really feel like you’re there. Listen at Spotify

Dennis Davison – The Book of Strongman
The former Jigsaw Seen frontman’s solo debut, where he plays all the instruments, is a series of historically-informed, metaphorically bristling psychedelic janglerock narratives that scream out for the repeat button. Listen at Bandcamp

Office Culture – A Life of Crime
Seething satire and very subtle but corrosively lyrical narratives – like Margaret Atwood backed by the Human League – on the Brooklyn 80s parody band’s cruelly hilarious debut. Listen at Bandcamp

Dawn Oberg – 2020 Revision
The searingly lyrical, irrepressibly funny pianist and protest song stylist at the peak of her power, singing truth to power about racist cops killing innocent black people in San Francisco, and fascist political overreach in general. Listen at Bandcamp

Immaterial Possession – their first album
Deliciously individualistic, macabre psychedelic rock informed by but hardly limited to classic 1960s sounds, with bracing Balkan and Middle Eastern overtones. Listen at Bandcamp

Trio Tekke – Strovilos
The Greek psychedelic band look to the Middle East as much as to the first wave of Greek psych-rock bands from the 60s, and the underground hash-smoking classics of the 20s and 30s.  Listen at Bandcamp

Mahsa Vahdat  Enlighten the Night
Over an elegant, brooding piano-based band, the Iranian singer employs the words of both iconic Persian poets and contemporary lyricists to celebrates freedom and hope for the future in the face of increasingly grim odds. Listen at Spotify

Susan Alcorn – Pedernal
Resonant, dynamic, often haunting vistas by this era’s great virtuoso of jazz pedal steel and her similarly inspired quintet. Listen at Bandcamp

Lord Buffalo – Tohu Wa Bohu
Are their sprawling, hypnotic guitar jams metal, psychedelia or film music? Whatever you call it, this is one of the best albums of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

The Pocket Gods  – No Room at the (Holiday) Inn
Who would have thought a Christmas record would make this list? Actually, this is more of a protest album, a scathing, wildly multistylistic mix of pro-freedom songs to raise your spirits and give you hope. Arguably the best album ever from perennially prolific frontman Mark Christopher Lee. Listen at Spotify

Superfonicos – Suelta
The slinky Texas-Colombian band’s debut album is a mix of tropical psychedelia, cumbia, skaragga, Afrobeat and salsa jams. The band’s secret weapon? Reedy gaita flute. Listen at Soundcloud

Mehmet Polat – Quantum Leap
Haunting, high-voltage, plaintively modal Turkish and Balkan songs from the brilliant oud player and bandleader Listen at Bandcamp

Fantastic Negrito – Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?
The incredible oldschool soul album Prince wished he’d made but never did. Like Prince, this guy plays pretty much all the instruments too. Listen at Spotify

Emily Barker – A Dark Murmuration of Words
Hauntingly imagistic, tersely arranged, Americana-tinged narrative songs from this lyrical Australian songwriter and her band. Listen at Bandcamp

The Plastic Pals – It Could Be So Easy, Free and Fine
A scorchingly lyrical, deviously funny short album by these Swedish connoisseurs of the edgiest sounds to emerge from 60s American psychedelia, 70s powerpop and 80s punk/ Listen at Bandcamp

Mamie Minch – Slow Burn
Characteristically sly, slashingly lyrical, erudite original steel guitar blues from the sometimes haunting, sometimes hilarious blues guitarist/chanteuse.Listen at Bandcamp

Scott Robinson/Milford Graves/Roscoe Mitchell/Marshall Allen – Flow States A riveting improvisational quartet record, featuring the first-ever collaboration between iconic drummer/cardiac medicine pioneer Graves and AACM sax titan Mitchell, plus the Sun Ra Arkestra’s ageless Allen and Robinson as ringleader on bass sax. Not streaming online.

Duo Tandem – Guitar Duos of Kemal Belevi
Gorgeously interwoven, largely minor-key acoustic Middle Eastern music with elegant climbs, moving basslines, exchanges of roles and lead lines.Necati Emirzade is typically in the right channel, his bandmate Mark Anderson in the left. Listen at Spotify

Amanda Gardier – Flyover Country
Fiery, picturesque, midwestern gothic-tinged modal jazz from this rising star alto saxophonist and her similarly edgy crew. Listen at Spotify 

Sigurd Hole – Lys/Morke
Solo bass has rarely sounded so haunting or interesting. Maybe recording it on a deserted Norwegian island had something to with the desolately gorgeous vistas here. Listen at Bandcamp

The Icebergs – Add Vice
This is the album where frontwoman/poet Jane LeCroy’s punchy, lyrically slashing cello rock trio took their songs to the next level, as psychedelic as they are ominously cinematic. Listen at Bandcamp

Sara Serpa – Recognition
The brilliant, lustrous singer/composer confronts the genocidal legacy of European imperialism in Africa in the corrosively lyrical, lushly enveloping soundtrack to her debut film, a collage of archival footage taken in Angola under Portuguese imperialist rule in the 1960s. Listen at Bandcamp

Ran Blake/Christine Correa – When Soft Rains Fall
An angst-fueled, saturnine duo album of hauntingly reinvented standards and originals by the veteran singer and her long-running, iconic noir pianist collaborator. Not streaming online.

JD Allen – Toys/Die Dreaming
Dark, careening modal intensity from this era’s most intense tenor saxophonist/composer and his energetic, newish trio. He’s been building toward this big sort-of-comeback for a long time. Listen at youtube

Ren Harvieu – Revel in the Drama
A lavish, immaculately layered, brililantly produced trip through decades of soul, from pre-Motown sounds through the 90s from the edgy British chanteuse.  Listen at Bandcamp

Sarah Brailey/Experiential Orchestra and Chorus – Ethel Smyth: The Prison
The world premiere recording of one of this pioneering early 20th century woman composer’s most important, philosophically rich works, a somber, lavishly orchestrated, uninterrupted sixteen-part 1930 song cycle Listen at Spotify

Victoria Langford – Victoria
Swirling, stormy orchestration and religious imagery as a metaphor for interpersonal angst in the singer/multi-keyboardist’s debut album, arguably the best rock debut of 2020. Listen at Bandcamp

The Electric Mess – The Electric Mess V
Sizzling psychedelic punk and janglerock from this darkly careening, female-fronted New York band. Listen at Bandcamp

Rachelle Garniez/Erik Della Penna – An Evening in New York
Retro charm and devilish levels of detail in this New York-themed collection of originals and reinvented swing tunes from the iconic accordionist/chanteuse and the subtly slashing, brilliant Kill Henry Sugar guitarist/frontman. Listen at Spotify

Michael Hersch – I Hope We Get the Chance to Visit Soon
A chilling live concert recording of the harrowing 21st century classical composer and pianist’s suite, inspired by a dear friend whose ultimately futile struggle with cancer was not helped by experimental drugs. Listen at Bandcamp

ARC Ensemble – Chamber Works of Walter Kaufmann
A rapt, often hypnotic, starkly engaging collection of rare works by a Jewish composer who escaped the Holocaust to follow his muse and write orchestral Indian music. Listen at Spotify

How The River Ganges Flows compilation
Gripping, slaring, ancient Indian carnatic music for violin and percussion captured on 78 RPM shellac records between 1933 and 1952, newly rescued from the archives. Listen at Bandcamp

Matthew Grimm – Dumpster-Fire Days
Just to keep you listening all the way through, this is one of the most searingly lyrical albums on this list, from the charismatic, politically fearless songwriter who recorded the song that topped the Best Songs of 2013 list here and once fronted legendary Americana rockers the Hangdogs.

. Listen at Spotify

A Twisted, Phantasmagorical Memento From Knife Throwers Assistance

Today’s album is the one and only release by sprawling circus rock collective Knife Throwers Assistance. Not much remains of them on the web, other than a Bandcamp page where you can still get a free download of the live recording the haphazardly orchestrated, mostly-female band made at their final show. They liked lurid harmonies, contrapuntal vocals and unorthodox instrumentation – and their songs were pretty relentlessly creepy.

As that final gig began, the band took the stage to a weird sample collage: it’s almost nine minutes of random noise, mic checking and guitar tuning. You can start your playlist with Mr. Detective, a long, ominously vamping murder ballad. This time out the group included the founding duo of guitarist Eve Blackwater and pianist Heidi Harris; singers Bridget Rooney, Deb Zep (who also plays bass clarinet) and Tea Leigh; banjo players Christen Napier and Annie Levey; cellist Elizabeth Glushko; singing saw player Cara White; bassist Kevin Anderson and drummer Matthew Vander Ende.

The forlorn piano ballad Crow Cry sounds like Carol Lipnik trying her hand at trip-hop, with a really cool, ominously circling vocal arrangement. They follow with the ba-bump stripper theme That Cat, then Voodoo, a folk noir tune with ridiculous faux-southern vocals.

Somebody plays eerie, chromatic melodica behind the steady guitar and aching vocals (guessing that’s Deb Zep) in Freedom, a gospel-tinged tableau. “Meet me by the railroad, that’s where we mortgaged off our souls,” Blackwater musees in Second Repeater, a surreal roadtrip tale.

Hildegard You Have My Heart has all kinds of neat touches: flamenco-ish interludes, snarling cello glissandos and glockenspiel tinkling evilly as the song rises and falls. The singing saw and Levey’s flute flutter uneasily behind the insistant vocals of Unfair, then the band wind up the show, and their career, with Scarlet the Fire-Eater, a plaintive, Appalachian-tinged ballad.

The album also comes with lo-fi concert videos of Crow Cry and Mr. Detective from the band’s early days, the latter with a long, haphazard glockenspiel solo, singing saw and bass clarinet among the many other instruments gathered onstage.

Since the band’s demise, Blackwater continues as a solo artist and member of the Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange, who for the better part of a year put on similarly sprawling monthly shows at Pete’s Candy Store until the lockdown drove live music in New York underground.