New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: pop music

Brooding Folk Noir and Lynchian Janglerock from Jaye Bartell

Jaye Bartell plays spare, Lynchian folk rock. His album Loyalty – streaming at Noisetrade – poses more questions than it answers. Bartell sings in a clear baritone with a bit of a wounded edge, amplifying his enigmatic lyrics. He invites you into his brooding, allusive narratives, throws a series of images at you and lets you figure out what kind of trouble is going down, or went down ago; who’s dying, or maybe who’s already died. The songs trace the narrative of a doomed relationship, although not all of them may relate to that. What is clear is that all things dear die here.

There’s a lot of tremolo and reverb on Bartell’s simple, straightforwardly layered acoustic and electric guitar tracks; bass and drums are spare and minimal, enhancing what is often a bedroom folk-noir feel. Bartell really has his way with a catchy hook: the melodies look back equally to pensive 60s Laurel Canyon psych-folk as well as to 80s goth. Both the Velvet Underground ande the Smiths are obvious influences, but melodically rather than as an affectation.

The ominously twangy opening track, Lilly, situates Bartell’s narrator in a metaphorical cave:

It’s the best place for a bird
Who wouldn’t know what a home was
Even if you built him a birdhouse and filled it with string…
Miles of tissue and stitches
Which you can use on the days when I fell to the base of the cave
Lilly
I woke up screaming
Fuck ’em
I’ve got nothing
But I’ve got guts

The more enticing second track, Come See takes a classic 60s Jamaican rocksteady melody and makes Orbisonesque acoustic-electric rock out of it. The accusatory Dance with Me starts slow and then picks uip, then picks up – New York underground legend Dan Penta comes to mind. “Dance with me, so that all of the people see the bane and blame and reeling, dance with me,” Bartell taunts, quietly.

With its uneasily homey metaphors, The Face Was Mine could refer to a dissolved marriage, or possibly the death of parent, or a parent figure: like everything ehse here, the answer unclear. Bartell continues the theme with He Can’t Rise, slowly building out of hypnotic, echoey minimalism to an anthemic Jesus & Marcy Chain-ish chorus.

The Papers starts out as a noir strut and then swing, with a Tom Waits bluesiness – it’s another accusatory number:

You think that you feel bad because he is around
But you feel bad because you feel bad
He always took off his shoes when he walked on the grass
You feel bad because you feel bad

The album’s title track is its jangliest, most 80s-influenced moment. “To know the weight and length of snakes won’t bring sleep to a troubled evening,” Bartell observes. Your Eyelashes is where the story comes together; it’s both the most stark and angriest cut. Which contrasts with the album’s most ornate and anthemic, J&MC-like track, Oldest Friend, closing the album on a gospel-tinged, elegaic note. Put this on your phone and walk the perimeter of McGoldrick Park in Greenpoint some gloomy Sunday, where Bartell reputedly comes up with some of this stuff.

The Likely Final Release by Powerpop Icons Skooshny Goes Out Lushly and Gorgeously

Powerpop cult icons Skooshny‘s new single Saved by the Bell – streaming at Bandcamp – carries some sad history. It’s likely the final recording by the legendary studio-only project, whose lone concert appearance was at an Arthur Lee benefit. It’s not an original – it’s a cover of a 1969 British hit single by the BeeGees’ Robin Gibb. Frontman Mark Breyer channels a balmy Colin Blunstone-style unease as a lush web of twelve- and six-string guitars builds to symphonic levels, drummer David Winogrond adding some judiciously artful tumbles on the final chorus. “I died for you, I died for two,” Breyer croons. For those who might not be aware that the BeeGees’ lead singer had a solo career that went back a lot further than the disco age, is a history lesson – and if this is truly the final release by one of the best jangly bands of the last half-century, it’s as good an exit as any.

Breyer – an Elvis Costello/Steve Kilbey class songwriter – ncver stopped writing or recording after the band broke up. His albums as Son of Skooshny (the word sarcastically means “boring” in Russian) are every bit as good. There’s also reputedly long-awaited new Son of Skooshny album in the works.

Is It Safe to Say That Murder Ballad Mondays Are Killer?

It took four months worth of Murder Ballad Mondays before somebody played Rock Salt and Nails. It’s one of the real classics of folk noir. And it’s well known. Populist folksinger Nevada Smith gets credited for it, but it’s unlike anything else in his catalog and has a vernacular that looks back as far as the 1850s. And it’s as disconsolate as it is vengeful: the violence is implied, and even then, not til the last verse. Bobtown guitarist and songwriter Karen Dahlstrom channeled that sadness with distance and understatement, saving her powerful wail for a creepy a-cappella performance of her own grim Old West outlaw ballad Streets of Pocatello , from her brilliant Idaho-themed album Gem State. Then she picked up her guitar and did a new one that was a lot quieter but just as eerie.

That’s Murder Ballad Mondays in a nutshell: elite performers having fun with deadly tales from across the centuries and from their own repertoire as well. So far, the two most popular covers at this well-attended monthly extravaganza seem to be Delia’s Gone and Henry Lee, referencing both Johnny Cash and Gillian Welch. But the originals are what people come for: organizers Jeff Morris and Ellia Bisker, better known as torchily menacing parlor pop duo Charming Disaster, pack a lot into two hours. The next one is Monday, January 18 at 8 PM at Branded Saloon in Ft. Greene (closest stop is Bergen St. on the 2/3) featuring ominous baritone crooner Sean Kershaw and other similarly minded acts.

Charming Disaster have treated crowds here to short sets at previous Murder Ballad Mondays installments; last time around, they did just a single number, the allusively torchy Ghost Story (although they played a full set at Pete’s Candy Store this past Saturday night, packed the place and delivered an actually very funny show that included both a devastatingly tongue-in-cheek Led Zep cover and a new one about breaking strings onstage).

A duo version of phantasmagorical circus rock/noir cabaret band Orphan Jane – accordionist Tim Cluff and his trumpeter – also joined the festivities last time out, firing off a furtive number simply titled Murder as well as The Mansion Song, a menacingly vaudevillian narrative whose message seems to be that it pays to be cautious when seeking revenge against the one-tenth-of-one-percent: they can afford a bigger army than you.

Other artists included art-rock luminary and multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost, who held the crowd rapt with a typically allusive new tale about murder on the gallery floor, and an icily doomed cover from the current Nordic art-pop catalog. And singer Karen Poliski worked a similar intensity as she went to the well for a chilling Handsome Family cover.

Charming, Erudite Swing Sophistication from Daria Grace & the Pre-War Ponies

Daria Grace and the Pre-War Ponies distinguish themselves from the rest of the hot jazz pack by hanging out on the pillowy side of the street. Their sophisticatedly charming new album, Get Out Under the Moon is snuggle music. It’s best experienced with someone near and dear to you, or thoughts of someone near and dear to you. It can be danced to; much of it was written for that. Speaking from experience, let’s say that if you are a single person in New York, you will be missing out if you don’t own this album. While there’s no guarantee that you’ll meet someone with something similar in mind at the release show on January 17 at 7 PM at the Slipper Room, that’s not out of the question either. Cover is $12.

Grace is one of New York’s most distinctive and elegant singers. Her voice is plush, clear and unadorned; often she’ll add just the subtlest hint of vibrato at the end of a phrase. She sings in character, but with warmth and restraint: even the most over-the-top personas from both the rare and well-known swing numbers in her repertoire get the benefit of her sophistication and wit. The new album opens with a bit of a red herring, an opiated take of a noir cha-cha, Amapola, a shout-out to a pretty little poppy, spiced gingerly with solos from irrepressible multi-instrumentalist J. Walter Hawkes’ trombone and Tom Beckham’s simmering vibraphone.

Grace lends a wary, understatedly brooding edge to Say It Isn’t So, Hawkes matching the vocals with his foghorn resonance. She takes a more cajoling approach on the album’s swinging title track, infused with aptly wry, early-evening roller-rink organ from Hawkes. Cole Porter’s Find Me a Primitive Man digs deeper into the song’s cabana-jazz roots than its composer probably ever dreamed, anchored with a muted oomph by Tom Pietrycha’s bass and Russ Meissner’s drums, with latin jazz great Willie Martinez on percussion and Hawkes having the time of his caveman life with the mute on his trombone.

Grace picks up the coy charm, but just a little, with the gentle innuendos of the boudoir swing tune What Do We Do on a Dew Dew Dewy Day, Hawkes switching to uke for a good-natured solo. Then Grace puts a little brittle, wounded brass into her voice for a plaintive take of Irving Berlin’s heartbroken waltz, You Forgot to Remember, M Shanghai String Band’s Philippa Thompson adding sad, sepulchral ambience with her singing saw behind Hawkes’ twinkling glockenspiel. I Only Want a Buddy, Not a Sweetheart, popularized by Bing Crosby, makes an apt segue.

Grace’s gracefully defiant understatement in Fats Waller’s How Can You Face Me Now underscores the lyrics’ bitterness, set to a purposeful stroll punctuated by vibes and trombone. Then she moves to a sweetly lilting cajolement in the risqe 1934 hit Pettin’ in the Park and keeps the balmy, upbeat trajectory climbing through the Johnny Mercer novelty swing tune Pardon My Southern Accent, guitarist Mike Neer contributing a spiky Wes Montgomery-flavored solo.The album’s most disarming moment – arguably the most upbeat suicide song ever written – is Jimmie Noone’s 1920s hit Ready for the River, Thompson serving as rustic one-woman string section.

The only place on the album where Grace reaches toward vaudevillian territory is So Is Your Old Lady, which, by contrast, makes the longing of Take My Heart all the more poignant, lowlit by Beckham’s lingering vibes. The album winds up on a lively Hawaiian-flavored note with I Love a Ukulele, harking back to Grace’s days as a founding member of pioneering New York oldtimey band the Moonlighters. The album’s not officially out yet and therefore not at the usual spots, but there are a couple of tracks up at the band’s music page and also Hawkes’ youtube channel.

Sweet Soubrette Release One of 2015’s Best Concerts As a Live Album

It’s a hot indian summer night outside Joe’s Pub, the shadows from the dark tower a block away just beginning to suck the light from the streets to the east of Astor Place. Inside, the man in the long black coat stretches out his legs underneath a table about twenty feet from the stage. With the back of his hand, he wipes his brow: he’s overdressed for this time of year. Across the table a couple beam and whoop it up. Somebody in the band – the drummer, as it turns out -is a friend, and they’re there to make sure he gets props.

Sweet Soubrette take the stage to what will be the most rousing applause of the night (Kotorino will play a ferocious, lustrously latin-tinged set of artsy, noir rock afterward). The man in the long black coat pulls his recorder from his pocket, presses a button and glances at it quizzically. As the lights dim, he pulls out his phone, illuminating the gadget’s digital display. Exhaling, dismayed, he clicks off both devices, pockets them in his coat and leans back to watch the show.

Frontwoman/ukulele player Ellia Bisker opens the set with a bouncy number, All That Glitters, her voice more weary than brassy as she channels the cynicism of a gold-digger working her latest mark. With NYU – where a thousand undergrad women have signed up as employees of an online prostitution ring in order to pay their tuition – a few blocks away, the song resonates in a new context. Next is Sweet Time, a soul ballad recast as oldtimey Americana on the wings of Heather Cole’s violin. “The song kind of undermines the message…just so you know,” Bisker tells the crowd coyly.

The man in the long black coat is restless, but Bisker is on a roll with her banter. “We have songs about a lot of normal things…like most bands,” she explains, deadpan and serious. “But we also have songs about books – a lot of books.” She explains that this one was inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, then launches into a propulsive take of the moody Burning City, the horn section – John Waters on trumpet, Cecil Scheib on trombone and Erin Rogers on alto sax- bobbing and weaving.

“So you have all these experiences…but you retain nothing, and you learn nothing, and nothing helps you,” the bandleader tells the audience, and then begins the achingly waltzing, saturnine Wake Up When, a chronicle of missed chances and lost hopes. By now the man in the long black coat is on the edge of his seat, watching as the lush wash of strings and horns rises.

“You come to a moment in your life, a crossroads…decisions, and you know what whatever you choose, you’re going to regret it,” Bisker continues – at this point, a pattern is clear, this concert has a theme and a trajectory:

The ghost ship of the life you didn’t choose
Is the one you know will never carry you
There are moments you get a glimpse
From the corner of your eye
And all you can do is watch it sail on by

Bisker misses a downstroke on her uke at one point; crushing poignancy, all the more so for not being part of the plan.

The show takes a turn into less harrowing territory with a sardonically pouting new soul ballad, (You Don’t) Talk to Me, awash in oldschool Memphis-style horns. Then drummer Darrell Smith hits a trip-hop beat as the group make their way through Big Celebrity and its sarcastic John Waters-esque allusions.

“We’re coming to the end, not just the end of our time here, but the end of our time at all, really. I’m just a truth sayer,” Bisker relates before Night Owls, another waltz. “Blow out the candle, we see in the dark,” she intones with a quiet defiance over the wash of orchestration. The concert ends with the Anais Nin-inspired anthem What’s My Desire: “She made the unspeakable speakable, and we admire her for that,” Bisker tells everyone.

Months later, the man in the long black coat reaches to his Macbook and types in Sweet Soubrette’s webpage. What might they be up to? As it turns out, Bisker is busy this month. Sweet Soubrette are at Rock Shop on January 14 at 10 PM for a $10 cover, with hauntingly anthemic folk noir/janglerock bandleader Jessie Kilguss opening the night at 8. Kotorino, to which Bisker lends her torchy harmonies, are at Barbes the previous night, the 13th, at 8. And her murderously entertaining parlor-pop murder ballad duo Charming Disaster, with Kotorino’s Jeff Morris are at Pete’s on the 9th, also at 8.

Clicking on the Sweet Soubrette music page, the man in the long black coat does a doubletake. That concert at Joe’s Pub was recorded and has been released as a live album, a name-your-price download at bandcamp! So much for not having enough memory in the recorder back in September! And the band also have a new single, Take It Easy, an ironically uneasy parlor-pop number.

Dynamic Singer Lara Traum’s Debut Album Channels the Deep Jewish Influence in Decades of Russian Music

Too many artists conflate their own experiences with those of others, or their generation, or their fellow citizens. Singer Lara Traum, on the other hand, sees herself as one of many – and she’s right. Although vocally speaking, it wouln’t be an overstatement to call her one in a million. To get a sense of that, dial up her youtube channel and listen to her debut album Crypto Jewish Melodies: Semitic Sounds of Russian Extraction, one of the most beguiling and relevant releases of 2015.

Ir’s a concept album. As a second-generation Russian Jewish New Yorker, Traum noticed that Jewish expats from the former Soviet Union found themselves between two worlds: a Russian-speaking milieu where anti-Semitism was prevalent, and a Jewish world that, at best, was a demimonde there and, at times, just as or even more insular here. Let’s not forget that there was also a Holocaust under the Soviets.  Jews would seder away from the window so as not to incite nosy neighbors: “If you see something, say something” goes back a long, long way back before Dick Cheney. Traum’s album collects songs that illustrate that unease, yet also brings to light the deep Jewish influence in Russian music across the decades. It’s a celebration of a vast transcontinental legacy.

From the opening track, an a-cappella version of the ancient nigun Av Harachamim,, it’s striking how much depth there is in Traum’s voice. It’s the sound of an old soul: knowing, bittersweet, wary yet ultimately optimistic. Traum’s background is in choral music, as both a conductor and soloist. Although she sings in character here and varies her delivery according to the demands of the lyric, there’s a consistent warmth, even a maternal quality to how she relates to a song and to an audience. That’s evident right off the bat, as she goes way up the scale on a lively take of Vasily Lebedev’s famous 1930s tango, Serdtse,. Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch shows off the same flair and incisive intensity on piano that he does on clarinet in his rambunctious klezmer party band Litvakus, film composer Ljova Zhurbin playijng stark viola against the terse bass of Jordan Morton.

Traum takes a turn into plaintive territory with the familiar klezmer hit Papirosen, Slepovitch firing off neoromantic glimmer underneath: back in those days, a hit of nicotine was sometimes the only pleasure you could look forward to. Likewise, an English-language take of Bei Bir Mist Du Schoen takes Molly Picon coyness back to its roots in late 1800s cosmopolitan parlor pop. Then Traum flips the script with a klezmer blues take of Ain’t Necessarily So, spiced with Alex Greenleaf’s rustic blues harmonica. Her take of the standard Blue Skies, counterintuively , looks forward jauntily to Jeff Lynne and ELO.

Traum sings the WWII era Soviet hit Dark Is the Night in Russian, as hybrid neoromantic swing: like so much of that era’s music, and before, it’s easy to hear a klezmer influence and vice versa. The patriiotic. i.e. anti-Nazi anthem Katyusha ventures even further toward proto art-rock territory, yet at heart, it’s shtetl soul music. By contrast, it’s harder to hear a distinctive Jewish flavor in Yan Frenkel’s 1968 Soviet art-pop hit Zhuravli (Cranes), a post-Hiroshima reflection on mortality, although Slepovitch and Traum team up with a quietly harrowing intensity. The same is true, on a more muted take of a vocal number based on a Tschaikovsky lullaby.

Perhaps the most telling number here is an elegant version of the theme to the Soviet cartoon Gena the Crocodile. Traum offers some dignity to the droll, accordion-wielding, rather stock character who plays klezmer music for the masses during an era when such a thing was not only samizdat but also possibly lethal for anyone who tried it. The album winds up with a lighthearted take of the klezmer standard A Glazele Yah and a bouncy dance that pairs Morton’s austere bowed bass against Slepovitch’s ebullient piano – the guy just cannot resist a glisando when he can squeeze one in. As insight into Jewish-Russian cross-pollination, this is an important musical document, yet ultimately it transcends that historical value: it packs an emotional wallop. Traum is currently in law school, so she’s busy; watch this space for upcoming gigs.

Bliss Blood and Al Street Bring Their Eclectically Lynchian Torch Songs to Freddy’s

Bliss Blood isn’t your typical Lynchian chanteuse. She’s as subtle as she is eclectic. With her coolly enigmatic, nuanced alto delivery, she brings to mind low-key cult favorites from the 50s like Julie Christie and Chris Connor. Retro as she is, she’s also completely in the here and now, putting her own simmering, low-flame spin on sinister, seductive songwriting, but also on purist pop that draws on artists as diverse as Ray Davies and Lee Hazlewood. Her latest album, Unspun, with longitime guitarist and collaborator Al Street, made the top albums of 2015 paage here. The two are playing an intimate Brooklyn show on December 29 at around 7:30 PM at Freddy’s. Another tunesmith who draws on more rock-oriented, similarly purist if somewhat more recent influences, the  sardonically lyrical Scott Phillips a.k.a. the Monologue Bombs opens the night at around 6. It’s a rare opportunity to see Bliss Blood’s duo project outside of her usual swanky haunts like Hamptons hotspots and the Soho Grand Hotel.

This blog most reently caught the duo in Wiilliamsburg at the well-loved and badly missed Brooklyn Rod & Gun Club (yeah, it’s been awhile). Blood played her trusty ukulele while Street aired out his bottomless bag of jazz, flamenco and blues licks., sometimes adding fiiery surf tremolpicking, occasionally anchoring the songs with biting, trebly basslines. Blood has lent her voice to more diverse projects than most singers with her command of distant menace – noise-punks the Pain Teens, acoustic blues band Delta Dreambox and one of New York’s original oldtimey swing bands, the Moonlighters being just a few – but this show was pure, Lynchian noir. The scampering swing number they opened with turned out to be a red herring, followed by a proto-Vegas noir tune, evoking an era when the casinos were still desert sand. The slowly swaying tune after that mashed up oldschool 60s soul and bittersweet 30s swing…then they hit the afterburners and took it doublespeed, Street firing off volleys of circling Sam Langhorne-style 60s blues riffage.

Blood’s tunesmithing shifts keys constantly, and counterintuitively: you never know what’s coming next, but it’s a good bet that the song’s going to be a real haunter. As jaunty and fun as Blood can be, there aren’t many songwriters who can channel longing and despondency as vividly yet distantly as she can. One prime example at this show was a gorgrously pouncing ballad that wound up with a rain-drenched Street janglerock solo. Their cover of Secret Love put the original Doris Day version to shame while alluding to the C&W guitar of the Loretta Lynn hit. After that, they did a waltz lit up by Street’s hornets-nest chord-chopping. He did the same thing on the sultry, misterioso Entropy, one of the new album’s standout cuts.

Another of the album’s best numbers, No One Gets It All came off as part restrained, lurid 60s Henry Mancini noir pop, part opaque janglerock, with an oldtime swing shuffle groove. From there the duo ran through blues, and flamenco tinges, alluded to Lady Day’s I Cover the Waterfront, veered toward more straight-up jazz, took a high-energy detour into Tex-Mex and then back to wounded, lowlit Twin Peaks territory with a chilling take of Palace of the Wind. It was a night of lots of styles and lots of stylish picking, a good indication of the depth of this duo’s troubled and alluring catalog.

Rachelle Garniez Releases 2015’s Best Album, a Harrowing, Richly Detailed Portrait of the Here and Now

Dichotomies run deep throughout Rachelle Garniez’s latest album, Who’s Counting, streaming at Spotify. Optimism and despondency, irresistible laughs and corrosive anger sit side by side. The music is spare, uncluttered and for the most part unhurried. Everything counts for something, even the subtlest touches. Funny/creepy hospital room sonics channeled via the highest stops on her accordion; faux sleigh bells that could be cruelly faux-Christmasy, or maybe just guardedly festive. Even the jauntiest tracks have a dark undercurrent, while the darkest ones are understated, even gentle. While the music draws on many retro styles – saloon blues, Louis Armstrong torch song, Brecht/Weill cabaret, 19th century Celtic New York balladry – it’s irrefutably in the here and now, an artifact of a year of refugee death marches, tribal bride murders and the devastation of Garniez’s beloved Manhattan as the stampede to cash in on what’s left of the real estate bubble leaves entire neighborhoods trampled and crippled. Garniez relates all those narratives in many voices: an innocent, a bawdy belter or a shellshocked witness, sometimes a parade of personalities in the same song. As a bittersweetly accurate portrait of the here and now, it is unrivalled in 2015 and for that reason is the best album of the year, maybe the best album in a career that includes more than one brilliant one.

Garniez’s work over the past fifteen years or so is not an easy read. Very often, the window of interpretation hangs open, as far as the degree of subtext or sarcasm lurking in the shadows underneath. On the surface, Medicine Man – a remake of a sultry hokum blues strut originally released on her 2003 Luckyday album – builds a steamy atmosphere fueled by the gusty brass of Hazmat Modine, of which Garniez is also a member. A closer listen reveals a thinly veiled plea for some relief from a lingering angst. Little Fish – a Cajun-flavored duet featuring the Hazmats’ banjo player Erik Della Penna, originally released on Garniez’s eclectic 2000 album Crazy Blood – is addressed to a missing person who might be missing for keeps. And the album’s most irrepressibly dancing number, Flat Black – a simple bass-and-vocal duet that looks back fifty years to Sarah Vaughan’s work with Joe Comfort – is a blackly droll look forward to the singer’s funeral, where everybody’s going to “sit shiva by the river, have a little chopped liver.”

That’s the bright side of the album. The dark side is harrowing, even devastating. Garniez plays spare gospel-tinged piano against an ambered horn chart on the title track, in the moment in every conceivable sense of that phrase. She maintains that mood, taking it up a notch for awhile, on the vivid, photorealistic New York Minute, on one hand a fond reminiscence of a Manhattan childhood in the days before helicopter parenting, on another a very uneasy portrait of a budding eight-year-old existentialist. And Manhattan Island – one of several miniatures interspersed enigmatically between songs – grounds the current speculative crisis in centuries of history.

The album’s highest points are also its most brooding. The Elizabethan Britfolk-flavored Vanity’s Curse opens as a suspensefully crepuscular portrait of a dotty old lady’s well-appointed lair but quickly moves to illuminate the sinister source of all that luxe: it’s impossible to imagine a more relevant song released this year. The haunting, starkly quiet A Long Way to Jerusalem follows an ages-old Talmudic tale, recast as a shattering chronicle of women abused and tortured over the centuries. And It’s a Christmas Song (watch the cool video) offers a contrarian view that will resonate with anyone whose tolerance for corporate holiday cheer has maxed out. As the song swings and bounces along, Garniez has no problem with revelry. “If you gotta shop, please support the mom & pop,” but:

Let’s celebrate the birth
Of redefining worth
Start a full-scale reconstruction
Of a flawed global economy
Take down corporate tyranny
Promote local autonomy

It figures that Garniez would wait til the album’s last song to finally drop her guard and let her message resonate, pure and simple. That’s a Christmas present worth sticking around for. Garniez plays Barbes on January 7 at 8 PM, then she’s back there on January 17 at 7:30 PM.

The 50 Best Albums of 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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