New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: powerpop

A Fiery, Intense, Wickedly Catchy New Album From Above the Moon

Above the Moon are one of the few real feel-good stories in the New York rock scene in the last few years. The fiercely catchy guitar band followed an oldschool career trajectories, playing their first shows in dumps, slowly and steadily building a following which before the lockdown was coming out to see them at regular weekend headline gigs. Auspiciously, the band are still together, waiting out the lockdown (at least as far as officially sanctioned shows are concerned) with everybody else.

And they keep putting out great short albums. Their latest, Stay Awake, is streaming at Bandcamp. Maybe because of post-2016 election circumstances, it’s their angriest release yet. Frontwoman/guitarist Kate Griffin has been a charismatic presence for a long time, but in the last couple of years her vocals have become more savagely spine-tingling than ever.

The album’s first track, I Was Asleep Before is one of their catchiest, an anthem to mobilize and take control on what seems to be many levels. “Don’t know what you’re waiting for – I’m not waiting anymore,” is the big chorus, lead guitarist Shawn Murphy adding dreampop shimmer and keening upper-register riffage over drummer John Gramuglia’s relentless drive.

Chris Mangin’s bass bubbles and simmers in the equally anthemic second track. It’s one of the band’s funniest songs, about somebody who’s dealing out so much shit that “I could plant a little garden in your mouth,” Griffin wails

“One is too much but a hundred is not enough,” she observes enigatically in Just Stay, a dis to a wishy-washy guy and a musical throwback to the band’s earlier, more jaggedly 90s indie-flavored roots. Get Yours (Karma) is a little slower and more atmospheric; it brings to mind late 90s/early zeros Lower East Side legends Scout. The twin-guitar slash hits redline in the album’s last track, Birthday, a richly detailed kiss-off anthem over a pummeling 2/4 beat. This band absolutely slayed at Marcus Garvey Park last year; let’s hope there are still some indoor venues left in business where Above the Moon can play when that’s legal to do that again.

Ward White’s Leonard at the Audit – Best Rock Record of 2020 So Far

Since the early zeros, songwriter Ward White has been on a creative tear matched by few other artists, ever. In context: Bowie in the 70s; Aretha in the 60s; Elvis Costello from 1977 to about 1985; and Steve Wynn pretty much since birth. Hall of fame company. And White just doesn’t stop: his tenth and latest album, Leonard at the Audit, is streaming at Bandcamp. In terms of searingly literary lyricism set to imaginative, catchy rock changes, White is pretty much unsurpassed these days.

This particular record is probably the closest thing to White’s sinister nonlinear song cycle Bob – rated best rock record of the year here in 2013 – that he’s released since then. The album title reflects parallel narratives: Leonard Cohen’s 1960s flirtation with Scientology, and a seemingly mundane but actually much more grim story that looks back to the deadly geopolitics of the Bob record. Is this a sequel? Maybe.

The opening track, Bubble and Squeak, is White at the top of his imagistic, slashing game. A creepy cast of characters from the deep state along with an undertaker’s assistant make their entrance, none of them identified by name. “If you tangle with the Pharisees, be prepared to give up a son,” White warns. Musically, this sounds like the Police, built around a recurring guitar figure that White calls “seasick.” The band – Andrew Bird keyboardist Tyler Chester, Jakob Dylan drummer Mark Stepro and bassist John Spiker – maintain a low-key new wave pulse alongside him.

White goes for a more lush, ornate, briskly backbeat-driven feel in Not the Half, probably the only song to date to make the connection between Dylan Thomas final post-barroom collapse and lockdown-era respirator deaths. Above the watery web of guitars, the story references a hostage but also issues of artistic posterity or lack thereof.

The voice of a seemingly stoned and enlightenment-fixated Cohen alternates with someone whose marriage is going to hell on the express track in the similarly enveloping, jangly Ice Capades – or maybe it’s just a single narrator. The journey to the center of White’s songs is always a challenge, but an irresistible one.

Awash in hazy mellotron and icy chorus-box guitar, the Pink Floyd-inflected title track weighs the sacred against the profane – alongside what might or might not be a plane crash. The next song’s “Kleenex/Phoenix” rhyme is one of White’s funniest lyrical moments ever, and the litany of 70s references afterward are just as amusing, as is the central guitar hook – in a skeletal art-rock song about a contract killing, no less.

Likewise, the opening clang of Edmund Fitzgerald Is a Wreck (DAMN, White nails everything 70s here!), a sick, distantly late Beatlesque, characteristically image-rich Wisconsin death trip.

The backdrop shifts ten years forward into allusive 80s powerballadry with Try Me. The suspense and the black humor are relentless:

I was talking to the funeral director
Asking him how much this might all cost
He said “It’s hard to put a price on a relationship with God”
I said “Try me”

The surrealism reaches fever pitch in Dreaming of Dentistry, a druggy El Lay tableau akin to Floyd doing a sneering take on 70s lounge-pop with more than a hint of southwestern gothic. Dead People Fucking is one of White’s more Costelloesque numbers, referencing James Joyce, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, and others with wry imagery that’s part Shakespeare, part Warren Zevon.

White sets the ominous gambling metaphors of You Gotta Have a System to a slow, lingering sway:

Lucky with queens, but not in spades
I told you to hit me!
Diamonds retreat where the heart invades
You might as well double down

He winds up the record with the Bowie-esque Pornographic Ennui, connecting the bloody dots between dirty pix and police state ruthlessness:

He was a man who liked machines;
On cocaine it was guns, on beer, anything that runs on gasoline

If it still makes sense for there to be such a thing as a music blog in December 2020 – let’s hope there is – you’ll see this again, high on the best albums of the year list.

Richly Jangly, Intricate, Smart Retro Rock Songcraft From Diane and the Gentle Men

What if the Dream Syndicate was fronted by a woman? That’s pretty damn high praise for singer Diane Gentile‘s new album White Sea, with her band the Gentle Men, streaming at Bandcamp – but a lot of the record sounds exactly like that. If imaginatively crafted, darkly bristling rock anthems with layers of guitars and keys and a distinctively downtown, oldschool New York ambience are your thing, this is your jam.

Drummer Colin Brooks opens the first track, Motorcycle, with a rolling surf riff. If the tight, dreampop-tinged downstroke pulse reminds you of recent Steve Wynn material, that makes sense since Wynn produced the song! All kinds of tasty touches here; a little creepy organ here, a surreal clang there from Wynn’s longtime Dream Syndicate sparring partner, Jason Victor, who plays lead guitar throughout the album

Track two, Perfect People is a new wave song as an older version of the DS – say, the Out of the Grey lineup – might have done it, Victor’s multitracks spiraling in both channels. It’s Gentile’s dis to shallow people in general. “Take off your makeup, wake up!” is the mantra.

The poignant, death-fixated Wicked Hours has a gorgeous web of acoustic guitars and keening, moody Victor slide work. The band rise from an elegant, spare waltz to a mighty sweep in the album’s similarly brooding title track.

Little Things could be an especially gritty early Blondie number. Gentile reaches for a towering angst in the backbear-driven, Orbisonian breakup anthem Just Pretend, then goes back to new wave with Boyfriend.

She mashes up catchy, vamping post-Velvets rock with a swirling, Lynchian anthemc sensibility in Joe: it’s a good guess that was the real name of the guy who didn’t work out. The album’s most chillingly relevant song is Memories, pushed along by bassist Matt Basile’s trebly growl with the rest of the band raging behind him. “And there’s not enough to pay the rent, the cost of living makes no sense, the dream I dream keeps me awake at night,” Gentile wails.

She closes the record counteirntuitively with a spare piano elegy, Second Hand Heart. On one hand, it’s always fun to discover music this smartly crafted. On the other, this kind of music is very imperiled at the moment. Gentile’s usual gig was booking one of the few remaining New York rock venues, Bowery Electric. Even with that kind of resume, survival is giong to be a struggle for everyone in the nightlife industry. A moratorium on evictions til just the middle of June isn’t realistic: we need rent amnesty in New York for the entirety of the coronavirus crisis.

Wickedly Catchy, Ferocious, Funny Powerpop From Wes Hollywood

Powerpop is one of the few niche genres left where if you make an album, you can sell a lot of vinyl without touring if word gets out that it’s good. That’s because the cult that lives and dies for Cheap Trick, the Go-Go’s and the Move never got rid of theirs. Wes Hollywood‘s 2019 album Dynamite – streaming at Bandcamp – deserves to be one of those. This band’s level of craft is astonishing, a real throwback without being a complete ripoff. If this was 1980, they would rule the airwaves – and that’s a compliment to the frontman/guitarist, lead player Pete Javier, bassist Spencer Matern and drummer Tom Shove

With a fond nod over the shoulder to a famous Buzzcocks hit, the opening track, Four Pound Twenty is a really funny story about a totally broke guy trying to hook up with a girl after missing his train home from a forgettable concert. Other than the reference to a lost phone, it could be a BBC hit from 1979.

When Sunday Rolls Around is a wryly simmering, blues-infused midtempo number, akin to LJ Murphy with beefier production. “You’ll never want to wind her up, she’ll never stop,” the bandleader sneers in Small Talk, a lickety-split pub rock tune. Nothing to See Here is a gorgeously jangly, cynically raging kiss-off anthem: there’s Orbison, and Ray Davies, and the Jigsaw Seen all wrapped up in overdriven guitar and soaring bass.

“You said some things that were not worth mentioniong/Just like the rings on the hand of a pensioner,’ Wes observes in Evelyn, a scampering, pummeling, tantalizingly brief burst of catchiness. The story seems to continue in the equally anthemic, riff-driven I’ll Take You Back: this broke ass dude just refuses to quit.

The blend of roaring, clanging, searing guitars over the breathless pulse of Get It Right is as tasty as the lyrics are sly. The calmly defiant, Kinks-inspired individualist’s anthem Fall Up a Ladder has a cynical vaudevillian strut. Kill Me With Your Smile is a mashup of riffy T-Rex and early Elvis Costello.

Dandelion is not a cover of the the Rolling Stones monstrosity but the closest thing to Cheap Trick here. The album closes with its finest, most slashingly majestic cut, No One Loves You, with echoes of both the Church and the Act. How rare that any group could evoke those two (semi) obscure, pantheonic bands in the span of about three minutes.

Gorgeously Bittersweet Powerpop and Retro Rock From High Waisted

The level of craft, and depth, and command of a whole slew of retro rock styles in High Waisted guitarist/frontwoman Jessica Louise Dye’s songs is just plain stunning. Her band’s debut album On Ludlow made the top ten albums of the year list here in 2016. The group’s long-awaited follow-up, Sick of Saying Sorry, is streaming at Bandcamp. On the mic, Dye really airs out her upper register this time around, and although the band pull back from a somewhat misguided second-gen new wave tangent they went off on for awhile, there’s more 80s influence.

It gets off to a false start. Things get better in a hurry with the early 80s-style powerpop of the second track, Modern Love and its exhilarating chorus. Bassist Jeremy Hansen adds a catchy reggae pulse in tandem with drummer Jono Bernstein under the starry, lingering guitars in Drive: it’s High Waisted at their Lynchian best.

Burdens is a weird mashup of jazzily vamping 70s soul ballad and Phil Spector pop, but it works. Dye teams up with lead guitarist Stephen Nielsen for an insistent attack in the powerpop anthem Easy As It Comes, with yet another killer, regret-tinged chorus.

She wistfully reflects on the struggles of her friends scattered around the world in the wryly titled Cereal: it’s like Amanda Palmer without the theatrics. 8th Amendment has a loping, syncopated surf rock clang, calmly defiant vocals and an unexpected turn into Brian Jonestown Massacre-style psychedelia.

Eyes Crying is the album’s most gorgeously angst-fueled, Lynchian track: the Wallflowers’ toweringly elegaic classic Sixth Avenue Heartache comes to mind. Giving Up has a steady backbeat, a Mellotron (or a close facsimile) and Dye’s most spine-tingling vocal flights: it’s the album’s strongest cut. She and the band bring it full circle with I’m Fine, a blend of early Go Go’s and swirly dreampop. Fans of the darkest, torchiest songwriters to come out of this city in recent years – Karla Rose, Julia Haltigan and Nicole Atkins, at least in her early career – should check out this band.

Iconic Heavy Psychedelic Band Revisit Deep Cuts With Surprising Results

Can you imagine if Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper made its debut on corporate radio in 2020? The politically correct crowd would crash Instagram with all their outraged selfie vids. “I can’t believe you’d be so irresponsible as to play a song that ADVOCATES TEEN SUICIDE!!!!!”

The band, of course, leave it open to multiple interpretations: it could just as easily be about drugs..or a love song, heh heh heh. And it’s a far cry from their best work: for that, you need to dig into their first four records. Over that initial span of releases, there is no other act in the history of rock music who were better.

Not the Stones, who weren’t ready for prime time. Not the Beatles, although they get an asterisk because their manager and record label held them back. Not the Dream Syndicate (who got screwed even worse by their label), the Velvets (who couldn’t pull their shit together, basically), the Stooges (who learned on the fly), Pink Floyd (who had to regroup after their bandleader self-destructed), the Dead Kennedys (whose second album was awful), David Bowie (who got off to a bad start) or Richard Thompson (ever try listening to Henry the Human Fly?). And as revolutionary and brilliant as the first four albums by Elvis Costello, the Jam, the Clash, X, Parliament/Funkadelic and several others are, Blue Oyster Cult’s classic early stuff is just as strong, and smart, and sometimes a lot funnier.

So why would this blog cover something as crazy as the band’s new recording, a 40th anniversary celebration of their uneven 1976 Agents of Fortune album, recorded live in concert in 2016 and streaming at Spotify? Because it’s just plain preposterous. Right off the bat, this isn’t even the same band that made the original: the Bouchard brothers’ rhythm section disintegrated back in the 80s, and we lost the great Allen Lanier a couple of decades later. Still, this is actually an improvement on the original!

Frontman/guitarist Eric Bloom, once a fine, clear-voice singer, doesn’t do much more than rasp these days. But lead guitarist Buck Dharma still has his chops here, and the replacements are clearly psyched to play a lot of material that these days falls into the deep-cuts category. There’s snap to the bass, a leadfoot groove but a groove nonetheless from the drums, and a lot of swirly organ.

They open with This Ain’t the Summer of Love, a riffy anti-hippie anthem that isn’t much more than rehashed Stones….but they seem to be having fun with it. They can’t do much with True Confessions, an ill-advised attempt at mashing up that sound with doo-woppy soul. Although Bloom can’t hit the high notes in the ominously circling hit single, and the band must be sick to death of it, they manage not to phone it in. “Forty thousand men and women coming every day!” State of the world, 2020, huh?

This edition of the band’s take of the “classic rock” radio staple E.T.I. (Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) isn’t as quite as offhandedly macabre as the original, but it still has a gleefully sinister ring. The Revenge of Vera Gemini – which original keyboardist Lanier co-wrote with his girlfriend at the time, Patti Smith – is heavier and a lot more menacing.

Dharma’s icy chromatics can’t quite elevate Sinful Love above the level of generically strutting powerpop. Likewise, Tattoo Vampire is a second-rate Led Zep ripoff. Morning Final, a haphazard attempt to blend Lou Reed urban noir and latin soul as the Stones did it on Sticky Fingers, is so bizarre it’s pretty cool.

From there the band segue into Tenderloin: disco-pop was not their forte. They wind up the record, and the show, with Debbie Denise: what an understatedly bittersweet, profoundly Lynchian pop song! A sparse audience cheer enthusiastically afterward.

High Romantic Bombast and Catchy, Turbocharged Pop Tunes from the Dark Element

Former Nightwish frontwoman Anette Olzon and guitarist Jani Liimatainen’s new album The Dark Element – streaming at Spotify – is a clinic in tuneful bombast. This heartbroken, vengeful song cycle sounds like Trans-Siberian Orchestra, if the ultimate bombastic symphonic band had existed back in the 80s. The minor keys and short, sharp riffs draw a straight line back to Tschaikovsky. Olzon’s English is excellent, and Liimatainen’s epic orchestration is unexpectedly taseteful in what’s usually a completely over-the-top style.

With its blustery, synthesized arrangement, blend of guitar crunch and whistle and a neoromantic piano break, Not Your Monster sets the stage. For all the underlying Pat Benatar, it also has punk rock bite. The album’s title track has a bit of a lush, symphonic introduction before the big backbeat stomp kicks in. Without the grand guignol, the nifty bit of a bass solo and the divebomb guitar, this is Blondie in a minor key.

“Unwanted guest inside your chest will claim you, and then it’s time to rest,” Olzon warns amid the bluster of When It All Comes Down. Silence Between the Words comes across as a pop-metal paraphrase of Prince’s When Doves Cry. In a similar vein, Pills on My Pillow is a powerpop tune beefed up with punchy string synth and crunchy guitars. Olzon’s narrator anxiously weighs whether or not to do the Big Job on herself – why not do those pills while you’re awake, homegirl, so you can enjoy them?

Olzon channels elegant resignation over stately piano and strings before the guitars kick in on To Whatever End. The Pallbearer Walks Alone – a cautionary tale which could be Kim Wilde with a Nordic metal band behind her – is one of those songs that screams out for a subtitle. How about “Dude, Help Me Out With This Damn Coffin!”

Olzon finally gives the evil narcissist the boot in Get Out of My Head, an even more surreal blend of enveloping metal and synthy new wave pop – and disco too! Numbness and regret permeate the somewhat more subdued If I Had a Heart.

There’s more wounded intensity in You Will Learn, built around a stark Finnish folk theme. The album ends counterintuitively with the sad waltz I Have to Go. Some people will hear this and say, oy, Celine Dion with loud guitars, but there’s no denying this will wake you up in a hurry.

One complaint: Olzon is a perfectly competent singer. Thankfully, her vocals aren’t autotuned, but there are places where you can tell they’ve been pitch-corrected, an unwanted and cheesy touch. Was time so tight in the studio that she couldn’t have simply punched in and fixed what was necessary?

Spot-On, Frequently Hilarious Lyrical Tunesmithing and a Lower East Side Gig From Whisperado

Catchy, purist New York powerpop band Whisperado make irresistibly satirical videos. Check out Popstar Girl: she’s a meme, she’s a toy, she’s a tv show…and she might actually be human. Whisperado have a wildly lyrical new album, Out the Door, streaming at youtube. They’re playing the release show on Jan 20 at 9 PM at Arlene’s; cover is $10.

The first track is Vinegar Hill, an escape anthem tightly pulsing over the rhythm section of frontman/bassist Jon Sobel and drummer David Mills. The tradeoff between Sobel’s solo and Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s guitar is so subtle it’s almost imperceptible, a rare and unexpected detail. And Sobel’s never sung with such unleashed intensity as he does here.

The album’s second song, Precisely is a droll, picturesque, jangly Rickenbacker guitar-fueled examination of the vagaries of memory, and all that might imply. Signal to Noise is not the Peter Gabriel classic but an Emma Bull cover done as steadily swaying 70s British pub rock, Elisa Peimer’s organ swooshing as the band gather steam. She switches to bouncy piano for Nina (rhymes with “concertina”).

The album’s pouncing, blues-tinged title track could be about the apocalypse, or suicide…or both. Round the Bend is a towering, Celtic-tinged ballad with soaring vocal harmonies and honkytonk piano from Peimer. Mass Extinction No. 6 has hints of funk and a Dylanesque, spot-on, New York-centric catalog of dire images, reprised in an alternate acoustic take at the end of the record.

I Don’t Want to Do It Anymore is a coldly aphoristic look back at a pre-NAFTA America seemingly gone forever:

Factory, come back to me
I like those old machines
Pushcart tricks and Velcro strips
And all those ways and means
Folk songs on the radio
Sung out by human beings…

The Diddleybeat-driven Pretty Please is more optimistic but just as circumspect: it could be an upbeat Matt Keating tune. The album’s most surreallistically grim number is Stone Deaf, a mashup of the Kinks and Willie Nile, its narrator insisting that he “never left the grassy knoll.” The best serious song here is the towering 6/8 anthem Ghost of the Girl, with its icy Rickenbacker clang and Sobel’s loaded imagery: “The witches were legion, they blotted the moon while Satan was splitting the atom.”

With Hayden’s twangy riffage and Sobel’s growly bass solo, Winter Blues isn’t a blues in the strict sense of the word. Forbidden is beyond hilarious, a true insider look at how musicians take the easy way out: the jokes are way too good to give away. Best song of 2020 so far! The album’s only miss is that Little Feat ditty that everyone who’s ever played Rockwood Music Hall has covered at some point – and which, like Hallelujah and Hotel California, needs to be permanently retired.

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

A Late-Inning Comeback by Janglerock Icons Son of Skooshny

It’s been awhile since Mark Breyer – who could be called the Elvis Costello of janglerock – has made an appearance on this page. It’s good to see him back in action, still releasing one brilliantly constructed single after another. His latest two, under the Son of Skooshny name (Skooshny being his iconic jangle/powerpop outfit dating back to the 70s) are up at Bandcamp.

The first tune, Cold has a majestic sway in the same vein as the Church, Steve Refling’s layers of acoustic and electric guitars building a rich sonic mesh over a steady backbeat. It’s a good companion piece to the Jayhawks classic Trouble, debating whether it’s better to settle for mediocrity or just be alone. Breyer’s metaphors are as withering as usual, a chronicle of “two old souls who can’t tolerate the cold.” The bridge is the best part:

It’s hard to stay in the moment
Out there on the trail
When the desert dawn contracts
Will the mountain lion attack
Will the rattlesnake recoil and flail

Staying In is one of the alltime great baseball songs ever written, but that’s just part of the picture. Wait til you get to the end, where 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).

The starter only carries you so far
The setup gets you close but no cigar
The closer must have nerves of steel
To wrap it up and seal the deal
Here comes a heartbreak we all feel
The leadoff walk and then the steal
The liner into centerfield
Blown save
Be brave

Watch for this on the best songs of 2019 page at the end of the decade, i.e. in a couple of weeks.