New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: powerpop

A Brilliant, Subtly Satirical New Video From Kira Metcalf

Watch very closely in the first few seconds of Kira Metcalf‘s video for her new single Hoax for a visual clue that packs a knockout punch.

This is how dissidents in the old Soviet Union had to protest. Looks like we’ve come to that here in the US.

Metcalf actually wrote the cleverly lyrical kiss-off anthem eight years ago, but it’s taken on new resonance since the lockdown began. Videowise, the esthetic is pure early 90s Garbage, as Shirley Manson would have mugged for the camera. Musically, the song is closer to early PJ Harvey with even more of a vengeful wail

Theme From a Twisted Summer Place

Irene Pena‘s new single The Summer Place – streaming at Big Stir Records – is a venomously hilarious powerpop gem, the missing link between LJ Murphy’s Pretty For the Parlor and that famous Squeeze song. Behind the chalet, this holiday is never complete with some sick drama.. If JD Salinger had been a janglerock guy, he would have written this. “Injuries fade but the memories last a lifetime.”

Unmasking One of the Most Deviously Brilliant Rock Hoaxes Ever

Working over the web last year, the Armoires decided to release a whole slew of singles under a bunch of assumed names (you bastards, you snagged October Surprise, the best bandname ever!). Despite widespread interest online and on radio, nobody ever got wise to the fact that it was really them. Finally, the muzzle is off, and this alternately hilarious and poignant, erudite mix of originals and covers – inspired by the Dukes of Stratosphear‘s immortal parodies of 60s psychedelic rock excess – has been released as an official Armoires record, Incognito, streaming at Bandcamp.

Based in California, the harmony-rock band found themselves stymied in attempts to pull the whole group together under dictator Gavin Nuisance’s fascist lockdowner restrictions. Fortuitously, the core of the band, keyboardist Christina Bulbenko and multi-instrumentalist Rex Broome, also run a very popular specialty label, Big Stir Records, so they have access to a global talent base. Drawing on a rotating cast of guitarists and drummers, the result is the most eclectically delicious album of the year so far.

The Armoires are more likely to slyly quote from late 70s powerpop than 60s psychedelia, although pretty much every rock style since then is fair game for their sometimes loving, sometimes witheringly cynical satire. What differentiates this album from the Dukes of Stratosphear’s (a.k.a. XTC’s) mashups is the cleverness of the lyrics.

Say what you want that “October Surprise” turn John Cale’s iconic proto-goth Paris 1919 into bouncy Penny Lane Beatles: that’s the spirit of punk, right? The B-side, Just Can’t See the Attraction, is an acidic original immersed in schadenfreude and driven by Larysa Bulbenko’s violin. “She was maybe too much, too demanding/She was surely too much in demand,” and the haters abound.

As D.F.E., the band give themselves several fictitious shout-outs in their A-side, I Say We Take Off and Nuke This Site From Orbit, a seethingly Beatlesque critique of social media. The quote at the end of the song is too good to give away. But the B-side is sobering, a lively, deadpan cover of Zager and Evans Hall of Famers Christie’s 1970 pentatonic folk-rock hit Yellow River, a post-Vietnam War anthem told from the winning side of that pyrrhic victory.

Bagfoot Run, the A-side of the single by “The Chessie System” is an irresistibly funny bluegrass escape anthem. You’d think that somebody would have figured out the joke from the subtly venomous anti-lockdown flip side, Homebound, a Louvin Brothers sendup, but nobody did.

As The Yes It Is, their jangly, anthemic cover of new wave band 20/20’s The Night I Heard a Scream, a portrait of an unsolved hit-and-run is infinitely more chilling. The cover of XTC’s Senses Working Overtime blows away the original, raising the Orwellian ambience several notches with piano and violin. Likewise, the line about “we’ll give it pause to breathe the air” in the triumphantly jangly, unlikely cover of the Andy Gibb rarity Words and Music.

Jackrabbit Protector, released under the name Zed Cats, is part Nancy Sinatra Vegas noir parody, part metaphorically-loaded populist throwdown. “I can count my friends on the palm of my hand,” Broome laments in the Beatlesque Walking Distance, awash in searing guitar multitracks. The lyrically torrential Sergeant Pepper-esque stroll, Ohma, Bring Your Light Into This Place, by the “Ceramic Age,” follows in the same vein: it could be a parable. Their B-side is Magenta Moon, a gorgeous, lushly swaying kiss-off anthem and cautionary tale (and maybe a Nick Drake shout-out). This eerie orb is “My one and true companion in the way you never were,” as Bulbenko relates in her simmering, mentholated mezzo-soprano.

Great Distances, by “Gospel Swamps” will rip your face off: over a tense twelve-string janglerock pulse, the band salute a time, and a person, lost to transcontinental barriers. It’s the great lost track from the Jayhawks’ Sound of Lies record. The concluding cut, Awkward City Limits makes an apt segue, an irresistible, metaphorically-loaded road narrative set to simmering backbeat roadhouse rock, the New Pornographers mashed up with early ELO.

But wait! There’s more! There are bonus tracks including a hilarious Lou Reed reference; Nashville gothic gloom transposed to early Trump-era lockdown; and Babyshambles retro garage rock recast as Burroughs cut-and-paste novelette in New Abnormal hell. Was it worth risking being unmasked as pretenders throughout these wild adventures into the furthest reaches of the band’s creativity? “We’ve always believed that art without risk isn’t worth doing,” is their response in the liner notes.

A Sizzling Live Album From New England Rock Legends the Reducers

The Reducers were the American counterpart to the Jam – except that they lasted six times as long. And while the British punk band drew on the Who and 60s mod music, New London, Connecticut’s greatest musical export took inspiration from 70s pub rock acts like Ducks Deluxe and janglerockers the Flamin’ Groovies as well as the harder, faster sounds of the era. The quartet finally hung it up in 2012 after the tragic loss of their brilliant bassist, Steve Kaika. But there’s a lot of live Reducers kicking around, including a ferocious set, Live: New York City 2005, which is just out and streaming at Bandcamp.

Playing at a typical breakneck pace, the group blast through sixteen songs in forty-seven minutes, a mix of concert favorites, a couple of new tunes and a few covers. The sound quality, from Arlene’s on June 4 of that year, is shockingly good (founding member/guitarist Hugh Birdsall has gone on record as calling this arguably the best live recording of the band that’s widely available). They open with a cover, something they rarely did: in this case, it’s a straight-up punk take of the Boys’ Turning Grey, which is less about getting old than watching everyone around you get old inside.

“I hear that black and blue is the color scheme in town,” guitarist Peter Detmold sneers in one of the band’s catchiest songs, Nothing Cool About That, a spot-on evocation of dead-end life in New England rust belt decay.

Fistfight at the Beach, arguably the band’s best song, takes that anomie to the next level, from Birdsall and Detmold’s simmering twin-guitar intro, Kaika soaring skyward until drummer Tom Trombley kicks in hard. The riffs get more bludgeoning and Birdsall takes a tantalizingly brief, stinging solo in the similarly cynical workingman’s anthem Jackpot Fever.

The band slow down just a little for the more powerpop-oriented Meltdown – with a sweet pickslide at the end – and then their band-on-the-road saga San Antone (which they actually played in San Antonio). They follow that with an especially snarling take of the alienation anthem Out of Step, arguably the band’s biggest hit – and a chance for Kaika, who gave this band the luxury of a third lead player, a chance to slink his way up the fretboard.

The first of the new numbers is Tokyo Bay, referencing the band’s well-received tour of Japan a few months earlier. The band swing hard through I Call That Living, the closest thing to boogie rock they ever did, capped off by a slashing Birdsall solo. On the Road Again is not the Wilie Nelson hit but a punchy, relatively new original.

Let’s Go, another big live hit and the title track to the band’s second album, seems almost restrained, Kaika shadowing Birdsall’s best solo of the night all the way through. The Violent Femmes-ish bassline in Avoidance Factor will make you smile – although who came up with that first? And Bums I Used to Know is the high-octane rockabilly shuffle the Stray Cats only dreamed of pulling off.

The rest of the night’s covers are a mixed bag. Teengenerate’s I Don’t Mind is a pub rock New York Dolls knockoff, although the bit of a guitar duel is tasty. The Stones’ Get Off My Cloud…really? And the lone encore, Chris Spedding’s Hurt by Love isn’t much more than a vehicle for Kaika’s spring-loaded riffage. Still, who knew that in 2021, a soundboard recording by a Connecticut band who’ve been defunct for almost a decade would turn out to be one of the best albums of the year.

A Hilarious Powerpop Party Record From the Airport 77s

The Airport 77s write very funny, very catchy, perfectly retro late 70s style powerpop songs. If this was the year that the cheesy movie the band took their name from came out, they would rule the airwaves – and that’s a compliment. And their jokes extend beyond the lyrics to the music as well. In a year where so few rock acts have been releasing records, their debut album Rotation – streaming at Bandcamp – is a blast of fresh air.

The first track is Christine’s Coming Over, about a girl who won’t settle for scrubs – so the dude in the song has to frantically borrow a vacuum cleaner. And his choice of makeout music is spot-on for 1977! The band – frontman/bassist Chuck Dolan, guitarist Andy Sullivan and drummer John Kelly – nail all the requisite late 70s tropes. Brisk 2/4 beat, muted guitar downstrokes keeping time, twin guitar solo, the works.

When You’re Kissing On Me (Do You Think of James McAvoy) is a snidely funny scenario we all know too well: your crush just can’t get over theirs, with embarrassing results. The band hit a burning, minor-key, reggae-inflected groove with Shannon Speaks – it seems to be about a girl in a coma who has some kind of secret.

With its “whiskey/frisky” rhymes and devious innuendos, Wild Love comes across as the Romantics on steroids. The guitar quotes in All the Way, beginning with a smartly chosen Pink Floyd riff, are priceless, and match the lyrics. Their cover of Girl of My Dreams is more four-on-the-floor than the Bram Tchaikovsky original.

Strutting along on Dolan’s catchy bassline, Bad Mom! is the funniest track on the album: this horrible parent lets her kids play with water pistols! And she’s been known to sneak a smoke every now and then! The group make you wait til the second verse of the final cut, Make It Happen before they drop a couple of their best jokes on you. Killer party record all the way through.

The 50 Best Albums of 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. Listen at Spotify

Revisiting a Catchy, Fearless, Kick-Ass Rock Record by the Cleveland Steamers

The Cleveland Steamers’ Best Record Ever – streaming at Spotify– came out a couple of years ago. On one hand, it’s purist, catchy, dynamically shifting guitar rock with metal, garage and psychedelic influences. On the other, it’s incredibly original: nobody blends those styles like this crew. Some of these songs sound straight of 1980-  no doubt since many of the group were around back then – but the band really slay with the unexpected mashups.

The album’s darkest and most adventurous cut, Dream of Me is basically a slow, 6/8 doom metal theme infused with Cullen O’Connor’s creepy tremolo organ and an achingly melismatic Marianne Friend sax break. “Soon to share the cosmos with you,” frontwoman Meredith Rutledge-Borger soberly intones; then she makes a candy bar joke. Monsanto is much the same, from its menacing, flamencoish Nick Summa guitar intro, to drummer Emmett O’Connor’s stalking pulse afterward

Hung Up On You has a swaying garage rock beat and some slinky guitar work behind that keening, swirly organ, while Maple Leaf Girl is more of a straight-up, garagey powerpop number. The long trumpet intro to the vampy Last Love nicks a famous classical theme: “I found love is a good place to hide,” bassist/singer Cheese Borger confides.

The album’s funniest song is My Asshole Cousin, a punk tune: it’s a capsule history of Republican bigotry over the past hundred years. Never Saw You Again has a steady backbeat and a lingering guitar burn, a bitter reminiscence about a really bad choice.

There’s also the punchy powerpop tune, See You Tonight; Shut Up, a screaming, amusing punk song; and Something Bad, which sounds like Blue Oyster Cult taking a very successful stab at new wave.

The Goners Mash Up Garage Rock and Powerpop with Classic Heavy Riffage

The Goners play an individualistic brand of heavy rock that’s slinkier and more focused than most bands in the style. Unlike most heavy bands, their rhythm section – bassist Aaron Miller and drummer Aaron Smith – really swing (although Geezer Butler and Bill Ward swung like hell too). And the group don’t use a lot of guitar effects: just overdriven amps and some growly treble on the bass, and that’s pretty much it. Their latest album Good Mourning – streaming at Bandcamp – is a blend of doom metal, garage rock and more opaque indie sounds.

The first track, Are You Gone Yet is basically a garage rock tune souped up with some tasty chromatics and a sunbaked wah guitar solo. High Low and Never In Between is a chunky riff-rocking Sabbath homage, more or less, with a couple of pinwheeling, doublespeed guitar solos.

They go back to a garage rock stomp for World of Decay, then hit a gallop with Evil Is Not Enough, a twisted tale of hooking up with a groupie. After that, they take an unexpected and successful detour into loping southwestern gothic with Good Ol’ Death and return to swaying riff-rock with The Sickening, with a nasty, tremolo-picked guitar solo out.

The most bizarre song here is Down and Out, a mashup of the Ventures and early Iron Maiden, with a spacy interlude for trumpet. Likewise, the mashup of Stooges and crunchy Sabbath in You Better Run is pretty weird, up to the album’s best and most allusively menacing guitar solo. With its punchy changes and watery analog chorus-box solos, The Little Blue reminds of Da Capo-era Arthur Lee.

The band go back to a surreal mix of spaghetti western, surf rock and hints of Radio Birdman to close the album with Dead in the Saddle (Dead Moon). Some fans of heavier sounds are going to hear frontman/guitarist Nate Gone’s flat, off-key vocals and the lithe, supple grooves of this music and find it insubstantial. But leave your mind open and you just might get into this.

The Sideshow Tragedy Take an Embittered Detour into Powerpop

Over the past decade or so, Austin duo the Sideshow Tragedy have done everything from unhinged, electrified country blues, to feral hillbilly boogies and savagely lyrical, hip-hop influenced political punk rock. Their masterpiece, and their most political release by far, is the searing 2015 album Capital. Their latest one After the Fall – streaming at Bandcamp – is a breakup album, sometimes allusive, sometimes completely grim.

They open with the title track, a departure into vintage 70s-style CBGB powerpop, guitarist Nathan Singleton’s surprisingly lushly layered guitars and bass over drummer Jeremy Harrell’s syncopated drive. “Wore a mask so long it became my face/I went in circles for years just to get to this place,” Singleton recalls. Prophetic, huh?

Ben Senerfit’s baritone sax punches in on the lows in Easy Action, which comes across as a mashup of Jon Spencer and Marcellus Hall. Guest lead guitarist Marc Ribot plays sizzling, noisy blues over Kenny Siegal’s blustery layers of keyboards in Hold On It: “I only walk on eggshells ‘cause I like the way it sounds,” Singleton snarls.

He channels Lou Reed, both musically and vocally, in The Lonely One, then he goes back toward the gutter blues of the band’s early years in the resolute Capital Crime. They hit a surprisingly funky pulse in the album’s best, most aphoristic and Dylanesque track, Same Thing:

Edge of the water at the end of time
You can see the other shore on the horizon line
It’s a trick of the light, it’s not too faraway
I’m at the bottom of the bottle next to the bay

Singleton’s Blood on the Tracks reference later on packs a wallop.

“Nothing to live for, it’s something to do,” Singleton muses in What I Mean, a stomping, stark, hypnotic blues anthem in a Jesus and Mary Chain vein. He goes back to Lou Reed mode over Harrell’s simple, steady stomp in Forty Days and the album’s cynical closing cut, Young Forever.

A Richly Detailed, Psychedelic Layer Cake From Polish Rockers the White Kites

The White Kites‘ previous album Missing was a mix of spot-on 60s and 70s art-rock and psychedelia. Their latest release, Devillusion – streaming at Bandcamp – has more of a 70s vibe. David Bowie is the obvious reference point, with echoes of the Beatles, ELO and even Jethro Tull as well as artsy 90s bands like Pulp. The group’s playful sense of humor often masks a dark undercurrent. This is a long record, fourteen tracks of catchy, purist tunesmithing, outside-the-box sonics and strange interludes, best appreciated as a cohesive whole.

They open the album with Spinning Lizzie, a Bowie-esque take on funk, the guitars of Przemek Piłaciński and Bartek Woźniak flaring over the squiggles of Jakub Lenarczyk’s keys and bassist Marysia Białota’s overdubbed combo organ. Frontman Sean Palmer delivers a deadpan account of an increasingly thorny acid trip in the second track, Rather Odd over Lenarczyk’s stately piano and organ swirls

With its ba-bump noir cabaret phantasmagoria, Not a Brownie is just as surreal, especially with the spacy breakdown in the middle. Paweł Betley’s flute flits over drummer Jakub Tolak’s steady Penny Lane beat throughout the cheery Warsaw Summer. Frozen Heartland could be ELO in a particularly lush, wistful moment, circa 1977: “Come back!” is the mantra.

Rising from a blippy bounce to far more serious, Dragon is a knowing parable about the kind of big, unexpected payoff that you might encounter if you keep your mind open. The band go back to a carnivalesque pulse for the album’s fleeting title track, then blend pouncing Bowie rock with crazed atmospherics in Viral Spiral.

Białota’s Rhodes mingles uneasily with the simmering guitars in Blurred, a portrait of a superman which may have sarcastic political subtext. Ola Bilińska sings the miniature Mysteries in the Sky over a twinkling backdrop of electric piano and lush acoustic guitars. Then the band pick up the pace with QRMA, shifting between watery chorus-box-driven late Beatles and skittish glamrock.

Palmer intones an eco-disaster warning over a deep-space soundscape in Goodbye Gaia. Mother Mars is a logical segue, a broodingly waltzing art-rock anthem: if the White Kites got it right, we’re looking at Life on Mars, or bust. They wind up the album with the slow, immersive, guardedly hopeful ballad Fallen Star. The level of craft and subtle detail on this album is even more amazing considering how rock albums are made these days – and how few of them have been released this year.