New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: protest songs

Celebrate the End of an Ugly World with Brent Amaker and the Rodeo’s Protest Songs

Everybody’s favorite tongue-in-cheek baritone C&W crooner, Brent Amaker, has a new ep Ugly World, with his band the Rodeo streaming at Spotify. His protest songs speak for billions of people around the globe. How do you write a hit song? Make it a broadside about everybody’s least favorite bully.

You probably know the big hit, Dump Trump:

He has his head up his own butt…
Dude loves himself so much he’ll take us down for a buck
This tv star is a hack
I want my country back

It’s a solid piece of retro tunesmithing, too – that machete-chord guitar outro is spot-on.

The rest of the record is just as relevant. The title track is a spaghetti western tune with a bunch of amusing musical quotes and a long, incendiary guitar solo. Amaker would love a beer, but the bars are closed: things just get uglier and uglier in this lockdown hell!

He sticks with a loping southwestern gothic groove for Soldier, an unexpectedly subtle number that manages to be sympathetic to the battlescarred dude while not missing the implications of what people this damaged do if they’re running the show. Amaker closes with  New Rodeo Anthem. a stadium-friendly (or corral-friendly) singalong. You know that when the lockdown is over and Amaker is back on the road, he and the band are going to break this one out for the encores.

Now, some of you regular readers might be wondering why, after salivating over the prospect of a Trump impeachment week after week a year ago, this blog went totally silent on the Presidential election. Did New York Music Daily secretly go over to the dark side and endorse Trump?

No. But if anybody thinks Biden is an improvement, they’re living in a dream world. In many respects Biden is Trump with a smiley face – or wearing a muzzle with a smiley face on it. Trump was surrounded by a bunch of cheap snatch-and-grab thugs, but Biden’s people are far more sinister. The Trump crowd simply wanted to loot the treasury and make a quick getaway. Biden’s people have an agenda: permanent lockdown. The New Abnormal. We are going to have to be twice as dedicated to noncompliance as we’ve been the past year in order to get rid of it. And this blog believes we can. Stay strong because the next four years are going to be hell. But we’re going to win this thing.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. Listen at Spotify

A Haunting, Hard-Hitting New Protest Jazz Suite From Trumpeter Alonzo Demetrius

As grassroots resistance against the lockdown gains momentum and more parts of the country declare themselves free territory, we will soon have unprecedented opportunities to remake our world. As lockdowner governors are voted out and driven from office, we will have plenty of chances to give force of law to the hope kindled by the pro-freedom, Black Lives Matter and Metoo movements. On his powerful, purposeful, evocative new concert recording Live From the Prison Nation – streaming at Bandcamp – trumpeter Alonzo Demetrius addresses the ongoing need to put an end to the New Jim Crow.

This is a suite in the Ellington tradition, with stern echoes of Mingus and also the shadowy intensity of Darcy James Argue at his most concise. The opening track, Expectations begins with a troubled, suspenseful pedalpoint behind narrator’s Angela Davis’ commentary on what to do with prisons: she wants to abolish them. From there the group rise to an anthemic descending riff and then allusive variations, the bandleader shifting from somber to triumphantly fluttering, echoed by tenor saxophonist Yesseh Furaha-Ali. Pianist Daniel Abraham Jr. and bassist Benjamin Jephta maintain a low-key, mysterious presence as drummer Brian Richburg subtly raises the ante. The sudden shift to Abraham’s moody solo as the horns drop out is stunning.

Likewise, the group waft and simmer through The Principle, a haunting, allusively modal tone poem of sorts, the bandleader’s trumpet awash in reverb and digital sustain until he finally cuts loose. There’s a fade up and then out of Yesseh’s Interlude, a brief, thoughtful Furaha-Ali solo.

“It is only movements that bring change…movements work,” author and wrongfully convicted death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal reminds in his voiceover for Mumia’s Guidance, a similarly brooding backdrop with soulful, low-key trumpet and sax solos. “We live in an era where the very notion of a movement sems strange or oddly out of time. That is so because over the last half century, the state has worked hard to disappear the memory of the movements of the 60s or for that matter any other time in us history. It has utilized the the media, the academy and public schools to present a false and misleading historical narrative to confuse people so they cannot see how movements grow, interact, swell and finally present such position unto the public square..”

Demetrius closes the album with his most epic composition, the anti-police brutality tableau F.O.O. Shit. The group rises ominously over sounds of community-building in the streets; Jephta’s pensive four-chord electric bass riffs anchor and then launch a tightly clustering, expansive sax solo. A sinister tritone flourish from Abraham signals that there’s plenty of trouble ahead and work to do as Jephta booms in the distance, Demetrius shifting from grim, Middle Eastern-tinged allusions to spacious, reflective, Wadada Leo Smith-like motives. The slow upward drive backs away just short of a conflagration

This isn’t just one of the best and most relevant jazz albums of the year; it’s one of the best and most relevant albums of the past several years, period. And if Demetrius hadn’t had the presence of mind to record this show, today he and the band would have to make the long trip to Florida, or South Dakota, or Council, Idaho to make the album. That’s how twisted this country became in 2020.

A Haunting, Hypnotic Elegy For People of Color Murdered by Police Since 2017

Cinematic postrock soul band Algiers originally released the anti-police violence broadside Cleveland on their 2017 album The Underside of Power. Frontman Franklin James Fisher’s impassioned vocals channeled determination to decimate what’s left of Jim Crow, whether the old or new kinds. In the wake of the protests of the past several months, they’ve released one of the most extended singles of all time, Cleveland 20/20 – streaming at Bandcamp – adding the names of 232 innocent people of color murdered by police since the song first came out. Fisher has also included the victims of the child murders that plagued Atlanta from 1979 to 1981. It is even more of a shock to discover that so many of these people were women.

This is sort of the Shoah single of 2020: haunting, hypnotic and relentless, over a swirling, gothic motorik background that decays to bleakly atmospheric free jazz. And at almost thirty-four minutes, it’s as grimly relevant as music gets in 2020.

There’s also a “vocal mix” that’s about half as long, with just the roll call of the murdered, gospel harmonies and handclaps.

A Savagely Spot-On Album of Holiday Protest Songs From the Pocket Gods

The Pocket Gods – British songwriter Mark Christopher Lee’s mind-bendingly prolific rock project – have a spot-on new album of protest songs, No Room at the (Holiday) Inn, out just in time for the last month of the year and streaming at Spotify. In the same vein as last year’s punk rock Xmas album, Lee has penned a collection of pro-freedom anthems that span a whole bunch of styles.

The best song on the album is the Beatlesque I Can’t Breathe, sending out a shout to the late George Floyd in a global context. “Like every battered wife strangled in lockdown…from oppressed singers to the homeless vying for patronage….it’s real for those with PTSD,” Lee reminds. Seriously: ask anyone who’s survived a building fire, a serious car accident, a near-drowning, or a violent assault that involved strangulation or asphyxiation. An awful lot of those people can’t be muzzled because muzzles are a PTSD trigger.

And what’s the most effective way to get a PTSD attack under control? Deep breathing. You do the math.

On the pissed-off, punk side, there’s the sarcastically galloping COVID Cavalry, part carnivalesque anthem, part phony Xmas carol, Lee speaking for a whole country full of people missing their significant others – or the kind of fun they used to have dancing in pubs, which they can’t have now, because it’s illegal.

“If you sing along to this catchy Christmas song in a pub you will be shot,” is basically all the lyrics to the sludgy, Jesus and Mary Chain-ish single COVID Christmas. I Saw Mommy Doing Track and Trace is a cynical, Ramonesy dis at Boris Johnson, “A big fat scrooge.”

The saddest song on the album is the title track, a gloomy psychedelic rock tune: “This used to be my town, now they’ve shut everything down,” Lee intones, speaking for urban dwellers around the world. Surplus Population is an ersatz funk number with a sample of Scrooge himself asserting that “If they would rather die they’d better do it and decrease the surplus population.”

On the optimistic side, there’s Celebrate, a pretty, jangly lo-fi folk-rock number. There are also a couple of careening, noisy, metalish horror themes and a horror surf tune titled Shitter Was Full.

Good to see the tireless Lee joining Jello Biafra, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown on the front lines of the pro-freedom movement.

A Quietly Searing, Politically-Fueled New Album From Guitarist Ty Citerman and Bop Kabbalah

Guitarist Ty Citerman’s Bop Kabbalah is best known for rocking out centuries-old Jewish themes. His latest release under the Bop Kabbalah monicker, When You Speak of Times to Come – streaming at Bandcamp – is just as radical, and radically different. As so many artists have done during the lockdown, this is far more intimate, a trio record with singers Sara Serpa and Judith Berkson.

This one’s all about contrasts. Citerman shifts between stark, acidic minimalism, cold sparks of noise and the minor-key growl he’s best known for as the two women add lushness and haunting close harmonies. This album often sounds like it’s made by a much larger ensemble. Serpa and Berkson often switch between channels in the mix: the former is more misty yet also more crystalline, while Berkson’s voice is more edgy and forceful. Together they cover all the bases.

They also deliver spoken word in both English and Yiddish in a handful of righteously revolutionary interludes between songs, along with the album’s rather exasperated opening prayer. The brief first song has simple, somber counterpoint between the two women and spiky harmonics from Citerman.

The second spoken-word interlude instructs us to “Demand bread from tsars and dukes, demand human rights, demand everything we’ve created.” In year of the lockdown, that has never been more of an imperative! The women’s uneasy close harmonies and blippy quasi-operatics float and dance as Citerman builds from icepick incisions to a snarl in Geyt Brider Geyt.

“With one hand you gave us the Constitution, with the other you took it back…you thought you could divert the revolution, that was your dirty politics. Down with you, you executioner, you muderer, get off the throne, no one believes in you anymore, only in the red flag,” the trio warn as the album’s fifth cut slowly builds up steam. Citerman winds down his multitracks, hits his distortion pedal and cuts loose with a roar.

Berkson sings the moody, steady Ver Tut Stroyen Movern Palatsn – an exploration of who does all the heavy lifting, and who gets the benefit of all that lifting – against Serpa’s signature vocalese, and Citerman’s burning dynamic shifts.

They wind down the hypnotic, pulsing, intertwining Es Rirt Zikh with an expansive, exploratory solo. The three build considerably more haunting variations on an old nigun in the first part of the suite Future Generations – is that Berkson or Serpa on piano?

The women’s harmonies are especially plaintive in the second part, At Night, a furtively slashing revolutionary tableau: Gordon Grdina’s darkest work comes to mind here. The album’s grittiest and most unhinged interlude is part three, Hidden Rage. The chillingly chromatic concluding movement, with its brooding tradeoffs between piano and guitar, serves as the title track. If there ever was an album for the end of the year on the brink of a holocaust delivered via lethal injection, this is it.

Spot-On Protest Songs and Spare, Eclectic Guitar Instrumentals From Austin Legend Matt Smith

Multi-instrumentalist Matt Smith is one of the great guitarists in Americana, among many other things. These days, most importantly, he writes protest songs.

Check out How We Got to Here, a spare, fingerpicked, dobro-infused number from his most recent album Being Human. In under four minutes, he paints a grim picture of recent American history, from the coup d’etat in 2000, up to the lockdown and how social media has paralyzed so many of us when we’re needed most:

We all saw it coming but we’re too self-involved to stand
Against the ones back in the shadows who wait to implement the plan
When they told us this was normal and did not believe the news
We took pictures of our dinnes and proselytized our views

Smith finds optimism in historical rebellions against past tyrannies: let’s hope he’s right.

The rest of the record – streaming at youtube – mirrors Smith’s long career as a bandleader, sideman to the stars and owner of a recording studio, the 6 String Ranch, revered as one of the go-to spots if you really want a vintage Americana sound from across many decades. There’s another great protest song here, Sanctuary, a dusky minor-key Robert Cray-style blues about the xenophobia that South American refugees run up against once they cross the US border.

“Why does it feel like the sky is falling?” Smith asks in the cynical, loping title track. After that, Smith channels a vast range of styles ranging from early 80s Midnight Starr stoner funk, to the Who.

Smith also has a charming all-instrumental solo acoustic album, Parlor – streamin at Spotify – where he plays a beautifully restored heirloom 1890’s Thompson and Odell parlor guitar. Most of the tracks are on the short side, some less than two minutes. Blind Blake-inspired ragtime fingerpicking, Piedmont and delta blues, Yorkshire-style balladry, Indian music, Leo Kottke wizardry, and, improbably, indie rock all figure into Smith’s distinctive, sometimes stark, sometimes opaque compositions.

Ferociously Lyrical, Amazingly Psychedelic, Eclectic Sounds From the Free Radicals

Fearlessly political Houston-based collective the Free Radicals have a brilliant, insightful new album, White Power Outage Volume 1 out and streaming at Bandcamp. Over catchy, psychedelically arranged organic grooves that range from hard funk, to roots reggae, to dub and even surf music, a vast cast of over fifty artists speak truth to power with witheringly insightful lyricism. This album is like a great musical podcast about the state of the world right at the first strike of the lockdown: over and over again, this crew breaks down the big picture in ways that make sense, especially considering what’s happened since March 16 here in New York and even earlier in Wuhan.

Not surprisingly, it took more than a year to pull together all 23 tracks here. Hip-hop artist Obidike Kamau kicks it off over with America Is a Lie, over a slinky, live funk groove with wah guitar:

I know how much this hurts your feelings
It’s not because you strive for justice, but I’ve heard this bullshit all my life
The propaganda you spit, the rose-colored myths you declare
…I guess it goes back to your gangster beginnings
Your genocidal belief in unhappy endings
…I know a thief appreciates possession being nine tenths of the law
And you’re a liar
I ain’t in fear, your reign is temporary
I see it leaving here

EQuality delivers another broadside so good all 58 seconds of it are worth reprinting:

If multiple black men are found dead in the apartment of a millionaire tied to the Democratic Party named Ed Buck, and nobody investigates his role in the incident, does it make a sound?
Bartender I’ll take another round
But pouring kool-aid in a wine glass don’t make it merlot
A cat having kittens in the oven don’t make them biscuits
Well I’ll be George Washington Carver selling peanuts to the peanut gallery at the art gallery See what’s on the walls, pictures of poverty and pain
‘Cause that’s what sells n____s to negros
Some inverse tradeoff
Paid off the most popular rapper so the house can run the field n____s
Capitalism and Christ cut a deal in the back of the Vatican
As the Pope pours another round of scotch
Excuse my cynicism
The gospel according to a con

“Maybe we just catch a case and disappear without a trace,” says rapper Nosaprise over the loopy psychedelic backdrop of Cash Out — and he’s not talking about COVID.

“Beware the boogieman, terror threats scaring us out of psychological reason,” D-Ology warns in Look at That, a far-reaching catalog of threats from police brutality to transhumanism.

The Great Australian Heist, featuring hip-hop lyricist Bryte from down under, reminds how the slave trade devastated his country’s indigenous population…and how that resonates today in, as just one example, the way fracking is destroying the country’s already scarce water supply. He doesn’t get into the fascist lockdown situation there, the most repressive clampdown on human rights outside of China and Israel right now.

Swatara Olushola takes over the mic in Racist Car No Driver, revealing a sinister white supremacist motivation behind driverless cars: their “garbage in, garbage out” technology was designed not to recognize the presence of black people in the street. Earlier in the record she contributes another rocksteady-tinged protest song that also pokes savage fun at technosupremacists.

The musicians here turn out to be a phenomenal roots reggae band. The best of many of the reggae tunes here are the intricately arranged Daughter of Diana, with Kam Franklin on vocals, and Student Debt Dub, an Ethiopiques number fueled by bass and brass. Yet the best straight-up instrumental on the album is the sarcastically titled Deepwater Horizon, a slinky, reverbtoned minor-key surf rock instrumental – it’s really cool how the bass gets to carry the melody for a verse.

Later on the band careen into punk klezmer for a bit, then toward the end of the record Matt Kelly contributes Piece of the Rock, a Celtic/punkgrass mashup sung from the point of view of a greedy oligarch. “Come take a hit of my rock,” he snarls.

Highlights among the many other tracks here also include also fiery, politically charged reggaeton from Karina Nistal; Rashard’s More Power, a political update on vintage James Brown spiced with vibraphone and horns; and Genesis Blu & Jasmine Christine’s Chariot Rock, a conscious hip-hop reinvention of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot over dubby, Ethiopian-tinged loops. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page here at the end of the month.

Prime, Incendiary, Epically Relevant Live Mingus Rescued From the Archives

Even if he was just walking the changes to an otherwise pedestrian blues, Charles Mingus would inevitably infuse it with the irony, and dark humor, and quite possibly righteous rage that characterized his compositions. On April 16, 1964, in a modest auditorium attached to the local radio station in Bremen, Germany, Mingus didn’t reach for the rage immediately, but he channeled everything else, an icon always searching to find new ways to articulate himself. In doing that, he elevated the hall-of-fame lineup alongside him to rare levels of intensity and wild, reckless fun. The recording of the simulcast has been out there for awhile, as The Complete Bremen Concert. It’s  been newly digitized, and most of it is  available on a mammoth quadruple album along with a second performance in the same city from more than ten years later. These often withering historical performances, titled Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975, are streaming at Sunnyside Records.

Two concerts, two completely different contexts. 1964: in America, Jim Crow is still de jure rather than de facto, Mingus focused intently on civil rights themes. 1975, post-Attica massacre, the composer turns his attention to prisoners’ rights while not neglecting general issues of equality. Either way, his fiercely populist vision never wavered.

The sound for the first show is broadcast-quality mono awash in generous reverb. The second one has a a far more dynamic stereo mix. Together they total more than four hours of the legendary bassist with two almost completely different but equally incendiary bands.

The first show features a dream team of players, many of them as revered as the bandleader. Eric Dolphy, in one of his last recordings here, plays alto sax, bass clarinet and flute, along with tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, trumpeter Johnny Coles, Jaki Byard on a piano in, um, saloon tuning, and colorful, underrated, longtime Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond.

How do you keep a crowd engaged in a 26-minute blues? Get these guys involved; the bandleader’s terse irony is a big part of it, as is Dolphy’s irrepressible outsider sensibility. Their 34-minute take of Fables of Faubus, the lone holdover that would reappear in the 1975 setlist, has plenty of cruelly cartoonish mockery of the little Hitler governor of Arkansas, but also a venomous duet between Mingus and Byard, vindictive blaze and chilling noir swing, Coles’ mournful lines backlit by Dolphy’s bass clarinet – which emerges as voice of both horror and reason.

Byard teases the audience with phantasmagorical stride one step beyond Monk to introduce a delicate bass/piano take of Sophisticated Lady. The group indulge the crowd as much as themselves in Mingus’ Parkeriana, a careening mashup of Bird themes, Dolphy hitting those high harmonics like probably only their composer could have. In Meditations on Integration, they take an immersive roller-coaster ride from poignancy to haphazardly floating swing and for awhile, more optimistic terrain. The brooding triangulation between Byard’s crushing chords, Dolphy’s ominous airiness and Mingus’ severe, bowed lines at the end is one of the album’s most shattering interludes.

The July 9, 1975 concert at a larger venue, Post Aula, features a quintet including George Adams on tenor sax, trumpeter Jack Walrath and pianist Don Pullen, with Richmond on drums again. This time the songs are more succinct, in contrast with the sheer wildness of the solos. Their first number here is the epically bustling ballad Sue’s Changes (Mingus’ beloved wife Sue was editor of Changes magazine), with expansive, explosive solos all around. Mingus’ bass is far grittier and dynamic on this recording, probably due to close-miking. Pullen’s turbulence against his long chromatic vamp paints an aptly formidable portrait.

A broodingly bluesy, angst-fueled take of Sy Johnson’s tribute For Harry Carney is next, Adams whirling and punching, mostly in the lows, over a catchy, modally shamanic pulse. Mingus’ aching microtonal solo as Pullen runs the hook is tantalizingly brief. Free Cell Block F, ‘Tis Nazi USA – a protest piece against grim conditions in southern prisons’ death row blocks – is surprisingly, scamperingly bright, all the soloists in determined, seemingly defiant mode as this swing shuffle takes on more of a latin feel.

The group scramble and pulse insistently through Walrath’s Black Bats and Poles, anchored by Mingus’ vamping octaves and lickety-split variations. The version of Fables of Faubus this time around clocks in at a comparatively modest fifteen-plus minutes, much more contiguously and solo-centric after the band careen their way in.

Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love, Mingus’ fond elegy for his big influence, provides a calm platform for tender Adams and Walrath solos, and gentle lyricism from piano and bass. They indulge in a brief bit of Ray Noble’s Cherokee to pick up the pace and end the set.

The first of the encores is the catchy, briskly swinging Remember Rockefeller at Attica, with bright, crescendoing trumpet and piano solos, Adams’ rapidfire attack leading the band out. He takes a similarly impassioned turn on vocals to close the night with Devil’s Blues after a sagacious Mingus solo intro. Is it unfair to compare new material by contemporary artists to the transcendence on this album? Wait and see when – and if – we reach the moment where there’s a best albums of 2020 list here.

Hauntingly Imagistic, Socially Aware Songs From Australia’s Emily Barker

Beyond the increasingly Orwellian nightmare of communist China, what the lockdowners have done to Australia is a crime unequaled in antipodean history. Infants torn from their mothers by police enforcing muzzle regulations, pregnant women arrested for pro-freedom Facebook posts, food production facilities shut down in order to starve citizens into submission: the list of atrocities is endless. Meanwhile, lockdowner collaborators in the Australian government have been busy recruiting diverse representatives of the country’s many ethnicities to star in reality tv-style pro-lockdown propaganda videos, for pay. All this is going to happen in America, and everywhere else, if we don’t end the lockdown. And then hold Nuremberg trials for those responsible.

One can only hope Australian songwriter Emily Barker has been spared from the bulk of the country’s assault on human rights. Under the regime, any ecologically aware, politically-inspired songwriter would seem to be imperiled. She paints haunting pictures with few words, is a strong folk-rock tunesmith and sings with an understated intensity. Her latest album A Dark Murmuration of Words is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, Return Me has an easygoing, sparely loping groove but also a stark string arrangement and otherworldly, reverb-toned banjo. The second track, Geography is a wistful midtempo shuffle with the strings and also organ hovering in the distance, Barker contemplating how much the idea of home is an actual space, or a mindspace.

“From a prison cell, you dreamt of trees while the blood dries up upon your cheek,” Barker sings in The Woman Who Planted Trees, a brooding, minor-key fingerpicked tune. “You didn’t know, you never heard, around the world, people learned.” Barker takes her inspiration from the struggles of Nobel Prizewinning Kenyan ecological activist Wangari Maathai.

The album’s most unforgettable song is Where Have the Sparrows Gone. It’s an understatedly harrowing, baroque-tinged double narrative, an imagistic travelogue that’s both an eco-disaster parable and an elegy for an unnamed individual whose ashes are about to be scattered.

Over an elegantly picked web of acoustic and electric guitars, Barker paints an allusively detailed portrait of rural poverty and impending natural disaster in Strange Weather: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Tift Merritt songbook.

“I made it harder the more your skin is dark,” Barker’s white supremacist prison-industrial complex oligarch narrator sings cynically in Machine, a surreal mashup of trip-hop and 19th century African-American gospel

Organ and banjo mingle in When Stars Cannot Be Found, a gently shuffling lullaby. The strings return with a moody bluster in Ordinary, a troubled return to allusive environmental disaster imagery.

With lingering baritone guitar and organ, Any More Goodbyes is the most American country-flavored and gorgeously bittersweet tune here. Barker closes the record with Sonogram, a piano-and-vocal number which could be about pregnancy, or something much less auspicious. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page at the end of the year.