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The 50 Best Albums of 2017

Scroll down for links to stream each of the albums here…except for the very newest one, which happens to be #1.

The best and most relevant album of 2017 was Fukushima, by the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York. This haunting, epic five-part suite is not a narrative of the grim events of March 11, 2011, but rather the Tokyo-born pianist/bandleader’s reflection on personal terror and horror in the wake of the worst nuclear disaster in world history.

Fujii’s stock in trade is not political music. Her vast catalog – over eighty albums as a leader or co-leader since the 90s – encompasses everything from epic improvisational soundscapes, to dark, acerbic piano compositions, rainy-day Japanese-flavored jazz-folk and collaborations with a global cast of artists. This may be her greatest achievement to date, as lush and sweeping as it is anthemically tuneful. And as a response to greed-fueled attempts to cover up the deadly environmental damage caused by the meltdowns, it’s as savage as Shostakovich’s greatest symphonies or Charles Mingus’ political broadsides.

It’s not streaming anywhere at present (end of December 2017), but it’s just out and available from Fujii’s Libra Records. Watch this space for a link! 

Vast research and triage went into the rest of this list. If you count multitasking as listening, an extremely ambitious listener can digest maybe three new albums a day. That’s about 1200 albums a year. An extremely ambitious music blogger can sample several thousand and then attempt to make sense of the very best. As in previous years, these albums are listed in rough chronological order considering when they were received here, rather than in any kind of hierarchical ranking. Which would be absurd, anyway – if an album’s one of the year’s fifty best, it’s got to be pretty damn good.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade – Town & Country
Protest jazz, icy Messiaenic miniatures and luminous nocturnes from the noir piano icon and his brilliant longtime singer collaborator. Listen at Spotify 

Ward White – As Consolation
The best rock record of 2017 is a surreal, twistedly psychedelic, ferociously literary masterpiece, from the guy who also put out the album ranked #1 here in 2013. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Dream Syndicate – How Did I Find Myself Here
Iconic noir songwriter Steve Wynn regrouped his legendary, influential 80s band, who picked up like they never left off with a mix of psychedelia, dreampop and volcanic jams. Listen at youtube

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Not Two
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s latest large-ensemble recording, blending elements of Middle Eastern, Indian music and jazz is an album for our time: turbulent, restless and packed with poignant solos from a global lineup. Listen at New Amsterdam Records 

Son of Skooshny – Matchless Gifts
Wickedly lyrical songwriter Mark Breyer, longtime leader of powerpop cult favorites Skooshny, carries on with this richly jangly magnum opus, which collects his best songs of the last ten years or so. Listen at Bandcamp 

Phil Ochs  – Live in Montreal 10/22/66
What’s the iconic 1960s political firebrand doing on a list devoted to new music? This is new – a never-before-released set of many of his most shattering songs. It’s probably the definitive solo acoustic Ochs album. Listen at Spotify 

Charming Disaster – Cautionary Tales
The New York noir supergroup – led by Jeff Morris of lavish, dark, latin-flavored rockers Kotorino and Ellia Bisker of parlor pop existentialists Sweet Soubrette – expand their palette from murder ballads to apocalyptic anthems, spy themes and a novelty song that had to be written. Listen at Bandcamp 

Alice Lee – The Wheel
The long-awaited new album by one of the most brilliantly lyrical, sardonically insightful, captivating soul singers and songwriters to emerge from this city in this century. Listen at Bandcamp 

Changing Modes – Goodbye Theodora
Postapocalyptic art-rock, noir surf and snarling dreampop are just the tip of the iceberg on the keyboard-driven, female-fronted cult favorite New York band’s seventh album. Listen at Spotify

The Mehmet Polat Trio – Ask Your Heart
Serpentine, uneasily picturesque, dynamic Middle Eastern, African and Balkan themes from the virtuoso oud player and his eclectic group. Listen at Spotify 

NO ICE – Come On Feel the NO ICE
The Brooklyn What’s Jamie Frey continues as part of this careeningly diverse group, arguably the best band to come out of Brooklyn in the past five years. Fearless soul-rock, unhinged post new wave and loud, enigmatic anthems with a killer, spot-on sense of humor. Listen at Bandcamp

Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
Morose, muted, characteristically slashing acoustic waltzes and orchestral pop from the perennially relevant psychopathologist. Listen at Spotify 

The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
Sardonic, bitingly insightful new wave for an age of greed and narcissism from this era’s preeminent powerpop supergroup. Listen at Spotify 

Orkesta Mendoza – ¡Vamos A Guarachar!
The world’s darkest and slinkiest southwestern gothic psychedelic cumbia noir mambo band. Listen at Bandcamp 

Los Wemblers – Ikaro Del Amor
That a four-song ep could make this list testifies to how genuinely incredible, and improbable it is. Legendary in their native Peru, where they started almost fifty years ago, this psychedelic cumbia family band jam as eerily and otherworldly as they did when they first emerged from the jungle. Listen at Spotify 

The Uzelli Psychedelic Anadolu compilation
Spanning from 1975 to 1984, this collection of kinetic Turkish psychedelic rock and funk seems even more current in this era of surreal cross-cultural mashups, comprising songs by artists including Erkin Koray, Asik Emrah, Ali Ayhan, Deniz Ustu Kopurur and others. Listen at Spotify 

The Sadies – Northern Passages
The moodily jangly Canadian gothic cult favorites’ hardest-rocking and most psychedelic album. Listen at Bandcamp 

Morricone Youth – Mad Max
The iconic New York noir cinephiles’ first release of the year – one of a planned fifty recordings of scores for films they’ve played live to over the years – is far darker and more southwestern gothic-oriented than the road warrior film’s plot. With a Karla Rose vocal cameo, too. Listen at Spotify 

James Williamson and Deniz Tek – Acoustic K.O.
Two iconic guitarists who largely defined the uncompromising Detroit proto-punk sound of the 1970s flip the script with an acoustic ep of lushly orchestrated Stooges classics. Listen at Spotify 

Andina: Huayno, Carnaval and Cumbia – The Sound of the Peruvian Andes 1968-1978
Seventeen trebly, reverby, even rarer tracks than the psychedelic cumbia unearthed by Barbes Records on the iconic Roots of Chicha compilations. Los Walker’s are the best-known group here; Los Compadres del Ande, Los Jelwees and Huiro y su Conjunto, among others, are also included. This isn’t just chicha, either: there are horn bands and cha-cha groups here too. Listen at Bandcamp

Melange – Viento Bravo
The Spanish Nektar jangle and swirl and spiral through one brooding, psychedelic art-rock mini-epic after another. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Legendary Shack Shakers – After You’ve Gone
Unstoppable after twenty years on the road, the iconic ghoulabilly/noir Americana band dive deeper into their twisted, swampy roots. Guitarist Rod Hamdallah makes a furiously triumphant return. Listen at Spotify 

Mames Babegenush – Mames Babegenush With Strings
Dynamic, lush, soaring, swooping brass-and-reed-fueled original klezmer dance numbers and anthems from this powerhouse Copenhagen unit. Listen at Spotify

Briga – Femme
The Montreal-based violinist’s eclectic, incisive mix of Romany, Balkan and klezmer sounds, with a little psychedelic and hip-hop flavor. Listen at Bandcamp

Saffron – Will You
Magical singer Katayoun Goudarzi and sitarist Shujaat Khan team up with Rolling Stones saxophonist Tim Ries, pianist Kevin Hays and others for this hypnotic, otherworldly reinvention of centuries-old Indian carnatic themes. Listen at Rockpaperscissors 

Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa
Newly digitized, rare, otherworldly 1970s and 80s Somali psychedelic rock, funk and Afrobeat from cassettes and master tapes buried to hide them from bombing raids. Amazing stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Arthur Lee & Love – Coming Through to You: The Live Recordings 1970-2004
Four sprawling discs comprising most of this psychedelic rock legend’s best songs, which he rocks the hell out of in concert. Most of this stuff is previously unreleased, and further proof that Lee’s career was far from over by the time he was done with Forever Changes. Listen at Spotify 

Steelism – Ism
Friends of Dean Martinez meets Morricone Youth in this surreal, catchy mix of keening steel guitar-driven instrumentals. Powerhouse soulstress Ruby Amanfu guests on a track. Listen at Spotify 

Neotolia – Neotolian Song
Pianist Utar Artun’s acerbic, moodily cinematic, sometimes jazz-inspired Turkish ensemble with the great Jussi Reijonen on guitar and oud. Listen at Soundcloud 

Dalava – The Book of Transfigurations
Slashingly eclectic ex-Lou Reed guitarist Aram Bajakian and his singer wife Julia Ulehla join forces and reinvent haunting, often harrowing Moravian folk songs with a psychedelic edge.Listen at Bandcamp 

Vigen Hovsepyan – Echoes: Revived Armenian Folk Music
The evocative singer/guitarist’s brooding, eclectic ballads and anthems from decades past, featuring the great oudist Ara Dinkjian. Listen at Spotify 

Money Chicha – Echo in Mexico
This is psychedelic south-of-the-border funk band Grupo Fantasma proving how deeply they can go into heavy psychedelic cumbias. Listen at Soundcloud

Castle Black – Trapped Under All You Know
Layers of reverb guitars flickering and roaring through the shadows, Leigh Celent’s power trio put out the best short rock album of 2017. Listen at youtube 

The Sweetback Sisters – King of Killing Time
Hard country, early 50s style from the eclectic, purist, badass duo of Emily Miller and Zara Bode with a great band behind them. Listen at Bandcamp 

Clint Mansell – Loving Vincent soundtrack
A classic 21st century horror film score. It’s not a horror film per se, but you can see the madness coming a mile away. Listen at Spotify 

Ella Atlas – The Road to Now
Enigmatic, allusively torchy singer Tarrah Maria’s band put out one of the most Lynchian releases of the year, joining forces with Lost Patrol guitar mastermind Stephen Masucci. Listen at Bandcamp 

Kelly Moran – Bloodroot
Enigmatically glistening, baroque-tinged multi-keyboard instrumentals inspired by many species of woodland greenery. Listen at Bandcamp 

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Flying Microtonal Banana
On which the well-loved Aussie psychedelic band took their initial leap into eerie, Middle Eastern-tinged microtonal music. Listen at Bandcamp 

Nina Diaz  – The Beat Is Dead
The Girl in a Coma bandleader gets ornate and cinematic with this dark, 80s new wave-style collection. Listen at Spotify 

Funkrust Brass Band – Dark City
High-voltage, rat-a-tat original Balkan brass anthems from this huge Brooklyn ensemble fronted by Charming Disaster’s Ellia Bisker. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Warlocks – Songs from the Pale Eclipse
Jangly, punchy, catchy 60s Laurel Canyon-style psychedelic rock – in lieu of a new album by the Allah-Las, this one will do fine. Listen at Bandcamp 

Galanos – Deceiver Receiver
With a gutter blues influence, some Thee Oh Sees dark garage-psych and some Black Angels ambience, this group are sort of the X of creepy 21st century rock. Listen at Bandcamp

Chicano Batman – Freedom Is Free
Organist Bardo Martinez and his shapeshifting band swing kaleidoscopically between latin soul, Zombies-style psych-pop, hard funk and Isaac Hayes-style epics. Listen at Bandcamp

Bridget Kearney  Won’t Let You Down
One of the year’s catchiest albums features Lake Street Dive’s killer bassist playing most of the instruments, through a mix of powerpop and new wave-flavored sounds. Listen at Bandcamp  

Algiers – The Underside of Power
Politically-fueled punk soul meets postrock meets postapocalyptic film score in gritty singer Franklin James Fisher’s ominously smoky narratives. Listen at Spotify 

Eric Ambel – Roscoe Live Vol. 1
One of the most distinctively brilliant, entertaining rock guitarists of the last couple of decades at the top of his game at an upstate outdoor festival with a killer band. Listen at Bandcamp 

Red Baraat – Bhangra Pirates
Wave after wave of undulating, crescendoing, cinematic, insanely danceable original brass-fueled live bhangra jams. Listen at Spotify 

Olcay Bayir – Neva/Harmony
Quietly intense new versions of ancient Turkish ballads and Balkan songs from the nuanced Turkish singer’s debut album. Listen at Spotify 

Gogol Bordello – Seekers & Finders
Amazing how fresh and energetic the original Eastern Bloc punks sound after all these years. Tight, catchy, never boring. Listen at Spotify

Ihtimanska – Yuz Yuze
A low-key but bouncy duo album of biting, minor-key Turkish and Bulgarian tunes from the duo of reedwoman Ariane Morin and accordionist Yoni Kaston. Listen at Bandcamp 

Daniel Ruiz – Purple Bird and Other Strange Songs
A haunting mix of of Doors and Nick Cave-influenced dark psychedelic rock and pop  from this Spanish songwriter. Listen at Bandcamp

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The Allah-Las Bring Their Ominous, Wickedly Catchy Psychedelia to NYC This Friday Night

The icy river of guitar reverb that echoed off the walls of Baby’s All Right in South Williamsburg turned out to be the perfect antidote to the hostility of the indian summer heat outside the sold-out first night of California psychedelic band the Allah-Las’ weekend stand late last September, the band’s most recent appearance here. The industrial-quality air conditioning blasting from the ceiling didn’t hurt either. And the decision to leave the room lights off, allowing illumination to filter in from the stage and from the back bar, only added to the hallucinatory ambience.

That the best song of the night – a dusky Steve Wynn/Karla Rose style desert rock theme – didn’t have any words at all speaks to how catchy the Allah-Las songs are. That one appeared about an hour into the set. They’d also opened with an instrumental, a crepuscular, propulsive Doors/Frank Flight Band style vamp flickering with lead player Pedrum Siadatian’s twelve-string guitar, dancing, Indian-flavored flute lines and bubbling percussion in tandem with drummer Matthew Correia’s steady, cymbal-splashing groove. It set the stage for the rest of a shadowy, wall-warping evening

The swaying, clanging, 13th Floor Elevators-ish Had It All kept the dusky ambience going. They opened the Del Shannon-noir number after that with a little Cape Canaveral launching pad noise, awash in reverb and distantly swirly organ. Bassist Spencer Dunham’s tersely cutting lines propelled the brooding sonics of the song after that up to a bittersweet major/minor turnaround on the chorus.

From there they went into steady, twilit Velvets clang-rock territory, Siadatian hitting his fuzztone pedal at the song’s end. Brief two-chord Elevators vamps interchanged with catchy, chugging, riff-driven Lou Reed tunesmithing, then a detour into ominous chromatic Laurel Canyon psych-folk, bristling with the occasional fuzztone lead. A misty, bittersweet ballad, a midtempo mashup of the Elevators and Arthur Lee punctuated by Siadatian’s surgically precise, lingering, tersely bluesy lead lines led to aurrealistically motoring Doorsy interludes mingling uneasily echoing electric piano into the echoey sonics. A dead-monk Yardbirds b-vox chorale made a brief appearance.

A later number blended Byrds chime with Plan 9’s distant sense of the macabre, then they played a dead ringer for LJ Murphy’s savagely classic Happy Hour. As incredibly catchy as this band’s music is, there’s always trouble on the horizon – just like our lives. The Allah-Las play this long strange trip back to you this Friday night, March 24 at Webster Hall at around 10; $20 advance tix are still available as of today.

A Soaring Blend of Psychedelic and Powerpop Rarities from the Jigsaw Seen

Since the late 80s, Los Angeles band the Jigsaw Seen have maintained a devoted following as one of the world’s most lyrically clever, playful retro psychedelic and powerpop acts. Frontman Dennis Davison’s songcraft draws on a half-century worth of catchy hooks, singalong choruses, devious and often ferociously literate wordplay and every glistening, sparkly texture ever used in 1960s British rock. Their latest album, streaming at Spotify, is titled For the Discriminating Completist. It’s a B-sides and rarities collection, akin to those great Oasis eps from the 90s. The difference is that the Jigsaw Seen’s full-length albums are as consistently excellent as their obscurities.

This album is also unusual in that it contains not one but four covers. The opening track, The Best Is Yet to Come is reinvented as Cheap Trick stripping It’s All Over Baby Blue to its inner powerpop gem. Like most of the tracks here, the snide 1999 single Celebrity Interview features the current edition of the band, founding member Jonathan Lea’s big, Badfinger-esque guitars on the chorus over the taut rhythm section of bassist Tom Currier and drummer Teddy Freese.

One of the best tracks here is We Women, a a punk anthem in Bollywood disguise that might not be quite as feminist as it seems:

We are your mothers and if you behave
We’ll give you every little thing you crave…
We’ll bend your gender left and right…
We wallow in your misery….
We’re very much like you
Although we can show all that you feel

The BeeGees’ priceless Melody Fair comes across as a Dukes of Stratosphear-style parody, maybe the only song written about stealing riffs – in this case an endless sequence from the Beatles. The version of Baby Elephant Walk is also pretty hilarious, recast as a mashup of Badfinger and Booker T. The version of Arthur Lee’s Luci Baines is a 60s soul ballad via Lou Reed in the same vein as Karla Rose‘s The Living End. Then there’s the wry faux Merseybeat of Jim Is the Devil – a broadside directed at 80s televangelist Jim Bakker – lit up with a tongue-in-cheek neo-baroque exchange of Rickenbacker licks.

The lone new track here, Have a Wonderful Day – an aphoristic apocalypse anthem –  might be the best of the bunch, with a coy piano/mellotron interlude  and a big guitar break straight out of the Tobin Sprout playbook.

When You’re Pretty is the album’s most opaque and subtly biting number, followed by the big, Beatlesque backbeat anthem Whore Kiss. With its pummeling volleys of drums, incendiary chromatics, Indian influences and dynamic shifts, My Name Is Tom is the album’s most psychedelic track. The final cut is the majestically swaying powerpop tune Another Predictable Song,  full of subtle playful guitar and bass japes.

The Jigsaw Seen will be coming back to New York in March; in the meantime, Davison is currently on tour with his brand-new duo project Witchfinder Witch with folk noir songwriter Lorraine Leckie. The final stop is tomorrow night, Jan 25 at 9 PM at Maxwell’s in Hoboken on a killer triplebill. Former Aquanettas frontwoman Debby Schwartz, with her soaring, rapturous voice, blends enigmatic dreampop and psychedelic Britfolk sounds and opens the show at 8. Twisted Blondie cover band the Pretty Babies, fronted by the fearless, funniest woman in rock, Tammy Faye Starlite, headline at 10. Cover is $10.

Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats – The Ultimate 2015 Halloween Soundtrack?

The opening track of Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats’ latest album The Night Creeper- streaming at Spotify – is Waiting for Blood. What makes this band so macabre? The slow, creeping tempos? The burning, distorted minor-key guitar progressions? What might set this group apart from all the post-Sleep, third-generation Sabbath-influenced stoner metal acts is the vocal harmonies. And when lead guitarist Kevin Starrs finally sends his hammer-ons spinning through the channels, right to left and back in a second, that’s just the icing on the cake. Track two, Murder Nights, opens with a noxious swirl of distorted roto organ and three-part vocal harmonies that evoke the Move circa 1970 as much as they put Sabbath to shame: “People creep like poison in the mind.”

Downtown takes a lurid ba-bump stripper riff and makes stalker metal out of it: the Wytches come to mind. Pusher Man springboards off of Iron Maiden off their most scorching, wide-angle minor-key mid-80s intensity and strips it down for a searing, unrelenting sway that’s impossible to turn away from, Starrs adding one of the many tantalizingly brief acid-metal guitar solos that permeate this album. He’s the rare lead guitarist you want to hear more of.

Yellow Moon makes for an unexpected respite from the horror with its slowly unwinding early King Crimson-style psychedelia…until the reverb guitars of Starrs and Yotam Rubinger build to a terrified starscape and then fade out. Starrs gets the twisted Melody Lane going with his macabre organ over the stomp of bassist Vaughn Stokes and drummer Itamar Rubinger, a twisted tale of desire whose object “pulls a knife when she loves in the dark” and leaves a “bloody remark.”

The album’s swaying, menacingly crescendoing title track is the most retro – if you can imagine a collaboration between the late Carl Wayne and Tony Iommi. But then it picks up with an even more enveloping Iron Maiden sweep peaking with a searing rise to the rafters.

Stokes’ growling, pouncing, propulsive bass propels Inside, a mashup of Arthur Lee, the Kinks and maybe ELO at their most disturbing. The album’s most original track is Slow Death, which opens as a Move-like anthem but slowly builds to a volcanic, lingering peak that cruelly fades out. The album winds out with the unexpetedly subdued Black Motorcade, a Doors-influenced dirge that wouldn’t be out of place in the Frank Flight Band catatog. Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats’ current European tour continues with a gig at the University of Stuttgart on October 24.

Dark Psychedelic Bandleader Ember Schrag Joins a Killer Triplebill at Trans-Pecos on the 23rd

Ember Schrag‘s most recent gig at Hifi Bar was one of the year’s best. For that matter, the enigmatic, charismatic psychedelic bandleader’s previous show at a house concert in south Brooklyn with phantasmagorical art-rock band Goddess was pretty amazing too. Schrag and her band open the night at Trans-Pecos at 8:30 PM this Sunday, August 23, followed by intense Balkan noir psychedelic band Alec K. Redfearn & the Eyesores, with whom Schrag will air out her chops on creepy Farfisa organ. Groove-driven no wave cult faves Escape by Ostrich give the evening an acidic coda; cover is a measly $8.

Counterintuitively, Goddess opened the Brooklyn show with their album release performance, a deliciously macabre, theatrical suite about a genuine monster who takes over a hapless New Jersey household. As electrifying as that show was, Schrag and her band were every bit as intense. On album, Schrag’s signature style until this year has been great plains gothic: low-key, reserved, with a subtle, white-knuckle intensity and allusively murderous narratives. This year, on the heels of her release of her live Folkadelphia session album, she and her band have taken those songs as well as a whole bunch of new material into vastly more trippy, artsy terrain.

Guitar polymath Bob Bannister alluded to Muscle Shoals and Fairport Convention and Blonde on Blonde Dylan, among numerous other reference points, but always twisted those styles into something terse and erudite of his own to match Schrag’s venomously symbolist lyrics. Bassist Debbie Schwartz (formerly of the Aquanettas and a fantastic, similarly psychedelic songwriter in her own right) played a surf groove on one number, slides and hammer-ons on a handful of others, and bolstered Schrag’s soaring, distantly angst-fueled voice with her high vocal harmonies. Meanwhile, drummer Gary Foster colored the songs with witchy rimshots and cymbal splashes, misty crescendos and, when necessary, a swinging four-on-the-floor garage rock drive.

Bannister’s nimble accents mingled with Schrag’s hypnotic, circular fingerpicked hooks and Foster’s brushwork on the pensive Sutherland, an understated murder ballad and the night’s opening number. Virgin in the Shadow of My Shoe, a swaying, psychedelic folk noir number, might be Schrag’s most definitive new song. She doesn’t even bother to stomp on a religious icon: she lets her shadow do it. Bannister and Schrag’s rainswept jangle blended as one on the late Beatlesque psych anthem The Real Penelope, followed by a catchy southwestern gothic clang-rock number, part Steve Wynn, part astringent 80s Boston.

Schrag likes to turn Biblical imagery inside out, and she also has a Shakespearean side, most evident in the Arthur Lee-esque number that followed that, and later the ominous Lady M, Bannister’s icepick accents taking the place of the resonant, keening Susan Alcorn steel guitar on the recorded version. From there the band made their way through another ominous waltz that also brought to mind Arthur Lee, as well as a sad, misty Laurel Canyon psych-folk anthem that exploded the Abraham myth. Schrag wound up the set with another wounded waltz where she raised her voice to a shivery Ann Wilson wail, then the slow, cruellly sardonic I Ain’t a Prophet, and a wickedly catchy janglerock song spiced with nimble triplet figures and a biting, bluesy solo from Bannister: the guy can play anything and make it his own. The Trans-Pecos show should be every bit as good.

Rich Purist Psychedelic Soul/Rock Sounds from Damian Quiñones

Damian Quiñones y Su Conjunto’s new album Gumball Ma-Jumbo – streaming in its entirety online – is a masterpiece of tunesmithing, an intricate mix of oldschool late 60s style psychedelic soul, rock and pop spiced with salsa, luscious horn charts, bubbling keys and nasty guitars. Quiñones is the man on the fretboard, jangling, slashing and taking all sorts of solos that blend sunbaked psychedelia with a terse, bluesy edge: he doesn’t waste a note. Likewise, as ornate as his arrangements can be, those don’t waste notes either. It’s one of the best albums of 2012.

Interestingly, the opening track is a wickedly catchy oldschool roots reggae song, a style that Quiñones will only come back to once here, but he nails it, with swirly organ, melodica flourishes, echoey tremoloing guitar and a lush horn chart. He follows that with the only song that really references anything after, say, 1975; it’s an attempt to blend retro 90s and 60s Britpop and it doesn’t really work. But the track after that is a treat – Barrio, pulsing along on a slinky clave beat, juxtaposes Fania-era Puerto Rican soul with a burning powerpop chorus and a tense, suspenseful interlude featuring two basslines. After that, Quiñones takes a pulsing soul song and makes it funkier every time the verse comes around, driven by blazing horns and judiciously slashing guitar fills.

Flyers starts out skeletal but quickly brings in a heavier psychedelic soul vibe: Quiñones’ distorted wah solo over Edwin Canito Garcia’s raw, slinky bassline after the second chorus is one of the highlights of the album. After Laura Mulholland’s tumbling piano intro, Malachi hits a punchy, swaying Big Star groove, Quiñones’ long, searing solo taking the song doublespeed until the end, where he doubletracks another solo alongside it: the effect is intense to say the least. The band follows that with I Know That You That I, blending 60s soul with noir Orbison pop.

What might be the best song – and definitely the best lyric – is Recuredos de Inez, sung in Spanish. Another richly arranged roots reggae tune, it builds to a majestic, regretful, noirishly anthemic crescendo lit up by artfully arranged horns. Or, the best song here might be the unexpectedly sarcastic, dismissive One Trick Pony, funky soul building to a scorching chorus and a series of jagged solos panning between the left and right channels: “It’s hard to discuss where you’ve been with a shoeshine part-time attitude,” Quiñones snarls.

The rest of the album includes Ollie Ollie Oxen Free, a psychedelically funky number like vintage Tower of Power but with more of a guitar-fueled edge; Shadow in the Sun, early 60s noir pop as Arthur Lee might have done it – but with a disco beat – and French Tickler, a tango-rock epic. What links all this together is that Quiñones and his band never play a verse or chorus the same way twice. There’s always a cool addition or subtraction, a subtle accent or rumble from drummer Seth Johnson or percussionist Brian Higbie, or a swell from the brass: trumpeters Brian Baker and Geoffrey Hull and trombonist Gregorio Hernandez lock together and rise like a single mighty horn. It gets better with repeated listening. Watch this space for upcoming shows.

Enigmatic Gothic Americana from Emily Jane White

It’s time to plunge back into the abyss today with Emily Jane White’s third album, Ode to Sentience, which is out June 12 in the US on Antenna Farm Records after a Japanese release last year. Sadness and despair pervade White’s angst-ridden Nashville gothic and classical-rock anthems. She’s got a great band, with layers of acousic and electric guitars, piano and a string section, that proves just as powerful on the art-rock numbers as on the country and folk-rock songs. She sings in a whispery voice that often takes on a lilt at the end of a phrase, with echoes of Britfolk chanteuses like Linda Thompson. As a songwriter, White is sort of a cross between Eilen Jewell and Marissa Nadler, but more of a traditionalist: where Nadler goes for minimal and sepulchral, White goes for grand guignol. She’s on tour this month, with a stop at Glasslands on June 20 on a good doublebill with Alana Amram & the Rough Gems opening at around 9:30.

The album’s opening track, Oh Katherine, sets the stage for what’s to come. It begins as a brisk, fingerpicked acoustic Britfolk shuffle; it winds out in a lush arrangement with washes of electric guitar, cello and swooshy cymbals. “I do not bat an eye, my life has gone awry, and I do not leave alive,” White intones matter-of-factly, letting the song’s anguished regret speak for itself. Likewise, the equally catchy Nashville gothic ballad The Cliff bitterly chronicles a relationship gone to hell, building from a terse mix of acoustic and reverb guitars and pedal steel to a big noir guitar interlude midway through. The most minimal track here is The Preacher, with its tersely eerie Syd Barrett guitar and bitter, cynical lyric; the folkiest one is Black Silk, one of the more enigmatic numbers here. “Father, he’s got me up against the wall, fading into a life I don’t want,” White explains – sort of. What happened to this girl? And of all the mini-mystery stories here, the most inscrutable one is The Law, building from a swaying backbeat country song with driving, percussive piano that suddenly ends cold and unresolved.

The minor-key waltz The Black Oak offers a bleak, Richard Thompson-esque look at a doomed relationship that White’s tormented narrator can’t bring herself to break off, while the elegaic I Lay to Rest (California) evokes this era’s greatest art-rockers, Botanica, from its snarling, macabre guitar intro, to its ornate, Chopinesque piano interlude. Clipped Wings, with its ominous major/minor changes, wouldn’t be out of place in the Arthur Lee songbook: a killer’s suicide note, it has a chilling authenticity. “Can I cut you out of the frame? Can I throw the remnants in the lake?” the murderess asks her dead paramour. The High Romantic Chopin-rock reaches a peak with Requiem Waltz: “Now I know what pain can do,” White laments as the big, anguished, fullblown orchestrated crescendo reaches a peak with soaring, aching violin. White goes back to country for the album’s final track, Broken Words, an understatedly bitter kiss-off song.

For fans of melancholy music, this album is a treat. One complaint, however: whenever she gets to the punchline, White always brings her vocals down a notch. The first couple of times this happens, it enhances the mystery; then it becomes annoying, then downright maddening. You will find yourself reaching reflexively for the rewind button, often more than once in the same song. Bringing the vocals up in the mix would have helped immeasurably. Obviously, if White’s stories weren’t so compelling, this wouldn’t be an issue: it’s a good thing that the music stands up to repeated listening, because trying to figure out just what’s happening here will take awhile.

Go See Agent Ribbons

If you like dark rock music, get to know Austin band Agent Ribbons. Last night at Party Xpo the duo version of this group put on an excellent, sometimes understatedly, sometimes outright menacing show despite having to cope with some technical difficulties. The previous night at Bard College upstate, frontwoman/guitarist Natalie Ribbons had lent her Telecaster to someone who’d put it into some obscure, weird tuning, and had then retuned her tuner as well. But she wouldn’t let any of that stop her. Behind her, drummer Lauren Ribbons held down an elegant thump on the toms and the kick – she does what Lou Reed probably wanted Maureen Tucker to do but didn’t have the guts to ask. She’s also got a beautiful voice, which she used to add creepy, high harmonies on a few songs.

One of those songs was Family Haircut, a new one – you know a band is good when their best song is their newest one. This turned out to be a reverb-drenched take on 50s noir Nashville, ending with Natalie singing what sounded like a sarcastic la-la-la outro. A lot of their songs have a surreal, often macabre edge. One example was Grey Gardens, which is grey in the purest sense of the word – it’s pretty much dead, offhandedly referencing the dotty old women immortalized in the Maysles Brothers’ documentary. Another song worked a primitive, minor-key Cramps garage rock riff; the one that followed that sounded like lo-fi Arthur Lee. Their last tune took a dramatic early 60s Elvis-style pop tune and gave it abrasive noiserock overtones, while their opener, Pinocchio veered uneasily between major and minor like Syd Barrett. They could have played twice as long and nobody would have left; if this intrigues you, they’re at Public Assembly tonight at 9ish opening for the Secret History and then at Goodbye Blue Monday on Sunday at around 10.