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The 50 Best Albums of 2012

About five years ago, people were saying that the album was a thing of the past. How wrong that turned out to be! This year’s crop of albums was so absurdly good that it felt criminal to whittle it down to a hundred, let alone fifty. And the only way of getting it down to that number was to cut out all the “world music,” including reggae and Afrobeat and most of the gypsy sounds, because there was so much of that and it was all so good.

Bookmark this page and return often. Virtually all of these albums are streaming (click the links) or are available as free downloads: consider this your place to discover some amazing sounds that were too smart for the Bushwick and Wicker Park blogs, and too dangerous for corporate radio and tv.

1.  Ulrich Ziegler – their debut album
Dating back to the 90s,  guitarist Stephen Ulrich has been New York’s most distinguished noir composer. When he wasn’t writing film and tv music, he was leading the ferociously creepy instrumental trio Big Lazy. When that band broke up (the drummer left to join Gogol Bordello), Ulrich eventually teamed up with Itamar Ziegler from Pink Noise, and then released this haunting, reverb-drenched, surf/skronk/jazz/soundscape masterpiece. Stream it

2.  Chicha Libre – Canibalismo
Chicha Libre’s 2008 debut album Sonido Amazonico landed in the top ten and this one is arguably even better, a trippy, wickedly dub-influenced mix of Peruvian surf rock, slinky Andean and latin grooves, and surrealistic psychedelic rock. There is no more fun, or more danceable, band in New York than Chicha Libre. Band info and audio/video

3.  Raya Brass Band – Dancing on Roses, Dancing on Cinders
This fiery Brooklyn crew distinguish themselves from the hundreds of other excellent Balkan brass units by virtue of their long, scorching jams: nobody does that better. Stream it

4.  Botanica – What Do You Believe In
This era’s pre-eminent art-rock band’s most brooding, haunted album, a rich blend of gypsy-tinged melody, raw, roaring guitar, edgy piano and spooky organ. Stream it

5.  The Universal Thump – their full-length debut
The final and concluding installment of the most massive, richly orchestrated album on this list, a lushly symphonic double-cd mix of chamber pop, art-rock, psychedelia and quirky, theatrical indie pop. Stream it

6.  Rachelle Garniez – Sad Dead Alive Happy
The iconic, eclectic accordionist/chanteuse – who has sort of become the Dorothy Parker of underground rock – took a deep dive into soul and gospel sounds, with richly soaring results. Stream it

7.  The Japonize Elephants – Melodie Fantastique
One of the original gypsy bands, this enormous, theatrical circus rock crew took their game to the next level with this one. Stream it

8.  Lianne Smith – Two Sides of a River
An iconic presence in the New York Americana and rock scene since the late 90s, Smith’s debut album was legendary before it was finally released – and it’s as eclectic, psychedelic, haunting and funny as anything else on this list. And her amazing voice is better than ever. Stream it 

9.  Bobtown – Trouble I Wrought
Nobody writes more cleverly creepy acoustic Nashville gothic and bluegrass than Bobtown. With four first-rate songwriters, their sound is as diverse as it is dark. Stream it

10.  Jan Bell – Dream of the Miner’s Child
One of the great voices in Americana music, Bell made this into a concept album that linked British folk with the American country and bluegrass sounds that grew out of it  with a vivid sense of history and a tantalizing mix of classics and originals that sound like Appalachian standards. Stream it/free downloads

11. M Shanghai String Band – Two Thousand Pennies
The mighty eleven-piece Brooklyn acoustic Americana crew’s most lush, haunting, diverse and ultimately best album, ranging from gypsy and chamber pop to brooding Appalachian ballads and the rousing singalong songs they’re best known for. Stream it

12.. Love Camp 7 – Love Camp VII
An expertly wry, tuneful, catchy janglerock concept album looking at recent history through the prism of the Beatles, with a jaundiced eye and expertly labyrinthine polyrhythms. Given up for dead after the tragic loss of brilliant drummer Dave Campbell, the band has recently regrouped and is as playful and fun as ever. Stream it

13. Hannah vs. the Many – All Our Heroes Drank Here
Ferociously literate, white knuckle intense female-fronted punk and powerpop, with some noir cabaret and Jarvis Cocker-style art-rock thrown in for good measure. Stream it

14. The Larch– Days to the West
The follow-up to their 2010 masterpiece Larix Americana finds the Brooklyn retro new wavers sounding more psychedelic and more savagely lyrical than ever. Stream it

15. Lorraine Leckie and Anthony Haden-Guest – Rudely Interrupted
A blackly amusing, gorgeously orchestrated chamber-pop collaboration between the caustic social critic and the Canadian gothic rock siren.  Band info and a/v

16. Black Fortress of Opium – Stratospherical
Lush, roaring, darkly psychedelic Middle Eastern-tinged art-rock from this powerful, female-fronted Boston band. Stream it

17. Matt Keating – Wrong Way Home
The respected Americana rocker’s best single-disc album, a brooding, offhandedly menacing blend of classic soul, country and elegant chamber pop. Stream it

18. Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores  – Sister Death
Not to have this album in the #1 spot is pretty absurd: the Rhode Island band’s swirling, psychedelic, gypsy-tinged art-rock masterpiece is the most downright macabre collection on this list. Stream it

19.. The Sometime Boys – Ice & Blood
The second album from cabaret siren Sarah Mucho and art-rocker Kurt Leege’s sharply lyrical acoustic Americana project finds them funkier, more lush and more intense than ever. Stream it

20. Animation – Transparent Heart
As historically important as it is richly arrranged, saxophonist Bob Belden’s collection of cinematic instrumental themes traces the decline of New York over the past couple of decades, centered around 9/11 and the fascism that ensued. Band info and a/v

21. Tift Merritt – Traveling Alone
Marc Ribot’s guitar is amazing beyond belief, and Merrritt’s pensive Americana songs and nuanced vocals are as vivid as always.  Band info and a/v

22. Out of Order – Hey Pussycat
The loudest album on this list is by this assaultive all-female Long Island noiserock/punk trio, raw but richly produced by John Sharples. Stream it

23. Changing Modes – In Flight
With three keyboards and edgy lead guitar, these women and guys play biting, lyrical art-rock and new wave-influenced sounds. Stream it

24. Chris Erikson & the Wayward Puritans – Lost Track of the Time
Erikson has been one of the great guitarists in Americana for years, in other peoples’ bands. This is his long-overdue debut as a leader, a careening, gorgeously twangy mix of Americana, paisley underground psychedelia and riff-rock. Stream it

25. Marissa Nadler – The Sister
The Nashville gothic/noir cabaret chanteuse/songwriter’s most haunting and atmospheric album since her debut, a darkly nebulous, allusive gem. Stream it/free downloads

26. Spanking Charlene – Where Are the Freaks
Female-fronted Americana punk band with  powerful, intense lead vocals, hooks that run the gamut from the Stooges to X and a potently snide, sarcastic, spot-on worldview. Stream it

27. Frankenpine – In That Black Sky
Creepy original bluegrass, Appalachian ballads and elegantly dark acoustic sounds from this diverse Brooklyn band. Stream it/free dowloads

28. Choban Elektrik – their debut album
A side project by members of Zappa cover band Project/Object, they take classic Balkan and gypsy themes and make trippy psychedelic rock out of them. Stream it

29. Slavic Soul Party – New York Underground Tapes
The wildly popular Brooklyn Balkan brass band at the top of their funky, surprisingly eclectic, intensely danceable game. Stream it

30. Saint Maybe – Things As They Are
A throwback to the paisley underground bands of the 80s like True West and the Dream Syndicate, this project by a Patti Smith guitarist and Bob Dylan’s drummer mixes surreal, apocalyptic imagery and raw, surreal, psychedelic Americana rock. Stream it 

31. Mike Rimbaud – Can’t Judge a Song By Its Cover
The New York underground rocker – who also put out an excellent album of originals last year, and constantly releases video singles – puts his indelibly New York spin on politically charged classics by Phil Ochs, Dylan, the Stones and others. Stream it

32. When the Broken Bow – We, the Dangerous Weapons
A surreal, fearlessly political, apocalyptic concept album by this Oregon band  that runs the gamut from soul-pop to careening art-rock to goth and gypsy sounds. Stream it

33. Tim Foljahn – Songs for an Age of Extinction
Grimly lyrical, pensively psychedelic noir chamber pop and Americana-influenced songwriting. Stream it

34. Demolition String Band – Gracious Days
The well-loved New York Americana/bluegrass/rock twanglers’ best electric album, an intoxicating blend of guitars, mandolins, banjo and Elena Skye’s velvet vocals. Stream it

35. The Brixton Riot – Palace Amusements
Sort of the missing link between the Jam and Guided by Voices, this New Jersey band blast their way through a series of hard-hitting, swirling, lyrically biting three-minute songs. Stream it

36. L’il Mo & the  Monicats – Whole Lotta Lovin
Americana chanteuse Monica Passin’s most intimate and eclectic album to date, with soaring harmonies from fellow Americana siren Drina Seay. Song samples

37. Leigh Marble – Where the Knives Meet Between the Rows
Brooding, bitterly lyrical songwriting with a mix of hypnotically psychedelic and Americana-flavored tunes from the Portland, Oregon bandleader. Stream it

38. Eilen Jewell – Queen of the Minor Key
Truth in advertising – Jewel excels at noir Americana, ghoulabilly, garage rock and oldschool psychedelic sounds. Band info and a/v

39. Mucca Pazza – Safety Fifth
A characteristically high-voltage mix of short but sonically titanic gypsy punk and gypsy rock songs from the brass-heavy Chicago dance orchestra. Stream it

40. Chicago Stone Lightning Band – their debut album
With a raw, guitar-fueled edge, their twin-Gibson assault covers classic 60s style Chicago blues, riff-driven stoner rock, original soul and funk. Stream it

41. Emily Jane White – Ode to Sentience
Intense, broodingly lyrical, intricately orchestrated Nashville gothic and art-rock sounds. Band info and a/v 

42. My Education – A Drink for All My Friends
The Austin postrock/instrumental band have never sounded more lush or guitarishly intense on this mix of desert rock and cinematic themes. Stream it

43. Tom Shaner – Ghost Songs, Waltzes and Rock n Roll
That such a great album would be this low on the list attests to how amazing this past year was for music. The former Industrial Tepee frontman has never written more richly or lyrically than he does on this southwestern gothic gem. Band info and video

44. Jon DeRosa – A Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes
The Brooklyn crooner comes across as sort of a cross between Jarvis Cocker and Leonard Cohen, with a mix of lush chamber pop, Americana and 80s-influenced gothic art-rock. Band info and a/v

45. The Sweetback Sisters – Lookin’ for a Fight
This amazing two-frontwoman honkytonk band not in the top ten? How can that be possible? Take a look at the rest of the list. Stream it

46. Band of Outsiders – Sound Beach Quartet
The 80s psychedelic punk legends are still going strong, with a richly jangly, snaky new ep that evokes Television as well as the Jesus & Mary Chain, both groups whose careers they’ve now eclipsed. Stream it 

47. Mighty High – Legalize Tre Bags
The funniest album of the year blends roaring Motorhead-style biker rock with woozy stoner riffage and some of the best weed jokes ever put on vinyl. Stream it

48. The Weal and Woe – The One to Blame
Gorgeously harmony-driven oldschool honkytonk and 1950s style proto-rockabilly sounds from this wonderfully retro Brooklyn band. Stream it

49. Guided by Voices – The Bears for Lunch
Agelessly energetic, prolific indie surrealist Robert Pollard hasn’t lost a thing: this is the third and best release in the band’s incredibly productive 2012, not including Pollard’s own solo releases. Band info and a/v

50. Ian Hunter – When I’m President
Last but hardly least on this list, another ageless rocker from an even earlier era put out an album that could be the great lost Stones classic from 30 years ago. Band info/free downloads 

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The Brixton Riot Hits One Out of the Park

The Brixton Riot are sort of an American counterpart to the Jam. Unlike the punk-era legends, their rhythms are more straight-ahead, four-on-the-floor, and the presence of two guitarists gives them a roaring, sometimes shimmering edge that the British band didn’t always have. And where the Jam looked to the Who and older American R&B bands for tunes, the Brixton Riot’s latest album Palace Amusements blends a Guided by Voices assault with catchy Big Star-influenced powerpop, sometimes veering into swirling dreampop or even toward the indie side of country. But otherwise the two bands have a lot in common, particularly a sharply literate lyrical vision. Frontman/guitarist Jerry Lardieri’s presence is strong but understated: much of the time this band lets the guitars do the talking. And that’s a great thing because they’re a blast; lead player Mark Wright adds some genuinely face-peeling intensity here. On top of all of this, the album is gorgeously produced: most bands these days can barely make it through a single verse before they loop it a couple of times and then call it done, but these guys fine-tune the sonic spectrum for ringing overtones, wailing bluesy lines, roaring punk rock grit and plenty of lush, attractive jangle and clang. Hardly anyone makes albums anymore that sound this good.

The title track, Signal to Noise, is an instant insight into how they work. The title is a snide metaphor for current pop music, “a hollow sound across the nation, signal to noise ratio.” It starts out with an insistent staccato riff, a bit like Wire, then morphs into something like a cross between GBV at their most lucid and Ted Leo at his least self-absorbed. The second track, Hard to See the Sun explores suburban anomie: “Keeping to yourself ’cause you love a mystery, deleting all the ghosts from your family history – it’s fine, it won’t change,” Lardieri observes sarcastically. There’s a series of big, shimmery dreampop swells, some nice terse slide guitar licks and then an offhandedly savage Mark Wright solo that goes chord-chopping and then sidewinding evilly into the last chorus. Wright is dangerous player, the rare lead guitarist you want to hear more from.

Canvas Shoes is just plain hilarious. With their silly accents and the music they’re compelled to make in order to conform to their peer group, the pampered children of Bushwick and Wicker Park make easy targets. But this is priceless: “Hey pretty boy, you know who you are, in your sister’s clothes, with your father’s guitar,” and it only gets better from there. The flip side of that equation is reflected in the scorching Motown rocker Our Cover’s Been Blown, an anxious and probably autobiographical look at a band staring at what looks more and more like a dead end, with “an easy road back to the commuter crawl,” as Lardieri bleakly puts it. They go back to only slightly less mean and sarcastic with Hipster Turns 30, a spot-on commentary for those on the wrong side of that number whose “accounts are overdrawn, no more rent checks from mom,” who’re finally trading in any claim to coolness in order to become their parents all over again.

Pinwheel stomps from a steady intro from bassist Steve Hass and drummer Matt Horutz to a catchy, Reducers-flavored pub rock tune, with more tremolo-picked menace from Wright, while Strange Matter sends out a snarling thank-you to the Jam’s Strange Town. But the closest thing to the Jam here is actually Ocean Avenue, punchy verse giving way to roaring chorus as Lardieri tells the bitter tale of a rocker who sees his neighborhood being destroyed by gentrification along with his dreams of not having to “turn all the amps down.”

The raging yet furtive Keep It a Secret takes a backbeat country tune and disguises it as punk, like Twin Turbine might have done ten years ago: it makes a good anthem for the era of Occupy sites. The bitter It’s Been Too Long goes deeper into a chronicle of a band reaching crisis point, with what by now is an expectedly cynical outlook:

Please spare me the speech, let’s get on with the rot
And count all the breaks that we never got
Let’s stop talking trash, let’s make a new start
Are we breaking new ground or just breaking apart?

The album ends with Losing Streak, one of the great baseball songs in the history of rock – trying to figure out if it’s pure fiction or a thinly veiled account of an actual blue-chip hitting prospect who’s going bust is maddening. When the band throws in a droll Wilco quote toward the end, that’s the only relief in sight. Like a lot of New Jersey bands, the Brixton Riot has been making Maxwell’s their home lately for live shows when they’re not playing in Manhattan; watch this space for upcoming dates.

The 100 Best Songs of 2011

All links here are to free downloads, streaming audio or video unless otherwise indicated. While this is an attempt to put these songs into some kind of order with the very best stuff at the top of the page, it doesn’t really make sense to even try to arrange them numerically. Consider: if  a song is good enough to be one of this year’s best one hundred, it has to be pretty special. You may find some dissonance with this year’s Best Albums list: the reason why a lot of songs from those releases aren’t on this one is because they were on this list in previous years.

#1: Erica Smith – Lucky in Love. This is a Paula Carino song from her Open on Sunday album, which topped the albums section of this list last year. And because nobody had the presence of mind to record the torchy, shattering version of this wryly haunting 6/8 lament that Smith sang at one of Carolyn AlRoy’s songwriter salons at the Parkside Lounge back in January, the link at the top of the page is to the Carino original. Which is only slightly less haunting. The link will be updated if and when audio or video becomes available; the same goes for the other songs here which haven’t made it to the web yet.

Laurie Anderson – Delirium. She debuted this achingly bitter, sweepingly atmospheric, elegaic suite at Lincoln Center last August: it may not have a title yet, and this segment may contain several individual songs.

Laurie Anderson – If You See Something, Say Something. A hilarious and spot-on dismissal of post 9/11 paranoia; it’s unreleased and may be part of a larger piece.

Laurie Anderson– The Real New York/Hard Times. As Anderson cynically explored the deterioration of a once-great city on an eerily calm, unexpectedly cool August night, a siren made its way north behind Lincoln Center. She played along with it: one of this year’s great live moments. As with the other Anderson tracks here, this is unreleased and possibly part of a larger piece.

Miramar– Di Corazon. The iconic Sylvia Rexach bolero, from the retro Puerto Rican band’s excellent Para Siempre album

Pinataland– Oppie Struck a Match. Historically rich southwestern gothic anthem from the Brooklyn chamber-rockers –  “Oppie” here is the evil nuclear scientist. From their excellent Hymns for the Dreadful Night album.

Trio Joubran – Masana. Towering, epic, elegaic suite for three ouds and percussion – it ends their new Asfar album on a wrenching, powerful note.

Marc Ribot– Scene of the Crime. Classic Andre Previn as done by one of the masters of noir guitar, live at the New School in April. Free download

Marc Ribot –Touch of Evil Theme. Classic Henry Mancini as done by one of the masters of noir guitar, live at the New School in April. Free download.

Mary Lee Kortes– Well By the Water. The darkest side of deadpan, secretive midwestern stoicism, powerfully depicted by the Americana chanteuse. From her latest album Songs of Beulah Rowley Vol. 1

Spottiswoode– Wild Goosechase Expedition. Beatlesque psychedelic travelogue as metaphor for the Iraq War and centerpiece of the art-rock songwriter’s album of the same name.

Laurie Anderson– Dark Downtown/Remembrance. As with the other Laurie Anderson tracks here, this may be a mix of individual songs: a contemplation on how much New York has changed for the worse, and how people tend to be dismissive of those who’ve died, in order to “travel lite,” emotionally speaking. Powerful stuff.

American Composers Orchestra– Andrew Norman: Unstuck. The highlight of this fall’s SONIC Festival of contemporary composers, this is a mammoth, intense noir suite. You’ll have to do some fast-forwarding to find it – the link is to the Q2 broadcast of the works from the festival voted most popular.

Either/Orchestra – Mambo #2. The second of four Ethiopian folk songs arranged for big band and rescued from obscurity – and played exhilaratingly, live this past November – at the New School. Look for a release, and a real title for this, sometime in 2012.

Beninghove’s Hangmen – H-Bomb. This macabre surf rock instrumental is the best song on the noir jazz group’s debut album from earlier this year.

Either/Orchestra – Mambo #1. This is a haunting traditional Ethiopian folk song arranged for big band and rescued from the vaults – and given a North American premiere this past Fall at the New School. Look for a proper release sometime in 2012.

Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz– Nightmare Scene from Vertigo. Harrowing Bernard Herrmann noir Hitchcock film sounds, a track from the pianist and cellist’s Shuffle Play Repeat album.

Trio Joubran– Asfar. Title track to the three oud-playing Palestinian brothers’ haunting, stately new album

Billy Bang/Bill Cole– Improvisation #1. Digeridoo drone and dark improvisation, this one with the late great jazz violinist playing against the multi-reedman’s low rumbling backdrop. From the Billy Bang Bill Cole live album recorded in 2009 and just released this year.

The Oxygen Ponies – Good Thing. It crescendos out of spare, plaintive folk-pop with a cynical fury: “This is a call to everyone/Wake your daughters, rouse your sons/Take your aim and shoot to kill/So your friends don’t hurt you/Cause others will. ” From the Exit Wounds album.

Ward White – Pretty/Ugly Town. The brilliantly sardonic, literate NYC powerpop songwriter at his most caustic and cynical, giving both barrels to a starstruck wannabe who’s new in New York. From his characteristically excellent Done with the Talking Cure album.

Dixie Bee-Liners– Restless. Hypnotic intense blues-based bluegrass reinvented as noir Steve Wynn style anthem. The Virginia bluegrass band absolutely killed with this last winter at the Jalopy.

Trio Tritticali– Ditty. The title is sarcastic – this is a powerful Midle Eastern flavored mini-suite from the eclectic Brooklyn string trio’s debut album Issue #1.

Ansambl Mastika– Memede Zlatna Ptica. The best song on the Brooklyn Balkan band’s exhilarating latest album Songs and Dances for Life Nonstop reaches a literally unreal crescendo.

Michel Camilo– Then & Now. A classic macabre Erik Satie theme done as piano jazz with Dominican sabor, from the pianist’s excellent Mano a Mano album.

Steve Wynn– Cloud Splitter. Vintage hypnotic bracing intense guitar artistry – it’s hard to tell which guitarist is Wynn and which is Jason Victor. From Wynn’s Northern Exposure album.

Trio Tritticali– Azizah. The string trio go deep into the Middle East for this slinky instrumental. From their new Issue #1 album.

Either/Orchestra– 1-5-0-9. Look for this sometime in 2012, probably under a new title: it’s yet another Ethiopian-flavored anthem from the unsurpassed Boston Ethiopian jazz group.

Trio Tritticali– Who Knows Yet. The most haunting, pensive instrumental on the Brooklyn string trio’s excellent debut album Issue #1.

Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz – Vertigo Suite Prelude. Creepy Hitchcock film suspense from the pianist and NPR host with the cello virtuoso. From their new album Shuffle Play Repeat

Rahim Alhaj – Qaasim. Plaintive, intense instrumental with the Iraqi oudist carefully building a tune over a hypnotic djeridoo drone. Not on the web anywhere, it seems. From the Iraqi oudist/composer’s latest album Little Earth.

Walter Ego – Satellite.  Wickedly catchy Ray Davies-style Britpop with one of the New York rocker’s most clever, casually dismissive lyrics.

Jennifer O’Connor – 7/12/09. Cruel summertime clinical depression perfectly captured in three vivid indie janglerock minutes. From O’Connor’s album I Want What You Want.

Pierre de Gaillande’s Bad Reputation– Ladies of Leisure. Pierre de Gaillande, frontman of lush art-rockers the Snow, has been busy translating many of legendary French songwriter Georges Brassens’ funniest, most vulgar songs; this is the classic Complainte des Filles de Joie, a metaphorically loaded defense of prostitutes.

The Devil Makes Three– All Hail. A caustically funny bluegrass song about the logical effects of the whole world being wasted on antidepressants – and a whole lot more. From their album Do Wrong, Right.

The Oxygen Ponies– Jellybean. Frontman Paul Megna being his usual insightful self, “Everyone around me is just sharing the same brain…I guess they find it’s easier to be part of the whole/Searching for a reason why they buy the shit they’re sold.” From this year’s Exit Wounds album

Swift Years– Old Man Santo. The witty Canadian worldbeat group put this one out a few years back, but who’s counting – it’s a twistedly funny nursery rhyme about GMO frankenfood.

Ward White –Radio Silence. A cruel and pretty hilarious dysfunctional road trip scenario set to catchy janglerock by the brilliantly sardonic rock songwriter. From his latest album Done with the Talking Cure.

Marc Ribot – Kill for Pussy. Classic John Barry as done by one of the masters of noir guitar, live at the New School in April. Free download

Sanda Weigl– Ani Mei Si Tinertea. At the 92YTribeca this past January, pianist Shoko Nagai gave this gypsy haunter an absolutely macabre edge. From Weigl’s Gypsy in a Tree album.

Miramar– En Mis Suenos. This is the classic Sylvia Rexach bolero done with creepy psychedelic funeral organ by the Bio Ritmo spinoff. They absolutely slayed with this at Barbes in May.

Beninghove’s Hangmen– Reject’s Lament. A sad, creepy waltz from the noir jazz guys’ debut album

Beninghove’s Hangmen– Hangmen’s Waltz. Twangy 1950s David Lynch-style noir doesn’t get any better than this – also from the band’s debut album.

Ansambl Mastika– Zurlaski Cocek. A funky, exhilarating showcase for the Balkan band’s excellent soloists – from their latest album Songs and Dances for Life Nonstop.

Pickpocket Ensemble – For Those Who’ve Left. This was a good year for sad waltzes and this is one of the best of them, the Bay Area gypsy jazz band doing brooding Belgian barroom piano music. From their album Memory.

Rahim Alhaj – Going Home. More haunting oud over a low, sinister drone: gorgeously intense Middle Eastern sounds, also from his latest album Little Earth

A Hawk & a Hacksaw– No Rest for the Wicked. A blistering mini-suite of gypsy music from the Neutral Milk Hotel spinoff; from their latest album Cervantine.

Sanda Weigl – Toderel. Shoko Nagai’s creepy/icy piano lights up this dramatic gypsy ballad. From the album Gypsy in a Tree.

A Hawk & a Hacksaw– At the Vultural Negru. The Bay Area gypsy band encored with this intense, ecstatic gypsy music vamp at their killer concerrt at the Bell House this past summer; also from their latest album Cervantine.

Rahim Alhaj – Dance of the Palms. The great Iraqi expat oud player methodically building a haunting composition over ominous percussion. From his latest album Little Earth – happily this one has made it to youtube.

Mary Lee Kortes– Someplace We Can’t See. Sweeping, majestic, angst-driven anthemic literate rock by one of the great artisans in the field. Also from Songs of Beulah Rowley Vol. 1

Pierre de Gaillande’s Bad Reputation– I Made Myself Small. An original English translation of the Georges Brassens classic Je Me Suis Fait Tout Petit, which could be a love song – or it could be about being totally pussywhipped.

Karen Dahlstrom– Galena. A haunting Gold Rush tale from the Americana multi-instrumentalist’s great new Idaho-themed album Gem State

The Dirty Urchins – Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down. This oldtimey shuffle is one of those songs that needed to be written, and it’s a good thing these folks were the band to do it.

Stephane Wrembel – Toute la Vie. The gypsy jazz guitarist wrote this one after watching footage of the 3/11 catastrophe – it’s haunting bordering on morbid, and hasn’t made it to the web yet.

Drina Seay– I Don’t Even Know What I’m Doing. The New York Americana chanteuse at the top of her intense, torchy game: this one is a staple of her live show but hasn’t made it to the web yet. She slayed with this one several times this year, particularly in October at Lakeside

The Brixton Riot – Hipster Turns 30. This GBV-style powerpop number might sound sympathetic at first but it’s really not. From the band’s forthcoming new album.

Rachelle Garniez – Jean-Claude Van Damme. Ostensibly the campy character actor has sunk to hawking antidepressants on tv – this one features a hilarious faux-operatic outro among other things. From Garniez’ forthcoming 2012 album Sad Dead Happy Alive.

Ward White – 1964. Retro fashion gets very subtly savaged by the great literate songshark. From White’s latest album Done with the Talking Cure.

Edward Rogers– Fashion Magazine. The most corrosive track from Rogers’ stunningly diverse new Porcelain album looks at trendy posers in gentrified NYC, set to hypnotically ominous Syd Barrett rock.

The Reid Paley Trio – Take What You Want. Late one night on the Lower East Side, after scaring the crowd at the club half to death, the charismatic retro rocker blasted through an unselfconsciously exhilarating version of this oldschool soul/blues lament: charisma defines this guy.

Oxygen Ponies– I Don’t Want Yr Love. How to tell a starfucker to kiss off, in three perfect minutes: the outgoing mantra of “nobody loves you anymore” is just plain brutal. From the Exit Wounds album.

Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears– You Been Lying. Snide, dismissive, anti-authoritarian punk funk: the band absolutely slayed with this in the middle of the summer at their show with Those Darlins here.

American Composers Orchestra– Ryan Gallagher: Grindhouse. Long, cinematic, frequently noir suite, another highlight of this year’s SONIC Festival of indie classical music. This one hasn’t made it to the web yet.

American Modern Ensemble – Robert Paterson: Sextet. A noir afternoon in the life of a man on the run – it doesn’t end on a happy note. From the new music ensemble’s collection of works by the eclectic percussionist/composer

Either/Orchestra– No Price for a Ride. Inspired by haggling over cab fares in Addis Ababa, this is another unreleased gem by the Boston-based Ethiopian jazz crew.

Beninghove’s Hangmen– Jack Miller. This is the spooky opening mini-suite from the noir jazz band’s excellent debut album

Either/Orchestra – Bati Lydian. A lush, sweeping new spin on ancient riffs: the Boston Ethiopian jazz group’s show at the New School in November featured a whole slew of excellent new pieces including this one from bandleader Russ Gershon’s forthcoming suite The Collected Unconscious.

Ansambl Mastika– More Tri Godini. A classic Macedonian tune done with slow, tricky expertise by the ferocious Brooklyn Balkan/gypsy rock band

Christian McBride Big Band– Science Fiction. This is an intense, cinematic instrumental brilliantly rearranged for big band by the iconic jazz bassist – and it’s nowhere to be found online. What a shame!

Tiken Jah Fakoly– Quitte le Pouvoir. The title means “leave office” in French – it’s the Ivoirien freedom fighter and roots reggae star’s signature song, most recently re-released on the excellent Listen to the Banned anthology.

Baseball Project– Twilight of My Career. Sympathy for the devil, in this case Roger Clemens. Steve Wynn has a career as a sportswriter waiting for him if he ever gets sick of writing great songs like this Byrdsy janglerock gem.

Spottiswoode – All My Brothers. Death on the battlefield via grim, hypnotic psychedelic rock; also from the Wild Goosechase Expedition album.

A Hawk & a Hacksaw– Cervantine. A slow, eerie, chromatic gypsy waltz with a nice jagged tremolo-picked guitar solo. Title track from their latest album.

Rahim Alhaj– The Searching. With Alhaj’s oud in tandem with an accordion, this dirge is one of the slinkiest and most haunting pieces on his latest album Little Earth. It’s also impossible to find online, strangely enough.

Randi Russo– Alienation. Scorching noiserock with Russo and guest Don Piper blasting back and forth throughout this characteristically resolute outsider’s anthem. From her Fragile Animal album, ranked best of 2011 here.

Taj Weekes & Adowa– Drill. Remember “Drill, baby drill?” The roots reggae star savagely makes fun of the idiocy of the idea in the wake of what happened in the Gulf.

Brian Landrus’ Kaleidoscope – 71 & On the Road. A haunting mid-60s style psychedelic soul vamp inspired by a veteran jazz drummer who’s stuck playing live dates in his 70s just to get by. From the baritone sax player/composer’s Capsule album.

Beware the Dangers of a Ghost Scorpion– Denton County Casket Company. Noir surf rock doesn’t get any better than this unhinged instumental by the Boston band. From their Legend of Goatman’s Bridge ep.

Dastardly – Middleground. The Chicago indie/Americana band’s hilarious and spot-on look at trendy shallowness on the small-club circuit. From their album May You Never

A Hawk & a Hacksaw – Uskudar. A tricky Turkish vocal tune from the intense gypsy band’s latest album Cervantine.

Mark Sinnis– Peep Hole in the Wall. A towering, ominous individualist’s anthem originally done by Sinnis’ band Ninth House in 2000 and resurrected here even more darkly and intensely.

Steve Wynn– St. Millwood. This is a classic example of Wynn’s pensive, jangly, evocative side. From the Northern Aggression album.

Stephanie Rooker & the Search Engine – When We Gon Care. Over seven and a half minutes of hypnotic vamping, the soul siren insightfully and wrathfully goes off on drug companies who invent diseases to market new products, and similar stunts that the 1% try to pull off to keep the other 99% of us disempowered. From her album The Only Way Out Is In

Shanghai Love Motel– The Universal Skeptical Anthem. A typical savage, corrosive anthem from the hyper-literate New York rockers. “Hang me with your velvet rope, but don’t wrap it around my brain.”

Spottiswoode – Wake Me Up When It’s Over. Irresistibly and blackly amusing look at the psychology of denial even in the most dire circumstances – yet another great song from the Wild Goosechase Expedition album.

Mark Sinnis– Fifty Odd Hours. A bitter, vengeful update on the Merle Travis classic Sixteen Tons. From Sinnis’ latest album The Undertaker in My Rearview Mirror.

Andy Akiho– To Run or Walk Through West Harlem. A noir cinematic suite complete with sirens and a brief escape from a chase scene; from the pioneering steel pan virtuoso/composer’s latest album No One to Know One.

American Modern Ensemble – Robert Paterson: Star Crossing. Otherworldly, noir, cinematic flute-and-percussion instrumental; title track from the indie classical ensemble’s amazing album of Paterson compositions.

Evanescent– Blackwater. Retro chanteuse Bliss Blood revisits the best song from her late great Nightcall band in a torchy duo with guitarist Al Street.

Laurie Anderson – Directions from Westchester. Anderson premiered this at Lincoln Center Out of Doors this past August, a LOL-funny satire of the kind of people who go to concerts there. Unreleased and possibly part of a larger suite.

Walter Ego– The Adventures of Ethical Man. Ethical Man is a cartoon character; he battles even more cynical underwear heroes in this extremely funny powerpop tune by the NYC literate rock songwriter.

Frankenpine– Blackwell Island. From the dark NYC bluegrass band’s excellent new album The Crooked Mountain – this one commemorates Nellie Bly’s undercover expedition to the nuthouse in New York Harbor in the 1890s.

Beware the Dangers of a Ghost Scorpion– Heads Will Roll. Another macabre blast of surf rock from the band’s Legend of Goatman’s Bridge ep.

Dina Rudeen– Hitting the Town. The NYC retro soul chanteuse at the top of her game: a metaphorically loaded tale of almost falling off the edge. From her excellent new album The Common Splendor.

Sanda Weigl– Un Tigan Avea O Casa. The gypsy singer/bandleader blasted through this wryly ironic song at the 92YTribeca last January. From her latest album Gyspy in a Tree.

Rahim Alhaj – Waterfall. This nine-minute oud-and-flute piece reminds of the great New York-based composer Bassam Saba. Also from Aljaj’s latest album Little Earth. The link here is to the track at Slacker radio.

Walter Ego– Made of Holes. This is another of the songs here that’s so new that it hasn’t been youtubed yet, a characteristically metaphorically-charged janglerock tune.

Vespertina – Girl in the Basement. Gothic art-rock from this collaboration between haunting chanteuse Lorrie Doriza and Stoupe from conscious hip-hop group Jedi Mind Tricks.

The Marcus Shelby Orchestra – Birmingham. A scorching, ornate big band jazz tribute to the freedom fighters of the American civil rights movement.

Great New Tracks from the Brixton Riot

Isn’t it great when a band is aware what their best stuff is? So many aren’t – or are swinging and missing at what they think their audience likes best. New Jersey rockers the Brixton Riot’s latest single is the swirly, dreampop-tinged Signal to Noise, something that’ll resonate most with fellow rockers who’ve spent time in the studio. It’ll be on their forthcoming Palace Amusements album in 2012.

The other stuff on their soundcloud page is even better. Hipster Turns 30 might sound at first like it’s sympathetic, but it’s not, and it’s a classic. There’s also the excellent, cynical singalong Battle of the Band and another killer anthem, Deal with the Devil. And you better – because if you don’t deal with the devil then the devil’s gonna deal with you!