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The 100 Best Songs of 2012

Was this the best year ever for music, or what? There could have been 500 songs on this list and they’d all be amazing. In order to give credit where credit is due, it became necessary to pare this down to just one track per artist.

Bookmark this page and visit often. Virtually every link here will take you to a stream or download of each song. Where this year’s 50 Best Albums page was all about rock, this page offers a chance to explore some of the best acts outside of the rock world. While these days, an “official release” tends to be the day someone uploads the song to youtube, there are a handful of tracks here which are so new that they haven’t made it to the web yet.

Outside of the top ten here, this list is in completely random order: trying to rank a jangly rock song against a lushly orchestrated Middle Eastern anthem, a bittersweet honkytonk song or a Serbian brass jam is absurd. So don’t think any less of the tracks at the bottom of the list: they’re all good. Rachelle Garniez, who happened to land on #99, is every bit as fun as Julia Haltigan at #9, or Lorraine Leckie at #19.

For the first time ever, this year’s top spots on the lists of best New York concerts, best albums and best songs were swept by a single group, Ulrich Ziegler. The noir guitar instrumental duo of Stephen Ulrich and Itamar Ziegler took top honors for their debut album, their album release show at Barbes in August and for their song Ita Lia, a morbidly reverb-toned, icily chromatic Nino Rota-inspired theme which you can play here. For those who’ve followed Ulrich’s career, that should come as no surprise, considering that his previous band Big Lazy pretty much ruled the top ten, year after year, at this blog’s predecessors on the web and in print.

2. Walter Ego – Sunday’s Assassin. This is an LJ Murphy song that Walter Ego used to play bass on when the two were bandmates back in the 90s. Murphy long since dropped this from his set list, and that’s too bad, because this casually lurid serial killer’s tale is one of the best things he ever wrote. Thanks to Walter Ego for resurrecting it. Watch the video

3. Mike Rimbaud – Idiot Wind. On one hand, to not put what could be the greatest rock lyric ever written in the top spot here is absurd, especially considering how Rimbaud reinvented it as straight-up, snarling rock. It’s also very hard to find: if you have Spotify, it’s here, otherwise here’s a sound snippet.

4. Chris Erikson – Ear to the Ground
Best jangly rock song of the year comes from this popular lead guitarist, who finally put out a debut album, Lost Track of the  Time, which includes this richly allusive, wickedly catchy track. He teases you with the hook and then makes you wait til the very end for the payoff. Watch the video

5. Saint Maybe – Everything That Rises
An epic masterpiece of volcanically guitar-fueled, psychedelic southwestern gothic rock from Patti Smith’s guitarist and Bob Dylan’s drummer. From their debut album Things As The Are. Play the song

6. Hannah vs. the Many – Jordan Baker. Prettiest sad noir 60s pop song of the year: girl finally finds guy she actually likes…and then the apocalypse swirls in. From the amazing new album All Our Heroes Drank Here. Play the song

7. The Sometime Boys – Good People of Brooklyn. Soaring lush acoustic chamber pop from this artsy Americana band. Frontwoman Sarah Mucho sings uneasily about her “city of trees,”  from the new album Ice & Blood. Play the song

8. Jon DeRosa – Birds of Brooklyn. Metaphorically loaded noir 60s chamber pop at its most cinematic, old guy eyeing a girl he could never have as the strings swoon behind him. From his new Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes album. Play the song

9. Julia Haltigan – Over the Fields. Looks to be too new to make it to the web yet – over careening southwestern gothic backbeat rock, the New York chanteuse amps up the suspenseful brassiness. She slayed with this at Make Music NY this summer.Stream some similar tracks

10. Changing Modes – Firewall. Nebulously narrative macabre chromatic Botanicaesque art-rock tune from this three-keyboard band’s brilliant latest album In Flight. Play the song

11. Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores – Fire Shuffle. This is the most swirlingly psychedelic of the many macabre gypsy-tinged tracks on the Rhode Island band’s chilling latest album Sister Death. Play the song

12. Chicha Libre – Papageno Electrico. Like Alec Redfearn above, the Brooklyn Peruvian surf rock band’s latest album Canibalismo is loaded with trippy, creepy tracks and this is the creepiest, like a Japanese video game theme done as psychedelic cumbia. Watch the video 

13. Beninghove’s Hangmen – Surf & Turk. New York’s premier noir cinematic surf jazz monsters hit last year’s list with their debut album. This is a new creepy surf track; you can catch them at Zirzamin on Mondays at 9 where they play it frequently. Play the song; stream the first album

14. Daniel Kahn & the Painted Bird – Sunday After the War. Coldly wise, crushingly cynical klezmer-rock. “They’re always recruiting, after the war.” Kahn slayed with this at Lincoln Center Out of Doors this past summer. Watch a video

15. Emily Jane White – Clipped Wings. The murderess leaves a suicide note at the lake house and this is it: a great story and a chilling song. From her latest album Ode to Sentience. Watch the video

16. When the Broken Bow- Giving Up the Ship. Apocalyptic ukulele waltz with bloodcurdling screams at the end from this smart, raw, female-fronted Portland, Oregon art-rock crew. Play the song

17. Lianne Smith- The Thief. Now co-leader of the Golden Palominos, Smith has been playing this gorgeous but chilling oldschool country smash for years and finally released it on her debut Two Sides of a River. Sing along: “I found out, yeah, I found out too late. ” Play the song

18. Jan Bell – The Miner’s Bride. One of the great voices in Americana music, Bell makes the connection between Appalachian music and the British folk songs it sprung from. This is a Karen Dahlstrom song about a mail-order bride going off to what looks like disappointment and early death in the old west, from Bell’s new album Dream of the  Miner’s Child. Play the song

19. Lorraine Leckie – The Everywhere Man. This party crasher has come to kill everything in his path: a wicked serial killer tale from Leckie’s elegant new chamber pop collaboration with social critic/writer Anthony Haden-Guest, Rudely Interrupted. Play the song 

20. The Japonize Elephants – Melodie Fantastique. Lush sweeping majestic circus rock doesn’t get any more entertaining than this. Title track from the band’s sensational new album. Play the song  

21. Mac McCarty – My Name Is Jack. Another song about a killer, and one that hasn’t made it to the web yet, from one of the darkest voices in Americana. For awhile he had a monthly residency at Bar 82, where he would always play this, and he’s got other videos you can watch.

22. Dimestore Dance Band – Wren Wren. Might as well go with two relatively brand-new ones, this being an urbane, wry gypsy-inflected number from guitar virtuoso Jack Martin and his bassist accomplice Jude Webre. The band is back together and playing this from time to time, and you can hear more of their stuff here.

23. Jodi Shaw – The Witch. In the old days, dotty old women used to get burned. The Brooklyn pianist/songwriter works that metaphor for all it’s worth in this chilling art-rock ballad. From her latest album In Waterland. Play the song 

24. Choban Elektrik – Valle E Shquiperise Se Mesme. A classic Balkan folk song done as trippy psychedelic rock with funereal organ and searing violin, from the band’s sensational 2012 debut album. Play the song

25. Eilen Jewell – Warning Signs. Her 2012 album is called Queen of the Minor Key, which pretty much says it all: this is a killer backbeat noir Americana rock tune with cool baritone sax and reverb guitar. Watch the video

26. Kayhan Kalhor & Ali Bahrami Fard – Where Are You. Anguished alienation has never been more hauntingly restrained than it is on this epic instrumental from I Will Not Stand Alone, the transcendent new collaboration between the Iranian spiked fiddle and santoor virtuosos. Watch the video  

27. Damian Quinones y Su Conjunto – Barrio. This lead guitar-fueled epic from their brilliant 2012 album Gumball Ma-Jumbo is a throwback to the classic latin soul sound of the late 60s and early 70s, right down to the inspired, analog-sounding production.  Play the song

28. Matt Keating – Punchline. Bouncy, metaphorically charged vintage soul-infused cynicism from Keating’s characteristically literate, intense latest album Wrong Way Home. Play the song

29. Clairy Browne & the Bangin Rackettes – Vicious Circle. Dramatic, intense, theatrical oldschool soul anthem that may or may not be a bitter Amy Winehouse homage. From their album Baby Caught the Bus; they killed with this in their New York debut this fall at Webster Hall. Play the song

30. J O’Brien- Cottonmouth. Classic New York songwriting: a torrent of images of the kind of twisted people, and twisted psyches, you meet on the train home after work, from the former leader of fiery mod-punk rockers the Dog Show. Play the song  

31. Out of Order – Gimme Noise. Hammering hardcore riffage from this volcanic all-female noiserock/punk/postpunk trio’s deliciously assaultive new album Hey Pussycat! Play the song

32. Beware the Danger of a Ghost Scorpion – Denton County Casket Co Typically intense, macabre, breakneck horror surf from this unstoppable Boston band’s Five After Midnight broadcast recording. Play the song

33. Tri-State Conspiracy – The Clone. The high point of their Nuisance album from 2008, the noir ska/swing band’s savage version of this was the high point of this year’s Atlantic Antic festival, a cruel broadside directed at all the posers and gentrifiers. Watch the video

34. Les Sans Culottes – DSK. Another highlight of the Atlantic Antic, this viciously funny garage-psychedelic sendup of Dominique Strauss-Kahn hasn’t made it to the web yet, but you can check out a lot of other amusing stuff from the faux French rockers here.

35. David J – Not Long for This World. The ominous title track to the goth songwriting legend’s latest album, the once and future Bauhaus bassist/playwright turned in a riveting version of this backed by Botanica’s Paul Wallfisch at the Delancey this past spring. Watch a video

36. The NY Gypsy All-Stars – Sen Sev Beni. Their latest album Romantech is full of scorching gypsy vamps driven by clarinet powerhouse Ismail Lumanovski: this audience favorite  is the best of them. Play the song

37. Auktyon – Mimo. These Russian art-rockers have been around forever, and they put out a typically surreal, jazz and gypsy-influenced new album, Top, this year. This is the best track, a haunting, towering minor-key anthem. Play the song

38. Harmonia – Songs from Vojvodina. This prosaic title doesn’t give any idea of the ferocity and exhilaration of this lickety-split suite of gypsy music from the Cleveland band’s equally adrenalizing 2012 album Hidden Legacy. Sound snippet 

39. Nathan Halpern – The Mirror. A creepy Philip Glass-ine theme from the soundtrack to the documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, written by the esteemed Brooklyn noir rocker and composer. Sound samples from the score

40. Sam Llanas – Shyne. Low-key, brooding nocturnal noir 60s pop with an Americana edge from the longtime BoDeans frontman’s recent solo album 4 AM. Sound snippet

41. Super Hi-Fi – We Will Begin Again. The darkest and most mysterious track from the twin trombone deep-dub band’s debut album Dub to the Bone (get it?) Play the song 

42. LJ Murphy – Waiting by the Lamppost. The legendary New York noir rocker has a reputedly phenomenal new album due out next year and this might or might not be on it; it’s an uusually low-key, broodingly surreal soul song. Watch the video 

43. Mighty High – High on the Cross. Of all the drugs Brooklyn’s best-loved stoner rock parodists chronicle in their songs, none is more powerful – or funnier – than religion. Play the song

44. Band of Outsiders – Gods of Happenstance. Television and the Grateful Dead may both be history but these 80s New York garage-pychedelic-punk legends are still going strong; this is the standout track from their 2012 ep Sound Beach Quartet and it evokes the best of both of those bands. Play the song  

45. Spanglish Fly – The Po-Po. Oldschool 60s style latin soul about a familiar New York crisis: getting busted for an open container by cops who haven’t yet met their quota of summonses for harmless offenses. Play the song 

46. Love Camp 7 – Beatles VI. An especially loud, growling vintage 60s psychedelic style track with one of frontman Dann Baker’s characteristically sardonic lyrics, the 60s as a gloomy backdrop to the Fab Four. From their brilliant Beatles-themed album Love Camp VII. Play the song

47. Musiciens Sans Frontieres – Legalize. This song from cinematic guitarist/composer Thomas Simon’s artsy rock-pop project won an award for best video at a hemp film festival  and you can watch that video here.

48. Marcellus Hall – Afterglow. This might not be the right title, and it doesn’t seem to be anywhere on the web, which is too bad: it’s one of the former White Hassle frontman and Americana-punk songwriter’s funniest, and most withering – and catchiest – critiques. Band info 

49. The Ryan Truesdell Big Band – Punjab. Not what you might expect to see here on a daily basis – a recently rediscovered, epic Gil Evans big band noir classic, with lustrous Indian and Middle Eastern shades. From the new album Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans. Play the song

50 The Universal Thump – Opening Night. What an absolutely gorgeous song: late-period ELO with better strings, bigger theatrics and much better vocals from bandleader/singer Greta Gertler. She meets a girl in her dream who offers her a deal: if you bring me from the dream world to reality, you’ll never cry again. Think about that. Play the song  

51. Slavic Soul Party – Draganin Cocek. The high point of the ten-piece Balkan brass band’s scorching, eclectic new New York Underground Tapes – which don’t seem to have made it to the web yet. Stream some similar tracks

52. Magges – Ena Vrathi Pou’Vrehe. It may be all Greek to you, but even if you don’t speak the language, the ringing twin bouzouki riffs and haunting gothic undercurrent of their psychedelic classics will pull you under. From their new album 12 Tragouthia. Play the song

53. Wadada Leo Smith – Emmett Till. An epic narrative from the trumpeter’s Ten Freedom Summers concept album about the Civil Rights movement, this cinematic tale eventually hits a horrific crescendo, equal parts jazz and indie classical. Play the song

54. Bettye LaVette – Choices I’ve Made. The soul survivor took this old George Jone song and made a theme for anybody who’s ever lived to regret something or another. She sang an especially shattering version at Madison Square Park this past summer. Watch the video

55. Marcel Khalife – Palestinian Mawwal. The great Lebanese oud player and composer put out a titanic double album, Fall of the Moon this year and this is one of its high points, a lush Middle Eastern anthem with full orchestra and choir. Play the song

56. Alfredo Rodriguez – Fog. Noir soundtrack music doesn’t get any more haunting or evocative than the Cuban-American jazz pianist’s epic from his latest album Sounds of Space. Play the song 

57. Hot Club of Detroit – Midnight in Detroit. Proof that noir can be done just as well by a gypsy jazz bandk, in a minute 45 seconds. From their latest album Junction. Play the song 

58. EST – Three Falling Free. A rare outtake from the now-defunct, artsy, eclectic trio, this epic, Floydian monstrosity builds to a crushing crescendo with the piano and bass going full blast: you want adrenaline? Watch the video 

59. Israel Vibration – Ball of Fire. This apocalyptic roots reggae tune goes back almost as far as Culture’s Two Sevens Clash, and it’s even better. And the band kicked ass with it at Central Park Summerstage this past August. Watch the video 

60. Klezwoods – Charambe. One of many standout tracks from their new album The 30th Meridian – From Cairo to St. Petersburg With Love, this is a wicked blend of 60s style psychedelic rock and klezmer, like something the Electric Prunes would have done. Play the song

61. Glass Anchors – Winter Home. Sadness and longing set to wickedly evocative, catchy janglerock from the female-fronted, Americana-tinged Brooklyn band’s debut album.  Play the song

62. Bobtown – Battle Creek. High-voltage noir soul anthem from the point of view of a country girl steadily losing it in northern Midwest rust belt hell, sung electrifyingly by Karen Dahlstrom. From the noir Americana band’s killer new album Trouble I Wrought. Play the song  

63. Chicago Stone Lightning Band – Tears & Sorrow. Creepy, brooding  early 70s style acid blues from the Chicago band’s considerably more energetic debut album. Play the song  

64. Single Red Cent – Dilettante. A hilarious postpunk-flavored putdown of spoiled trendoids, “stealing a page from the better bands, nothing in common with the working man.” Play the song 

65. Wahid  – Looking for Paradise. New Middle Eastern instrumental sounds: hard to imagine that just an oud and drums can create a sound that’s this majestic and intense. From the duo’s new album Road Poem. Sound snippet

66. The Larch – Monkey  Happy Hour. Wry, spot-on double entendres abound in this psychedelic new wave look at the last people you’d ever want to hang with after work. From their excellent new album Days to the West. Play the song  

67. Sex Mob – Juliet of the Spirits. Even though the noir-ish jazz quartet’s version of the classic Nino Rota film theme is nowhere to be found on the web, it wouldn’t be fair to leave it off the list: the riveting version they played at the World Financial Center this past fall might have been their first time, and it was amazing.  Band info

68. M Shanghai String Band – Sea Monster
This offhandedly eerie, symbolically-fueled, gypsy-tinged cut might be the best one on the massive Brooklyn Americana band’s new album Two Thousand Pennies. Play the song 

69. Clare & the Reasons- Colder. An icy art-rock mini-epic from the Brooklyn band, with a chilling mantra on the way out: “When will it get better?” Watch the video 

70. Animation – Transparent Heart. The epic, cinematic instrumental title track from saxophonist Bob Belden’s concept album about how New York (and the country) went to hell, as the Bush regime used 9/11 as a pretext for dismantling 200 years of democracy, and New York became a haven for chain stores and suburban yuppie cluelessness. Play the song

71. Yankee Bamg Bang – Silver Bullet. The backlash against gentrifier music is in full effect from these Bollywood-influenced Brooklyn rockers, poking fun at “love songs we couldn’t swallow from musician/actor/models.” Play the song/free download

72. My Education – For All My Friends. Syd Barrett meets Nektar in this roaring ten-minute art-rock theme,  rising to a titanic wall of frantic tremolo-picking. From their latest album A Drink For All My Friends. Play the song

73. Amniotic Fluid – Be Careful Children. Creepy cinematics with virtuoso clarinet, accordion and percussion in under two minutes. From their fiery debut album. Sound snippet

74. Theo Bleckmann & ACME – To the Night. Like Sex Mob at #67 above, the list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the rich, otherworldly debut that this crooner and indie chamber ensemble gave to Phil Kline’s new song cycle, Oud Cold, this past November. This is its high point, a feast of lustrous close harmonies. Not on the web yet, but you can check out the composer’s other intriguing song sequences.

75. Tom Shaner – She Will Shine. One of the highlights of the southwestern gothic rocker’s new album Ghosts Songs, Waltzes & Rock & Roll is a hilarious song called She’s an Unstoppable Hipster. This is sort of that song in reverse: gentrifier girl goes to the country because she’s sick of the city…or she just can’t hack it? This one’s not on the web but the first song is, in a very funny video

76. Tift Merritt – Small Talk Relations. The Americana chanteuse’s latest album Traveling Alone is the best guitar album of the year, with Marc Ribot’s noir playing off Eric Heywood’s steel and slide work. Ironically, this quiet, elegant countrypolitan number is the album’s best cut. Play the song/free download

77. Ramzi Aburedwan – Rahil. An absolutely sizzling, smashingly catchy theme for buzuq, accordion and percussion by the Palestinian virtuoso/composer, from his latest album Reflections of Palestine. Watch the video

78. Arturo O’Farrril & the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra – River Blue. One of the best concerts in New York this year was the first of two nights by this amazing, titanic band right after the hurricane: thsi darkly majestic  Rafi Malkiel Middle Eastern jazz epic is arguably the high point. Watch the video 

79. Ran Blake & Sara Serpa – Dr. Mabuse. With piano and wordless vocals, the noir jazz legend and his protegee evoke a troubled world of the spirits. From their live album Aurora, which is on Spotify if you have it; otherwise, good luck looking around.

80. Tom Warnick & World’s Fair- The Impostor. Kafkaesque rock doesn’t get any more intense than this: watch the keyboardist/bandleader finding it impossible to refrain from jumping back into the vocals after he’s handed them over to guitarist John Sharples on this noir classic. Here’s the video

81. Terrible Feelings – Blank Heads. This female-fronted punk band sounds like a dead ringer for the Avengers circa 1979, with rich Steve Jones style production. No streaming audio, but a free download from the band

82. Karthala 72 – Diable du Feu. Horror surf guitar grafted to a classic Afrobeat vamp with evil, buzzy bass by this period-perfect Brooklyn crew. Title track from their excellent new album. Play the song.

83. Spottiswoode -Enfant Terrible. This one came out a few years back, but the veteran art-rocker killed with this savage anti-trendoid broadside at a haphazardly assembled but absolutely brilliant show in the West Village right after the hurricane. Watch the video

84. Jaffa Road – Through the Mist of Your Eyes. A luscious Middle Eastern psychedelic rock tune from the eclectic female-fronted Canadian band. Play the song/free download 

85. The Funk Ark – El Rancho Motel. In case you think that Ethiopian cumbia is a crazy idea, check out this wickedly fun, creepily surfy track from the Washington, DC Afrobeat band’s excellent new album High Noon. Watch the video

86. Deleon – A La Nana. A creepy, stately minor key flamenco-flavored waltz with banjo as the lead instrument from this excellent Sephardic rock band. Play the song

87. Raya Brass Band – Melochrino. The hard-charging Balkan brass jamband is just as good at brooding, slowly unwinding, chromatically charged tunes like this one. From their phenomenal debut album Dancing on Roses, Dancing on Cinders. Play the song  

88. Andrew Collberg – Back on the Shore. A frequent Giant Sand collaborator, he writes period-perfect mid-80s style paisley underground psychedelic rock. This is a lush, hauning noir southwestern gothic anthem. Watch the video  

89. Tim Foljahn – New Light. From his brooding, pessimistic, absolutely haunting apocalypse concept album Songs for an Age of Extinction, this one artfully doubles the vocals: one track blithe and clueless, the other less so. Play the song

90. The Sweetback Sisters – Texas Bluebonnets
The harmonies and the melody of this oldschool western swing/Tex-Mex tune are so charming and chipper you know there has to be a sad undercurrent…and there sure is. “Those Texas bluebonnets just blew me away.” From their excellent album Lookin’ for a Fight. Watch the video

91. The Brixton Riot – Keep It Like a Secret. Snarling two-guitar rock from this New Jersey band, all too aware of how the Bush-era police state still lingers and makes you watch your back. From their scorching new album Palace Amusements. Play the song

92. Botanica – Manuscripts Don’t Burn. How the hell did the most epic, intense, grand guignol track from this era’s greatest art-rock band end up way down here? Roll of the dice. Sorry, guys. From their arguably most haunted, brooding album What Do You Believe. Play the song

93. Black Fortress of Opium – Afyonkaharisar Battle Cry. The female-fronted Boston band artfully crescendo from stately Middle Eastern sonics to a ferocious cauldron of dreampop guitar. From their new album Stratospherical. Play the song

94. Leigh Marble – Holden. The last of the anti-trendoid anthems here might be the funniest, which is ironic (in the true sense of the word) in that the Portland, Oregon songwriter’s latest album Where the Knives Meet Between the Rows is otherwise extremely dark. The title here is a Salinger reference. Play the song  

95. Marissa Nadler -The Wrecking Ball Company. Metaphorical, inscrutably deadpan, deathly noir atmospherics from this era’s unrivalled mistress of that style. From her latest and possibly best album The Sister. Play the song

96. Mucca Pazza – Last Days. An artsy, Russian-tinged accordion waltz from this titanically powerful gypsy punk brass band’s latest album Safety Last. Play the song

97. Niyaz – Shosin. A characteristically hypnotic, pulsing track from the Persian-Canadian dance/trance band’s latest album Sumud (Arabic for “resilience”). Watch the video

98.  Tribecastan – Jovanka. The darkest song on the eclectic-beyond-belief New York kitchen-sink worldbeat band’s latest album New Deli is sort of a balalaika bolero except that the web of stringed instruments is everything but a balalaika. Watch the video 

99. Rachelle Garniez – Land of the Living
The unexpectedly triumphant closing track on the inscrutable accordionist/chanteuse’s latest album Sad Dead Alive Happy, it starts with a devious dream sequence of sorts and ends with a warmly wry, indelibly New York stoop conversation. Play the song

100. Catspaw – Curl Up & Die. Let’s wrap up this list with a careening ghoulabilly track from this brooding 2/3 female New York retro rock trio. It’s a staple of their live show but hasn’t made it to the web yet – although you can hear their classic, even more haunting Southbound Line here.

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The 30 Best New York Concerts of 2012

Of all the end-of-the-year lists here, this is the most fun to put together. It’s the most individual – everybody’s got a different one.  Last year’s list had 26 shows; this year’s was impossible to whittle down to less than 30. What was frustrating was looking back and realizing how many other great shows there were. Erica Smith, Rebecca Turner, Love Camp 7 and Pinataland all on the same bill at the Parkside? The club didn’t list it on their calendar. Neil Young in Central Park? Completely spaced out on that one. Pierre de Gaillande’s Georges Brassens translation project, Les Chauds Lapins and Raya Brass Band at that place in Tribeca in January? That night conflicted with Winter Jazzfest. The Brooklyn What at Littlefield, Rachelle Garniez at Barbes, Ward White and Abby Travis at Rock Shop, Spanglish Fly at SOB’s…all of those conflicted with having a life. But it was still a great year, arguably better than 2011.

Of all the multiple-act bills, the longest marathon, and arguably most exhilarating show of the year was Maqamfest on January 6 at Alwan for the Arts downtown with slinky Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat, haunting vintage Greek rembetiko oud band Maeandros, torchy Syrian chanteuse Gaida, rustic Iraqi classicists Safaafir, deviously intense Palestinian buzuq funk band Shusmo and then a crazy Middle Eastern jam with the brilliant Alwan All-Stars. Maqamfest 2013 promises to be just as good.

Rather than trying to rank the rest of these shows, they’re listed chronologically:

Walter Ego at Otto’s, 1/28/12 – the witty, brilliantly lyrical multi- instrumentalist/songwriter, minus his usual theatrical shtick, instead running through one clever, pun-infused, catchy song after another.

Eva Salina at the Ukrainian National Home, 3/31/12 – this was the debut performance of brilliant Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina Primack’s new band with Frank London on trumpet and Patrick Farrell on accordion. She swayed, lost in the music and sang her heart out in a bunch of different languages over the haunting pulse behind her.

Closing night at Lakeside Lounge, 4/30/12 with co-owner Eric Ambel’s Roscoe Trio, Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith’s band, Mary Lee Kortes, Boo Reiners from Demolition String Band, Charlene McPherson from Spanking Charlene and many others giving the legendary East Village rock venue a mighty sendoff.

Little Annie, Paul Wallfisch and David J at the Delancey, 5/7/12 – the smoky, sureallistically hilarious noir cabaret chanteuse, Botanica’s brilliant keyboardist playing three sets, and the legendary Bauhaus bassist/songwriter/playwright at the top of their brooding noir game.

Ben Von Wildenhaus at Zebulon, 5/14/12 – at one of his final shows before leaving town, the noir guitarist played solo through a loop pedal and turned the club into a set from Twin Peaks.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices at Otto’s,  6/16/12 – backed by the ferocious piano of Patrick McLellan, Tommy Hochscheid’s classic Stax/Volt guitar attack and a swinging rhythm section, the NYC noir rock legend careened through a politically-charged set of songs from his reportedly phenomenal forthcoming 2013 album.

Black Sea Hotel in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, 6/17/12 – the trio of Willa Roberts, Corinna Snyder and Sarah Small sang their own otherworldly, hypnotic a-cappella arrangements of surreal Bulgarian folk songs from across the centuries, their voices hauntingly echoing in the cavernous space of an old synagogue.

Veveritse Brass Band at Barbes, 6/28/12 – over the absolutely psychedelic, bubbly pulse of the trubas, this ten-piece Balkan jam band burned and roared and turned the club’s back room into a cauldron of menacing chromatics and minor keys.

Kotorino at Joe’s Pub, 6/29/12 – transcending a series of snafus with the sound system, the lush, artsy chamber-steampunk band evoked other countries and other centuries throughout a set that was as jaunty and fun as it was haunting.

Aaron Blount of Knife in the Water with Jack Martin from Dimestore Dance Band at Zirzamin, 7/9/12  – although the two hadn’t rehearsed, Martin evoked the ghost of Django Reinhardt against the reverb cloud swirling from Blount’s guitar amp, through a mix of moody, gloomy southwestern gothic songs.

Magges at Athens Square Park in Astoria, 7/10/12 – the Greek psychedelic rockers played a long show of spiky, often haunting songs spiced with Susan Mitchell’s soaring electric violin and Kyriakos Metaxas’ sizzling electric bouzouki – it seemed that the whole neighborhood stuck around for most of it. Too bad there wasn’t any ouzo.

Neko Case out back of the World Financial Center, 7/12/12 – the stage monitors weren’t working, which messed up opening act Charles Bradley’s set, but Case, Kelly Hogan and the rest of the band didn’t let it phase them, switching up their set list and playing a raw, intense set of noir Americana.

Niyaz at Drom, 7/22/12 – a  long, mesmerizing cd release show by the artsy Canadian-Persian dance/trance ensemble, frontwoman Azam Ali slowly and elegantly raising the energy from suspenseful to ecstatic as it went on.

Dimestore Dance Band at Zirzamin, 7/23/12 – since reviving this group, guitarist Jack Martin has become even more powerful, more offhandedly savage and intense than he was when he was leading them back in the mid-zeros when this witty yet plaintive gypsy/ragtime/jazz band was one of the finest acts in the Tonic scene. This show was a welcome return.

The Secret Trio, Ilhan Ersahin and Selda Bagcan at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/12 – the annual “Turkish Woodstock” began with short sets of haunting classical instrumentals, psychedelic jazz and then the American debut of the legendary psychedelic rock firebrand and freedom fighter whose pro-democracy activism landed her in jail at one point.

Bettye LaVette at Madison Square Park, 8/8/12 – the charismatic underground soul legend took songs from acts as diverse as George Jones, Paul McCartney and Sinead O’Connor and made them wrenchingly her own, a portrait of endless struggle followed finally by transcendence.

Bombay Rickey at Barbes, 8/11/12 – jaunty, jangly, surfy , psychedelic Bollywood rock fun, with guitar, accordion and frontwoman Kamala Sankaram’s amazing operatic vocals.

Daniel Kahn & the  Painted Bird at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/12/12 – grim, politically spot-on, lyrically brilliant klezmer-rock songwriting from the Berlin-based bandleader backed by an inspired New York pickup group.

Ulrich Ziegler at Barbes, 8/17/12 – of all the single-band shows, this was the year’s most intense, over an hour of eerie. reverb-driven noir cinematic instrumentals from genius guitarist Stephen Ulrich and his inspired colleague Itamar Ziegler, celebrating the release of the album rated best of 2012 here.

The Byzan-Tones at Zebulon, 8/22/12 – the recently resurrected Greek psychedelic surf rockers traded in the electric oud for Steve Antonakos’ lead guitar, and the result sent the haunting, Middle Eastern-fueled energy through the roof.

J O’Brien and Beninghove’s Hangmen at Zirzamin, 9/10/12 – a fascinatingly lyrical, characteristically witty set, solo on twelve-string guitar, by the former Dog Show frontman followed by New York’s best noir soundtrack jazz band at their most intense and psychedelic.

The Strawbs at B.B. King’s, 9/11/12 – it’s amazing how almost 45 years after the psychedelic/Britfolk/art-rock band began, they still sound strong, their lyrical anthems still resonant even in a stripped-down acoustic trio setting.

Sam Llanas at Zirzamin, 9/11/12 – rushing downtown to catch a solo show by the former BoDeans frontman paid off with a riveting, haunting set of brooding, austerely nocturnal songs, especially when J O’Brien joined him on bass.

Sex Mob at the World Financial Center, 9/27/12 – the downtown jazz legends got the atrium echoing with a hypnotic, absolutely menacing set of classic Nino Rota film themes – and they didn’t even play the Godfather.

Julia Haltigan at 11th St. Bar, 10/2/12 – the eclectic southwestern gothic/Americana/soul siren and songwriter at the top of her torchy, sultry, intense game, backed by a brilliant, jazzy band.

M Shanghai String Band‘s cd release show at the Jalopy, 10/5/12 – an hour of cameos from too many New York Americana luminaries to name, followed by two long sets from the massive oldschool string band, moving energetically from bluegrass, to Appalachian, to sea chanteys, gypsy sounds and Britfolk, sometimes fiery and intense, sometimes hilarious.

Theo Bleckmann backed by ACME, crooning Phil Kline song cycles at BAM, 10/25/12 – this was the premiere of Kline’s lushly enveloping chamber-rock arrangements of his acerbically hilarious Rumsfeld Songs, his eclectic Vietnam-themed Zippo Songs and his brand-new, luridly haunting new Sinatra-inspired cycle, Out Cold.

The Arturo O’Farrill Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra at Symphony Space, 11/2/12 – in the wake of the hurricane, O’Farrill decided to put on a couple of free concerts to lift peoples’ spirits. This was the first and better of the two nights, the brilliant latin big band pianist joined by special guests including Anat Cohen, Sex Mob’s Steven Bernstein, Rafi Malkiel and Larry Harlow, playing long, broodingly intense, towering themes, many of them based on classic Jewish melodies.

Katie Elevitch at Zirzamin, 12/16/12  – goes to show that you can’t really count the year’s best concerts until the year’s almost over. Backed by her fantastic four-piece band, the haunting, intense rock siren improvised lyrics, roared, whispered and seduced the crowd in the plush space with her voice and her achingly soul-inspired songwriting.

Aaron Blount Haunts Zirzamin

Monday night at around half past eleven, the back room at Zirzamin was basically empty, and all of a sudden it was packed, as Aaron Blount, formerly of dark Austin rockers Knife in the Water took the stage for a rivetingly mysterious show, most of it solo. Blount is a tremendously interesting guitarist and a nonchalantly haunting, quietly powerful singer. Playing his Danelectro Jazzmaster copy through a Fender Twin with the reverb going full steam, his casual but precise fingerpicking built a blizzard of overtones ringing from the amp: it was as if he’d summoned every ghost who’d ever hit a reverb pedal to join him in the vortex. His songs unfolded slowly and sepulchrally, phrases from old blues, bluegrass, gospel and folk rising ominously in the mist. His mostly chordal approach to the guitar intersperses eerie passing tones to max out the menace. To twist a title from Leonard Cohen – one that Blount probably knows well – he puts a new spin on the old ceremony.

A single, jagged slash broke the enveloping ambience as Blount worked his way into the first number, employing a strange tuning for what was essentially a bluegrass melody, but one stripped to the bone and bleached by the desert sun. An icy burst from his reverb tank kicked off the next one, a mix of cold chromatic chords and muted low notes like waves hitting the November shore. “There is no room, no hostel, nowhere to hide,” Blount intoned nonchalantly. Pregnant pauses in many of these slowly crescendoing anthems left the overtones extra time to linger and leave their mark. Blount casually made his way into a bittersweet soul song that picked up with a gorgeously menacing chorus straight out of the David J songbook. A gothic folk number reminded of the Church’s Steve Kilbey at his most hypnotic; another, sung in French, sounded like Elliott Smith in ultra-minimalist mode with the reverb turned all the way up, turning a two-note phrase into an orchestra.

Then Blount brought up the Dimestore Dance Duo a.k.a. guitarslinger Jack Martin and bassist Jude Webre along with a drummer. Martin’s blends of country blues and gypsy tonalities is the raw essence of noir, and it made a perfect match with Blount’s allusive menace. This wasn’t about fitting into a song seamlessly. Martin and Webre wrestled with them, Blount calmly and coolly guiding them with a phrase, or a jab of his guitar’s headstock, the duo tossing and turning and then suddenly diving into their depths once they had the structure down. It didn’t take long. In the Dimestore project, Webre serves as the perfectly melodic, matter-of-fact foil for Martin’s jaggedly biting phrases, and he played the same role here, anchoring the songs with a series of artfully transposed voicings shifting between the lows and the upper frets. Together they rampaged haphazardly and memorably through a backbeat-driven anthem (again, evoking the Church), a twisted country blues that gave Martin a launching pad for a succession of deliciously lurid chromatic riffs, and then a creepily swaying nocturne. “The night is slowing to a crawl,” Blount intoned, “Bottles dance on the shelves…we float, drift and collide and spill out into the street.” Before they did that, they gently ravaged another ballad in the 6/8 time that Blount loves so much, Martin and then Webre shifting uneasily from major to minor, playing modes against each other as the crowd sat silent and rapt. This crew is bound to reunite at least once, whether for a show or (fingers crossed) a recording somewhere in the relatively near future: watch this space.

Mark Steiner and Susan Mitchell Haunt the Delancey

Every now and then, the more-or-less weekly Small Beast gathering upstairs at the Delancey will bring back an artist or two who made this the night for intelligent rock in New York back in 2008-09. A couple of weeks ago it was David J, Little Annie and the night’s founder, Paul Wallfisch of Botanica; this week it was Mark Steiner and His Problems. Steiner had a long and memorable run as the leader of Piker Ryan and then Kundera here in New York in the late 90s and early zeros. Now based in Norway, he and his only Problem this time out, longtime collaborator and violin sorceress Susan Mitchell played one of the most haunting rock shows this town has seen in a long time. And he did it with virtually all new material: he’s never played or sung better.

Steiner’s signature sound is a reverb guitar-fueled menace. In a stripped-down context like this, he builds tension by muting the strings and then letting the chords explode in a shower of overtone-drenched clang and twang. Inscrutable and methodical, Mitchell provided a sepulchral, otherworldly contrast with her custom-made five-string hybrid violin/viola, raising the sonics to the level of epic grandeur with apprehensive microtonal swirls, funereal Balkan tones and haunting, sustained atmospherics: there’s no other string player out there who achieves such high intensity so effortlessly. One of the night’s more memorable tunes was a swampy, syncopated rock song that evoked the Gun Club, Steiner’s enveloping baritone giving it a luridly seductive edge. Another more anthemic song reminded of an early song by the Church, tense syncopation giving way to a richly interwoven, roaring series of variations on an open guitar chord. Steiner switched chords counterintuitively throughout the set, but Mitchell kept up. The best of the new songs matched an ominous Syd Barrett-inflected verse to a roaring, anthemic, surf-tinged Radio Birdman chorus that picked up with a percussive ferocity at the end. They closed with a couple of covers: one a sly, tongue-in-cheek faux pop song by an Australian band, basically a litany of drugs that get harder as the song goes on, and then a macabre tango-flavored number [by Gowanus Somebody? didn’t recognize the name of the artist] that Mitchell ended with a ghostly slide down the fingerboard. Several of these songs are scheduled to be recorded, an auspicious development as it’s been awhile since Steiner put out an album.

Small Beast, May 7: Best NYC Rock Show of 2012 So Far

If memory serves right, the legend of Small Beast first took root during CMJ 2007, when Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch – arguably the greatest keyboard improviser in rock music – played a one-off solo piano gig at the upstairs space at the Delancey. That stage had been more or less mothballed after the club’s first few months in business, but the show was a memorable one, and it struck a chord – a whole lot of them, actually. Wallfisch would go on to do a couple more equally intense solo gigs on it later that year, and then in the winter of 2008 founded the Beast (named after the club’s 88-key spinet piano). Over the next two years, Small Beast would become the live music event of the week in New York: it was the closest approximation to a genuine rock scene in this city since CBGB at the peak of the punk era. That this all took place on a Monday night rather than on a weekend says more about the state of New York nightlife in this depression era than pretty much anything else could. Last night, after a two-year absence following his appointment as music director at the Dortmund (Germany) State Theatre, Wallfisch made a triumphant return to that stage, playing for over four hours, first in a duo performance with a longtime collaborator, noir chanteuse Little Annie, then backing another noir rock legend, David J, and finally capping off the night with a tireless, often exhilarating solo set that went on until after two in the morning.

The night began with Bryin Dall doing Hank Williams covers from his Deconstructing Hank album, in a duo performance with Derek Rush on acoustic guitar. What Dall has done is taken Williams’ lyrics and set them to his own noir minor-key and chromatic melodies. Dall isn’t a strong singer, and his electric guitar work in this project is limited to scraping at the strings – often with what looked like a giant linoleum knife – for menacing white-noise effects. But it turned out to be a concept that, repeated over and over, set a horror-stricken ambience that lingered long after the show was done. Rush varied his approach from song to song, raising the suspense with unresolved, lingering open chords as well as the occasional horror-movie tonality. Taken as a whole, it was one of the most evocative portraits of complete, anguished isolation in recent memory: in his own twisted way, Dall did justice to the power of Williams’ unflinchingly bleak vision.

Other than a single drama-ridden appearance together in Germany, Little Annie and Wallfisch hadn’t played together for a couple of years. It was obvious how much the two missed each other: Annie went light on her signature acerbic stream-of-consciousness observations and occasional audience-baiting and sang her heart out. It wasn’t just her usual punked-out, smoky contralto Eartha Kitt growl and purr: who knew she had so much upper register? She started with a blithe, deadpan a-cappella verse of the old gospel song Life is a Ballgame, then a little later a casually savage version of her anti-gentrifier broadside Cutesy Bootsies and then the two went deep into the gloom for a series of requiems. Wallfisch’s moody, resonant chords on the elegy Dear John were one of the highlights of the night; he gave another one, Beside You, Beside Myself an unexpectedly psychedelic interlude. They reinvented the Tina Turner easy-listening hit Private Dancer as a grim Piaf waltz and closed with If You Go Away, the English version of Jacques Brel’s Si Tu Dois Partir, one of the covers she used to do back in her Tonic days ten years ago when her career as a singer (she’s also a very affecting visual artist) had taken a turn to dark cabaret.

Beyond his role as bassist in Bauhaus and then Love and Rockets, David J’s best work has been his own noir cabaret songs, both as a bandleader and solo act. This time out he was the former, backed by Wallfisch along with current Botanica bassist Jason Binnick, with Heather Paauwe characteristically eclectic and intense on violin. There were some covers: they turned St. James Infirmary into a torchy, breathy waltz, did a briskly deadpan take on Lou Reed’s NY Telephone Conversation, an unexpectedly drama-infused version of Bauhaus’ Who Killed Mr. Moonlight – lit up by Paauwe’s eerie swoops – and wound up the set with gleefully macabre romps through Tom Waits’ Dead and Lovely as well as what might be the prototypical noir cabaret song, Boulevard of Broken Dreams and finally Whiskey Bar, which went straight back to Kurt Weill with a blithe Weimar swing without any reference to the Doors. But the originals were the best, especially the poignantly matter-of-fact dirge Not Long for This World, the title track to David J’s forthcoming album, underscored by Wallfisch’s stoically resonant chords. The band also made their way through equally plaintive takes on a couple of songs written for David J’s new play about Edie Sedgwick, which he’s looking to bring to New York (any potential backers out there?) The first was soul music through the prism of Lou Reed, its foreshadowing visible miles away; the second worked a bossa theme for a more bittersweet and subtle look at her impending doom. David J has been a formidable presence in the darkest corners of the rock world for a long time: at this point, he may be at his peak.

Botanica has a poignant, brooding new album, What Do You Believe In, just out, inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s surreal Stalin-era parable The Master and the Margarita. Winding up the night with a long, extemporaneous set, Walfisch interspersed – and completely reinvented – some of its tracks along with a couple of older favorites and a dynamically charged, soul-infused version of Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man (which several audience members had to beg him to play). Alternating from ragtime to Chopinesque chords and ripples, menacingly cinematic, Ran Blake-esque noir flourishes and psychedelic sostenuto soul, it was a master class in how to evince an entire spectrum of emotion from a battered keyboard. Wallfisch gave an unexpectedly minimalist insistence to the elegaic reminiscence Park Bench, imbued Ball in Hell with a theatrical sway and a pinpoint ragtime solo, turned the assaultive Manuscripts Don’t Burn into leapfrogging gypsy rock and blended high romanticism with oldschool soul on the brooding nocturne Past One O’Clock. The highlight of the set, and maybe the whole night, was the album’s opening track, Judgment: the studio version with John Andrews’ classical guitar is good, but this was transcendent, Wallfisch mimicking its original flamenco feel with flickering intensity in the upper registers and several jagged Erik Satie allusions. And after more than four hours behind the keys, he still had the energy to coax, eventually bribe and then endlessly vamp behind a woman in the crowd (who suspiciously seemed completely prepared for the moment) as she stripped on the bar; then he fired off the lickety-split downward torrents in How, a big crowd-pleaser from Botanica’s earlier gypsy-punk days.

Bobby Vacant Strikes Again

Bobby Vacant and the Weary’s 2009 album Tear Back the Night is a high point in recent rock history, a richly arranged, sometimes crushingly intense mix of darkly lyrical folk-rock and more ornate, crescendoing anthems. Since then, Swiss-American songwriter Bobby Vacant has hardly been idle, going against the tide with an enterprising new label, Weak Records, who’ve so far put out an entertaining album of eclectic Americana rock by the Jesus Taco. And now Vacant has a new album, Virginia Neon, credited to Bobby Vacant and the Worn this time around (multi-instrumentalist George Reisch, a.k.a. the Weary being replaced by bassist/singer Brigitte Meier a.k.a. the Worn). It’s almost but not quite as bleak, considerably more diverse and a lot louder than its predecessor, juxtaposing quiet acoustic songs with some unexpectedly fiery, energetic rock. And where Tear Back the Night went for lush arrangements, this has much more of a DIY feel. Leonard Cohen fans will be salivating all over this record.

The best of the 14 tracks here include both rockers and quieter fare. Surprisingly, the one that stands out as an instant college radio hit is the funniest one. With a strikingly simple, distantly apprehensive bass-driven hook that goes jangly and irresistibly catchy on the chorus, Nobody’s There is a wry catalog of ways to get attention. That’s how it works on a literal level, anyway – all these songs are minefields of symbolically loaded detail. The Jesus Taco’s Brett Davidson’s Man or Astroman style surf guitar drives the rumbling southwestern gothic opening track, Lay Me Down, while Run, a vigorous, exasperated garage-punk escape anthem with a Diddleybeat bounce, wouldn’t be out of place in the Steve Wynn catalog.

Among the quiet songs, Snow in April evokes the David J classic Stop This City, with its torrents of spoken-word images and vivid late winter milieu. The most intense track here is The Road, a hypnotic folk-rock song in a Tim Buckley vein:

I drove across the USA
I saw pain in every face
Headlights chasing down the dawn
Lost souls, every one
Carry on…

There’s also When You Burned My Eyes, whose wistful, almost sentimental vibe only adds to the title’s intrigue; the stately baroque folk of St. Peter’s Island; Without You, an interestingly funky take on Joy Division-esque gloom; Where You Live, a lullaby as a young Jonathan Richman might have done it; Shiny Pearl, an unexpected detour into acoustic soul music; Wild Wind Blows, an allusively menacing banjo tune; and Skylark, which mines a Pale Blue Eyes-ish Velvets vibe. It’s good to see such a tersely compelling songwriter holding onto the momentum of his previous album, with contributions from several artists including Per Blomgren (ex-Radio Dept.) on drums and luthier Tyko Runesson adding thoughtful melody and texture on about fifteen fretted, keyboard and wind instruments.