New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Dawn Oberg

The 50 Best Albums of 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. Listen at Spotify

Sharp and Hilarious New Protest Songs From Dawn Oberg

Nobody writes funnier, more acerbic protest songs these days than pianist and singer Dawn Oberg. The San Francisco songwriter’s previous political piano pop album Nothing Rhymes with Orange made the best albums of the year list in 2017. Lockdown or no lockdown, she was determined to get a new short album of relevantly entertaining songs out this year too. Her excoriating, irresistibly sardonic latest release, 2020 Revision is streaming at Bandcamp. As usual, the band behind her – Kelyn Crapp and Roger Rocha on guitars, Shawn Miller on bass and Andrew Laubacher on drums – are tight and inspired behind the velvet vocals.

Oberg loves puns and multiple entendres (in her world, doubles are for lightweights), and uses a lot of gospel voicings at the piano. “Those who hunger for justice are now starving at the station door,” she intones on the album’s first song, It’s 12:01, a fiery, insistent call for justice for the chilling list of innocent people murdered by the SFPD. The album includes a second, “clean” radio edit of the song so the censors don’t get their underwear all up in a knot over the word “motherfuckers.”

In the more woundedly subdued, gospel-tinged second track, Care, Oberg ponders what kind of “psychic surgeon practicing somewhere” could possibly give Donald Trump a conscience. In a year where the lockdowners are building concentration camps on American soil, this song has special resonance.

With Erik Ian Walker on the organ, the funniest, bounciest number here is Mitch McConnell. “I wouldn’t cross the street to pee on him if he were onfire,” Oberg insists. She takes issue with people who compare the Republican paleofascist to turtles, since that would be an insult to any reptile. We’ve never needed artists like Dawn Oberg more than we do now – which is why the lockdowners are doing everything in their power to keep audiences away from any kind of music. That’s an issue which Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Ayatollah Khomeini and the Taliban all agreed on.

Witheringly Elegant, Ruthlessly Funny Protest Songs From Dawn Oberg

What’s more Halloweenish than the prospect of Donald Trump NOT being impeached? Think about that for a second. Dawn Oberg, arguably this era’s most entertaining protest songsmith, played a guardedly optimistic, elegantly venomous set at the Rockwood last month that evoked what the world would be like under another Trump administration. It was as grim as you would expect, but Oberg’s irrepressible sense of humor wouldn’t quit. In times like these, you have to laugh, right?

It had been six years since anybody from this blog had seen the Bay Area singer/pianist in concert. The first time was at the infamous Bar East, where she played to basically two people: this blog’s owner, and the coked-up soundguy. The New York gigs have gotten better since then, and Oberg’s voice has grown richer and more velvety, like a good single malt. And her writing has never been more excoriatingly funny.

Playing wide-angle gospel chords and intricate, jazz and blues-inflected ripples, she briskly made her way through a bristling set. Not all of the songs were political. She opened with her usual Old Hussies Never Die and followed that with Whiskey Priest, one of her many character studies, this a shout out to a liberation Christian with a fondness for spirits (much of Oberg’s catalog looks to the bottom of a glass, darkly).

Idiot for Love was a rarity, a wry, guardedly optimistic love ballad, followed by the similarly upbeat, pouncing, quietly devastating End of the Continent, a cynical tale of abandonment and alienation told in California seismological imagery. And with the disarmingly catchy Angel Rant, Oberg offered robust, rebellious empathy for anyone spiraling into a dark night of the soul.

Then she dug into the political satire, ruthlessly, one song after another: the relentless cynicism of I’d Love to Be Wrong; the withering Nothing Rymes with Orange (title track of her fantastic protest song ep from last year), and possibly the best song of the set, the furious, defiant it’s 12:01, namechecking everyone  recently murdered by the SFPD: “Past time, motherfuckers, to change the guard at the gate.” The funniest song of the set was Mitch McConnell, wherein Oberg pondered what horrible things a turtle could possibly do to be compared to that troglodyte.

Oberg’s next gig is, Nov 14 at 6 PM at Martuni’s, 4 Valencia St. in San Francisco.

Dawn Oberg’s Nothing Rhymes With Orange: 2017’s Funniest Political Album

What’s more Halloweenish than Putin’s little bitch in the Oval Office? That’s what Dawn Oberg calls him in the scathingly hilarious, Beatlesque parlor-pop title track of her new ep, Nothing Rhymes with Orange. It’s streaming at Bandcamp, and she’s making a relatively rare New York appearance at 2:45 PM at Matchless in Williamsburg on Nov 12. Similarly lyrical, unpredictable, wickedly catchy keyboard-fueled art-rockers Changing Modes eventually follow later in the evening at 5:45; cover is $10.

Oberg is unsurpasssed at sardonically funny, insightful tunesmithing. With her sharp wit, erudite gospel-inspired piano chops and quirky vocals, she’s been pursuing her distinctive, literary parlor pop and artsy rock since the early zeros. She never met a good pun she could resist, and slings one of those after another at the failed casino magnate whose unlikely ascendancy to the one public office he’ll ever hold left the world in a state of shock and horror last November. Until the slow wheels of impeachment reach their inevitable destination, we have this record to soothe the burn.

Oberg’s band here includes Roger Rocha on guitar, Shawn Miller on bass, Erik Ian Walker on organ and Andrew Laubacher on drums. They shuflfle along with with Oberg’s tumbling piano and torrents of lyrics in Information Is Your Friend, a snide response to the deluge of fake news being sent out by the “tweeting twat” in the White House:

Someone smart said a long time ago, the truth will set you free
And it sucks I even have to say it, that I have to sing and play it…

That disillusion is echoed in I’d Love to Be Wrong, which alludes to Oberg’s classic breakup-as-earthquake anthem End of the Continent:

I see four guys on horses
The sky growing dark,
I can hear the rattle of chains
They ain’t coming to help us
Their hostages already slain

Oberg is no stranger to political satire, or irresistible jokes – her 2008 album is titled Horticulture Wars – but this is the funniest thing she’s ever done. And it’s reason to look forward to what she has to say when hubris catches up with that tweeting twat. Let’s just hope he doesn’t start a real war when he finally figures out that he bit off way too much more than he could chew.

The 50 Best Albums of 2015

Seven or eight years ago, everyone was predicting the demise of the album. That hasn’t happened, and as long as we have recording technology, it won’t. A few other predictions from the past decade, however, have come true. Albums these days tend to be shorter, and artists are releasing fewer of them. And as a result, they’re consistently better, since acts are no longer contractually obliged to record labels to churn out product regardless of whether or not they’ve got first-class material ready to go. A couple of artists on this list are on boutique labels, but everybody else is independent.

On this page you’ll find a link to stream each album in its entirety. Whenever possible, those links are to ad-free sites like Bandcamp or Soundcloud so you can multitask in comfort without having to ride the fader to mute the ads. Considering the vast number of albums released in any calendar year, you shouldn’t regard this list as gospel. It is, however, an informed survey based on careful triage followed by a sampling of several thousand releases, and then a locked-in, analytical listen to the best 500 or so, from this past January up to the present date. A LOT of time went into this. For purposes of keeping the list under control, none of the many thousands of excellent jazz, classical and avant garde releases are represented here. Realistically, there’s a limit on how much territory a single blog can cover.

The one collection that packed the most mighty wallop – a pretty quiet one, actually – and wins the title of best album of 2015 is Who’s Counting, by Rachelle Garniez. With gallows humor, terse piano, accordion and spare acoustic guitar, it’s the New York songwriter’s shortest, most intimate and darkest album, a masterpiece of existentialist rock, grim explorations of mortality and global carnage juxtaposed with jaunty, sultry, cabaret-flavored set pieces. This is the second time a release by Garniez has topped this list: her 2007 album Melusine Years ranked #1 that year at this blog’s predecessor. Stream it at Spotify

As far as the rest of this rich crop is concerned, there’s no ranking here, since there are so many styles to choose from. Seriously: what’s better? Carol Lipnik‘s otherworldly art-rock, Twin Guns’ savage garage-punk and horror surf, or Hungrytown‘s magnificently pensive folk noir? Apples and oranges, right? These albums are all so good that they can stand alongside anything here.

Les Sans Culottes- Les Dieux Ont Soif/The Gods Are Thirsty
The New York-based faux-French rockers deliver their most satirical, bitingly hilarious, spot-on critique yet…in French, of course, with a harder, more guitar-fueled edge than the retro 60s psychedelic pop they’re known for. Stream it at Soundcloud

Regular Einstein – Chimp Haven
Velvet-voiced, wickedly lyrical janglerock songwriter Paula Carino is another artist who topped the Best Albums of the Year list at this blog’s predecessor. In her case, that release was 2010’s Open on Sunday. This is her first new one – since the 90s, in fact -with her original New York band, packed with delicious double entendres, bittersweet narratives and tricky time signatures. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Bright Smoke – Terrible Towns
Haunting singer/guitarist Mia Wilson’s full-length debut with this atmospheric, blues-infused art-rock project ranks with Joy Division for angst-fueled, white-knuckle intensity. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Sideshow Tragedy Capital
Guitarist/frontman Nathan Singleton brings a ferocious, bitterly apocalyptic lyrical sensibility to his fiery gutter-blues band. Stream it at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Love, Crime & Other Trouble
Jeff Morris of the phantasmagorical Kotorino and Ellia Bisker of dark chamber pop band Sweet Soubrette join forces on their debut full-length release, a lyrically and historically rich mix of murder ballads and tales of relationships gone spectacularly wrong. Stream it at Bandcamp

Carol Lipnik – Almost Back to Normal
The best album by the best singer on this list, a launching pad for her spectacular four-octave vocal range, backed by luminous, hypnotic piano from Matt Kanelos and strings by Jacob Lawson. Allusive apocalyptic themes of natural and manmade disaster and post-9/11 terror linger in the distance. Stream it at Mermaidalley.com

Ember Schrag – The Folkadelphia Sessions
Hypnotically Beatlesque art-rock, smoldering Macbeth-inspired narratives and a killer Great Plains gothic anthem by the style’s most lyrical and distinctive practitioner. Stream and download it free from the Folkadelphia page

Twin Guns – The Last Picture Show
A mighty leap for the ferocious power trio, including but not limited to their Cramps-style stomp. This one’s a lot more psychedelic and noir surf-oriented. Stream it at Bandcamp

Lorraine Leckie & Pavel Cingl – The Raven Smiled
Spare and surreal yet majestically enveloping art-rock and Slavic folk noir sounds from the Canadian gothic songstress and Czech violin wizard. Stream it at Bandcamp

Rachel Mason – The Lives of Hamilton Fish
One of the darkest albums on this list, this lush, evocative mix of historically-inspired janglerock and folk noir traces the seeemingly unconnected lives of two early 20th century figures who shared the same name: a serial killer and the scion of a famous New York political legacy. Stream it at Bandcamp

King Raam – A Day & a Year
A majestic, brooding Iranian art-rock record by the pseudonymous expat baritone crooner and bandleader. Lyrics in Persian. Stream it at Soundcloud

Fernando Viciconte – Leave the Radio On
The noir rock bandleader originally hails from Argentina; this haunted, doomed concept album, with significant contributions from REM’s Peter Buck and others, could be the great lost Steve Wynn release. Stream it at Bandcamp

Litvakus– Raysn: The Music of Jewish Belarus
A rousing, exhilarating mix of rare Jewish dance numbers,lively originals and morose folk tunes from the badlands of Polesia, in the corner where Belarus, Poland, Latvia and the Ukraine meet. One of the best party albums on this list. Stream it at Bandcamp

Raya Brass Band – Raya
Another awesome party album, the third release by the New York Balkan group is their most original, stylistically and emotionally diverse one yet, incorporating Ethiopian and latin sounds into their rapidire chromatics. Stream it at Bandcamp

Tipsy Oxcart – Upside Down
A fat rock rhythm section anchors these deliriously edgy minor-key Balkan, Turkish and Jewish themes and originals. Stream it at Bandcamp

Marianne Dissard – Cologne Vier Takes
The southwestern gothic/art-rock chanteuse and bandleader at the top of her uneasy game, in a mix of richly atmospheric yet intimate versions from her darkly lyrical catalog. Lyrics in French. Stream it at Bandcamp

Tom Warnick & the World’s Fair – Side Effects
The well-loved noir rock cult figure turns in a characteristically diverse mix of ghoulabilly, noir swing, soul and blues, all with his signature black humor and a luridly smoky band behind him. Stream it at Spotify

Matt Keating – This Perfect Crime
Getting away with murder is the loosely interconnecting theme on this typically diverse blend of janglerock, Stonesy stomp, Americana and soul-infused sounds, all with Keating’s richly sardonic, literate lyricism. Stream it at Mattkeating.com

Tracy Island – War No More
The long-awaited full-length debut from captivating singer/multi-instrumentalist Liza Garelik Roure – former leader of deviously psychedelic popsters Liza & the WonderWheels – is her catchiest and most pensively colorful yet, fueled by husband Ian Roure’s sizzling lead guitar. Stream it at Lizasongs.com

Bliss Blood & Al Street – Unspun
The iconic noir torch song heroine builds lowlit, lurid, delectably lyrical ambience in an intimate duo recording with her longtime flamenco-inspired six-string guy. Stream it at Bandcamp

Orphan Jane – A Poke in the Eye
Deviously witty, creepy noir cabaret and circus rock from this irrepressibly theatrical, Brecht/Weill-inspired New York crew. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Universal Thump – Walking the Cat
Famously recorded at Abbey Road Studios, frontwoman/keyboardist Greta Gertler has never written with greater wit or purist pop chops than she does here with her lush chamber pop/art-rock project. Stream it at Bandcamp

Sarah Kirkland Snider – Unremembered
The most lavishly orchestrated album on this list features vocals from Padma Newsome and Shara Worden throughout a mix of brooding, sweeping art-rock reflections on harrowing childhood experiences and similar trauma. Stream it at Bandcamp

Goddess – Paradise
The latest release by the phantasmagorical New York art-rock band captures them in creepily enveloping psychedelic mode. Stream it at Bandcamp

Bobtown – A History of Ghosts
Eerie, sepulcural Appalachian folk tunes, creepy newgrass, retro soul, murder ballads, black humor galore and exquisite four-part harmonies from the band that might be the best folk noir act around. Stream it at Bobtownmusic.com

Mike RimbaudPut That Dream in Your Pipe and Smoke It
Yet another provocative, surrealistically lyrical, tight powerpop and retro new wave record from one of the most fearlessly funny, spot-on chroniclers of post-9/11 global society anywhere. Stream it at Spotify

Hungrytown – Further West
The most elegantly arranged and arguably best album by poignant Americana songstress Rebecca Hall and multi-instrumentalist Ken Anderson’s plaintive folk noir band Stream it at Spotify

The Sway Machinery – Purity & Danger
One of the great guitar albums on this list, this richly textured, intricately arraanged, soaring collection of anthems sees the band venturing further from desert rock toward cantorially-inspired psychedelia. Stream it at Spotify

The TarantinosNYC – Surfin’ the Silver Screen
Catchy, fun, vividly cinematic surf rock, spy themes and psychedelic soul from one of NYC’s most original instrumental units. Stream it at Spotify

Dalava – their debut album
Guitar polymath Aram Bajakian and his haunting singer wife Julia Ulehla combine to reinvent stark traditional Moravian themes with an electric edge. Stream it at Bandcamp  

Patricia Santos – Never Like You Think
The auspicious, intense, eclectic soul-infused debut by the charismatic cello rocker and Kotorino member. Stream it at Bandcamp

Eleni Mandell – Dark Lights Up
Los Angeles noir soul, bittersweet torch song and Americana by an icon of dark retro songcraft. Stream it at Spotify

The Whiskey Charmers – their debut album
Twin Peaks C&W, Appalachian gothic, dark blues and jangly rock from this shadowy, female-fronted Detroit dark Americana band. Stream it at Thewhiskeycharmers.com

Figli di Madre Ignota – Bellydancer
High-energy, Gogol Bordello-esque circus rock and Romany punk songs with hilarious, satirical lyrics in Italian and English. Stream their “spaghetti Balkan” sounds at Soundcloud

The Frank Flight Band – The Usual Curse
The British counterpart to Blue Oyster Cult reach back into the vaults for this haunted mix of Doorsy art-rock, shapeshifting psychedelia and unexpectedly macabre gothic sounds. Stream it at cdbaby

Dawn Oberg – Bring
The irrepressible parlor pop pianist/chanteuse at the top of her sardonic, lyrically rich game in this mix of personality portraits and psychopathological analysis. Stream it at Dawnoberg.com

Jennifer Hall – her debut ep
An intriguing, auspicious mashup of noir soul and art-rock from the powerfully nuanced Chicago song stylist and her excellent, eclectic band. Stream it at Spotify

The Grasping Straws – their debut album
Edgy songwriter/guitarist Mallory Feuer’s snarling, hard-hitting, scruffy, defiantly lyrical first full-length effort goes in a more straightforward, less jazz-inspired direction than the band’s initial ep. Stream it at Bandcamp

Ben Von Wildenhaus– II
Southwestern gothic, slinky bellydancer noir themes and Twin Peaks atmospherics from the loopmusic guitar master and esteemed noir soundscaper. Stream it at Soundcloud

Naked Roots Conducive – Sacred521
Cellist Valerie Kuehne and violinist Natalia Steinbach’s tormentedly cinematic, surrealistically intense art-rock dives menacingly and blackly amusingly into themes of alienation and ahwer despair. Stream it at Bandcamp

Lions – their debut ep
A slinky, trippy mix of Ethiopian grooves, Israeli stoner rock jams and cinematic themes. Stream it at Bandcamp

George Usher & Lisa Burns – The Last Day of Winter
Intense, autumnal purist powerpop, blue-eyed soul and psych-pop tunesmithing from two highly regarded, veteran songcrafters. Stream it at Spotify

Banda de los Muertos – their debut album
Epic, ornate, richly arranged, reinvented Mexican brass band ranchera themes and sweepingly majestic, blazing originals from trombonist Jacob Garchik’s imaginative big brass ensemble. Stream it at Spotify 

Spanglish Fly – New York Boogaloo
A hard-hitting, wickedly arranged, cleverly crafted update on classic 60s salsa soul from this irrepressible, danceable, psychedelic New York outfit. Stream it at Bandcamp

Curtis Eller & the New Town Drunks – Baudelaire in a Box: Songs of Anguish
Intriguing new translations of classic, surrealistically creepy Baudelaire poems set to starkly bluesy, phantasmagorical tunes by the charismatic circus rock bandleader and the Eastern Seaboard noir group. Stream it at Bandcamp

Elisa Flynn – My Henry Lee
The darkly eclectic songwriter and hauntingly luminous chanteuse’s most spare, terse album blends starkly funny individualist anthems with more pensive material and a classic murder ballad. Stream it at Bandcamp

Fireships – their debut album
Imaginatively arranged Americana rock and chamber pop with a fearlessly aware, Dylanesque, populist lyricism. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Amphibious Man – Witch Hips
Enigmatically lo-fi, twistedly Lynchian, surf-tinged reverb rock. Like nothing else on this list and yet in a way like an awful lot on this list, in terms of general darkness. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Honeycutters – Me Oh My
Oldschool female-fronted honkytonk with a newschool, sharply literate, defiantly populist lyrical edge. Stream it at Spotify

The Old Ceremony – Sprinter
Folk noir and serpentine, intricately arranged, Lynchian art-rock and chamber pop from Django Haskins’ darkly eclectic band. Stream it at youtube – but BE CAREFUL – a loud audio starts immediately when you click the link, mute the sound before you do

For more yummy clickbait, other 2015 lists here include the forthcoming playlist at the Best Songs of 2015 page and the Best New York Concerts of 2015 page.

Dawn Oberg Brings Her Devastating Wit and Catchy Piano Songs to NYC

Dawn Oberg‘s most clever album title is Horticulture Wars (although You Drank My Backwash isn’t bad either). Her songs are published by Blossom Theory Music. The San Francisco-based chamber pop songwriter never met a pun she could resist, sings them in a cool jazz-informed alto and plays a mean piano, drawing equally on gospel and classic soul music. You could call her the missing link between Aimee Mann and Randy Newman, but her songs are warmer than Mann’s, and where Mann’s muse is opiates, Oberg’s is booze. And Oberg doesn’t fall back on music biz insider snark like Newman does. Her current tour with soul-inspired acoustic songwriter Karlyn DeSteno brings the two to Freddy’s at 7 PM on June 14, where they’re each playing a set, and the the small room at the Rockwood on June 15 at 6 where they’ll share about 45 minutes onstage. As you might imagine, Oberg is even funnier live than she is on record.

Her previous album, Rye, made the top 50 albums of 2013 here; if the list was ranked numerically, it’s fair to say that the wryly titled release would have been among the year’s half-dozen best. Oberg’s new one, Bring – streaming online – is just as tuneful, eclectic and irresistibly witty. The opening track, Caitlin & Fire, is a jauntily marching tribute to a rugged individualist whose “career in conflagration” began when she was expelled from school for setting a locker ablaze. But, “You will not hear her complain about the price of channeling those tongues of flame.”

A cool slide from Mark Corradetti’s bass kicks off the title cut, a study in artistic intentions: Oberg’s desire is to “rip a new one in the Angel of Death,” to write songs with the power to pull someone down off the ledge. Roger Rocha’s lingering, buzzy guitars and drummer Billy Mason’s hard-hitting soul-clap beat drive the anxious Incantation, while Martini Geometry is Oberg at her Dorothy Parker best, contemplating the dangers of overdoing it:

πr2 ÷ 3X the distance to the rim
Gives you the exact measure of misery
If you should disrecpect the substances therein…
When you waken, bloody marys with bacon
Won’t ameliorate your pain
And it’s all because of that inverted cone that you are taken
To the place where you’ve forsaken the cylindrical domain

Likewise, Bartender sends a fond, gospel-infused shout-out to someone who’s “psychic about my bourbon and my rye and scotch needs…a partner in crime in the killing of my time.” Gwen, another character study, salutes a multi-instrumentalist pal “who writes the best songs you never heard.” And Alia offers a fond tribute to a redheaded friend whose mom “manages never to harsh our buzz” and can “throw back bourbon like a Bukowski muse or a character from a novel by Harry Crews.”

The album’s most harrowing track, Mile Rock Man, takes its inspiration from when Oberg, out on a run along the perimeter of San Francisco Bay, ran across the body of a suicide who’d shot himself in the head. The final track is the devastatingly amusing, spot-on, ragtime-flavored Republican Jesus, who’s down with the Koch Brothers and Halliburton – and if you’re melanin-challenged and rich, you can be down with him too. In 2015, we need more songs like this and more artists as fearless and entertaining as Dawn Oberg.

A Month’s Worth of Nightcrawling, Part One

Don’t you just want to smack people upside the head when they say ignorant things like “There’s no good music in this city anymore?” Obviously, those people are either spending time in the wrong neighborhoods (Bushwick), or they aren’t paying attention. This past month has been amazing as far as live shows in New York are concerned. What’s the likelihood of seeing Katie Elevitch and Matt Keating back to back, for free? It happened, after Sunday Salon 23 at Zirzamin. She was the special guest to play after a characteristically lively exchange of tunes bristling with puns, double entendres and catchy hooks from the likes of Walter Ego, LJ Murphy, Lorraine Leckie, Tamara Hey and other usual suspects. Keating was a last-minute booking.

Elevitch’s music is more about setting a mood and building to a feral crescendo, or a quieter, more mystical ambience; Keating’s songs are narratives set to catchy changes that build to a similar angst-fueled intensity. While Elevitch’s music looks to soul and jazz and Keating draws on Americana for his tunes, ultimately they both reach back to punk rock for their energy. Keating is a cynic; Elevitch finds hope against hope despite crushing reality (during last year’s hurricane, a tree came crashing through the roof of her house and caught her on the head – she seems none the worse for it). Keating has a cult following across the country and in Europe; Elevitch plays the Hudson valley circuit and is well liked there.

What were they doing in Manhattan? Having fun. Elevitch played solo on acoustic guitar, stripping down a mix of new material and songs from her previous album Kindling for the Fire to their skeletons. From a sultry whisper to a full-on roar, she worked her way through pain and exasperation and emerged triumphant and sweaty from the workout. Likewise, Keating ran through a mix of slowly unwinding favorites like Lonely Blue and The Fruit You Can’t Eat as well as a handful of more soul-influenced songs from his latest album Wrong Way Home. But the highlight of the set was a LMFAO cover of Twist and Shout, done as Lou Reed would do it, Keating said. And he nailed it. It’s as good a song to parody Reed with as you could imagine: where the melody jumps around, Keating did just the opposite. It wouldn’t be fair to give away any more of the joke – when the video comes out, it’s going to go viral. Watch this space for future Elevitch shows in NYC; Keating is back at Zirzamin at 8 PM playing after the Dog Show’s equally lyrical, intense Jerome O’Brien on May 13.

The following Saturday night, Dawn Oberg played her second-ever New York show (the first one was the previous night at Desmond’s). A popular draw in her native San Francisco, she’d come to do the dives of New York. Somehow she’d found herself at the dreaded Bar East (the former Hogs and Heifers space on the upper east), playing solo on electric piano. What’s the likehood of getting what was essentially a private show from someone so entertaining? Well, it happened – only in New York, folks. Much as her new album Rye may be one of the year’s best, Oberg is even better in person: she airs out her vocal range, she’s a terrific gospel/soul pianist and she brings her intricate torrents of wordplay, endless puns and literary references to life with more energy than you would expect, considering how subtly and carefully rendered the studio versions are. And for someone whose music is fueled by a seething anger spun through layer upon layer of sardonic humor, she’s more lively and upbeat in person (it’s tempting to call her vivacious or even sweet, but she might take exception to that). She opened the set with the deviously funny Old Hussies Never Die, a track from her previous album Horticulture Wars (she cannot resist a pun, ever), then later did the wry (pun intended) title track from the new one along with the unselfconsciously wrenching, doomed, elegaic Cracks and the wickedly catchy, personal-as-apocalyptic alienation anthem End of the Continent, working its earthquake metaphors for all they were worth. From here she went on to far better-attended shows in Nashville and Austin before winding up her tour in her hometown. Here’s hoping she makes it back to town sometime.

The following night, salonniers John Hodel and LJ Murphy kicked off the feature set at Sunday Salon 24 with nonchalantly slashing songs about imperfect strangers who should avoid each other no matter what, and also the kind of crowds you find in bars on a typical Tuesday morning: not pretty. But the music afterward was. Americana songwriter Sharon Goldman had been booked for a solo show, but fortuitously, her pals Nina Schmir and cellist Martha Colby were in town. Back in 2009, Goldman and Schmir released a tremendously good, eclectic album as the Sweet Bitters, so this was a rare NYC reunion of sorts. Both Goldman and Schmir are brilliant singers – Goldman being more crystalline and Schmir more misty – and gave the sound guy a workout as they switched back and forth between mics, necessitating constant tweaks to make sure both voices were where they needed to be in the mix. The harmonies were exquisite, especially as Colby grounded the songs with a moody, haunting sustain. The show reached a peak with Goldman’s haunting, ominous Clocks Fall Back, a chilling early winter narrative set to a ringing, funereal guitar melody. “Women in gowns sparkle downtown as the tired crowd walks their route,” the duo sang, painting as evocative a portrait of current depression-era New York as anyone has written. Finally getting a chance to hear this song live was arguably the high point of the year, concert-wise. The trio also made their way nimbly through the machinegunning vocal gymnastics of Schmir’s Tom Thumb (On Brighton Beach) as well as Goldman’s nonchalantly ominous 9/11 memoir, Tuesday Morning Sun. Goldman will be at the First Acoustics Coffeehouse in downtown Brooklyn on June 1, joining her co-conspirators of the Chicks with Dip songwriters’ collective in their celebration of their remake of Joni Mitchell’s Blue.

Dawn Oberg’s New Album: Through the Bottom of a Glass, Darkly

Pianist/songwriter Dawn Oberg seems to have an enthusiastic cult following. She plays respectably small and midsize venues across the country and is well-liked by NPR. The obvious comparison is Aimee Mann, but where Mann looks back to 60s folk-rock and psychedelia, Oberg is more informed by jazz, gospel and soul music. She’s got a New York show at 9 PM on 4/20 – where, you ask? City Winery? The big room at the Rockwood? The Blue Note, or Barbes? Nope. Oberg is playing Bar East, the former Hogs & Heifers space on the Upper East better known as Bare Ast, which pretty much says it all about the kind of disarray facing musicians passing through town.

Although alcohol makes frequent appearances in Oberg’s urbane, wryly literate songs – her new album is titled Rye – disarray is not a factor. She’s a hell of a piano player with a fondness for gospel voicings and sings in a quirky, natter-of-fact contralto, sort of Amy Allison in slo-mo. Oberg keeps the humor deadpan and lets her images speak for themselves. Perfect illustration: the nonchalantly shuffling opening track, Girl Who Sleeps with Books. Oberg slowly pans an apartment that’s perfectly comfortable on one hand, and yet there’s something missing. The brilliance of this song is that this girl, with her notebook and clutter and caffeine addiction, who would rather spend an evening with something more interactive than a novel, is us. Seriously: who doesn’t have a book hiding somewhere in the covers?

The title track juxtaposes jaunty, blues-infused piano rock with a brooding, whiskey-fueled reminscence of a long-gone affair spent “hiking in the Sierras, getting high and watching South Park.” With its breathless torrents of lyrics, Gentleman and a Scholar is 21st century Cole Porter, a portrait of someone who “knows the works of Fats Waller and can play you recordings of them…he taught me how to drive a stick without acting like a prick and in general doesn’t tick me off.” The subtext is killing: Amy Rigby would do this one halfspeed with guitars and pedal steel.

Reconstruction evokes Shine On Brightly era Procol Harum, Roger Rocha adding shifting layers of guitar, a neat touch considering the song’s architectural theme. Parallel Plane revisits the swinging shuffle of the opening track: “The masterpiece I ruined is always on display…like a monster with a toy she’d break rather than hold,” Oberg laments. Cracks, an understatedly haunting, elegaic ballad worthy of Phil Ochs, sets Oberg’s clipped, wounded articulation over Rocha’s distantly symphonic guitar orchestration:

Black orange and red, colors of your bed
The canvas conveys how well you hide the dread
From Larkspur to the Tenderloin
A journey that spans a realm of the coin 
Distant as Marrakesh
Promixity of spirit and flesh
With angles so sharp and unkind
As to sever all you hold as true
You keep close to your heart the cracks killing you

Contortions works a sideshow metaphor for all it’s worth, an exasperated message to someone jumping through hoops for someone when she should really be kicking his ass instead. As a portrait of bitterness and alienation, Disguise makes a more angst-ridden companion to Blow This Nightclub’s Sensitive Skin. To That Extent once again evokes Procol Harum, Erik Ian Walker’s organ mingling with Oberg’s piano for a richly textural feast.

“The breakers shining big and beautiful, will laugh unthinkingly and crush your skull,” Oberg intones matter-of-factly on End of the Continent, its earthquake metaphors gathering intensity in anticipation of the Big One. It’s the album’s catchiest song and a rare moment where Oberg cuts loose at the piano: she always leaves you wanting more. It ends with Civic High, a high-spirited tribute to Oberg’s native San Francisco, her “favorite hedonistic playground.” The only other lyrical rock albums from this year that compare with this are Ward White’s surreal, sinister Bob, and LJ Murphy’s new one, which is in the can but not released yet.