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The 100 Best Songs of 2021

This is a playlist. Click on song titles for streaming audio; click on artist names for their webpage. There are hours worth of listening here: you might want to bookmark this page. The point of this is not just to cull the best songs from the Best Albums of 2021 list, but also to include singles, and videos, and tracks from other records that for one reason or another aren’t on that one,

Given the choice of a fierce, plainspoken, feel-good singalong protest song, a totally disconsolate one, or a much more complex, artful powerpop gem, which would you pick for best song of the year?

Subjective as this list is bound to be, there are three main contenders. The big outlaw country hit that everybody’s blasting at all the protests is Blind Joe‘s I Will Not Comply. It’s Woody Guthrie for the 21st century. It’s catchy, it’s optimistic, and everybody can relate to it.

The flip side of that, metaphorically speaking at least, is Silent War, by songwriter Five Times August. It’s a solemn waltz:

They’ve covered your mouth and tied back your hands
They did it to all of the kids
And nobody knows all the damage it’s done
And won’t ask until the master permits

Then there’s Irene Pena‘s The Summer Place. Over a catchy late 70s/early 80s powerpop tune, she paints a witheringly detailed picture of family dysfunction by the seaside. As a portrait of the dark side of human behavior (without touching on lockdowns or muzzlemania), it’s Elvis Costello-class, as vividly cynical as anything Black Box Recorder ever did. And in a normal year, it could have topped this list.

This year, the #1 slot goes to Five Times August. He hadn’t even recorded the song yet when he debuted it at a massive rally held by Texans for Vaccine Choice in Austin at the peak of the summer heat. And as sad as it is, at the end he implores us to “Take back your freedom and fight for your life, stand up before it’s all gone.”

What’s optimistic about this list is that despite the current state of the world, there are more funny songs on it than ever before. What’s less optimistic is that there was less recorded music released in 2021 than in any other year since the 1940s. One suspects that artists have written infinitely more material than they’ve been able to record in the past twenty-two months. Whatever the case, there’s still an embarrassment of riches here.

Beyond the next ten songs or so – the creme de la creme of 2021 – there’s absolutely no order or ranking to this list.

Five Times AugustGod Help Us All
One of the great protest songs of the past year or so: “Citizen fools and brand new rules make everyone a hero now…Keep your distance, no resistance, only do what you’re allowed…See no evil, bow to the needle, didn’t we turn out great?”

Five Times August – Jesus What Happened to Us
One of the first protest songs banned from youtube, no surprise considering the lyrics. It’s Eve of Destruction with a locked-in, lockdown-era focus: “Keep staring at your smartphone, get dumber every week,”

Tessa LenaThe Physical World Is the Only World We Have
The longest song on this list, a bracingly immersive mosaic of savagely funny spoken word and haunting, Armenian-tinged sounds by the polymath singer/investigative journalist and host of the philosophical podcast Make Language Great Again:

Data’s rotten,
Tests are toast.
News is sullen,
Coast to coast.
Feudal darkness
Here and now!
To the masters
Peasants bow

Mostly AutumnTurn Around Slowly
An endlessly shapeshifting, circling, metaphorically loaded art-rock seafaring anthem that makes a towering coda for their album Graveyard Star, one of the most vivid portraits of lockdown-era terror released to date.

Slowhand and Van – This Has Got to Stop
Anybody who wants to subject Eric Clapton to any more crippling mandatory shots will be stopped dead in their tracks, the guitar icon wants everybody to know. Van Morrison’s response is more quietly seething.

The Armoires Homebound
One of the most spot-on, witheringly cynical lockdown songs written so far is this Louvin Brothers-style country waltz originally released under the pseudonym The Chessie System. The title is a cruel pun. From the album Incognito

Ward WhiteEasy Meat
Reduced to lowest terms, this cinematic, imagistic powerpop narrative is about acting on impulses that would be unthinkable to anyone outside, say, the Gates Foundation or the California governor’s office.
From the album The Tender Age.

Changing ModesStasis Loop
A macabre, picturesque account of the early days of the lockdown in New York that rises out of an evil morass of feedback and horror-movie keys. From the album Wax World

Van MorrisonDouble Bind
A slow, slinky minor-key soul protest anthem: “It’s always the opposite of what they say
…Trying to police everyone’s mind,” the Celtic icon warns. Arguably the best song on the album Latest Record Project No. 1

Van MorrisonWhy Are You on Facebook
Over a jangly, bluesy Highway 61-era Dylanesque backdrop, Morrison wants to know “Why do you need secondhand friends?” Funniest track on his album Latest Record Project No. 1

The Academy Blues Project –  All Will Be Revealed
A deviously detailed account of what could be a stolen election, or some other massive fraud: Ben Easton’s gospel piano leads the band skyward to guitarist Mark Levy’s savage guitar outro. From the album The Neon Grotto

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard Static Electricity
Slinky electric saz-driven microtonal Turkish-flavored psychedelia from the album LW

The Pocket Gods – Essential Wenzels on a Wet Wednesday
Crushingly sarcastic as it may be, this creepy, barely two-minute synth-rock song arguably captures the relentless gloom and hopelessness of the plandemic better than any other song released to date. From the album Another Day I Cross It Off My Bedroom Wall

Van MorrisonHe’s Not the Kingpin
A soul-infused, sinister look at how the forces behind the lockdown ambush each other: “He’s just the fall guy – follow the money, follow the story, ” From the album Latest Record Project No. 1

The Felice Bros. – We Shall Live Again
A big folk-rock epic that’s as poignant as it is funny – and creepy: “The clouds are at the winds’ command, a great extinction is close at hand.” From the album From Dreams to Dust

Gary LourisDead Man’s Burden
An eight-minute, late-Beatlesque apocalyptic epic pondering questions like transcending the residue of unsustainable evil left over from the Cold War, from centuries of ravaging the environment and anything else that got in our way. From the album Jump For Joy

Fanfare CiocarliaThe Trumpeter’s Lament
A sizzling Romany circus rock bolero and the most phantasmagorical song on their latest album It Wasn’t Hard To Love You

The Malta Philharmonic Orchestra – Christopher Muscat: Mesogeios
A magnificently charging, circling, hauntingly minor-key portrait of the Mediterranean featuring soloist Francesco Sultana on microtonal, melismatic Maltese zummara oboe, zaqq bagpipe and flejguta flute, winding up with a ferocious, Egyptian-tinged dance. From the album Contemporary Colours

Volur – Death Cult
Menacing tritones, a Bartokian string interlude, towering crescendos, a skull-shredding violin solo, and what sounds like throat-singing by dead monks. Title track from the art-rock/metal band’s latest album.

KatlaHvitamyrkur (Dark Light)
A somber cello solo amidst desolation, a searingly marching forward drive and a gorgeous, woundedly ornate guitar solo in this Icelandic metal dirge. From the album Allt þetta helvítis myrkur (All This Hellacious Darkness)

Gabriel Alegria’s Afro-Peruvian Sextet – The Mask
A stark urban noir soul tableau behind a metaphorically loaded spoken word passage by percussionist Freddy Lobaton. No names are mentioned, but there is a devil involved. From the album Social Distancing

Sana NaganoLoud Dinner Wanted
Insistent, hammering riffs and eerily dancing tritones give way to a horror interlude anchored by booming bass chords and a minimalist stomp in this shrieking, dystopic tableau from the jazz violinist’s album Smashing Humans

Tiffany NgDark Matters
The carillonist rings out big emphatic splashes of color within an allusively menacing, hypnotic bell choir. Title track from her latest album

The JCA OrchestraRomapole
A colorfully bellicose Turkish-inspired big band jazz epic. From the album Live at the BPC

HK et les SaltimbanksDanser Encore
The mighty Romany jazz-flavored protest anthem that became the unofficial theme for this past year’s protests throughout Europe. The point is that we’ll dance again…but not the way the totalitarians want us to, literally, “on a chord chart.”

Dave Specter and Billy Branch – The Ballad of George Floyd
The Chicago blues guitarist and blues harpist build a slow, venomously simmering groove: “Eight minutes of torture, begged for mercy, then he was killed.”

DisturbiosSurf Gnossienne
Matt Verta-Ray’s spare guitar over his wife Rocio’s tremoloing funeral organ blend for a haunting reinvention of the Erik Satie classic. From the band’s first album

TsibeleMir Veln Zey Iberlebn (We Will Outlive Them)
When the Nazis marched into Lublin, Poland in 1941 and rounded up the Jews there, they were as sadistic as usual. Driving the population out into the fields, they commanded the captives to dance. Their response was this song, a defiant Middle Eastern-flavored singalong recreated by the New York klezmer band as a seven-minute epic.

Ward WhiteLet’s Don’t Die At the Stoplight
Rhyme schemes, metaphors and reflections on anomie fly fast and furious in this Bowie-tinged capsule of road rage. From the album The Tender Age

Azure RayAlready Written
An allusive, bittersweetly devastating psychedelic pop gem: “Now I’m somewhere between what I hear and when I listen, try to write it down but it’s already written – how I miss those days.” From the album Remedy

Bare Wire SonFingernest
Spare, Lynchian guitar figures fuel an emphatic, pulsing, hypnotic dirge, rising to Comfortably Numb proportions. From the album Off Black

Nick WaterhouseVery Blue
Gorgeous, Orbisonian early 60s style Nashville noir, complete with desperately hammering piano, bittersweet major/minor changes and flurrying early ELO strings. From the album Promenade Blue

The Brooke Maxwell Ensemble – Be Safe Be Good
Although this searing satire of everyday paranoia was written before the lockdown, it resonates even more now. From the Ride the Cyclone soundtrack

Carola OrtizCorro per la Nit
A harrowing nocturnal chase scene, through a werewolf intro, to leaping, Balkan-inspired rhythms and suspenseful lulls. From the Spanish clarinetist’s album Pecata Beata

The Armoires – Great Distances
A soaring but poignant lockdown-era tableau that could be the great harmony-rock tune the Jayhawks left off Sound of Lies. Originally released under the pseudonym The Gospel Swamps. From the album Incognito

Changing Modes On an Island
Drummer Timur Yusef’s gracefully tumbling Atrocity Exhibition-style drums bookend a gorgeously symphonic, surreal lockdown escape ballad. From the album Wax World

Five Times AugustSad Little Man
A vindictively hilarious, singalong folk-rock portrait of the evil Dr. Faulty and all his flip-flopping

The Speed of SoundTomorrow’s World
“We were offered Star Trek, but they fed us Soylent Green,” guitarist Ann-Marie Crowley sings to open this dystopic retro new wave tune. From the album The Museum of Tomorrow

BesarabiaOroneta
A lush, slashingly chromatic, trickily rhythmic Andalucian-tinged dance with eerie, Bulgarian-tinged vocal harmonies, From the album Animal Republic

James McMurtryOperation Never Mind
A slashing, spot-on, cynical, twangy critique of American foreign policy misadventures in Afghanistan before Biden’s disastrous pullout: “We won’t let the cameras near the fighting. that way we won’t have another Vietnam.” From the album The Horses and the Hounds

RC the RapperJust Say No
One of the big boombox hits from this summer’s protests here in the US. “It isn’t a theory if it keeps coming true.”

Five Times August – Outttayerdaminde
A rapidfire Subterranean Homesick Blues flavored broadside that pokes savage fun at soyboys and other narcissists run amok on Tik Tok.

Acoustic Syndicate – Bertha
A cover of the Grateful Dead classic, with a tightness and a snarl that the original band sometimes let slip away. “Test me test me test me test me, why don’t you arrest me?”

Changing ModesNothing to Say
Frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam dismissively critique social media over haphazard Beatles blues. From the New York harmony-rock band’s latest album Wax World

Castle Rat Different Dirt
A killer fuzztone doom metal dirge in a grimly sludgy Electric Citizen vein.

Nikolaj Hess ECM Country
A brooding, expansive, windswept waltz, the pianist playing suspiciously blithe, light-fingered, bluesy lounge phrases over the mournful, Lynchian swells of the string section. From the album Spacelab & Strings

FortidPandemic
A stomping, Middle Eastern-tinged chromatic black metal anthem that seems to address repression more than it does any perceived threat of a virus. From the album World Serpent

Caamaño & AmeixeirasManeo de Cambre
A bracing, Andalucian-tinged waltz from accordionist Sabela Caamaño and violinist Antía Ameixeiras with a plaintive solo from powerhouse guest clarinetist Carola Ortiz. From the album Aire

Erkin Cavus and Reentko DirksMaksim
A lingering, Satie-esque Turkish twin-guitar instrumental: with its sepulchral echo effects, it’s the most desolately gorgeous track on the album Istanbul 1900

The Armoires  – I Say We Take Off and Nuke This Site From Orbit
A seethingly Beatlesque critique of social media – the quote at the end of the song is too good to give away. From the album Incognito

Bare Wire Son Saved Alone
Menacingly anthemic, twangy reverb guitar riffs, whispered vocals, a lulling organ interlude and ragged crescendo in this grim World War I tableau. From the album Off Black

Katayoun GoudarziSweetest
The Iranian chanteuse’s rapturous setting of a famous Rumi poem, ney flute trading off mysteriously with Middle Eastern-flavored sitar. From the album This Pale

Van Morrison – Duper’s Delight
A pulsing midtempo ballad that could be about a femme fatale, or lying lockdowners: “You don’t notice when they’re trying to confine you, you don’t notice when they doublecross.” From the album Latest Record Project No. 1

Menahan Street BandDevil’s Respite
A slinky, darkly anthemic oldschool soul instrumental from the album The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band

Here Lies ManCollector of Vanities
Afrobeat as Black Sabbath might have played it: funereal organ, punchy chords, allusive chromatics. From the album Ritual Divination

Derrick Gardner and the Big Dig! BandPush Come da Shove
Mozartean exchanges of voicings, careening swing, elephantine, undulating drums and a firebomb of a false ending on the most wildly turbulent track from the big band jazz album Still I Rise

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic DogThe Activist
The protean, agelessly relevant guitar icon takes aim at limousine liberal yuppie puppy entitlement in this hilariously verbose parody of cancel culture. From the album Hope

Langan Frost & Wayne – The Alchemist of Hazy Row
A sobering Kinks-inflected psych-folk narrative with a darkly enigmatic violin solo and a trick ending. From the band’s debut album

The Speed of Sound – Impossible Past
A knowing chronicle of revisionist history set to enigmatic new wave rock: “Duck-and-cover A-bomb drills among dark satanic mills.” From the album The Museum of Tomorrow

Sarah McQuaid The Day of Wrath, That Day
An eerily echoing, chiming, increasingly macabre guitar instrumental: McQuaid is known as a singer, but she wails on the frets. From the record The St Buryan Sessions,

The CCCC Grossman EnsembleDavid Dzubay: PHO
Not a reference to Vietnamese cuisine: the title stands for Potentially Hazardous Objects. The ensemble work every trick in the suspense film playbook for playfully maximum impact in the most animated and strongest piece on the album Fountain of Time

Lia SampaiUna Llum (A Light)
A slap upside the head of a petty tyrant whose insatiable desire for control backfires and ignites a revolution. From the Catalan singer’s album Amagatalls de Llum (rough unpoetic translation Hidden in Plain Sight),

Anbessa Orchestra Gobez (Brave)
This single is more spacy and atmospheric than the incendiary, guitar-stoked Ethiopian jam they used to slay audiences with in summers where people congregated freely here in New York.

Ward WhiteOn Foot
A brisk new wave/powerpop murder ballad whose cruellest joke is musical rather than lyrical. From the album The Tender Age

Ward Hayden and the OutliersNothing to Do (For Real This Time)
Jangly bluegrass-tinged highway rock with a chilling lockdown-era narrative: “This is what happens when you wake up, all the cool kids in the class, just actors in a mask.” From the album Free Country

Willie Nile – Blood on Your Hands
Steve Earle guests on this stomping, venomous Americana rock broadside aimed at oligarchs everywhere: “There’s bodies piled up down on Blueblood Street.” From the album The Day the Earth Stood Still

The Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout – Sheba
Surf Ethiopiques recorded in the backroom of a legendary onetime speakeasy. From the album The Boog At Sunny’s

Cate Von CsokeCoyote Cry
Link Wray meets Morricone somewhere in the Australian outback. From the album Almoon

Sam LlanasAutumn Is Falling
A Nashville gothic-tinged, metaphorically-loaded reflection on the grim passage of time, spot-on for 2021. From the album Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels

Abigail DowdApple Trees
A chillingly metaphorical tale of plans suddenly derailed, set to spare, brooding folk noir. From the album Beautiful Day

The Colorist Orchestra and Howe Gelb Tarantula
A clip-clop southwestern gothic opening credits-style instrumental theme from the desert rock icon and European art-rockers’ debut collaboration Not on the Map

Opium MoonWisdom
More than eleven minutes of austerely enveloping, gracefully violin-driven Middle Eastern and Indian-flavored rapture. From the double album Night and Day

Esquela Oradura
A grim account of the Nazi massacre of the French village of Oradour Sur Glane in 1944, set to snarling guitar-fueled desert rock. From the album A Sign From God

Space SummitAncient Towers
Lush, richly clanging layers of guitar permeate this mighty, allusive art-rock anthem from twelve-string maven Marty Willson-Piper’s latest project. From the album Life This Way

SwerveEbbs & Flows
“Try to fight this feeling, that I’m gonna die up on this hill” – political Oasis, like one of that band’s good rare b-sides. From the album Ruin Your Day

Victory BoydThe Star Spangled Banner
The 2021 equivalent of Jimi Hendrix’s version. Boyd’s is intricate and acoustic, a protest against totalitarianism instead of the Vietnam War.

Carola OrtizCarmeta
Her bass clarinet dips to gritty, noirish lows in this instrumental, shifting from a shamanic musette to a slinky, tricky Balkan groove. From the album Pecata Beata

Becca Stevens and the Secret TrioPathways
The art-rock singer contemplates a refuge “away from the noisy crowd, where I can see the pale stars rising,” over a magical blend of the Balkans and catchy American janglerock. From their debut collaboration

Monsieur DoumaniTiritichtas
An undulating, loopy, rembetiko-inspired chromatic theme with half-whispered lyrics about a trickster archetype. From the album Pissourin

Antonis Antoniou Doulia
Circling chromatic bouzouki riffage over a trippy groove permeates this icy Balkan-tinged psychedelic tune. From the album Kkismettin

Perry Carditis & the mRNA’s – Christmas medley
Coffee and Covid published this ridiculously entertaining spoof of infomercials for holiday albums, with updated lyrics for the age of lethal injection campaigns. Scroll down for the video.

Nirvana A – Pure Blooded
One of the funniest protest songs of the past year, set to the tune of the silly 70s Foreigner lite-metal hit Hot Blooded.

Dennis DavisonThe Guise of Comedy
A twisted, phantasmagorical 60s-style psych-pop tune from the former frontman of the late, great Jigsaw Seen

Castle Black Radio Queen
A sleek, rhythmically tricky take on grim minor-key early 80s punk. From the album album Get Up Dancer,

Dan BlakeThe Grifter
A complex and crushingly cynical, bustling jazz portrait of a would-be political savior with a dark undercurrent and a spot-on sax solo out. From the saxophonists’s latest album Da Fe

DictaphoneIsland 92
A trippy, shadowy rembetiko-ish noir theme fueled by bass clarinet. From the album Goats & Distortions 5

Lake Street Dive Hush Money
“You can’t win the game so you wanna throw it, but I’ve got a whistle and I’m gonna blow it,” singer Rachael Price insists, over a Beatlesque, quasi trip-hop sway. From the album Obviously

Icon of Sin – Clouds Over Gotham
Shifting between gentle, early Genesis-tinged interludes, a fullscale stampede and nightmarish symphonic angst, the Brazilian metal band captures the anguish of the early days of the lockdown here…but if their prophecy comes true, we will rise again! From their debut album

Shuky Shveiky – Espinelo
One of the most dramatic, flamenco-tinged numbers on
Sarah Aroeste’s album Monastir, exploring the global pre-Holcaust roots of a Macedonian center of Jewish culture

Frankie & the Witch FingersMepem
A heavy, dark psychedelic soul jam with wah guitar and organ. Like Nektar covering War, with a surprise ending

The Shining TonguesAnnihilation
A wealth of dark textures: fuzztone repeaterbox guitar, symphonic keys and a lush bed of acoustic guitars. The most lavishly orchestral track on their debut album Milk of God

Dot AllisonThe Haunted
A spare, stark art-rock epic about ghostly presences, both phantasmic and psychological. From her album Heart-Shaped Scars

White Lightning – 1930
Little did the Minneapolis heavy psych band realize that when they released this rare Move-influenced protest single in 1969, how relevant their historical parable would be fifty years later. From the compilation album Brown Acid: The Twelfth Trip

The Airport 77sBad Mom
The funniest, most satirical track on the powerpop band’s hilarious album Rotation: this horrible parent lets her kids play with water pistols!

Black River DeltaSolitary Man
Not a cover of that awful Neil Diamond song. Set to a brooding web of acoustic guitars, this original is a harrowingly detailed account of the slow decline of a member of the crew of the Enola Gay. From the album Shakin’

Kristy HindsMiss Morocco
An icy Bliss Blood-style noir cha-cha: ‘Put her up in a sweet hotel, so sweet she didn’t notice the smell.” From the New Mexico chanteuse/ukulele player’s album Strange Religion.

MantecaIllusionist
Guitar noir reverberations plus darkly bluesy horns and keys over a cantering, boomy rhythm in this brooding instrumental. From the album The Twelfth of Never,

Davheed BehrooziRoyal Star
Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky done as a jazz waltz, more or less. From the album Echos

Charming DisasterOurobouros
Arguably the noir rock superduo’s hardest-rocking song. A phoenix in the making, or just a pile of bones? “Is this annihilation or metamorphosis?”

Jack Grace Smokehouse Discrepancy
A smoking mashup of surf rock and Booker T. instrumental soul, From the album What a Way to Spend a Night

Mike NeerAfrican Flower
A lingering, steel guitar-driven Big Lazy-ish take of the Ellington classic. From the album Keepin’ It Real

Los Tangueros del Oeste – Zamba Zefardim
An elegant, shapeshifting klezmer-tango theme from the album Alm Vieja

Olcay BayirKayip Cocuk (Lost Child)
Brooding, hypnotic trip-hop rising to an imploring, accusatory peak. “Who can give me my future? Take your dirty hands off from my hope and dreams,” Bayir sings in Turkish. From her album Inside (İçerde)

Emily FrembgenButterfly
“Little child, going nowhere, I can’t touch you when you turn away from me,” the folk noir singer relates gently in this chilling, tersely detailed portrait of clinical depression. From the album It’s Me or the Dog

Peggy James – Joan of Arc
A venomous, fire-and-brimstone political broadside set to a mashup of Badfinger and 70s Nashville pop from the album The Parade

The ReducersLet’s Go
Written back in the 80s when traveling the world was something everyone did. This chugging punk-pop hit with a sizzling Hugh Birdsall guitar solo might be the high point of the band’s archival album Live: New York City 2005

Lauren AndersonYour Turn
A big orchestral ballad, the blues belter’s emotionally devastated narrator out on the highway, driving through a haze of wine and tears. From the album Love on the Rocks

Warish Say to Please
“Burn your bridges to stay warm!” guitarist Riley Hawk hits his chorus pedal for icy 80s sonics and a tantalizingly messy guitar solo. From the album Next to Pay

Ensemble Mik NawoojMozart on Joy
A wickedly clever mix of famous riffs by the ingenious classical/hip-hop ensemble, rapper Sandman cutting loose with one of his most sharply ironic lyrics. From the album Death Become Life

Tribal SeedsVampire
Grittily orchestrated late 80s Burning Spear-influenced roots reggae – what a trip. From the album Live: The 2020 Sessions

Delgres – Lese Mwen Ale (Let Me Go)
A scrambling, vindictive Mississippi hill country-style blues escape anthem. From the album 4:00 AM

Daz Band – We Are the 99%
The most authentic folk song on this list: haphazard, catchy and pissed as hell

The 50 Best Albums of 2021

The 50 Best Albums of 2021

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4 was his prophetic cautionary tale. He wrote it in 1934. By then, Stalin’s genocidal regime had already reached holocaust proportions. Hitler’s was in its early stages.

In 1946, Vaughan Williams took several themes from that symphony and built his Symphony No. 6 around them. It was his big “I told you so” moment. Together, the violence and gloom never lift throughout the London Symphony Orchestra‘s recording of those two symphonies. It was the one album that was on loop here more than any other one this year.

Antonio Pappano led this resolute ensemble in a fierce, cataclysmic performance of No. 6 on March 12, 2020. As of today, this remains the final orchestral concert recording made in the UK when it was a free country. In a stroke of serendipity, the album opens with Pappano and the orchestra playing Symphony No. 4, recorded in concert on another pivotal date in British history, Election Day, 2019. None of this is easy listening, but if you can handle it, it’s impossible to turn away from. And as a parable of what happens when we fail to recognize evil for what it is, it’s never been more relevant. That’s why it’s New York Music Daily’s pick for best album of 2021.

Otherwise, 2021 might be the weirdest year in history for recorded music. What you see here underscores artists’ resourcefulness and resilience in the face of the most crushing odds. What you don’t see here speaks to how so many styles of music have been completely decimated over the past twenty-one months.

Those who’ve followed the annual best-of-the-year lists here will notice that for the first time, an unusual number of the streaming links here – click on each album title below for full-length audio – are not at Bandcamp or Soundcloud, but at Spotify. That’s because there’s less rock music on this list than at any other time in this blog’s ten-year history. Without tour money to finance recordings, most rock artists haven’t been able to make them. What’s left is a crazy mix of jazz records whose release dates were put on ice by totalitarian lockdowns, some classical albums financed largely by government and nonprofit money, along with the usual sounds from around the world.

The best rock record of the year – which could just as easily be categorized as soul or blues – was Van Morrison‘s cynically titled Latest Record Project No. 1. This mammoth double album is somewhat subtler than the series of protest songs he released at the end of 2020, but it’s just as fearless. A rotating cast of musicians provide a purist, inspired backdrop and Morrison, who never loses his sense of humor, is at the top of his game as lyricist and charismatic frontman. That it took a 75-year-old icon from the 60s to release the most rousing call for freedom released in 2021 does not speak well for younger generations.

Beyond the next ten or so records on this list – the rest of the creme de la creme of 2021 – everything here is in completely random order, irrespective of when it was officially released, or when it was reviewed here. Click on the album title for streaming audio; click on artist names for their webpages. There are hours and hours of pleasure and solace here; you might want to bookmark this page.

Jordi Savall/Le Concert Des Nations – Beethoven Revolution: Symphonies 1 a 5
Beethoven’s first five symphonies recorded with stunning intimacy and detail, closer to how they would have been performed in the composer’s time. Comparing any of the other albums on this list to this magnum opus is a bit of a stretch.

The Boston Symphony OrchestraShostakovich: Symphnies No 1, 11 and 15
A mammoth, impassioned new live recording that also includes Rudolf Barshai’s string orchestra arrangement of Shostakovich’s harrowing, antifascist String Quartet No. 8.

Rafael Gintoli and the Siberian State Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Argentine composer Alicia Terzian’s Violin Concerto and Three Pieces for Strings
Two of the most foundational and most otherworldly microtonal classical works

The London Symphony OrchestraShostakovich Symphonies, No. 9 and No. 10 
Withering sarcasm, vast expanses and furtive chases brought to life in two hauntingly electric concerts from 2018 and 2020 right before the lockdown

The Minguet Quartett and the Lucerne Academy OrchestraKonstantia Gourzi: Anájikon
Gorgeous, poignant Greek and Middle Eastern classical themes which also feature violist Nils Mönkemeyer and pianist William Youn

Ward White – The Tender Age
Parlor pop, psychedelia, janglerock and more on the most menacing album of the year, from the polymath LA tunesmith and multi-instrumentalist

Mostly AutumnGraveyard Star
The most epic, relevant rock album written during the lockdown, an anguished but guardedly hopeful mix of towering, resolute, epic anthems and more delicate Britfolk-inspired themes

Derrick Gardner & the Big Dig! BandStill I Rise
Pummeling, hard-swinging big band jazz from this mighty trombone-led ensemble

Bence Vas’ Big Band –  Overture et. al
Organ-driven big band jazz has seldom been this orchestral or toweringly haunting

Sana NaganoSmashing Humans
A dystopic sci-fi-themed suite set to a blend of savage guitar, violin and a taut rhythm section, with a surprise ending

Tiffany NgDark Matters: Carillon Music of Stephen Rush
The most unselfconsciously beautiful album on this list is built around a paradigm-shifting suite from the late 80s, rich with overtones and otherworldly ringing textures

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard L.W.
The astonishingly prolific Australian psychedelic band’s most deeply Middle Eastern-inspired album

The Catalyst QuartetUncovered Vol. 1 – Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
An inspired classical ensemble revisit the ruggedly individualistic, Balkan and Dvorak-inspired black classical composer from the late 19th century

The London Philharmonic OrchestraDmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11
A vividly desolate, elegaic requiem for the millions murdered by the genocidal Stalin regime

The Malta Philharmonic OrchestraContemporary Colours
Colorful, often Middle Eastern-tinged works by contemporary Maltese composers including Albert Garzia, Alexander Vella Gregory, Veronique Vella, Christopher Muscat and Mariella Cassar-Cordina

The Armoires – Incognito
An audacious stunt – releasing a wildly eclectic series of singles under tongue-in-cheek, fictitious bandnames like October Surprise – resulted in the band’s most diverse and lyrically rich record

Erkin Cavus and Reentko Dirks –  Istanbul 1900 
Plaintive, broodingly evocative microtonal acoustic guitar instrumentals inspired by urban neighborhoods now gone forever

Bare Wire SonOff Black 
Multi-instrumentalist Olin Janusz’s bleak dirges built around journal entries by mothers who lost their sons in World War I

Katla – Allt þetta helvítis myrkur (All This Hellacious Darkness) 
Austere Icelandic folk and grimly ornate metal epics

VolurDeath Cult 
A searing blend of black metal, Nordic folk and psychedelic 70s art-rock from the violin-and-bass-driven trio.

Michael SmallParallax View Original Soundtrack
The creepy, ultra-noir, furtively orchestrated score to Alan Pakula’s 1974 political assassination thriller hasn’t been available as a stand-alone recording til now. Not online, although the film is available on VOD

FortidWorld Serpent
Forlorn cinematics, Viking stampedes and rapidfire chromatics throughout this dystopic metal masterwork

The Pocket Gods – Another Day I Cross It Off My Bedroom Wall
The most surreal lockdown-themed album released to date, a witheringly cynical, satirical, sometimes unexpectedly poignant mix of styles from these snarky British pop polymaths

Patricia KopatchinskajaSchoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire
Pianist Joonas Ahonen and an inspired ensemble join the colorful violinist in a wild version of the iconic loony puppet’s tale, along with a collection of biting miniatures

Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond Ride the Cyclone original soundtrack
No style of music is off limits to this duo’s merciless satire: American and foreign hip-hop, circus rock, corny G-rated Lawrence Welk church-parlor pop and much more

Fanfare CiocarliaIt Wasn’t Hard to Love You 
Explosive, rat-a-tat minor-key dancefloor jams from one of the world’s most electrifying Balkan brass bands

James McMurtryThe Horses and the Hounds
Doomed American troops in Afghanistan, aging drunks and lovers defying the odds, and cautionary tales of all kinds from one of the alltime great Americana storytellers

Katayoun GoudarziThis Pale
Poignant, often plaintive ghazal settings of classic Rumi poems from this nuanced, crystalline-voiced Iranian singer and bandleader

BesarabiaAnimal Republic
Fiery, serpentine flamenco, Middle Eastern, Balkan and Romany dance tunes

The ReducersLive: New York City 2005
An incendiary, whirlwind 40-minute set of cynical, catchy punk and pub rock from late in the legendary New England band’s career

The Academy Blues Project The Neon Grotto
Slyly lyrical, shapeshifting jamband rock with influences as diverse as the Grateful Dead, Steely Dan, Supertramp, P-Funk and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis.

Changing ModesWax World
Brooding, desolate lockdown reflections, shapeshifting art-rock and slashingly cynical, psychedelic harmony-pop from one of New York’s best bands from the past decade or so

Carola Ortiz – Pecata Beata
Whirlwind, shapeshifting, flamenco-inspired songs from the Catalan singer and clarinetist

Lia Sampai – Amagatalls de Llum
Disarmingly intimate, strikingly imagistic, fearlessly political songs from this individualistic Catalan songwriter

Gabriel AlegriaSocial Distancing
A chillingly allusive, insightful Afro-Peruvian jazz album exploring the fateful first year of the lockdown

Sam Llanas  – Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels
Haunting Nashville gothic, countrypolitan and Americana tunesmithing by the agelessly soulful former frontman of heartland rock legends the BoDeans. Not available online, but there are several tracks on Llanas’ more recent concert video 

Şahan ArzruniAlan Hovhaness: Select Piano Compositions
A fascinatingly diverse, sometimes minimalistic, sometimes rapturous world premiere recording of rare works by the arguably greatest American classical composer of alltime

Satoko Fujii – Piano Music
Extended-technique inside-the-piano sonics spun through a bunch of effects for one of the year’s trippiest, most hauntingly enveloping albums

DictaphoneGoats & Distortions 5
Darkly cinematic, dub-inspired, bass clarinet-driven sounds that expands on the group’s exploration of what they call “morbid instruments.”

Matthew Shipp – Codebreaker
Eerie close harmonies percolate through the legendary jazz pianist’s diverse, highly improvisational latest album

Frank KimbroughAncestors 
The late, great jazz pianist’s saturnine swan song, with an inspired, unorthodox trio

Opium MoonNight + Day
Rapturous, hypnotic Indian and Middle Eastern-tinged themes and variations on this vast double album

Menahan Street BandThe Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band
Oldschool soul instrumentals with a dark psychedelic streak

Jovica Ivanović and the Ukrainian Chamber OrchestraPiazzolla and Galliano
Majestic accordion concertos by the iconic Argentine bandoneonist and also by the great Richard Galliano

Greg Loughman – RE: Connection 
A vivid, cinematic jazz suite reflecting on the disastrous effects of the lockdown, but ultimately offering a message of hope

CanLive in Brighton 1975
Sprawling, smoky sometimes twenty-minute instrumental jams from the legendary German band at their psychedelic peak

The Shining TonguesMilk of God
Moody, gothic-tinged folk-rock and art-rock from the surviving members of the Infinite Three

The Colorist Orchestra and Howe GelbNot on the Map 
A lavish mix of dusky, sweepingly orchestrated art-rock and southwestern gothic from one of the guys who invented the style

Langan Frost & Wane – their first album
Trippy, Mediterranean-tinged retro 60s sunshine pop and psychedelic folk

Willie NileThe Day The Earth Stood Still
Stomping, surreal, allusively lyrical lockdown-era powerpop anthems and some surprising detours into slinky, funky, psychedelic sounds

Becca Stevens and the Secret Triotheir debut collaboration
Art-rock songwriter and Balkan/Armenian traditional band team up for spare, crepuscular magic

Metal! Live in Bahrain Vol. 2
Thrash, death metal and post-Metallica sounds from Persian Gulf bands Hellionight, Ryth, Necrosin and Lunacyst

Rapidfire Pyrotechnics From an Iconic Balkan Brass Band

Fanfare Ciocarlia, the iconic brass band, have represented Romania perhaps better than anyone for the past two decades. And they have a new album, It Wasn’t Hard To Love You streaming at Bandcamp. Interestingly, as much as these guys can blast along on a dance tune for minutes on end, most of the songs here are pretty short. And there are a lot of them, a grand total of sixteen jams to get you dancing in minor keys.

They open with a joke, a deadpan brass band cover of Just the Two Of Us, Grover Washington Jr.’s 80s cheeseball smooth jazz hit: it’s pure punk rock. Then the group get down to business. Babo Never Worked a Day has a steady but understated dancefloor thud from drummers Paul Benedikt Stehlescu and Costel “Gisniaca” Ursu and tantalizingly serpentine solos from clarinetist Costel Oprica Ivancea and alto saxophonist Dan Ionel Ivancea.

The Hungarian Wild Bunch features rapidfire staccato trumpets over icepick baritone horns: that’s Costica “Cimai”Trifan, Paul Marian Bulgaru, Craciun Ovidiu Trifan and Lazar Radulescu on trumpets, Laurentiu Mihai Ivancea and Constantin “Sulo” Calin on baritone horns, Mihaita Sergiu Nastase and Vasile Stangaciu on helikon.

The brief and indomitably cheery Pannonicated Polka has vocals. A rough translation from the Romanian:

And when the evening
Turns into an everyday life full of tears
Our younger days are gone
But we barely noticed

Escape From Baltimore turns out to be made via the railroad tracks: gotta love that kettledrum. The lickety-split Song For Noga will take your breath away. The group slow down just a little for the catchy chromatic sway of Hobo Kolo and then go into circus rock bolero territory with The Trumpeter’s Lament.

First Aid Klezmer has clarinet front and center, as you might expect. There are wry classical flourishes in Porsche Polka and spine-tingling microtonal sax in Gypsy Mambo No. 555.

Red Moon has a mix of latin and Balkan flair, and a surprisingly plaintive trumpet solo, while Busbus is packed with all kinds of slyly orchestrated tradeoffs. Demon Dance, predictably, is a springboard for sabretoothed precision but also suspensefully wafting trumpet. Then the band go Cruzzzando El Campooo with hints of cumbia and dixieland.

The “digital bonus track” is Mosquito Swamp, where the horns are so liquid it’s almost as if they’re a giant accordion. It would be out of character for this band – and for this blog – if this wasn’t on the best albums of 2021 list at the end of the year.

A Wild, Diverse Klezmer and Balkan Brass-Fueled Show at the Mercury at the End of the Month

Danish band Mames Babegnush blend acerbic Eastern European klezmer music with brooding Nordic sounds. They bring a brassy intensity to rousing dance numbers as well as moodier, slower material. They’re playing a very synergistic twinbill put together by the World Music Institute at the Mercury on August 27, with the perennially boisterous, similarly dynamic Slavic Soul Party – who are as adept at hip-hop horn music as they are at Duke Ellington and the Balkan sounds they made their name with – opening the night at 7 PM. $20 advance tickets are very highly recommended; the venue has them behind the counter when the doors open at 5 PM on weekdays.

For a good idea of what Mames Babegenush’s inventive original tunes sound like live, check out their live album Mames Babegenush With Strings, recorded on their home turf in 2016 and streaming at Bandcamp. As you’ll notice by the time the first track is over, the recording quailty is fantastic: there’s no audience noise and the clarity of the individual instruments is pristine without being sterile. The opening tune, bookeneded by pensive string interludes, is Tornado Albastru, built around a rapidfire, catchy, minor-key clarinet riff from Emil Goldschmidt. The horns – Lukas Bjorn Rande on sax and Bo Rande on flugelhorn – join with accordionist Nikolai Kornerup over the tight pulse of bassist Andreas Mollerhoj and drummer Morten Aero.

The flugelhorn takes centerstage on the sleekly swinging yet persistently uneasy Timofei’s Hora, then Kornerup gets a lush solo. The aptly titled View From a Drifting Room features some gorgeously melismatic, Balkan-tinged clarinet over tectonically shifting sheets of sound from the rest of the band.

They follow that with The Mist, a precise, poinpoint, stingingly chromatic tune that compares with Frank London‘s most recent, lustrously orchestrated work. Olympia is a big ra-a-tat romp, all the horns blustering together, spiced with some clever, vaudevillian work from the rhythm section, a catchy, tersely balletesque bass solo and a wickedly serpentine one from the flugelhorn.

Sepulchral harmonics from the strings -Andrea Gyafras Brahe and Lisa Marie Vogel on violins, Sisdel Most on bratsch and Live Johansson on cello – introduce the somber Fundador, the band finally coalescing into stately waltz time.

Balkan-flavored clarinet and muted trumpet float over a precise pulse in Mountain Dance. Dream City has an opaque string intro and slashingly bubbling unison horn riffage in the Middle Eastern freygishe mode. Opening with a lyrical bass-and-flugelhorn solo, the ballad Point 9 is the closest thing to golden-age American jazz here.

My Turkish Princess has a pulsing levantine groove, lavish, enigmatic harmonies that veer in and out of Middle Eastern chromatics, and one of the album’s most bracing solos from the sax. The most expansive and Romanian-tinged number here, Strannik has a delicate swing, a hushed yet biting sax solo and achingly moody Balkan clarinet. The final track is Podolian Prom, a rousingly edgy clapalong wedding dance that could a stripped-down Fanfare Ciocarlia. If you like your minor-key music as elegant as it can be energetic, Mames Babagenush are the band for you.

Spine-Tingling Moroccan Crooner Emil Zrihan and More at This Year’s Globalfest

Toward the end of Emel Mathlouthi’s set at Globalfest at Webster Hall Sunday night, right in the middle of one of her songs, the power onstage suddenly blew out. It was her birthday, too. What a crappy birthday present! But the Tunisian-born, now New York-based songwriter didn’t miss a beat. She went off mic and led the rest of her band – a couple of guys playing percussion – through an old Tunisian folk song. And that gave her the chance to really air our her powerful alto voice in all its microtonal magnificence. See, earlier in the set, her vocals had been running through a mixer, and a lot of the time the effects flattened her. Robbing Emel Mathlouthi of her nuance makes about as much sense as asking Johnny Ramone to turn down his guitar, or telling Louis Armstrong to stay away from the blue notes.

Left to her own devices, Mathlouthi is a force of nature. Her 2012 album Kelmti Horra (Arabic for “freedom of speech”) was a masterpiece of menacingly enveloping art-rock, and she sang a couple of enigmatic, brooding cuts from that album, which were considerably more stripped down considering that the instrumentation was just percusion and whatever was in the mixing desk. It seems that she’s focusing more on vocals at the moment than on the elegantly incendiary lyricism that made her such a popular figure in the optimistic early days of the Arab Spring. Which could be a function of learning a new language – her command of English is already pretty good – or something else. She played a Bjork hit solo, the only number on which she picked up her guitar, and it was an improvement on the original. But it didn’t hold up alongside Mathlouthi’s own ominous chromatics, moody minor keys and angst-fueled political sensibility. And that seemed muted this time out.

Globalfest is a spinoff of the annual booking agents’ convention. Beyond drawing on a wide spectrum of fans of all kinds of esoterica, the annual January concert pulls together a demimonde of aging hippies from the nonprofit sector and arts auditoriums across the country. Acts play on three separate stages at staggered intervals, so that talent buyers who might be so inclined can make the rounds and get a taste of what they could be doing at home in their pj’s, watching youtube…but a New York vacation on the company dime is a lot more fun, isn’t it?

Although the show was officially sold out, it didn’t seem nearly as crowded as last year, when a phenomenal lineup included Bollywood disco retroists the Bombay Royale, thunderous Kiev folk-punk crew DakhaBrakha, iconic Romany brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia and psychedelic southwestern gothic rockers Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta. Usually there aren’t a lot of hard choices: the best acts don’t generally conflict. For whatever reason, this year’s lineup had some solid acts, but didn’t feel as celebratory. Maybe that’s explained simply by the absence of Fanfare Ciocarlia, a band unrivalled for awe-inspiring power.

After Mathlouthi’s set was cut short, the crowd made their way upstairs to watch the end of the Nile Project‘s irresistibly slinky, hypnotically undulating grooves. This large and largely improvisational ensemble was pulled together by soul songwriter Meklit Hadero and her Egyptian pal Mina Girgis as a way of bringing together some of the best musicians from the Nile Delta to raise awareness of how the struggle over water rights there is destabilizing the region and threatening its many diverse populations – who have a lot in common, musicwise. There was a loose, easy chemistry among the many members, notably saxophonist Jorge Mesfin, with his eerie, resonant, distantly Ethiopian-tinged lines, and oudist Hazim Shaheen,whose long, nimble, spiraling phrases spiced the music with a dusky shimmer. And when singer Dina El Wadidi took centerstage to lead the band through a long, slowly crescendoing clip-clop anthem, there weren’t any effects on her voice other than a touch of reverb. Which was a thrill to hear, a thrill that could have been replicated in the downstairs space earlier but for the most part wasn’t.

After that, the Jones Family Singers were vamping their way out of their downstairs set: the Houston gospel-funk band has a lot of members, so it took them what seemed like a quarter of an hour to finish the band intros. They’re another force of nature: here’s what another fairly recent show of theirs sounded like.

The high point of the night was the Moroccan Nightingale, Emil Zrihan. He’s the cantor at a Sephardic synagogue in Israel, whose congregation must be very patient considering how in demand the crooner is all over the world. His backing band set a suspenseful, literally breathtaking tone immediately, blending the rippling, chromatically-charged interweave of oud, kanun, percussion, violin and accordion. Zrihan immediately launched into a long, downwardly spiraling series of otherworldly, microtonal melismas, aided by so much reverb that there was slapback. And from then on he worked that for all it was worth, seemingly going for a couple of minutes at a clip without drawing a breath. The music ran the gamut of the Middle East: a rousing, deliriously swaying wedding dance; a couple of waltzes interrupted by volleys of spine-tingling vocalese; a stately, wistful minor-key number that drew on Algerian chaabi balladry; and darker, more sweeping Sephardic and Egyptian themes.He wound up the set with a remarkably fresh, nuanced version of Ya Rayyeh, the famous 1920s rai hit that elevates everyone who plays it, or sings it – it’s one of those rare tunes that anyone from any culture around the world can hum. and suddenly it’s impossible to be in a bad mood. That alone made the concert worthwhile, reason to see what other stars from obscure corners of the globe will make their way here next year.

Boban i Marko Markovic Bring Undiluted Serbian Brass Intensity to NYC This Weekend

Arguably the highlight of this year’s annual New York Gypsy Festival, put on by the brain trust behind downtown global music mecca Drom, is the show this Sunday night, Oct 5 at 7:30 PM by South Serbian brass legends Boban i Marko Markovic at the Schimmel Auditorium at Pace University on Spruce St. in the financial district. Tix are very pricy, $39, but if recent albums and the live footage at the group’s youtube channel are to be trusted, the show could be worth it.

Group founder and flugelhorn player Boban Markovic has since passed the bandleader role to his trumpeter son Marko, continuing a tradition that’s seen the ensemble take top honors not once but twice at the annual trumpet showdown in Guca, Serbia. Their latest album, Gipsy Manifesto (streaming at Spotify), came out last year. On the one before that, Balkan Brass Battle, the massive brass orchestra find themselves dueling in a ferocious but friendly collaboration with the similarly legendary Fanfare Ciocarlia. And there’s also a 2010 greatest-hits compilation titled Golden Horns (also at Spotify).

Of the three, Balkan Brass Battle (Spotify link) is probably the least reflective of Boban i Marko’s live show, due to the sheer number of players on any one track. Golden Horns, because it encompasses much of the band’s career, offers a better idea of what to expect in concert: keening clarinet and alto sax solos, clip-clop percusion, shivery massed trumpets, pulsing trubas and tubas, bracing minor keys, ominous chromatics and otherworldly microtones. The band also has a sense of humor: they’ll toss in a droll quote from Mozart, or mash up Ethiopiques and the Doors just to keep the crowd on their toes. There are drinking songs and several tracks with guest vocalists. Golden Horns also includes a boisterous take of a famous Jewish melody and a tongue-in-cheek Neil Young cover

What might be most interesting to see is how the songs on Gipsy Manifesto translate to the stage. Since the production is a lot more techy – a New Yorker would call this “Mehanata music” – is the band going to bring along a synthesizer? Probably not. Which means that what’s a much more, um, tightly wound production will loosen up and swing like the band typically does live. The songs here are more stripped-down, often with accordion, electric guitar or piano over the shuffling drum machine beat. But there’s plenty of eclectic stuff as well: a moodily orchestrated, Middle Eastern jazz-inflected trip-hop theme; a lively EDM parody that morphs into salsa; a woozy departure into reggae; and a track with fractured English lyrics that sounds like Gogol Bordello in the days when they relied as much on horns as guitars. And all of it has those delicious minor keys and chromatics that make music from the Balkans on east so irresistible.

State-of-the-Art Balkan Brass Tunes and a Mehanata Show from Cocek Brass Band

Sam Dechenne plays trumpet in long-running second-wave roots reggae band John Brown’s Body. But like a lot of brass players, he’s fluent in many styles, and has a thing for Balkan music, a style he explores in first-class Boston Slavic party band Klezwoods. And that turned out to be his holy grail, no surprise considering that hearing Fanfare Ciocarlia for the first time as a middleschooler changed his life forever. He’s got a new project, Cocek Brass Band, with a blazing new album Here Comes Shlomo (a pun on Dechenne’s first name), and an album release show coming up on Oct 4 at around 9 at Mehanata. The album is streaming at the band’s music page; cover is $10 and worth it: they played a New York show this past summer at Shrine and ripped the roof off the place.

On one level, they come across as sort of a Boston counterpart to New York’s Raya Brass Band, with smart, out-of-the-box original songwriting and fearsome chops. But on album at least, Dechenne’s group focuses more on tunesmithing than volcanic jams: what soloing there is here, and there’s not a ton of it, is extremely focused and terse. The band also has a theme song, which they use to kick off the album , tuba player Jim Gray providing a rat-a-tat backdrop while the two trumpets and trombone slink their way from moody hints of reggae to rapidfire chromatics over drummer Grant Smith’s echoey tapan drumbeat.

The title track morphs back and forth between a droll disco beat and a more traditional, swaying rhythm; likewise, the band sandwiches a little New Orleans street music amidst the minor-key riffage. A slow, pensive number, Vagabond Dreamin’ balances the balmy and the bittersweet, Dechenne ornamenting his solo with spiraling Serbian phrasing. Clown Walk, a waltz, actually keeps a lid on most of the cartoonish stuff – unless you’re thinking Edward Gorey. Like most clowns, this guy seems to be a pretty disquieting guy.

Juggler’s Journey brings back a slinky, bracingly bubbly minor-key groove with subtle hints of flamenco and even hip-hop. Who Cares opens as a series of variations on a challenging, trickily rhythmic riff, then goes in a more lingering, low-key, Spanish-tinged direction before the band brings it to a boil again. The coyly titled Drone Song builds out of a suspenseful, cinematic intro to a slow waltz, animated phrasing from the trumpets rising over long sustained tones from the tuba or trombone.

Magic Man and His Magic Hat and His Magic Vest works colorful hooks over long, clip-clop vamps. Figs or Dates returns to a jaunty blend of Romany firepower and a goodnatured New Orleans strut, with a dynamic, intense, trilling Dechenne solo. The band hangs out in a major key all the way through the slow, steady A’bab Cada over the broken chords and dancing basslines emanating from Gray’s tuba. That’s right, a dancing tuba: this guy really makes the big thing sing. And then they pick up the pace at the end.

The epic Slow Jump, Fast Fall pretty much follows the tangent implied by the title: a trudge up the mountainside, a long scampering ride down the flume where Dechenne gets to air out his extended technique, and a droll return to the opening theme. The album winds up with There Goes Shlomo, a more straight-ahead variation on the title track, and then the album’s lone vocal number, Mountain Love Song. brightly cheery horns holding the center as the singer attempts to hit his notes. It’s a great album and a good indication of the blend of virtuosity and raw power that this crew brings to the stage.

Globalfest 2014: Esoterica Rules

Globalfest, the annual celebration of high-energy, danceable music from around the world, grew out of the yearly booking agents’ convention. Youtube may have made live auditions obsolete, but every year the talent buyers for cultural centers across the country, along with the agents for a seemingly nonstop onslaught of global acts, still get together for an all-expenses-paid Manhattan party on the company tab. What’s most auspicious about this past Sunday’s edition of the festival at Webster Hall was the number of kids and random New Yorkers of all ages in the crowd. The booking agents drank hard and schmoozed: none of them seemed to be the least bit interested in the music. The kids, on the other hand, packed the main room for dramatic Bollywood pop revivalist orchestra the Bombay Royale, explosive Kiev folk-punk ensemble DakhaBrakha and even more explosive Romany brass band legends Fanfare Ciocarlia before cramming the downstairs space for darkly fiery Arizona desert rockers Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta.

What’s happened is that there’s been a sea change among audiences, and among young people. Hard to believe as this may seem, thirty years ago it was considered weird for an American to like reggae – unless you were of Jamaican heritage. Forget about the kind of ridicule you might have faced if, perish the thought, a classmate discovered that you’d been sending oodles of money through the mail for limited-edition, low-budget vinyl pressings of Ukrainian folk or Romany brass music – or, if you were really lucky, you’d found a fellow weirdo who’d let you make cassette copies from his or her secret stash. People were troglodytes back then, weren’t they?

The Bombay Royale’s 2012 album You Me Bullets Love is a psychedelic blend of classic 60s-style Bollywood dance numbers spiced with surf and garage rock. This show  – the dramatic eleven-piece Melbourne, Australia band’s New York debut – found them taking their sound forward another ten years into the disco era with a lot of new material. Period-perfect as they sound, all their songs are originals. Singers Shourav Bhattacharya and Parvyn Kaur Singh – decked out in snakeskin suit and sari, respectively – slunk and spun, traded coy glances and wry pouts while the four-piece horn section, led by alto saxophonist Andy Williamson, blasted behind them.

They opened with a cinematically marching blend of Bollywood and spaghetti western, with the first of pyrotechnic keyboardist Matt Vehl’s many surreal, woozy synthesizer solos. Bhattacharya and Singh duetted on a surfy minor-key number, showed off some dance moves to a swaying bhangra beat and then went deep into anthemic funk. They followed that with Bobbywood, a number that sounded a bit like an Indian disco version of the Rocky theme mingled with brooding cinematics. Trumpeter Ros Jones ended up taking the first of many of the night’s chilling, chromatic solos; a little later, Williamson animatedly traded licks with Singh’s vocals on a creepy downtempo ballad.

It’s hard to think of another band writing songs that mix chromatic Dick Dale surf with Indian-spiced go-go vamps. Their sitar player wasn’t audible for much of the show, but ended up adding a surreal, bluesy solo on one of the later songs. Bass player Bob Knob’s chords loomed ominously underneath a couple of the harder-edged, surf-oriented tunes,  guitarist Tom Martin switching in a split-second from a twangy, reverb-toned attack to scratchy funk lines. The crowd roared for an encore; they didn’t get one.

Word was that it had taken the intervention of a U.S. Senator to assure visas for all four members of DakhaBrakha (Ukraininan for “give-and-take”), but the effort was worth it. They drew the most applause of all the bands on the bill. Their percussion-heavy sound is balanced by the eerie, high, close-harmony vocals of drummer/singer Olena Tsibulska, keyboardist/percussionist Iryna Kovalenko and cellist Nina Garenetska. The band’s lone male member, Marko Halanevych, also sang and contributed on both percussion and garmoshka (a small Ukrainian accordion). Garenetska started by plucking out funky pizzicato bass but before long she was firing off long, growling, raspy, sustained lines punctuated by macabre swoops and dives. Likewise, their set followed an up-and down trajectory, beginning with a wary marching feel with apprehensively insistent vocals, then a trio of creepy dirges before growing louder and more assaultive. Their funniest moments had a tongue-in-cheek hip-hop flavor. The most intense song in their set built explosive give-and-take interludes between ominous drums, ghostly vocals and snarling cello, sinking to a rapt, sepulchral interlude before rising to a pummeling outro. They wound up with a silly but very well-received spoof of cheesy electronic dancefloor beats.

The pride of Romania, eleven-piece Fanfare Ciocarlia were tight and fast beyond belief. The world’s most exhilarating Romany brass band has a precision to match their outrageous tempos, and chops that most American jazz players can only dream of. The four-man backline of a tuba and three slightly higher-pitched trubas played a looming, ominous introduction for their clarinetist, who then launched into wild volleys of shivery chromatics before the rest of the band came on to join in the hailstorms of rat-a-tat riffage.

They’d stop and start, sometimes taking a song doublespeed and then doublespeed after that, other times switching between soloists in a split second. One of the truba players came to the front about midway through the show and added a rapidfire solo of his own. They began with a single standup drummer, then added another for extra firepower. One of the more senior of the four trumpeters sang a couple of ballads, or at least parts of them, before the rest of the orchestra blasted them into the ozone. Hurichestra, true to its name, became a launching pad for a series of abrupt accelerations that were almost exponential: that any horn player can play so fast yet so fluidly defies the laws of physics. They traded birdcalls on a relatively brief take of their signature anthem, Ciocarlia, then teased the audience with droll Balkanized versions of Duke Ellington’s Caravan (which they probably learned from the Ventures) and St. James Infirmary.

Downstairs, Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan, backed by bass, drums, keyboards and a lot of pre-recorded stuff, played simple, low-key darkwave that, she said, was influenced by Siouxsie & the Banshees as well as Egyptian pop. The night ended with the feral southwestern gothic energy of Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta, who put pretty much every other desert rock band to shame. The brass-fueled Tucson group pounced on a couple of noir-tinged, ska-punk flavored songs to open the show, then Mendoza put down his acoustic guitar and played surreal, macabre organ over a funereal bolero sway. From there they hit a lively, upbeat Tex-Mex groove that took a turn in a much more menacing spaghetti western direction when least expected, followed by an early Santana-esque psychedelic rock epic with long, space-reverb interludes for both organ and slide guitar.

The lead guitarist took an even longer, more murky, echo-drenched solo later on, then lit up a couple of more familiar southwestern gothic themes with some chilling slide work as memorable as anything Friends of Dean Martinez ever recorded. A long, slinky, pitchblende cumbia groove might have been the highlight of the night, although a similarly brooding, low-key bolero that might have been Mendoza‘s version of Besame Mucho was right behind. Addressing the audience in Spanish, singer/percussionist Salvador Duran explained that out in Tucson, or Nogales, where Mendoza comes from, everything is up for grabs: banda music, rancheras, cumbia, rock, you name it. They closed the set with a rapidfire return to a darkly shuffling border rock theme. This was Mendoza’s first New York show as a bandleader, hopefully the first of many.

Adrian Raso and Fanfare Ciocarlia Blast Through Their Devil’s Tale

Hearing explosive Romanian brass orchestra Fanfare Ciocarlia relegated to the role of backing band is surreal. But guitarist Adrian Raso is a spectacular and eclectic player, to the extent that he doesn’t get overshadowed by the legendary Romany party monsters. Their new collaboration, Devil’s Tale, due out next month, is in many respects as noir as noir gets: it’s both the roots of noir and the cutting edge as well, along with a couple of more lighthearted, more pop-oriented tracks. Raso distinguishes himself as a bearer of the Django Reinhardt legacy as well as a searing soloist whose signature style draws on decades of Americana.

The opening track, Ulm St. Tavern is sort of St. James Infirmary transplanted to Bucharest – people have died in this bar. It’s a Kurt Weill-style noir blues theme driven by banjo and tremolo-bar guitar early on, the orchestra looming in and then receding, Raso peeling off a snarling slide guitar solo, the band speeding it up at the end although the song is over before it gets completely out of hand. It sets the stage for pretty much everything that comes afterward.

Swing Sagarese is the first of the Romany jazz numbers, the band adding a circus rock edge with a delicious handoff between alto sax and trumpet. The Absinthe-Minded Gypsy, another noir blues, opens with ominous banjo and a wash of horns, like a more ornate take on the Dimestore Dance Band, bristling with eerie chromatics and bitingly brief solos from banjo, dobro and tuba. C’Est La Vie goes back to spiraling, flurrying, wickedly catchy Romany guitar jazz, while Quattro Cicci brings in a high-voltage flamenco feel with a lush bed of guitars bolstered by the orchestra’s signature pinpoint, precise brass. After Raso’s done wailing, it builds to a big, anthemic stadium-rock outro.

Charlatan’s Waltz is more low key and creepy, like Beninghove’s Hangmen in especially brooding mode, a carnivalesque waltz with pulsing staccato horns, accordion and a judicously spiky Romany jazz guitar solo. The arguably most surreal number here is the title track, a Romany jazz orchestra doing Duane Eddy, or vice versa; Raso’s hammering, staccato solo over rimshot drums midway through adds both unexpected humor and suspense. Likewise, there’s both twistedness and drollery in the slowly swaying Leezard’s Lament, with its darkly rustic banjo, lingering slow-burn tremolo guitar, weird jawharp and samples in the background.

Both Cafe Con Leche and Spirtissimo venture toward Gipsy Kings territory, the first with hints of a bolero, the second more of a flamenco-flavorred tune. Birelli’s Waltz starts out as an elegantly moody theme and then warms as it moves into more straightforward guitar jazz. The album ends with the briskly marching, playful Django, with its gritty horn pointillisms and wry quotes from famous themes from across the ages. Fanfare Ciocarlia are at Webster Hall in the main room at 9:40 PM on Jan 12 as part of Globalfest.

Fanfare Ciocarlia Bring Their Volcanic Live Show to NYC

The highlight of many highlights of this year’s NY Gypsy Festival is this Saturday night, the 22nd at 7:30 PM when Romanian gypsy brass orchestra Fanfare Ciocarlia play their first New York concert of the decade – and their first in almost a decade – at the Schimmel Center at Pace University downtown on Spruce St. It’s expensive – $35 – but it’ll be worth it: tix are available at the box office and also online.

Fanfare Ciocarlia have a reputation for an explosive live show to rival Gogol Bordello. They’re the kind of band who battle other bands, talking trash and playing faster than anybody else. Their two most recent albums are a scorching live set from 2009 and a 2011 Balkan Brass Battle with the Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar. And although both records are intense to the extreme, they’re also surprisingly subtle, musically diverse, and have a viciously sarcastic edge. The Brass Battle album’s most adrenalizing number is Suita a la Coibanas, where the horns play at warp speed – metal guitar shredders would be jealous of how fast, and how tightly they do it. And then they speed up, again and again – and with literally pinpoint precision, without hitting any clams! It’s a hardcore polka, which is what the groove turns into as it spins closer to going out of control but never does.

Serbian brass father-and-son team Boban and Marko Markovic add another level of slashing chromatic wildness, throughout a funky Balkan brass version of the James Bond theme, a noir cabaret take on Duke Ellington’s Caravan, lickety-split, bloodthirsty “Dances from the Monastery Hills” and couple of cruelly satirical spoofs of dance music, Disco Dzumbus and I Am Your Gummy Bear. The album ends with the menacing cumbia slink of Asfalt Tango – the song that launched a label.

The live record is just as intense. They vary the moods – it isn’t all just murderous chromatic vamps with one sizzling solo after another (although that’s a big part of the picture). And they also give the band a break with several quieter interludes, most of them humorous to some extent, whether a faux Cab Calloway take on Gershwin’s Summertime, or an irresistibly amusing version of Nicoleta, where they take a silly vaudevillian riff and use that as the basis for the entire jam. The interplay between the horns is intricate beyond belief, and the alto saxophonist – who swoops down out of nowhere and absolutely destroys an entire brass section on the second track, Ruseasca Lui Filon – has a slashing power to rival anyone in jazz. The band trades birdcalls on their signature anthem, Ciocarlia and wows the crowd with a series of dragstrip accelerations on the wryly titled Hurichestra. But the best part of the album is when they really hit their groove with a series of raw, snarling Balkan numbers and the intensity simply doesn’t let up, with plenty of room for soloing – even the band intros serve as a launching pad for pyrotechnics. This music isn’t for the faint of heart, but if adrenaline is your thing, Fanfare Ciocarlia are unsurpassed.