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The 50 Best Albums of 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Oldtime Country Sounds from the Weal and Woe

The Weal and Woe write great original oldtime style country songs, and play them with soulful expertise. The guy/girl close harmonies of guitarist Russell Scholl and bassist Barbara Ann have an unaffected southern charm, soaring over an early 1950s style backdrop with fiddle, lapsteel and occasional resonator guitar. Ex-Moonlighter Mark Deffenbaugh’s lapsteel steel playing is absolutely off the hook, whether adding smartly spaced accents or sly Leon McAuliffe-style swoops and dives – just his parts alone make their debut album The One to Blame one of the most enjoyable recent releases in Americana roots music. The Weal and Woe are playing the record release show at the Jalopy on Feb 18 at 9 – if really smart songwriting and great musicianship are your thing, you should go.

Most of the songs on the new album are short, clocking in at about three minutes or less. They get things going with the harmony-driven In the West, which has more of an oldtime, 19th century folk feel than anything else on this collection, with a tasty, sailing resonator solo that Deffenbaugh hands off elegantly to fiddler Jason Cade. The title track is one of those songs that sounds like a classic from about 1952, except that it’s new. Barbara Ann sings it with a sad, biting edge, from the point of view of a girl who’s thinking about going to the bottom of her neighbor’s pool, and staying there – and maybe taking the guy who broke her heart with her. Once again, the steel handing over a terse instrumental break to the fiddle is absolutely gorgeous. They Think We Don’t Know, a brisk shuffle with twinkling steel guitar, also has an element of mystery. Sung as a duet, it’s about a couple who are the talk of the town, but because everybody wants to set them up? Or because they’re on the fast track to some serious cheating together? “If wishes came true, I’d drive them crazy with my moves,” Barbara Ann croons: “I’d stay up late and drink their booze,” Scholl replies goodnaturedly.

The one instrumental here is Kings County Blues, a western swing number driven by swaying fiddle, steel in the background until Deffenbaugh busts out with a clever, wryly swooping solo. The longest song is a big, somewhat brooding ballad, Taking One on the Chin, which chronicles someone’s long decline to barroom dissolution, pensive lapsteel contrasting with Cade’s offhandedly bright lines. There are also two covers here: a vintage Grand Old Opry-style duet version of Frankenpine’s clever I Don’t Love You ‘Cause You’re Pretty, and a brisk bluegrass take on the country gospel song S-A-V-E-D. Fans of the Maddoxes, the Louvins, the Delmores, Hank Williams and also current country songwriters like Laura Cantrell who’ve found a home in an oldtime Nashville vernacular will love this record.

The 50 Best Albums of 2011

Randi Russo started hinting that she might go in a psychedelic direction ever since her 2001 noise-rock masterpiece, Solar Bipolar. With its swirling production, jaggedly assaultive guitars, sharply literate lyrics and rugged individualism, her latest one Fragile Animal tops the list in 2011. It’s got a roaring Middle Eastern epic, a long, hypnotic raga-rock interlude, jaunty Beatlesque psych-pop, all with the tunefulness and resolute defiance that have been her signature since her debut album in 2000. There’s literally not a single second-rate song on this album.

The #2 spot goes to another artist who first broke out right around that time. Jenifer Jackson’s new The Day Happiness Found Me is her most intimate, terse album so far, a blend of hypnotic tropical grooves, sultry oldschool soul and vintage country, and she’s never sung with more understated power. It’s a quiet knockout.

#3 doesn’t wait to get to the point: the Oxygen Ponies’ third album, Exit Wounds is a vitriolic, lyrical masterpiece of post-Velvets songwriting. Frontman/songwriter Paul Megna pillories a generation of self-absorbed, entitled brats in these bitter, hypnotically catchy, meticulously arranged art-rock songs.

The rest of the list is only the tip of the iceberg. For the sake of brevity – if you buy the suggestion that a list of fifty albums could possibly be brief – this one cuts off at that number. Because New York Music Daily is basically a rock blog, there’s no jazz or classical on this list to speak of (for an intriguing list of the year’s 25 best jazz albums, visit NYMD’s sister blog, Lucid Culture). And since there were probably over a million albums released worldwide this past year, you shouldn’t read anything into whether an album might be rated #1 or #50 – if it’s good enough to be anywhere on this list, it’s got to be pretty incredible.

4. Mary Lee Kortes – Songs from the Beulah Rowley Songbook ep. The Mary Lee’s Corvette frontwoman came up with a fictitious alter ego from the 1930s and 40s who wrote in as many diverse, harrowing, literate styles – this is her “long lost debut.”

5. Roulette Sisters – Introducing the Roulette Sisters. This is actually the charismatic oldtimey quartet’s second album: Mamie Minch, Meg Reichardt, Karen Waltuch and Megan Burleyson romp through a characteristically entertaining, innuendo-driven mix of oldtime blues, country and novelty songs.

6. Ansambl Mastika – Songs & Dances for Life Nonstop. The Brooklyn Balkan uproar may not be playing as many shows lately, with their frontman concentrating on Raya Brass Band, but this scorching mix of every style from the old Ottoman empire is as exhilarating as gypsy music can possibly get – Gogol Bordello, watch out.

7. Beninghove’s Hangmen – debut album. Noir soundtrack music from a bunch of guys with jazz chops, punk attitude and off-the-scale raw intensity: best debut album of 2011 by a longshot.

8. Steve Wynn – Northern Aggression. The legendary noir rocker adds a little swirly dreampop to his noisy guitar duels and haunting portaits of life among the down-and-out.

9. Spottiswoode – Wild Goosechase Expedition. The literate art-rocker’s critique of the perils of life during wartime is spot-on and amusing as well. This sprawling, psychedelic, Beatlesque effort is a career best, and the band is scorching.

10. Ward White – Done with the Talking Cure. The literate powerpop tunesmith keeps putting out snarky, wickedly catchy albums – in a year where Elvis Costello didn’t put out any, this makes a good substitute

11. Trio Tritticali – Issue #1.Violinist Helen Yee, violist Leanne Darling and cellist Loren Dempster’s original mix of Asian, Middle Eastern and tropical themes is as intense and intricately interwoven as it is ambitious.

12. Hazmat Modine – Cicada. The minor-key blues/reggae/klezmer psychedelic outfit’s third album might be their strongest and most eclectic to date, with input from Gangbe Brass Band and Natalie Merchant.

13. Karen Dahlstrom – Gem State. The Bobtown multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, an Idaho native, reached back for a haunting, intense late-1800s western Americana vibe on these evocative original songs.

14. The Threeds Oboe Trio – Unraveled. Three oboes (and sometimes French horn) playing tongue-in-cheek new arrangements of Michael Jackson, the Doors, Stevie Wonder, Piazzolla and Little Feat – this might be the funniest and most original album of the year.

15. Carol Lipnik -M.O.T.H. The queen of Coney Island phantasmagoria delivers her most lushly creepy album yet.

15. Dina Rudeen – The Common Splendor. The retro soul songwriter, backed by a first-class band, go deep into a late 60s vibe for these evocative three-minute portraits.

17. Evanescent – debut album. This is the Moonlighters’ Bliss Blood plus guitarist Al Street doing her torchiest, most noir songs ever. Free download.

18. Les Chauds Lapins – Amourettes. The charming, coy French chanson revivalists broaden their scope with this lushly orchestrated, unselfconsciously romantic collection.

19. Marianne Dissard – L’abandon. The French rocker (and documentary filmmaker) works every southwestern gothic angle she can find on this surprisingly diverse, snarling, intensely psychedelic new album.

20. Elisa Flynn – 19th Century Songs. Like Karen Dahlstrom (#13 above), Flynn has a great eye for images, an amazing voice and an ear for a great tune – this album is considerably more diverse, and just as dark.

21. Dollshot – debut album. Brother/sister Noah and Rosalie Kaplan (tenor sax and voice) lead this creepy, improvisational group, putting a sometimes devious, sometimes twisted new spin on classical art-songs.

22. The Universal Thump – Chapter Two. Keyboard goddess Greta Gertler’s lush art-rock band’s second ep in a year is as richly tuneful, playfully quirky and and anthemic as their first one.

23. Mark Sinnis – The Undertaker in My Rearview Mirror. The baritone crooner who fronts Ninth House offers his most morbid, rustic Nashville gothic release to date.

24. Edward Rogers – Porcelain. The British expat tunesmith has never been more eclectic, more acerbic or more relevant throughout this mix of retro glam, art-rock and new wave with his amazing band.

25. Hungrytown – Any Forgotten Thing. The duo of Rebecca Hall and Ken Anderson add a deliciously off-kilter psychedelic folk edge to Hall’s dark, brooding songs.

26. Frankenpine – The Crooked Mountain. The New York bluegrass band push the envelope with a mix of upbeat original numbers and creepy ballads as well as a detour into gypsy jazz.

27. Robin O’Brien – The Empty Bowl. Her first album of new songs since the 90s, the dark soul/folk/rock chanteuse is at the absolute peak of her unpredictable power.

28. Pinataland – Hymns for the Dreadful Night. The best album to date by the Brooklyn “historical orchestrette,” a lavishly orchestrated mix of Americana and rock with a biting and spot-on historical edge.

29. Aunt Ange – Olga Walks Away. A concept album about an acid trip, straight out of the 60s, with a creepy gypsy punk edge to match – one of the year’s most original releases.

30. Rahim AlHaj – Little Earth. A protege of legendary oud player Munir Bashir, AlHaj spans the globe with styles from Iraq, Egypt and the Appalachians, backed by a global supporting cast.

31. A Hawk & a Hacksaw – Cervantine. A Neutral Milk Hotel spinoff (how many of those are there, about fifty?), these folks do rustic, intense gypsy romps as well as anyone else. Their show last summer at the Bell House was killer.

32. On – Box of Costumes. Hard to believe that there are only two guys – a guitarist/singer and drummer/keyboardist – in this dark, artsy Israeli rock band.

33. The Jolly Boys – Great Expectations. The legendary Jamaican mento band went out on a high note with this clever mix of pop and punk covers, their first release since the 70s.

34. Trio Joubran – Asfar. The three Palestinian oud-playing brothers turn in a haunting, austere, elegaic suite of instrumentals with flamenco tinges.

35. Marissa Nadler – 5th album. The mistily captivating dark acoustic rock chanteuse goes into Americana further than ever before, with excellent results.

36. Shusmo – Mumtastic. Palestinian buzuq player Tareq Abboushi’s funky, psychedelic Middle Eastern/jazz/rock unit is catchy and politically spot-on throughout this diverse debut album.

37. Loga Ramin Torkian – Mehraab. The Iraqi/Canadian multi-instrumentalist takes a hauntingly successful trip into hypnotic dreampop/electronic territory.

38. American Modern Ensemble – Star Crossing: Music of Robert Paterson. All together, this suite of new instrumentals – mostly for flutes and percussion – is intensely cinematic and totally noir.

39. See-I – debut album. The Washington, DC roots reggae act mix tons of woozy dub and a little dancehall into their trippy rootsy grooves.

40. Pistolera – El Desierto y la Ciudad. Divided into a bustling city side and hypnotic, apprehensively dark desert side, the New York-based janglerockers explore the immigrant experience with typically hard-hitting intensity.

41. Terakaft – Ishumar. The Malian desert blues band deliver their hardest-rocking collection of grooves ever.

42. The Mast – Wild Poppies. Singer/guitarist Haale and virtuoso percussionist Matt Kilmer team up for a wary, psychedelic mix of indie rock with Middle Eastern tinges and an uncompromising lyrical intensity.

43. Aram Bajakian’s Kef – debut album. Lou Reed’s lead guitarist, when he’s not on the road, leads this intriguing electic band who play new verisons of classic Armenian themes.

44. Taj Weekes & Adowa – Waterlogged Soul Kitchen. The roots reggae star is his usual politically-charged self on this mix of warm grooves and ferociously insightful anthems.

45. The Rudie Crew – This Is Skragga. Always a great live band, these ska party monsters proved they can do it in the studio too with this one.

46. The Funk Ark – From the Rooftops. Afrobeat from Washington, DC: slinky latin vamps, ferocious Ethiopian themes and good-natured, oldschool funk.

47. CSC Funk Band – Things Are Getting Too Casual. The Brooklyn psychedelic funk band mix Afrobeat and Celtic sounds into their danceable blend. Free download.

48. Christopher O’Riley & Matt Haimovitz – Shuffle Listen Repeat. This is pianist O’Riley’s third album of classical-style piano versions of rock songs; this time, he found his noir muse in the music of Hitchcock film composer Bernard Herrmann.

49. Karikatura – Departures. Latin grooves, flamenco guitar, gypsy tunes, an amazing horn section and smart, socially conscious lyrics, just as good on record as onstage.

50. The Rough Guide to Bellydance, 2nd Edition. The second one is even better than the first: it’s a mix of who’s who in levantine instrumentals over the last 30 years.