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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

A New Vinyl Box Set For Lovers of 70s Psychedelia, Mystical Indian and Middle Eastern Sounds

It may seem strange that an Indian-influenced German jamband would name themselves after a Mayan creation myth. But Popol Vuh’s influences, and the scope of their music, were vast. Bandleader and keyboardist Florian Fricke came out of the minimalist side of the German avant garde, but by the time the band were through, they’d taken successful plunges into ornate, High Romantic orchestral rock, psychedelia, ambient music and movie scores. Much of it is unselfconsciously beautiful.

Werner Herzog asserts that without Popul Vuh’s soundtracks, several of his best films never would have existed: endorsements don’t get better than that. This year saw the reissue of four of the band’s best-loved albums – 1973’s Seligpreisung, 1979’s Coeur de Verre, 1983’s Agape-Agape Love-Love and the 1987 score to Herzog’s film Cobra Verde – as a lavish vinyl box set complete with original artwork, posters and expanded liner notes. Considering that Popul Vuh’s albums were European imports, expensive to begin with and now command daunting prices on the collector market, this is a goldmine for 70s art-rock fans. Each of the records is streaming at Spotify (click the links in the titles below).

There’s a verdant Moody Blues Romanticism to much of Seligpreisung, fueled by Robert Eliscu’s soaring, expressive oboe over Fricke’s bright but often hypnotic, mantra-like piano and synth work. With the addition of guitarists Conny Veit and Amon Düül II’s Daniel Fichelscher, this was the group’s first real rock record, veering suddenly from moody Pink Floyd interludes to the careening Grateful Dead-influenced jams that would pervade much of the rest of their rock material. Selig sind die, die da hungem (Blessed Are Those Who Are Hungry), with a long, bluesy, Gilmouresque guitar solo from Fichelscher, perfectly encapsulates all that. As with all these records, there’s a bonus track, in this case the rare single Be in Love, a sunny chamber pop ballad.

Fricke and Fichelscher switch out the second guitar for Al Gromer’s sitar, adding both lush texture and curlicuing mystery to the Coeur de Verre soundtrack, incorporating more of the incantatory instrumental raga-rock sound of the band’s 1973 Hosianna Mantra album. Blatter aus dem Buch der Kuhnheit (Pages From the Book of Fearlessness) sounds like the Dead taking on a Scottish air with Indian tinges, while Der Ruf (The Call) comes across as a soaring, loopy three-man Dead jam. Rising from anxious minimalism to a crescendoing, clanging triumph, the big epic here is Engel de Gegenwart (Today’s Angel). There’s also a deliciously dark, chromatic interlude, Huter der Schwelle (Guardian of the Threshold). The bonus track is Earth View, a spare, sober 1977 Fricke solo piano piece.

Veit’s guitar returns on the harder-rocking Agape-Agape Love-Love, which foreshadows King Gizzard’s uneasy, chromatic Turkish trance-rock by almost forty years. Singer Renate Knaup’s crystalline, sepulchral vocalese sails over a similarly haunting Middle Eastern-inflected backdrop in the Rumi-inspired Behold, the Drover Summons. Circledance, the bonus track, fades up and eventually out like a second-set interlude by the Dead, who were arguably at their peak as a live band at the time Popul Vuh recorded this. Interestingly, the only piano-driven track is the starry closing nocturne Why Do I Sleep.

The Cobra Verde soundtrack is even more Indian-inflected and lushly symphonic, the Bavarian State Opera Chorus serving as kirtan choir in a theme and variations that hark back to Fricke’s beginnings. He reaches for the orchestra’s ominously drifting ambience in the marketplace scene with a couple of subsequent solo synthscapes. It’s a well-chosen way to bring the box set full circle.

Daniel Romano Channels a Vintage Stones Vibe

Daniel Romano’s Outfit’s latest album Cobra Poems – streaming at Bandcamp – has a lot of psychedelic flavors. In Romano’s more imaginative moments, this is one of the catchiest, most entertaining psychedelic rock records of the year. Other times it’s derivative practically to the point of parody. To his credit, Romano really, really knows his Rolling Stones, down to the horn breaks and most minute percussion effects.

The opening tune, Tragic Head comes across as the Grateful Dead doing a catchy soul song with more Stonesy guitars: the tumbling drums are a tasty touch. Even in the Loom of a Caress shifts between Allah-Las clang, Stones growl and mellotron-waft 60s sunshine psych-pop.

Nocturne Child is a Honkytonk Women-style Glimmer Twins ripoff, right down to the sax solo on the outro. Romano tunes his guitar to open G again for Lonely Trumpeteer: he can copy Keith Richards like few others. Likewise, The Motions is awfully close to Wild Horses with a woman out front.

With its noir soul tinges and biting minor-key guitar riffage, Animals Above Our Town is the album’s strongest track. Tears Through a Sunrise is also ridiculously catchy…and with its jangly, bittersweet changes, is far less melancholy than you would expect.

Baby If We Stick It Out is Romano’s Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, more or less. Still Dreaming is the missing link between Loving Cup and Torn and Frayed (Stones fans will get that reference). It segues into the bizarrely loopy closing number, Camera Varda.

On one hand, much of this is as original as a Chinatown Rolex. On the other hand, if Romano gets some of the post-millennials listening to the source material – or even better, taking as much creative inspiration from it as he does – that’s validation.

Play For Today 9/7/21

Been awhile since there’s been a playlist on this page, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of entertaining singles floating around. Here’s a fun and informative self-guided mix: the links in the song titles will take you to each one.

The Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout are best known for their latin soul jams, but they’re a lot more eclectic than their name implies. The most electrifying song on their live album is Sheba, an Ethiopiques-tinged surf song

Louisiana rocker Rod Gator‘s Wanna Go for a Ride is the Clash’s version of Brand New Cadillac, as the Legendary Shack Shakers might have done it, darker and grittier with a guitar solo to match

Acoustic Syndicate‘s cover of the Grateful Dead classic Bertha has 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?” What a theme the lockdown era!

It makes a good segue with one you probably know, RC the Rapper‘s Just 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.”

The smooth reggae grooves of Micah Lee’s No Lockdowns keep the inspiration flowing (thanks to the fearless folks at Texans For Vaccine Choice for this one).

The breathing metaphors and carefree sounds of children laughing on the playground in Alma’s Sips of Oxygen are a much subtler kind of commentary: “Someone in the doorway, hope they’re not afraid of them.”

Marianne Dissard and Raphael Mann’s delicate chamber pop duet reinvention of Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You is the great lost track from Nico’s Chelsea Girl album….with a woman who can hit the notes on the mic.

Let’s end this with something equally artful and poignant: Danny Wilkerson‘s Endless Haze, the best and least Beatlesque song on the new reissue of his very Fab Four-influenced 2018 solo debut album. The stark haggardness of the Boston Symphony Strings back his playfully lyrical but wounded chronicle of losing a battle with the bottle.

Fiver Puts Out a Smartly Lyrical New Psychedelic Americana Record

Songwriter/guitarist Simone Schmidt a.k.a. Fiver writes catchy, thoughtful, expansive, distantly Americana-tinged rock songs that draw on peak-era, early zeros-era Neko Case and Cat Power along with the Grateful Dead. Schmidt likes a biting turn of phrase and sings her allusive, historically informed narratives in a breathy, modulated mezzo-soprano. Her latest album with Scottish trio the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition is streaming at Bandcamp

Yeah But Uhh Hey, a steady, vamping, syncopated backbeat number sets the stage, a cynical gig-economy era workingperson’s lament. What goes round seems to come around here; it all falls apart gracefully at the end.

Leaning Hard (On My Peripheral Vision) is a clanging country tune, Jeremy Costello’s bass snapping and Nick Dourado’s lapsteel wafting behind the twang while drummer Bianca Palmer provides a low-key swing.. “Hope you don’t take it as sign,” Schmidt muses, referring to the song title. She winds it up with a Jerry Garcia-tinged wah guitar solo.

Her layers of guitar textures mingle with Dourado’s rippling piano for even more of a Deadly vibe in June Like a Bug, winding out with a long, nocturnal jam. Jr. Wreck, a spare, gospel-infused breakup ballad, has a tantalizingly brief, late-Beatlesque guitar solo from Schmidt at the center.

The album’s funniest song is Sick Gladiola, a torrentially lyrical Tex-Mex-flavored waltz about starstruck fortune-seekers following the downward spiral of traffic and alienation in a gentrification-era El Lay hell. “Don’t bang your head on that bar, it’s too low,” Schmidt warns.

Death Is Only a Dream comes across as a blend of 70s Kath Bloom hippie chamber folk and more recent Carla Bley minimalism, drifting into an enigmatically catchy, early 80s Dead style outro.

Schmidt details a soul-depleting marriage from the trophy wife’s point of view over a steady disco groove in Paid in Pride. She closes the record with For Your Sake This, her echoey vocalese over Dourado’s starry piano slowly coalescing around her acoustic guitar. This has been a slow year for rock music, both in the studio and onstage, and this is one of the best of the class of 2021 so far.

One of Brooklyn’s Best Jazz Acts Returns to Playing Live with a Vengeance

One of the first bands at the very front of the pack getting busy on the live circuit again is fronted by the guy who might be the best guitarist in Brooklyn. From the mid to late teens, Tom Csatari’s Uncivilized played a careening, highly improvisational but also wickedly tuneful blend of pastoral jazz and psychedelia, with frequent detours into the noir. Their distinctively drifting live album of Twin Peaks themes is an obscure treasure from the peak era of the Barbes scene. The group survived their bandleader’s brush with death (this was long before any so-called pandemic) and have emerged seemingly more energized than ever. Csatari didn’t let all the downtime during the past fifteen months’ lockdown go to waste: he wrote three albums worth of songs. He calls it the Placebo Trilogy, and it’s streaming at Bandcamp.

Their next show is June 26 at 8 PM at the new San Pedro Inn, 320 Van Brunt St. (corner of Pioneer) in Red Hook. You could take the B61 bus but if you’re up for getting some exercise, take the F to Carroll, get off at the front of the Brooklyn-bound train and walk it. Nobody at this blog has been to the venue yet but it gets high marks from those who have.

All three records are Csatari solo acoustic, often played through a tremolo effect. The first one, Placedo-Niche has a couple of numbers with a distantly Elliott Smith-tinged, hazily bucolic feel, the first steadier, the second more spare and starry. Csatari packs more jaunty flash and enigmatic strum into D’art in less than a minute thirty than most artists can in twice as much time: one suspects that this miniature, like everything else here, was conceived as a stepping-off point for soloing.

Morton Swing is an increasingly modernized take on a charmingly oldtimey melody. And Extra could be a great lost Grateful Dead theme – who cares if this singalong doesn’t have lyrics.

The second record, Placebo-ish begins with Fresh Scrabble, Csatari’s gritty, nebulous chords around a long, catchy, descending blues riff. As it unwinds, he mingles the same kind of finger-crunching chords into a southern soul-tinged pattern, explores a moody Synchronicity-era Police-style anthem, then sends a similarly brooding variation through a funhouse mirror. The most John Fahey-influenced number here is titled Sad-Joy, both emotions on the muted side.

The last album is Placebo-Transcendence. The gentle, summery ambience of the opening track, Valentino, suddenly grows frenetic. Sugar Baby vamps along, warm and hypnotic. The wryly titled Civilized is…well…exactly that: it sounds like Wilco. The funniest song title (Csatari is full of them) is Silicone Transcendence (Tryin’ to Transcend), the closest thing to Twin Peaks here.

There isn’t a jazz guitarist alive who gets as much mileage out of a chord-based approach than Csatari, and there aren’t many people writing tunes as hummable as these in any style of music. Yet they tease the ears at the same time. If you want to learn how to write using implied melody, there isn’t a better place to start than these records.

A Richly Lyrical, Understatedly Haunting New Album From the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris

With his usual modesty, Gary Louris would probably call himself the co-leader of the Jayhawks. But the reality is that they didn’t become one of the best bands in the world until he took over as their main songwriter. And that’s not meant as disrespect to Karen Grotberg, Marc Perlman and Tim O’Reagan, whose harmonies became so crucial to Louris’ eclectic lyrical brilliance, which blends influences from Big Star, to Bowie, to all sorts of Americana and psychedelia.

Beyond the Jayhawks, Louris has released plenty of material, notably with Golden Smog. His latest solo record, Jump for Joy is streaming at Spotify. The title could be taken at face value, or as total sarcasm. It’s definitely an album for our time: the spectre of death and impending doom hangs over many of the songs here, although there’s some upbeat material as well.

He opens with Almost Home, a cheerfully shuffling, Tex-Mex flavored, band-on-the-road saga livened by his usual colorful narrative detail. Living in Between could be the Jayhawks: gorgeously Beatlesque vocal harmonies, bittersweet changes, some George Harrison-ish slide guitar and an allusively troubled look at the bewildering state of the world. “All the books that I have read didn’t get me through,” Louris concedes. Ain’t that the truth.

Set to a hypnotic web of open-tuned acoustic guitars, White Squirrel is another typically imagistic number, a hopeful anthem for anyone who feels alienated and atomized by encroaching New Abnormal fascism. It’s Louris’ Rock N Roll Suicide.

Driven by a sunshiney keyboard riff that wouldn’t be out of place on the Jayhawks’ Smile album, the fourth track is titled New Normal. It’s surreal to the extreme, although Louris finally drops the facade as his guitar solo goes sputtering over the edge, the world outside “gathering like slow death, nipping at your heels.”

He salutes John Updike in the glamrock anthem after that: it brings to mind Ward White‘s most literary work. The guitars chime and shimmer throughout the Merseybeat-flavored next cut, Follow. The rest of the record alternates gloomy numbers with contrasting optimism, beginning with the richly textured, wintry guitars of Too Late the Key, a somber contemplation of missed exits with potentially catastrophic results.

One Way Conversation is an enigmatic, pensive, possibly elegaic number with tinges of Kraftwerk, Indian music and the Grateful Dead. The album’s chiming, lush title track is very guardedly exuberant: “Hip hip hooray for the longue dureé, bearing this parade of souls.” He closes with the eight-minute, late-Beatlesque apocalyptic epic Dead Man’s Burden. It asks more questions than it answers. Do we have it in us to transcend 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? We’re going to have to figure that out this fall and winter when the toll from the needle of death starts to skyrocket.

Energetic, Cinematic Grooves From the Reliably Uncategorizable Manteca

Manteca play a deliciously uncategorizable blend of cinematic instrumental jamband rock, with tinges of Balkan and Middle Eastern music. They’ve been around in one incarnation or another since the late 70s and are legends in their native Canada. Beyond a single clave soul song, there isn’t much of a latin influence on their latest album The Twelfth of Never, streaming at Spotify. It’s one of the most intriguingly unique records to come over the transom here in the last six months.

Nick Tateishi’s twangy guitar and Will Jarvis’ bass introduce an undulating peak-era Grateful Dead tune to kick off the album’s first track, Meanwhile Tomorrow. Multi-reedwoman Colleen Allen, trombonist Mark Ferguson and trumpeter Jason Logue sail in, Doug Wilde adding both spare piano and a Wurlitzer accordion patch. The three-man percussion section – co-founder Art Avalos, Charlie Cooley and Matt Zimbel – provide a cheerily hypnotic clip-clop groove. The Dead with horns, you say. Is that all there is to this?

Hardly. Tateishi’s noir reverberations kick off the darkly bluesy Illusionist over a cantering, boomy rhythm, the horns and keys joining the brooding atmosphere. Allen’s plaintive alto sax solo gives way to a bit of an unexpected gospel piano theme before the band edge it further toward Ethiopiques.

Lowdown begins with a trickily pulsing Greek rhythm evocative of that famous Smiths hit, but with a Lynchian undercurrent. Logue’s rustic, muted trumpet contrasts with Ferguson’s smoky trombone, Tateishi peaking out with a long, flaring solo,

Ferguson switches to lingering vibraphone, paired with Allen’s uneasy alto flute over an altered qawwali rhythm for the similarly moody Smoke and Mirrors. There’s exploratory trombone against terse, resonant bass, then a return to a spare suspense theme.

Purple Theory comes across as a Greek-flavored midtempo Grateful Dead anthem, tightly circling horns behind an enigmatic guitar solo. Never Twelve, a lowrider latin soul tune, has balmy horns and spare, resonant guitar assembled around echoey Wurlitzer.

The band take a detour into syncopated funk with Five Alive and close the album with T’was Brillig, w which sounds like Jethro Tull taking a stab at an Acadian folk tune – que je puisse te porter des chansons du bois!

A Sharply Amusing New Record From One of New York’s Best Psychedelic Bands

For the better part of ten years, the Academy Blues Project were one of New York’s most consistently entertaining psychedelic bands. They got as far as the Rockwood, where they held down a long series of big-room residencies. Their annual Big Lebowski tribute was as much a giveaway to their sensibility as their sly, surreal live show. And unlike most rock acts in town before the lockdown, carefully scheduling gigs to maximize turnout and ensure future bookings at a handful of coveted, profit-strapped spots, these guys would take random dates at some pretty out-of-the-way venues just to keep the vibe fresh. It was always fun to catch them at an intimate space like Shrine, or Long Island City Bar, on an off night.

Although they’ve released a  handful of eps, their new album The Neon Grotto – streaming at Bandcamp – is their first full-length record. It’s like discovering your cool stoner uncle’s stash of artsy psychedelic records from the 70s. The obvious influences here are the Grateful Dead and Steely Dan, but there are also echoes of acts as diverse as Supertramp, P-Funk and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. The band recorded the basic tracks right before the lockdown. After their members were scattered to the winds by the summer of last year, they finished it over the web. The seductive surrealism and archetypes in Meera Dugal’s album cover art make a perfect visual companion.

The opening number, Athens to Corfu, could be the good-natured Hollywood Hills boudoir soul tune that never made it onto Steely Dan’s Aja record. Frontman/guitarist Mark Levy tremolo-picks feathery washes and sunbaked, echoey blues, keyboardist Ben Easton starting out with starry Rhodes piano and drifting into an oscillating swirl, bassist Trevor Brown and drummer Jim Bloom kicking up the waves at the end. There is nothing remotely Mediterranean about this song other than the lyrics’ clever wordplay.

Turbulence, the second cut, could pass for a late 70s track by the Who: the metaphors reach cruising altitude and the brief, celestial bass-and-guitar interlude midway through seems devised for much more extended jamming. The album’s instrumental title track opens with a sideways Grateful Dead reference and then hits a steady backbeat pulse, Levy spinning his catchy riffage through an icy vintage analog delay pedal.

The album’s big epic is Rock Song (Don’t Step in the Gooey Parts), an aptly dramatic, tongue-in-cheek musical history of geological formations, from lava to ossification. The big sunburst intro brings to mind early Santana; from there the band truck like the Dead to an uneasily jangly Nektar bridge and then rising and falling echoes of Pink Floyd.

Make Believe, a big concert favorite, is part Blackberry Smoke newschool southern rock, part White Album Beatles. Prevailing Winds has Genesis written all over it, from Easton’s elegant piano intro to Levy’s big vocal peak.

All Will Be Revealed begins as a deviously detailed account of what could be a stolen election, or some other massive fraud:

And the innocents forget who’s master and who’s slave
Packing peanuts in their trunks, they join in the fray, they join the parade

Then Easton’s gospel piano leads the band skyward to Levy’s savage guitar outro. Who knows, this song could be more prophetic than anyone ever could have imagined.

They close with the instrumental Little Island, Big Volcano, Levy adding amusingly balmy Hawaiian flavor with his slide. It’s still early in a year where there haven’t been many rock records released, but at this point this is top-ten-of-2021 material. What’s even better is that the band have two other albums planned for release this year.

The Kolotov Mocktails Play Dynamic, Interesting, Subtly Amusing Cross-Genre Instrumentals

As you would imagine, instrumental jamband the Kolotov Mocktails have a sense of humor. The mocktail part of the band might be a characteristically wry admission of how many styles and ideas they appropriate; and yet, they are absolutely unique. Their songs tend to be upbeat, the solos are purposeful and the tunes are catchy. Their latest album Ivy Hall is streaming at Spotify.

They open with Between the Ranges, a lively Grateful Dead-style instrumental by drummer Rob McKendrick. Violinist George Mason’s wildly spiraling solo is a highlight; the southern rock quotes at the end are predictably amusing.

Mason and pedal steel player Dave Easley take centerstage in Dancing on the Wall, McKendrick and bassist John Lang giving it a tight jazz waltz beat. Lang contributes Mr. Pants Pants, which could be the Alan Parsons Project with a more organic groove, guest Allan Walters’ Scottish smallpipes mingling with the layers of keys.

Easley contributes A Visit to the Zoo: with his percussive hammer-ons and ambiguously lingering lines, along with Mason’s long, moody solo, this seems to reflect the inhabitants’ unease rather than a joyous family outing. The shift toward a marching raga, with Mason on guitar sitar, makes for an unexpected coda.

The group shift back toward newgrass rock with Acoustic Alchemy, a brisk number in an Old Crow Medicine Show vein. Fueled by Lang’s strutting, circling bassline, Coming to an Alley Near You is a bizarrely entertaining mashup of Jean-Luc Ponty, Kraftwerk and maybe Dave Tronzo in a particularly terse moment. Likewise, imagine Ponty trying his hand at Meters funk in, say, 1974 – with a pedal steel – and you get The Fuzz.

Mason and Easley trade punchy riffs in Raw Eel Sheets, a similarly mind-warping blend of Django Reinhardt and New Orleans funk. The Crack of Noon features Walters on the pipes again: it could be a Greer Coppins tune, or the Dead taking a stab at a highlands air. The band segue from there to close the record with Time Ebbing: the guitar/violin duel is pure Terrapin Station. If you smell something skunky and smoky coming from under your neighbor’s door, it might be this album.