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The 50 Best Albums of 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Auspicious Mashup of Art-Rock and Big Band Jazz and a Lincoln Center Show by the NYChillharmonic

Rare as it is for a woman to lead a large jazz ensemble, it’s rarer still for a big band to be led by the singer. Sara McDonald, composer and leader of the NYChillharmonic, blurs the line between art-rock, chamber pop and big band jazz. She sings in a tersely modulated alto and writes lustrous, slowly shapeshifting, moodily lyric-driven songs. The group’s debut album, credited to McDonald herself, is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing the Lincoln Center Atrium this Thursday, December 17 at 7:30 PM. The echoey space ought to be hospitable to this group’s methodically rising, often epic swells, slow tempos and cinematic sweep. As always, getting there early is a good idea if you want a seat, or for that matter, if you want to get in at all since management never lets the place fill to capacity.

Based around looping Darcy James Argue-esque phrases, the album’s opening track, Dead the Trees is a gently lush, lavishly orchestrated, global warming-era apocalyptic waltz. “No one was thinking, no one intervened…smitten with greed,” McDonald intones understatedly, letting the message speak for itself. Guitarist Martin Wessalowski’s lingering, brooding phrases mingle with the increasingly majestic tectonics of the orchestra as the second track, Plans – also a waltz – rises toward peak elevation. Grounded by Lukas Voith’s elegant piano, another gracefully grandiose waltz, Isobel, has a soaring catchiness and enigmatic mix of tense drama and wistfulness that brings to mind Greta Gertler’s similarly lush art-rock band the Universal Thump. It isn’t til the final cut, the evocatively balmy, clave-fueled Sand Castles, that McDonald airs out her torchy side, vocally or otherwise, and it’s worth waiting for, in fact all the way through an amped-up but ultimately misguided cover of a pointless Grizzly Bear bossa ripoff. It’ll be fun to find out what else McDonald has come up with in the roughly year-and-a-half since this album came out.

A Richly Tuneful, Enigmatic New Album From Art-Rock Band the Universal Thump

Singer/keyboardist Greta Gertler Gold was about eight months pregnant when she played her most recent show, at Barbes about six weeks ago, with her art-rock band the Universal Thump. If that’s not punk rock, you figure out what is.

The Universal Thump’s music is actually not punk at all – it’s lush, and ornate, and meticulously crafted…and an awful lot of fun. Their 2012 debut album was an epic double-cd set awash in lavish orchestration, theatrics, dynamic shifts and symphonic majesty. one of the most rewardingly herculean efforts by any band in recent years. Their new, second album, Walking the Cat – recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London, and streaming at Bandcamp – is less hefty but no less fun. The opening track, Sunset Park – a tribute to their Brooklyn home turf – pairs drummer/percussionist Adam D Gold’s pointillistic celeste with his wife’s cautiously scampering piano and soaring, stratospheric vocals, buoyed by a tiptoeing string arrangement played by violist Anne Lanzilotti and cellist Brian Snow.

The second track, Cockatoos, is Gretler Gold at her most brooding and plaintive, a briskly strolling tone poem of sorts: “I never fell so hard, I never fell so far,” she relates. Then the band picks up the pace with the ep’s poppiest song, Watch the Sunrise, Barney McAll doing a fair impersonation of a snarling, distorted electric guitar with his synth midway through.

J. Walter Hawkes’ multitracked trombone builds grey-sky ambience as the piano rises to an uneasy peak in Treehouse. Jonathan Maron’s lithe bassline pairs with the piano as the album’s psychedelic, mightily crescendoing title track picks up steam, Elysian Fields guitarist Oren Bloedow channeling George Harrison while Gertler Gold’s organ bubbles and ripples…and then the band builds in a second to a droll, lickety-split sprint. As with the best psychedelic music, nothing here is exactly what it seems: there’s a moody edge underneath all the playful exuberance. As short albums go, there’s hardly been anything released in 2015 that’s this consistently good.

The Barbes show also deserves a mention. Rather than bringing his swirly Hohner Electrovox from his days in the late, great Chicha Libre, guest Josh Camp played piano while Gertler Gold shifted between textures on her Nord Electro. Who knew he was such a good C&W slip-key player? Another of the band’s charter members, guiter maven Pete Galub led the group through a breathlessly droll cover of XTC’s Making Plans for Nigel.

Much as Gertler Gold has always had an impressive top end to her high soprano, she’s never sung better than she did at this show, not just sailing along but genuinely searing at the very top of her register. Like so many bands these days, the Universal Thump have considerably more material than they’ve been able to record: this show gave them a chance to air out a couple of oldschool soul-informed numbers as well as a handful of tongue-in-cheek, sardonic Passover songs written for a theme night at Joe’s Pub, one a sultry minor-key tune and the other more upbeat. Among the best songs of the night was an amped-up, especially restless take of Cockatoos; the band closed with a triumphant version of Walking the Cat. Gertler Gold promises not to let motherhood keep her from the stage; watch this space for upcoming shows from one of this era’s great art-rock bands.

Intensely Fun Summer Concerts by Nicole Atkins and the Universal Thump

Nicole Atkins and her “band of Daves,’ as she put it – on lead guitar, electric piano and organ, bass and drums – played a soaringly eclectic, richly tuneful set to kick off this year’s outdoor concert series at Madison Square Park. What was most striking about the concert was the welcome absence of the cheesy keyboard textures that gunk up some otherwise excellent songs on Atkins’ latest album, Slow Phaser. Aside from a diversion into that on a swaying, funky tune early in the set, her keyboardist stuck to fluid organ fills and elegantly glimmering electric piano.

They opened with the new album’s first song, Who Killed the Moonlight, putting more emphasis on lingering, uneasy atmospherics than the disco bounce of the studio version. The bassist gave it a slinky groove as the lead player added terse, red-neon, noirish fills and bends. Atkins’ wounded outsider presence on the sardonic Cool People provided an edge that transcended all the purloined Beatles and Lou Reed licks. Atkins reaffirmed why she has such a devoted fan base, showing off a spectacular vocal range that she varied from low and apprehensive to some spine-tingling flights to the upper registers, adding subtle blues and soul tinges and then some grit at the end as her voice began to go ragged after all that exertion.

She and the band maintained the intensity with the organ-fueled ba-bump noir cabaret tune Gasoline Bride and its creepy slowdown at the end, then the slow, angst-fueled Vera Beren-esque 6/8 ballad The Way It Is, part darkly Orbisonesque Americana, part gothic art-rock. Atkins took that to a peak with the wickedly catchy Maybe Tonight, an anguished blue-eyed Motown hit as towering as anything Gary Usher wrote for Gary Puckett back in the 60s.

Girl You Look Amazing, another tune that’s pretty straight-up disco on the new album, took on extra bite with a more straight-ahead beat underneath Atkins’ sarcastic dig at a would-be pickup artist. Interestingly, they gave We Wait Too Long a swooshy, misterioso groove, in contrast to the album’s more direct, regret-laden version.

After the hypnotically loping, darkly bluesy Vultures, with its creepily twinkling electric piano, they tiptoed and swayed through the longing and bitterness of Red Ropes, the most luridly noir song on the new album.

Atkins’ cynical sense of humor came front and center on It’s Only Chemistry, a sardonic battle-of-the-sexes narrative, and then an aching take of The Worst Hangover, whose narrator is so miserable (and possibly still so drunk) that she ends up calling an ambulance. It was too bad that the lead player missed his chance to take The Tower – the crushing, potentially explosive anthem that’s sort of Atkins’ signature song – to a logically pyrotechnic peak, instead drifting unexpectedly into nebulously metal territory. After everything that had come before, it would have been the perfect way to end the show. It took a siren echoing across the park from further north to add just the right touch of horror as the song wound out. The Madison Square Park series of free concerts continues on July 16 at 7 PM with French jazz pianist Jacky Terrasson and his group.

And it was good to be able to catch about half an hour of a show that promised to be even better beforehand several blocks north at Bryant Park, where keyboardist/songwriter Greta Gertler’s lush art-rock band the Universal Thump aired out some of the soaring, often epic songs from their massive triple-cd debut album along with some tantalizing new tunes. Gertler’s elegantly intricate electric piano mingled with the otherworldly vocal harmonies of Las Rubias Del Norte‘s Emily Hurst and Allyssa Lamb over the terse pulse of drummer Adam D. Gold and bassist Byron Isaacs. Guitarist Oren Bloedow – the noir mastermind behind art-rockers Elysian Fields, and a longtime Jenifer Jackson collaborator – kept a low-key, blue-flame intensity going, finally rising to a savagely insistent attack as the show hit a peak right about at the midway point. And then it was time to head south.

A Month’s Worth of Nightcrawling, Part Two

Funny how this blog started out covering live music almost exclusively, then within weeks the torrents of albums began and never stopped. Remember when everyone was saying that the album was a thing of the past? Now you can record an album with your phone, and everybody’s doing it. There’s a pile – or a virtual pile – of more than fifty of them patiently waiting their turn here. And they’ll have to wait another day because today is part two of catching up on all the shows from the past couple of weeks or so.

Lorraine Leckie is as comfortable with elegant, brooding chamber pop as she is at unhinged noir Americana rock. Her most recent show at the big room at the Rockwood last month featured the former. Then headlining Sunday Salon 26 at Zirzamin this past week, Leckie and her band the Demons were at the absolute peak of their game, slashing and burning through a mix of retro glamrock, surreal downtown NYC narratives and an unhinged version of Ontario, her sideways Canadian gothic salute to her birthplace. At the Rockwood, pianist Matt Kanelos added a nonchalant menace to several of Leckie’s collaborations with Anthony Haden-Guest (from the duo’s recent, excellent collaboration, Rudely Interrupted), especially on Bliss, a cruelly sarcastic portrait of a marriage gone irreparably wrong. At Zirzamin, guitarist Hugh Pool fired off machinegunning riffage that evoked Hendrix without being slavishly derivative or drowning out the vocals. Harmony vocalist Banjo Lisa amped up the songs’ allusive menace, blending bewitchingly with Leckie’s ever-increasingly full-throated wail.

The following Saturday night, Kanelos was at Littlefield playing in his duo project, Ghosts in the Ocean with Coney Island noir siren Carol Lipnik, who continues to move further toward the avant garde. One perceptive musician in the crowd likened their hypnotically minimalist performance to a cross between early Jane Siberry and Philip Glass, and she was right on the money, other than that Lipnik has a four-octave range and uses every inch of it. The two reinvented Leonard Cohen’s Gypsy Wife as Radiohead-inflected art-rock, then Lipnik employed a magical theremin-like vibrato on a mesmerizing version of Harry Nilsson’s Lifeline. They brought out every ounce of menace in Dylan’s Man in the Long Black Coat, turned Nick Drake’s Black Dog Blues into an even more haunting, skeletal sketch – that dog is a lethal predator – and moved through Richard Thompson’s The Great Valerio with a bell-like, funereal pulse, Lipnik going down into the sinister depths of her low register. But it was the originals – the catchy, anthemic Sonadora Dreaming, the defiantly insistent Crows and the disarmingly sarcastic Oh the Tyranny – that were the most memorable. They’re at Zirzamin after the Sunday Salon this coming June 16 at 7 PM

Pete Galub followed them, playing the album release show for his fantastic new one, Candy Tears. Galub brings world-class, dangerous guitar chops to classic powerpop, with an often frenetic, menacingly noisy edge – the Steve Wynn influence has made itself more and more clear in his music in recent years. Appropriately, he had Wynn’s guitar sparring partner Jason Victor as a guest on the album’s next-to-last track (they played the whole thing through, in order). And counterintuitively, after he and Galub had reduced the song to a toxic, molten mess of overtones and raging reverb, Victor led the band back in with gentle washes of major chords. Before that, the songs ranged from what sounded like Yo La Tengo doing XTC, Roscoe Ambel doing the Beatles, Guided by Voices doing Syd Barrett, and on a suspensefully skeletal version of the album’s gorgeous title track, Wire doing Big Star. In over an hour onstage, Galub made his notes count, choosing his spots – space is just as important in his music as the actual notes. Guest Karen Mantler played plaintive art-rock piano on the bittersweetly psychedelic 300 Days in July; Greta Gertler lent her soaring multi-octave voice to one of the later numbers. Drummer Chris Moore swung the backbeats while bassist Tom Gavin varied his attack from growly and slinky to a deep, anchoring pocket that held the center while Galub plotted where he was going to go next. Galub is at Zirzamin after the Sunday Salon on May 19 at 7.

More of the Sunday Salon and Such

In a lot of ways, New York Music Daily’s Sunday Salon at Zirzamin is a misnomer. It’s a sophisticated scene, but it’s not exactly sedate. There’s no telling what’s going to happen. A lot of the time there’s something during the parade of performers leading up to the 7 PM featured set that upstages the headliner. Drina Seay covering LJ Murphy’s Waiting by the Lamppost for You was one of them. On one hand, watching her sing “I’m hungover and showing my years” was just plain funny (she looks about grad-school age: if you were a bartender, you’d card her). But that didn’t matter: she can wail when she wants, but she hung back and gave it a poignancy and dignity that you wouldn’t expect in a portrait of sheer dejection and despair.

Then there was Charming Disaster  – Kotorino’s Jeff Morris with Elia Bisker – doing a jaunty yet absolutely creepy four-handed ragtime piano piece and managing not to claw each other, Bisker’s moonscape resonance over Morris’ deadpan romp. They headlined Salon number 22 with a menacingly charming duo set with Morris mostly on guitar and Bisker on ukulele. She’s got the distant femme fatale persona down, dead cold, the perfect foil for Morris’ brooding gypsy and swing-spiked bounces and waltzes. They did not one but two songs about murder conspiracies gone wrong, a similarly failed twin grifters’ tale as well as moody, nocturnal material from each others’ catalogs. They make a good team, and they play a lot of shows: watch this space.

Lorraine Leckie followed them on a rare doublebill. This time out she had Calum Ingram on cello playing ominous low register ambience, with Banjo Lisa adding her stark, scary-beautiful otherworldly vocal harmonies. You would think that Leckie would have used this configuration to air out the darkest side – which is very, very dark – of her recent chamber pop songs, but instead she flipped the script and took a lot of her more upbeat rock catalog down into the abyss. What once had a T-Rex feel in this configuration sounded a lot more like Ziggy-era Bowie but with better vocals. She’s at the big room at the Rockwood on April 22 at 8.

To backtrack a little, Serena Jost headlined Salon 19 a couple of weeks previously . The multi-instrumentalist bandleader/chanteuse had a Joe’s Pub show to warm up for, and counterintuitively, instead of bringing the band and doing what would have been an open rehearsal, she went to a similarly stripped-down configuration featuring the eclectically brilliant Amanda Thorpe on slide guitar, keys, wood flute and also stark, scary-beautiful harmonies. Jost gets props for her cello work, but she’s also a brilliant singer – hanging out with Thorpe all these years has rubbed off. Through lithely jangling chamber pop, stark cello-and-voice tableaux, a stately 6/8 art-rock anthem, she radiated a lowlit allure with her precise, measured vocals, ripe to the point of drawing everyone in without falling off the vine. Then at Joe’s Pub, she and her full band – Julian Maile on guitar, Rob Jost on bass and horn, Rob DiPietro on drums, a keyboardist, and Thorpe and Greta Gertler on harmonies – soared and occasionally roared through most of the songs on her sensationally good new album A Bird Will Sing. The high point of the show – and maybe the past month, in terms of sheer sonic bliss – was the trio of high harmonies on an irresistibly pulsing, crescendoing version of Sweet Mystery, a song that could not have been more aptly titled.

The star of Salon 20 was Seay, who brought a full band featuring Eric Seftel on drums, Monica Passin a.k.a. L’il Mo playing bass as if she’d been doing it her whole life (she had about a week’s worth of practice, it turned out – who knew). “Is there a better guitarist in New York than Steve Antonakos?” one audience member wondered aloud as Seay’s lead player fired off keening pedal steel-style lines, cooly menacing Nashville gothic riffs and soulfully intricate jazz leads. Sassy, sophisticated country songs like the catchy shuffle Whatcha Gonna Do and the soul-infused, stop-time bounce Can’t Fight Falling in Love paired off against the absolutely gorgeous, minor-key Waking Up Crying, an absolutely evil, slide guitar-driven, oldtime swing-flavored All For You and the torchy, Julia Haltigan-esque Where Is the Moon Tonight. The high point of the set was when Seay segued from a slow, slinky, absolutely lurid take of one of her best ballads, Chase My Blues Away to Francoise Hardy’s Le Temps de L’Amour and gave that one a New York noir edge, singing in perfect French. A week later, Antonakos  would be the headliner at Salon 20 with his own tuneful, sardononically humorous songs, joined by Seay who this time added harmonies as she did so memorably back in the day at Banjo Jim’s before she started her own band.

The regular cast has had more memorable moments than can be counted. The Salon’s own Lauraly Grossman’s Cat Power-ish narratives edge closer and closer to noir, shadowy blues. LJ Murphy kicked off Seay’s set with a ferocious, bluesy intensity, hot on the heels of his careening trio performance at Hank’s Saloon the previous Saturday with Professor Jim Porter guesting and adding a whole other level of creepy surrealism on washboard. And this past week, Amelia Belle-Isle graced the stage with her ridiculously tuneful oldtime swing-flavored songs and subtle, alluring voice.

There have been plenty of other great shows happening around town, literally too many to chronicle here. The last week of the past month, the Wu-tang Clan’s Raekwon delivered a nonchalant, impressively tight, seemingly endless medley of his 90s hits at the swanky new Stage 48 way over past 12th Ave. on 48th Street. The place was packed with a mix of older people who knew every word and practicallly drowned out the vocals (the sound here seems to be a work in progress), and kids getting their first look at one of the icons of 90s East Coast hardcore. The Chef began with Cash Rules Everything Around Me and just got hotter from there.

Violinist Courtney Orlando and cellist Lauren Radnofsky’s performance of Luciano Berio sequenzas at the Miller Theatre last month deserves a mention. These pieces are like wartime: frenzied, anxious, cruelly frantic cadenzas that suddenly give way to still, suspenseful ambience, and while neither musician made it look easy – that would have been impossible – just getting through them without breaking strings would have been a triumph. That they were able to mine those weird juxtapositions for genuine emotion made the concert all the more worthwhile. That, and all the free beer the theatre was giving away.

The night of the Drina Seay show at the Salon, New York Junk played one of those oldschool New York punk bills at Bowery Electric. On one hand, their tunefully growling, glammy early 70s style isn’t covering any new ground, but just like the Dolls and Lou Reed, they’re catchy and they have the sound, and the wry, black humor-driven, black leather-clad doom and angst down cold. The bassist – formerly of 80s punk legends the B-Girls – bopped and pushed the songs along with catchy riffage underneath the Stonesy roar of the two guitarists.

This past week had a trifecta of good shows. Tom Warnick & World’s Fair played their usual gallows humor-driven mix of blue-eyed soul, horror surf, Doorsy jamrock and New England noir at Freddy’s Saturday night. Jerome O’Brien, late of the great Dog Show played a mix of his endlessly entertaining, literate rock tunes solo on twelve-string guitar at…where else…Zirzamin. And Maynard & the Musties brought their mix of wry oldschool country and dark highway rock to Cowgirl Seahorse down in South Street Seaport, Naa Koshie Mills’ violin/viola lines soaring over Dikko Faust’s trombone and Mo Botton’s richly twangy guitar. Frontman Joe Maynard writes some of the most nonchalantly poignant, richly tuneful songs around: it was a treat to hear him and the crew swing their way through the dark-sky, Neil  Young-ish expanse of Lightly Honest and the gorgeous yet utterly twisted Elvis Museum.

Serena Jost Takes Flight with a Brilliant New Album

Multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost’s songs are so direct and easy to sing along to that they seem to be perfectly clear, but they’re anything but. They draw you in with their calm allure and then hit you upside the head when you least expect it. Jost’s third album, A Bird Will Sing is due out on April 9; the former Rasputina cellist will feature a parade of her fellow New York elite players onstage in celebration of the album’s release at 9:30 PM at Joe’s Pub. Tickets are still available as of today; if art-rock is your thing, this is a must-see event. The whole album is streaming at Jost’s Bandcamp page.

On this one, Jost limits herself to cello and vocals, not such a bad idea considering the quality and diversity of the band: Julian Maile on guitars, Rob Jost on bass and horn, Rob DiPietro on drums, Thomas Bartlett on organ, backing vocals from Greta Gertler, Amanda Thorpe and Ursa Minor’s Michelle Casillas as well as producer Anton Fier making a cameo on bells. While Jost’s songs draw deeply on innumerable styles – 70s art-rock and Britfolk, classical, gospel, soul and even funk – she has a unique voice. Her vocals echo the deceptive translucence of her songwriting: clear, steady and minutely nuanced, they shine into the corners rather than the center. Likewise, her lyrics throw a succession of images at you, letting the listener connect the dots. It’s a mysterious and fun ride.

Jost makes a strong opening statement with the first track, Stay: that just cello and vocals would be enough to maintain interest pretty much speaks for what this album is all about. And despite the austerity of the tune, it’s optimistic: “All at once, right on top, winking is such fun,” she intones. It’s a prime example of the kind of lyrical hide-and-seek that will take place from here out.

Sweet Mystery sets deftly orchestrated powerpop over an irresistible Motown groove enhanced by the sepulchrally soaring beauty of Thorpe and Gertler on vocal harmonies. Maile’s shifting guitars – from powerpop crunch, to to a ringing 12-string bridge, to swirly psychedelics – are pure textural ear candy. By contrast, Blue Flowers takes a seductive pastoral theme and adds shadowy intensity, rising to a majestic, roaring chorus fueled by Maile’s slide guitar. Then the band takes it up jauntily with Fly, a jazz-tinged celebration of the joy of escape. But this particular escape isn’t the usual cathartic, angst-driven kind – Jost makes you feel the wind in your hair.

The title track is a balmy backbeat country song, sort of Patsy Cline gone to the conservatory, Jost’s low, subtle come-hither vocals and metaphorically-charged water imagery hitting some soaring highs as it winds out. Kiss the Wind, with its wryly muted exhilaration, echoes both Francoise Hardy’s psychedelic folk-pop, or Gruppo Sportivo in a rare bittersweet moment – or Lianne Smith. This carnival ride follows an upward arc fueled equally by excitement and dread.

Song without End sets sensual atmospherics and more water imagery over a terse, stately pulse, with a gorgeously intertwining, psychedelic outro. Nearly Beautiful, with its elegant, elegaic, baroque-tinged countermelodies, might be the album’s best song – it’s the most intense, and the subtext kills. “It’s nearly beautiful, I’m almost overjoyed,” Jost muses, letting the crushing sarcasm speak for itself.

The album’s lone cover is a terse, almost skeletal, absolutely accusatory version of the Doris Fisher classic Whispering Grass. Jost follows that with In the Garden, which evokes early ELO (or a late-period song by the Move), stark verse contrasting with lush chorus, riffs shifting artfully between instruments. The final track, Great Conclusions makes for a beautifully majestic coda, taking the album full circle with a restless unease and an ornate, snarling, guitar-fueled chorus that stops just this short of grand guignol. All the way through, the joy the band is having with these songs is visceral: a strong contender for best album of 2013.

Another Brilliant, Disconcerting Album from Lee Feldman

Now that the world has made its way out of post-Saturnalia mode, this is as good a time as any to catch up on some of the albums that should have been covered here last year but weren’t. Case in point: Lee Feldman’s absolutely brilliant, chilling Album No. 4: Trying To Put The Things Together That Never Been Together Before. Feldman is a terrifically eclectic pianist, equally at home with Bach or jazz as with the elegant art-rock songs he’s been writing since the 90s. His animated musical Starboy is a classic, a charmingly witty piece of vintage 80s style performance art. His late-2011 collaboration with cellist Noah Hoffeld, Sacred Time, was a richly tuneful detour into traditional Jewish instrumental themes that the duo transformed into what could be termed indie classical music (or something that John Zorn would put out on Tzadik). This is a return to original songcraft, and it stands with the best Feldman has ever done, which is saying a lot. The whole thing is streaming at his Bandcamp page along with several of his other albums, going all the way back to 1996’s Living It All Wrong.

This one’s a continuation of the themes Feldman explored on his 2007 album I’ve Forgotten Everything, an understatedly haunting portrait of alienation and disorientation brought on perhaps by age, perhaps by other factors, possibly in combination. Here as well as there, Feldman writes in the voice of a naif, echoed in his clear, bright, deceptively simple vocals and melodic hooks. Where I’ve Forgotten Everything mined an austere art-rock vibe, this one’s a much more ornate, stylistically diverse chamber-pop effort with terse horn charts and a string section.

The album peaks immediately with a surreal, Middle Eastern tinged art-rock waltz spiced with Carol Lipnik’s creepy, swooping vocals. Whoooah, this ride is going way too fast, gotta stop the machine and get off! The abruptness with which the narrator puts an end to some pretty spectacular fireworks is telling, and sets the stage for the rest of the story. It is not a happy one, and in a Faulknerian sense, this tale told by an idiot capsulizes our own present danger.

The second track is a red herring and a throwaway. Feldman picks up where he left off with That’s The Way the World Used to Work, an allusive ontogeny-recapitulates-philogeny theme set to lush, woodwind-enhanced chamber pop. River, a latin-tinged bounce, downplays the lyrics’ loaded symbolism. The hippie eco-pop of Trees Are People Too could be a children’s song, a vibe that flips 180 degrees on The Magician, a wistful ballad: Pete Galub’s distantly majestic lead guitar lowlights the mantra “I’m an outsider.”

I Remember The Night captures a family meeting at a particularly serious moment, in the Twilight Zone. An elegant piano waltz, Do You Want to Dance mingles gospel piano with a lyric that descends from carefree to absolutely miserable in seconds flat. The most psychedelic of all the tracks is the ninth one (the title is absurdly long, for a reason), a blend of trip-hop, Terry Riley and Beat Crazy-era Joe Jackson that seems to chronicle fragments from what’s essentially been a wasted life.

On the lullaby that follows, the narrator explains to the infant that “when you are ready to run, it’s me you’ll be running from.” The album’s creepiest track is Empty Room, the drums (guessing that’s the Universal Thump’s Adam D Gold behind the kit) shifting around its echoey, arrythmic ambience, a portrait of isolation and defeat.  In typical Feldman fashion, that reaches a peak with the blithe madness of Hamfest: over a casually comfortable Rhodes piano groove, the narrator (lapsing in and out of outer-borough accent) announces how “I play the trumpet just like Emperor Hirohito/I try to play the books I read but I never play repeato.” The Party’s Over has the same kind of disconcerting, disassociative blitheness: “The ship is sinking and the fish are friendly, and I’ve been thinking that I don’t like fish,” the protagonist reflects. The album ends with Thanks and its characteristically simple yet crushing sadness. In just a few words and a few major chords, Feldman delivers a wallop. The star-studded band behind Feldman, besides Lipnik, Galub and Gold, includes Hoffeld on cello, Nadia Sirota on viola, Doug Wieselman on reeds, keyboardists Greta Gertler, Dan Bryk and Glenn Patscha, trombonist Clark Gayton, bassist Byron Isaacs and singer Amy Allison among others.

Epic Art-Rock Brilliance from the Universal Thump

The Universal Thump’s debut album is finally out: it’s taken the Brooklyn art-rock band two years and three installments, culminating in this lavish, magnificently orchestrated double-cd set. If this album had been released in, say, 1975 – which it could have been, considering its ornately symphonic arrangements and trippy, epic sweep – it would be regarded as a classic today. That designation may have to wait awhile, but for now you can enjoy all eighteen inscrutably beautiful songs on one of the most herculean efforts from any band in recent memory.

One of the things that differentiates the Universal Thump from, say, Pete Gabriel-era Genesis, is the vocals. Frontwoman Greta Gertler reminds of a more serioso Kate Bush and has command of a whole slew of keyboard styles: poignantly artsy Paul Wallfisch-esque rock piano, slinky sly soul, and swirly, quirky 80s synth-pop. The band’s other core member is drummer Adam D Gold, who comes across here as a more terse, nimble Nick Mason (he also plays with intriguing postminimalist instrumentalists Build, and composed a number of instrumental interludes here). Guitarists Tony Scherr and Pete Galub both contribute sweeping, anthemic, David Gilmour-influenced lines, while the bass is handled by either Groove Collective’s Jonathan Maron or Ollabelle’s Byron Isaacs. There are also choirs, a midsize orchestra, and cameos by a long parade of artists from accordionist par excellence Rachelle Garniez to the Throwing Muses’ Tanya Donnelly.

Swimming sets the stage. It’s a bouncy pop epic with a bassoon trading licks with the string section, and a long, murky psychedelic break midway through. A characteristically towering ballad, Grasshoppers juxtaposes apprehension with majestically carefree piano. After an austere, atmospheric tone poem, they bring up the energy for the sweeping Honey Beat, which wouldn’t be out of place on REM’s Reveal album from 1999, that band’s lone and very successful venture into art-rock.

To the Border (Wild Raspberries) evokes the Snow with its balmy atmospherics lit up by twinkly woodwinds,  then shifting to solemnly stately chamber pop. Opening Night is the most dramatic yet maybe the most accessible song here, a carnivalesque take on late-period ELO with a mammoth backup choir, a tuba intro and even a sly baritone guitar solo from Galub: guess that’s just the way things are meant to be with that one. Another real knockout here is Linear Messages, gorgeous and pensive with elegant orchestral swells and a dark Balkan-tinged carnival interlude fueled by Garniez’ accordion. After another brief intermezzo (contributed by John Ellis on bass clarinet), they end the first disc with The Last Time, a distantly sad, slow ballad that sounds like a young, inspired Kate Bush taking a stab at Procol Harum.

The second disc wastes no time in setting an epic tone with Darkened Sky, driven at first by Gertler’s alternately austere and searching piano, then by Scherr’s guitar, which kicks off a long, hypnotically nebulous Rick Wright-style interlude that looms in and pushes the piano and vocals to the edge of the picture. Ban Melisma starts out funny and then gets dark fast, with more ominously sustained cumulo-nimbus guitar from Scherr. They blend Pink Floyd and trip-hop with Dwell, capped off by a tersely Gilmouresque Scherr solo, then switch to a lushly bubbly, period-perfect, artsy mid-70s disco vibe for Flora, an inspiring, true story of a komodo dragon who gave birth via parthogenesis.

Likewise, Teacher takes the not-so-easy life of a conservatory student and makes a parable out of it: Galub and Gold follow each other with an irresistibly cool series of guitar cameos, with a powerfully soaring lead vocal from guest Lucy Woodward. Snowbird, the most pensively direct number here, evokes Jenifer Jackson, Maron adding an understatedly soaring bass solo before the long, ominously psychedelic trail out begins. The album closes with Only an Ocean, a throwback to the jaunty ragtime-flavored songs that Gertler had so much fun with on her previous solo album Edible Restaurant, Garniez and violinist Zach Brock adding a jaunty vaudevillian edge. Those are just two of the literally hundreds of clever twists, turns, jokes and knife’s-edge moments throughout this luscious slab of vintage art-rock with a fresh flavor. The band encourages listeners to enjoy a slice of cake with ice cream between its four “chapters,” a suggestion worth considering. Like a lot of the A-list of New York bands, the Universal Thump have a wider global following than they do here (Gertler originally hails from Australia). They’re currently on US tour; the full schedule is here. You can also catch the band playing a delightful live set streaming on demand from WFMU.

Intriguing Vintage Sounds from Mary Lorson & the Soubrettes

Pianist/chanteuse Mary Lorson has a new album, Burn Baby Burn, with her band the Soubrettes. It’s an unassumingly charming, deceptively upbeat, pensively lyrical blend of oldtime-flavored Americana, sultry torch songs and jaunty purist pop. Lorson first rose to prominence back in the 90s as the frontwoman of Madder Rose, whose raw, moody blend of trip-hop and downtempo with rock instrumentation made them a cooler alternative to bands like Tortoise. She was a decent singer in that band, and later in Saint Low; she’s an extraordinary one now. Her voice is clear, unadorned, usually gentle and matter-of-fact, a quietly powerful vehicle for her allusively brooding songs, which reveal themselves slowly, with repeated listening: don’t go into this expecting to be able to make sense of it the first time through. On this album Lorson plays piano and guitar alongside banjoist/guitarist Leah Houghtaling and bassist Amelia Sauter, with contributions from Michael Stark on piano, Joe Novelli on lapsteel and AJ Strauss on horn on a couple of tracks.

The opening track, Busboy, sets the stage for what’s to come, Stark’s hypnotically pointillistic piano mingling with the banjo for a bell-like backdrop that mutes the grimly surreal, apocalyptic lyrics, delivered by Lorson with a deadpan coyness. That contrast between starry melody and bitter resignation recurs a little later on with Only One Number Two and its offhand Satie allusions. The album’s second track, Mancub, puts an oldtimey spin on an indie rock tune, with a blithe “bump bump badump bump” chorus over Kathy Ziegler’s swirling organ and a lyric about a guy who may not realize just how bizarre his life was on his way up. The lush, soul-infused ballad Lately wouldn’t be out of place in the Aimee Mann songbook; Houghtaling does a memorable job mimicking a violin’s pizzicato with her muted touch on the banjo.

The rustic, swirly nocturne River, with its lush blend of acoustic guitar, banjo, bass and organ downplays Lorson’s downcast vibe, while the catchy, matter-of-fact pop tune Bubble of Pretend evokes Greta Gertler in an especially theatrical moment. The hypnotic title track, its resonant lapsteel contrasting with boomy bass, creates a bucolically atmospheric milieu that reminds of Hem. By contrast, the upbeat country song Crystal Ball nicks a Jenifer Jackson lick: “Are you looking at me, I’m the only one in here,” Lorson asks enigmatically.

These Police, a ballad contrasting upper-register piano with Lorson’s finely nuanced, torchily wounded vocals, looks at the consequences of exhausting yourself to please others who probably couldn’t care less. The inscrutably seductive, pulsing, cabaret-flavored Let ‘Em Eat Little Debbie Cakes asserts that “Marie Antoinette never made that crack about the poor and their petits fours for breakfast.” The album winds up with its only cover song, I Don’t Care, brassy tune punctuated by big ghostly flurries of guitar, brass and backing vocals. This was the signature song for Eva Tanguay, proto-flapper feminist, vaudeville star and contemporary of Sophie Tucker and Mae West. But rather than channeling the lyrics’ impunity, Lorson delivers it wistfully, as if she really does care and has taken a beating for that. It’s an apt way to close this thoughtful and thought-provoking album.