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Tag: jessi robertson

Smart, Cutting-Edge Tunesmithing at Manhattan’s Most Comfortable Listening Room

Much as the world of singer-songwriters has shrunk, in the wake of the death of the big record labels – call it a market correction – Manhattan still has a great listening room for solo acoustic acts and small string bands. That venue is the American Folk Art Museum, just a few steps from the uptown 1 local to 66th Street, across the triangle from Lincoln Center. Their mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series starts at 5:30 on the nose, goes to about quarter after seven and spans the world of folk music, from vintage Americana, gospel and blues to bluegrass, original songwriters and sounds from all over the world. That’s why this blog picked the museum as Manhattan’s best venue for 2016.

Jessi Robertson, with her harrowing narratives of angst and despair and her otherworldly, soul-infused wail, is the star of the show there on Friday the 29th. She’s a surprisingly funny performer for someone whose music is so dark and intense. She’s as captivating as the three best acts to play the space over the past few weeks: Joshua Garcia, Dina Regine and Anana Kaye.

Garcia held the crowd rapt throughout his brief set there last month. He has a flinty, clipped vocal delivery that’s bluesy without being cliched. He sounds like a throwback to the artists from the 1950s who influenced Dylan, but whom Dylan couldn’t quite figure out how to copy, at least vocally speaking. Along with a handful of populist anthems and nostalgic character studies, Garcia’s most riveting song was That’s the Way You Drop a Bomb. Told from the plainspoken perspective of one of the the crew of the Enola Gay, Garcia nailed every detail, right down to the pilot’s admonishment not to watch the explosion on the ground, the mushroom cloud or the firestorm afterward. Except that Garcia’s crewman had a conscience.

Dina Regine is best known as one of the pioneers of EDM, but her songwriting is vastly more interesting. On that same bill, she played solo acoustic on guitar, unselfconsciously making her way through a fearlessly populist set that made a great segue with Garcia. Shadowy vamping post-Lou Reed grit stood alongside warmly familiar retro 60s soul and doo-wop tunes, everything anchored in Regine’s background as a daughter of the Queens projects in the 1970s. She’s reputedly working on a new album which, if this set is any indication, promises to be just as eclectic and relevant as her last one.

Last week, Anana Kaye opened the night flanked by a couple of guys on rhythm and lead guitar. With her raccoon-eye makeup and circus rock outfit, she looked the part, but she transcends the theatrics of that cubculture (that’s a typo, but it works, right?). As a pianist, she really has a handle on uneasy, cinematic voicings that sometimes reach lurid, bloodcurdling depths. The best song in her tantalizingly brief set was Down the Ladder, a cruelly haunting desperation anthem. The most playful was Blueberry Fireworks, an aptly surrealistic shout-out to a gradeschool-aged friend with a vivid imagination. The more low-key material in her set reminded of Tom Waits while her upbeat, carnivalesque numbers reminded of a strummy, guitar-driven, lyrically infused Rasputina or female-fronted World Inferno. Kaye’s next gig is on Feb 15 at 8 PM at LIC Bar in Long Island City.

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Intense, Haunting Guitarist Rony Corcos Plays the Meatpacking District Tonight

Rony Corcos is the rare lead guitarist who makes every note count. She draws on classic Chicago and delta blues as much as darkly edgy songwriters like PJ Harvey. Corcos is leading her artsy, catchy power trio Rony’s Insomnia at the recently opened, sonically excellent Lively on 9th Ave. between 13th and 14th Streets tonight, May 20 at 8 PM.

Corcos’ most recent show found her doing double duty, first playing a rare solo electric set and then taking over lead duties with dark, powerful-voiced songstress Jessi Robertson at Hell Phone in Bushwick earlier this  month. After a brief set by a solid, purist acoustic delta blues guitarist, folk noir songsmith Lara Ewen channeled a simmering southern soul intensity, opening with the brooding, achingly angst-fueled soul tableau Breakdown Lane, the haunting centerpiece of her latest album The Wishing Stone Songs. The strings of her guitar rang out as she slapped them, instead of strumming, Ewen putting some grit in her typically crystalline, reflecting-pool vocals as she brought to life a Waits-ish procession of flophouse characters on their way down.

She kept the smoldering ambience going through the pensive number after that, then hit a hypnotic art-folk groove with Untethered, akin to what Aussie art-rockers the Church might have done with an acoustic number around 1985. From there she hit an uneasy trip-hop groove with Restless, an explosive kiss-off anthem that gave her a platform for some chilling flights to the upper registers. Then she took a detour toward disconsolate oldschool C&W with 20 Years, and its vivid portrait of a middleaged woman looking back in regret, telling the guy who’s hanging around her that he wouldn’t have stood a chance when she “had ‘em hanging from the chandeliers and put on quite a show.” Ewen’s funniest song of the night drew on her experiences visiting her cashier pal at an all-night supermarket in her native Queens and being regaled with stories about the ridiculous antics of the loser the poor girl was dating. Ewen closed with her big audience hit, the morbidly catchy Death Better Take Me Dancing, a good setup for the rest of an intensely excellent bill.

Corcos opened her set with an opaquely lingering, psychedelically-tinged anthem: “Are we still in control? Is there anybody in there?” she pondered, low and brooding. Playing solo on her Gibson, she did the artsy, psychdelic anthem Emerald City as a spare, hypnotic mood piece: “Cover up your scars, pretty one, I’ll give you new ones,” she murmured. She aired out a lot of new material: a ripe, bruised post-breakup ballad, an atmospheric art-rock tableau spiced with the occasional ominous chromatic, and a couple of catchy, slow-to-midtempo numbers that brought to mind PJ Harvey’s recent work. Corcos’ carefully modulated voice rose and fell amidst spiky chordlets, oldschool blues licks and rainswept, trippy washes of sound.

Robertson and Corcos’ headline set reached a white-knuckle intensity. The two opened with an insistently anthemic, hypnotic number: ?Challenge me, don’t give in easy,” Robertson intoned enigmatically. Corcos’ spare, sparkling blues lines lit up the stately, moody waltz after that, up to an angst-drenched vamp, Robertson insistig, “Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing” over and over again. Then the two went deep into the blues for an explosively fun singalong take of Lipstick, a sardonic barroom pickup scenario. Strangely enough, Robertson, with her harrowing, otherworldly, soaring voice, delivered the night’s funniest number, a wryly countyr-flavored tune with a chorus of “I hope I hurt you more than you hurt me.” Robertson is at Bowery Electric on June 9 at 8 PM for a rare free show there.

Free Music Fridays at the American Folk Art Museum: Good Times and Good Tunesmithing

One of this city’s most consistently fun weekly events is Free Music Fridays at the American Folk Art Museum at Lincoln Square, just across the street from the uptown 1 train exit at 66th Street. Even if you can’t get out of work in time to catch the 5:30 PM opening act, the show typically goes til a little after 7. The crowd is a mix of local kids, retirees, tourists and friends of the bands, and wine is available for a donation to the museum.

Lara Ewen – a modest and unselfconsciously brilliant folk noir singer and a strong tunesmith as well – books a diverse mix of mostly acoustic songwriters as well as oldtime folk, blues and Americana performers. She draws on a deep pool of New York talent, including many acts from the Jalopy scene, plus the occasional national touring artist. The natural reverb in the museum’s high-ceilinged atrium adds a cathedral-like ambience: many acts like to play here unamplified. Lately there have been shows pretty much every week, a positive development considering that the series went on a lengthy hiatus last summer to accommodate one of the museum’s many, constantly changing exhibitions. This Friday’s show is a particularly good one, with Beatlesque popsinger Jeff Litman, Clifford Westfall and Girls on Grass‘ paisley underground guitarist/frontwoman Barbara Endes, and Americana guitar genius Tom Clark.

This year has been an especially good one at the museum so far. The highight of February’s shows was Jessi Robertson, who didn’t waste any time warning the crowd that most of her songs mine pretty disturbing territory. In one number which had to with stab wounds, she revealed that her hands have an inherited tendency to get a little shaky in pubilc: not part of the skillset that makes a good slasher. In a mix of artsy but terse post-PJ Harvey acoustic rock as well as older, more opaque material, Robertson aired out her signature, throaty, otherworldly wail, channeling sheer emotional destitution, alienation and abandonment – and some good jokes. The funniest number in her set had a title along the lines of “I hope I hurt you more than you hurt me.” Robertson plays at around 9 this Saturday, April 25 at Pine Box Rock Shop, opening for her lead guitarist Rony Corcos’ excellent power trio Rony’s Insomnia.

March was a good month. Eva Salina, one of the world’s great Balkan singers, joined forces with her longtime collaborator, whirlwind Romany accordionist Peter Stan for a dynamically intense run through songs from her latest album Lema Lema: The Songs of Saban Bajrmovic. A global Romany icon, Bajrmovic was sort of a Balkan mashup of Al Green, Hank Williams and Jim Morrison. That it took an American woman – Salina is a friendly Californian with an ethnomusicology degree from UC/Santa Cruz – to bring his songs to a larger audience is pretty radical. And while she expertly voiced the difficult clusters of the Romanes language in an often heartwrenchingly nuanced, otherworldly chromatic run through songs about unrequited love, gambling and Romany pride, she told the crowd that the star of the evening would be Stan. She wasn’t kidding. With a pedal to the metal, he shredded the reeds on his deluxe model with lightning cadenzas, cascades up and down the scale and enough minor keys to drown your sorrows in a thousand times over.

Along with lustrous tunesmith Sharon Goldman – whose often harrowing, deeply personal account of coming to grips with her roots as a secular Jewish artist has been chronicled here in detail – other March artists here included Heather Eatman, Joanna Sternberg and Chris Michael. The last time this blog caught a show by Eatman…well, this blog, or any other blog for that matter, didn’t exist back in the fall of 2003 when she played the old Living Room at the corner of Stanton and Allen. She hasn’t lost a step since then; if anything, she’s even more interesting as a singer and tunesmith. She hasn’t changed her formula much: uneasy, unresolved verses building from open chords into sudden, head-on, impactfully catchy choruses. Her voice still has both the coy chirp and the moody, monsoon resonance; her lyrics add an edge and bite. Interestingly, she used this show to run through a handful of songs she’d written as a teenager back in the early 90s, which, if a little simpler, stood up against her more recent material. Eatman is at the small room at the Rockwood next month sometime.

Sternberg is a cutup and an irrepressible bon vivant. She made herself laugh as much as the audience. She’s charming and funny and unlike most adults, hasn’t lost touch with how it feels to be a kid. Her funniest number was a kids’ song directed at a stubborn little girl who doesn’t want to get in the shower. But Sternberg doesn’t talk down to kids: this one eventually revealed that the little girl is actually a little spooked by the water, and that all it took was a little sympathy to get her to pull herself together and wash up. Sternberg’s material for a drinking-age demographic was more nuanced, including a bittersweetly meta breakup song, a couple of more romping, upbeat front-porch folk originals and a detour into pensive vintage Appalachian balladry. Sternberg’s next gig is at the Jalopy Tavern (adjacent to the big main space) on April 28 at 9.

And this past Friday, Michael transcended any cheap Tom Waits comparisons, impressing with his fluency in a whole slew of southern blues, soul and gospel-inflected material. He’s a good guitarist and doesn’t fake the drawl like so many of his yankee counterparts, entertaining the crowd with a mix of upbeat numbers that occasionally brought to mind a less cynical Dan Hicks.

Murder Ballad Mondays Makes a Mean Return to Fort Greene on the 21st

A monthly residency is a sneaky way to keep your fanbase coming out without stating the obvious, that they could always blow off your show this month and catch you next time around. After all, who can keep track of when the third Thursday of the month is going to fall, other than the band playing that night?

A lot of touring artists use small New York venues as an anchor when they’re here – or as a rehearsal room, basically. Barbes is home base to many of the elite among them, most notably Big Lazy (first Friday of the month at 10) and Rachelle Garniez (first Thursday at 8). There are also a trio of good acts using Sidewalk to keep themselves sharp: guitarist Lenny Molotov’s bitingly lyrical original oldtime swing band the Fascinators (first Saturday at 8), Mac McCarty‘s careening folk noir Kidd Twist Band (first Saturday at 9) and the darkly eclectic, avant garde-inclined Lorraine Leckie (third Friday at 11, including tonight the 18th).

This blog’s favorite monthly residency is Murder Ballad Mondays at Branded Saloon. Like Paul Wallfisch‘s late, lamented Small Beast at the Delancey, it’s blogbait. Any lazy blogger can save himself or herself four or five separate nights out and catch several of the best acts in town all on the same bill on an off night that doesn’t conflict with anything. And it’s become a hit with the local Fort Greene contingent.

Last month’s was a prime example: with cold rain pelting the slush outside, torchy noir singer Ellia Bisker and her guitarslinging Charming Disaster conspirator Jeff Morris packed the place and treated folks to a deliciously lowlit, lurid evening. They used to treat the crowd to at least a short set, but lately they’ve been teasing everybody with just a song or two. This time out their contributions were a slinky version of a shadowy, swing-infused new number with some hilarious rhyme schemes as well as Murderer, Charming Disaster’s signature song of sorts, a coldly wary, subtle cautionary tale reminding that the perfect crime has no witnesses.

Jessi Robertson set the bar high right off the bat. Hauntingly resonant, deeply soul-infused vocals fused with lead guitarist Rony Corcos’ similarly lingering, bluesy lead lines and elegantly jangly phrasing. Part of Robertson’s appeal is that her big crescendos sometimes seem triumphant and celebratory when they’re actually venomous, and their first song was a prime example. They also made their way through the bristling underbrush of a folk noir number and closed with a fiery PJ Harvey cover.

Liz Tormes, this city’s leading exponent of murder ballads, brought the ambience down to a blue-flame intensity, mining the catalogs of Peter Rowan and Bill Monroe, her own calmly and murderously alluring repertoire and closed with a stark Elizabethan suicide song. Former Snow frontwoman Hilary Downes sang a calmly brooding version of the Townes Van Zant classic Pancho & Lefty. And Mudville – singer/keyboardist Marilyn Carino and brilliant bassist Ben Rubin – kept the simmeringly ominous ambience going with noir cabaret takes on the Misfits and Tom Waits as well as an even more allusively venomous original.

That’s what makes Murder Ballad Mondays so interesting – it’s taking the concept of songs about killing people far beyond the time-honored Britfolk/Appalachian tradition. The more you know about music, the more you realize just how much we have in common: no matter the culture, people around the world just love to kill each other. And then write about it. This coming Murder Ballad Monday on March 21 starts at 8 sharp and features Charming Disaster, Elisa Flynn – whose rapturously haunting voice is matched by her historically-informed, erudite tunesmithing – and others TBA who will probably be just as good.

Jessi Robertson Brings Her Otherworldly Intensity to the American Folk Art Museum

Jessi Robertson‘s voice looms out from a deep, otherworldly, often tortured place. Her singing has little in common with Nina Simone and even less with Little Jimmy Scott, but she channels the same kind of deeply personal yet unselfconscious torment and emotional destitution as both of those artists. That’s not to say that all of Robertson’s songs are sad – a handful are actually pretty funny – but that her slowly rising melismas and full-throated wail come from the same place: the blues. While Robertson isn’t a blues singer per sen, she uses blues phrasing with the same emotional wallop as any artist who grew up in that idiom. In a very auspicious move, Robertson has teamed up with fellow guitarist Rony Corcos, who has a similarly intense command of the blues, even though she ‘s also not a blues artist in the purest sense of the word. The two played their debut show together last month at Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick, and it was scary. They’re bringing that same intensity to the American Folk Art Museum for a show as part of Lara Ewen‘s fantasttic series of free afterwork concerts on February 19 starting at around 5:30 PM.

The tantalizingly brief Bushwick set featured mostly songs from Robertson’s latest album I Came from the War. They opened with a real showstopper, You’re Gonna Burn, Corcos’ lingering phrases underscoring Robertson’s ominous and eventually venomous insistence, finally rising to the top of her range for a long single note that seemed it would never stop. After that, they made Trouble a study in contrasts, enigmatically resonant verse against an anthemic chorus, Corcos’ spare, rainy-day phrases mingling with Robertson’s open chords, bringing to mind the Throwing Muses at their 80s peak.

They swung their way into a Breathe, another study in parallels: hypnotic verse, wickedly catchy, soaring chorus, contemplating “an instrument of beauty and sorrow”-  the same could have been said what both these musicians were channeling. Corcos shifted from shimmery raindroplets on that one to a wounded, deep delta blues hooks on the next: “How can I get high when you always bring me down?” Robertson intoned. Corcos went back to pointilllistic drizzle mode for the next number, a gorgeously crescendoing, bittersweet waltz, then delivered deep-space echo onYou Don’t Wany to Taste My Heart, told from the doomed viewpoint of a girl who sheds “her winter coat” at night and cuts herself. The two closed with a bitingly vamping minor-key breakup anthem. When Robertson wailed, “This is crazy, this is crazy,” the impact was visceral. It would have been interesting to see how many more people would have enjoyed it if the bar’s back room was more visible. If you think the back room at Otto’s seems forbiddingly off-limits to bar customers, you’ve never been to Pine Box Rock Shop.

Murder and Mayhem in Brooklyn, Again

One of Brooklyn’s most unique music scenes is growing in the wilds of Fort Greene, where noir chamber pop connoisseurs Charming Disaster – Ellia Bisker of the darkly catchy Sweet Soubrette and Jeff Morris of the lushly orchestrated, latin-tinged, phantasmagorical Kotorino – host a monthly salon where artists from many different genres get together to explore the darkest side of songwriting. It’s only fitting that the latest installment of Murder Ballad Mondays would take place on the darkest day of the year, this December 21 at 8 PM at Branded Saloon. Featured artists include enigmatic art-rock cellist/chanteuse Serena Jost, haunting High Plains gothic songstress Karen Dahlstrom (of folk noir stars Bobtown), the luridly theatrical, Brechtian Orphan Jane, Americana singer-songwriters Karen Poliski and Terry Radigan and others.

One explanation for the monthly extravaganza’s popularity could be that the artists here don’t limit themselves to old Appalachian folk songs or Child ballads. They’re pushing the limits of how far murder ballads can go: who knows, maybe this could become more than a demimonde. As the turnout here proves, there’s no shortage of material, not to mention people who like creepy music. This past month’s lineup, in particular, featured some of New York’s elite songsmiths, who turned in some pretty amazing performances.

Jessi Robertson, with her impassioned, otherworldly, rustic blues voice, got the night started on a strong note with a morosely stately waltz. “Should have burned it to the ground, dance in the dark…it’s a sad old story,” she intoned, low and gloomy. Then she referenced Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles over a mesh of watery, open guitar chords.

Sharply literate Americana parlor pop chanteuse Robin Aigner followed with an almost gleeful take of Delia’s Gone – springboarding off the Johnny Cash version – and then reinvented Neil Young’s Down By the River as a brooding minor-key waltz. In between, she sang a brand-new song, a swinging, catchy oldtimey strut: “I can’t shut you up, I can’t shut you out but I can shoot you and put you in the ground,” she grinned, explaining that the victim was a composite of ex-boyfriends rather than a specific individual. Yikes!

Jessie Kilguss made her US debut on harmonium (she played it on her most recent European tour) on a riveting, soaringly enveloping take of the Nick Cave version of the old standard Henry Lee. as well as making her way through a rapt, stark take of an original, Hell Creek, backed by guitarist John Kengla’s icy, late Beatlesque chorus-pedal guitar. Guitarist Arthur Schupach led his Donald & Lydia duo project through another take of Henry Lee, this one based on the Jolie Holland version. Speaking of which, that’s who Ellis Dodi frontwoman Erica Diloreto brought to mind, throughout a mix of material including a hilarious acoustic punk tune where she dropped a whole slew of f-bombs on a clueless ex.

Juliet Strong played kinetic, rippling gospel and ragtime-fueled piano on a couple of originals, while Charming Disaster tantalized the crowd with a single tongue-in-cheek number about a couple of ghosts in love, pulsing with intricate, sophisticated vocal call-and-response between Bisker and Morris. And a familiar bass face from the Lower East Side scene took a haphazard turn on piano, drawing some chuckles with a bitter 6/8 ballad about killing the tech-obsessed, micromanaging boss from hell. A ghoulabilly number about doing in the sleazy front guy from a hydrofracking operation didn’t go over as well. And a cover of a brand-new, as-yet-untitled Karla Rose & the Thorns serial killer narrative – done as a dirgey bolero with horror-film chromatics – capsulized the danger of a guy with Lou Reed vocal range plundering the repertoire of an immensely more powerful singer. Which speaks to Murder Ballad Mondays’ value as lab for experimentation as much as entertainment.

A Killer Murder Ballad Monday Coming Up in Brooklyn

What’s the likelihood of seeing two bands as brilliantly creepy as Bobtown and Charming Disaster on the same bill? And one of New York’s great lead guitarists, and one of the most distinctive banjo players on the planet, and a rising star in the cello-rock demimonde? It happened at the second installment of the new, monthly Murder Ballad Mondays series at Branded Saloon. It’s a salon held in a saloon – rather than an open mic, it’s a place for eclectic artists to prowl around in the darkest corners of the human psyche, pay homage to psychopathic urges in song from across the centuries, and work up new material in that hallowed tradition.

Charming Disaster – guitarist Jeff Morris from the estimable, phantasmagorical  latin noir/art-rock band Kotorino and Ellia Bisker from the similarly-inclined Sweet Soubrette and Funkrust Brass Band – run the show here, and treated the crowd to an all-too-brief, barely half-hour set of menacingly harmony-driven songs that veered from chamber pop to noir cabaret to circus rock. It was the one point in a deviously fun night of music where the songs deviated from the topic of killing to simply chronicling the intricacies of all sorts of troubled relationships, some mythical, some set in the here and now. Morris played with just a touch of distortion on his old hollowbody Gibson as Bisker wound through graceful lead lines on her electric ukulele.

Bobtown – one of the best loved and most menacing bands in folk noir – opened the show, percussionist/keyboardist Katherine Etzel, singer Jen McDearman, guitarist Karen Dahlstrom, bassist Fred Stesney and lead guitarist/banjo player Alan Lee Backer treating the crowd to some unexpected but typically ominous new material, the sparkling harmonies of the women in the band flying overhead. Backer then took a detour into his own vintage-style Americana and C&W, followed by folk singers Sarah Durning and then Karen Poliski parsing the classics with some murderous numbers from the repertoire of Gillian Welch and others.

The  most original of all the covers was a mind-warping take of Helter Skelter, played solo on banjo by Andrew Vladeck of jangly, Americana-inflected anthem band Fireships. Badass, eclectic cello-rock firestarter Patricia Santos (also of Kotorino) went deep into rustic blues/gospel mode with a new one of her own as well as another Gillian Welch tune. Comic relief was provided by Erica Smith‘s bass player taking a rare turn on piano. He’d written a song on the way to the show – a politically-inspired ghoulabilly tune – but couldn’t read the lyrics he’d scribbled moments before on the D train. Backer’s penlight came to the rescue.

This coming Monday’s installment, starting at 8 PM, features an even more auspicious lineup: powerful, soul-infused dark acoustic songwriter Jessi Robertson; brilliant Americana/janglerock tunesmith and harmonium player Jessie Kilguss; the similarly intense, historically-fixated Robin Aigner; songwriter Arthur Schupbach’s John Prine-inspired Donald & Lydia duo project; parlor pop songwriter Juliet Strong and more.

And Charming Disaster have a gig on Saturday night, November 14 at 8 at the Slipper Room; cover is $15.

 

Revisiting and Looking Ahead to a Bunch of Great Acoustic Shows

Karen Dalhstrom is one of the four first-rate songwriters in Bobtown, who with their unearthly four-part harmonies and creepy tunesmithing are arguably the most distinctive noir Americana band on the planet. They’re playing the album release show for their long-awaited new album, A History of Ghosts on the big stage downstairs at Hill Country at 9:30 PM on Jan 14. Not to take anything away from her work with that band, but Dahlstrom is also a solo artist, with a killer album of her own, Gem State, a collection of songs set in frontier-era Idaho and written in a period-perfect oldtime vernacular. It was good to be able to catch one of her infrequent solo shows awhile back at the American Folk Art Museum across the Broadway/Columbus triangle up by Lincoln Center.

Taking advantage of the space’s natural reverb, Dahlstrom aired out several of the songs from that album, including a goosebump-inducing a-cappella version of Streets of Pocatello, a menacing, hardscrabble hobo’s tale. Miner’s Bride, an even more doomed narrative told by a mail-order bride sent off to an uncertain fate on the high plains, was every bit as haunting. But the high point of the show – and one most spine-tingling moments at any concert in town last year – was her version of Galena. The Idaho city takes its name from a woman, maybe a Russian or Polish immigrant, mother or wife to one of the men who flocked there during the Gold Rush. Over a sad, elegantly waltzing tune, Dahlstrom brought the sudden rise and equally sudden decline of this boomtown to life, aptly personifed as a woman, who ends up “A penny curiosity, old bones in a pinewood vale,” Dahlstrom’s elegaic alto rising just a little from almost a whisper, to low and mournful.

Lara Ewen, the crystalline-voiced Americana songstress who hosts the pretty-much-weekly free Friday evening afterwork acoustic shows at the Folk Art Museum, told the crowd that this show was roughly the fourth time she’d booked Dahlstrom for a gig there: if that’s not instant cred, nothing is. As you would expect, there have been plenty of other excellent shows there in recent months. Sweet Soubrette, the more pop-oriented project of singer/ukulele player Ellia Bisker (who has a murderously good new album with the creepy Charming Disaster, her duo with Kotorino‘s Jeff Morris, due out shortly) swung through to play a stripped-down trio set. The highlight of that one was the eerily glimmering Burning City, an evocation of the bombing and subsequent firestorms in WWII Berlin.

Greg Cornell of the Cornell Brothers played a fascinating duo set there. What an interesting, and original, and excellent guitarist this guy is. Few other players rely on the low strings as much, and as imaginatively, and tunefully, as this guy does. His style is somewhere between bluegrass flatpicking and janglerock, and it’s completely his own. It helps that his songs are as anthemic and catchy as they are.

Another individualistic act, folk noir duo Mark Rogers and Mary Byrne – whose debut album I Line My Days Along Your Weight has been burning up the internet lately – got the call to pinch-hit for an act who’d cancelled, and hit one out of the park with their hypnotically moody, allusively lyrical songs. Byrne switched between guitar and a vintage mandolin, singing with a wary, carefully modulated, wounded delivery as Rogers nonchalantly aired out a deep and equally considered mix of classic blues, folk and bluegrass licks that merged seamlessly into Byrne’s somber, crepuscular narratives.

There seem to be two Caitlin Bells playing music in New York these days; purist oldtime Americana singer Caitlin Marie Bell is the talented one. She shares a pensive, rustic quality with Rogers and Byrne, mining the classic folk repertoire from the 1800s for her all-too-brief solo acoustic set there. Her high, resonant vocals soared over her nimble guitar fingerpicking as she made her way through warmly bucolic, Appalachian flavored front porch material along with a couple of darker, more incisive, blues-infused numbers.

Another purist folk musician from a completely different idiom, Pete Rushefsky played a rapturous, often exhilarating, glistening set there a few weeks later. His axe is the tsimbl, the pointillistically rippling, otherworldly Ukraininan Jewish hammered dulcimer that’s the forerunner of the Hungarian cimbalom and the western European zither. The first part of his set featured him leading a trio with two violins leaping and dancing against the tsimbl’s lush undercurrent; the second featured his wife doubling on flute and vocals, delivering several obscure treats from the Ukraininan folk tradition. What’s especially interesting about Rushefsky’s songbook is that much of it sounds completely different fom the boisterous, carnivalesque Romany-flavored klezmer music from points further west: this was both more somber and lustrous.

Where Rushefsky worked a pensive, hypnotic ambience, Sharon Goldman was her usual direct self: the acoustic rock tunesmith can say more in a few words than most people can in a whole album. She can also be drop-dead funny, although this time out her set was more about painting pictures, whether an unexpectedly triumphant late summer Park Slope scenario, or the ominous foreshadowing of the morning of 9/11…or a coy couple competing over a pint of ice cream. Goldman bought them to life with catchy chord changes on the guitar and her richly modulated, subtly nuanced vocals.

And Ewen booked a pretty perfect choice for Halloween: Jessi Robertson. She’s got an unearthly wail to rival anyone, and this time out had made herself up as a bloody corpse or accident victim or something similarly gruesome. So when she cut loose with “You’re gonna burn, my love,” on the chorus of the first song on her excellent new album, it worked on every conceivable level. And after she’d done a few similarly harrowing numbers, going off-mic and singing without any amplification, she did a cruelly funny country song with a title something along the lines of I Hope I Hurt You As Much As You Hurt Me.

Goldman, like so many others in the vanguard of acoustic music, likes house concerts: her next one is in Jersey City on Jan 25 at 8 PM, email for info. Sweet Soubrette are at Freddy’s on Jan 22. And the American Folk Art Museum’s free, 5:30 PM Friday concert series resumes on Jan 9 with first-class, politically-fueled lyricist and anthemic folk-rock songwriter Niall Connolly headlining at around half past six.

The 100 Best Songs of 2014

If you count youtube clips, how many songs were “released” in 2014? Five million? Ten million? Considering the vast amount of material that’s out there, you can’t consider this page to be gospel any more than you can any other blog’s best-of-2014 list.

But it is a seriously good playlist. At first it seemed like a good idea to simply pull all of these songs into a Spotify playlist and call it a night, but that didn’t work since a lot – perhaps the majority – of the artists here aren’t on Spotify. But you can follow the links on this page and hear every song except for one mystery track which is one of the best of them all. Bookmark this page and enjoy!

As was the case last year with Matthew Grimm’s West Allis, one song stood apart from the pack this year as far as sheer visceral impact is concerned and that’s The Great Escape by artsy New York Americana band the Sometime Boys. Kurt Leege’s guitar provides an elegant, elegaic intro for frontwoman/guitarist Sarah Mucho’s carefully modulated, wounded, brittle vocals, which rise to a full gospel wail as the song hits a peak. It’s a bitter reflection on the lure of victory and the harsh reality of defeat, from the perspective of someone gazing into the night from a window in lower Manhattan. If you’ve ever faded away into yourself, scowling out at the glimmer in the distance and wishing you were there and not slaving away at some stupid dayjob – or contemplating suicide – this could be your theme song. It’s from the band’s album Riverbed, streaming here.

As with this year’s Best Albums of 2014 and Best NYC Concerts of 2014 pages, there’s no ranking here other than the #1 song of the year. For the sake of fairness, songs are listed in rough chronological order by the date they first got some attention at this blog, irrespective of release date. Which means that the last songs on the list aren’t the ass end of the list: they just made their first appearance here in December. To be clear: Karla Moheno’s mysterious Time Well Spent, which leads the rest of the pack here, is a lot different than Jennifer Niceley’s uneasily balmy Land I Love, the last song here. But they’re both worth a spin. Here we go!

Karla Moheno – Time Well Spent
A slinky, cruel noir blues dirge about deceit and revenge. Moheno’s genius is that her narratives are allusive; you have to brave the shadows to figure out what’s going on and who’s being killed. If the Sometime Boys hadn’t put out an album this year, this song, from her album Gone to Town, would occupy the top spot. Listen here.

Jessie Kilguss – Red Moon
The folk noir bandleader’s brooding, Spanish Civil War-inspired tableau could also be a present-day account of freedom fighters on the run from just about any gestapo – the NSA, Mossad or ISIS. It’s all the more powerful for Kilguss’ portrayal of the political as personal. From the album Devastate Me. Spotify link

Ward White – Bikini
This swaying, snarling art-rock narrative isn’t about beachwear: it’s a cruelly sardonic narrative set on a now-uninhabitable South Pacific atoll right after an atom bomb was set off there, gently ominous guitar multitracks subtly going awry over keyboardist Joe McGinty’s pillowy mellotron. From the album Ward White Is the Matador. Listen here

Marianne Dissard – Am Lezten
A portrait of total emotional depletion so vividly detailed it’s scary. And you don’t need to speak French to understand it – although that makes it all the more poignant. From her gorgeously orchestrated art-rock album The Cat. Not Me. Listen here

The Wytches – Gravedweller
Don’t let this song’s apparent references to zombies – which could simply be metaphorical – scare you away. Drenched in toxic reverb, this is a morbid, Middle Eastern-tinged horror surf number, and it’s genuinely evil. From the album Annabel Dream Reader. Listen here, free download

Willie Watson – Rock Salt & Nails
One of the year’s biggest buzz songs. Everybody covered this morose old murder ballad from the 1800s, nobody more starkly or hauntingly than the former Old Crow Medicine Show guitarist. It’s a version worthy of Hank Williams, no joke. From the album Folk Singer Vol. 1. Listen here

Ember Schrag – William for the Witches
At her Trans-Pecos show in October, the gothic Americana bandleader dedicated her careening Macbeth-inspired anthem to “all the Republicans back home,” ramping up the menace several notches with her litany of spells as guitarist Bob Bannister veered from monster surf, to ominous jangle, to a little skronk,  captured here on this video.

LJ Murphy – Fearful Town
At the Parkside back in May, noir rocker Murphy’s show was a going-away party of sorts for pianist Patrick McLellan, who took out his angst on the piano keys, gently and elegantly exchanging creepy, lingering noir tonalities with guitarist Tommy Hoscheid as Murphy drew a morosely surreal portrait of a DiBloomberg era East Village of tourist traps and the grotesqueries who congregate there. This youtube clip is the studio version.

Benmont Tench – You Should Be So Lucky
Tom Petty’s organist released his debut album this year and this is the title track, as viciously brilliant a kiss-off anthem as anyone’s ever written, set to tersely murderous, bluesy Laurel Canyon psychedelia. Watch the video 

Big Lazy – Human Sacrifice
The cult favorite NYC noir soundtrack trio makes horror surf out of a flamenco theme, with its savage clusters and sudden dips and swells, and allusions to a famous Duke Ellington tune (via the Ventures). From the album Don’t Cross Myrtle, rated #1 for 2014. Listen here

Gord Downie & the Sadies – Budget Shoes
An ominously reverb-drenched southwestern gothic tale fueled by Mike Belitsky’s artfully tumbling, Keith Moon drums. Singer and longtime Tragically Hip frontman Downie traces the steps of a couple of desperados “walking through the valley of ghosts,” one with his eyes on the other’s superior footgear. From their album Gord Downie, the Sadies & the Conquering Sun. Listen here

Ernest Troost – Old Screen Door
A wailing, electrifying murder ballad. Troost succeeds with this one since the only images he lets you see are incidental to what was obviously a grisly crime, “lightning bugs floating through a haze of gasoline” and so forth. A teens update to the Walkabouts’ vengeful anthem Firetrap, from the album O Love. Listen here

Changing Modes – Ride
The band keeps the menacing chromatics going over a brisk new wave pulse, frontwoman/keyboardist Wendy Griffiths’ venomous lyric driven to a crescendo by a snarling Yuzuru Sadashige guitar solo. From the New York art-rockers’ album The Paradox of Traveling Light. Listen here

HUMANWINE – Our Devolution Is Televised
Tthe closest thing to the Dead Kennedys that we have these days: macabre chromatic Romany punk rock set in an Orwellian nightmare that very closely resembles today’s world. The recurrent mantra is “Can’t you feel the lockdown?” From the ep Mass Exodus. Listen here, free download

The Brooklyn What – Too Much Worry
Almost nine minutes of white-knuckle intensity, relentless angst and psychedelic guitar fury. A serpentine homage to early Joy Division, there’s an interlude where it evokes a tighter take on that band doing the Velvets’ Sister Ray, then a long, volcanic guitar duel worthy of the Dream Syndicate. From the year’s best short album, Minor Problems. Listen here

Briana Layon & the Boys – Cut My Man
The dark metal/powerpop rockers open the song with an icy, watery guitar lead over a sketchy, muted riff, frontwoman Layon joining in the ominous ambience and then rising toward murderous rage, airing out her wounded low range and in the process channeling the Sometime Boys‘ Sarah Mucho. They take it out as a waltzing danse macabre. From their album Touch & Go. Listen here

Cheetah Chrome – Stare into the Night
It’s the closest thing to the Dead Boys (right around the time of their mid-80s comeback) on that band’s iconic lead guitarist’s new album, Solo, most of its searing tracks recorded almost twenty years ago and seeing the light just now. It’s about time. Spotify link

The Annie Ford Band – Buick 1966
A cinematic, noir mini-epic that shifts from a creepy bolero to a waltz to scampering bluegrass and then back, fueled by Tim Sargent’s knee-buckling, Marc Ribot-like reverb guitar lines. From Ford’s debut album. Listen here

Golem – Vodka Is Poison
Over a rampaging circus punk stomp, bandleaders Annette Ezekiel Kogan and Aaron Diskin trade verses about why it either “Makes you round, makes you soft, makes it hard to get aloft,” or “Makes you happy, makes you free, makes you wish that you were me!” From the album Tanz. Spotify link 

The Fleshtones – Hipster Heaven
A hellish, Chuck Berry-flavored chronicle of the band’s old New York neighborhoods being swallowed by hordes of narcissistic gentrifiers fresh out of college but acting like kindergarteners. From their album Wheel of Talent. Watch the video

Guess & Check – Some DJs
An aptly downcast janglepop tale that will resonate with anybody who’s walked into a party all psyched and then realizes in a split second that it’s really going to suck. In other words, that it’s full of trendoids who are all a-twitter since some DJ just plugged his phone into the PA system! From their album Entanglement. Listen here

Orphan Jane – Lost Mind
A menacingly theatrical circus rock tune that builds from a sarcastically whiny, vaudevillian verse to an explosive choir of voices on the chorus. From their album A Poke in the Eye. Listen here

Mitra Sumara – mystery song
Mitra Sumara are one of New York’s most fascinating bands. Singer Yvette Perez’s group plays obscure psychedelic rock and funk covers from Iran in the 1960s and 70s. This particular number was the highlight of this year’s annual Alwan-a-Thon, a celebration of sounds from across the Middle East held at downtown music mecca Alwan for the Arts. But nobody seems to know what the song is called. It sounds like Procol Harum but more upbeat, with some seriously evil funeral organ. If anybody knows the title, please pass it on! It was the third song on the setlist that night.

The Reigning Monarchs – Thuggery
Sort of a Peter Gunne Theme for the teens, an intense, explosive monster surf instrumental with a slashing, off-the-rails guitar solo midway through. From the album Black Sweater Massacre. Listen here

Curtis Eller – The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon
A riverbed grave, a Cadillac stalled out on the tracks and Henry Kissinger shaking it all night long serve as the backdrop for this snarling parable of post-9/11 multinational fascism. From the historically-inspired Americana cult favorite banjo player’s album How to Make It in Hollywood. Listen here

The Jitterbug Vipers – Stuff It
A co-write with Elizabeth McQueen from Asleep at the Wheel, this sassy oldtimey swing tune by the Texas stoner swing band has the sardonic wit of a classic, dismissive Mae West insult song. From the album Phoebe’s Dream. Listen here

Della Mae – Heaven’s Gate
A bitter, ghostly newgrass tale that begins with the fiddle mimicking the ominous low resonance of a steel guitar, then eventually goes doublespeed. Is this about a suicide, a murder, or both? Either way, it’s a great story. From the album This World Oft Can Be. Watch the video (WARNING – you have to mute the audio ad before the whole album streams)

Bad Buka – Through the Night
A big, blazing, full-on orchestrated minor-key Romany art-rock epic, the title track from this searing, theatrical Slavic art-punk band’s new album. Listen here

The Devil Makes Three – Hand Back Down
The wild punkgrass crew take an unexpected detour into surrealist stoner swamp rock with a cynical antiwar edge, from their album I’m a Stranger Here. This video is a live take.

Marissa Nadler – Firecrackers
A menacingly opiated, reverb-drenched, mostly acoustic Nashville gothic ballad, painting a booze-fueled Fourth of July scenario that does not end well. From the folk noir icon’s album July. Listen here

Aram Bajakian – Rent Party
This instrumental by the former Lou Reed lead guitar genius kicks off with a bouncy funk riff into a minor-key tune that’s part newschool Romany rock, surf music and Otis Rush blues – then the band hits a long, surreal, muddy interlude reminiscent of 80s noiserock legends Live Skull as Shahzad Ismaily’s bass growls to the surface. From the album There Were Flowers Also in Hell. Listen here

The Delta Saints – Crazy
The centerpiece of the Americana jamband’s Drink It Slow ep is a nine-minute epic that works a slow, slinky noir blues groove with all kinds of up-and-down dynamics, a precise, angst-fueled guitar solo and every keyboard texture in this band’s arsenal. Listen here

Rosanne Cash – World of Strange Design
An harrowing Appalachian gothic tale that could be about a returning soldier’s family falling apart, or maybe just metaphorical, about a guy who “Set off the minefield like you were rounding first.” From the album The River & the Thread. Watch the video

Laura Cantrell – Washday Blues
This era’s most poignant, compelling voice in classic country music at her aphoristic best, cleaning up a lifetime’s worth of disappointed metaphors against a backdrop of steel guitar and mandolin. From the new album No Way There from Here. Spotify link

The New Mendicants – High on the Skyline
An enigmatically alienated folk-rock anthem that’s equal parts Strawbs Britfolk and lushly clangy, twanging Byrds from this psychedelic pop supergroup. “I’ll show you how deadly close faraway can be,” Teenage Fanclub frontman Norman Blake intones in his stately delivery. From their album Into the Lime. This live acoustic take isn’t the album version but it’s still really good.

Ihtimanska – Hicaz Hümayun Saz Semaisi
The most gripping and most distinctively Middle Eastern of all the tracks on the Montreal Turkish traditional music duo’s debut album. Listen here

Siach HaSadeh – Kuni Roni/Maggid’s Niggun
A darkly dancing North African-tinged diptych: the oud’s ironically triumphant run down into the abyss midway through might be the high point of the improvisational klezmer band’s album Song of the Grasses. Listen here

Son of Skooshny – Untold History.
This intense, richly arranged, artsy janglerock anthem traces an uneasy early atomic age childhood with an offhanded savagery: with Steve Refling’s keening slide guitar, it’s the hardest-rocking and most overtly angry song on the new album Mid Century Modern. Listen here

New Electric Ride – Marquis de Sade
This trippy vintage 60s psych tune casts the old philosopher as a stoner, from a funky Cream intro, through a little early Santana and then a galloping proto-metal interlude fueled by Craig Oxberry’s artful drums before some very funny vocals kick in. From the album Balloon Age. Listen here

Tammy Faye Starlite – Sister Morphine
A showstopper by the irrepressible chanteuse who’s carved herself out a niche for sardonic but spot-on reinventions of songs by brilliant and difficult people: Nico, Iggy, and others. She slayed with this one live at her Marianne Faithfull tribute/parody at Lincoln Center back in March. Watch the video

Isle of Klezbos – Noiresque
Shoko Nagai dazzles with her glimmering, darkly neoromantic and blues-tinged piano on this bracing latin- and Middle Eastern-tinted theme, shifting seamlessly between waltz time and a swing jazz groove. From the album Live from Brooklyn. Listen here

Jenifer Jackson – All Around
This flinty anthemic backbeat rock tune builds a mood of quiet apprehension via a wintry seaside tableau – it wouldn’t be out of place in the Steve Wynn catalog. From the stunningly eclectic Austin songwriter’s album Texas Sunrise. Listen here 

The Baseball Project – 13
Arguably the best song on the new album, 3rd – frontman Steve Wynn takes unsparing aim at at the A-Roid scandal over a corrosively sarcastic spaghetti western backdrop. Watch the video

John Zorn’s Abraxas – Metapsychomagia
Guitarists Aram Bajakian and Eyal Maoz and bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz juxtapose puckish wit with flickering menace, building from an uneasy bolero groove to a staggered Middle Eastern monster surf stomp, both guitarists ranging from lingering and twangy to frenetic and crazed, epic art-rock infused with swirling noise. Title track from the new album. Watch the video

Martin Bisi – Invite to Heaven Hell
One of the most deliciously tuneful things the dark art-rocker has ever done, building a stygian spacerock ambience, like the Chuch or the Byrds at their most psychedelic, with hints of peak-era Sonic Youth peeking through the pulsing guitars, with disembodied vocals, soaring trumpet and a dead-girl chorus in the background. From the album Ex Nihilo. Listen here

Ichka – Glaziers Hora
This Alicia Svigals tune is a showcase for soaring solos from everyone in this fiery klezmer band, over a misterioso staccato rhythm. From their album Podorozh. Listen here

Jaro Milko & the Cubalkanics – Herido
A mix of Del Shannon noir with a creepy bolero: it’s arguably the strongest track on the psychedelic cumbia band’s creepily slinky new album Cigarros Explosivos. Listen here 

Holly Golightly & the Brokeoffs – For All that Ails You
With its mournful train-whistle guitar and stalking, noir blues sway, it’s uncommonly dark for even this creepy gutter blues/noir Americana band. From the album It’s Her Fault. Watch the video

The Mystic Braves – There’s a Pain
A briskly scampering noir blues recast as period-perfect 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelia, from the album Desert Island. Listen here

Barbez – Mizmor Leasaf
Italian poet Alfonso Gatto’s bitter wartime elegy, Anniversary, recast as an eerily reverberating, dirgelike noir soundtrack piece from the album Bella Ciao, which explores haunting Italian Jewish themes. Watch the video

Spottiswoode – Butterfly
With its anxiously fluttery, tremoloing intro, swooping clarinet and elegant electric harpsichord, it’s a characteristically moody, richly orchestrated chamber pop anthem. From the album English Dream. Listen here

Action Beat & G.W. Sok – Sentence Machine
A noisier take on what Joy Division did with Atrocity Exhibition, seemingly a Kafkaesque account of a tortuous execution machine, set to a choir of sawing, stabbing, frantically pinwheeling guitars. From the ex-Ex frontman and British noiserock band’s collaborative album A Remarkable Machine. Spotify link

Karikatura – Eyes Wide
A bracing latin reggae tune and the title track to the band’s new album, frontman Ryan Acquaotta chronicling what happens when the real estate mob decides to take over a sketchy part of town: “With the luxury developments they’re packing in, propaganda that the neighborhood is back again, watch whoever is moving in after, blowing their cover.” And then the displacement of the people who call it home begins. Listen here

The Skull Practitioners – Another Sicko
An out-of-focus vocal from guest Tom Derwent, long drones, allusions to funk, twisted bent-note mental asylum screams from Steve Wynn lead player and frontman Jason Victor going on for what seems minutes and an ending that the band finally allows to completely disintegrate. From the New York noiserockers’ ep ST1 – also available on cassette. Listen here

Zvuloon Dub System – Alemitu
An ominously organ-fueled minor-key instrumental that blends otherworldly Ethiopiques into a moody Israeli roots reggae groove. From their album Anbesa Dub. Listen here

The Last Internationale – We Will Reign
The fearless, politically-fueled Bronx rockers slayed with this snarling, defiant, Patti Smith-style anthem at the Mercury back in June, the title track from their new album. Watch the video

Hannah Thiem – Phavet
If you listen very closely, you’ll realize that the cinematic, intense violinist/composer’s slinky electroacoustic mood piece is a one-chord jam, as it shifts from an echoing, dancing, hypnotically bracing theme to a thicket of overdubs where Thiem becomes a one-woman string sextet.. From the ep Brym. Listen here

Amanda Thorpe – Willow in the Wind
With its haunting, subdued anguish, the intense Britfolk/art-rock chanteuse’s noir tropicalia version of Tin Pan Alley wordsmith Yip Harburg’s song surpasses any other take on it, fueled by drummer Robert di Pietro’s ominous tom-toms and misterioso cymbal work. From the album Bewitching Me. Spotify link 

Nick Waterhouse – Sleeping Pills
With echoey Rod Argent electric piano and baritone saxophonist Paula Henderson’s smoky lines, this was the most lurid song of the night at the LA psychedelic soul music maven’s show in Greenpoint back in June. From the album Holly. Watch the video

Puss N Boots – GTO
The darkest and arguably best song on the album No Fools, No Fun, a detour toward Eilen Jewell-tinged ghoulabilly by the the Americana super-trio of Norah Jones, guitarist/singer Sasha Dobson and bassist Catherine Popper. Watch the video

People – Supersensible Hydrofracked Dystopia
Fiery jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson, irrepressible drummer Kevin Shea (of NYC’s funnest jazz group, Mostly Other People Do the Killing) and bassist Kyle Forester (from Crystal Stilts) toss off this barely minute-long but cruelly spot-on punk jazz miniature from the album 3xaWoman. Watch the video

Coppins – Great Day for Living
A sarcastic dystopic pre-apocalyptic narrative set to a reggae-tinged groove from the eclectic, funky, rootsy Toronto band known for their bagpipe funk. From the album The Prince That Nobody Knows. Listen here 

Marah – The Old Riverman’s Regret
A sad, vividly resigned oldtimey folk waltz, looking back nostalgically on 19th century commercial river rafting. From the album Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, a mightily successful detour into Americana by the highway rock band. Listen here

Carsie Blanton – Don’t Come Too Soon
Sly, innuendo-fueled oldtime hokum blues from the torchy New Orleans chanteuse. Listen here, free download

Millsted – Televangelist
Over an uneasy, hammering pulse, the New York punk/metal band work murderously direct East Bay Ray-style horror-surf riffage that spirals out in acidic sheets of reverb, hits a misterioso interlude and then rises again. From the album Harlem. Listen here

The Butcher Knives – Could Be the End
The New York Romany/latin rockers’ slinky shuffle kicks off by nicking the intro from Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives and morphs into steady brisk spaghetti western rock, with a cool, offcenter Ethan Cohen banjo solo out. From their album Misery. Listen here 

The Bakersfield Breakers – Longing
A sad, spiky mix of honkytonk, incisive blues and Britfolk licks and moody ranchera rock via guitarist Keith Yaun’s virtuoso multitracks. From the album In the Studio with the Bakersfield Breakers. Listen here

The Jones Family Singers – Bones in the Valley
A funky update on an ancient, eerie spiritual livened with a combination of graveyard imagery and a message that’s ultimately hopeful, a launching pad for some impassioned call-and response. From the Houston gospel-soul band’s album The Spirit Speaks. Listen here

The Old Crow Medicine Show – Dearly Departed Friend
As much as the bluegrass road warriors are best known for explosive party music, this is a somber graveside requiem for an Iraq War casualty, with a creepy, spot-on redneck surrealism. From their album Remedy. Listen here

Andrew Bird – So Much Wine Merry Christmas
The funniest of the Handsome Family covers on Bird’s tribute to the iconic Americana surrealist duo, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of. One brilliantly twisted, literate Americana songwriter deserves another. Listen here

The Grisly Hand – Western Avenue
A ringer here, the title track from the Kansas City band’s 2012 debut, sounding like the Jayhawks circa Sound of Lies backing Neko Case. Yeah, that good. Their new album Country Singles is pretty damn good too. Listen here

Edward Rogers – What Happened to the News
Fueled by Byrdsy twelve-string guitar, it’s a snide swipe at how the media-industrial complex distracts us from what’s really going on. Fron the Britrock maven’s Kevin Ayers-inspired new album Kaye. Watch the video

Bombay Rickey – Pilgrim
Frontwoman Kamala Sankaram’s wickedly precise, loopy accordion winds through a misterioso, lingering, surfy stroll with ominous bass and alto sax solos, the latter building to a spine-tingling coda. From the psychedelic Bollywood-inspired band’s album Cinefonia, the year’s best debut release. Listen here

Sharon Jones – Retreat
The brooding, practically exhausted version that this era’s definitive soul-funk singer delivered out back of the World Financial Center back in June was considerably more ominous and menacing than the version on the record. From the album Give The People What They Want. Listen here

The Immigrant Union – Anyway
The epic title track from the lush Australian psych-pop janglerockers’ latest album has plaintive harmonies and a slow psych-pop sway much in the same vein as the Allah-Las. Listen here

Debby Schwartz – Hills of Violent Green
A lushly luscious folk noir anthem and a showcase for some literally breathtaking, swooping upper-register vocals by the former Aquanettas frontwoman (and current Ember Schrag bassist). Fron the Satan You Brought Me Down ep. Listen here 

Wormburner – Drinks At the Plaza Hotel
Fiery Stiff Little Fingers style punk-pop, a couple of smalltime scam artists trading faux-sophisticated banter and having a great time seeing how much they can get over on the snobs. From the album Pleasant Living in Planned Communities. Listen here

Banda Magda – Trata
A gorgeously swaying Middle Eastern-tinged Greek party tune with rippling hammered dulcimer, cheery brass and animated guy/girl vocals that builds to a towerine, majestic peak. Frmo the pan-global New York art-rock/jazz/Middle Eastern band’s album Yerakina. Listen here

Alsarah & the Nubatones – Bilad Aldahb
A bristling, broodingly expansive oud solo by the late, great Haig Magnoukian leads into a dusky lament lowlit by Rami El Asser’s stately frame drum work. From the New York Nubian funk revivalists/reinventors’ album Silt. Listen here

Mary Lee Kortes – Big Things
An irrepressibly jaunty hi-de-ho swing tune: the intense, soaring Americana tunesmith/singer slayed with this at the Rockwood a couple of months ago. From the album Songs from the Beulah Rowley Songbook ep – and possibly appearing on her forthcoming, long-awaited Songs of Beulah Rowley album, a thematic collection centered around a tragic, talented 1930s/40s cult favorite songwriter. Listen here

Mark Rogers & Mary Byrne – Green Gold Violet
A starkly vivid, hypnotic, wounded late-afternoon folk noir tableau, Rogers’ luminous dobro paired against Byrne’s tensely fingerpicked stroll. From the album I Line My Days Along Your Weight. Listen here

Matt Ulery – The Farm
The lively flair of this harmony-driven, climactic chamber pop number understates its corrosive portrayal of rural hell. From the eclectic, cinematic bassist/composer’s album In the Ivory. Listen here

The Larch – Mr. Winters
The jangliest track on the ferociously lyrical New York psychedelic new wave rockers’ new album In Transit is a metaphorical, nonchalantly ominous sort of a mashup of Squeeze and powerpop legends Skooshny. Listen here

Lachan Bryan & the Wildes – The CEO Must Die
A brutally insightful look at the psychology of going postal from the Australian Americana songwriter/bandleader’s purist, impeccably crafted album Black Coffee. Listen here

The OBNIIIs – No Time for the Blues
The closest thing to Radio Birdman that we have right now, lead guitarist Tom Triplett ripping through volleys of chromatic. Surprisingly, the studio version on the Third Time to Harm album is even more volcanic t han the live version on their Live in San Francisco album. Listen here

Jay Brown – Fox News (Jesus Save Me).
Snidely hilarious faux gospel from the Americana songwriter. Anybody who watches that channel should be tied to a chair and forced to listen to this on loop. LMFAO. From the album Beginner Mind. Listen here

Lorraine Leckie – The Everywhere Man
This song about a party-hopping serial killer originally appeared on the album Rudely Interrupted, her elegant chamber pop collaboration with social critic Anthony Haden Guest. But the simmering, noir version on her latest album Rebel Devil Rebel takes the energy up several notches. Listen here 

Mesiko – Mockingbird
A distantly disquieting, pastorally-tinged art-rock anthem with early 70s Pink Floyd resonance: “Put away the mockingbird inside your lungs, keep your cellular calls to a minimum,” drummer Ray Rizzo sings as the band rises to a squall. From the album Solar Door. Listen here

Kelley Swindall – The Murder Song
A talking blues destined to become a Halloween classic. The dark Americana songstress credits her acting coach for helping her get in touch with her dark side on this one – yikes! From her album Pronounced [KEL-lee SWIN-dul] or something like that. Listen here

O’Death – Isavelle
The most ornate, and arguably most menacing track on the individualistic, creepy circus rock/Americana/noir cabaret band’s new album Out Of Hands We Go, a murder ballad fueled by Bob Pycior’s icepick violin. Listen here

Dina Regine – Broken
A brooding yet brisk latin-tinged groove with Steve Cropper-esque guitar: “You beat the wall for your past oppressor – sometimes spirits treat you real kind but most of the time they mess with your mind,” Regine sings with a gentle unease. From the New York soul-rock cult figure’s long-awaited album Right On, Alright. Listen here

Wounded Buffalo Theory – You Have Left Me
A gorgeously angst-fueled art-rock anthem that builds to a thicket of chiming guitars; axeman Kurt Leege takes a rare turn on lead vocals and knocks it out of the park. From the New York art-rockers’ album A Painting of Plans. Listen here, free download

Sam Llanas – To Where You Go From
The elegant, regret-laden final cut from the soulful BoDeans frontman’s new solo album The Whole Night Thru, a vivid, broodingly nocturnal highway theme. Watch the video (be careful – you may have to mute an ad at the beginning since this is a full album stream)

Jessi Robertson – You’re Gonna Burn
Deep inside this volcanic noir soul anthem, it’s a bitter, menacing blues, resonant, sustained lead guitar lines fueling its big upward trajectory as the New York noir Americana singer airs out her powerful voice. From the album I Came From the War. Listen here

Opal Onyx – Arrows Wing
The atmospheric New York art-rockers’ anthem begins as folk noir before rippling keys and atmospheric washes of cello take it even further into the shadows. From the album Delta Sands. Listen here 

Metropolitan Klezmer – Baltic Blue
The shapeshifting klezmer/latin/psychedelic cumbia group cleverly move between grooves as alto saxophonist Debra Kreisberg’s slow, haunting theme heats up, mashing up the blues and Hava Nagila with soulful solos from throughout the band. From the live album Mazel Means Good Luck. Listen here

The Yiddish Art Trio – Guilt
Clarinet powerhouse Michael Winograd wrote this evocative, enveloping theme that pairs his wary, airy lines with dark, full-throttle washes from Patrick Farrell’s accordion, evoking the majesty of a classical organ prelude. From the group’s debut album. Listen here

Mark Sinnis – Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me
Originally released by the dark country crooner’s original band, art-rockers Ninth House, this reinvents this haunting, crescendoing anthem as low-key but no less intense Americana. From the album album It’s Been a Long Cold Hard Lonely Winter. Here’s a live version

Robin Aigner – Greener
This pensive oldtimey number’s Gatsby-era setting is the exact opposite of what it seems to be, Rima Fand’s violin and Ray Sapirstein’s trumpet flying over a tensely flurrying, flamenco-tinged beat. From the brilliantly lyrical, deviously funny New York tunesmith/chanteuse’s album Con Tender. Listen here, free download

Jennifer Niceley – Land I Love
Swooshes and gentle booms from the drums and gorgeously lingering pedal steel color the song’s Lynchian Julee Cruise atmospherics, the Tennessee songstress brooding over her pastoral imagery and how that beauty “is never coming back.” From the album Birdlight. Listen here

If you missed the explanation on the Best Albums page, all the classical and most of the jazz is more likely to be found at this blog’s older sister blog Lucid Culture.

The 50 Best Albums of 2014

Of the hundreds of thousands of albums released every year, maybe ten percent of them are worth hearing. That’s about twenty-five thousand albums, possibly a lot more – it’s harder to keep track of the numbers than it was in the previous century. A very ambitious blogger can hear bits and pieces of maybe twenty percent of that total. That’s the triage.

A very, very ambitious blogger can hear, at best, maybe ten percent of that small sample, all the way through, at least enough to get the gist of what those few hundred albums are about. So consider this list – and the Best Songs of 2014 and the Best NYC Concerts of 2014 lists here – a celebration of good music released in 2014 or thereabouts rather than anything definitive. Links to listen to each album are included: whenever possible, the link is to an ad-free site like Bandcamp or Soundcloud rather than Spotify. So bookmark this page and come back to enjoy what you might have missed.

Every few years, there’s one album that stands out above all the rest, which transcends genre. This year, that was Big Lazy‘s Don’t Cross Myrtle, a creepy collection of reverb-drenched, Lynchian songs without words and desolate highway themes. Even by the standards of frontman/guitarist Stephen Ulrich’s previous work for film, tv and with this band, he’s never written with more delectable menace. Stream the album via Spotify.

Before the rest of the list kicks in, there are two ringers here from a couple years ago: Great Plains gothic tunesmith Ember Schrag‘s The Sewing Room, a quiet, allusive, disarmingly intense masterpiece (at Bandcamp), and a considerably more ornate and more chromatically-charged release, Philadelphia-based Turkish art-rockers Barakka‘s Uzaklardan (at Reverbnation). Both albums came over the transom too late to be included in the 2012 list here, but each of them is a real gem.

Beyond the choice of Big Lazy as #1, there’s no numerical ranking on this list. For fairness’ sake, the remainder of the fifty are listed in more-or-less chronological order as they first received attention here, without taking release dates into consideration. So the albums at the end aren’t the ass end of the list – they just happened to have been reviewed here at the end of the year. To be clear, the Ministry of Wolves, the last act on this list, are every bit as enjoyable as creepy surf band the Reigning Monarchs, who lead the rest of the parade:

The Reigning Monarchs – Black Sweater Massacre
Marauding crime-surf instrumentals from an unlikely cast of 90s powerpop types. Stream the album via the band’s page

Curtis Eller – How to Make It in Hollywood
Wickedly literate, historically rich, pun-infused and unexpectedly rocking Americana from the charismatic roots music banjoist. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Karla Moheno – Gone to Town
Nobody writes more intriguing noir musical narratives than this inscrutable chanteuse. If Big Lazy hadn’t put out their album this past year, this one would be at the top of the pile with a bullet. Stream the album via Soundcloud

Marissa Nadler – July
Arguably her best album, the atmospheric folk noir chanteuse and storyteller’s lushly enveloping adventure in Pink Floyd-style art-rock. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Marianne Dissard – The Cat. Not Me
A stormy, brilliantly twisted, angst-fueled, epically orchestrated art-rock album by the French southwestern gothic avatar and Sergio Mendoza collaborator. Stream the album via Spotify

Aram Bajakian – There Were Flowers Also in Hell
Darkly blues-inspired, characteristically eclectic, moody instrumentals by the last great lead guitarist from Lou Reed’s Band. Stream the album via Spotify

Rosanne Cash – The River & the Thread
A pensive southern gothic travelogue set to terse Americana rock, arguably as good as Cash’s iconic Black Cadillac album from a few years ago. Stream the album via Spotify

Laura Cantrell – No Way There from Here
The lyrically strongest and most musically diverse album yet by this era’s most compelling voice in classic country music. Stream the album via Spotify

The New Mendicants – Into the Lime
A janglefest of gorgeous Britfolk-infused powerpop from Joe Pernice of the Pernice Brothers, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and the Sadies’ Mike Belistky. Stream the album via Spotify

Siach HaSadeh – Song of the Grasses
Slowly unwinding, raptly intense improvisations on classic Jewish cantorial and folk themes from over the centuries. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Son of Skooshny – Mid Century Modern
Mark Breyer achieved cult status in the 90s with powerpop vets Skooshny and continues to write biting, lyrically rich, beautifully jangly songs. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Isle of Klezbos – Live from Brooklyn
A deliriously fun concert recording by the mostly-female, pioneering New York klezmer whirlwind. Stream the album via Bandcamp

New Electric Ride – Balloon Age
Period-perfect, fantastic mid-60s style psychedelic rock in a Dukes of Stratosphear or Love Camp 7 vein. Stream the album via Bandcamp

The Baseball Project – 3rd
Catchy, characteristically insightful powerpop, paisley underground and janglerock from Steve Wynn and Peter Buck’s supergroup, rich in diamond lore from across the decades. Stream the album via Spotify

Ichka – Podorozh
Meaning “journey” in Russian. the new album by the Montreal klezmer group blazes through bristling chromatic themes. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Jaro Milko & the Cubalkanics – Cigarros Explosivos
The Firewater lead guitarist’s adventure in psychedelic cumbias comes across as a sort of a Balkan version of Chicha Libre. Stream the album via Bandcamp 

Bad Buka -Through the Night
A harder-rocking, more theatrical take on Gogol Bordello-style Slavic punk from these New York guys and girls. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Gord Downie, the Sadies & the Conquering Sun
Ominously jangly southwestern gothic and paisley underground rock from the Canadian Americana band and the Tragically Hip frontman. Stream the album via the band’s page

Cheetah Chrome – Solo
It took practically twenty years for this searing, intense album by the punk-era guitar icon to see the light of day, but the wait was worth it. Stream the album via Spotify

Andrew Bird – Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of
The cult favorite Americana songwriter plunders the catalog of another similarly literate, frequently creepy Americana act, the Handsome Family, for an insightful and lyrically rich collection of covers. Stream the album via Soundcloud

Guided by Voices – Cool Planet
If the last of the final four albums from the indie powerpop band’s marathon of recording over the last two years is really their swan song, they went out with a bang. Stream the album via Spotify

Golem – Tanz
A wickedly hilarious, blistering mix of edgy punk rock, crazed circus rock and straight-up hotshot klezmer. Stream the album via Spotify

Matt Kanelos – Love Hello
Pensive, allusively lyrical Radiohead-influenced psychedelia and art-rock from the popular NYC jazz and rock keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Spottiswoode – English Dream
Purist, richly arranged, artsy janglerock with psychedelic and Britfolk tinges from the cult favorite lyrical songwriter and bandleader. Stream the album via Bandcamp

The Skull Practitioners – ST1
Searing, pummeling, catchy noiserock and riff-driven jams from Steve Wynn lead guitarist Jason Victor’s explosive trio. Stream the album via Bandcamp

HUMANWINE – Fighting Naked
Creepy, menacing, chromatically-fueled narratives from an all-too-plausible, Orwellian nightmare future from the politically spot-on Vermont band. Stream the album via Bandcamp – free download

Amanda Thorpe – Bewitching Me: The Lyrics of Yip Harburg
The riveting Britfolk chanteuse reinvents songs by the Tin Pan Alley figure as noir-inflected janglerock, backed by a stellar NYC band. Stream the album via Spotify

Changing Modes – The Paradox of Traveling Light
Frontwoman/multi-instrumentalist Wendy Griffiths’ band’s most ornate, intricately crafted art-rock masterpiece, with the occasional departure into punk or powerpop. Stream the album via Soundcloud

The Bakersfield Breakers – In the Studio with the Bakersfield Breakers
These New York surf and twang instrumentalists put their own kick-ass spin on a classic Telecaster-driven sound from the early 60s. Stream the album via Bandcamp

The Sometime Boys – Riverbed
One of the most distinctively unique bands on this list, they blend newgrass, country blues, funky rock and Nashville gothic into a spicy, anthemically psychedelic, lyrically intense blend. Stream the album via the band’s page 

The Immigrant Union – Anyway
The Australian band – a Dandy Warhols spinoff – craft deliciously catchy Rickenbacker guitar janglerock. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Bombay Rickey – Cinefonia
The year’s best debut album is by spectacular, intense singer/accordionist Kamala Samkaram’s ornate, intricate, surfy Bollywood-inspired art-rock band. Stream the album via Bandcamp 

Hannah Thiem – Brym
Lush, moody, Middle Eastern and Nordic-inspired violin grooves and cinematic soundscapes from Copal‘s dynamic frontwoman/composer. Stream the album via Soundcloud 

The Larch – In Transit
Characteristically urbane, insightfully lyrical, Costello-esque powerpop with searing lead guitar from the highly regarded New York quartet. Stream the album via Bandcamp

The OBNIIIs – Third Time to Harm
The twin guitar-driven Austin garage punks are probably the closest thing we have to Radio Birdman these days. They released two albums this past year, one a sizzling live set, and this studio release which is more psychedelic and every bit as volcanic. Stream the album via Spotify

The Wytches – Annabel Dream Reader
Arguably the darkest album on this list, this harrowing collection mines the desperation of living at the fringes of society, set to scorching, reverb-drenched noir rock. Stream the album via Spotify.

Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons – Rebel Devil Devil Rebel
The Canadian gothic chanteuse returns to her fiery, electric Neil Young-influenced roots with this stampeding effort, driven by guitar great Hugh Pool’s ferocious attack. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Ward White – Ward White Is the Matador
The most intricately literate of all the albums on this list. Nobody writes more intriguing, or menacing, rock narratives than this New York tunesmith. And he’s never rocked harder, either. Stream the album via Bandcamp 

Jessie Kilguss – Devastate Me
The title is apt – the NYC folk noir singer/bandleader offers a quietly shattering. impeccably crafted collection of Nashville gothic and paisley underground rock. Stream the album via Spotify

Mesiko – Solar Door
One of the most tunefully eclectic albums on the list, the debut by Norden Bombsight’s David Marshall and Rachael Bell with all-star drummer Ray Rizzo has postpunk, paisley underground, psychedelia and kinetic powerpop, sometimes all in the same song. Stream the album via Bandcamp

O’Death – Out of Hands We Go
A characteristically careening, ominous mix of Nashville gothic, oldtimey, circus rock and noir cabaret from these Americana individualists. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Chuck Prophet – Night Surfer
One of the great lead guitarists in rock, Prophet is also a great tunesmith who spans from psychedelia to janglerock to Americana and powerpop. Stream the album via Spotify

Wounded Buffalo Theory – A Painting of Plans
The New York art-rockers have never sounded more focused, or more intense on this richly ornate, psychedelic collection. Stream the album via the band’s page, free download

Mark Rogers & Mary Byrne – I Line My Days Along Your Weight
A brooding, plaintive and vividly lyrical folk noir masterpiece, Byrne’s tersely evocative lyrics and luminous vocals over a darkly magical web of acoustic textures. Stream the album via Spotify

Jessi Robertson – I Came From the War
Combat is a metaphor for all sorts of angst on the riveting soul and Americana-influenced singer/bandleader’s intricate, atmospheric latest release. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Metropolitan Klezmer – Mazel Means Good Luck
An especially wild live album by this deliciously shapeshifting, latin and reggae-influenced New York Jewish music juggernaut. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Matt Ulery – In the Ivory
The jazz bassist’s lush, rippling compositions blend soaring neoromantic themes, edgy improvisation, cinematic instrumental narratives and frequently haunting interludes. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Jenifer Jackson – TX Sunrise
One of the most diverse songwriters here, she’s done everything from Beatlesque bossa pop to psychedelia to Nashville gothic. This is her deepest and most rewarding dive into Americana, comprising both classic C&W and southwestern gothic. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Mark Sinnis – It’s Been a Long Cold Hard Lonely Winter
A death-obsessed hard honkytonk album from powerful baritone crooner and leader of cult favorite dark rockers Ninth House. Stream the album via Spotify

The Brooklyn What – Minor Problems
The best short album of 2014 has explosive, dynamic guitar duels, a catchy anthemic sensibility, psychedelic intensity and edgy, sarcastic wit. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Robin Aigner – Con Tender
Historically rich, period-perfect, sultry and often hilariously lyrical tunesmithing equally informed by stark southern folk music, vintage blues and oldtimey swing jazz. Stream the album via Bandcamp, free download

The Ministry of Wolves – Happily Ever After
The second album of creepily theatrical art-rock songs based on Grimm’s Fairy Tales by the all-star band of Botanica‘s Paul Wallfisch, Alexander Hacke and Danielle de Picciotto from Crime & the City Solution and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds co-founder Mick Harvey. Stream the album via Spotify 

If you’re wondering why there’s hardly anything in the way of jazz or classical music here, that stuff is more likely to be found at this blog’s older sister blog, Lucid Culture.