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The 50 Best Albums of 2018

This is a playlist – click on the links below to hear every album in its entirety.

The best album of 2018 was also one of the shortest. Songwriter Rose Thomas Bannister’s lushly orchestrated latest release, Ambition, is not the first time she’s written on Shakespearean themes, but it is by far her darkest and most relevant album. Originally commissioned for a dance adaptation of Macbeth, the song cycle deals with the most fundamental questions of evil and how to deal with it. Many of the characters in Bannister’s distantly sinister narratives make the worst possible choices at the most crucial moments.

Bannister, who made a name for herself with spare, poignant Great Plains gothic songs, has never written more psychedelically or diversely, or sung with as much nuance and power. From the creepy flurries of the title track, through the grim understatement of Lady M, themes of betrayal and revenge permeate these songs’ constantly shifting, intricate arrangements, Bob Bannister’s elegant lead guitar lines weaving along the central seam. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Beyond the next ten albums or so – the creme de la creme of 2018 – these albums are listed in rough chronological order of when they were received here (which often doesn’t coincide with actual release dates over the past few months). Sp there’s no hierarchical ranking, considering how many completely different styles are represented on the list. If an album is one of the year’s fifty best, it has to be pretty amazing.

Ward White – Diminish
Catcny, erudite, purist three-minute janglerock tunesmithing matched to a withering, cynical, relentlessly grim lyrical sensibility. No songwriter alive writes more allusively macabre stories than this guy,  Endless puns, double entendres, and gallows humor are everywhere. White’s most surreal, psychedelic album to date, Bob, got the nod here as best album of 2013; everything he’s done since is on that level, this one included. The list of artists with as formidable a body of work as White has are very few: Bowie, Elvis Costello and Steve Wynn are points of comparison. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Elysian Fields – Pink Air
Lush jangle and clang, propulsive new wave and haunting dystopic scenarios in what might be the best ever album in haunting singer Jennifer Charles and polymath guitarist Oren Bloedow’s majestic, artsy band’s twenty-plus year carer. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Kotorino – Sea Monster
Carnivalesque latin noir, circus rock, suspenseful cinematic narratives and creepy steampunk tales on this brilliant New York crew’s tersest, most crystallized album yet. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Michael Hersch – Violin Concerto; End Stages suite: International Contemporary Ensemble with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
The most harrowing recording of the year combines two macabre, microtonal pieces, the latter exploring the tortured, fitful final moments of terminally ill patients. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Ensemble Fanaa – their debut albun
Multi-reedman Daro Behroozi’s otherworldly Middle Eastern/North African jazz trio play slinky, hypnotic, rivetingly microtonal originals. Bassist John Murchison doubles on the gimbri bass lute; percussionist Dan Kurfirst plays both a full kit and a boomy daf frame drum. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Klazz-Ma-Tazz – Meshugenah
High-voltage violinist Ben Sutin’s wild, klezmer-jazz-rock jamband whirl through ferocious, epic remakes of Yiddish vaudeville and theatre classics from over the decades. One of the most adrenalizing albums released this year. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

No-No Boy – 1942
A catchy, jangly, harmony-driven Elliott Smith-tinged concept album tracing the injustices suffered by Japanese-Americans during and after their incarceration in US concentration camps during World War II. One of the year’s most savagely relevant albums. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

The Brooklyn Raga Massive – Ragas Live Retrospective
The most epic album ever featured on this page contains over six hours of classical Indian ragas, recorded live in the studio. A cast of some of this era’s best younger Indian music instrumentalists team up with jazz, Americana and rock musicians for some outside-the-box reinventions, from large ensembles to spare duos and trios. Some of this is pretty crazy; a couple of the tracks are bullshit, but the traditional stuff is consistently sublime. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Todd Marcus – On These Streets: A Baltimore Story
The world’s only bass clarinetist currently leading a large jazz ensemble wrote this withering suite in the wake of the murder of Freddie Gray, a mix of lavish, intense, sometimes Middle Eastern-tinged epics and quieter, more somber material. Commentary from community members and activists is interspersed between songs for added, troubling context. One of the most politically important albums of recent years. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Mehmet Polat – Ageless Garden
Sometimes haunting, sometimes kinetic, this collection of originals by one of the world’s great oudists and composers of Turkish music draws on Kurdish, Andalucian and flamenco sounds as well. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Greek Judas – their debut album
One of the craziest albums on this list is this mix of heavy psychedelic remakes of classic Greek rembetiko anthems, originally dating from the 20s through the mid-50s. Rembetiko was the music of the gangster underworld, Turkish and Cypriot immigrants, and freedom fighters battling dictatorships; its slashing Middle Eastern chromatics take on extra menace when played with heavy metal savagery, Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Drunken Foreigner Band – White Guy Disease
Another crazy update on a slightly more modern sound. The lead instrument in this epic instrumental psychedelic band is an electrified phin lute, which gives their stately Laotian folk themes a surreal, twisted new dimension. If Country Joe & the Fish had been Laotian, they might have sounded something like this. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Gordon Grdina’s Marrow – Ejdeha
The album title is Farsi for “dragon;” the fiery jazz oudist and guitarist and his haunting, careening band switch between darkly slinky original levantine themes and smoldering guitar jazz that veers into dark metal in places. Listen at Spotify

Bombay Rickey – Electric Bhairavi
With her unreal four-octave vocal range, accordionist/sitarist/keyboardist Kamala Sankaram  fronts this catchy, slinky, darkly psychedelic unit, who mash up cumbia, surf and Bollywood with devious flair. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Ben Holmes and Patrick Farrell – The Conqueror Worm Suite
A subtle but luridly vivid, klezmer and Balkan-tinged piece inspired by the macabre  Edgar Allen Poe short story, from the innovative trumpet/accordion duo. Listen at youtube.

Uncivilized Plays Peaks
Guitarist Tom Csatari and his careening ten-piece pastoral jazz outfit had the good sense to record their 2017 Barbes performances of these sprawling, darkly haphazard reinventions of iconic Angelo Badalamenti Twin Peaks themes, plus some choice originals. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores – The Opposite
Hypnotically circling, kinetic, phantasmagorical original Balkan psychedelic rock, bandleader Redfearn running his accordion through a series of effects pedals for some wildly swirling, enveloping sounds. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Eva Salina & Peter Stan – Sudbina
The renowned Balkan chanteuse and her pyrotechnic accordionist remake songs made famous by one of the greatest Romany singers of the 20th century, Vida Pavlovic, who was sort of the Edith Piaf of Romany music. Abandonment and heartbreak have seldom sounded so visceral. Listen at Spotify

The Lemon Bucket Orkestra – If I Had the Strength
Dark, edgy, wildly punk-inspired original klezmer anthems and dance numbers that draw on a hundred-plus years of Ukrainian, Russian and Lithuanian traditions. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Gordon Grdina – Inroads
The great Middle Eastern jazz oudist and guitarist’s second album on this list features keys and alto sax rather than a string jazz lineup; it’s a little more sardonically funny and Sun Ra-like. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp..

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra – The Painted Lady Suite
The flight of a swarm of butterflies over the top of the world, all the way to Egypt, has never sounded more epic or cinematic. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin stars in this lavish, intense big band cycle of songs without words.  Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Twin Guns – Imaginary World
The latest album by these reverb addicts is slightly less Cramps-influenced, a bit quieter and more macabre than their previous mashups of horror surf and biker rock. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Electric Mess – The Beast Is You
These twin-guitar Brooklyn rockers channel the incendiary chromatic psychedelic punk attack of Australian legends Radio Birdman, with some of the most exhilarating fretwork of any album on this list. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sarah Bernstein’s Unearthish – Crazy Lights Shining
The microtonal violinist – one of the world’s great string jazz players and composers – teams up with percussionist Satoshi Takeishi for an otherworldly, acerbic mix of jazz poetry tableaux and eerily wafting miniatures. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Xylouris White – Mother
The brooding Cretan lyra player and Dirty Three drummer team up for a bracing, sometimes slashing thicket of Middle Eastern-tinged themes. Listen at Spotify,

Sigurd Hole – Encounters
The Norwegian bassist leads a frequently Middle Eastern-tinged string trio through a brooding series of nocturnes, dirges and more atmospheric pieces. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

SUSS – Ghost Box
Starry, eerily lingering, Twin Peaks-style guitar nocturnes, big-sky tableaux and the occasional detour into southwestern gothic themes. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Mary Halvorson – Code Girl
Amirtha Kidambi handles lead vocals on the perennially incisive guitarist’s deepest, most lavish plunge into artsy, shapeshifting, improvisationally-inclined, sometimes darkly humorous rock. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Alicia Svigals and Uli Geissendoerfer – The Beregovski Suite
The iconic klezmer violinist and film composer teams up with the German pianist to rescue these alternately moody and romping, decades-old klezmer themes collected on the eve of the  Holocaust by the great Russian musicologist. Listen at Spotify,

Qais Essar  The Ghost You Love
Incisive, often hauntingly poignant Afghani folk-tinged new instrumentals by this rising star composer and virtuoso of the rubab lute. Listen ad-free at his music page,

Maya Youssef – Syrian Dreams
A dynamic mix of relatively short pieces from one of the world’s most focused, purposeful players on the kanun – the magically rippling Middle Eastern zither. Listen at Spotify,

Satoko Fujii – Invisible Hand
The brilliant pianist celebrated her sixtieth birthday last year by releasing an album a month, including several riveting live sets. This solo performance is dark and dead serious, if hardly as horror-stricken as her Fukushima Suite, picked for best album of the year here in 2018. She improvises as purposefully and tunefully as anyone who ever lived. Listen at Spotify,

Thumbscrew – Ours
The second Mary Halvorson project on this list is the reliably edgy guitarist’s grittiest release this year, often drifting into the shadows for reverberating film noir ambience. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sean Moran – Sun Tiger
The guitarist’s trio with cellist Hank Roberts (who also appears on this list as part of another guitarist, Gordon Grdina’s band) and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza smolders and burns, with frequent detours into pastoral jazz.  Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sean Noonan – The Aqua Diva
The weirdest album on this list. Alex Marcelo puts a slightly out-of-tune piano to better use than you would think possible, maxing out the overtones in this bizarre mix of mythologically-inspired stream-of-consciousness poetry, darkly magical jazz, gospel and theatre music. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Women’s Raga Massive Compilation
The only reason that this is further down the list from the other compilation by the irrepressible Brooklyn Indian music collective is that it’s shorter – by about five hours. This mix of hypnotic, epic traditional performances along with rock and soul-tinged remakes of classic carnatic themes features seventeen of the women artists and female-fronted bands among the Raga Massive’s vast membership. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Bill Frisell – Music IS
This era’s preeminent jazz guitarist breaks out his trusty loop pedal for a characteristically tuneful, concise mix of pastoral themes, atmospherics, oldtimey melodies and noir-tinged cinematics. Listen at Spotify,

Elisa Flynn – The World Has Ever Been on Fire
The first-ever solo album by this historically-inspired, hauntingly soaring singer and multi-instrumentalist, with songs ranging from hypnotic, Radiohead-ish art-rock to jangly, toweringly angst-fueled anthems. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Lorraine Leckie – Live at Mercury Lounge
Further evidence that psychedelic bands should all be making live albums. The guys in this band seem so psyched to be playing these pulsing, Slavic-tinged themes that they’re jumping out of their shoes. There’s a sad backstory: this was the final show played by the late, great drummer Paul Triff. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Banda Magda – Tigre
A characteristically cinematic, mightily shapeshifting mix of Mediterranean psychedelia, coy French chanson, cumbia and lavish instrumentals by accordionist/multi-instrumentalist Magda Giannikou’s subtle, richly textured band. The theme is resilience in troubled times, inspired by the Greek struggle against European community bankster terrorism. Listen at Spotify,

Johnny Gandelsman – Bach: The Complete Sonatas and Partitas
It took the great Brooklyn Rider and Knights violinist eight years to finish recording this astonishingly dynamic album. The physicality, lithely dancing quality and Gandelsman’s signature, silken legato help explain why it soared to the top of the classical music charts. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The BC 35 compilation
In January of 2016, legendary producer and dark rock icon Martin Bisi held a marathon weekend session to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the revered Gowanus recording room, BC Studios, which he’d started while still in his teens. Many of the edgy rock acts he’s worked with since the 80s are featured on this vast collection of gothic, industrial, metalish and folk noir acts. Most notable is the first recording by 80s noiserock legends Live Skull. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Coolerators – Diggin’ Bones
Australian soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston leads this moody, carnivalesque, utterly individualistic  Monk-inspired organ jazz trio. Organist Alister Spence contributes deliciously smoky, Greg Lewis-tinged playing. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Mary Halvorson and Robbie Lee – Seed Triangular
The third and final Mary Halvorson project here is an acoustic-electric duo record with the brilliant, unpredictable guitarist playing vintage 18th century models in addition to her trusty electric, alongside multi-instrumentalist Lee. Pastoral jazz never sounded so unsettling and enigmatic. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Cliff Westfall – Baby You Win
If Elvis Costello had made an album of original country songs, it would have sounded something like this. The country crooner and songwriter writes period-perfect, aphoristic honkytonk and Nashville gothic tunes, spiced with lead guitarist Scott Metzger’s ferocious solos. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Jessie Kilguss – The Fastness
The title is a North Atlantic term for secret hideaway. The lustrous, soaring folk noir singer leads a concise, purposeful band through this brooding mix of rainy-day tableaux, new wave-tinged tunes and an offhandedly savage murder ballad. Listen at Spotify,

Amy Rigby – The Old Guys
Elvis Costello-class wordplay; broodingly silken Skeeter Davis-class vocals and a deeper drift into psychedelia than ever before from one of the most brilliant, hilarious, relevant tunesmiths of the past 25 years. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Edward Rogers – TV Generation
One of the world’s great voices in retro Britrock turns a withering eye on surveillance state fascism in this mix of artsy rock, spare acoustic ballads and Bowie-esque glam. Listen at Spotify,

Jen Shyu – Song of Silver Geese
A lavish, surreal, atmospherically haunting suite by the pan-Asian jazz multi-instrumentalist-singer. The nonlinear narrative follows the trail of the spirits of several friends, very young and somewhat older, whom Shyu recently lost. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sleep  – The Sciences
Heavy psych album of the year. Who knew that these icons of doom metal would be completely undiminished – and surprisingly upbeat, and more psychedelic than ever – 25 years after they picked up where Black Sabbath left off. Listen at Spotify,

The Arcane Insignia – A Flawed Design
An all-acoustic string band playing vintage 70s style art-rock. Imagine ELO’s first album beefed up by an entire symphony orchestra, playing classic Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. After awhile it’s hard to figure out where one song ends and another begins, but it’s a hell of a song. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices – BooCheeMish
Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard and others from the rock world guest on the renowned Bulgarian women’s choir in this surprisingly upbeat mix of otherworldly, chromatically charged folk themes and originals in the same vein. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

A Lavish, Ambitious, Politically-Inspired New Album by Banda Magda

Banda Magda frontwoman Magda Giannikou writes fluently and fearlessly in an amazing number of styles from around the world. Accordion is her main axe, but she also plays the lanterna, an ancient, magically rippling Greek instrument. Her band’s debut album T’es La put a cheery Mediterranean spin on vintage French ye-ye pop. The follow-up, 2014’s Yerakina, was far darker, established the band as a major force in latin and Mediterranean psychedelia, and earned them a regular spot in the rotation on the New York outdoor summer concert circuit.

The songs on the band’s latest album Tigre –  streaming at Spotify – draw inspiration from freedom fighters in her native Greece battling Eurozone bankster terrorism. The Nicaraguan struggle against corporate-funded death squads became a focal point for punk rock forty years ago. Is this the 2018 counterpart to the Clash’s Sandinista album? It’s more opaque, maybe a wise move considering global circumstances at the moment, but it’s practically just as epic. This is all about the orchestration: sweep and grandeur punctuated by elegant guitar and keys, driven by an eclectic rhythm section. The central theme is stay strong: we’ve really got our work cut out for us.

The first track, Tam Tam, welds a slinky, surfy, Middle Eastern-tinged electic bouzouki line to lush, sweeping new wave: if Chicha Libre had been Greek and had existed in 1982, they might have sounded something like this. Giannikou sings this one in French. She welds those lush strings, lingering guitar and new wave touches to a bouncy samba beat in the chipper, cheery Coração – as the song rises, the orchestration and clickety-clack groove grow more hypnotic.

Ase Me Na opens with a long, sweeping, mournful string introduction, then becomes a swaying Aegean anthem – as with the first track, uneasy, spiky electric bouzouki punctuates the enveloping majesty of the strings. Giannikou saves her most hushed, tender vocal for Muchacha, the orchestra occasionally bubbling over a hypnotically circling tropical acoustic guitar tune.

She blends rapidfire Indian riffage into Brazilian forro in the insistent Vem Moren, rising from stark cello riffage to a brass-fueled dance. Chanson is a lush, starry throwback to the balmy pop of the band’s first album, then the band pick up the pace with the tricky, sauntering metrics of Reine de (Queen of…), which could be early 80s Kate Bush with simmering bouzouki, lithe strings and an ending that goes straight to the Sahara.

The title track is a triptych. Over a cinematic, lavish backdrop, Snarky Puppy’s Michael League narrates Giannikou’s thinly vieied political parable about three girls facing down a thieving tiger .The song itself is a vengeful, indomitably pulsing blend of Romany swing, psychedelic cumbia and qawwali, maybe, up to a mighty, shivery, orchestrated coda.

Starry vibraphone lingers over a brisk, emphatic clave beat in Venin (Venom), Giannikou’s French lyrics commenting on the frustrations of love rather than geopolitics. The album winds up with the swirling, droning spacerock of Thiamandi. Count this among the most wildly ambitious and original albums of the past several months.

Four First-Class Female-Fronted Global Acts at Drom Last Night

Early into her second raga yesterday evening at Drom, Roopa Panesar took an impulsive slide up the neck of her sitar. Then another, then another, against the rumbling, rippling beat of both a tabla and a mridangam. That twin-percussion drive is unusual in Indian classical music, but it suited Panesar well. For somebody whose right hand was a blur much of the time, she plays with an economy of notes, letting the river of beats carry most of the weight while she ran through a deep catalog of centuries-old riffs and thoughtfully placed variations. None of the material in her tantalizingly brief set went on for much longer than about eight minutes, slowly crescendoing alaps (improvisational intros) included. Meanwhile, the mridangam anchored the music with a fat low end, sometimes in tandem with the tabla, at other times giving the tabla room to sail overhead with an extra layer of polyrhythms. Panesar could have gone on for three times as long as she did and the audience wouldn’t have complained.

Punjabi songwriter and ghazal reinventor Kiran Ahluwalia was next, fronting a fantastic band which included both her brilliant guitarist husband Rez Abbasi and accordionist Will Holshouser along with a rock rhythm section. Abbasi only took one detour into the raga jazz that he’s been exploring so memorably lately, but he really those adrenalizing upward flurries count. Holshouser and the bassist added more than a hint of roots reggae on one of the later numbers while the bandleader brought an especially vigorous edge to her lustrously entrancing songs. The most anthemic was Jane Na, which contemplates how to exorcise personal demons, she explained. The group closed with their bounciest number, a cover that gave Ahluwalia a chance to air out her nuanced but potently expressive upper register.

Quebecoise fiddler Briga and her band have lately shifted from the Balkan music that she first made a name for herself in, to embrace North African grooves and melodies. It’s a good fit all around. There were echoes of moody chaabi balladry, funky Nubian beats and plenty of enigmatic, Egyptian-tinged tunefulness in her kinetically pulsing mix of instrumentals and vocal numbers. Singing first in French in a cool, unaffected alto, she led her excellent band through a set which, like Panesar’s, could have gone on for much longer – but this weekend is the booking agents’ convention, necessitating a constant changeover between acts. Briga’s keyboardist shifted artfully from spacy P-Funk synth, to slithery accordion, to reverbtoned, Herbie Hancock-tinged electric piano psychedelia while her subtle, propulsive bassist and two percussionists wove an intricately boomy lattice of lows.

Eclectic cellist/banjo player Leyla McCalla enjoyed a warm homecoming set, joined by her husband Daniel Tremblay on five-string banjo and electric guitar, in addition to an inspired violinist playing under the name Free-For-All. McCalla’s biggest audience hit was a spare, bluesy, aphoristically minor-key number that she dedicated to “the President-Elect,” whose meaning essentially boiled down to “if you don’t have money, you’re no more than a dog.” That was the night’s most political moment. Otherwise, she switched between instruments, singing in a cool, clear voice in English, Cajun and Kreyol, reflecting her Haitian-American heritage. The spare, Caribbean folk-tinged Time For the Hunter, Time For the Prey, an early number, addressed the perils of Haitian immigration. There was also a lilting Haitian love song, a bouncy Acadian-flavored number along with distant references to zydeco and some deep blues. Hearing her play those spare, plaintively antique phrases way down low on her cello made for some of the night’s most texturally delicious moments, matched by her down-to-earth vocals.

This being booking agent weekend, there were other acts on the bill. The last time this blog was in the house at a Banda Magda show, it was the summer of 2015 on the Hudson River way up on the Upper West, rugrats were running all over the place and frontwoman Magda Giannikou entertained them with a mix of jaunty retro 60s-style French pop, Mediterranean ballads and some hauntingly shapeshifting, Middle Eastern-flavored material. And southwestern gothic avatars Orkesta Mendoza, who were scheduled to headline (after doing the same at a late show at the Mercury, no less), haunted and pulsed their way through a mighty set of noir mambos and bolero rock. That was a couple of weeks after the Banda Magda show and was a lot further inland, at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival. That band has a characteristically psychedelic, epic new album out; catch you next time around, amigos.

There’s another fantastic lineup starting at 7 PM tonight at Drom. With the snowstorm, this might be your chance to see an unusually intimate show featuring all kinds of global sounds from darkly slinky psychedelic boleros, to wild Ethiopian funk, to Moroccan trance grooves and more. Cover is an insanely cheap $10.

Visual Music Circus Bring Their Movies for the Ears to the East Village Friday Night

Pianist/bassist Petros Sakelliou‘s Visual Music Circus plays movies for the ears. Despite Sakelliou’s money gig with a famous troupe of acrobats, the ensemble’s new instrumental album – streaming online – isn’t circus rock, nor is it as phantasmagorical as the band name implies. But it is cinematic. The group is playing a rare NYC show on March 20 at 7:30 PM at Drom; advance tix are ten bucks. The album features a twelve-piece group including horns and strings, which realistically might be more stripped down in concert.

It opens with an uneasily swaying, lush minor-key theme with echoes of Belgian barroom musette, Mediterranean balladry and the Italian baroque, Sakelliou tossing in a darkly blues-infused piano solo followed by a considerably more carefree one by alto saxophonist Ryoichi Yamaki as the mood brightens. Susanna Quilter’s balmy flute in tandem with Magda Giannikou’s ambered washes of accordion give the second track the feel of a mellotron-driven 70s art-rock theme and then take it in a more pensively bustling, Romany jazz-flavored direction, down to a long, allusively creepy, marionettish piano solo and then some stark violin from Ben Powel.

Linus Wyrsch’s chill clarinet lines in tandem with Giannikou’s accordion infuse the tiptoeing latin stroll that follows, Anna Hoffman’s baritone sax adding a wry edge that Yamaki spirals away from before the band drops out for an expansive piano solo: lots of moods packed into seven minutes. Sakelliou describes the diptych that follows as ironic: it’s not clear how its colorful, accordion-fueled Punch-and-Judy ballet, chase scene, and blustery, achingly vamping jazz tableau qualify as such.

A soaring, lushly bubbling, latin-tinged love theme slowly develops out of a warily circling intro, solos all around capped off by vibraphonist Mika Mimura – who also plays in Giannikou’s similarly colorful, shapeshifting Banda Magda. The album ends with a jaunty, dixieland-inflected “swingalong” that sounds like the Microscopic Septet going off on a tangent toward Romany jazz, driven by the nimble rhythm section of Yuki Ito on bass and Ryo Noritake on drums. In this age of bedroom recording, it’s rare to find something so unselfconsciously epic and richly orchestrated, a credit to Sakelliou’s ability to shift on a dime between idioms, ideas and instrumental voicings. They should be a lot of fun live.

A Lushly Gorgeous Global Party Album and a Subculture Show from Banda Magda

Banda Magda‘s previous album Amour, T’es La put a shimmery equatorial spin on bouncy vintage French ye-ye pop. Their new album, Yerakina (streaming at Bandcamp) is a lot more diverse, considerably darker, and has a much more global reach – and it’s pretty amazing. This time out, frontwoman/accordionist Magda Giannikou – who also plays the ancient Greek lanterna, a hauntingly rippling instrument – explores styles from the Mediterranean to the Amazon and many points in between. She sings in a warm, searching high soprano, much in the same vein as another A-list global songwriter, Natacha Atlas, and has a band to match the songs’ ambitious scope. They’re playing the album release show at 10 PM on Oct 4 at Subculture; advance tix are $18 and highly recommended. Much as Banda Magda’s albums are inventively arranged and lushly orchestrated, the band really kicks out the jams onstage.

The album opens with Sabia, a bubbly, shuffling, accordion-fueled mashup of salsa, Belgian musette, Mediterranean sun-song and a wry hint of cumbia. El Pescador, a hit for Colombia’s Totó La Momposina, gets done as a lush, elegant flamenco-jazz number, Giannikou’s balmy, pillowy vocals floating over stately piano and strings. Trata, a gorgeously swaying Middle Eastern-tinged Greek party tune with rippling hammered dulcimer, cheery brass and animated guy/girl vocals, takes on additional bulk and heft as the arrangement grows.

They contrast that with Luis Gonzaga’s Doralice, reinvented as a dancing miniature for Petros Klampanis’ bass, Giannikou’s vocals and a hint of tropical organ. The album’s title track is a swoony yet kinetic, lavishly orchestrated Greek ballad. The plaintively swinging lament Petite Fleur sounds like Chicha Libre in low-key, brooding mode, a psychedelic cumbia done as French chamber pop, while Karotseris blends Henry Mancini Vegas noir with creepy hi-de-ho swing and late 60s French psych-pop.

The album’s longest track, Cucurucu Paloma is also its quietest and most hypnotic, a hazy blend of rustic Brazilian rainforest folk and lingering psychedelia. With Giannikou’s rapidfire, precise Portuguese vocals, the final cut, Vinicius de Moraes’ Senza Paura keeps the equatorial flavor simmering as it picks up the pace. Whatever continents Banda Magda touch down on here, they find themselves at home; this is one of 2014’s best and most disarmingly charming albums.

A Second Night with the Kronos Quartet

[repost from the other blog – if you visit here frequently, you’ll notice how that place comes in handy to keep the front page fresh here at the end of the month when all possible energy is being summoned to pull together a new NYC live music calendar...]

If you could see the Kronos Quartet two nights in a row – for free – wouldn’t you? That’s part of the premise of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival. It was no surprise that the seats filled up early last night for an exhilarating string-driven cross-continental journey that began in Syria and ended in Greece, with flights to Palestine and India in between.

The group opened with a deliciously intense, hauntingly pulsing number by Syrian star Omar Souleyman titled I’ll Prevent the Hunters from Hunting You, a particularly apt choice considering the ongoing revolutionary struggles there. Violinist John Sherba’s nonchalantly sizzling swoops and dives soared against the beat of violist Hank Dutt, who was playing goblet drum, amped up in the mix for a ba-BOOM swing that put to shame any drum machine ever devised. They followed with a gorgeously ambered, austere old Yachiel Karniol cantorial tone poem of sorts, Sim Shalom (Let There Be Peace), a feature for the group’s new cellist Sunny Yang to air out the whispery, occasionally wailling ghosts in her instrument.

An electrocoustic take on Palestinian group Ramallah Underground‘s gritty, metaphorically charged Tashweesh (Distortion) was next, the ensemble adhering tightly to a backing track for a hypnotic, menacingly Lynchian ambience. Avant garde Vietnamese-American zither player Van-Anh Vo then joined the ensemble on the traditional, spiky dan tranh and vocals (and later played keening, sinister glissandos on a loudly amplified dan bao) for a lush pastorale possibly titled Green Delta. Violinist David Harrington led them through Vo’s Christmas Storm to a wild chamber-metal crescendo out; Dutt switched to a screechy wood flute for a third Vo work, before returning to his usual axe as the piece morphed into a lithe dance. After a long, rapt Ljova arrangement of the anxiously dreamy alap section of a Ram Narayan raga, Harrington switching to the resonant sarangi, the ensemble brought up Magda Giannikou, frontwoman of the disarmingly charming French lounge-pop group Banda Magda, to play a new, custom-made lanterna with its deep, rippling, pinging tones. The world premiere of her new work Strope in Antistrophe mingled biting yet playful cadenzas and tricky back-and-forth polyrhythms within a warmly tuneful, enveloping atmosphere.

Aptly named Irish chamber-folk quartet the Gloaming opened the evening with a series of resonantly nocturnal arrangements of ancient songs as well as a couple of new ones that sounded like them, violinist Martin Hayes’ otherworldly, deceptively simple washes of melody rising over Dennis Cahill’s casually meticulous guitar, along with piano and vocals. What’s the likelihood of seeing something this esoteric, and this much fun? In the next couple of weeks, pretty much every day.