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New York Guitar Star Homeboy Steve Antonakos Releases His Best, Most Eclectic Album

If you were a kid in New York back in the 80s, you had pretty much unlimited opportunities to see live music, theoretically at least. Sure, you could get into any club you wanted to: no venue owner was going to turn away a paying customer. The idea of bouncers hassling club patrons for identification was almost but not quite as faraway as the Orwellian nightmare of face recognition technology.

But getting into clubs could be expensive. Those who weren’t there may not realize just how much free live music, much of it outdoors, there was. For the sake of argument, let’s say you carried your beer into Union Square one evening. Everybody drank on the street back then since the implementation of “broken windows policing” as a means of making a revenue stream out of those least able to pay – kids and ethnic minorities, mostly – hadn’t gone beyond the drawing board.

Maybe you were drawn in by the twangy “rig-rock” sounds of the Blue Chieftains, who were doing a afterwork show on the plaza at the south end of the park. Maybe you wondered who was firing off that downward cascade of high-octane honkytonk guitar in that one big, stomping anthem.

That was Homeboy Steve Antonakos. The Blue Chieftains live on as a memory of a better time in New York history, a prestige piece of his resume. Since then, he’s played with a bunch of Americana outfits as well as the richly tuneful Greek psychedelic bands Magges and Dervisi, the latter with his fellow Greek-American guitar luminary George Sempepos. But Antonakos isn’t just one of New York’s great guitarists: he’s a strong songwriter too. His latest album, Bodega Rock is streaming at Bandcamp. His next gig is on March 30 at 9 PM at Espresso 77, 35-57 77th St. in Jackson Heights. where he does double duty playing his own material and then takes a turn on lead guitar with Drina Seay, New York’s answer to Neko Case. The closest train is the 7 to 74th St., but you can also take any train to the nearby Roosevelt Ave. stop.

The album opens with the Stonesy title track, guest guitarist Tim Heap fueling a shout-out to the 24-hour suppliers of Slim Jims, Bambus, beer and neighborly good cheer that help make this city so great. Antonakos sings the wry, aphoristic, ragtime-flavored The Improbability of Love backed by Bruce Martin’s piano, Seay a one-woman gospel choir.

Jeff Schiller’s smoky tenor sax wafts through the wistful shuffle Make It Swing, Antonakos raising a glass to an early influence in both jazz and pregaming. Seay sings the acoustic Americana ballad There’s Always Yesterday with tender restraint against Neil Thomas’ lilting accordion. Martin’s flurrying drums and Skip Ward’s bass propel One of Us, a pretty hilarious catalog of New York characters who might or might not exist. Awash in stormy layers of acoustic and electric guitars, He’s Still Not Over Her follows a much more ominous tangent.

Antonakos’ shivery lapsteel permeates the cynically shuffling It’s a Beautiful Day and its Sixteen Tons allusions; it might be the best song on the album. Seay ought to sing lead on this one: she’d hit it out of the ballpark.

With steel guitar and banjo lingering ominously in the background, the stark Nashville gothic ballad Poisoned Well is another standout. The album winds up with the gorgeously anthemic It Takes Time, another duet with Seay.

While we’re at it, could you imagine an album called 7-11 Rock? Actually, yes: it would be by Journey.

Karen Hudson’s Long-Awaited Sonic Bloom Finally Busts Out

With her edgy wit, elegant stage presence and a great band behind her, songwriter Karen Hudson has been a mainstay of the New York Americana scene since the early zeros. She’s playing the long-awaited release show for her new album Sonic Bloom tonight, June 13 at her usual hangout, Rodeo Bar at 7 PM sharp. Eric “Roscoe” Ambel – whose legendary Del-Lords have a killer new album, Elvis Club, out as well – produced it with his usual purist touch and played guitar on it. Hudson’s brilliant lead guitarist Homeboy Steve Antonakos, also of surf rockers the Byzan-Tones, zydeco crew the Dirty Water Dogs and Greek psychedelic revivalists Magges joins along with pedal steel player Skip Krevens, bassist and Steve Martin sideman Skip Ward, and Tom Curiano and Kenny Soule sharing drum duties.

“Kicking out some rock, making room for roots” is the opening line of the first track, Late Bloomer and pretty much describes this album. Over a steady backbeat and a tasty blend of twang and grit, Hudson reminds that “Just when your dead flowers have wilted in their vase, I’ll be blooming in your garden some sunny day.” Call Me is not the Blondie hit but a restlessly pulsing Laurel Canyon rock tune. Better Half of Me sets wry honkytonk wit and high lonesome pedal steel to a steady four-on-the-floor rock beat, while St. John’s Isle pays homage to the solidity of the man in Hudson’s life, who is “a rock in the middle of the ocean, while I swim in search of frivolous emotion.”

The best song on the album, Mama Was a Train Wreck looks back in shellshocked anger at dysfunctional family hell, reaching fever pitch with a smoldering Antonakos guitar solo. Better Days makes a good segue with its similarly slow-burning, minor-key angst: it’s sort of an imploring attempt to break through to someone like the monster in the previous song before the guy’s too far gone. A Woman Knows These Things offers some no-nonsense, vintage Tammy Wynette-style advice to a guy with a wandering eye, while Daydream looks at the other side of the equation via a regretful country ballad. Hudson sticks with the classic country on Dead Letter File, memorializing someone Hudson regarded as a beloved brother. The album winds up with the catchy, Byrdsy, janglerocking Beauty of the Now, co-written with Antonakos.

Throughout the album, Hudson’s matter-of-fact vocals carry the lyrics with passion, soul, and rich dynamics, from an insistent wail to a warm, caressing timbre: she’s never sung better. Who is the audience for this? Fans of acts as diverse as Miranda Lambert, Gram Parsons and Loretta Lynn in her prime…and for that matter, Loretta Lynn now.

Raw, Smoldering Middle Eastern Rock from Mild Mannered Rebel

In the summer of 2008, oud virtuoso Mavrothi Kontanis released two brilliant debut albums. The first was a mix of stark classics from the Greek rembetiko underground of the the 1920s and 30s. The second, Wooden Heart, was originals influenced by the music of that era, with a similar restlessness and unease. Kontanis’ new album Ear to the Sky, with his band Mild Mannered Rebel, includes more of those plaintive, intense acoustic songs, but also psychedelic rock featuring Kontanis on – take a deep breath – guitars, bouzouki, baglama and tambouro lute. The band is playing the album release show at Drom on April 26 at 9:30; tix are only $10 and still available as of today. It’s a prime opportunity to get to know some of the songs from what might be the best album of 2013 in any style of music.

As in much of Greek music (Kontanis being second-generation Greek-American), the tempos on this album tend to be very tricky. Kontanis’ English lyrics are as serpentine as the music. While many have a smoldering, vengeful anger, Kontanis’ vocals have a low-key confidence and understatement: he lets the lyrics speak for themselves. Most of the acoustic songs set Kontanis’ oud and Megan Gould’s violin out in front of Brian Holtz’s bass and Shane Shanahan’s percussion; the rock stuff gives Kontanis a chance to be a one-man army of stringed instruments. Either way, the interplay between the instruments is luscious, whether it’s genuine teamwork or simply Kontanis’ intricately intertwining multitracks.

The album opens with a lithe, dancing acoustic intro titled Flight of Ikaros and ends with Fall of Ikaros, a metaphorically bristling lament with a long, hypnotic but biting violin solo as its centerpiece. The best song on the album is a brooding string quartet of sorts (a requiem for Kontanis’ father), sung in a richly low, suspenseful, elegaic alto by the ubiquitously brilliant Eva Salina Primack (who has a fantastic solo album of her own just out). The most psychedelic track is Dancing in My Dreams, Kontanis playing swooping, sitar-like lines over droning, dirty Velvets-style guitar distortion and a funereal bass pulse.

The menacingly nocturnal title track is a galloping, syncopated feast of chromatic minor-key guitar. Feel the Night and See You Through to the End both juxtapose carefree verses against edgy, anxious choruses, while the kiss-off anthem Don’t Need You Here works a bittersweet bucolic vibe. Mercy reaches toward a darkly seductive rembetiko ambience, while the viciously sarcastic Heart of Gold mines a psychedelic Greek folk vibe much in the same vein as Magges or Annabouboula. Rage finally reaches fever pitch in the revenge anthem The Climb, lit up by edgy oud/violin harmonies and Kontanis’ murderous lyrics. As stylistically diverse as this album is, Kontanis’  wicked chops on all those instruments connect them with a simmering, wounded angst. It’s one of the most hard-hitting, featlessly intense albums of the year.

The 100 Best Songs of 2012

Was this the best year ever for music, or what? There could have been 500 songs on this list and they’d all be amazing. In order to give credit where credit is due, it became necessary to pare this down to just one track per artist.

Bookmark this page and visit often. Virtually every link here will take you to a stream or download of each song. Where this year’s 50 Best Albums page was all about rock, this page offers a chance to explore some of the best acts outside of the rock world. While these days, an “official release” tends to be the day someone uploads the song to youtube, there are a handful of tracks here which are so new that they haven’t made it to the web yet.

Outside of the top ten here, this list is in completely random order: trying to rank a jangly rock song against a lushly orchestrated Middle Eastern anthem, a bittersweet honkytonk song or a Serbian brass jam is absurd. So don’t think any less of the tracks at the bottom of the list: they’re all good. Rachelle Garniez, who happened to land on #99, is every bit as fun as Julia Haltigan at #9, or Lorraine Leckie at #19.

For the first time ever, this year’s top spots on the lists of best New York concerts, best albums and best songs were swept by a single group, Ulrich Ziegler. The noir guitar instrumental duo of Stephen Ulrich and Itamar Ziegler took top honors for their debut album, their album release show at Barbes in August and for their song Ita Lia, a morbidly reverb-toned, icily chromatic Nino Rota-inspired theme which you can play here. For those who’ve followed Ulrich’s career, that should come as no surprise, considering that his previous band Big Lazy pretty much ruled the top ten, year after year, at this blog’s predecessors on the web and in print.

2. Walter Ego – Sunday’s Assassin. This is an LJ Murphy song that Walter Ego used to play bass on when the two were bandmates back in the 90s. Murphy long since dropped this from his set list, and that’s too bad, because this casually lurid serial killer’s tale is one of the best things he ever wrote. Thanks to Walter Ego for resurrecting it. Watch the video

3. Mike Rimbaud – Idiot Wind. On one hand, to not put what could be the greatest rock lyric ever written in the top spot here is absurd, especially considering how Rimbaud reinvented it as straight-up, snarling rock. It’s also very hard to find: if you have Spotify, it’s here, otherwise here’s a sound snippet.

4. Chris Erikson – Ear to the Ground
Best jangly rock song of the year comes from this popular lead guitarist, who finally put out a debut album, Lost Track of the  Time, which includes this richly allusive, wickedly catchy track. He teases you with the hook and then makes you wait til the very end for the payoff. Watch the video

5. Saint Maybe – Everything That Rises
An epic masterpiece of volcanically guitar-fueled, psychedelic southwestern gothic rock from Patti Smith’s guitarist and Bob Dylan’s drummer. From their debut album Things As The Are. Play the song

6. Hannah vs. the Many – Jordan Baker. Prettiest sad noir 60s pop song of the year: girl finally finds guy she actually likes…and then the apocalypse swirls in. From the amazing new album All Our Heroes Drank Here. Play the song

7. The Sometime Boys – Good People of Brooklyn. Soaring lush acoustic chamber pop from this artsy Americana band. Frontwoman Sarah Mucho sings uneasily about her “city of trees,”  from the new album Ice & Blood. Play the song

8. Jon DeRosa – Birds of Brooklyn. Metaphorically loaded noir 60s chamber pop at its most cinematic, old guy eyeing a girl he could never have as the strings swoon behind him. From his new Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes album. Play the song

9. Julia Haltigan – Over the Fields. Looks to be too new to make it to the web yet – over careening southwestern gothic backbeat rock, the New York chanteuse amps up the suspenseful brassiness. She slayed with this at Make Music NY this summer.Stream some similar tracks

10. Changing Modes – Firewall. Nebulously narrative macabre chromatic Botanicaesque art-rock tune from this three-keyboard band’s brilliant latest album In Flight. Play the song

11. Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores – Fire Shuffle. This is the most swirlingly psychedelic of the many macabre gypsy-tinged tracks on the Rhode Island band’s chilling latest album Sister Death. Play the song

12. Chicha Libre – Papageno Electrico. Like Alec Redfearn above, the Brooklyn Peruvian surf rock band’s latest album Canibalismo is loaded with trippy, creepy tracks and this is the creepiest, like a Japanese video game theme done as psychedelic cumbia. Watch the video 

13. Beninghove’s Hangmen – Surf & Turk. New York’s premier noir cinematic surf jazz monsters hit last year’s list with their debut album. This is a new creepy surf track; you can catch them at Zirzamin on Mondays at 9 where they play it frequently. Play the song; stream the first album

14. Daniel Kahn & the Painted Bird – Sunday After the War. Coldly wise, crushingly cynical klezmer-rock. “They’re always recruiting, after the war.” Kahn slayed with this at Lincoln Center Out of Doors this past summer. Watch a video

15. Emily Jane White – Clipped Wings. The murderess leaves a suicide note at the lake house and this is it: a great story and a chilling song. From her latest album Ode to Sentience. Watch the video

16. When the Broken Bow- Giving Up the Ship. Apocalyptic ukulele waltz with bloodcurdling screams at the end from this smart, raw, female-fronted Portland, Oregon art-rock crew. Play the song

17. Lianne Smith- The Thief. Now co-leader of the Golden Palominos, Smith has been playing this gorgeous but chilling oldschool country smash for years and finally released it on her debut Two Sides of a River. Sing along: “I found out, yeah, I found out too late. ” Play the song

18. Jan Bell – The Miner’s Bride. One of the great voices in Americana music, Bell makes the connection between Appalachian music and the British folk songs it sprung from. This is a Karen Dahlstrom song about a mail-order bride going off to what looks like disappointment and early death in the old west, from Bell’s new album Dream of the  Miner’s Child. Play the song

19. Lorraine Leckie – The Everywhere Man. This party crasher has come to kill everything in his path: a wicked serial killer tale from Leckie’s elegant new chamber pop collaboration with social critic/writer Anthony Haden-Guest, Rudely Interrupted. Play the song 

20. The Japonize Elephants – Melodie Fantastique. Lush sweeping majestic circus rock doesn’t get any more entertaining than this. Title track from the band’s sensational new album. Play the song  

21. Mac McCarty – My Name Is Jack. Another song about a killer, and one that hasn’t made it to the web yet, from one of the darkest voices in Americana. For awhile he had a monthly residency at Bar 82, where he would always play this, and he’s got other videos you can watch.

22. Dimestore Dance Band – Wren Wren. Might as well go with two relatively brand-new ones, this being an urbane, wry gypsy-inflected number from guitar virtuoso Jack Martin and his bassist accomplice Jude Webre. The band is back together and playing this from time to time, and you can hear more of their stuff here.

23. Jodi Shaw – The Witch. In the old days, dotty old women used to get burned. The Brooklyn pianist/songwriter works that metaphor for all it’s worth in this chilling art-rock ballad. From her latest album In Waterland. Play the song 

24. Choban Elektrik – Valle E Shquiperise Se Mesme. A classic Balkan folk song done as trippy psychedelic rock with funereal organ and searing violin, from the band’s sensational 2012 debut album. Play the song

25. Eilen Jewell – Warning Signs. Her 2012 album is called Queen of the Minor Key, which pretty much says it all: this is a killer backbeat noir Americana rock tune with cool baritone sax and reverb guitar. Watch the video

26. Kayhan Kalhor & Ali Bahrami Fard – Where Are You. Anguished alienation has never been more hauntingly restrained than it is on this epic instrumental from I Will Not Stand Alone, the transcendent new collaboration between the Iranian spiked fiddle and santoor virtuosos. Watch the video  

27. Damian Quinones y Su Conjunto – Barrio. This lead guitar-fueled epic from their brilliant 2012 album Gumball Ma-Jumbo is a throwback to the classic latin soul sound of the late 60s and early 70s, right down to the inspired, analog-sounding production.  Play the song

28. Matt Keating – Punchline. Bouncy, metaphorically charged vintage soul-infused cynicism from Keating’s characteristically literate, intense latest album Wrong Way Home. Play the song

29. Clairy Browne & the Bangin Rackettes – Vicious Circle. Dramatic, intense, theatrical oldschool soul anthem that may or may not be a bitter Amy Winehouse homage. From their album Baby Caught the Bus; they killed with this in their New York debut this fall at Webster Hall. Play the song

30. J O’Brien- Cottonmouth. Classic New York songwriting: a torrent of images of the kind of twisted people, and twisted psyches, you meet on the train home after work, from the former leader of fiery mod-punk rockers the Dog Show. Play the song  

31. Out of Order – Gimme Noise. Hammering hardcore riffage from this volcanic all-female noiserock/punk/postpunk trio’s deliciously assaultive new album Hey Pussycat! Play the song

32. Beware the Danger of a Ghost Scorpion – Denton County Casket Co Typically intense, macabre, breakneck horror surf from this unstoppable Boston band’s Five After Midnight broadcast recording. Play the song

33. Tri-State Conspiracy – The Clone. The high point of their Nuisance album from 2008, the noir ska/swing band’s savage version of this was the high point of this year’s Atlantic Antic festival, a cruel broadside directed at all the posers and gentrifiers. Watch the video

34. Les Sans Culottes – DSK. Another highlight of the Atlantic Antic, this viciously funny garage-psychedelic sendup of Dominique Strauss-Kahn hasn’t made it to the web yet, but you can check out a lot of other amusing stuff from the faux French rockers here.

35. David J – Not Long for This World. The ominous title track to the goth songwriting legend’s latest album, the once and future Bauhaus bassist/playwright turned in a riveting version of this backed by Botanica’s Paul Wallfisch at the Delancey this past spring. Watch a video

36. The NY Gypsy All-Stars – Sen Sev Beni. Their latest album Romantech is full of scorching gypsy vamps driven by clarinet powerhouse Ismail Lumanovski: this audience favorite  is the best of them. Play the song

37. Auktyon – Mimo. These Russian art-rockers have been around forever, and they put out a typically surreal, jazz and gypsy-influenced new album, Top, this year. This is the best track, a haunting, towering minor-key anthem. Play the song

38. Harmonia – Songs from Vojvodina. This prosaic title doesn’t give any idea of the ferocity and exhilaration of this lickety-split suite of gypsy music from the Cleveland band’s equally adrenalizing 2012 album Hidden Legacy. Sound snippet 

39. Nathan Halpern – The Mirror. A creepy Philip Glass-ine theme from the soundtrack to the documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, written by the esteemed Brooklyn noir rocker and composer. Sound samples from the score

40. Sam Llanas – Shyne. Low-key, brooding nocturnal noir 60s pop with an Americana edge from the longtime BoDeans frontman’s recent solo album 4 AM. Sound snippet

41. Super Hi-Fi – We Will Begin Again. The darkest and most mysterious track from the twin trombone deep-dub band’s debut album Dub to the Bone (get it?) Play the song 

42. LJ Murphy – Waiting by the Lamppost. The legendary New York noir rocker has a reputedly phenomenal new album due out next year and this might or might not be on it; it’s an uusually low-key, broodingly surreal soul song. Watch the video 

43. Mighty High – High on the Cross. Of all the drugs Brooklyn’s best-loved stoner rock parodists chronicle in their songs, none is more powerful – or funnier – than religion. Play the song

44. Band of Outsiders – Gods of Happenstance. Television and the Grateful Dead may both be history but these 80s New York garage-pychedelic-punk legends are still going strong; this is the standout track from their 2012 ep Sound Beach Quartet and it evokes the best of both of those bands. Play the song  

45. Spanglish Fly – The Po-Po. Oldschool 60s style latin soul about a familiar New York crisis: getting busted for an open container by cops who haven’t yet met their quota of summonses for harmless offenses. Play the song 

46. Love Camp 7 – Beatles VI. An especially loud, growling vintage 60s psychedelic style track with one of frontman Dann Baker’s characteristically sardonic lyrics, the 60s as a gloomy backdrop to the Fab Four. From their brilliant Beatles-themed album Love Camp VII. Play the song

47. Musiciens Sans Frontieres – Legalize. This song from cinematic guitarist/composer Thomas Simon’s artsy rock-pop project won an award for best video at a hemp film festival  and you can watch that video here.

48. Marcellus Hall – Afterglow. This might not be the right title, and it doesn’t seem to be anywhere on the web, which is too bad: it’s one of the former White Hassle frontman and Americana-punk songwriter’s funniest, and most withering – and catchiest – critiques. Band info 

49. The Ryan Truesdell Big Band – Punjab. Not what you might expect to see here on a daily basis – a recently rediscovered, epic Gil Evans big band noir classic, with lustrous Indian and Middle Eastern shades. From the new album Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans. Play the song

50 The Universal Thump – Opening Night. What an absolutely gorgeous song: late-period ELO with better strings, bigger theatrics and much better vocals from bandleader/singer Greta Gertler. She meets a girl in her dream who offers her a deal: if you bring me from the dream world to reality, you’ll never cry again. Think about that. Play the song  

51. Slavic Soul Party – Draganin Cocek. The high point of the ten-piece Balkan brass band’s scorching, eclectic new New York Underground Tapes – which don’t seem to have made it to the web yet. Stream some similar tracks

52. Magges – Ena Vrathi Pou’Vrehe. It may be all Greek to you, but even if you don’t speak the language, the ringing twin bouzouki riffs and haunting gothic undercurrent of their psychedelic classics will pull you under. From their new album 12 Tragouthia. Play the song

53. Wadada Leo Smith – Emmett Till. An epic narrative from the trumpeter’s Ten Freedom Summers concept album about the Civil Rights movement, this cinematic tale eventually hits a horrific crescendo, equal parts jazz and indie classical. Play the song

54. Bettye LaVette – Choices I’ve Made. The soul survivor took this old George Jone song and made a theme for anybody who’s ever lived to regret something or another. She sang an especially shattering version at Madison Square Park this past summer. Watch the video

55. Marcel Khalife – Palestinian Mawwal. The great Lebanese oud player and composer put out a titanic double album, Fall of the Moon this year and this is one of its high points, a lush Middle Eastern anthem with full orchestra and choir. Play the song

56. Alfredo Rodriguez – Fog. Noir soundtrack music doesn’t get any more haunting or evocative than the Cuban-American jazz pianist’s epic from his latest album Sounds of Space. Play the song 

57. Hot Club of Detroit – Midnight in Detroit. Proof that noir can be done just as well by a gypsy jazz bandk, in a minute 45 seconds. From their latest album Junction. Play the song 

58. EST – Three Falling Free. A rare outtake from the now-defunct, artsy, eclectic trio, this epic, Floydian monstrosity builds to a crushing crescendo with the piano and bass going full blast: you want adrenaline? Watch the video 

59. Israel Vibration – Ball of Fire. This apocalyptic roots reggae tune goes back almost as far as Culture’s Two Sevens Clash, and it’s even better. And the band kicked ass with it at Central Park Summerstage this past August. Watch the video 

60. Klezwoods – Charambe. One of many standout tracks from their new album The 30th Meridian – From Cairo to St. Petersburg With Love, this is a wicked blend of 60s style psychedelic rock and klezmer, like something the Electric Prunes would have done. Play the song

61. Glass Anchors – Winter Home. Sadness and longing set to wickedly evocative, catchy janglerock from the female-fronted, Americana-tinged Brooklyn band’s debut album.  Play the song

62. Bobtown – Battle Creek. High-voltage noir soul anthem from the point of view of a country girl steadily losing it in northern Midwest rust belt hell, sung electrifyingly by Karen Dahlstrom. From the noir Americana band’s killer new album Trouble I Wrought. Play the song  

63. Chicago Stone Lightning Band – Tears & Sorrow. Creepy, brooding  early 70s style acid blues from the Chicago band’s considerably more energetic debut album. Play the song  

64. Single Red Cent – Dilettante. A hilarious postpunk-flavored putdown of spoiled trendoids, “stealing a page from the better bands, nothing in common with the working man.” Play the song 

65. Wahid  – Looking for Paradise. New Middle Eastern instrumental sounds: hard to imagine that just an oud and drums can create a sound that’s this majestic and intense. From the duo’s new album Road Poem. Sound snippet

66. The Larch – Monkey  Happy Hour. Wry, spot-on double entendres abound in this psychedelic new wave look at the last people you’d ever want to hang with after work. From their excellent new album Days to the West. Play the song  

67. Sex Mob – Juliet of the Spirits. Even though the noir-ish jazz quartet’s version of the classic Nino Rota film theme is nowhere to be found on the web, it wouldn’t be fair to leave it off the list: the riveting version they played at the World Financial Center this past fall might have been their first time, and it was amazing.  Band info

68. M Shanghai String Band – Sea Monster
This offhandedly eerie, symbolically-fueled, gypsy-tinged cut might be the best one on the massive Brooklyn Americana band’s new album Two Thousand Pennies. Play the song 

69. Clare & the Reasons- Colder. An icy art-rock mini-epic from the Brooklyn band, with a chilling mantra on the way out: “When will it get better?” Watch the video 

70. Animation – Transparent Heart. The epic, cinematic instrumental title track from saxophonist Bob Belden’s concept album about how New York (and the country) went to hell, as the Bush regime used 9/11 as a pretext for dismantling 200 years of democracy, and New York became a haven for chain stores and suburban yuppie cluelessness. Play the song

71. Yankee Bamg Bang – Silver Bullet. The backlash against gentrifier music is in full effect from these Bollywood-influenced Brooklyn rockers, poking fun at “love songs we couldn’t swallow from musician/actor/models.” Play the song/free download

72. My Education – For All My Friends. Syd Barrett meets Nektar in this roaring ten-minute art-rock theme,  rising to a titanic wall of frantic tremolo-picking. From their latest album A Drink For All My Friends. Play the song

73. Amniotic Fluid – Be Careful Children. Creepy cinematics with virtuoso clarinet, accordion and percussion in under two minutes. From their fiery debut album. Sound snippet

74. Theo Bleckmann & ACME – To the Night. Like Sex Mob at #67 above, the list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the rich, otherworldly debut that this crooner and indie chamber ensemble gave to Phil Kline’s new song cycle, Oud Cold, this past November. This is its high point, a feast of lustrous close harmonies. Not on the web yet, but you can check out the composer’s other intriguing song sequences.

75. Tom Shaner – She Will Shine. One of the highlights of the southwestern gothic rocker’s new album Ghosts Songs, Waltzes & Rock & Roll is a hilarious song called She’s an Unstoppable Hipster. This is sort of that song in reverse: gentrifier girl goes to the country because she’s sick of the city…or she just can’t hack it? This one’s not on the web but the first song is, in a very funny video

76. Tift Merritt – Small Talk Relations. The Americana chanteuse’s latest album Traveling Alone is the best guitar album of the year, with Marc Ribot’s noir playing off Eric Heywood’s steel and slide work. Ironically, this quiet, elegant countrypolitan number is the album’s best cut. Play the song/free download

77. Ramzi Aburedwan – Rahil. An absolutely sizzling, smashingly catchy theme for buzuq, accordion and percussion by the Palestinian virtuoso/composer, from his latest album Reflections of Palestine. Watch the video

78. Arturo O’Farrril & the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra – River Blue. One of the best concerts in New York this year was the first of two nights by this amazing, titanic band right after the hurricane: thsi darkly majestic  Rafi Malkiel Middle Eastern jazz epic is arguably the high point. Watch the video 

79. Ran Blake & Sara Serpa – Dr. Mabuse. With piano and wordless vocals, the noir jazz legend and his protegee evoke a troubled world of the spirits. From their live album Aurora, which is on Spotify if you have it; otherwise, good luck looking around.

80. Tom Warnick & World’s Fair- The Impostor. Kafkaesque rock doesn’t get any more intense than this: watch the keyboardist/bandleader finding it impossible to refrain from jumping back into the vocals after he’s handed them over to guitarist John Sharples on this noir classic. Here’s the video

81. Terrible Feelings – Blank Heads. This female-fronted punk band sounds like a dead ringer for the Avengers circa 1979, with rich Steve Jones style production. No streaming audio, but a free download from the band

82. Karthala 72 – Diable du Feu. Horror surf guitar grafted to a classic Afrobeat vamp with evil, buzzy bass by this period-perfect Brooklyn crew. Title track from their excellent new album. Play the song.

83. Spottiswoode -Enfant Terrible. This one came out a few years back, but the veteran art-rocker killed with this savage anti-trendoid broadside at a haphazardly assembled but absolutely brilliant show in the West Village right after the hurricane. Watch the video

84. Jaffa Road – Through the Mist of Your Eyes. A luscious Middle Eastern psychedelic rock tune from the eclectic female-fronted Canadian band. Play the song/free download 

85. The Funk Ark – El Rancho Motel. In case you think that Ethiopian cumbia is a crazy idea, check out this wickedly fun, creepily surfy track from the Washington, DC Afrobeat band’s excellent new album High Noon. Watch the video

86. Deleon – A La Nana. A creepy, stately minor key flamenco-flavored waltz with banjo as the lead instrument from this excellent Sephardic rock band. Play the song

87. Raya Brass Band – Melochrino. The hard-charging Balkan brass jamband is just as good at brooding, slowly unwinding, chromatically charged tunes like this one. From their phenomenal debut album Dancing on Roses, Dancing on Cinders. Play the song  

88. Andrew Collberg – Back on the Shore. A frequent Giant Sand collaborator, he writes period-perfect mid-80s style paisley underground psychedelic rock. This is a lush, hauning noir southwestern gothic anthem. Watch the video  

89. Tim Foljahn – New Light. From his brooding, pessimistic, absolutely haunting apocalypse concept album Songs for an Age of Extinction, this one artfully doubles the vocals: one track blithe and clueless, the other less so. Play the song

90. The Sweetback Sisters – Texas Bluebonnets
The harmonies and the melody of this oldschool western swing/Tex-Mex tune are so charming and chipper you know there has to be a sad undercurrent…and there sure is. “Those Texas bluebonnets just blew me away.” From their excellent album Lookin’ for a Fight. Watch the video

91. The Brixton Riot – Keep It Like a Secret. Snarling two-guitar rock from this New Jersey band, all too aware of how the Bush-era police state still lingers and makes you watch your back. From their scorching new album Palace Amusements. Play the song

92. Botanica – Manuscripts Don’t Burn. How the hell did the most epic, intense, grand guignol track from this era’s greatest art-rock band end up way down here? Roll of the dice. Sorry, guys. From their arguably most haunted, brooding album What Do You Believe. Play the song

93. Black Fortress of Opium – Afyonkaharisar Battle Cry. The female-fronted Boston band artfully crescendo from stately Middle Eastern sonics to a ferocious cauldron of dreampop guitar. From their new album Stratospherical. Play the song

94. Leigh Marble – Holden. The last of the anti-trendoid anthems here might be the funniest, which is ironic (in the true sense of the word) in that the Portland, Oregon songwriter’s latest album Where the Knives Meet Between the Rows is otherwise extremely dark. The title here is a Salinger reference. Play the song  

95. Marissa Nadler -The Wrecking Ball Company. Metaphorical, inscrutably deadpan, deathly noir atmospherics from this era’s unrivalled mistress of that style. From her latest and possibly best album The Sister. Play the song

96. Mucca Pazza – Last Days. An artsy, Russian-tinged accordion waltz from this titanically powerful gypsy punk brass band’s latest album Safety Last. Play the song

97. Niyaz – Shosin. A characteristically hypnotic, pulsing track from the Persian-Canadian dance/trance band’s latest album Sumud (Arabic for “resilience”). Watch the video

98.  Tribecastan – Jovanka. The darkest song on the eclectic-beyond-belief New York kitchen-sink worldbeat band’s latest album New Deli is sort of a balalaika bolero except that the web of stringed instruments is everything but a balalaika. Watch the video 

99. Rachelle Garniez – Land of the Living
The unexpectedly triumphant closing track on the inscrutable accordionist/chanteuse’s latest album Sad Dead Alive Happy, it starts with a devious dream sequence of sorts and ends with a warmly wry, indelibly New York stoop conversation. Play the song

100. Catspaw – Curl Up & Die. Let’s wrap up this list with a careening ghoulabilly track from this brooding 2/3 female New York retro rock trio. It’s a staple of their live show but hasn’t made it to the web yet – although you can hear their classic, even more haunting Southbound Line here.

The 30 Best New York Concerts of 2012

Of all the end-of-the-year lists here, this is the most fun to put together. It’s the most individual – everybody’s got a different one.  Last year’s list had 26 shows; this year’s was impossible to whittle down to less than 30. What was frustrating was looking back and realizing how many other great shows there were. Erica Smith, Rebecca Turner, Love Camp 7 and Pinataland all on the same bill at the Parkside? The club didn’t list it on their calendar. Neil Young in Central Park? Completely spaced out on that one. Pierre de Gaillande’s Georges Brassens translation project, Les Chauds Lapins and Raya Brass Band at that place in Tribeca in January? That night conflicted with Winter Jazzfest. The Brooklyn What at Littlefield, Rachelle Garniez at Barbes, Ward White and Abby Travis at Rock Shop, Spanglish Fly at SOB’s…all of those conflicted with having a life. But it was still a great year, arguably better than 2011.

Of all the multiple-act bills, the longest marathon, and arguably most exhilarating show of the year was Maqamfest on January 6 at Alwan for the Arts downtown with slinky Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat, haunting vintage Greek rembetiko oud band Maeandros, torchy Syrian chanteuse Gaida, rustic Iraqi classicists Safaafir, deviously intense Palestinian buzuq funk band Shusmo and then a crazy Middle Eastern jam with the brilliant Alwan All-Stars. Maqamfest 2013 promises to be just as good.

Rather than trying to rank the rest of these shows, they’re listed chronologically:

Walter Ego at Otto’s, 1/28/12 – the witty, brilliantly lyrical multi- instrumentalist/songwriter, minus his usual theatrical shtick, instead running through one clever, pun-infused, catchy song after another.

Eva Salina at the Ukrainian National Home, 3/31/12 – this was the debut performance of brilliant Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina Primack’s new band with Frank London on trumpet and Patrick Farrell on accordion. She swayed, lost in the music and sang her heart out in a bunch of different languages over the haunting pulse behind her.

Closing night at Lakeside Lounge, 4/30/12 with co-owner Eric Ambel’s Roscoe Trio, Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith’s band, Mary Lee Kortes, Boo Reiners from Demolition String Band, Charlene McPherson from Spanking Charlene and many others giving the legendary East Village rock venue a mighty sendoff.

Little Annie, Paul Wallfisch and David J at the Delancey, 5/7/12 – the smoky, sureallistically hilarious noir cabaret chanteuse, Botanica’s brilliant keyboardist playing three sets, and the legendary Bauhaus bassist/songwriter/playwright at the top of their brooding noir game.

Ben Von Wildenhaus at Zebulon, 5/14/12 – at one of his final shows before leaving town, the noir guitarist played solo through a loop pedal and turned the club into a set from Twin Peaks.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices at Otto’s,  6/16/12 – backed by the ferocious piano of Patrick McLellan, Tommy Hochscheid’s classic Stax/Volt guitar attack and a swinging rhythm section, the NYC noir rock legend careened through a politically-charged set of songs from his reportedly phenomenal forthcoming 2013 album.

Black Sea Hotel in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, 6/17/12 – the trio of Willa Roberts, Corinna Snyder and Sarah Small sang their own otherworldly, hypnotic a-cappella arrangements of surreal Bulgarian folk songs from across the centuries, their voices hauntingly echoing in the cavernous space of an old synagogue.

Veveritse Brass Band at Barbes, 6/28/12 – over the absolutely psychedelic, bubbly pulse of the trubas, this ten-piece Balkan jam band burned and roared and turned the club’s back room into a cauldron of menacing chromatics and minor keys.

Kotorino at Joe’s Pub, 6/29/12 – transcending a series of snafus with the sound system, the lush, artsy chamber-steampunk band evoked other countries and other centuries throughout a set that was as jaunty and fun as it was haunting.

Aaron Blount of Knife in the Water with Jack Martin from Dimestore Dance Band at Zirzamin, 7/9/12  – although the two hadn’t rehearsed, Martin evoked the ghost of Django Reinhardt against the reverb cloud swirling from Blount’s guitar amp, through a mix of moody, gloomy southwestern gothic songs.

Magges at Athens Square Park in Astoria, 7/10/12 – the Greek psychedelic rockers played a long show of spiky, often haunting songs spiced with Susan Mitchell’s soaring electric violin and Kyriakos Metaxas’ sizzling electric bouzouki – it seemed that the whole neighborhood stuck around for most of it. Too bad there wasn’t any ouzo.

Neko Case out back of the World Financial Center, 7/12/12 – the stage monitors weren’t working, which messed up opening act Charles Bradley’s set, but Case, Kelly Hogan and the rest of the band didn’t let it phase them, switching up their set list and playing a raw, intense set of noir Americana.

Niyaz at Drom, 7/22/12 – a  long, mesmerizing cd release show by the artsy Canadian-Persian dance/trance ensemble, frontwoman Azam Ali slowly and elegantly raising the energy from suspenseful to ecstatic as it went on.

Dimestore Dance Band at Zirzamin, 7/23/12 – since reviving this group, guitarist Jack Martin has become even more powerful, more offhandedly savage and intense than he was when he was leading them back in the mid-zeros when this witty yet plaintive gypsy/ragtime/jazz band was one of the finest acts in the Tonic scene. This show was a welcome return.

The Secret Trio, Ilhan Ersahin and Selda Bagcan at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/12 – the annual “Turkish Woodstock” began with short sets of haunting classical instrumentals, psychedelic jazz and then the American debut of the legendary psychedelic rock firebrand and freedom fighter whose pro-democracy activism landed her in jail at one point.

Bettye LaVette at Madison Square Park, 8/8/12 – the charismatic underground soul legend took songs from acts as diverse as George Jones, Paul McCartney and Sinead O’Connor and made them wrenchingly her own, a portrait of endless struggle followed finally by transcendence.

Bombay Rickey at Barbes, 8/11/12 – jaunty, jangly, surfy , psychedelic Bollywood rock fun, with guitar, accordion and frontwoman Kamala Sankaram’s amazing operatic vocals.

Daniel Kahn & the  Painted Bird at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/12/12 – grim, politically spot-on, lyrically brilliant klezmer-rock songwriting from the Berlin-based bandleader backed by an inspired New York pickup group.

Ulrich Ziegler at Barbes, 8/17/12 – of all the single-band shows, this was the year’s most intense, over an hour of eerie. reverb-driven noir cinematic instrumentals from genius guitarist Stephen Ulrich and his inspired colleague Itamar Ziegler, celebrating the release of the album rated best of 2012 here.

The Byzan-Tones at Zebulon, 8/22/12 – the recently resurrected Greek psychedelic surf rockers traded in the electric oud for Steve Antonakos’ lead guitar, and the result sent the haunting, Middle Eastern-fueled energy through the roof.

J O’Brien and Beninghove’s Hangmen at Zirzamin, 9/10/12 – a fascinatingly lyrical, characteristically witty set, solo on twelve-string guitar, by the former Dog Show frontman followed by New York’s best noir soundtrack jazz band at their most intense and psychedelic.

The Strawbs at B.B. King’s, 9/11/12 – it’s amazing how almost 45 years after the psychedelic/Britfolk/art-rock band began, they still sound strong, their lyrical anthems still resonant even in a stripped-down acoustic trio setting.

Sam Llanas at Zirzamin, 9/11/12 – rushing downtown to catch a solo show by the former BoDeans frontman paid off with a riveting, haunting set of brooding, austerely nocturnal songs, especially when J O’Brien joined him on bass.

Sex Mob at the World Financial Center, 9/27/12 – the downtown jazz legends got the atrium echoing with a hypnotic, absolutely menacing set of classic Nino Rota film themes – and they didn’t even play the Godfather.

Julia Haltigan at 11th St. Bar, 10/2/12 – the eclectic southwestern gothic/Americana/soul siren and songwriter at the top of her torchy, sultry, intense game, backed by a brilliant, jazzy band.

M Shanghai String Band‘s cd release show at the Jalopy, 10/5/12 – an hour of cameos from too many New York Americana luminaries to name, followed by two long sets from the massive oldschool string band, moving energetically from bluegrass, to Appalachian, to sea chanteys, gypsy sounds and Britfolk, sometimes fiery and intense, sometimes hilarious.

Theo Bleckmann backed by ACME, crooning Phil Kline song cycles at BAM, 10/25/12 – this was the premiere of Kline’s lushly enveloping chamber-rock arrangements of his acerbically hilarious Rumsfeld Songs, his eclectic Vietnam-themed Zippo Songs and his brand-new, luridly haunting new Sinatra-inspired cycle, Out Cold.

The Arturo O’Farrill Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra at Symphony Space, 11/2/12 – in the wake of the hurricane, O’Farrill decided to put on a couple of free concerts to lift peoples’ spirits. This was the first and better of the two nights, the brilliant latin big band pianist joined by special guests including Anat Cohen, Sex Mob’s Steven Bernstein, Rafi Malkiel and Larry Harlow, playing long, broodingly intense, towering themes, many of them based on classic Jewish melodies.

Katie Elevitch at Zirzamin, 12/16/12  – goes to show that you can’t really count the year’s best concerts until the year’s almost over. Backed by her fantastic four-piece band, the haunting, intense rock siren improvised lyrics, roared, whispered and seduced the crowd in the plush space with her voice and her achingly soul-inspired songwriting.

Gorgeous Esoteric Psychedelic Sounds from Magges

Some of popular New York Greek-American band Magges‘ music is incredibly haunting, packed with Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics. Some of the songs on their new album 12 Tragouthia (meaning “12 Songs,” streaming all the way through at their Bandcamp site) have a rousing gypsy quality; some are simply upbeat and happy. Some of them definitely qualify as psychedelic rock, while others are obviously folk tunes. With all the esoteric, trippy rock from outside the English-speaking world in the 1960s and 70s having gone global over the last decade, it’s time that fans of groups like Chicha Libre and Dengue Fever discovered the Greek side of the equation. That’s what Magges brings to the table (along with lots of ouzo at their rock club gigs): it’s unbeatable party music. Their signature sound blends the twin bouzoukis of frontman Kyriakos Metaxas and Nick Mandoukos, with Steve Antonakos on acoustic rhythm guitar, Ken Forrest on upright bass and Spiros Edgos on drums, with Susan Mitchell adding her signature intensity on violin on several tracks.

The hardest-hitting tracks fall under the category of remebetiko, the Middle Eastern-flavored “Greek blues” which was equally popular with hash smokers and the freedom fighters battling the dictatorship there in the 1930s and 40s. The long, intense opening cut, Ego Maggas Fenomouna works its way from a big, crescendoing minor-key twin-bouzouki intro into a stately, stalking anthem, sort of a less ponderous counterpart to a bitter Russian dirge. The band goes happy and spiky with Ouzo and its catchy major/minor shifts, then back into the shadows again with Ena Vrathi Pou’Vrehe, its thunderstorm of bouzoukis and Mitchell’s steady, catchy hook against suspenseful, biting, ringing staccato riffage. Athikopnigmeni, one of the most psychedelic cuts here, is basically a one-chord jam with a series of unexpected dynamic shifts: deep thickets of bouzouki picking, and a stark, minimal vocal interlude that plays call-and-response with the instruments as the song grows more intense and elegaic, with allusions to the Byrds’ Eight Miles High.

They follow that one with Pente Magges, which has a Boulevard of Broken Dreams vibe, but slower and without the tango beat, a motor scooter sputtering away at the end. Twisting and turning on a chillingly beautiful two-bar twin bouzouki interweave, Haremia Me Diamandia turns a rembetiko anthem into Greek psychedelic rock. Se Kitazo sets Greek folk to a gypsy jazz shuffle, yet another reminder of how influential and widespread gypsy sounds had become before World War II. There’s also the bouncy minor-key folk-rock of Giati Glykia Mou Kles; the tensely bitter, expansive rembetiko anthem Ximeromata; Thalasies Handres, with its tricky rhythms and singalong chorus, and a couple of rapidfire dance numbers that speed up faster and faster, daring whoever’s on the dance floor to keep up with them. Count this as one of the most fascinating and fun albums of 2012; stream it here.

Bad Guys Take Care of Business on Their Home Turf

The nonsequential current history of good music in New York continues today with Magges, who played a marathon show in lovely, tree-lined, well-shaded Athens Square Park in Astoria Tuesday night. “No Greek disco….only the music we grew up with, and love,” explained bandleader/electric bouzouki virtuoso Kyriakos Metaxas. The son of Evangelos Metaxas of the popular Trio Bel Canto, he’s keeping a legacy alive with this group, whose name is Greek slang for “bad guys” or “cool cats.” Magges’ website calls their repertoire “country music from another country.” This time out, the well-loved Greek-American band mixed up long medleys of folk tunes, hits from the 60s and ended with a long set of rembetiko, or as Metaxas put it, “Greek blues,” the haunting Middle Eastern-flavored, mostly minor-key songs from the underground resistance against the dictatorship of the 1930s and 40s, which was the stuff that resonated most intensely with the crowd. Since this was a public park, they didn’t bring along the ouzo that they share with the crowd at rock clubs. But the music was no less intense, and drew a similarly ecstatic reaction from the crowd. Along with the bouzoukis of Metaxas and Nick Mandoukos, the ubiquitously brilliant Susan Mitchell played violin alongside equally ubiquitous and brilliant acoustic guitarist Steve Antonakos (who didn’t take any of his famous solos), plus Ken Forrest on upright bass and Spiros Edgos on drums.

It was kind of funny how although a lot of the music had an American rock influence, the songs that rocked the hardest were the most indelibly Greek-flavored ones. They opened with a swaying, minor-key anthem with a gypsy-rock feel, Mitchell’s violin textures stark beneath the spiky, richly intertwined harmonies of the two bouzoukis. She took the first of several shivery microtonal solos on the second one after one by Metaxas, over a stately, almost martial groove; then they segued into a tangoish number with hauntingly gorgeous Arabic-tinged modes. A lively, sprightly Macedonian-style dance; a bubbly, upbeat tune with the bouzoukis leapfrogging the highest frets and what sounded like a warier, more angst-driven version of the same song followed.

Mitchell gave a psychedelic folk number from the 60s a chamber-pop feel with layers of lush atmospherics as the bouzoukis traded rapidfire licks. Like another song later in the set, it could have been a cumbia if they’d slowed it down a little: despite being from the other side of the globe, it sounded a lot like the Peruvian surf rock of Chicha Libre or Los Destellos. They slowed it down with a swaying Mediterranean ballad, then played a gypsy cimbalom tune on the bouzoukis and brought back the cumbia-ish bounce. Then they went into the rembetiko, which is when the dancing, and several spontaneous singalongs and clapalongs emerged throughout the crowd. Mataxas opened the first tune with a long, ominous solo taqsim, the rest of the band following him into the shadows, where they stayed for most of the rest of the evening. Suspenseful Arabic scales pulsed and then soared over rhythms that varied from slinky to martial to defiantly exuberant. One was a dead ringer for the French Revolutionary anthem Les Partisans; the single best song of the night was the next-to-last one, a furtive, chillingly apprehensive theme that paired off Mitchell’s violin against a plaintive thicket of Middle Eastern melody ringing and clanking from the strings of the bouzoukis. Magges have a brand-new album out simply titled 12 Tragouthia [12 Songs]; watch this space for upcoming NYC dates, whether indoors or out. And fans of Italian folk music can check out the weekly Wednesday 7 PM series of concerts here that continue through August 29.