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The 100 Best Songs of 2021

This is a playlist. Click on song titles for streaming audio; click on artist names for their webpage. There are hours worth of listening here: you might want to bookmark this page. The point of this is not just to cull the best songs from the Best Albums of 2021 list, but also to include singles, and videos, and tracks from other records that for one reason or another aren’t on that one,

Given the choice of a fierce, plainspoken, feel-good singalong protest song, a totally disconsolate one, or a much more complex, artful powerpop gem, which would you pick for best song of the year?

Subjective as this list is bound to be, there are three main contenders. The big outlaw country hit that everybody’s blasting at all the protests is Blind Joe‘s I Will Not Comply. It’s Woody Guthrie for the 21st century. It’s catchy, it’s optimistic, and everybody can relate to it.

The flip side of that, metaphorically speaking at least, is Silent War, by songwriter Five Times August. It’s a solemn waltz:

They’ve covered your mouth and tied back your hands
They did it to all of the kids
And nobody knows all the damage it’s done
And won’t ask until the master permits

Then there’s Irene Pena‘s The Summer Place. Over a catchy late 70s/early 80s powerpop tune, she paints a witheringly detailed picture of family dysfunction by the seaside. As a portrait of the dark side of human behavior (without touching on lockdowns or muzzlemania), it’s Elvis Costello-class, as vividly cynical as anything Black Box Recorder ever did. And in a normal year, it could have topped this list.

This year, the #1 slot goes to Five Times August. He hadn’t even recorded the song yet when he debuted it at a massive rally held by Texans for Vaccine Choice in Austin at the peak of the summer heat. And as sad as it is, at the end he implores us to “Take back your freedom and fight for your life, stand up before it’s all gone.”

What’s optimistic about this list is that despite the current state of the world, there are more funny songs on it than ever before. What’s less optimistic is that there was less recorded music released in 2021 than in any other year since the 1940s. One suspects that artists have written infinitely more material than they’ve been able to record in the past twenty-two months. Whatever the case, there’s still an embarrassment of riches here.

Beyond the next ten songs or so – the creme de la creme of 2021 – there’s absolutely no order or ranking to this list.

Five Times AugustGod Help Us All
One of the great protest songs of the past year or so: “Citizen fools and brand new rules make everyone a hero now…Keep your distance, no resistance, only do what you’re allowed…See no evil, bow to the needle, didn’t we turn out great?”

Five Times August – Jesus What Happened to Us
One of the first protest songs banned from youtube, no surprise considering the lyrics. It’s Eve of Destruction with a locked-in, lockdown-era focus: “Keep staring at your smartphone, get dumber every week,”

Tessa LenaThe Physical World Is the Only World We Have
The longest song on this list, a bracingly immersive mosaic of savagely funny spoken word and haunting, Armenian-tinged sounds by the polymath singer/investigative journalist and host of the philosophical podcast Make Language Great Again:

Data’s rotten,
Tests are toast.
News is sullen,
Coast to coast.
Feudal darkness
Here and now!
To the masters
Peasants bow

Mostly AutumnTurn Around Slowly
An endlessly shapeshifting, circling, metaphorically loaded art-rock seafaring anthem that makes a towering coda for their album Graveyard Star, one of the most vivid portraits of lockdown-era terror released to date.

Slowhand and Van – This Has Got to Stop
Anybody who wants to subject Eric Clapton to any more crippling mandatory shots will be stopped dead in their tracks, the guitar icon wants everybody to know. Van Morrison’s response is more quietly seething.

The Armoires Homebound
One of the most spot-on, witheringly cynical lockdown songs written so far is this Louvin Brothers-style country waltz originally released under the pseudonym The Chessie System. The title is a cruel pun. From the album Incognito

Ward WhiteEasy Meat
Reduced to lowest terms, this cinematic, imagistic powerpop narrative is about acting on impulses that would be unthinkable to anyone outside, say, the Gates Foundation or the California governor’s office.
From the album The Tender Age.

Changing ModesStasis Loop
A macabre, picturesque account of the early days of the lockdown in New York that rises out of an evil morass of feedback and horror-movie keys. From the album Wax World

Van MorrisonDouble Bind
A slow, slinky minor-key soul protest anthem: “It’s always the opposite of what they say
…Trying to police everyone’s mind,” the Celtic icon warns. Arguably the best song on the album Latest Record Project No. 1

Van MorrisonWhy Are You on Facebook
Over a jangly, bluesy Highway 61-era Dylanesque backdrop, Morrison wants to know “Why do you need secondhand friends?” Funniest track on his album Latest Record Project No. 1

The Academy Blues Project –  All Will Be Revealed
A deviously detailed account of what could be a stolen election, or some other massive fraud: Ben Easton’s gospel piano leads the band skyward to guitarist Mark Levy’s savage guitar outro. From the album The Neon Grotto

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard Static Electricity
Slinky electric saz-driven microtonal Turkish-flavored psychedelia from the album LW

The Pocket Gods – Essential Wenzels on a Wet Wednesday
Crushingly sarcastic as it may be, this creepy, barely two-minute synth-rock song arguably captures the relentless gloom and hopelessness of the plandemic better than any other song released to date. From the album Another Day I Cross It Off My Bedroom Wall

Van MorrisonHe’s Not the Kingpin
A soul-infused, sinister look at how the forces behind the lockdown ambush each other: “He’s just the fall guy – follow the money, follow the story, ” From the album Latest Record Project No. 1

The Felice Bros. – We Shall Live Again
A big folk-rock epic that’s as poignant as it is funny – and creepy: “The clouds are at the winds’ command, a great extinction is close at hand.” From the album From Dreams to Dust

Gary LourisDead Man’s Burden
An eight-minute, late-Beatlesque apocalyptic epic pondering questions like transcending the residue of unsustainable evil left over from the Cold War, from centuries of ravaging the environment and anything else that got in our way. From the album Jump For Joy

Fanfare CiocarliaThe Trumpeter’s Lament
A sizzling Romany circus rock bolero and the most phantasmagorical song on their latest album It Wasn’t Hard To Love You

The Malta Philharmonic Orchestra – Christopher Muscat: Mesogeios
A magnificently charging, circling, hauntingly minor-key portrait of the Mediterranean featuring soloist Francesco Sultana on microtonal, melismatic Maltese zummara oboe, zaqq bagpipe and flejguta flute, winding up with a ferocious, Egyptian-tinged dance. From the album Contemporary Colours

Volur – Death Cult
Menacing tritones, a Bartokian string interlude, towering crescendos, a skull-shredding violin solo, and what sounds like throat-singing by dead monks. Title track from the art-rock/metal band’s latest album.

KatlaHvitamyrkur (Dark Light)
A somber cello solo amidst desolation, a searingly marching forward drive and a gorgeous, woundedly ornate guitar solo in this Icelandic metal dirge. From the album Allt þetta helvítis myrkur (All This Hellacious Darkness)

Gabriel Alegria’s Afro-Peruvian Sextet – The Mask
A stark urban noir soul tableau behind a metaphorically loaded spoken word passage by percussionist Freddy Lobaton. No names are mentioned, but there is a devil involved. From the album Social Distancing

Sana NaganoLoud Dinner Wanted
Insistent, hammering riffs and eerily dancing tritones give way to a horror interlude anchored by booming bass chords and a minimalist stomp in this shrieking, dystopic tableau from the jazz violinist’s album Smashing Humans

Tiffany NgDark Matters
The carillonist rings out big emphatic splashes of color within an allusively menacing, hypnotic bell choir. Title track from her latest album

The JCA OrchestraRomapole
A colorfully bellicose Turkish-inspired big band jazz epic. From the album Live at the BPC

HK et les SaltimbanksDanser Encore
The mighty Romany jazz-flavored protest anthem that became the unofficial theme for this past year’s protests throughout Europe. The point is that we’ll dance again…but not the way the totalitarians want us to, literally, “on a chord chart.”

Dave Specter and Billy Branch – The Ballad of George Floyd
The Chicago blues guitarist and blues harpist build a slow, venomously simmering groove: “Eight minutes of torture, begged for mercy, then he was killed.”

DisturbiosSurf Gnossienne
Matt Verta-Ray’s spare guitar over his wife Rocio’s tremoloing funeral organ blend for a haunting reinvention of the Erik Satie classic. From the band’s first album

TsibeleMir Veln Zey Iberlebn (We Will Outlive Them)
When the Nazis marched into Lublin, Poland in 1941 and rounded up the Jews there, they were as sadistic as usual. Driving the population out into the fields, they commanded the captives to dance. Their response was this song, a defiant Middle Eastern-flavored singalong recreated by the New York klezmer band as a seven-minute epic.

Ward WhiteLet’s Don’t Die At the Stoplight
Rhyme schemes, metaphors and reflections on anomie fly fast and furious in this Bowie-tinged capsule of road rage. From the album The Tender Age

Azure RayAlready Written
An allusive, bittersweetly devastating psychedelic pop gem: “Now I’m somewhere between what I hear and when I listen, try to write it down but it’s already written – how I miss those days.” From the album Remedy

Bare Wire SonFingernest
Spare, Lynchian guitar figures fuel an emphatic, pulsing, hypnotic dirge, rising to Comfortably Numb proportions. From the album Off Black

Nick WaterhouseVery Blue
Gorgeous, Orbisonian early 60s style Nashville noir, complete with desperately hammering piano, bittersweet major/minor changes and flurrying early ELO strings. From the album Promenade Blue

The Brooke Maxwell Ensemble – Be Safe Be Good
Although this searing satire of everyday paranoia was written before the lockdown, it resonates even more now. From the Ride the Cyclone soundtrack

Carola OrtizCorro per la Nit
A harrowing nocturnal chase scene, through a werewolf intro, to leaping, Balkan-inspired rhythms and suspenseful lulls. From the Spanish clarinetist’s album Pecata Beata

The Armoires – Great Distances
A soaring but poignant lockdown-era tableau that could be the great harmony-rock tune the Jayhawks left off Sound of Lies. Originally released under the pseudonym The Gospel Swamps. From the album Incognito

Changing Modes On an Island
Drummer Timur Yusef’s gracefully tumbling Atrocity Exhibition-style drums bookend a gorgeously symphonic, surreal lockdown escape ballad. From the album Wax World

Five Times AugustSad Little Man
A vindictively hilarious, singalong folk-rock portrait of the evil Dr. Faulty and all his flip-flopping

The Speed of SoundTomorrow’s World
“We were offered Star Trek, but they fed us Soylent Green,” guitarist Ann-Marie Crowley sings to open this dystopic retro new wave tune. From the album The Museum of Tomorrow

BesarabiaOroneta
A lush, slashingly chromatic, trickily rhythmic Andalucian-tinged dance with eerie, Bulgarian-tinged vocal harmonies, From the album Animal Republic

James McMurtryOperation Never Mind
A slashing, spot-on, cynical, twangy critique of American foreign policy misadventures in Afghanistan before Biden’s disastrous pullout: “We won’t let the cameras near the fighting. that way we won’t have another Vietnam.” From the album The Horses and the Hounds

RC the RapperJust Say No
One of the big boombox hits from this summer’s protests here in the US. “It isn’t a theory if it keeps coming true.”

Five Times August – Outttayerdaminde
A rapidfire Subterranean Homesick Blues flavored broadside that pokes savage fun at soyboys and other narcissists run amok on Tik Tok.

Acoustic Syndicate – Bertha
A cover of the Grateful Dead classic, with a tightness and a snarl that the original band sometimes let slip away. “Test me test me test me test me, why don’t you arrest me?”

Changing ModesNothing to Say
Frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam dismissively critique social media over haphazard Beatles blues. From the New York harmony-rock band’s latest album Wax World

Castle Rat Different Dirt
A killer fuzztone doom metal dirge in a grimly sludgy Electric Citizen vein.

Nikolaj Hess ECM Country
A brooding, expansive, windswept waltz, the pianist playing suspiciously blithe, light-fingered, bluesy lounge phrases over the mournful, Lynchian swells of the string section. From the album Spacelab & Strings

FortidPandemic
A stomping, Middle Eastern-tinged chromatic black metal anthem that seems to address repression more than it does any perceived threat of a virus. From the album World Serpent

Caamaño & AmeixeirasManeo de Cambre
A bracing, Andalucian-tinged waltz from accordionist Sabela Caamaño and violinist Antía Ameixeiras with a plaintive solo from powerhouse guest clarinetist Carola Ortiz. From the album Aire

Erkin Cavus and Reentko DirksMaksim
A lingering, Satie-esque Turkish twin-guitar instrumental: with its sepulchral echo effects, it’s the most desolately gorgeous track on the album Istanbul 1900

The Armoires  – I Say We Take Off and Nuke This Site From Orbit
A seethingly Beatlesque critique of social media – the quote at the end of the song is too good to give away. From the album Incognito

Bare Wire Son Saved Alone
Menacingly anthemic, twangy reverb guitar riffs, whispered vocals, a lulling organ interlude and ragged crescendo in this grim World War I tableau. From the album Off Black

Katayoun GoudarziSweetest
The Iranian chanteuse’s rapturous setting of a famous Rumi poem, ney flute trading off mysteriously with Middle Eastern-flavored sitar. From the album This Pale

Van Morrison – Duper’s Delight
A pulsing midtempo ballad that could be about a femme fatale, or lying lockdowners: “You don’t notice when they’re trying to confine you, you don’t notice when they doublecross.” From the album Latest Record Project No. 1

Menahan Street BandDevil’s Respite
A slinky, darkly anthemic oldschool soul instrumental from the album The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band

Here Lies ManCollector of Vanities
Afrobeat as Black Sabbath might have played it: funereal organ, punchy chords, allusive chromatics. From the album Ritual Divination

Derrick Gardner and the Big Dig! BandPush Come da Shove
Mozartean exchanges of voicings, careening swing, elephantine, undulating drums and a firebomb of a false ending on the most wildly turbulent track from the big band jazz album Still I Rise

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic DogThe Activist
The protean, agelessly relevant guitar icon takes aim at limousine liberal yuppie puppy entitlement in this hilariously verbose parody of cancel culture. From the album Hope

Langan Frost & Wayne – The Alchemist of Hazy Row
A sobering Kinks-inflected psych-folk narrative with a darkly enigmatic violin solo and a trick ending. From the band’s debut album

The Speed of Sound – Impossible Past
A knowing chronicle of revisionist history set to enigmatic new wave rock: “Duck-and-cover A-bomb drills among dark satanic mills.” From the album The Museum of Tomorrow

Sarah McQuaid The Day of Wrath, That Day
An eerily echoing, chiming, increasingly macabre guitar instrumental: McQuaid is known as a singer, but she wails on the frets. From the record The St Buryan Sessions,

The CCCC Grossman EnsembleDavid Dzubay: PHO
Not a reference to Vietnamese cuisine: the title stands for Potentially Hazardous Objects. The ensemble work every trick in the suspense film playbook for playfully maximum impact in the most animated and strongest piece on the album Fountain of Time

Lia SampaiUna Llum (A Light)
A slap upside the head of a petty tyrant whose insatiable desire for control backfires and ignites a revolution. From the Catalan singer’s album Amagatalls de Llum (rough unpoetic translation Hidden in Plain Sight),

Anbessa Orchestra Gobez (Brave)
This single is more spacy and atmospheric than the incendiary, guitar-stoked Ethiopian jam they used to slay audiences with in summers where people congregated freely here in New York.

Ward WhiteOn Foot
A brisk new wave/powerpop murder ballad whose cruellest joke is musical rather than lyrical. From the album The Tender Age

Ward Hayden and the OutliersNothing to Do (For Real This Time)
Jangly bluegrass-tinged highway rock with a chilling lockdown-era narrative: “This is what happens when you wake up, all the cool kids in the class, just actors in a mask.” From the album Free Country

Willie Nile – Blood on Your Hands
Steve Earle guests on this stomping, venomous Americana rock broadside aimed at oligarchs everywhere: “There’s bodies piled up down on Blueblood Street.” From the album The Day the Earth Stood Still

The Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout – Sheba
Surf Ethiopiques recorded in the backroom of a legendary onetime speakeasy. From the album The Boog At Sunny’s

Cate Von CsokeCoyote Cry
Link Wray meets Morricone somewhere in the Australian outback. From the album Almoon

Sam LlanasAutumn Is Falling
A Nashville gothic-tinged, metaphorically-loaded reflection on the grim passage of time, spot-on for 2021. From the album Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels

Abigail DowdApple Trees
A chillingly metaphorical tale of plans suddenly derailed, set to spare, brooding folk noir. From the album Beautiful Day

The Colorist Orchestra and Howe Gelb Tarantula
A clip-clop southwestern gothic opening credits-style instrumental theme from the desert rock icon and European art-rockers’ debut collaboration Not on the Map

Opium MoonWisdom
More than eleven minutes of austerely enveloping, gracefully violin-driven Middle Eastern and Indian-flavored rapture. From the double album Night and Day

Esquela Oradura
A grim account of the Nazi massacre of the French village of Oradour Sur Glane in 1944, set to snarling guitar-fueled desert rock. From the album A Sign From God

Space SummitAncient Towers
Lush, richly clanging layers of guitar permeate this mighty, allusive art-rock anthem from twelve-string maven Marty Willson-Piper’s latest project. From the album Life This Way

SwerveEbbs & Flows
“Try to fight this feeling, that I’m gonna die up on this hill” – political Oasis, like one of that band’s good rare b-sides. From the album Ruin Your Day

Victory BoydThe Star Spangled Banner
The 2021 equivalent of Jimi Hendrix’s version. Boyd’s is intricate and acoustic, a protest against totalitarianism instead of the Vietnam War.

Carola OrtizCarmeta
Her bass clarinet dips to gritty, noirish lows in this instrumental, shifting from a shamanic musette to a slinky, tricky Balkan groove. From the album Pecata Beata

Becca Stevens and the Secret TrioPathways
The art-rock singer contemplates a refuge “away from the noisy crowd, where I can see the pale stars rising,” over a magical blend of the Balkans and catchy American janglerock. From their debut collaboration

Monsieur DoumaniTiritichtas
An undulating, loopy, rembetiko-inspired chromatic theme with half-whispered lyrics about a trickster archetype. From the album Pissourin

Antonis Antoniou Doulia
Circling chromatic bouzouki riffage over a trippy groove permeates this icy Balkan-tinged psychedelic tune. From the album Kkismettin

Perry Carditis & the mRNA’s – Christmas medley
Coffee and Covid published this ridiculously entertaining spoof of infomercials for holiday albums, with updated lyrics for the age of lethal injection campaigns. Scroll down for the video.

Nirvana A – Pure Blooded
One of the funniest protest songs of the past year, set to the tune of the silly 70s Foreigner lite-metal hit Hot Blooded.

Dennis DavisonThe Guise of Comedy
A twisted, phantasmagorical 60s-style psych-pop tune from the former frontman of the late, great Jigsaw Seen

Castle Black Radio Queen
A sleek, rhythmically tricky take on grim minor-key early 80s punk. From the album album Get Up Dancer,

Dan BlakeThe Grifter
A complex and crushingly cynical, bustling jazz portrait of a would-be political savior with a dark undercurrent and a spot-on sax solo out. From the saxophonists’s latest album Da Fe

DictaphoneIsland 92
A trippy, shadowy rembetiko-ish noir theme fueled by bass clarinet. From the album Goats & Distortions 5

Lake Street Dive Hush Money
“You can’t win the game so you wanna throw it, but I’ve got a whistle and I’m gonna blow it,” singer Rachael Price insists, over a Beatlesque, quasi trip-hop sway. From the album Obviously

Icon of Sin – Clouds Over Gotham
Shifting between gentle, early Genesis-tinged interludes, a fullscale stampede and nightmarish symphonic angst, the Brazilian metal band captures the anguish of the early days of the lockdown here…but if their prophecy comes true, we will rise again! From their debut album

Shuky Shveiky – Espinelo
One of the most dramatic, flamenco-tinged numbers on
Sarah Aroeste’s album Monastir, exploring the global pre-Holcaust roots of a Macedonian center of Jewish culture

Frankie & the Witch FingersMepem
A heavy, dark psychedelic soul jam with wah guitar and organ. Like Nektar covering War, with a surprise ending

The Shining TonguesAnnihilation
A wealth of dark textures: fuzztone repeaterbox guitar, symphonic keys and a lush bed of acoustic guitars. The most lavishly orchestral track on their debut album Milk of God

Dot AllisonThe Haunted
A spare, stark art-rock epic about ghostly presences, both phantasmic and psychological. From her album Heart-Shaped Scars

White Lightning – 1930
Little did the Minneapolis heavy psych band realize that when they released this rare Move-influenced protest single in 1969, how relevant their historical parable would be fifty years later. From the compilation album Brown Acid: The Twelfth Trip

The Airport 77sBad Mom
The funniest, most satirical track on the powerpop band’s hilarious album Rotation: this horrible parent lets her kids play with water pistols!

Black River DeltaSolitary Man
Not a cover of that awful Neil Diamond song. Set to a brooding web of acoustic guitars, this original is a harrowingly detailed account of the slow decline of a member of the crew of the Enola Gay. From the album Shakin’

Kristy HindsMiss Morocco
An icy Bliss Blood-style noir cha-cha: ‘Put her up in a sweet hotel, so sweet she didn’t notice the smell.” From the New Mexico chanteuse/ukulele player’s album Strange Religion.

MantecaIllusionist
Guitar noir reverberations plus darkly bluesy horns and keys over a cantering, boomy rhythm in this brooding instrumental. From the album The Twelfth of Never,

Davheed BehrooziRoyal Star
Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky done as a jazz waltz, more or less. From the album Echos

Charming DisasterOurobouros
Arguably the noir rock superduo’s hardest-rocking song. A phoenix in the making, or just a pile of bones? “Is this annihilation or metamorphosis?”

Jack Grace Smokehouse Discrepancy
A smoking mashup of surf rock and Booker T. instrumental soul, From the album What a Way to Spend a Night

Mike NeerAfrican Flower
A lingering, steel guitar-driven Big Lazy-ish take of the Ellington classic. From the album Keepin’ It Real

Los Tangueros del Oeste – Zamba Zefardim
An elegant, shapeshifting klezmer-tango theme from the album Alm Vieja

Olcay BayirKayip Cocuk (Lost Child)
Brooding, hypnotic trip-hop rising to an imploring, accusatory peak. “Who can give me my future? Take your dirty hands off from my hope and dreams,” Bayir sings in Turkish. From her album Inside (İçerde)

Emily FrembgenButterfly
“Little child, going nowhere, I can’t touch you when you turn away from me,” the folk noir singer relates gently in this chilling, tersely detailed portrait of clinical depression. From the album It’s Me or the Dog

Peggy James – Joan of Arc
A venomous, fire-and-brimstone political broadside set to a mashup of Badfinger and 70s Nashville pop from the album The Parade

The ReducersLet’s Go
Written back in the 80s when traveling the world was something everyone did. This chugging punk-pop hit with a sizzling Hugh Birdsall guitar solo might be the high point of the band’s archival album Live: New York City 2005

Lauren AndersonYour Turn
A big orchestral ballad, the blues belter’s emotionally devastated narrator out on the highway, driving through a haze of wine and tears. From the album Love on the Rocks

Warish Say to Please
“Burn your bridges to stay warm!” guitarist Riley Hawk hits his chorus pedal for icy 80s sonics and a tantalizingly messy guitar solo. From the album Next to Pay

Ensemble Mik NawoojMozart on Joy
A wickedly clever mix of famous riffs by the ingenious classical/hip-hop ensemble, rapper Sandman cutting loose with one of his most sharply ironic lyrics. From the album Death Become Life

Tribal SeedsVampire
Grittily orchestrated late 80s Burning Spear-influenced roots reggae – what a trip. From the album Live: The 2020 Sessions

Delgres – Lese Mwen Ale (Let Me Go)
A scrambling, vindictive Mississippi hill country-style blues escape anthem. From the album 4:00 AM

Daz Band – We Are the 99%
The most authentic folk song on this list: haphazard, catchy and pissed as hell

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog Put Out an Irrepressibly Funny, Wise, Intense New Album

Marc Ribot‘s credentials as a guitarist were firmly ensconsed in the pantheon decades ago. But he’s just as formidable a composer and songwriter. As an incorrigible polystylist, he’s done everything from searing, noisy jazz (check out his Live at the Vanguard album if raw adrenaline is your thing), to one of the alltime great film noir albums, to one of the best janglerock records of this century (Tift Merritt’s Traveling Alone). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in a career that goes back to the 80s. Ribot’s latest release, Hope – streaming at Bandcamp – is a characteristically all-over-the-map mix with his Ceramic Dog Trio, which includes Shahzad Ismaily on bass and Ches Smith on drums. In an era of lethal lockdowns, and now Cuomo’s sneaky attempt to establish apartheid,, Ribot’s irrepressible sense of humor is more welcome than ever.

The opening track, B Flat Ontology has a withering cynicism matched by an underlying heartbreak. Over a loopy minor arpeggio with just a few turnarounds and tantalizing flickers of wah, Ribot mercilessly pillories all the wannabes in this city. Trendoids, noodly Berklee guitar types, phony poets, performance artists and others get what’s coming to them. Singer-songwriters in particular get a smack upside the head: “Each one more earnest than the next, slip off layers of pretention til there’s nothing left.”

The album’s second track, Nickelodeon is a reggae tune with wah guitar, organ and a lyric as surreal as anything that came out of Jamaica forty years ago. The instrumental Wanna very closely approximates a big Bowie hit. Ribot then takes aim at limousine liberal yuppie puppy entitlement in The Activist, a hilariously verbose parody of cancel culture set to a bubbling, looping 90s trip-hop groove.

Ismaily’s jaunty, loose-limbed bassline anchors Bertha the Cool (gotta love this guy’s titles), a spoof of guitarslingers who worship at the feet of Wes Montgomery. They Met in the Middle has shrieky sax, a tightly clustering English Beat-style bassline and a subtle message about doing your own thing.

The Long Goodbye is a ten-minute epic, Ribot’s austere rainy-day intro finally giving way to Ismaily’s looming chords, then the guitarist hits his distortion pedal for the blue-flame savagery he may be best known for. Maple Leaf Rage, the album’s centerpiece and longest track, is a diptych, slowly rising from his spare, lingering  figures over squirrelly drums to a march, the guitarist’s smoldering lines expanding to another one of his signature conflagrations. If you want to introduce someone to the Ribot catalog, this is as good a stepping-off point as any.

The trio wind up the record with Wear Your Love Like Heaven, a slowly vamping, jaggedly pastoral tableau. And it’s available on vinyl!

The Sideshow Tragedy Take an Embittered Detour into Powerpop

Over the past decade or so, Austin duo the Sideshow Tragedy have done everything from unhinged, electrified country blues, to feral hillbilly boogies and savagely lyrical, hip-hop influenced political punk rock. Their masterpiece, and their most political release by far, is the searing 2015 album Capital. Their latest one After the Fall – streaming at Bandcamp – is a breakup album, sometimes allusive, sometimes completely grim.

They open with the title track, a departure into vintage 70s-style CBGB powerpop, guitarist Nathan Singleton’s surprisingly lushly layered guitars and bass over drummer Jeremy Harrell’s syncopated drive. “Wore a mask so long it became my face/I went in circles for years just to get to this place,” Singleton recalls. Prophetic, huh?

Ben Senerfit’s baritone sax punches in on the lows in Easy Action, which comes across as a mashup of Jon Spencer and Marcellus Hall. Guest lead guitarist Marc Ribot plays sizzling, noisy blues over Kenny Siegal’s blustery layers of keyboards in Hold On It: “I only walk on eggshells ‘cause I like the way it sounds,” Singleton snarls.

He channels Lou Reed, both musically and vocally, in The Lonely One, then he goes back toward the gutter blues of the band’s early years in the resolute Capital Crime. They hit a surprisingly funky pulse in the album’s best, most aphoristic and Dylanesque track, Same Thing:

Edge of the water at the end of time
You can see the other shore on the horizon line
It’s a trick of the light, it’s not too faraway
I’m at the bottom of the bottle next to the bay

Singleton’s Blood on the Tracks reference later on packs a wallop.

“Nothing to live for, it’s something to do,” Singleton muses in What I Mean, a stomping, stark, hypnotic blues anthem in a Jesus and Mary Chain vein. He goes back to Lou Reed mode over Harrell’s simple, steady stomp in Forty Days and the album’s cynical closing cut, Young Forever.

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog Use Lockdown Time to Make One of the Year’s Best Albums

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog’s new album What I Did on My Long Vacation – streaming at Bandcamp – is the rare album recorded in isolation during the lockdown that actually sounds like the band are all playing together. But that wasn’t how it was made. Guitarist Ribot, bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith each took turns laying down their tracks in Ismaily’s studio since for one reason or another they couldn’t pull the trio together at the same time. Testament to their long camaraderie, they got not only this funny, cynical, deliciously textured album out of it; they’ll be releasing a full vinyl record (yessssssss!) with material from these sessions in 2021. They’re playing the album release show at 8 PM on Oct 23 on the roof of St. Ann’s Warehouse, Beatles style, the band playing down to the crowd on the street below.

The first track is We Crashed In Norway, a sketchy, vamping, sardonic quasi-disco theme that harks back to Ribot’s similarly wry Young Philadelphians cover band project. Beer is just plain awesome – the suspiciously snide skronk/punk/funk second number, that is, forget about the (presumably) fizzy stuff that too many of us have been abusing since March 16.

With Ismaily’s loopy bassline and Ribot’s jaggedly spare multitracks, Who Was That Masked Man reminds of  classic Metal Box-era Public Image Ltd. Dog Death Opus 27 is a lot shorter and just as loopy, with a sarcastic turnaround.

The most sarcastically savage track here is Hippies Are Not Nice Anymore, a pretty straight-up punk rock tune tracing the sordid trail of the boomers to the point where “corporate was the theme of the week” – imagine the Dead Kennedys with a careening Velvets jam at the end. To close the album, the trio channel the Dream Syndicate – Ribot playing both the Steve Wynn and Jason Victor roles – in the buzzy, psychedelic, atmospherically careening The Dead Have Come to Stay with Me.

Considering the horrific toll the lockdown has taken on bands all around the world, it’s heartwarming to these these downtown punk-jazz legends still at the top of their game, undeterred.

Big Lazy Bring Their Sinister, Slinky Noir Grooves Back to Barbes

Noir instrumental trio Big Lazy‘s two sold-out album release shows at the American Can Company building in Gowanus late last year were completely different. For a group whose usual sonic palette is a magically detailed but typically grim greyscale, that was unexpected – and obviously influenced by some devastatingly sad circumstances.

Frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich had lost his mom the previous night. Only a few hours before the first show, he’d played Cole Porter’s I Love You to her at her bedside – and the group, who typically don’t play many covers, reprised that with a gently starry, expansive instrumental take featuring Sexmob’s Steven Bernstein on trumpet. As far as emotional ironman performances go, this was right up there with Exene Cervenka’s gig the night her sister was killed in a car crash. Word spread throughout the venue; nobody knew how to react. Yet the pall over the space lifted as the band went on and played two long sets, the crowd hanging on every creepy chromatic and wry bent note. If there ever was proof of love being stronger than death, this was it.

The second night’s two sets were more boisterous. The Onliest, the desolately loping theme that opens the band’s latest album Dear Trouble, was especially dusky and spare the first time, but the group gave it a more sinisterly windswept take the second time around. There were unexpected treats from deep in the band’s catalog: the hammering Human Sacrifice, like Link Wray doing the Mission Impossible theme, on night two, and the gleefully macabre Skinless Boneless on night one. Bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion also dug in and cut loose more, the former finally indulging the crowd with a slap-happy rockabilly solo late Saturday night during a full-throttle, rat-a-tat take of Princess Nicotine.

The special guests fit seamlessly with the music: it was as if they were a regular part of the band. Miramar organist Marlysse Rose Simmons, with her funereal tremolo and murderously slinky riffs, completely gets this music. Baritone saxophonist Peter Hess, of Slavic Soul Party, added extra smoke on the low end. Bernstein provided disquieting animation on the highs, particularly when he picked up his slide trumpet for all sorts of bloody slashes and smears. And the guitar interplay between Ulrich and Marc Ribot, particularly on Ramona, a brooding quasi-bolero, had an especially bittersweet, saturnine depth.

Big Lazy return to their monthly Barbes residency this Friday, Jan 24 at 10 PM on the year’s best twinbill so far: ageless. Rapturous Armenian jazz multi-reedman Souren Baronian and his amazing band with Adam Good on oud open the night at 8. If you’re on the fence, you should know that this will be Big Lazy’s last Barbes gig for a couple of months. Although they’ve been playing around town more lately, they’re at their peak at what has been their home turf for the last six years.

Yet Another Brilliant, Shadowy Album and a Gowanus Release Show From Noir Instrumental Icons Big Lazy

Big Lazy are the world’s most menacingly cinematic instrumental trio. They’re also the world’s darkest jamband, one of Brooklyn’s most popular dance bands…and they keep putting out brilliant albums. The cover of their long-awaited new one, Dear Trouble (streaming at youtube) has a 1972 Ford Country Squire station wagon off to the side of a desolate road somewhere in the midwest, facing a tower along the powerline as the clouds linger and the sun sets. That says a lot. They’re playing the album release show this Nov 8-9 at 8 PM at the old American Can Company building at 232 3rd St. in Gowanus. Night one is sold out, but night two isn’t yet; you can get in for $20. They’ll be joined by three of the special guests on the record: Sexmob‘s Steven Bernstein on trumpet, Slavic Soul Party’s Peter Hess on saxes and Miramar’s Farfisa sorceress Marlysse Rose Simmons. Take the F or the R to 4th Ave/9th St.

Interestingly, this turns out to be the band’s quietest, most desolate album. It begins with The Onliest, a loping, skeletal theme slinking along on Andrew Hall’s hypnotically bluesy bassline. They hit an interlude bristling with bandleader/guitarist Steve Ulrich’s signature, macabre chromatics, then eventually a false ending. It’s a good introduction to where the band are at now: there are echoes of horror surf, Angelo Badalementi David Lynch soundtracks, Thelonious Monk and Booker T. & the MGs in the rhythm, although Big Lazy’s sound is inimitably their own.

The album’s title track has Ulrich’s melancholy, resonant lead over a sardonically strutting blend of Nino Rota tinged with early 60s pop: if Tredici Bacci wanted to get really dark, they might sound like this. As is the case with so much of Ulrich’s catalog, the song takes on many different shapes, textures and guitar timbres and winds up far from where it started.

Ramona, with dubby accents from Simmons organ, is one of the spare, overcast bolero-ish tunes that Ulrich writes so well. Cardboard Man features Marc Ribot, a rare guitarist who can go as deep into noir as well as Ulrich, adding eerily flamenco-tinged touches. The exchanges between the two, switching in a split-second between styles, are expertly bittersweet.

Sizzle & Pops – referring to the imaginary roadhouse that Ulrich and his wife would be running in an alternate universe – is a rare moment of straight-up levity for this band, part Booker T, part pseudo Bill Black Combo 50s cheese. Bernstein adds distantly muted New Orleans flavor, both jaundiced and jubilant, on the group’s cover of the Beatles’ Girl: who knew what an ineffably sad song this was!

Drummer Yuval Lion takes the loose-limbed slink of the opening number and raises it several notches with his flurries in Dream Factory as Hall runs another trancey blues bassline, Ulrich’s baritone guitar pulling the song deeper into the shadows. Consider how the title of Cheap Crude could mean many things, and its sardonic rockabilly makes even more sense.

Exit Tucson, another tense, morose quasi-bolero, has all kinds of neat, rippling touches pinging through the sonic picture around Ulrich’s sad broken chords, disconsolately reverberating riffs and long, forlornly shuffling solo. The arguably even more gloomy Fly Paper has a deliciously disorienting blend of tone-bending lapsteel and furtive guitar multitracks: with its trick ending, it’s the most Twin Peaks of any of the songs here.

Ribot returns for Mr. Wrong, a disquietingly syncopted stroll: it’s amazingly how chameleonic yet grimly on task both he and Ulrich are here. The album’s final cut is Sing Sing, Peter Hess’ baritone sax adding extra smoke beneath Ulrich’s lingering, macabre tritones.

Ulrich and Big Lazy are no strangers to the best albums of the year page here. He took first place back in 2012 for the Ulrich Ziegler record, a quasi-Big Lazy album with guitarist/bassist Itamar Ziegler, which turned out to be a one-off project before he reformed the group.. And Big Lazy’s big comeback album, Don’t Cross Myrtle, was #1 with a bullet for 2014. As far as 2019 is concerned, no spoilers, check back here at the end of December…

Single of the Day 11/4/18 – BEER! 

Spoiler alert – iconic guitarist and fearlessly political songwriter Marc Ribot wears a Brett Kavanaugh mask throughout this sardonically careening number with his Ceramic Dog ensemble. Aptly titled Beer (via youtube), it was actually recorded before the Supreme Court officially became a home for sexual predators.

Black String Play a Riveting, Hauntingly Epic, Sold-Out Show in Queens

Last night at Flushing Town Hall, Seoul band Black String left a sold-out crowd awestruck and blown away with a vast, oceanic, often thunderingly intense set of darkly picturesque, suspensefully and often plaintively shifting themes that transcended any kind of label. The four-piece group improvise a lot, but they’re not a jamband, at least in the hippie sense of the word. They can rock as hard as any group alive, but they’re not a rock band per se. Although traditional Korean themes are central to much of their music, their striking riffs and hypnotically pulsing, kaleidoscopic waves of sound draw just as deeply on the blues, and possibly early heavy metal. They use folk instruments, but their themes evoke vast continental expanses far more than remote villages. In 2018, this band has a franchise on epic grandeur.

Guitarist Jean Oh’s Telecaster sent an icy shimmer wafting through his vintage Fender amp, then bandleader Yoon Jeong Heo responded with an offhandedly savage flicker from the strings of her low-register geomungo lute, and then they were off. Throughout several long interludes, including the night’s opening number, Aram Lee breathed and vocalized through his daegeum flute, adding another layer of surrealism to the mix. Drummer Min Wang Hwang began with washes of cymbals contrasting with a couple of booming floor toms, later in the set switching to doublebarreled janggu drum, then coloring a couple of the quieter numbers with sepulchrally dancing accents on a couple of small hand-held gongs.

Yet for all the band’s titanic sound, their riffs are catchy and anthemic to the point of minimalism. Oh’s majestically sustained flares. awash in digital reverb and delay, often brought to mind Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. Otherwise, he built dense atmospheric clouds, with a couple of vividly furtive detours into Marc Ribot-ish skronk.

Hwang drove the music from ominous valleys to majestic peaks with a dynamic attack that was more distant thunder than lightning directly overhead. He also turned out to be a powerful, charismatic singer, ranging from insistent and shamanistic, to angst-fueled, melismatic pansori drama on one of the night’s most fiery numbers.

Lee built mournfully expansive ambience with his solos on a couple of the quieter songs, including the aptly titled closing epic, Song of the Sea. With a steely focus, Heo displayed breathtaking speed on the strings, especially considering that the geomungo is plucked with a stick rather than fingerpicked, By the end of the show, she was drawing on all kinds of extended technique, evincing all kinds of ghostly overtones out of an instrument more commonly associated with magically warping low riffage. Throughout the set, she’d spar with the drums, or the guitar, when she wasn’t anchoring the long upward climbs with pulsing pedal notes or octaves.

The rhythms shifted as much as the music. The first number was in 7/8 time; a later song galloped along with a groove that almost could have been qawwali. Arguably, the high point of the night could have been a new, as-yet untitled number with savage salvos from flute and guitar. Black String have been making waves in this country; it seemed that the Korean expat contingent constituted only about a quarter of this crowd. Watch this space for at least one Manhattan appearance this summer. And you’ll find this show on the best concerts of 2018 page here at the end of the year, if we make it that far.

This is typical of the kind of show that you’ll see at Flushing Town Hall this year: their 2018 season is pretty amazing, Barbes/Jalopy/Lincoln Center-quality. The next concert there is on Feb 2 at 7:3 PM at with the Queens Symphony Orchestra playing works by Villa-Lobos, Tschaikovsky and the Beatles. What’s even better is that the show is free; if you’re going, get there early.

Greg Lewis Brings His Harrowing, Haunting, Elegaic New Protest Jazz Suite to Bed-Stuy

Greg Lewis is one of the world’s great jazz organists, best known as a radical reinterpreter of Thelonious Monk. But Lewis hardly limits himself to reinventing the classics. His latest album The Breathe Suite – streaming at Spotify – is just as radical, and arguably the most relevant jazz album released in the past several months. Lewis dedicates five of its six relentlessly dark, troubled movements to black Americans murdered by police. There’s never been an organ jazz album like this before: like Monk, Lewis focuses on purposeful, catchy melodies, heavy with irony and often unvarnished horror. If this isn’t the best album of 2017 – which it might well be – it’s by far the darkest. Lewis and his Organ Monk trio are making a rare, intimate Bed-Stuy appearance on August 26 at 8:30 PM at Bar Lunatico.

A long, astringently atmospheric intro with acidic, sustained Marc Ribot guitar gives way to a stark fanfare, much like something out of the recent Amir ElSaffar catalog, as the suite’s epic, nineteen-minute first movement, Chronicles of Michael Brown, gets underway. Lewis’ ominous, sustained chromatics introduce a slinky, moody nocturne with a cinematic sweep on par with Quincy Jones’ mid-60s film music, Reggie Woods’ bright tenor sax and Riley Mullins’ trumpet contrasting with a haunting undercurrent that drummer Nasheet Waits eventually swings briskly.  From there Lewis and Ribot edge it into  simmering soul, then Waits leads the drive upward to a harrowing machete crescendo. Lewis’ solo as the simmer returns is part blues, part carnivalesque menace. When the fanfare returns, jaggedly desperate guitar and drums circle around, Lewis diabolically channeling Louis Vierne far more than Monk.

The second, enigmatically shuffling second movement memorializes Trayvon Martin, Lewis alternating between Pictures At an Exhibition menace and a chugging drive as guitarist Ron Jackson’s flitting solo dances in the shadows. The third, Aiyana Jones’ Song eulogizes the seven-year-old Detroit girl gunned down in a 2010 police raid. It’s here that the Monk influence really comes through, in the tersely stepping central theme and Lewis’ creepy, carnivalesque chords as the piece sways along. The altered martial beats of drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons’ solo lead the band upward; it ends suddenly, unresolved, just like the murder – two attempts to bring killer Joseph Weekley to justice ended in mistrials.

The murder of Eric Garner- throttled to death by policeman Daniel Pantaleo in front of the Staten Island luxury condo building where he’d been stationed to drive away black people – is commemorated in the fourth movement. Awash in portentous atmospherics, this macabre tone poem veers in and out of focus, the horns reprising the suite’s somber fanfare, Jackson’s guitar circling like a vulture overhead, then struggling and shrieking as the organ and drums finally rise.

The fifth movement, Osiris Ausar and the Race Soldiers opens with a conversation between pensive organ and spiraling drums, then the band hits a brisk shuffle groove, horns and guitar taking turns building bubbling contrast to Lewis’ angst-fueled chordlets underneath. The final movement revisits the Ferguson murder of Michael Brown with an endless series of frantically stairstepping riffs, Lewis finally taking a grimly allusive solo, balmy soul displaced by fear. Fans of good-time toe-tapping organ jazz are in for a surprise and a shock here; this album will also resonate with fans of politically fearless composers and songwriters like Shostakovich and Nina Simone.

Stunningly Eclectic Singer Sofia Rei Radically Reinvents Violeta Parra Classics

Conventional wisdom is that if you cover a song, you either want to do it better than the original, or make something completely different out of it. The latter usually makes more sense, considering that if a song is worth covering at all, the original is probably hard to beat. Merle Haggard as shambling free jazz; Gil Scott-Heron as hard bop; Pink Floyd as dub reggae – all of those unlikely reinterpretations ended up validating the outside-the-box creativity that went into them. On the brand-new album El Gavilan (The Hawk), streaming at Bandcamp, pan-latin singer Sofia Rei – who’s never met a style she was afraid to tackle – puts a brave new spin on the songs of Chilean icon Violeta Parra. The Argentine-born songstress is currently on tour; her next New York concert is this coming June 2 at 8 PM at the Neighborhood Church, 269 Bleecker St. at Morton St. in a duo with the incomparable, more atmospheric Sara Serpa, her bandmate in John Zorn’s Mycale a-cappella project. The show is free.

On one hand, artists from across the Americas have covered Parra. On the other, it takes a lot of nerve to reinvent her songs as radically as Rei does. The album’s opening number, Casamiento de Negros begins as a bouncy multitracked a-cappella number, like Laurie Anderson at her most light-footed; guitarist Marc Ribot tosses off a tantalizingly brief, Hawaiian-tinged slide guitar solo. It’s a stark contrast with Parra’s allusive narrative of a lynching. 

Parra’s stark peasant’s lament Arriba Quemando El Sol is a march, Ribot opening with an ominous clang, then echoing and eventually scorching the underbrush beneath Rei’s resolute, emphatic delivery. It’s akin to Pink Floyd covering Parra, but with more unhinged guitars and more expressive vocals. She does Una Copla Me Ha Cantado as a starlit lullaby, killing softly with the song over Ribot’s spare deep-space accents.

Her wryly looped birdsong effects open a pulsing take of Maldigo Del Alto Cielo that rises to swoopy heights, spiced with wisps of backward masking, a curse in high-flying disguise. By contrast, the muted, bruised pairing of Rei’s vocals with Ribot’s spare chords gives La Lavandera the feel of a Marianne Dissard/Sergio Mendoza collaboration as it reaches toward a simmering ranchera-rock sway.

Rei makes a return to atmospheric art-rock with the lament Corazón Maldito, Ribot rising from shivery angst to menacing grey-sky grandeur, Rei parsing the lyrics with a dynamic, suspenseful, defiant delivery like Siouxsie Sioux without the microtones. 

The album’s epic title track clocks in at a whopping fourteen minutes plus, opening with atmospherics and Ribot taking a rare turn on acoustic, warily and airily. From there he switches to electric for cumulo-nimbus, Gilmouresque atmospherics behind Rei’s frantically clipped, carnatically-influenced delivery, following Parra’s anguished tale of abandonment.

The ambient Enya-like concluding cut is Run Run se Fue pa’l Norte, an apt song for our time if there ever was one, echoing with more Pink Floyd guitar from Los Tres‘ Angel Parra, Violeta Parra’s grandson. Whether you call this art-rock, jazz, or state-of-the-art remake of Chilean folksongs, it will leave you transfixed, especially if you know the originals.

It’s open to debate if the Trump administration would let an artist like Rei into the country these days, considering his commitment to kissing up to the non-Spanish speaking lunatic fringe.