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Tag: mary lee kortes

Eric Ambel Brings His Expert, Purist Tunesmithing and Sizzling Lead Guitar Back to Brooklyn

If a clinic in spine-tingling, dynamic. expert lead guitar is your thing, you could spend hundreds of dollars and make Ticketbastard rich and go see Richard Thompson at a place like City Winery. Or you could go see Eric Ambel and his band for free this Saturday night at 9 upstairs at Hill Country Brooklyn. The Brooklyn branch of the bbq franchise is 180 degrees the opposite of the Manhattan location. The staff are friendly and seem happy to be there, the crowd is local and multicultural, and while they don’t nceessarily come to listen, a lot of them do. That way, the band doesn’t have to try to drown out the touristy din like they do in Manhattan. And the Brooklyn branch’s sound system is better, too.

Ambel has been on tour this summer with his band – Brett Bass on bass, Phil Cimino on drums and Spanking Charlene‘s Mo Goldner on second guitar – so they should be stoked to be back on their home turf. Ambel’s most recent New York show was here on this same stage at the end of June, and it was amazing, one of the year’s best. Switching between his custom Telecaster and Les Paul, “Roscoe” delivered searing, string-bending intensity, judicious jangle and clang, choogling four-on-the-floor grooves, a couple of stomping detours toward punk rock, even some plaintive wee-hour C&W. All that in two sets, about two hours of music where the band finally ran out of rehearsed material and blasted through a couple of old R&B covers to close the night.

There were so many high-voltage moments, it’s impossible to separate one from the rest. The band opened the second set with a searing take of Song for the Walls, the first track on Ambel’s second solo album, Loud & Lonesome, part psychedelic Beatles, part acidic Kevin Salem rock. Lou Whitney’s defiant Thirty Days in the Workhouse (“If I’d been a black man, they’d have given me thirty years”) resonated especially with this audience. There was roadhouse rock like Scott Kempner’s Here Come My Love. country-flavored material like Jimbo Mathus’ Let’s Play with Fire, and a couple of snarling, Ramones-influenced numbers, the best of them being the snide Hey Mr. DJ. Introducing that one, Ambel told a hilarious story about the first time he saw the Ramones, as an eighteen-year-old party animal in Illinois. That story’s too good to give away here.

Spanking Charlene frontwoman Charlene McPherson came up to duet on a swampy take of Have Mercy, which she co-wrote with Ambel. Mary Lee Kortes – Ambel’s wife and an equally skilled tunesmith, whose long-awaited forthcoming full-length album The Songs of Beulah Rowley is awe-inspiring – lent her crystalline voice to a couple of numbers too. The night’s longest and most darkly simmering epic, Buyback Blues – a bittersweet look back at Ambel’s well-loved and dearly missed East Village venue, Lakeside Lounge – was as good as anything Neil Young & Crazy Horse could come up with. If memory serves right, the band ran through just about everything from Ambel’s latest solo album, also titled Lakeside.

Later in the second set Ambel entertained the crowd with his funniest song, I Love You Baby – if you don’t know it, the lyrics are also too funny to give away here. The show this Saturday night should be something like this, who knows, maybe even better. If we get lucky they’ll play Garbagehead, the ultimate Lakeside Lounge Saturday night party anthem.

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A Look Back at Last Year’s Vocal Summit With Amanda Thorpe and Her Siren Friends

More about that Amanda Thorpe show coming up on June 13 at 8 PM at Hifi Bar. She’s playing in the intimate space in the back, where the Britfolk and chamber pop songwriter – the closest thing to Linda Thompson that this generation has produced – will be joined by guitarists Don Piper and her longtime Bedsit Poets bandmate Edward Rogers.

Mary Lee Kortes was one of three other women who joined Thorpe late last year onstage at the Treehouse at 2A for a summit meeting of four of the most haunting voices in all of rock. It was one of the half-dozen most spellbinding shows of the year: vocally speaking, no other performance all year came close. The quartet of Thorpe, Kortes, Lianne Smith and Debby Schwartz each played guitar, singing in the round, trading songs, joining voices as duos and trios and once or twice in four-part harmony: pure, unaffected, spine-tingling intensity.

Thorpe has an ambered delivery that can be either coyly fun or woundedly resigned in the low registers, but when she cuts loose and soars way up, that’s when the firepower really kicks in. Likewise, Smith channels hushed nunace as much as poignancy, has a spun-steel upper register and has never written better than she’s doing now. With her metalcutter crystalline tone and ability to effortlessly leap octaves, Kortes is probably one of the half-dozen best singers in the world, never mind the rock world. Schwartz, the former Aquanettas frontwoman, might have the most distinctive voice of all four singers,  both plaintive and atmospheric with a tinge of grit. She and Smith – who also draws on rockabilly, Americana and psychedelia – share an indie rock background. Kortes draws on all sorts of Americana, and like Thorpe is equally adept at jazz.

Smith had her Strat with the reverb turned up as she usually does. A typically allusive new number parsed the understated ache and longing from eyes that are “bright, bright, bright” in circumstances that are hardly “right, right, right” – chilling, especially in contrast to the power she unleashed on the chorus. A spare, skeletal, southern soul-tinged new song gave her a platform for the kind of simmering vengeance that Dusty Springfield would have killed for.

Schwartz aired out the sardonic, understatedly brooding Dreaming New York City in the Middle of LA and also the evening’s high point among many, a viscerally  spine-tinglingtake of the otherwise enigmatic, minor-key anthem Hills of Violent Green. Kortes’s high points were the wickedly catchy, darkly chromatic, soaring Vegas noir-tinged Learn from What I Dream and the jaunty, uneasily defiant oldtimey swing tune Big Times, along with a swinging, embittered, coiled-cobra new song that might have been the evening’s single best number.

Joining voices with Treehouse impresario and guitar monster Tom Clark, Thorpe elevated a sad Everly Brothers song far above early 60s folk-revival stuff, to the level of something from the Skooshny catalog, maybe. She channeled the most nuance of anyone, especially in a handful of shadowy, noir-tinged reinventions of Great American Songbook jazz-pop from the Yip Harburg catalog, which she memorably recorded in 2014. A longtime staple of the Lower East Side scene back when it was about art far more than commerce, she rarely makes it back to town these days: if you missed her the first time around, now’s your chance not to miss out again.

A Vivid, Elegant New Album and a Murray Hill Show from Singer Heather Nova

Singer Heather Nova may have been throwing fire at the sun since the 90s, but she’s undiminished as a songwriter. Her voice has taken on a bit more of a wintry tinge than in her heyday, when she was cranking out one European hit after another, but she still hits the high notes with an enigmatic intensity, from a whisper to a wail. Her latest album, The Way It Feels, is streaming at Spotify. She’s got a relatively rare New York show coming up on April 6 at 7:30 PM at the Cutting Room; $22.50 advance tix are available at their ticket window.

The album opens with the angst-driven Treehouse, an ocean of atmospheric guitars and strings moving in and out like the tide over spare fingerpicked lines, gracefully rising to towering art-rock, part Aussie legends the Church, part Nicole Atkins. The shuffling Sea Glass, with its insistent rhyme scheme and pensive oceanside metaphors, brings to mind Mary Lee Kortes at her poppiest.

“Every day is like Pompeii,” Nova muses as The Archaeologist opens, a stark throwback to Nova’s 90s adventures in trip-hop. Girl on the Mountain layers a moody Britfolk verse and one of Nova’s signature, breathtaking, surprise choruses over a similar groove that rises to an icy majesty. Lie Down in the Bed You’ve Made isn’t the kiss-off anthem you might expect: it’s a seduction ballad, like a more country Aimee Mann.

With its catchy four-chord hook and artful piano/vibraphone chamber-pop arrangement, the woundedly resigned On My Radar is a more warmly organic throwback to Nova’s 90s work. Her breathy vocals gives Sleeping Dogs a disarming intimacy against a broodingly artsy Britfolk backdrop. The psychedelic pop ballad Sea Change morphs cleverly in and out of a 6/8 rhythm, awash in swirly keyboards and spare, glittering guitars. Nova follows that with the album’s most ethereal cut, This Humanness, weighing emotional baggage and the inevitable passage of time.

Over an intricate web of acoustic guitars and cello, I’m Air is Nova at her inscrutably counterintuitive best, moving in an unexpectedly triumphant, symphonic direction, an update on an old Moody Blues theme. With its archetypal metaphors, Women’s Hands tackles heavy themes like societally-inflicted self-hatred and insecurity. The album winds up with the oldtimey-tinged ukulele waltz Moon River Days. Good to see someone who quietly and methodically built one of the most consistently catchy catalogs of the past twenty years or so still at it and still going strong.

The Best New York Concerts of 2015

On one hand, pulling this page together is always a lot of fun – and there could be a late addition or two, since the year’s not over yet. Of all the year-end lists here, including the Best Songs of 2015 and Best Albums of 2015, this is the most individualistic – everybody’s got their own – and reflective of the various scenes in this blog’s endangered but still vital hometown.

On the other hand, whittling this page down to a manageable number always hurts a little. With apologies to everyone who didn’t make the cut, for reasons of space or otherwise – seriously, nobody’s got the time to sift through the hundred or so concerts that realistically deserve to be on this page – this list feels bare-bones, even with a grand total of 28 shows.

In terms of epic sweep, intensity and gravitas, the year’s best concert was by Iran’s Dastan Ensemble in September at Roulette. This performance marked the New York debut of intense young singer Mahdieh Mohammadkhani, who aired out her powerful voice in a series of original suites on themes of gender equality by members of the ensemble, along with some dusky, austere traditional songs.

Since trying to rank the rest of these shows would be impossible, they’re listed as they happened:

Karla Rose and Mark Sinnis & 825 at the Treehouse at 2A, 2/15/15
The frontwoman of noir rockers Karla Rose & the Thorns in a chillingly intimate duo performance with her Tickled Pinks bandmate Stephanie Layton, followed by the Nashville gothic crooner and his massive oldschool honkytonk band.

Molly Ruth and Lorraine Leckie at the Mercury, 3/12/15
A savage, careening set by the angst-fueled punk-blues siren and her new band, followed by the Canadian gothic songstress and her volcanic group with newly elected Blues Hall of Fame guitarist Hugh Pool.

Lazy Lions and Regular Einstein at Rock Shop, 3/20/15
A feast of lyrical double entendres, edgy new wave and punk-inspired tunesmithing. Jim Allen’s band were playing their first gig since 2008 and picked up like they never stopped; Paula Carino’s recently resurrected original band from the 90s were just as unstoppable.

The Shootout Band and a nameless if good pickup band led by John Sharples at the Mercury, 3/22/15
Cover bands get very little space here for reasons that should be obvious, but the Shootout Band devote themselves to doing a scary-good replication of Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, Erica Smith shattering in her role as Linda Thompson and Bubble’s Dave Foster doing a spot-on-Richard. Afterward, multi-instrumentalist John Sharples led a similarly talented bunch song by song through Graham Parker’s cult favorite Squeezing Out Sparks album

Ensemble Hilka, Black Sea Hotel and the Ukrainian Village Voices at the Ukrainian Museum, 4/25/15
In their first performance in over three years (see Lazy Lions above), the Ukrainian choral group ran through a rustic, otherworldly performance of ancient songs from the area around the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site. Innovative Bulgarian/Balkan trio Black Sea Hotel and then the esteemed East Village community singers were no less otherworldly.

Mamie Minch and Laura Cantrell at Union Hall, 5/5/15
Resonator guitar badass and pan-Americana songstress Minch, and then Cantrell – the reigning queen of retro country sounds – each took their elegant rusticity to new places. Cantrell’s final stand of a monthlong residency here, a mighty electric show, was also awfully good.

Emel Mathlouthi and Niyaz at the World Financial Center, 5/8/15
Menacingly triumphant, politically-fueled Arabic art-rock from Mathlouthi and then mystically hypnotic, propulsive Iranian dancefloor grooves from Niyaz.

Rachelle Garniez and Carol Lipnik at Joe’s Pub, 5/14/15
Noir cabaret, stark Americana, soul/gospel and deviously funny between song repartee from multi-instrumentalist Garniez, followed by the magically surreal art-rock of Lipnik and her spine-tingling four-octave voice in a duo show with pianist Matt Kanelos.

Amy Rigby at Hifi Bar, 5/28/15
The final show of her monthlong residency was a trio set with her husband Wreckless Eric and bassist daughter Hazel, a richly lyrical, puristically tuneful, characteristically hilarious career retrospective

Erica Smith, Mary Spencer Knapp, Pete Cenedella, Monica Passin and the Tickled Pinks at the Treehouse at 2A, 5/31/15
Guitarist and purist tunesmith Passin, a.k.a L’il Mo, put this bill together as one of her frequent “Field of Stars” songwriters-in-the-round nights here. Smith was part of a lot of good shows this year because she’s so in demand; this was a rare chance to hear her dark Americana in a solo acoustic setting, joined by eclectic accordionist Knapp (of Toot Sweet), irrepressible American Ambulance frontman Cenedella, and a surprise appearance by coyly edgy swing harmony trio the Tickled Pinks (Karla Rose, Stephanie Layton and Kate Sland).

Jim Allen, Kendall Meade and Ward White at Hifi Bar, 6/15/15
Songsmith Allen doesn’t get around as much as a lot of the other acts here, but he really makes his gigs count: this was a glimpse of his aphoristic, lyrical Americana side. Meade, frontwoman of the late, great, catchy Mascott, held the crowd rapt with her voice and her hooks, then White went for deep literary menace with a little glamrock edge.

Glass House Ensemble and Muzsikas at NYU’s Skirball Center, 6/17/15
Trumpeter Frank London’s collaboration with an all-star Hungarian group, recreating rare pre-Holocaust Jewish sounds, followed by the more stripped-down, rustic but high-voltage Hungarian folk trio.

The Claudettes and Big Lazy at Barbes, 7/11/15
Fiery, sometimes hilariously theatrical barrelhouse piano soul followed by New York’s most menacing, state-of-the-art noir soundtrack band. Big Lazy have an ongoing monthly Barbes residency; their two sets this past May were particularly scary.

The Bright Smoke at the Mercury, 7/25/15
This was the show where intense frontwoman Mia Wilson’s blues-inspired psychedelic art-rock band made the quantum leap and earned comparisons to Joy Division.

Robin Aigner & Parlour Game at Barbes, 8/8/15
The torchy, wickedly lyrical oldtimey/Americana songstress at the top of her captivating game with a trio including poignant, powerful violinist/pianist Rima Fand.

Ember Schrag, Alec K Redfearn & the Eyesores and Escape by Ostrich at Trans-Pecos, 8/23/15
The fearsomely talented Schrag did double duty at this show, first playing her own murderously lyrical, Shakespeare-influenced art-rock with her own band, then switching from guitar to organ in Redfearn’s equally murderous Balkan psychedelic group. Jangly no wave jamband Escape by Ostrich took the evening into the wee hours.

Sweet Soubrette and Kotorino at Joe’s Pub, 9/2/15
This time it was menacing chanteuse Ellia Bisker who did double duty, first fronting her richly horn-driven noir soul band, then adding her voice to the noir latin art-rock of Kotorino.

The Shannon Baker/Erica Seguine Jazz Orchestra at Shrine, 9/7/15
Lots of good jazz shows this past year, none more unpredictably fascinating and lushly gorgeous than the epic performance by this unique, shapeshifting large ensemble uptown.

Kelley Swindall at LIC Bar, 9/16/15
The noir Americana songwriter and murder ballad purveyor usually leads a band; this solo gig was a rare chance to get up close and personal with her creepily philosophical southern gothic narratives

Charming Disaster at Pete’s Candy Store, 9/30/15
Speaking of twisted narratives, this multi-instrumentalist murder ballad/noir song project by Bisker and Morris (look up three notches) never sounded more menacing – and epically inspired – than they did here.

Jenifer Jackson at a house concert on the Upper West Side, 10/1/15
A long-awaited return home by the now Austin-based Americana/jazz/psychedelic songwriter, in a rare trio show with amazingly virtuosic multi-instrumentalist Kullen Fuchs and violinist Claudia Chopek

Liz Tormes and Linda Draper at the American Folk Art Museum, 10/23/15
A rare solo acoustic dark Americana twinbill by two of the most potently, poignantly lyrical songsmiths in that shadowy demimonde.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices and MacMcCarty & the Kidd Twist Band at Sidewalk, 11/6/15
Murphy has defined New York noir for a long time – and now he’s gone electric, with searing results. McCarty has more of a Celtic folk-rock edge and equally haunting, politically-fueled story-songs.

Karla Rose & the Thorns at the Mercury, 11/17/15
Enigmatic reverb guitar-fueled Twin Peaks torch songs, stampeding southwestern gothic bolero rock, ominously echoey psychedelia, venomous saloon blues and stiletto between-song repartee from another artist who made multiple appearances on this list because everybody wants her to sing with them.

The Sometime Boys at Freddy’s, 11/20/15
One of New York’s most individualistic, catchy, groove-driven bands ran through a sizzling set of haunting, gospel-inflected ballads, jaunty newgrass, acoustic funk and blue-flame guitar psychedelia

Amanda Thorpe, Mary Lee Kortes, Lianne Smith and Debby Schwartz at the Treehouse at 2A, 11/22/15
Impresario Tom Clark remarked that there might never have been so much talent onstage here as there was this particular evening, with noir Britfolk songwriter Thorpe, the soaring and savagely lyrical Kortes, the ever-darker and mesmerizing Smith and the powerful, dreampop/Americana-influenced Schwartz. For that matter, there have been few nights on any stage anywhere in this city with this much lyrical and vocal power, ever.

Like last year, the numbers here suggest many interesting things. Eighteen of these shows were in Manhattan, eight were in Brooklyn and two in Queens, which is open to multiple interpretations. More instructive is the fact that half of the twenty-eight were free shows where the audience passed around a tip bucket rather than paying a cover at the door. Most interestingly, women artists dominated this list, even more so than they did last year: an astonishing 39 of the 53 acts here were either women playing solo or fronting a group. That’s a trend. You’re going to see more of that here on the Best Albums of 2015 and Best Songs of 2015 pages at the end of this month.

The 100 Best Songs of 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best New York Concerts of 2014

Of all the year-end lists here, including the best albums and best songs of 2014 lists, this one is the most individual, and the most fun to put together. But as amazing a year for live music as it was, there were twice as many enticing shows that this blog never had the chance to cover as there are on this list. It’s called having a life – or trying to, in between concerts, anyway.

So consider this an informed survey rather than anything definitive, and ultimately, a reason for guarded optimism. Much as gentrification destroys the arts like Walmart destroys local economies, neither one has killed us. Yet.

What was the single best show of the year? Four multi-band bills stand out from the rest. Back in October at Trans-Pecos, charismatic Great Plains gothic bandleader Ember Schrag played a wickedly lyrical mix of mostly new material, some of it with a string section, the rest fueled by the snarling, spectacular lead guitar of Bob Bannister. Also playing that night: rapturously hypnotic, melancholic cellist/songwriter Meaner Pencil, dark art-rock duo Christy & Emily, plus a starkly entrancing set by two jazz icons, guitarist Mary Halvorson and violist Jessica Pavone.

A month earlier, renaissance woman Sarah Small put together a similarly magical night at Joe’s Pub featuring her Middle Eastern-inspired trio Hydra with Rima Fand and Yula Beeri as well as her otherworldly Balkan choral trio Black Sea Hotel with Willa Roberts and Shelley Thomas. There were also brief sets from the reliably entertaining all-female accordion group the Main Squeeze Orchestra and a trio version of one of NYC’s original Romany bands, Luminescent Orchestrii.

In mid-November, the Bowery Electric triplebill of hauntingly catchy Nashville gothic tunesmith/singer Jessie Kilguss, similarly lyrical and vocally gifted art-rock songwriter Ward White – both playing an album release show – and well-loved literate Americana rocker Matt Keating was pretty transcendent. And let’s not forget the Alwan-a-Thon back in January, the annual celebration of cutting-edge sounds from across the Arabic-speaking world held at financial district music mecca Alwan for the Arts. This one featured two floors of amazing acts including intense Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani and his trio, luminous Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina, amazingly psychedelic 1960s Iranian art-dance-rock revivalists Mitra Sumara, sizzling Romany party monsters Sazet Band, and the all-star Alwan Ensemble, who played bristling jams on classic themes from Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

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

Avi Fox-Rosen and Raya Brass Band at Rock Shop, 1/9/14 – Fox-Rosen had just released an album every single month in 2013, so this was a triumphant sort of greatest hits live gig for the sharply lyrical, catchy art-rock tunesmith followed by a wild vortex of Balkan jamming, the group down on the floor in front of the stage surrounded by dancers.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices at Parkside Lounge, 2/1/14 – the charismatic, nattily dressed noir rocker led his explosive, blues-fueled band through a careening set of intensely lyrical, distinctively New York narratives.

Siach Hasadeh and Ichka in the basement at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the Upper West Side, 3/4/14 – every Tuesday, more or less, drummer Aaron Alexander – a prime mover in Jewish jazz circles – books a series of reliably excellent bands here. This twinbill kicked off with a rapturously haunting set by Montreal’s Siach Hasadeh followed by another Montreal outfit, the high-energy Ichka and then a jam with members of both bands joined by audience members.

Tammy Faye Starlite singing Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English at the Lincoln Center Atrium, 3/13/14 – a counterintuitive, sardonically hilarious reinterpretation of a haphazardly iconic new wave era album.

Jenifer Jackson at the Rockwood, 3/26/14 – the eclectic Austin songwriter brought her new band from her adopted hometown, reinventing older material and newer stuff as well with Kullen Fuchs’ rippling vibraphone as the lead instrument.

Gord Downie & the Sadies at Bowery Ballroom, 5/2/14 – a furious, often haunting sprint through the Canadian gothic Americana band’s most recent collaboration with the Tragically Hip frontman, ending with an explosively psychedelic Iggy Pop cover.

Hannah Thiem at Mercury Lounge, 5/29/14 – the haunting violinist/composer teamed up with an A-list string section to air out soaringly ethereal, cinematic new Nordic and Middle Eastern-tinged electroacoustic material from her latest album.

Nick Waterhouse at the Brooklyn Night Bazaar in Greenpoint, 6/13/14 – the LA noir soul bandleader and a killer pickup band featuring Burnt Sugar’s Paula Henderson on baritone sax brought moody Lynchian sounds to this grotesquely trendoid-infested space.

Kayhan Kalhor and Jivan Gasparyan at the World Financial Center, 6/14/14 – the legendary Iranian-Kurdish spike fiddle virtuoso and composer joined the similarly legendary Armenian duduk reedman for a rapturous, otherworldly duo set of improvisations on classic themes from each others’ traditions.

No Grave Like the Sea at Ramirez Park in Bushwick, 6/21/14 – after a day running around aimlessly trying to find bands playing daytime shows during the annual Make Music NY buskerfest, the volcanically sweeping, epic set by bassist Tony Maimone’s cinematic postrock band made it all worthwhile.

Karen Dahlstrom at the American Folk Art Museum, 6/27/14 – while she may be best known as one of the four first-rate songwriters in Bobtown, arguably the best gothic Americana harmony band around, Dahlstrom is also just as captivating as a solo performer. She took advantage of the museum’s sonics and sang a-cappella and ran through a tantalizingly brief set of haunting, historically rich original songs from her Idaho-themed album Gem State.

Serena Jost at the Rockwood, 6/29/14 – a lush, sweeping, richly enveloping, tuneful show by the art-rock cellist/multi-instrumentalist singer and her band. The all-too-brief, eclectic set by southwestern gothic bandleader Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta about an hour beforehand at South Street Seaport – with psychedelic cumbias, rumba rock and the most twisted Fleetwood Mac cover ever – got the evening off to a great start.

Changing Modes at Bowery Electric, 7/19/14 – keyboardist/bassist Wendy Griffiths’ slinky, shapeshifting art-rock band has never sounded more anthemic or intense. And earlier that afternoon, scorching sets by the noisily atmospheric VBA, pummeling postrock/metal band Biblical and dark garage punks Obits at Union Pool kicked off what might have been the year’s single best day of music.

Jacco Gardner at South Street Seaport, 8/15/14 – he sort of plays the same song over and over, a dreamy, gorgeously chiming, psychedelic sunshine pop number straight out of London, 1967. But it’s a great song, and it was worth sticking around for what were essentially variations on a theme.

Bliss Blood & Al Street at Brooklyn Rod & Gun Club, 8/27/14 – the lurid but plaintive and haunting torch song icon teamed up with the brilliant, flamenco-inspired guitarist for a riveting, Lynchian set of mostly new material from their phenomenally good forthcoming album.

Gemma Ray at Rough Trade, 9/13/14 – the British noir songwriter played a similarly Lynchian set in a stark duo show, just guitar and drums, a showcase for her smart, individualistic, creepy playing and macabre songwriting.

The Dances of the World Chamber Ensemble at St. Marks Church, 9/14/14 – the improvisationally-inclined, cinematic instrumentalists ran through a magical blend of African, Middle Eastern, tango and jazz pieces by frontwoman/pianist/flutist Diana Wayburn.

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 9/15/14 – sadly, NYC’s funnest band have since gone on “indefinite hiatus,” whatever that means. At least they were on the top of their game when they played a wild, darkly psychedelic mix of trippy, surfy Peruvian psychedelic cumbia sounds in one of their last shows of the year.

Wounded Buffalo Theory playing Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway at Rock Shop, 9/19/14 – the art-rockers joined with a revolving cast including members of the Sometime Boys, Afroskull, 29 Hour Music People, and the Trouble Dolls for an impressively spot-on, epic recreation of the cult favorite 1974 art-rock album, WNYC’s John Hockenberry reading Peter Gabriel’s drolly surreal album liner notes in between songs.

Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes, 9/23/14 – this isn’t the show reviewed at this blog back in June. That show featured the octogenarian multi-reedman and his hypnotic but kinetic band playing an unselfconsciously deep, soulful blend of Armenian music and incisive American jazz. His next gig there was even better!

Sherita at Barbes, 9/30/14 – the Brooklyn Balkan supergroup of sorts – reedman Greg Squared of Raya Brass Band, violinist Rima Fand of Luminescent Orchestrii, percussionis/singer Renée Renata Bergan and oudist Adam Good – played an alternately sizzling and sepulchral mix of originals and classic themes from Turkey, Greece and here as well.

Mary Lee Kortes at the Rockwood, 10/7/14 – the brilliant Americana songwriter and chanteuse and her band, feauturing John Mellencamp guitarist Andy York, aired out dazzlingly eclectic, intensely lyrical songs from her forthcoming album, The Songs of Beulah Rowley, a mix of saloon jazz, torch song and plaintive Americana.

The Skull Practitioners at Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick, 10/31/14 – it was the ultimate Halloween show, Steve Wynn lead guitar monster Jason Victor’s otherworldly, pummeling noiserock trio building a menacing but wickedly catchy vortex. That their half-hour set was as good as some of the four-hour bills on this list testifies to how volcanically good it was.

Karla Moheno at the Rockwood, 11/18/14 – the inscrutable noir songwriter and guitarist led a killer, Lynchian band through a mix of low-key, murderous, mysteriously lyrical narratives and more upbeat but no less shadowy material.

Mamie Minch at Barbes, 12/20/14 – this is why it always pays to wait til the very end of the year to finish this list. The charismatic resonator guitarist/singer and oldtime blues maven teamed up with Kill Henry Suger drummer Dean Sharenow for a killer set of blues from over the decades along with similarly edgy, sardonically aphoristic original material

If you’re wondering why there isn’t any jazz or classical music to speak of on this list, that’s because this blog has an older sister blog, Lucid Culture, which covers that kind of stuff in more detail.

A couple of things may jump out at you here. Nineteen of these shows were in Manhattan, eleven were in Brooklyn and one in Queens, which is open to multiple interpretations. More instructive is the fact that nineteen of the thirty-one were free shows where the audience passed around a tip bucket rather than paying a cover at the door. Most interestingly, women artists dominated this list. 26 out of of the 42 acts here were either women playing solo or fronting a group. That’s a trend. You’re going to see more of that here in the next couple of days.

Mary Lee Kortes Launches What Could Be an Amazing Album at the Rockwood

It’s never safe to say that any one artist is the best at any particular style: every time somebody seems to reach the top, somebody else knocks them off, most likely without any intention of doing that. You know the drill: the more good stuff you know, the more you discover. That being said, there’s definitely no better or more diverse songwriter than Mary Lee Kortes working right now, anywhere in the world. Earlier this evening at the Rockwood she aired out her latest project, The Songs of Beulah Rowley, an intense, meticulously crafted, lyrically shattering collection of tunes that seemed to draw equally on Belgian barroom music, Great Plains saloon jazz, lively swing and epic Americana, all with her signature intense lyricism.

Pretty impressive for someone known primarily as a spine-tingling, crystalline singer (Kortes has led the UN Voices, sung on albums by Placido Domingo and fronted richly tuneful Americana rock band Mary Lee’s Corvette from the late 90s through the end of the zeros). As Kortes tells it, Rowley was orphaned at ten, dead by thirty, a precocious and rather profound songwriter from the 1920s who, like Kortes, never met a style of music she couldn’t master and then leave her own indelible mark on. “Pain will do that,” Kortes offered as explanation. Kortes’ all-star band – Andy York on banjitar (banjo body, guitar neck and strings), Rod Hohl on acoustic guitar, Joe Chiofalo on accordion, Jeremy Chatzky on bass and Phil Cimino on drums – reveled in the songs’ rich harmonies, wryly tricky metrics and full-throttle lyrical power. If all goes according to plan, these songs will take shape on a crowdsourced album with legendary producer Hal Willner (the guy behind the cult favorite Amarcord Nino Rota album of Fellini film themes) at the helm. It’s a project worth getting involved with, if only for the sake of owning a piece of the action when it comes out. There are also all kinds of cool prizes and perks available – house concerts, rare memorabilia, the works.

Kortes worked a sarcastic, recurrent “hallelujah” on the first song of the set, the banjitar’s bluesy ominousness underscoring a harrowing cycle of violence repeating itself. We Did Well By the Water, the second number, was a mantra-like, spot-on evocation of Midwestern denial. As Kortes told it, these tightlipped folks ended up drinking their tears.

Minor keys notwithstanding, not all of Rowley’s narratives ended badly: the irrepressibly jaunty hi-de-ho swing tune Big Things and a similarly wired early 1900s-style klezmer-vaudeville romp echoed an indomitable desire to make a name for herself under the bright lights. And Fingernail Moon, a bouncily apprehensive noir shuffle, brought to mind another first-class, Midwestern-born, New York-based songwriter, Bliss Blood.

But an unresolved ache lingered. Kortes went deep into jazz nuance for the angst-fueled Will Anybody Know That I Was Here – one one level, a shout-out to posterity, on another a chilling admission of very possible defeat. Kortes nicked the vamping chords of One For My Baby for an anthemic tribute to the virtues of an interior life – Rowley’s bio, more fleshed out, might well have legs as a fullscale theatrical production. Kortes then went back to careful, jazz-tinged modulation – and some searing upper register vocals – for a swinging early Nashville pop-inflected number. She wound up the show with Someplace We Can’t See, uneasily balancing towering, anthemic hope with a pervasive bitterness There are as many levels of meaning in Kortes’ songcraft as there are in her vocals: here’s to hearing these unselfconsciously deep songs immortalized in the studio as they deserve to be.

Rosanne Cash Delivers Her Best Album Since Her Classic Black Cadillac

Rosanne Cash is one of those artists we take for granted. Another year, another tour, maybe another great album. So on one hand, her latest one The River & the Thread comes as no surprise. As a songwriter, her voice is wise, and knowing, and all too aware. On this one, both musically and lyrically, Richard Thompson is the obvious comparison – through imagery as loaded as a Civil War Gatling gun, Cash is always fighting off the gloom. As a singer, she just gets more and more nuanced: in the years since her last greatest shining moment, Black Cadillac, she’s using her resonant lower register a little more: Jenifer Jackson‘s recent work comes to mind. As expected, her husband and musical director John Leventhal’s guitar, bass and keyboard work is eclectic, and as subtle as the vocals, at the same time packing a soulful wallop. This is definitely the best thing Cash has done since 2006, which makes sense considering that the album revisits so many of the brooding themes that made Black Cadillac a genuine classic. Cash also has a New York show on Feb 22 at 7 PM at the Metrpoolitan Museum of Art, but it’s sold out. In the meantime, you can hear the album on Spotify.

The opening track A Feather’s Not a Bird sets the stage for most of what’s to come. Stark, noirish strings, minor keys and spare, bluesy lead guitar over a swaying beat anchor Cash’s litany of metaphors for a legacy that weighs heavily on her: “A feather’s a not a bird, the rain is not the sea, a stone is not a mountain but a river runs through me.” The Sunken Lands is more rustic – mandolin is the lead instrument – and reminds of Mary Lee Kortes, a narrative of toil and woe that could be set in the age of slavery…or the current age of near-slavery.

The ghost of Cash’s father continues to haunt her, particularly on Etta’s Tune, a bittersweet, vividly imagistic look at a conflicted family: “We kept the polished bass guitar, we kept the tickets and the reels of tape to remember who we are,” Cash recalls, with an understated anger for the loss of pretty much everything else. Then she switches gears with Modern Blue, a vintage 60s-style psych-folk number held aloft on a lush bed of acoustic guitars, like a Lee Hazelwood song but with better lyrics – and Carol Lipnik‘s swinging rhythm section of drummer Dan Rieser and bassist Tim Luntzel.

Tell Heaven sticks with the folk-rock, but more pensively, Cash assessing the dubious power of prayer: “The empty sky may never take our burdens,” she muses. The Long Way Home looks back to late 60s Jimmy Webb-style countrypolitan, and once again to Johnny Cash: “Summer rain was heavy, almost as heavy as your heart, a cavalcade of strangers came to tear your world apart.” Then World of Strange Design brings the Appalachian gothic back: it could be a harrowing tale of a returning soldier’s family falling apart, or simply a metaphorical tale about a guy who “Set off the minefield like you were rounding first.” Derek Trucks guests on guitar on that one.

With a string section (Dave Mansfield on violin and viola and Dave Eggar on cello) that begins pillowy and quickly turns ghostly, Night School is a haunted, restless look back at at a relationship that’s probably done for good: one of the most compelling things about Cash’s songwriting is that she always lets the images tell the story, tantalizing the listener and leaving open the possibility for multiple interpretations. By contrast, 50,000 Watts, a duet with Cory Chisel, employs layers and layers of guitars and electric piano in a jaunty tribute to gospel radio. The Nashville gothic reaches a peak with When the Master Calls the Roll, a death-fixated Civil War soldier’s tale. The album ends with Money Road, a mashup of fire-and-brimstone Bible imagery and 70s radio pop much in the same vein as Tom Petty’s Runaway. It almost goes without saying that this is one of the best albums of the year.

Jeanne Jolly Stuns the Crowd at Drom

North Carolina Americana singer/bandleader Jeanne Jolly liked Drom the minute she walked into the venue, she told the crowd there Friday night. She was onto something – it’s a very welcoming venue, something she knows about from her days waitressing in her home state. She’s come a long way since then; New York was a stop on the southbound stretch of her latest East Coast tour. There are plenty of singers with pretty voices, but Jolly is special. She can move from a gentle murmur to a gale-force wail in a split second and make it look easy; she has homegrown country charm but just as much urbane sophistication. Alongside her, eight-string guitarist Chris Boerner did the seemingly impossible task of playing nimble, climbing basslines on the low strings while jangling and sometimes burning his way through leads higher up the fretboard while drummer Nick Baglio also did double duty, playing piano and organ on a handful of tunes, sometimes one-handed, sometimes keeping time with just his feet.

Jolly’s songs reflect her eclectic background; much as she fits in with the Americana rock crowd, she’s both more oldschool and new, incorporating elements of jazz and Brazilian music as well as classic bluegrass and the occasional detour toward honkytonk. She opened with the swaying Long Way Home: when Jolly’s voice resisted an easy resolution and rose, wounded and full of angst as the verse turned around, it was a dead ringer for Mary Lee Kortes. That the set the stage for the rest of the evening. Boerner opened the second number, Angels on Hayworth Street, with an eerily starlit solo intro before the bluegrass beat kicked in.  It’s an escape anthem, Jolly’s voice channeling equal parts determination and dread.

Happy Days Cafe, inspired by her days waiting tables, set a mysterious, enigmatic, possibly ghostly narrative to pensive, fingerpicked guitar, rising to a jangly, clanging chorus. “We would have a lot of deep conversations,” she explained: her customers were a pretty entertaining bunch. She hit a big, fiery peak on the next song and then slowly made her way into the most spine-tingling number of the night, Round and Round Again. She started it as a gentle waltz, dedicated, she said, to her grandparents, who were married 65 years. “I remember when you swung me around,” Jolly sang, reaching to the rafters for high notes, but with a tenderness that suddenly went very sad and nostalgic: “That was a long time ago.” So when she hit the final chorus so hard she pulled back off the mic, the contrast was visceral.

An earlier song in the set explored more upbeat emotional turf, Boerner’s couple of solos echoing Jerry Garcia in “on” mode. Boerner took the energy up even further on an unselfconsciously imploring take of the highway rock anthem Hard Way while Jolly matched him, leaping and bending her notes with a raw intensity. Baglio also provided elegant piano intros on a couple of quieter numbers. Jolly wound up the set with a bossa-tinged tune, the more traditional, country-flavored Good Man and then went back to rock, belting out a long, sustained note for what seemed like ages while the band hit a big crescendo behind her…and then faked the crowd out with a trick ending.

Offstage, Jolly is exactly the same as she is on: disarmingly personable and full of stories. Raised on Motown and bluegrass, she went deep into jazz as a teenager…only to go off to New England Conservatory, where she studied opera. By the time she’d hit her mid-twenties, she was touring the world with a jazz outfit. All that experience factors into how much she defies convention, not to mention how subtly she wields that shattering voice. Jolly makes frequent stops here in town; watch this space for the next one.

A Killer Free Download From Drina Seay

New York songwriter and bandleader Drina Seay seemingly came out of nowhere to become one of the great voices in pretty much every style of Americana music. For her, Americana means jazz and soul music in addition to country and blues. Her blend of all these vocal styles is one of the things that distinguishes her; the other is her songwriting, which draws equally powerfully on all of those genres as well. For the moment, she has an intriguing ep of original songs available for free download at her site. The lineup here features her on acousttic guitar along with Homeboy Steve Antonakos doing his usual virtuoso job, this time on both acoustic and electric, backed by Skip Ward’s terse bass.

The first song, Don’t Keep Me Waiting Too Long works off a catchy rustic fingerpicked bluegrass riff, Seay”s voice alternately stern and alluring, Antonakos firing off a sizzling solo. It wouldn’t be out of place in the Mary Lee Kortes songbook. The second cut, a big, torchy concert favorite, is Chase My Blues Away. Seay’s lurid, aching, reverbtoned vocals have a Neko Case menace matched by Antonakos’ blue-flame slide guitar: it’s one of the best songs written by anybody in this town in recent years. The last track, Whatcha Gonna Do, brings back Seay’s blend of bluegrass and classic pop chops. Watch this space for future show dates.