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Robin Aigner Brings Her Bittersweet, Richly Lyrical, Picturesque Americana to Barbes

Robin Aigner is one of the most darkly entertaning performers in New York. Long sought after as both a frontwoman and harmony singer – her time in chamber pop luminaries Pinataland ought to be at leat semi-legendary – she’s just as strong a songwriter. Her music draws equal on 19th century folk, Prohibition-era swing and oldtime hillbilly songs, with the occasional detour into Balkan sounds. And she can be hilarious: her lyrics are all about subtext, and double entendres, and history. She’s written about molasses floods in WWI-era Boston, inept Williamsburg buskers and imagined romances between such improbable figures as Irving Berlin and the first woman to come in through Ellis Island (she was Irish). And Aigner is an unreconstructed romantic – her characters get all bumped and bruised no matter what century they’re in, but they don’t quit. She and her charming chamber pop band Parlour Game are playing Barbes on August 8 at 8 PM, followed at 10 by Banda de los Muertos, a supergroup of NYC jazz types playing rousingly anthemic Sinaloa-style Mexican ranchera music for brass band.

Aigner is also an impresario: her previous gig was a mind-bogglingly eclectic, surprising, sometimes downright haunting night of Tom Waits covers at Freddy’s, featuring a diverse cast of characters including but hardly limited to Mamie Minch, Serena Jost, Pierre de Gaillande, Brooke Watkins, Dave Benjoya, Andrew Sovine and numerous others. She also put together the show before that, a magical night at the Jalopy with folk noir songwriter Erica Smith, rockabilly and retro guitar maven Monica Passin a.k.a. L’il Mo and devious accordion-and-violin duo the Wisterians. “Every month is World Wine Month,” Aigner announced to the audience at the Jalopy gig, and while she didn’t indulge in more than a couple of glasses during her set, that comment set the tone. Playing solo on guitar, she opened with Delores from Florence, an allusive yet minutely detailed tale of transcontinental love gone wrong set to a soaringly cantering, flamenco-tinged waltz.

After that, she did See You Around, a broodingly pulsing, wryly wistful number told from the point of view of a woman struggling to get past being smitten by a guy who clearly has no use for her in daylight. Pearl Polly Adler – an innuendo-packed shout-out to the legendary FDR-era bordello owner – looked back to early 20th century pop, when 90% of the stuff coming out of New York had a tasty, bracing klezmer tinge. For that matter, so did Kiss Him When He’s Down, a jaunty endorsement for giving a roofie to your significant other – or insignificant other – in order to get what you want.

Switching to uke, Aigner drew plenty of laughs with Crazy, a hilariously detailed litany of the kind of weirdos a woman can date if she sees fit. She went for darker ambience with the plaintive, alienated war survivor’s tale El Paraiso, then picked things up again with the jaunty Irving and Annie – Annie thinks Irving can play sonatas (he can’t) and later on in the song, she references Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island), which used to serve as a quasi-quarantine and was the site of one of New York’s first hospitals. After another moody, low-key number, Aigner teamed with Watkins on accordion to wind up her set with Greener, a soaringly anxious, bitter post-party alienation anthem that works on innumerable levels. If we’re lucky, she’ll play some and maybe all of these songs at Barbes.

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An Artfully Orchestrated, Intensely Noir New Album and a Joe’s Pub Show from Esteemed Chamber Pop Band the Old Ceremony

Back in the early zeros, when songwriter Django Haskins was a familiar presence playing around the Lower East Side of New York, it’s not likely that he drew a lot of Leonard Cohen comparisons. But artists grow, and as the years went on Haskins’ work took on a welcome gravitas, culminating when he formed chamber pop band the Old Ceremony in 2004. For those who might not get the reference, the band name is a shout-out to Cohen’s cult classic album New Skin for the Old Ceremony. The group are currently on tour for their excellent new album, Sprinter – streaming at youtube – with a show at Joe’s Pub tonight, July 25 at 7:30 PM. Cover is $15, and remember, the venue doesn’t charge a drink minimum anymore.

The album opens with the title track, a scampering folk noir number, like a more lushly orchestrated Curtis Eller song, Mark Simonsen’s eerily looping vibraphone contrasting with Gabriele Pelli’s gusty violin. Haskins’ elegantly emphatic twelve-string acoustic guitar joins with Simonsen’s organ and a nebulously dense arrangement on the stomping Live It Down, bringing to mind Pinataland.

An enigmatically catchy waltz, Ghosts of Ferriday opens with swirly Pink Floyd organ and builds to an ominously clanging noir-psych interlude fueled by Haskins’ creepy tremolo guitar: it’s sort of the missing link between Jimmy Webb and Nick Waterhouse. ”Something for the headphones, something for the chatterbox, drown out the howling of the human rain,” Haskins relates with crushing, deadpan sarcasm in the pulsing 60s bossa-noir anthem Magic Hour, evoking another cult favorite New York band, the Snow.

The sinister Mission Bells goes back to a latin noir slink, Haskin’s sardonic wah guitar paired against Simonsen’s smoky organ, with subtle, Lynchian dub tinges and an unexpectedly feral guitar solo out.  Over Greenland opens with an airy minimalism, channeling the narrator’s dread during a red-eye flight from who knows what – and then the scene shifts to a sarcastic, faux-Springsteen tableau. Fall Guy starts out with a brooding boleroesque groove and picks up with an anthemic stomp – the chute jumper at the center of the story sounds like notorious hijacker D.B. Cooper.

The moody, fingerpicked folk-rock blue-collar anomie anthem Hard Times wouldn’t be out of place on a recent Matt Keating album. Dan Hall’s rumbling drums and Shane Hartman’s dancing bass propel Efige, a snarling southwestern gothic narrative with murderously Balkan-tinged guitar. The final cut is Go Dark, packed with tricky metrics, snarky faux cinematics and metaphorically-charged suspense in the same vein as Ward White‘s most recent material. There’s just as much going on in the other songs as well, subtext and symbolism and allusions: if there’s any album this year that requires repeated listening, this is it. Notwithstanding contributions from southern indie royalty – Mike Mills of REM and the Baseball Project, and Chris Stamey from the DB’s – it’s Haskins’ tour de force. He’s never written more strongly or for matter played guitar with as much spacious, suspenseful intensity as he dives into here. It’s always good to see an artist at the top of their game fifteen years or so after they started, isn’t it?

The 30 Best New York Concerts of 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 100 Best Songs of 2011

All links here are to free downloads, streaming audio or video unless otherwise indicated. While this is an attempt to put these songs into some kind of order with the very best stuff at the top of the page, it doesn’t really make sense to even try to arrange them numerically. Consider: if  a song is good enough to be one of this year’s best one hundred, it has to be pretty special. You may find some dissonance with this year’s Best Albums list: the reason why a lot of songs from those releases aren’t on this one is because they were on this list in previous years.

#1: Erica Smith – Lucky in Love. This is a Paula Carino song from her Open on Sunday album, which topped the albums section of this list last year. And because nobody had the presence of mind to record the torchy, shattering version of this wryly haunting 6/8 lament that Smith sang at one of Carolyn AlRoy’s songwriter salons at the Parkside Lounge back in January, the link at the top of the page is to the Carino original. Which is only slightly less haunting. The link will be updated if and when audio or video becomes available; the same goes for the other songs here which haven’t made it to the web yet.

Laurie Anderson – Delirium. She debuted this achingly bitter, sweepingly atmospheric, elegaic suite at Lincoln Center last August: it may not have a title yet, and this segment may contain several individual songs.

Laurie Anderson – If You See Something, Say Something. A hilarious and spot-on dismissal of post 9/11 paranoia; it’s unreleased and may be part of a larger piece.

Laurie Anderson– The Real New York/Hard Times. As Anderson cynically explored the deterioration of a once-great city on an eerily calm, unexpectedly cool August night, a siren made its way north behind Lincoln Center. She played along with it: one of this year’s great live moments. As with the other Anderson tracks here, this is unreleased and possibly part of a larger piece.

Miramar– Di Corazon. The iconic Sylvia Rexach bolero, from the retro Puerto Rican band’s excellent Para Siempre album

Pinataland– Oppie Struck a Match. Historically rich southwestern gothic anthem from the Brooklyn chamber-rockers –  “Oppie” here is the evil nuclear scientist. From their excellent Hymns for the Dreadful Night album.

Trio Joubran – Masana. Towering, epic, elegaic suite for three ouds and percussion – it ends their new Asfar album on a wrenching, powerful note.

Marc Ribot– Scene of the Crime. Classic Andre Previn as done by one of the masters of noir guitar, live at the New School in April. Free download

Marc Ribot –Touch of Evil Theme. Classic Henry Mancini as done by one of the masters of noir guitar, live at the New School in April. Free download.

Mary Lee Kortes– Well By the Water. The darkest side of deadpan, secretive midwestern stoicism, powerfully depicted by the Americana chanteuse. From her latest album Songs of Beulah Rowley Vol. 1

Spottiswoode– Wild Goosechase Expedition. Beatlesque psychedelic travelogue as metaphor for the Iraq War and centerpiece of the art-rock songwriter’s album of the same name.

Laurie Anderson– Dark Downtown/Remembrance. As with the other Laurie Anderson tracks here, this may be a mix of individual songs: a contemplation on how much New York has changed for the worse, and how people tend to be dismissive of those who’ve died, in order to “travel lite,” emotionally speaking. Powerful stuff.

American Composers Orchestra– Andrew Norman: Unstuck. The highlight of this fall’s SONIC Festival of contemporary composers, this is a mammoth, intense noir suite. You’ll have to do some fast-forwarding to find it – the link is to the Q2 broadcast of the works from the festival voted most popular.

Either/Orchestra – Mambo #2. The second of four Ethiopian folk songs arranged for big band and rescued from obscurity – and played exhilaratingly, live this past November – at the New School. Look for a release, and a real title for this, sometime in 2012.

Beninghove’s Hangmen – H-Bomb. This macabre surf rock instrumental is the best song on the noir jazz group’s debut album from earlier this year.

Either/Orchestra – Mambo #1. This is a haunting traditional Ethiopian folk song arranged for big band and rescued from the vaults – and given a North American premiere this past Fall at the New School. Look for a proper release sometime in 2012.

Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz– Nightmare Scene from Vertigo. Harrowing Bernard Herrmann noir Hitchcock film sounds, a track from the pianist and cellist’s Shuffle Play Repeat album.

Trio Joubran– Asfar. Title track to the three oud-playing Palestinian brothers’ haunting, stately new album

Billy Bang/Bill Cole– Improvisation #1. Digeridoo drone and dark improvisation, this one with the late great jazz violinist playing against the multi-reedman’s low rumbling backdrop. From the Billy Bang Bill Cole live album recorded in 2009 and just released this year.

The Oxygen Ponies – Good Thing. It crescendos out of spare, plaintive folk-pop with a cynical fury: “This is a call to everyone/Wake your daughters, rouse your sons/Take your aim and shoot to kill/So your friends don’t hurt you/Cause others will. ” From the Exit Wounds album.

Ward White – Pretty/Ugly Town. The brilliantly sardonic, literate NYC powerpop songwriter at his most caustic and cynical, giving both barrels to a starstruck wannabe who’s new in New York. From his characteristically excellent Done with the Talking Cure album.

Dixie Bee-Liners– Restless. Hypnotic intense blues-based bluegrass reinvented as noir Steve Wynn style anthem. The Virginia bluegrass band absolutely killed with this last winter at the Jalopy.

Trio Tritticali– Ditty. The title is sarcastic – this is a powerful Midle Eastern flavored mini-suite from the eclectic Brooklyn string trio’s debut album Issue #1.

Ansambl Mastika– Memede Zlatna Ptica. The best song on the Brooklyn Balkan band’s exhilarating latest album Songs and Dances for Life Nonstop reaches a literally unreal crescendo.

Michel Camilo– Then & Now. A classic macabre Erik Satie theme done as piano jazz with Dominican sabor, from the pianist’s excellent Mano a Mano album.

Steve Wynn– Cloud Splitter. Vintage hypnotic bracing intense guitar artistry – it’s hard to tell which guitarist is Wynn and which is Jason Victor. From Wynn’s Northern Exposure album.

Trio Tritticali– Azizah. The string trio go deep into the Middle East for this slinky instrumental. From their new Issue #1 album.

Either/Orchestra– 1-5-0-9. Look for this sometime in 2012, probably under a new title: it’s yet another Ethiopian-flavored anthem from the unsurpassed Boston Ethiopian jazz group.

Trio Tritticali– Who Knows Yet. The most haunting, pensive instrumental on the Brooklyn string trio’s excellent debut album Issue #1.

Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz – Vertigo Suite Prelude. Creepy Hitchcock film suspense from the pianist and NPR host with the cello virtuoso. From their new album Shuffle Play Repeat

Rahim Alhaj – Qaasim. Plaintive, intense instrumental with the Iraqi oudist carefully building a tune over a hypnotic djeridoo drone. Not on the web anywhere, it seems. From the Iraqi oudist/composer’s latest album Little Earth.

Walter Ego – Satellite.  Wickedly catchy Ray Davies-style Britpop with one of the New York rocker’s most clever, casually dismissive lyrics.

Jennifer O’Connor – 7/12/09. Cruel summertime clinical depression perfectly captured in three vivid indie janglerock minutes. From O’Connor’s album I Want What You Want.

Pierre de Gaillande’s Bad Reputation– Ladies of Leisure. Pierre de Gaillande, frontman of lush art-rockers the Snow, has been busy translating many of legendary French songwriter Georges Brassens’ funniest, most vulgar songs; this is the classic Complainte des Filles de Joie, a metaphorically loaded defense of prostitutes.

The Devil Makes Three– All Hail. A caustically funny bluegrass song about the logical effects of the whole world being wasted on antidepressants – and a whole lot more. From their album Do Wrong, Right.

The Oxygen Ponies– Jellybean. Frontman Paul Megna being his usual insightful self, “Everyone around me is just sharing the same brain…I guess they find it’s easier to be part of the whole/Searching for a reason why they buy the shit they’re sold.” From this year’s Exit Wounds album

Swift Years– Old Man Santo. The witty Canadian worldbeat group put this one out a few years back, but who’s counting – it’s a twistedly funny nursery rhyme about GMO frankenfood.

Ward White –Radio Silence. A cruel and pretty hilarious dysfunctional road trip scenario set to catchy janglerock by the brilliantly sardonic rock songwriter. From his latest album Done with the Talking Cure.

Marc Ribot – Kill for Pussy. Classic John Barry as done by one of the masters of noir guitar, live at the New School in April. Free download

Sanda Weigl– Ani Mei Si Tinertea. At the 92YTribeca this past January, pianist Shoko Nagai gave this gypsy haunter an absolutely macabre edge. From Weigl’s Gypsy in a Tree album.

Miramar– En Mis Suenos. This is the classic Sylvia Rexach bolero done with creepy psychedelic funeral organ by the Bio Ritmo spinoff. They absolutely slayed with this at Barbes in May.

Beninghove’s Hangmen– Reject’s Lament. A sad, creepy waltz from the noir jazz guys’ debut album

Beninghove’s Hangmen– Hangmen’s Waltz. Twangy 1950s David Lynch-style noir doesn’t get any better than this – also from the band’s debut album.

Ansambl Mastika– Zurlaski Cocek. A funky, exhilarating showcase for the Balkan band’s excellent soloists – from their latest album Songs and Dances for Life Nonstop.

Pickpocket Ensemble – For Those Who’ve Left. This was a good year for sad waltzes and this is one of the best of them, the Bay Area gypsy jazz band doing brooding Belgian barroom piano music. From their album Memory.

Rahim Alhaj – Going Home. More haunting oud over a low, sinister drone: gorgeously intense Middle Eastern sounds, also from his latest album Little Earth

A Hawk & a Hacksaw– No Rest for the Wicked. A blistering mini-suite of gypsy music from the Neutral Milk Hotel spinoff; from their latest album Cervantine.

Sanda Weigl – Toderel. Shoko Nagai’s creepy/icy piano lights up this dramatic gypsy ballad. From the album Gypsy in a Tree.

A Hawk & a Hacksaw– At the Vultural Negru. The Bay Area gypsy band encored with this intense, ecstatic gypsy music vamp at their killer concerrt at the Bell House this past summer; also from their latest album Cervantine.

Rahim Alhaj – Dance of the Palms. The great Iraqi expat oud player methodically building a haunting composition over ominous percussion. From his latest album Little Earth – happily this one has made it to youtube.

Mary Lee Kortes– Someplace We Can’t See. Sweeping, majestic, angst-driven anthemic literate rock by one of the great artisans in the field. Also from Songs of Beulah Rowley Vol. 1

Pierre de Gaillande’s Bad Reputation– I Made Myself Small. An original English translation of the Georges Brassens classic Je Me Suis Fait Tout Petit, which could be a love song – or it could be about being totally pussywhipped.

Karen Dahlstrom– Galena. A haunting Gold Rush tale from the Americana multi-instrumentalist’s great new Idaho-themed album Gem State

The Dirty Urchins – Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down. This oldtimey shuffle is one of those songs that needed to be written, and it’s a good thing these folks were the band to do it.

Stephane Wrembel – Toute la Vie. The gypsy jazz guitarist wrote this one after watching footage of the 3/11 catastrophe – it’s haunting bordering on morbid, and hasn’t made it to the web yet.

Drina Seay– I Don’t Even Know What I’m Doing. The New York Americana chanteuse at the top of her intense, torchy game: this one is a staple of her live show but hasn’t made it to the web yet. She slayed with this one several times this year, particularly in October at Lakeside

The Brixton Riot – Hipster Turns 30. This GBV-style powerpop number might sound sympathetic at first but it’s really not. From the band’s forthcoming new album.

Rachelle Garniez – Jean-Claude Van Damme. Ostensibly the campy character actor has sunk to hawking antidepressants on tv – this one features a hilarious faux-operatic outro among other things. From Garniez’ forthcoming 2012 album Sad Dead Happy Alive.

Ward White – 1964. Retro fashion gets very subtly savaged by the great literate songshark. From White’s latest album Done with the Talking Cure.

Edward Rogers– Fashion Magazine. The most corrosive track from Rogers’ stunningly diverse new Porcelain album looks at trendy posers in gentrified NYC, set to hypnotically ominous Syd Barrett rock.

The Reid Paley Trio – Take What You Want. Late one night on the Lower East Side, after scaring the crowd at the club half to death, the charismatic retro rocker blasted through an unselfconsciously exhilarating version of this oldschool soul/blues lament: charisma defines this guy.

Oxygen Ponies– I Don’t Want Yr Love. How to tell a starfucker to kiss off, in three perfect minutes: the outgoing mantra of “nobody loves you anymore” is just plain brutal. From the Exit Wounds album.

Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears– You Been Lying. Snide, dismissive, anti-authoritarian punk funk: the band absolutely slayed with this in the middle of the summer at their show with Those Darlins here.

American Composers Orchestra– Ryan Gallagher: Grindhouse. Long, cinematic, frequently noir suite, another highlight of this year’s SONIC Festival of indie classical music. This one hasn’t made it to the web yet.

American Modern Ensemble – Robert Paterson: Sextet. A noir afternoon in the life of a man on the run – it doesn’t end on a happy note. From the new music ensemble’s collection of works by the eclectic percussionist/composer

Either/Orchestra– No Price for a Ride. Inspired by haggling over cab fares in Addis Ababa, this is another unreleased gem by the Boston-based Ethiopian jazz crew.

Beninghove’s Hangmen– Jack Miller. This is the spooky opening mini-suite from the noir jazz band’s excellent debut album

Either/Orchestra – Bati Lydian. A lush, sweeping new spin on ancient riffs: the Boston Ethiopian jazz group’s show at the New School in November featured a whole slew of excellent new pieces including this one from bandleader Russ Gershon’s forthcoming suite The Collected Unconscious.

Ansambl Mastika– More Tri Godini. A classic Macedonian tune done with slow, tricky expertise by the ferocious Brooklyn Balkan/gypsy rock band

Christian McBride Big Band– Science Fiction. This is an intense, cinematic instrumental brilliantly rearranged for big band by the iconic jazz bassist – and it’s nowhere to be found online. What a shame!

Tiken Jah Fakoly– Quitte le Pouvoir. The title means “leave office” in French – it’s the Ivoirien freedom fighter and roots reggae star’s signature song, most recently re-released on the excellent Listen to the Banned anthology.

Baseball Project– Twilight of My Career. Sympathy for the devil, in this case Roger Clemens. Steve Wynn has a career as a sportswriter waiting for him if he ever gets sick of writing great songs like this Byrdsy janglerock gem.

Spottiswoode – All My Brothers. Death on the battlefield via grim, hypnotic psychedelic rock; also from the Wild Goosechase Expedition album.

A Hawk & a Hacksaw– Cervantine. A slow, eerie, chromatic gypsy waltz with a nice jagged tremolo-picked guitar solo. Title track from their latest album.

Rahim Alhaj– The Searching. With Alhaj’s oud in tandem with an accordion, this dirge is one of the slinkiest and most haunting pieces on his latest album Little Earth. It’s also impossible to find online, strangely enough.

Randi Russo– Alienation. Scorching noiserock with Russo and guest Don Piper blasting back and forth throughout this characteristically resolute outsider’s anthem. From her Fragile Animal album, ranked best of 2011 here.

Taj Weekes & Adowa– Drill. Remember “Drill, baby drill?” The roots reggae star savagely makes fun of the idiocy of the idea in the wake of what happened in the Gulf.

Brian Landrus’ Kaleidoscope – 71 & On the Road. A haunting mid-60s style psychedelic soul vamp inspired by a veteran jazz drummer who’s stuck playing live dates in his 70s just to get by. From the baritone sax player/composer’s Capsule album.

Beware the Dangers of a Ghost Scorpion– Denton County Casket Company. Noir surf rock doesn’t get any better than this unhinged instumental by the Boston band. From their Legend of Goatman’s Bridge ep.

Dastardly – Middleground. The Chicago indie/Americana band’s hilarious and spot-on look at trendy shallowness on the small-club circuit. From their album May You Never

A Hawk & a Hacksaw – Uskudar. A tricky Turkish vocal tune from the intense gypsy band’s latest album Cervantine.

Mark Sinnis– Peep Hole in the Wall. A towering, ominous individualist’s anthem originally done by Sinnis’ band Ninth House in 2000 and resurrected here even more darkly and intensely.

Steve Wynn– St. Millwood. This is a classic example of Wynn’s pensive, jangly, evocative side. From the Northern Aggression album.

Stephanie Rooker & the Search Engine – When We Gon Care. Over seven and a half minutes of hypnotic vamping, the soul siren insightfully and wrathfully goes off on drug companies who invent diseases to market new products, and similar stunts that the 1% try to pull off to keep the other 99% of us disempowered. From her album The Only Way Out Is In

Shanghai Love Motel– The Universal Skeptical Anthem. A typical savage, corrosive anthem from the hyper-literate New York rockers. “Hang me with your velvet rope, but don’t wrap it around my brain.”

Spottiswoode – Wake Me Up When It’s Over. Irresistibly and blackly amusing look at the psychology of denial even in the most dire circumstances – yet another great song from the Wild Goosechase Expedition album.

Mark Sinnis– Fifty Odd Hours. A bitter, vengeful update on the Merle Travis classic Sixteen Tons. From Sinnis’ latest album The Undertaker in My Rearview Mirror.

Andy Akiho– To Run or Walk Through West Harlem. A noir cinematic suite complete with sirens and a brief escape from a chase scene; from the pioneering steel pan virtuoso/composer’s latest album No One to Know One.

American Modern Ensemble – Robert Paterson: Star Crossing. Otherworldly, noir, cinematic flute-and-percussion instrumental; title track from the indie classical ensemble’s amazing album of Paterson compositions.

Evanescent– Blackwater. Retro chanteuse Bliss Blood revisits the best song from her late great Nightcall band in a torchy duo with guitarist Al Street.

Laurie Anderson – Directions from Westchester. Anderson premiered this at Lincoln Center Out of Doors this past August, a LOL-funny satire of the kind of people who go to concerts there. Unreleased and possibly part of a larger suite.

Walter Ego– The Adventures of Ethical Man. Ethical Man is a cartoon character; he battles even more cynical underwear heroes in this extremely funny powerpop tune by the NYC literate rock songwriter.

Frankenpine– Blackwell Island. From the dark NYC bluegrass band’s excellent new album The Crooked Mountain – this one commemorates Nellie Bly’s undercover expedition to the nuthouse in New York Harbor in the 1890s.

Beware the Dangers of a Ghost Scorpion– Heads Will Roll. Another macabre blast of surf rock from the band’s Legend of Goatman’s Bridge ep.

Dina Rudeen– Hitting the Town. The NYC retro soul chanteuse at the top of her game: a metaphorically loaded tale of almost falling off the edge. From her excellent new album The Common Splendor.

Sanda Weigl– Un Tigan Avea O Casa. The gypsy singer/bandleader blasted through this wryly ironic song at the 92YTribeca last January. From her latest album Gyspy in a Tree.

Rahim Alhaj – Waterfall. This nine-minute oud-and-flute piece reminds of the great New York-based composer Bassam Saba. Also from Aljaj’s latest album Little Earth. The link here is to the track at Slacker radio.

Walter Ego– Made of Holes. This is another of the songs here that’s so new that it hasn’t been youtubed yet, a characteristically metaphorically-charged janglerock tune.

Vespertina – Girl in the Basement. Gothic art-rock from this collaboration between haunting chanteuse Lorrie Doriza and Stoupe from conscious hip-hop group Jedi Mind Tricks.

The Marcus Shelby Orchestra – Birmingham. A scorching, ornate big band jazz tribute to the freedom fighters of the American civil rights movement.

The 50 Best Albums of 2011

Randi Russo started hinting that she might go in a psychedelic direction ever since her 2001 noise-rock masterpiece, Solar Bipolar. With its swirling production, jaggedly assaultive guitars, sharply literate lyrics and rugged individualism, her latest one Fragile Animal tops the list in 2011. It’s got a roaring Middle Eastern epic, a long, hypnotic raga-rock interlude, jaunty Beatlesque psych-pop, all with the tunefulness and resolute defiance that have been her signature since her debut album in 2000. There’s literally not a single second-rate song on this album.

The #2 spot goes to another artist who first broke out right around that time. Jenifer Jackson’s new The Day Happiness Found Me is her most intimate, terse album so far, a blend of hypnotic tropical grooves, sultry oldschool soul and vintage country, and she’s never sung with more understated power. It’s a quiet knockout.

#3 doesn’t wait to get to the point: the Oxygen Ponies’ third album, Exit Wounds is a vitriolic, lyrical masterpiece of post-Velvets songwriting. Frontman/songwriter Paul Megna pillories a generation of self-absorbed, entitled brats in these bitter, hypnotically catchy, meticulously arranged art-rock songs.

The rest of the list is only the tip of the iceberg. For the sake of brevity – if you buy the suggestion that a list of fifty albums could possibly be brief – this one cuts off at that number. Because New York Music Daily is basically a rock blog, there’s no jazz or classical on this list to speak of (for an intriguing list of the year’s 25 best jazz albums, visit NYMD’s sister blog, Lucid Culture). And since there were probably over a million albums released worldwide this past year, you shouldn’t read anything into whether an album might be rated #1 or #50 – if it’s good enough to be anywhere on this list, it’s got to be pretty incredible.

4. Mary Lee Kortes – Songs from the Beulah Rowley Songbook ep. The Mary Lee’s Corvette frontwoman came up with a fictitious alter ego from the 1930s and 40s who wrote in as many diverse, harrowing, literate styles – this is her “long lost debut.”

5. Roulette Sisters – Introducing the Roulette Sisters. This is actually the charismatic oldtimey quartet’s second album: Mamie Minch, Meg Reichardt, Karen Waltuch and Megan Burleyson romp through a characteristically entertaining, innuendo-driven mix of oldtime blues, country and novelty songs.

6. Ansambl Mastika – Songs & Dances for Life Nonstop. The Brooklyn Balkan uproar may not be playing as many shows lately, with their frontman concentrating on Raya Brass Band, but this scorching mix of every style from the old Ottoman empire is as exhilarating as gypsy music can possibly get – Gogol Bordello, watch out.

7. Beninghove’s Hangmen – debut album. Noir soundtrack music from a bunch of guys with jazz chops, punk attitude and off-the-scale raw intensity: best debut album of 2011 by a longshot.

8. Steve Wynn – Northern Aggression. The legendary noir rocker adds a little swirly dreampop to his noisy guitar duels and haunting portaits of life among the down-and-out.

9. Spottiswoode – Wild Goosechase Expedition. The literate art-rocker’s critique of the perils of life during wartime is spot-on and amusing as well. This sprawling, psychedelic, Beatlesque effort is a career best, and the band is scorching.

10. Ward White – Done with the Talking Cure. The literate powerpop tunesmith keeps putting out snarky, wickedly catchy albums – in a year where Elvis Costello didn’t put out any, this makes a good substitute

11. Trio Tritticali – Issue #1.Violinist Helen Yee, violist Leanne Darling and cellist Loren Dempster’s original mix of Asian, Middle Eastern and tropical themes is as intense and intricately interwoven as it is ambitious.

12. Hazmat Modine – Cicada. The minor-key blues/reggae/klezmer psychedelic outfit’s third album might be their strongest and most eclectic to date, with input from Gangbe Brass Band and Natalie Merchant.

13. Karen Dahlstrom – Gem State. The Bobtown multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, an Idaho native, reached back for a haunting, intense late-1800s western Americana vibe on these evocative original songs.

14. The Threeds Oboe Trio – Unraveled. Three oboes (and sometimes French horn) playing tongue-in-cheek new arrangements of Michael Jackson, the Doors, Stevie Wonder, Piazzolla and Little Feat – this might be the funniest and most original album of the year.

15. Carol Lipnik -M.O.T.H. The queen of Coney Island phantasmagoria delivers her most lushly creepy album yet.

15. Dina Rudeen – The Common Splendor. The retro soul songwriter, backed by a first-class band, go deep into a late 60s vibe for these evocative three-minute portraits.

17. Evanescent – debut album. This is the Moonlighters’ Bliss Blood plus guitarist Al Street doing her torchiest, most noir songs ever. Free download.

18. Les Chauds Lapins – Amourettes. The charming, coy French chanson revivalists broaden their scope with this lushly orchestrated, unselfconsciously romantic collection.

19. Marianne Dissard – L’abandon. The French rocker (and documentary filmmaker) works every southwestern gothic angle she can find on this surprisingly diverse, snarling, intensely psychedelic new album.

20. Elisa Flynn – 19th Century Songs. Like Karen Dahlstrom (#13 above), Flynn has a great eye for images, an amazing voice and an ear for a great tune – this album is considerably more diverse, and just as dark.

21. Dollshot – debut album. Brother/sister Noah and Rosalie Kaplan (tenor sax and voice) lead this creepy, improvisational group, putting a sometimes devious, sometimes twisted new spin on classical art-songs.

22. The Universal Thump – Chapter Two. Keyboard goddess Greta Gertler’s lush art-rock band’s second ep in a year is as richly tuneful, playfully quirky and and anthemic as their first one.

23. Mark Sinnis – The Undertaker in My Rearview Mirror. The baritone crooner who fronts Ninth House offers his most morbid, rustic Nashville gothic release to date.

24. Edward Rogers – Porcelain. The British expat tunesmith has never been more eclectic, more acerbic or more relevant throughout this mix of retro glam, art-rock and new wave with his amazing band.

25. Hungrytown – Any Forgotten Thing. The duo of Rebecca Hall and Ken Anderson add a deliciously off-kilter psychedelic folk edge to Hall’s dark, brooding songs.

26. Frankenpine – The Crooked Mountain. The New York bluegrass band push the envelope with a mix of upbeat original numbers and creepy ballads as well as a detour into gypsy jazz.

27. Robin O’Brien – The Empty Bowl. Her first album of new songs since the 90s, the dark soul/folk/rock chanteuse is at the absolute peak of her unpredictable power.

28. Pinataland – Hymns for the Dreadful Night. The best album to date by the Brooklyn “historical orchestrette,” a lavishly orchestrated mix of Americana and rock with a biting and spot-on historical edge.

29. Aunt Ange – Olga Walks Away. A concept album about an acid trip, straight out of the 60s, with a creepy gypsy punk edge to match – one of the year’s most original releases.

30. Rahim AlHaj – Little Earth. A protege of legendary oud player Munir Bashir, AlHaj spans the globe with styles from Iraq, Egypt and the Appalachians, backed by a global supporting cast.

31. A Hawk & a Hacksaw – Cervantine. A Neutral Milk Hotel spinoff (how many of those are there, about fifty?), these folks do rustic, intense gypsy romps as well as anyone else. Their show last summer at the Bell House was killer.

32. On – Box of Costumes. Hard to believe that there are only two guys – a guitarist/singer and drummer/keyboardist – in this dark, artsy Israeli rock band.

33. The Jolly Boys – Great Expectations. The legendary Jamaican mento band went out on a high note with this clever mix of pop and punk covers, their first release since the 70s.

34. Trio Joubran – Asfar. The three Palestinian oud-playing brothers turn in a haunting, austere, elegaic suite of instrumentals with flamenco tinges.

35. Marissa Nadler – 5th album. The mistily captivating dark acoustic rock chanteuse goes into Americana further than ever before, with excellent results.

36. Shusmo – Mumtastic. Palestinian buzuq player Tareq Abboushi’s funky, psychedelic Middle Eastern/jazz/rock unit is catchy and politically spot-on throughout this diverse debut album.

37. Loga Ramin Torkian – Mehraab. The Iraqi/Canadian multi-instrumentalist takes a hauntingly successful trip into hypnotic dreampop/electronic territory.

38. American Modern Ensemble – Star Crossing: Music of Robert Paterson. All together, this suite of new instrumentals – mostly for flutes and percussion – is intensely cinematic and totally noir.

39. See-I – debut album. The Washington, DC roots reggae act mix tons of woozy dub and a little dancehall into their trippy rootsy grooves.

40. Pistolera – El Desierto y la Ciudad. Divided into a bustling city side and hypnotic, apprehensively dark desert side, the New York-based janglerockers explore the immigrant experience with typically hard-hitting intensity.

41. Terakaft – Ishumar. The Malian desert blues band deliver their hardest-rocking collection of grooves ever.

42. The Mast – Wild Poppies. Singer/guitarist Haale and virtuoso percussionist Matt Kilmer team up for a wary, psychedelic mix of indie rock with Middle Eastern tinges and an uncompromising lyrical intensity.

43. Aram Bajakian’s Kef – debut album. Lou Reed’s lead guitarist, when he’s not on the road, leads this intriguing electic band who play new verisons of classic Armenian themes.

44. Taj Weekes & Adowa – Waterlogged Soul Kitchen. The roots reggae star is his usual politically-charged self on this mix of warm grooves and ferociously insightful anthems.

45. The Rudie Crew – This Is Skragga. Always a great live band, these ska party monsters proved they can do it in the studio too with this one.

46. The Funk Ark – From the Rooftops. Afrobeat from Washington, DC: slinky latin vamps, ferocious Ethiopian themes and good-natured, oldschool funk.

47. CSC Funk Band – Things Are Getting Too Casual. The Brooklyn psychedelic funk band mix Afrobeat and Celtic sounds into their danceable blend. Free download.

48. Christopher O’Riley & Matt Haimovitz – Shuffle Listen Repeat. This is pianist O’Riley’s third album of classical-style piano versions of rock songs; this time, he found his noir muse in the music of Hitchcock film composer Bernard Herrmann.

49. Karikatura – Departures. Latin grooves, flamenco guitar, gypsy tunes, an amazing horn section and smart, socially conscious lyrics, just as good on record as onstage.

50. The Rough Guide to Bellydance, 2nd Edition. The second one is even better than the first: it’s a mix of who’s who in levantine instrumentals over the last 30 years.

Friday Night Hurricane Party at Barbes

Friday night was a hurricane party. Everybody in town was out because by Saturday noon they’d be more or less housebound, since the subway was shutting down in anticipation of what reasonably-minded New Yorkers expected – a big rainstorm, nothing this city hasn’t seen before or won’t see again. It wasn’t exactly 1821 or 1938, the two most recent years that hurricanes hit the city. In a fortuitous if predictable stroke of fate, New York’s best music venue, Barbes, had a characteristically excellent triplebill.

Mamie Minch opened, a late addition to the bill. It would have been nice to have seen the eclectically oldtimey Roulette Sisters’ charismatic frontwoman/guitarist – she always puts on a good show. Greta Gertler was next. This time out the unpredictable pianist and art-rock songwriter had an acoustic rhythm section and a backup singer who doubled on glockenspiel when she wasn’t artfully switching between high and low harmonies. The set was a mix of greatest hits and new songs from her lush chamber-pop project the Universal Thump. She did the poignant, regretful 6/8 ballad Damien, the massive top 40 hit that should have been, early on. Anticipating a little rain, she segued from the aptly pensive Wrist Slasher into the bustling Bergen Street, a vivid Brooklyn thunderstorm scenario from her ragtime-flavored 2008 album Edible Restaurant album. The new songs included a gently majestic ballad (Gertler told the crowd that she was edging further and further toward “theatre music”) and a somewhat Peter Gabriel-esque Universal Thump anthem lit up by drummer Adam Gold’s hypnotically swirling cymbals and joyously thunderous, symphonic drumming.

“Party band” probably wouldn’t be the first way you might consider categorizing Piñataland. But that’s what they were. On their new album Hymns for the Dreadful Night, the chamber pop band’s rhythm section really amps it up – interestingly, this time out, drummer Bill Gerstel and bassist Ross Bonadonna kept the groove more low-key, sometimes gracefully ornate, probably just as well considering that they were playing Barbes. Violinist Deni Bonet stole the show with her fiery, gypsy and celtic-flavored lines when she wasn’t building an orchestral swirl with the guest accordionist, while bandleaders Dave Wechsler and Doug Stone joined voices vigorously with Robin Aigner (who was making it her second night in a row here).

They opened with a big-sky country waltz by Wechsler, got quiet and gospelly on the new album’s title track before a joyous version of the Irish rock tune Island of Godless Men, told from the point of view of a pre-Revolutionary War era religious zealot, Bonet bringing an especially exuberant edge to the closing reel. The gypsy-rock numbers were the high point of the show, especially the bitter, defiant Death of Silas Deane, a tribute to another Revolutionary era figure who was instrumental in generating support for his new nation, then took a dramatic and tragic fall from grace. The single most gripping moment was on the set’s weirdest song, Wechsler’s elegant country-gospel piano set against the unlikely backdrop of a Roswell incident engineered by the KGB, where the aliens are actually surgically modified Russian children. That one was told from the point of view of a real alien. They closed with another waltz, a country shuffle with another searing Bonet solo, a gypsy rocker about a 19th century anti-gentrification protestor of sorts, and the inexplicable but irresistibly catchy Border Guard, Aigner sliding and slinking through the melody Kitty Wells style.