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No New Abnormal

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The 50 Best Albums of 2019

This is a playlist, plus one last record at the very end that can’t be heard anywhere online but might be the best of all of them. You can listen to everything else here, almost all of it ad-free: it couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

Lots of triage was involved. A very ambitious listener with a dayjob that allows for multitasking can hear maybe eight or nine hundred new albums a year, all the way through. An insanely dedicated blogger can hear bits and pieces of maybe five thousand more. That’s about the limit of what one human can do. You may see a few stragglers here which were technically 2018 releases but got overlooked that year. If your favorite album from 2019 isn’t here, that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good…and it might just turn up here next year.

Other than the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Being chosen as the #50 band out of 50 is like getting picked last for kickball, and that’s kind of mean. Besides, if an album is one of the fifty best out of the literally hundreds of thousands released every year, it has to be damn good. Here we go!

Big Lazy – Dear Trouble
The subtlest, most desolate and ultimately most dynamic album from a group synonymous with cinematic noir menace. Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s sense of irony has never been more refined, and the rhythm section of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion has never been slinkier. Ulrich is the only musician in history who has been on three albums rated #1 for the year here. Listen at youtube

Changing Modes – What September Brings
Best album of the year with lyrics, the New York art-rockers’ finest, most cinematic, and most political release, a savagely lyrical, spot-on reflection on Trump-era narcissism and repression, laced with shapeshifting instrumentals and frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam’s disquietingly lush harmonies. Listen at youtube

The Bright Smoke – Gross National Happiness
The title reflects frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson’s signature, withering sarcasm. It’s the band’s most savagely political record, a grimly allusive measure of Trump-era inequality, despair and resistance against all that, with a haunting Joy Division undercurrent. Listen at Bandcamp

Karen Dahlstrom – No Man’s Land
The best short album of the year, with metaphorically-loaded, sharply picturesque narratives referencing apocalypse, smalltown anomie, late-night despondency and a ferocious, defiant anthem for the Metoo era from the powerful Bobtown alto singer and Americana songstress. Listen at her music page 

Hearing Things – Here’s Hearing Things
The best debut albun of 2019, by Brooklyn’s funnest dance band, mashes up horror surt, Booker T & the MG’s, twisted go-go music, Afrobeat, Ethiopiques and the Doors, with organ, sax and surf drums. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – These Times
Steve Wynn‘s iconic, feral, influential psychedelic guitar-duel band’s quietest, most allusively political and arguably most brilliantly lyrical album. Not bad for a group who put out their first record back in the 80s. Listen at youtube

Michael Winograd – Kosher Style
Unsurpassed for his sizzling clarinet chops, Winograd is also a very colorful composer. With sabretoothed chromatics and slashing minor keys, these new klezmer tunes run the gamut from blisteringly fun to mournful to sardonic, and the band is killer. Listen at Bandcamp

Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
Here’s another world-class clarinetist and ensemble playing an especially dynamic, inescapably vivid take on one of the most iconic, haunting pieces of classical music ever written (much of it composed in a Nazi prison camp). Riveting as it is, it raises questions as to how fair it is for this blog to rank it alongside the rest of the artists here. Listen at Spotify

Layale Chaker – Inner Rhyme
The brilliant violinist writes vivid, intense, often hauntingly beautiful compositions built around the rhythmic sophistication of classical Arabic poetry, equal parts Lebanese, Egyptian and western classical music, with occasional detours toward jazz or film score atmospherics. Listen at her music page

Los Wembler’s de Iquitos – Vision Del Ayahuasca
With almost all of their original members, this iconic psychedelic cumbia jamband from the heart of the Peruvian Amazon are as wildly trippy and original as they were fifty years ago. Along with Hearing Things‘ debut, this is the best party record of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

Miguel Zenon and the Spektral Quartet – Yo Soy la Tradicion
The formidable alto saxophonist teams up with one of the world’s edgiest string quartets for a mix of acerbic works with an unselfconsciously Bartokian intensity Listen at their music page

Rev. Screaming Fingers – Music for Driving and Film, vol iII (The Desert Years)
Dusky, loping southwestern gothic tableaux, twangy noir Americana, a little horror surf and ominous big-sky themes from these great guitar instrumentalists. Listen at their music page

Girls on Grass – Dirty Power
Like a female-fronted Dream Syndicate, guitar goddess Barbara Endes’ band rips through paisley underground psychedelia, spaghetti westen themes, snarling new wave and garage rock, with a defiant, politically fearless lyricism Listen at Bandcamp

Russ Tolman – Goodbye El Dorado
Jangly, vividly lyrical western noir rock: disappeances, shattered Hollywood dreams, dead-end kids who don’t have a prayer, and roadtrip anomie from the leader of 80s legends True West. Listen at youtube

Julia Haltigan – Trouble
Turns out that the torchy mistress of Manhattan noir is just as fluent with new wave and vintage CB’s-style powerpop, throughout these tales of nocturnal prowling in the East Village before it was yuppified and whitewashed. Listen at Bandcamp

The Felice Bros. – Undress
This could have been the great lyrical, populist record that Springsgteen made in between Born to Run and Darkness: surreal political broadsides, down-and-out characters and death lingering over everything. Listen at Bandcamp

Jay Vilnai – Thorns All Over
Poet Rachel Abramowitz supplies the lyrics for this haunting, mysterious collection of new murder ballads, over the guitarist/bandleader’s cold starscapes, Lynchian dirges and a relentless, lingering guitar menace. Listen at Bandcamp

Karine Poghosyan – Rachmaninoff & Stravinsky
Nobody plays the Russian Romantics with as much insighful flair as this irrepressible virtuoso. As with Raphael Severe above, it is fair to rate this ravishingly intuitive, picturesque performance of achingly beautiful Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableaux and punishingly difficult Stravinsky piano transcriptions against the current-day artists here? Listen at Spotify

Dina Maccabee – The Sharpening Machine
Epically eclectic, trippy art-rock, chamber pop, pastoral themes and occasional coy new wave from this shapeshifting violinist and songwriter. Listen at Soundcloud

The Sirius Quartet – New World
This adventurous, microtonally-inclined string quartet’s collection of original compositions is a fierce concept album in defiance of the current fascist climate in the US. Listen at Spotify

Yale Strom’s Broken Consort – Shimmering Lights
The un-cheesiest Hanukah instrumental record ever made, the violinist-bandleader’s new arrangements blazing with ferocious solos and bracing Middle Eastern modes. Listen at rockpaperscissors

Eleni Mandell – Wake Up Again
The iconic dark Americana and torch singer’s most hauntingly political album is a series of narratives set behind bars, inspired by her experiences teaching songwriting in the prison-industrial complex. Listen at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Spells & Rituals
The constantly shapeshifting murder ballad and dark rock superduo dive further into latin noir, 60s Britrock and even garagey psychedelic sounds, all with their colorfully dark lyricism. Listen at Bandcamp

Noctorum – The Afterlife
Lush, characteristically lyrical, jangly art-rock from iconic twelve-string guitarist Marty Willson-Piper – late of Australian psychedelic legends the Church – with a similarly allstar backing band. Listen at Bandcamp

Laura Carbone – Empty Sea
Bleak, Lynchian panoramas, highway-of-death narratives and some guitarishly snarling gutter blues from one of this era’s great noir singers. Listen at Bandcamp

Unnatural Ways – The Paranoia Party
A grimly surreal, volcanically noisy, rhytmically disorienting concept about contact with aliens from guitarist Ava Mendoza’s searing doom/art-rock power trio. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Maureen Choi Quartet – Theia
Epically twisting, high-voltage, flamenco and Romany-inspired string band music from the violinist and her equally eclectic ensemble Listen at Bandcamp

Budos Band – V
The imaginative Afrobeat and Ethiopiques instrumentalists’ most doom metal-inspired album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

JD Allen – Barracoon
A big comeback of sorts for this era’s most potent tenor saxophonist, scorching his way through a Zora Neale Hurston-inspired mix of ominously modal, tersely evocative protest jazz tunes with a new trio. Listen at youtube

Nancy Braithwaite – To Paradise For Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway
The classical clarinetist and her dynamic, nuanced chamber ensemble explore stunningly imagistic, darkly clever, tersely crafted pieces by a now Rhode Island-based, nonagenarian composer whose work has never been released on album before. A major rediscovery. Listen at Spotify

Fabian Almazan – This Land Abounds with Life
A glittering, epically cascading eco-disaster themed concept album from one of this era’s most tunefully virtuosic jazz pianists and his dynamic rhythm section Listen at Bandcamp

Doomstress – Sleep Among the Dead
Pervasive gloom, minor keys, purposeful guitar and unusual elegance from frontwoman Alexis Hollada on the Texas doom metal band’s debut album. Listen at Bandcamp

Bobtown – Chasing the Sun
Bewitching three-part harmonies from Katherine Etzel, Karen Dahlstrom and Jen McDearman and folk noir songwriting that’s just a hair less relentlessly dark than the material that put them on the map. Listen at Bandcamp

Petros Klampanis – Irrationalities
Slinky, brooding, Middle Eastern and Greek-inflected ballads and more kinetic, pulsing material from the eclecic bassist and his excellent trio. Listen at Spotify 

The Well – Death & Consolation
Grim, Sabbathy dirges, paint-peeling Stooges sonics and ornately macabre heavy psychedelia from this Texas band. Listen at Bandcamp

Jason Yeager – New Songs of Resistance
A short parade of first-class pan-latin singers deliver the pianist’s protest jazz reinventions of classic nueva cancion from across the Americas in the 70s, alongside some chillingly lyrical, politically-fueled instrumentals. Listen at Bandcamp

Amy Allison – Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun
A characteristically bittersweet, brilliantly crystallized, lyrical collection of rarities and outtakes by the inimitable Americana singer. Listen at youtube

Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith – Mummer Love
Rousingly hypnotic North African grooves and immersive atmospherics behind acerbic, often savage poetry by Patti Smith and one of her big influences, Arthur Rimbaud. Listen at Bandcamp

Andplay – Playlist
The meticulously focused, tightly intertwining, colorful violin/viola duo negotiate the dynamic twists and turns of pieces by David Bird, Ashkan Behzadi and Clara Iannotta on their debut ep. Listen at Bandcamp

The Shootouts – Quick Draw
Spot-on, classic 1965-style honkytonk, hard country, Bakersfield twang and a little rockabilly from this slyly aphoristic Akron, Ohio band. Listen at Soundcloud 

The Ragas Live Retrospective
Members of the paradigm-shifting Brooklyn Raga Massive, who put all kinds of radical new spins on classic Indian raga themes, captured live in the studio over more than sixteen hours worth of music. Most of it is sublime; nobody at this blog has listened to the entire record yet. You can start at Bandcamp

Sarah Pagé – Dose Curves
Hypotically shimmery electroacoustic psychedelia and an Indian raga performed on the concert harp. Unselfconsciously magical,  cutting-edge stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Zosha Di Castri – Tachitipo
Vocal ensemble Ekmeles, the Jack Quartet, pianist Julia Den Boer, percussion ensemble Yarn/Wire  and a chamber orchestra join the thoughtfully eclectic pianist/composer in a diverse mix of acerbic, socially relevant compositions and art-songs. Listen at Bandcamp

Funkrust Brass Band – Bones & Burning
Sizzling Balkan chromatics, undulating New Orleans grooves and a pretty relentless sense of doom on the theatrical, sprawling brass band’s latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

Castle Black – Dead in a Dream
The ferocious female-fronted power trio look back to the most darkly ambitious of the first wave punk bands with their surreal, often haunting latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Manimals – Multiverse
Crunchy, catchy powerpop and a darkly pervasive Bowie influence on the new album from New York’s’ most entertainingly theatrical band. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 compilation
Digitized and somewhat sonically tweaked field recordings of icons like Howlin’ Wolf and cult figures like Magic Sam, shredding and wailing in their element onstage, captured by a college kid with a cheap tape recorder. Listen at Bandcamp

Beat Circus – These Wicked Things
One of the first and best of the carnivalesque rock bands of the 90s, back and revitalized with a lavish, darkly picturesque southwestern gothic concept album. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Sometime Boys – The Perfect Home
A characteristically enigmatic mix of distantly Americana-influenced, slinky originals and imaginatively reinvented covers from New York’s most charismatic, kinetically psychedelic band. Listen at Bandcamp

Locobeach – Psychedelic Disco Cumbia
Truth in advertising: trippy chicha, serpentine highway themes and some woozy dub from this tropical supergroup led by members of Los Crema Paraiso and Chicha Libre. Listen at Bandcamp 

Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee – The Newest Sound You Never Heard
Recorded live and in the studio for Belgian radio in 1966 and 1967, these radical reinventions and a handful of originals by the iconic noir pianist and the shatteringly subtle jazz singer rival the brilliance of their iconic 1961 debut. Not streaming anywhere but available on vinyl.

An Epic Collection of Shattering, Haunting Tracks by Noir Icons Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee Rescued from Obscurity

Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee’s 1961 debut The Newest Sound Around is arguably one of the ten best albums ever made. Looking back, it’s astonishing to see that straight out of college, both artists had already largely concretized their individual sounds: Lee, with her airy yet shatteringly direct, intimate vocals, Blake the piano polymath who could be icier than Messiaen, more macabre than Bernard Herrmann, as folksy yet sophisticated as Charles Ives or, for that matter, John Fahey. There’s telepathy in the duo’s performances, all the more unlikely considering how frequently each could leave the page, disrupt the rhythm or shift the mood. It’s rare that two artists this fearlessly adventurous would find each other and work together so effortlessly. Lee sadly left us back in 2000, but Blake, now past eighty, remains as vital or even more so as an icon of all things noir.

And they have a new album out: The Newest Sound You Never Heard, a lavish double-disc compilation of live and studio recordings from Belgian radio from 1966 and 1967. It’s profoundly dark, deep stuff, a gold mine of wicked reinventions of jazz standards, a handful of originals and even a couple of rock tunes. The 1966 session opens with a devilishly determined, icy-hot contrapuntal reimaging of Thelonious Monk’s Misterioso, Lee enigmatically intoning a Gertrude Stein poem: sometimes a rose is a lot more than a rose!

Blake teases the listener as he eases into Honeysuckle Rose with a down-home warmth, then turns into the shadow stepson of Eubie Blake with his offhandedly menacing stride work: no one alive uses passing tones to create disquiet more memorably than Blake does. Lee returns, with generous reverb on her wondrous, resonant vocals, as Blake shifts from boogie to brooding belltones in their take of Green Dolphin Street

Lee’s sultry alto against Blake’s stygian rumble and icepick incisions turn A Hard Day’s Night into a blue-neon southern noir ballad. The two dance their way uneasily through a brief version of I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, then romp darkly through Hallelujah, I Love Him So: it brings to mind Rachelle Garniez at her most enigmatic.

Who knew how vast the desolation, yet also the hope, could be in Night and Day? Lee’s coyly misterioso interpretation of Something’s Coming gets a spare, grimly determined response from Blake. “Please don’t tease me,” Lee sings, cool and collected – and of course, Blake does exactly that, in a marionetttish Just Squeeze Me.

Blake’s solo take on God’s Image is as fearsome as anything Messiaen ever tried to evoke…yet also infinitely playful. Lee’s tough sophisticate takes centerstage over Blake’s mutedly fanged lefthand in Retribution. The first of his originals, Smoke After Smoke is one of his mini-movies: a saloon, a peek around the corner, then the scheme unfolds in a split second.

The two build wee-hours Manhattan streetcorner ambience, then shift to Montmartre after dark in Parker’s Mood. Likewise, Blake deftly shifts the beat to turn Caravan from a Middle Eastern anthem to starry Mitteleuropean restlessness (a second take from a year later is brisk, intense and 180 degrees from that). Conversely, the two’s distant rapture brings out new reverence in the spiritual Beautiful City,

Blake’s alternately frantic and stunned horror make the brief Birmingham USA one of the album’s most hauntingly evocative numbers. By contrast, the pair have ridiculous fun holding the doors until Ellington’s A train conductor is ready to scream for them to get onboard. There are also a couple of takes of Ja-Da here, the first lively and full of unexpected syncopation, the second, more spaciously dadaesque – it’s funny how much Lee prefigures future Jamaican dancehall toaster Yellowman here!

The 1967 disc begins with Out of This World, Lee conjuring a protagonist who really sounds like she was high while reading a fairy tale, Blake anchoring it with a grim boogie. They raise the surrealism of Mr. Tambourine Man to new levels, Blake moving from deep-space drift to terse blues. Blake’s phantasmagoria in Round About is unsurpassed on this album; then Lee shifts abruptly to a soberly hushed a-cappella performance of He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.

Moonlight in Vermont, in this duo’s hands, is definitely a winter song. The second Blake original, The Frog, the Fountain and Aunt Jane is a wryly evocative solo piano miniature. Lee follows it, solo, with a meticulous, line-by-by line, cinematic interpretation of Billie’s Blues. Reconvening for A Night in Tunisia, they switch out the North African milieu for a Broadway funhouse mirror.

Blake can’t resist going for full-on chromatic stalker menace in My Favorite Things, Lee coyly updating the lyric for jazz relevance. Her resolute blues pairs off against Blake’s deadpan humor in Blue Monk; then with characteristic counterintuitivity, their take of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman is arguably the most monochromatic, steady number here.

The album closes with a trio of ballads. The longing in Lee’s voice in The Man I Love is visceral over Blake’s Mompou-esque belltones. They work that dynamic even more eerily with Something to Live For and close with an expansive Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, Lee hovering just above Blake’s quiet devastation.

To compare albums recorded this year to this one isn’t really fair: there’ll never be another singer like Jeanne Lee. She’s the smartest girl in the class, singing to you alone, daring you to feel as alive and think as far ahead as she does. These days, the tireless Blake continues to make records and perform. The album hasn’t hit the usual online spots yet – peruse the song titles above for what little streaming music there is for this one at present.