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No New Abnormal

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The 50 Best Albums of 2020

This is a playlist, plus a small handful of albums that can’t be heard anywhere online. You can listen to everything else here, the majority of it ad-free. It couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

What’s most obvious about this list is that the music rarely reflects the fascist nightmare of 2020. Most of these albums were recorded in 2019, or right before the lockdown. Although there’s been an unprecedented amount of archival live material dumped on the web in the past six months or so, only five of the picks on this list fall into that category.

The other obvious and disturbing trend is that there’s less rock music on this list than there’s ever been since this blog went live in 2011. That’s because many of the albums here – almost all of those being either jazz or classical releases – were recorded with nonprofit or government money, or by the few remaining record labels. It’s impossible to count the number of artists who relied on tour money to fund their records and were unable to put out new albums because of the lockdown.

Beyond the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Albums are listed in rough chronological order of when they were reviewed here, which seldom coincides with official release dates, if such dates existed. Ultimately, the big takeaway here is reason for optimism: 2020 may have been hell, but artists around the world somehow found a way to keep putting out new music.

The number one album of the year, with a bullet, is the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s Data Lords. It’s the big band composer’s darkest and most fearless album, and arguably the most relevant record released in the past year. In the end, it’s very optimistic. Everything on this vast, sweeping collection was written and recorded before the lockdown, but Schneider prophetically and mercilessly pillories and parodies the tech Nazis behind it. This comes across as the most improvisational release Schneider has ever put out, but knowing her, everything here could just as easily be composed all the way through. Her rage and satire are as venomous and funny as anything Shostakovich or the Dead Kennedys ever recorded. And after she’s done savaging the would-be architects of the New Abnormal, the album’s second disc celebrates the beauty and grandeur of nature and the real world – rather than the virtual one – with characteristic lushness and a side trip to Brazil.

The best short album of the year was The Living End, by Karla Rose. Karla Rose Moheno, of irrepressible swing trio the Tickled Pinks, may be best known for her nuanced, smoldering vocals, but it’s her similarly subtle, often haunting songwriting that sets her apart from the legions of great singers around the world. This is just a fraction of what she has in the can: if the rest of it is this good, the full-length record is going to be amazing. There’s some starry soul, a little streetwise New York rock and a rampaging southwestern gothic-tinged anthem that you will see on the best songs of the year list. Listen at Spotify

Another album that stands apart from the rest of the list is Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975. It’s a gargantuan triple-disc set comprising material from two concerts in Germany, each with a completely different but brilliant lineup, getting a first official release after floating around the web for years and in the cassette underground before then. On one hand, it’s completely unfair to compare the other albums here to these sizzling, epic performances by a guy who was probably the greatest bassist in the history of jazz and definitely one of the ten greatest composers of alltime. On the other, this will give you goosebumps. Listen at Spotify

Ward White – Leonard at the Audit
Witheringly funny, hyperliterate, semi-linear narratives set to catchy janglerock with sinister cinematic overtones from the king of implied menace in rock tunesmithing. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – The Universe Inside
Steve Wynn’s legendary, noisy, dueling psychedelic band’s trippiest, most cinematically desolate, epicaly jam-oriented album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

Ted Hearne  – Place
A crushingly satirical, cruelly hilarious, minutely detailed exploration of how gentrification has destroyed Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with a backdrop of surreal avant garde sounds, art-rock and protest gospel music. Listen at Bandcamp

John Ellis – The Ice SIren
The brilliant jazz saxophonist takes a brilliant and unexpected plunge into the waters of noir cabaret and chilly cinematics, with a sweeping big band behind him. Listen at Spotify

High Waisted – Sick of Saying Sorry
Guitarist Jessica Louise Dye’s band makes a shift from surf rock to gorgeously bittersweet powerpop and other retro sounds. Listen at Bandcamp

Péter Szervánszky/Szekesfovarosi Orchestra –  Bartok: Violin Concerto No. 2
Like the Mingus record, this is probably an unfair addition to the list. But it’s spellbinding, and the only album the Hungarian virtuoso ever appeared on, recorded on an x-ray plate under the Nazi invasion in 1945. Listen at Spotify

Alina Ibragimova/Russian State Academic Symphony Orchestra  – Shostakovich: Violin Concertos No.1 and 2
In the year of the lockdown, these two fiercely antifascist, poignant pieces have never had more cultural resonance. Not streaming online.

Alban Gerhardt/WDR Symphony Orchestra  Shostakovich: Cello Concertos No.1 and 2
It makes sense to pair this iconic, scathingly angry, wickedly sardonic and thoughtful interpretation with the ferocity of the one above. Listen at Spotify

Gregg August  – Dialogues on Race
The powerful jazz bassist’s haunting, majestic big band explore the divide-and-conquer implications of racism and the the 1955 murder of Emmett Till with somber grace. Listen at Bandcamp

Niv Ashkenazi – Violins of Hope
The virtuoso violinist teams with pianist Matthew Graybil to celebrate obscure, poignant repertoire by composers murdered or imperiled during the Holocaust. Listen at Spotify

Balothizer – Cretan Smash
They make slashing psychedelia and thrash metal out of classic, haunting Greek revolutionary and hash-smoking anthems from the 20s and 30s. Listen at Bandcamp

The Psychedelic Furs – Made of Rain
A grimly swirling, potently lyrical return to form by one of the greatest bands who defined the new wave and goth movements of the 80s. Listen at Spotify

Steve Wynn – Solo Acoustic Vol. 1
What do you do if you’re an icon of noir-tinged, careening rock and you can’t tour like you always did until the lockdown? You reinvent those songs, many of them iconic, as equally menacing acoustic numbers. Wynn has seldom sounded so stark, or so dark.  Listen at Bandcamp

Ben de la Cour – Shadow Land
A concept album of sinister mini-movies and murder ballads from the dark Americana crooner and bandleader.Listen at Bandcamp

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore – their debut album
The first trio record by the soulful, often haunting Balkan and klezmer trumpeter with guitarist Brad Shepik and multi-percussionist Shane Shanahan was worth the wait. Listen at Bandcamp

Sylvie Courvoisier – Free Hoops
One of the elegant pianist’s most menacing yet also one of her funniest albums with her long-running trio featuring Drew Gress on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums. Listen at Bandcamp

Summoner – Day of Doom Live
The year’s best heavy psychedelic rock record is a cannon of doom metal riffs, searing two-guitar epics and gritty bass. Listen at Bandcamp

Morricone Youth – The Last Porno Show: Original Soundtrack
What an absolutely gorgeous, sad score, evoking the fatalism of a decaying porn theatre with echoes of Tschaikovsky, David Lynch noir and ornate 70s psychedelia. Listen at Bandcamp

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Chunky Shrapnel
An appropriately epic double live album by these anthemic, quirky, Middle Eastern-fixated Australian psychedelic road warriors. The best possible advertising for their live show: when we take our world back from the lockdowners, we can see them live again. Listen at Bandcamp

Vigen Hovsepyan – Live in Paris 2017
The impassioned Armenian guitarist/singer fronting a ferocious band with duduk player Harutyun Chkolyan and pianist Havard Enstad in front of a packed house on a barge docked along the Seine. The slashing minor-key energy is through the roof: you really feel like you’re there. Listen at Spotify

Dennis Davison – The Book of Strongman
The former Jigsaw Seen frontman’s solo debut, where he plays all the instruments, is a series of historically-informed, metaphorically bristling psychedelic janglerock narratives that scream out for the repeat button. Listen at Bandcamp

Office Culture – A Life of Crime
Seething satire and very subtle but corrosively lyrical narratives – like Margaret Atwood backed by the Human League – on the Brooklyn 80s parody band’s cruelly hilarious debut. Listen at Bandcamp

Dawn Oberg – 2020 Revision
The searingly lyrical, irrepressibly funny pianist and protest song stylist at the peak of her power, singing truth to power about racist cops killing innocent black people in San Francisco, and fascist political overreach in general. Listen at Bandcamp

Immaterial Possession – their first album
Deliciously individualistic, macabre psychedelic rock informed by but hardly limited to classic 1960s sounds, with bracing Balkan and Middle Eastern overtones. Listen at Bandcamp

Trio Tekke – Strovilos
The Greek psychedelic band look to the Middle East as much as to the first wave of Greek psych-rock bands from the 60s, and the underground hash-smoking classics of the 20s and 30s.  Listen at Bandcamp

Mahsa Vahdat  Enlighten the Night
Over an elegant, brooding piano-based band, the Iranian singer employs the words of both iconic Persian poets and contemporary lyricists to celebrates freedom and hope for the future in the face of increasingly grim odds. Listen at Spotify

Susan Alcorn – Pedernal
Resonant, dynamic, often haunting vistas by this era’s great virtuoso of jazz pedal steel and her similarly inspired quintet. Listen at Bandcamp

Lord Buffalo – Tohu Wa Bohu
Are their sprawling, hypnotic guitar jams metal, psychedelia or film music? Whatever you call it, this is one of the best albums of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

The Pocket Gods  – No Room at the (Holiday) Inn
Who would have thought a Christmas record would make this list? Actually, this is more of a protest album, a scathing, wildly multistylistic mix of pro-freedom songs to raise your spirits and give you hope. Arguably the best album ever from perennially prolific frontman Mark Christopher Lee. Listen at Spotify

Superfonicos – Suelta
The slinky Texas-Colombian band’s debut album is a mix of tropical psychedelia, cumbia, skaragga, Afrobeat and salsa jams. The band’s secret weapon? Reedy gaita flute. Listen at Soundcloud

Mehmet Polat – Quantum Leap
Haunting, high-voltage, plaintively modal Turkish and Balkan songs from the brilliant oud player and bandleader Listen at Bandcamp

Fantastic Negrito – Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?
The incredible oldschool soul album Prince wished he’d made but never did. Like Prince, this guy plays pretty much all the instruments too. Listen at Spotify

Emily Barker – A Dark Murmuration of Words
Hauntingly imagistic, tersely arranged, Americana-tinged narrative songs from this lyrical Australian songwriter and her band. Listen at Bandcamp

The Plastic Pals – It Could Be So Easy, Free and Fine
A scorchingly lyrical, deviously funny short album by these Swedish connoisseurs of the edgiest sounds to emerge from 60s American psychedelia, 70s powerpop and 80s punk/ Listen at Bandcamp

Mamie Minch – Slow Burn
Characteristically sly, slashingly lyrical, erudite original steel guitar blues from the sometimes haunting, sometimes hilarious blues guitarist/chanteuse.Listen at Bandcamp

Scott Robinson/Milford Graves/Roscoe Mitchell/Marshall Allen – Flow States A riveting improvisational quartet record, featuring the first-ever collaboration between iconic drummer/cardiac medicine pioneer Graves and AACM sax titan Mitchell, plus the Sun Ra Arkestra’s ageless Allen and Robinson as ringleader on bass sax. Not streaming online.

Duo Tandem – Guitar Duos of Kemal Belevi
Gorgeously interwoven, largely minor-key acoustic Middle Eastern music with elegant climbs, moving basslines, exchanges of roles and lead lines.Necati Emirzade is typically in the right channel, his bandmate Mark Anderson in the left. Listen at Spotify

Amanda Gardier – Flyover Country
Fiery, picturesque, midwestern gothic-tinged modal jazz from this rising star alto saxophonist and her similarly edgy crew. Listen at Spotify 

Sigurd Hole – Lys/Morke
Solo bass has rarely sounded so haunting or interesting. Maybe recording it on a deserted Norwegian island had something to with the desolately gorgeous vistas here. Listen at Bandcamp

The Icebergs – Add Vice
This is the album where frontwoman/poet Jane LeCroy’s punchy, lyrically slashing cello rock trio took their songs to the next level, as psychedelic as they are ominously cinematic. Listen at Bandcamp

Sara Serpa – Recognition
The brilliant, lustrous singer/composer confronts the genocidal legacy of European imperialism in Africa in the corrosively lyrical, lushly enveloping soundtrack to her debut film, a collage of archival footage taken in Angola under Portuguese imperialist rule in the 1960s. Listen at Bandcamp

Ran Blake/Christine Correa – When Soft Rains Fall
An angst-fueled, saturnine duo album of hauntingly reinvented standards and originals by the veteran singer and her long-running, iconic noir pianist collaborator. Not streaming online.

JD Allen – Toys/Die Dreaming
Dark, careening modal intensity from this era’s most intense tenor saxophonist/composer and his energetic, newish trio. He’s been building toward this big sort-of-comeback for a long time. Listen at youtube

Ren Harvieu – Revel in the Drama
A lavish, immaculately layered, brililantly produced trip through decades of soul, from pre-Motown sounds through the 90s from the edgy British chanteuse.  Listen at Bandcamp

Sarah Brailey/Experiential Orchestra and Chorus – Ethel Smyth: The Prison
The world premiere recording of one of this pioneering early 20th century woman composer’s most important, philosophically rich works, a somber, lavishly orchestrated, uninterrupted sixteen-part 1930 song cycle Listen at Spotify

Victoria Langford – Victoria
Swirling, stormy orchestration and religious imagery as a metaphor for interpersonal angst in the singer/multi-keyboardist’s debut album, arguably the best rock debut of 2020. Listen at Bandcamp

The Electric Mess – The Electric Mess V
Sizzling psychedelic punk and janglerock from this darkly careening, female-fronted New York band. Listen at Bandcamp

Rachelle Garniez/Erik Della Penna – An Evening in New York
Retro charm and devilish levels of detail in this New York-themed collection of originals and reinvented swing tunes from the iconic accordionist/chanteuse and the subtly slashing, brilliant Kill Henry Sugar guitarist/frontman. Listen at Spotify

Michael Hersch – I Hope We Get the Chance to Visit Soon
A chilling live concert recording of the harrowing 21st century classical composer and pianist’s suite, inspired by a dear friend whose ultimately futile struggle with cancer was not helped by experimental drugs. Listen at Bandcamp

ARC Ensemble – Chamber Works of Walter Kaufmann
A rapt, often hypnotic, starkly engaging collection of rare works by a Jewish composer who escaped the Holocaust to follow his muse and write orchestral Indian music. Listen at Spotify

How The River Ganges Flows compilation
Gripping, slaring, ancient Indian carnatic music for violin and percussion captured on 78 RPM shellac records between 1933 and 1952, newly rescued from the archives. Listen at Bandcamp

Matthew Grimm – Dumpster-Fire Days
Just to keep you listening all the way through, this is one of the most searingly lyrical albums on this list, from the charismatic, politically fearless songwriter who recorded the song that topped the Best Songs of 2013 list here and once fronted legendary Americana rockers the Hangdogs.

. Listen at Spotify

Low-Register Transcendence at Bassist Sigurd Hole’s Carnegie Hall Debut

In his Carnegie Hall debut on the third of the month, bassist Sigurd Hole played music to get absolutely lost in. From the most sepulchral, wispy high harmonics, to pitchblende lows, he used the entirety of the sonic spectrum, as is his style. Often he’d combine the two extremes at once, building keening, sometimes oscillating overtones while bowing steadily at the tailpiece. The effect was as hypnotic as it was intense. Drawing on material from his new double album Lys/Morke (Norwegian for “Light/Dark”), he transcended any concept of what solo bass can be.

Musicologists have long debated the influence of nature on traditions around the world. Hole may have recorded the album on a desolate island off the northern Norwegian coast, but his music had a windswept vastness long before he embarked on the project. There was a point midway during his first set where he built resonance to the point where his bass was literally humming with microtones, many of them no doubt beyond human hearing at both the low and the top end. In a more delicate interlude, he plucked out harmonics that evoked the ping of a West African mbira thumb piano.

Amother passage (Hole basically segued his way into everything) drew on the otherworldly oscillating folk singing known as yoiks, as did an understatedly joyous, circling dance theme. But it was his darkest, most nocturnal passages that resonated the most, a deep riverbed counterbalanced by the alternately busy and hazily lingering flickers at the surface.

David Rothenberg, who has visited that same island where Hole made the record, played in between sets, first alongside a recording of whale song, then solo on bass clarinet. At first the recorded whale seemed to be thrashing the busker, but then Rothenberg found a murky groove and hung with it throughout the mammal’s garrolous whistles and quasi-barks. As the multi-reedman explained, whale song is very poetically constructed, with A-sections, B-sections, C-sections and more.

Hole returned to join Rothenberg for a brief set of duos. It was here the two personalities contrasted the most, Rothenberg eventually switching to clarinet for some exuberant glissandoing as Hole held the center animatedly with his mutedly balletesque leaps and bounces.

A Darkly Picturesque Double Album and a Carnegie Hall Debut by Cutting-Edge Bassist Sigurd Hole

Sigurd Hole gets more sound out of his instrument than virtually any other bassist alive. He’s made a name for himself as a purveyor of brooding, envelopingly minimalist themes, but he also uses the entirety of what his instrument can produce. He has a picturesque, vastly dynamic solo album, Lys/Morke, recorded outdoors on a desolate island off the coast of his native Norway. He’s making his Carnegie Hall debut at Weill Hall on Feb 3 at 8 PM, performing many of these pieces. Cover is $25; the record hasn’t hit his Bandcamp page yet.

The first disc begins with the epic Lys. Over sounds of wind and water, Hole employs his bow for harmonics from across the audible spectrum, steady, hypnotic microtonal arpeggios, shivery shards, steady, peacefully minimalist washes and cautious, low-register footfalls.

That template describes much of what Hole does throughout the rest of the record, with frequent, bracing close harmonies, percussive moments and a pensive sketch or two. There’s a breathtaking display of extended technique that would make Charles Mingus proud, where Hole plays what’s essentially a bagpipe dance using high harmonics.

A lively, hypnotically circling theme evokes West African mbira music. In one of the album’s lighter moments, a lumberjack meets considerable resistance in the forest, or so it would seem. The most amusing vignette sounds like a reel of tape winding. Behind Hole, there are moments where the waves or the wind seem to pick up, adding to the general sense of desolation.

That really comes to the forefront as the second record coalesces. Increasingly otherworldly, eerily reverberating, pulsing variations on a stygian drone lead to more discernible, suspenseful melody, beginning with an unexpectedly catchy, gloomy chromatic theme. Hole goes down to his tailpiece for keening, scraping, brushy textures. Hypnotic echoes give way to slowly shifting cloudbanks, low/high contrasts, and a dirge of sorts that morphs into what could be Philip Glass.

Increasingly agitated, sawing phrases grow calmer and more enveloping. The slowly crescendoing vastness of the disc’s title track leads to a spare, spacious conclusion. This isn’t just a showcase for Hole’s fellow bassists to admire: fans of metal, the dark side of psychedelia and jazz improvisation ought to check out these strange and unique creations.

The 50 Best Albums of 2018

This is a playlist – click on the links below to hear every album in its entirety.

The best album of 2018 was also one of the shortest. Songwriter Rose Thomas Bannister’s lushly orchestrated latest release, Ambition, is not the first time she’s written on Shakespearean themes, but it is by far her darkest and most relevant album. Originally commissioned for a dance adaptation of Macbeth, the song cycle deals with the most fundamental questions of evil and how to deal with it. Many of the characters in Bannister’s distantly sinister narratives make the worst possible choices at the most crucial moments.

Bannister, who made a name for herself with spare, poignant Great Plains gothic songs, has never written more psychedelically or diversely, or sung with as much nuance and power. From the creepy flurries of the title track, through the grim understatement of Lady M, themes of betrayal and revenge permeate these songs’ constantly shifting, intricate arrangements, Bob Bannister’s elegant lead guitar lines weaving along the central seam. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Beyond the next ten albums or so – the creme de la creme of 2018 – these albums are listed in rough chronological order of when they were received here (which often doesn’t coincide with actual release dates over the past few months). Sp there’s no hierarchical ranking, considering how many completely different styles are represented on the list. If an album is one of the year’s fifty best, it has to be pretty amazing.

Ward White – Diminish
Catcny, erudite, purist three-minute janglerock tunesmithing matched to a withering, cynical, relentlessly grim lyrical sensibility. No songwriter alive writes more allusively macabre stories than this guy,  Endless puns, double entendres, and gallows humor are everywhere. White’s most surreal, psychedelic album to date, Bob, got the nod here as best album of 2013; everything he’s done since is on that level, this one included. The list of artists with as formidable a body of work as White has are very few: Bowie, Elvis Costello and Steve Wynn are points of comparison. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Elysian Fields – Pink Air
Lush jangle and clang, propulsive new wave and haunting dystopic scenarios in what might be the best ever album in haunting singer Jennifer Charles and polymath guitarist Oren Bloedow’s majestic, artsy band’s twenty-plus year carer. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Kotorino – Sea Monster
Carnivalesque latin noir, circus rock, suspenseful cinematic narratives and creepy steampunk tales on this brilliant New York crew’s tersest, most crystallized album yet. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Michael Hersch – Violin Concerto; End Stages suite: International Contemporary Ensemble with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
The most harrowing recording of the year combines two macabre, microtonal pieces, the latter exploring the tortured, fitful final moments of terminally ill patients. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Ensemble Fanaa – their debut albun
Multi-reedman Daro Behroozi’s otherworldly Middle Eastern/North African jazz trio play slinky, hypnotic, rivetingly microtonal originals. Bassist John Murchison doubles on the gimbri bass lute; percussionist Dan Kurfirst plays both a full kit and a boomy daf frame drum. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Klazz-Ma-Tazz – Meshugenah
High-voltage violinist Ben Sutin’s wild, klezmer-jazz-rock jamband whirl through ferocious, epic remakes of Yiddish vaudeville and theatre classics from over the decades. One of the most adrenalizing albums released this year. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

No-No Boy – 1942
A catchy, jangly, harmony-driven Elliott Smith-tinged concept album tracing the injustices suffered by Japanese-Americans during and after their incarceration in US concentration camps during World War II. One of the year’s most savagely relevant albums. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

The Brooklyn Raga Massive – Ragas Live Retrospective
The most epic album ever featured on this page contains over six hours of classical Indian ragas, recorded live in the studio. A cast of some of this era’s best younger Indian music instrumentalists team up with jazz, Americana and rock musicians for some outside-the-box reinventions, from large ensembles to spare duos and trios. Some of this is pretty crazy; a couple of the tracks are bullshit, but the traditional stuff is consistently sublime. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Todd Marcus – On These Streets: A Baltimore Story
The world’s only bass clarinetist currently leading a large jazz ensemble wrote this withering suite in the wake of the murder of Freddie Gray, a mix of lavish, intense, sometimes Middle Eastern-tinged epics and quieter, more somber material. Commentary from community members and activists is interspersed between songs for added, troubling context. One of the most politically important albums of recent years. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Mehmet Polat – Ageless Garden
Sometimes haunting, sometimes kinetic, this collection of originals by one of the world’s great oudists and composers of Turkish music draws on Kurdish, Andalucian and flamenco sounds as well. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Greek Judas – their debut album
One of the craziest albums on this list is this mix of heavy psychedelic remakes of classic Greek rembetiko anthems, originally dating from the 20s through the mid-50s. Rembetiko was the music of the gangster underworld, Turkish and Cypriot immigrants, and freedom fighters battling dictatorships; its slashing Middle Eastern chromatics take on extra menace when played with heavy metal savagery, Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Drunken Foreigner Band – White Guy Disease
Another crazy update on a slightly more modern sound. The lead instrument in this epic instrumental psychedelic band is an electrified phin lute, which gives their stately Laotian folk themes a surreal, twisted new dimension. If Country Joe & the Fish had been Laotian, they might have sounded something like this. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Gordon Grdina’s Marrow – Ejdeha
The album title is Farsi for “dragon;” the fiery jazz oudist and guitarist and his haunting, careening band switch between darkly slinky original levantine themes and smoldering guitar jazz that veers into dark metal in places. Listen at Spotify

Bombay Rickey – Electric Bhairavi
With her unreal four-octave vocal range, accordionist/sitarist/keyboardist Kamala Sankaram  fronts this catchy, slinky, darkly psychedelic unit, who mash up cumbia, surf and Bollywood with devious flair. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Ben Holmes and Patrick Farrell – The Conqueror Worm Suite
A subtle but luridly vivid, klezmer and Balkan-tinged piece inspired by the macabre  Edgar Allen Poe short story, from the innovative trumpet/accordion duo. Listen at youtube.

Uncivilized Plays Peaks
Guitarist Tom Csatari and his careening ten-piece pastoral jazz outfit had the good sense to record their 2017 Barbes performances of these sprawling, darkly haphazard reinventions of iconic Angelo Badalamenti Twin Peaks themes, plus some choice originals. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores – The Opposite
Hypnotically circling, kinetic, phantasmagorical original Balkan psychedelic rock, bandleader Redfearn running his accordion through a series of effects pedals for some wildly swirling, enveloping sounds. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Eva Salina & Peter Stan – Sudbina
The renowned Balkan chanteuse and her pyrotechnic accordionist remake songs made famous by one of the greatest Romany singers of the 20th century, Vida Pavlovic, who was sort of the Edith Piaf of Romany music. Abandonment and heartbreak have seldom sounded so visceral. Listen at Spotify

The Lemon Bucket Orkestra – If I Had the Strength
Dark, edgy, wildly punk-inspired original klezmer anthems and dance numbers that draw on a hundred-plus years of Ukrainian, Russian and Lithuanian traditions. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Gordon Grdina – Inroads
The great Middle Eastern jazz oudist and guitarist’s second album on this list features keys and alto sax rather than a string jazz lineup; it’s a little more sardonically funny and Sun Ra-like. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp..

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra – The Painted Lady Suite
The flight of a swarm of butterflies over the top of the world, all the way to Egypt, has never sounded more epic or cinematic. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin stars in this lavish, intense big band cycle of songs without words.  Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Twin Guns – Imaginary World
The latest album by these reverb addicts is slightly less Cramps-influenced, a bit quieter and more macabre than their previous mashups of horror surf and biker rock. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Electric Mess – The Beast Is You
These twin-guitar Brooklyn rockers channel the incendiary chromatic psychedelic punk attack of Australian legends Radio Birdman, with some of the most exhilarating fretwork of any album on this list. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sarah Bernstein’s Unearthish – Crazy Lights Shining
The microtonal violinist – one of the world’s great string jazz players and composers – teams up with percussionist Satoshi Takeishi for an otherworldly, acerbic mix of jazz poetry tableaux and eerily wafting miniatures. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Xylouris White – Mother
The brooding Cretan lyra player and Dirty Three drummer team up for a bracing, sometimes slashing thicket of Middle Eastern-tinged themes. Listen at Spotify,

Sigurd Hole – Encounters
The Norwegian bassist leads a frequently Middle Eastern-tinged string trio through a brooding series of nocturnes, dirges and more atmospheric pieces. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

SUSS – Ghost Box
Starry, eerily lingering, Twin Peaks-style guitar nocturnes, big-sky tableaux and the occasional detour into southwestern gothic themes. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Mary Halvorson – Code Girl
Amirtha Kidambi handles lead vocals on the perennially incisive guitarist’s deepest, most lavish plunge into artsy, shapeshifting, improvisationally-inclined, sometimes darkly humorous rock. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Alicia Svigals and Uli Geissendoerfer – The Beregovski Suite
The iconic klezmer violinist and film composer teams up with the German pianist to rescue these alternately moody and romping, decades-old klezmer themes collected on the eve of the  Holocaust by the great Russian musicologist. Listen at Spotify,

Qais Essar  The Ghost You Love
Incisive, often hauntingly poignant Afghani folk-tinged new instrumentals by this rising star composer and virtuoso of the rubab lute. Listen ad-free at his music page,

Maya Youssef – Syrian Dreams
A dynamic mix of relatively short pieces from one of the world’s most focused, purposeful players on the kanun – the magically rippling Middle Eastern zither. Listen at Spotify,

Satoko Fujii – Invisible Hand
The brilliant pianist celebrated her sixtieth birthday last year by releasing an album a month, including several riveting live sets. This solo performance is dark and dead serious, if hardly as horror-stricken as her Fukushima Suite, picked for best album of the year here in 2018. She improvises as purposefully and tunefully as anyone who ever lived. Listen at Spotify,

Thumbscrew – Ours
The second Mary Halvorson project on this list is the reliably edgy guitarist’s grittiest release this year, often drifting into the shadows for reverberating film noir ambience. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sean Moran – Sun Tiger
The guitarist’s trio with cellist Hank Roberts (who also appears on this list as part of another guitarist, Gordon Grdina’s band) and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza smolders and burns, with frequent detours into pastoral jazz.  Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sean Noonan – The Aqua Diva
The weirdest album on this list. Alex Marcelo puts a slightly out-of-tune piano to better use than you would think possible, maxing out the overtones in this bizarre mix of mythologically-inspired stream-of-consciousness poetry, darkly magical jazz, gospel and theatre music. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Women’s Raga Massive Compilation
The only reason that this is further down the list from the other compilation by the irrepressible Brooklyn Indian music collective is that it’s shorter – by about five hours. This mix of hypnotic, epic traditional performances along with rock and soul-tinged remakes of classic carnatic themes features seventeen of the women artists and female-fronted bands among the Raga Massive’s vast membership. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Bill Frisell – Music IS
This era’s preeminent jazz guitarist breaks out his trusty loop pedal for a characteristically tuneful, concise mix of pastoral themes, atmospherics, oldtimey melodies and noir-tinged cinematics. Listen at Spotify,

Elisa Flynn – The World Has Ever Been on Fire
The first-ever solo album by this historically-inspired, hauntingly soaring singer and multi-instrumentalist, with songs ranging from hypnotic, Radiohead-ish art-rock to jangly, toweringly angst-fueled anthems. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Lorraine Leckie – Live at Mercury Lounge
Further evidence that psychedelic bands should all be making live albums. The guys in this band seem so psyched to be playing these pulsing, Slavic-tinged themes that they’re jumping out of their shoes. There’s a sad backstory: this was the final show played by the late, great drummer Paul Triff. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Banda Magda – Tigre
A characteristically cinematic, mightily shapeshifting mix of Mediterranean psychedelia, coy French chanson, cumbia and lavish instrumentals by accordionist/multi-instrumentalist Magda Giannikou’s subtle, richly textured band. The theme is resilience in troubled times, inspired by the Greek struggle against European community bankster terrorism. Listen at Spotify,

Johnny Gandelsman – Bach: The Complete Sonatas and Partitas
It took the great Brooklyn Rider and Knights violinist eight years to finish recording this astonishingly dynamic album. The physicality, lithely dancing quality and Gandelsman’s signature, silken legato help explain why it soared to the top of the classical music charts. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The BC 35 compilation
In January of 2016, legendary producer and dark rock icon Martin Bisi held a marathon weekend session to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the revered Gowanus recording room, BC Studios, which he’d started while still in his teens. Many of the edgy rock acts he’s worked with since the 80s are featured on this vast collection of gothic, industrial, metalish and folk noir acts. Most notable is the first recording by 80s noiserock legends Live Skull. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Coolerators – Diggin’ Bones
Australian soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston leads this moody, carnivalesque, utterly individualistic  Monk-inspired organ jazz trio. Organist Alister Spence contributes deliciously smoky, Greg Lewis-tinged playing. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Mary Halvorson and Robbie Lee – Seed Triangular
The third and final Mary Halvorson project here is an acoustic-electric duo record with the brilliant, unpredictable guitarist playing vintage 18th century models in addition to her trusty electric, alongside multi-instrumentalist Lee. Pastoral jazz never sounded so unsettling and enigmatic. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Cliff Westfall – Baby You Win
If Elvis Costello had made an album of original country songs, it would have sounded something like this. The country crooner and songwriter writes period-perfect, aphoristic honkytonk and Nashville gothic tunes, spiced with lead guitarist Scott Metzger’s ferocious solos. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Jessie Kilguss – The Fastness
The title is a North Atlantic term for secret hideaway. The lustrous, soaring folk noir singer leads a concise, purposeful band through this brooding mix of rainy-day tableaux, new wave-tinged tunes and an offhandedly savage murder ballad. Listen at Spotify,

Amy Rigby – The Old Guys
Elvis Costello-class wordplay; broodingly silken Skeeter Davis-class vocals and a deeper drift into psychedelia than ever before from one of the most brilliant, hilarious, relevant tunesmiths of the past 25 years. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Edward Rogers – TV Generation
One of the world’s great voices in retro Britrock turns a withering eye on surveillance state fascism in this mix of artsy rock, spare acoustic ballads and Bowie-esque glam. Listen at Spotify,

Jen Shyu – Song of Silver Geese
A lavish, surreal, atmospherically haunting suite by the pan-Asian jazz multi-instrumentalist-singer. The nonlinear narrative follows the trail of the spirits of several friends, very young and somewhat older, whom Shyu recently lost. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sleep  – The Sciences
Heavy psych album of the year. Who knew that these icons of doom metal would be completely undiminished – and surprisingly upbeat, and more psychedelic than ever – 25 years after they picked up where Black Sabbath left off. Listen at Spotify,

The Arcane Insignia – A Flawed Design
An all-acoustic string band playing vintage 70s style art-rock. Imagine ELO’s first album beefed up by an entire symphony orchestra, playing classic Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. After awhile it’s hard to figure out where one song ends and another begins, but it’s a hell of a song. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices – BooCheeMish
Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard and others from the rock world guest on the renowned Bulgarian women’s choir in this surprisingly upbeat mix of otherworldly, chromatically charged folk themes and originals in the same vein. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

An Impromptu String Jazz Summit at Shapeshifter Lab

Last night at Shapeshifter Lab was a transcontinental string jazz summit. Ironically, that wasn’t the plan. But immigration trumped violinist Hakon Aase’s chance to get into the country, so bassist Sigurd Hole enlisted a great counterpart, Mark Feldman, to step in with barely two weeks notice. The result was a clinic in just about all the tuneful possibilities a violin, bass and most of a drumkit can create when manned by three of the world’s great minds in creative music.

Hole began with a solo set, which quickly established two of the night’s sustaining tropes: catchy minimalism and vast, brooding soundscapes. Often, he’d use his pedal to loop a low drone and then play tense close harmonies against it, often rising to keening, high-sky ambience for stark contrast. Most of the time he played with a bow, although he fingerpicked his most minimalist, catchiest grooves. The most entertaining moment was when he tuned his E string down a full octave for maximum ominous resonance. Hole’s long, sustained raga-like phrasing quickly established an Indian influence; at other times, grey-sky Norwegian folk tunes and more than distant echoes of the Balkans filtered through his somber washes.

Feldman and drummer Jarle Vespestad then joined him for the second set, which was catchier yet no less dark and intense. Playing a kit with no cymbals other than a hi-hat, often building a resonant, boomy sway on a dumbek goblet drum, Vespestad alternated between steady, syncopated quasi-trip-hop and slowly undulating Middle Eastern-flavored dirges.

Considering that it would be a stretch to call any of this music midtempo, Feldman saved his most exhilarating cadenzas to cap off the end of a few long upward spirals. Otherwise, he stuck close to Hole’s moody, plaintive themes, often in tandem with the bass. Hole dug into the pocket and stayed there for the majority of the set, although the more nocturnal numbers – especially an allusively Arabic-tinged mini-epic named for a street in Jerusalem – featured the same shadowy orchestral sweep as the material in his first set. Everything was filtered through a glass, darkly: Hole’s compositions peered around corners toward Egypt, and Mumbai, and fullscale angst, which made the few moments when the band let the menace off its leash all the more chilling.