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A String-Driven Treat and a Park Slope Gig by Irrepressible, Fearlessly Eclectic Violinist Tom Swafford

Violinist Tom Swafford’s String Power were one of the most lavishly entertaining, surrealistically psychedelic bands to emerge in New York in this decade. Blending classical focus, swirling mass improvisation, latin and Middle Eastern grooves and jazz flair, they played both originals as well as playful new arrangements of songs from across the years and around the world. With a semi-rotating cast of characters, this large ensemble usually included all of the brilliant Trio Tritticali – violinist Helen Yee, violist Leann Darling and cellist Loren Dempster – another of this city’s most energetically original string bands of recent years. Swafford put out one fantastic album, streaming at Bandcamp, with the full band in 2015 and has kept going full steam since with his own material, notably his Songs from the Inn, inspired by his time playing in Yellowstone State Park. 

Over the last couple of years, String Power have been more or less dormant, although Swafford has a characteristically eclectic show of his own coming up on Feb 2 at 7 PM the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he’s a faculty member. To start the show, he’ll be playing Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano with pianist Emile Blondel. After that, he’ll be leading a trio with guitarist/banjoist Benjamin “Baby Copperhead” Lee and bassist Zach Swanson for a set of oldtime country blues and then some bluesy originals of his own. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The String Power album has a formidable lineup of adventurous New York classical and indie classical talent. On violins, alongside Swafford and Yee, there’s a slightly shifting cast of Mark Chung, Patti Kilroy, Frederika Krier, Suzanne Davenport and Tonya Benham; Darling and Joanna Mattrey play viola; Dempster and Brian Sanders play cello, with Dan Loomis on bass. The album opens with Tango Izquierda, Swafford’s shout-out to the Democrats regaining control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. Maybe we’ll get lucky again, right? This elegantly lilting number rises and falls with intricate counterpoint and a handful of frenetic Mik Kaminski-ish cadenzas.

The group reinvents new wave band the Stranglers’ synth-pop Dave Brubeck ripoff Golden Brown – an ode to the joys of heroin – with a stately neo-baroque arrangement. The Velvets’ Venus in Furs is every bit as menacing, maybe more so than the original, with a big tip of the hat to John Cale, and a Swafford solo that’s just this side of savage.

Swafford’s version of Wildwood Flower draws more on its origins in 19th century shape-note singing than the song’s eventual transformation into a bluegrass standard, with a folksy bounce fueled by spiky  massed pizzicato. Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic Azizah opens with her plaintive taqsim (improvisation) over a drone, pounces along with all sorts of delicious microtones up to a whiplash coda and an outro that’s way too funny to give away.

Likewise, the otherwise cloying theme from the gently satirical 70s soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman gets a trick ending. Charles Mingus’ anti-segregation jazz epic Fables of Faubus gets a fullscale nine-minute workout, heavy on the composer’s relentless sarcasm. In the age of Trump, this really hits the spot with its phony martial heroics and sardonially swiping swells, Chung, Krier, Swafford and finally Loomis getting a chance to chew the scenery.

The album winds up with Swafford’s own Violin Concerto. The triptych opens with Brutal Fanfare, a stark, dynamically rising and falling string metal stomp spiced with twisted Asian motive – it makes a good segue out of Mingus. The second part, High Lonesome explores the often fearsome blues roots of bluegrass, with some wickedly spiraling Swafford violin. The conclusion, simply titled Ballad, is the most atmospheric passage here: it sounds like an Anna Thorvaldsdottir vista raised an octave or two. 

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The 30 Best NYC Concerts of 2013

Of all the year-end lists here, which also include the year’s best songs and best albums, the best New York concerts list is usually the most fun to pull together. For one, it’s the most individual. The Bushwick indie rock clique may go to all the same shows together because they’re terrified of giving anyone the impression that they can think for themselves, but among the 99%, everybody has their own unique bunch of favorites from the past year.

This is also the easiest list to assemble. Every year, there are thousands of songs and hundreds of albums to sift through; the number of shows is thankfully a lot more manageable.

But this year, tragedy struck. The night of January 19, arguably the best New York rock show of 2013 featured a headline act whose core members would be murdered only a few months later. Lush art-rock/dance-rock band the Yellow Dogs topped the bill at the now-shuttered Public Assembly as part of a phenomenal lineup which began with female-fronted dreampop band Butter the Children, then reggae/soul band Osekre & the Lucky Bastards and the Brooklyn What playing a scorching, intense album release show for their latest one, Hot Wine. The Brooklyn What would go on to share another bill with the Iranian expats before a disgruntled ex-bandmate ambushed the group in their sleep in south Williamsburg in mid-November.

Otherwise, the game plan for this page was to list twenty shows. In the process of whittling the number down, it became obvious that there was no way to fairly choose any less than thirty. This city may be mired in a crushing economic depression, but somehow New York musicians rose above it and made 2013 a year to remember. The 29 other best shows of the year, from this perspective anyway, in chronological order:

Changing Modes at Spike Hill, 1/19/13. It was cool to be able to sneak away from the Brooklyn What/Yellow Dogs extravaganza around the corner to see this slashingly lyrical, female-fronted, keyboard-driven art-rock/new wave rock crew. They were missing one of their three singers, but the music was still killer.

Molly Ruth at Zirzamin, 1/27/13. From November of 2012 through this past July, when the club closed suddenly, this blog booked a lot of shows at the basement space on Houston Street. Given a supportive venue and unlimited access to New York’s best talent, what an amazing time that was! Molly Ruth’s fearless charisma and wickedly acerbic, assaultive punk-blues songs made for one of the best nights there.

Richard Thompson at Joe’s Pub, 2/5/13. Absolutely no plans to see this, tickets being as ridiculously overpriced as they were. Publicist sends an eleventh-hour email: wanna go? Sure! The veteran rocker who might be the greatest guitarist of all time – and maybe the greatest rock songwriter of all time – was at the top of his game, leading a power trio.

Jerome O’Brien and Beninghove’s Hangmen at Zirzamin, 2/18/13. This wasn’t one of the nights booked by this blog, but it could have been: the former frontman of literate punk/R&B rockers the Dog Show airing out old classics and deviously witty new material, solo acoustic on 12-string guitar, followed by saxophonist/composer Bryan Beninghove’s careening, menacing, psychedelic noir surf/crime jazz band.

The Polyse Project and Shofar at the Lincoln Center Atrium, 2/21/13. The two Polish groups made their US debut playing obscure, haunting folk tunes from the pre-Holocaust Polish-Jewish badlands along with equally haunting, lingering jazz reinventions of some of those themes.

Trio Tritticali at Zirzamin, 2/24/13. Of all the shows booked by this blog at this venue, this was the most fun. Not only did the eclectic string trio play a sizzling mix of original indie classical, tango and Middle Eastern material, they also served as house band. Lorraine Leckie, Walter Ego and a bunch of other A-list songwriters got the benefit of a brilliant string section behind them.

Black Sea Hotel and Lorraine Leckie at Zirzamin, 3/3/13. The three women of the otherworldly Balkan a-cappella group and the Canadian gothic songstress might not seem like the ideal segue, but they built a dark ambience that Leckie and her band set ablaze.

Daphne Lee Martin at the Way Station, 3/6/13. The torchy, deviously literate songwriter and her killer band aired out songs from Martin’s excellent new album, refusing to let a horrible sound mix and a loud bar crowd that wouldn’t listen distract them from their sultry, sometimes luridly swinging intensity.

Tift Merritt and Simone Dinnerstein at Merkin Concert Hall, 3/21/13. The Americana chanteuse and classical pianist began their duo show with the lights off and kept them low throughout a deliciously nocturnal mix of chamber pop and art-rock.

Drina Seay at Zirzamin, 3/24/13. One of the great voices in Americana brought her sophisticated countrypolitan band for a mix of noir blues, honkytonk and more rocking songs.

Serena Jost at Joe’s Pub, 4/9/13. The cellist and art-rock songwriter brought her brilliant band and burned through songs from her equally brilliant new album A Bird Will Sing.

Brazda and Big Lazy at Barbes, 4/12/13. Eclectic singer Shelley Thomas’ edgy Balkan group followed by the first live show in six years by NYC’s most thrilling noir instrumental band.

The Sweet Bitters at Zirzamin, 4/21/13. A rare, impromptu NYC show by A-list tunesmith Sharon Goldman and Nina Schmir’s folk-pop duo plus cellist Martha Colby, mixing otherworldly harmonies, edgy lyrics and a triumphant good-to-be-back vibe.

Eva Salina at the American Folk Art Museum, 5/3/13. One of the most intense, original voices in Balkan music, in a riveting, rare solo show: just vocals and accordion.

Bryan & the Aardvarks at Subculture, 5/14/13. The glimmering, nocturnal, vibraphone-driven Americana jazz sextet put on one of the most lushly evocative, richly noir shows of the year.

Emel Mathlouthi at the Alliance Française, 5/22/13. Even without her full band – who were absent due to visa issues – the Tunisian Siouxsie Sioux played a subtle yet ferociously intense mix of Middle Eastern art-rock and Arabic liberation anthems.

A Conspiracy of Beards at Drom, 5/24/13. The mighty all-male San Francisco choir sang their own imaginative large-scale arrangements of Leonard Cohen classics that were haunting and intense but  just as often playful and funny.

Eilen Jewell at City Winery, 7/9/13. The Queen of the Minor Key with her amazing band featuring lead guitarist Jerry Miller, one of the most sizzling players in Americana.

The Go-Go’s at Coney Island, 8/1/13. Who would have thought that the original, breakthrough all-female new wave band would still be together (with a new bassist) thirty-three years after they started…and that they’d sound more rambunctious than ever?

El Gusto at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/3/13. While we’re on the topic of old bands, this bunch of virtuoso Algerian chaabi musicians were making their US debut fifty-three years after they’d broken up, in 1960. And they picked up right where they left off.

The Larch at Bowery Electric, 8/8/13. Playing mostly new, unrecorded material, Brooklyn’s finest psychedelic new wave outfit were at the top of their sardonically lyrical, guitar-fueled game.

Rosin Coven and Amanda Palmer at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/9/13. AFP was as fearless and charismatic and fun to watch as you could possibly want, but the story here was the opening act, whose wild, canivalesque art-rock upstaged the headliners.

Kotorino at Joe’s Pub, 8/29/13. Speaking of carnivalesque, this Brooklyn circus-rock outfit keeps getting larger and more menacing, this time out playing the album release show for their excellent second album Better Than This.

Till By Turning playing bassoonist Katherine Young’s Four-Chambered Heart at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Brooklyn, 9/6/13. This isn’t a classical music blog, but Young – who has made a name for herself in jazz improvisation as well as chamber music – established herself as one of the most individualistic and powerful composers in town with this chilling suite, inspired by Olivier Messiaen’s prison camp epic, Quartet for the End of Time.

Matthew Grimm at Rodeo Bar, 9/13/13. The former and occasionally current Hangdogs frontman – who’s sort of the Stephen Colbert of heartland rock – played a mix of wryly hilarious and white-knuckle intense Americana rock and powerpop numbers from his latest album Songs in the Key of Your Face.

Salaam at Alwan for the Arts, 10/26/13. Multi-instrumentalist Dena El Saffar’s eclectic Middle Eastern band burned through a mix of originals and classics from Iran, with special guests from her brother Amir’s equally intense jazz quintet.

Carol Lipnik, Villa Delirium, Big Lazy and Mamie Minch at Barbes, 10/31/13. The queen of Coney Island phantasmagoria with her noir chamber pop band, followed by John Kruth’s gleefully twisted circus rock outfit, NYC’s creepiest crime jazz/noir instrumental band (yeah, they made this list twice – they’re that good) with all-purpose retro Americana siren Minch taking a characteristically lurid turn in front of the mic.

Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard at the Asia Society, 11/16/13. The Iranian fiddle player and composer joined with the santoor virtuoso for a glimmering, wrenchingly intense suite inspired by the harrowing experiences of their fellow citizens during the Khomeini years.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices at the Parkside, 11/23/13. This list ends on a high note with this city’s most politically aware, charismatic noir rocker and his scorching, blues-infused band, careening through a mix of old classics and newly reworked material.

Salons and Suspects

This blog’s raison d’etre extends beyond publicizing the Sunday Salon at Zirzamin. But while the Salon was created to provide a forum for the best rock and rock-related songwriters in town to work up new material, it’s also designed to be a show that, if all the performers are on their game, is as fun to watch as it is to play. The last few weeks have been pretty amazing, with steady contributions from art-rock cellist Serena Jost (who’s got a brand-new album coming out next month, and a gig here on the 17th at 7); barroom sage John Hodel, who brought out an understated and absolutely haunting elegy for the Newtown massacre; Walter Ego (more about him a little later on this page), Chris Fuller, who held the crowd rapt with his edgy gypsy and bluesy sounds; and LJ Murphy, who with his band the Accomplices scorched through one of the hardest-rocking, intense sets the club has ever seen, to wind up Salon #14.

Chanteuse Carol Lipnik and pianist Matt Kanelos headlined Salon #15: both are pushing the envelope harder than ever toward the avant garde, with a spacious, pillowy, psychedelic yet often clenched-teeth intensity. The high points of their show were their hypnotic, apprehensively trance-inducing originals, although their covers were just as interesting. A few of the highlights were a nocturnal, enveloping version of Harry Nilsson’s Life Line; a jaggedly stunning, percussive version of Nick Drake’s Black-Eyed Dog with some cruelly difficult crosshanded work by Kanelos; and a tale of Richard Thompson’s The Great Valerio so intense that you could hear a pin drop between chords, They’re playing Joe’s Pub on an excellent doublebill with historically-informed, theatrical Poor Baby Bree this Sunday the 17th.

The joke going around the club afterward was that this was the coldest night of the year, yet Asheville, North Carolina bluegrass band Town Mountain packed the place. It makes you wonder how much crazier the crowd would have been if this was a summer evening. Frontman/guitarist Robert Greer sang with a soulful twang over Jesse Langlais’ rippling banjo, Bobby Britt’s fiddle and John Stickley’s bass. They did the first instrumental that Britt ever wrote, a killer tune with lots of unexpected changes, along with a mix of originals and covers that ran the gamut from the moody moonshine anthem Midnight Road, to a version of John Anderson’s Wild and Blue that gave new meaning to the song’s half-crazed drunken menace, to a couple of lickety-split romps including what seemed like a bluegrass update on the old Irish ballad Whiskey, Oh Whiskey. “Now for the doxology,” Greer announced to no one in particular, and then launched into the pensive drinking ballad Leave the Bottle, the shapeshifting title track to their excellent new album. It was a fun show, a cool reminder of how much good new bluegrass there is pushing up through the weeds not only here but everywhere.

The following night, former Dog Show bandleader Jerome O’Brien took the stage with that group’s lead guitarist Jack Martin for the first time since a Kid Congo Powers show sometime in the mid-90s. Both musicians share a wry sense of humor, Martin’s biting slide work and emphatic, hard-hitting phrases complementing O’Brien’s sardonic lyrical torrents. As underground NYC rock nostalgia, this was just about as good as catching the band at their peak at the C-Note or Tonic about ten years ago. As low-key as the show was – just two guys with guitars – the positive energy was through the roof, through the nonchalantly cruel Saturday Nights Are for Amateurs, a bouncy reinvention of If I Laugh Anymore I’ll Break – a slyly exuberant celebration of pre-gentrification nocturnal entertainment – and a knowing take of the big audience hit This One Thing. O’Brien has a monthly residency here and if all goes according to plan will be back at Zirzamin on April 8 at 7 PM.

Beninghove’s Hangmen played afterward. They’re another band with a residency here, Mondays at around 9:30, and as usual they rampaged through an assaultively psychedelic set of noir jazz and original film themes as well as the macabre surf rock of Surf n’ Turk and Surfin’ Satie. Frontman/saxophonist Bryan Beninghove likes Middle Eastern sounds, finds the missing link between Ethiopian melody and Erik Satie and knows his way around a latin tune. Guitarist Dane Johnson led them in a surprisingly low-key, oldschool version of Tequila before they got rolling, through a moody reggae vamp and a creepy new waltz. A little later they took Quatro Loko, a salsa groove that’s so cheery it just begs to be ripped to shreds, and did exactly that, with high-voltage soprano sax from Beninghove and a careening, tumbling Rick Parker trombone solo. They closed with a cover of Led Zep’s Kashmir that did justice to the original, right down to the bassline, while turning loose the stoned monster inside.

Salon #16 was one of the best ones so far, featuring an absolutely sizzling set by Trio Tritticali, who did double duty as the house string section, most notably in providing a lush, haunting backdrop for a couple of creepy Lorraine Leckie chamber pop songs. Who says classically trained players can’t improvise? Violist Leanne Darling, cellist Loren Dempster and violinist Helen Yee are brilliant composer-performers, “daring to go where no string trio has gone before,” as Darling made clear early on. They gave a raw nonchalant intensity to Osvaldo Pugliese’s tango La Yumba, Yee’s arrangement of Mark Orton’s Helium also spiced with brooding Argentinian flavor. Was the best song of the night Darling’s artful new arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab bellydance classic Zeima, or her ingenious baroque ska take on A Message to You Rudie, or Yee’s powerfully crescendoing Candles in the Windows, or Dempster’s haunting, chromatically-fueled anthem Who Knows Yet? It’s impossible to choose. The three wrapped up the show with Darling’s funky, Bowie-esque Issue No. 1 (title track to their most recent album) in an explosive flurry of chamber metal. They’re at Freddy’s on March 22 at 8.

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.