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
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
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