New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: ward white

The 100 Best Songs of 2021

This is a playlist. Click on song titles for streaming audio; click on artist names for their webpage. There are hours worth of listening here: you might want to bookmark this page. The point of this is not just to cull the best songs from the Best Albums of 2021 list, but also to include singles, and videos, and tracks from other records that for one reason or another aren’t on that one,

Given the choice of a fierce, plainspoken, feel-good singalong protest song, a totally disconsolate one, or a much more complex, artful powerpop gem, which would you pick for best song of the year?

Subjective as this list is bound to be, there are three main contenders. The big outlaw country hit that everybody’s blasting at all the protests is Blind Joe‘s I Will Not Comply. It’s Woody Guthrie for the 21st century. It’s catchy, it’s optimistic, and everybody can relate to it.

The flip side of that, metaphorically speaking at least, is Silent War, by songwriter Five Times August. It’s a solemn waltz:

They’ve covered your mouth and tied back your hands
They did it to all of the kids
And nobody knows all the damage it’s done
And won’t ask until the master permits

Then there’s Irene Pena‘s The Summer Place. Over a catchy late 70s/early 80s powerpop tune, she paints a witheringly detailed picture of family dysfunction by the seaside. As a portrait of the dark side of human behavior (without touching on lockdowns or muzzlemania), it’s Elvis Costello-class, as vividly cynical as anything Black Box Recorder ever did. And in a normal year, it could have topped this list.

This year, the #1 slot goes to Five Times August. He hadn’t even recorded the song yet when he debuted it at a massive rally held by Texans for Vaccine Choice in Austin at the peak of the summer heat. And as sad as it is, at the end he implores us to “Take back your freedom and fight for your life, stand up before it’s all gone.”

What’s optimistic about this list is that despite the current state of the world, there are more funny songs on it than ever before. What’s less optimistic is that there was less recorded music released in 2021 than in any other year since the 1940s. One suspects that artists have written infinitely more material than they’ve been able to record in the past twenty-two months. Whatever the case, there’s still an embarrassment of riches here.

Beyond the next ten songs or so – the creme de la creme of 2021 – there’s absolutely no order or ranking to this list.

Five Times AugustGod Help Us All
One of the great protest songs of the past year or so: “Citizen fools and brand new rules make everyone a hero now…Keep your distance, no resistance, only do what you’re allowed…See no evil, bow to the needle, didn’t we turn out great?”

Five Times August – Jesus What Happened to Us
One of the first protest songs banned from youtube, no surprise considering the lyrics. It’s Eve of Destruction with a locked-in, lockdown-era focus: “Keep staring at your smartphone, get dumber every week,”

Tessa LenaThe Physical World Is the Only World We Have
The longest song on this list, a bracingly immersive mosaic of savagely funny spoken word and haunting, Armenian-tinged sounds by the polymath singer/investigative journalist and host of the philosophical podcast Make Language Great Again:

Data’s rotten,
Tests are toast.
News is sullen,
Coast to coast.
Feudal darkness
Here and now!
To the masters
Peasants bow

Mostly AutumnTurn Around Slowly
An endlessly shapeshifting, circling, metaphorically loaded art-rock seafaring anthem that makes a towering coda for their album Graveyard Star, one of the most vivid portraits of lockdown-era terror released to date.

Slowhand and Van – This Has Got to Stop
Anybody who wants to subject Eric Clapton to any more crippling mandatory shots will be stopped dead in their tracks, the guitar icon wants everybody to know. Van Morrison’s response is more quietly seething.

The Armoires Homebound
One of the most spot-on, witheringly cynical lockdown songs written so far is this Louvin Brothers-style country waltz originally released under the pseudonym The Chessie System. The title is a cruel pun. From the album Incognito

Ward WhiteEasy Meat
Reduced to lowest terms, this cinematic, imagistic powerpop narrative is about acting on impulses that would be unthinkable to anyone outside, say, the Gates Foundation or the California governor’s office.
From the album The Tender Age.

Changing ModesStasis Loop
A macabre, picturesque account of the early days of the lockdown in New York that rises out of an evil morass of feedback and horror-movie keys. From the album Wax World

Van MorrisonDouble Bind
A slow, slinky minor-key soul protest anthem: “It’s always the opposite of what they say
…Trying to police everyone’s mind,” the Celtic icon warns. Arguably the best song on the album Latest Record Project No. 1

Van MorrisonWhy Are You on Facebook
Over a jangly, bluesy Highway 61-era Dylanesque backdrop, Morrison wants to know “Why do you need secondhand friends?” Funniest track on his album Latest Record Project No. 1

The Academy Blues Project –  All Will Be Revealed
A deviously detailed account of what could be a stolen election, or some other massive fraud: Ben Easton’s gospel piano leads the band skyward to guitarist Mark Levy’s savage guitar outro. From the album The Neon Grotto

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard Static Electricity
Slinky electric saz-driven microtonal Turkish-flavored psychedelia from the album LW

The Pocket Gods – Essential Wenzels on a Wet Wednesday
Crushingly sarcastic as it may be, this creepy, barely two-minute synth-rock song arguably captures the relentless gloom and hopelessness of the plandemic better than any other song released to date. From the album Another Day I Cross It Off My Bedroom Wall

Van MorrisonHe’s Not the Kingpin
A soul-infused, sinister look at how the forces behind the lockdown ambush each other: “He’s just the fall guy – follow the money, follow the story, ” From the album Latest Record Project No. 1

The Felice Bros. – We Shall Live Again
A big folk-rock epic that’s as poignant as it is funny – and creepy: “The clouds are at the winds’ command, a great extinction is close at hand.” From the album From Dreams to Dust

Gary LourisDead Man’s Burden
An eight-minute, late-Beatlesque apocalyptic epic pondering questions like transcending the residue of unsustainable evil left over from the Cold War, from centuries of ravaging the environment and anything else that got in our way. From the album Jump For Joy

Fanfare CiocarliaThe Trumpeter’s Lament
A sizzling Romany circus rock bolero and the most phantasmagorical song on their latest album It Wasn’t Hard To Love You

The Malta Philharmonic Orchestra – Christopher Muscat: Mesogeios
A magnificently charging, circling, hauntingly minor-key portrait of the Mediterranean featuring soloist Francesco Sultana on microtonal, melismatic Maltese zummara oboe, zaqq bagpipe and flejguta flute, winding up with a ferocious, Egyptian-tinged dance. From the album Contemporary Colours

Volur – Death Cult
Menacing tritones, a Bartokian string interlude, towering crescendos, a skull-shredding violin solo, and what sounds like throat-singing by dead monks. Title track from the art-rock/metal band’s latest album.

KatlaHvitamyrkur (Dark Light)
A somber cello solo amidst desolation, a searingly marching forward drive and a gorgeous, woundedly ornate guitar solo in this Icelandic metal dirge. From the album Allt þetta helvítis myrkur (All This Hellacious Darkness)

Gabriel Alegria’s Afro-Peruvian Sextet – The Mask
A stark urban noir soul tableau behind a metaphorically loaded spoken word passage by percussionist Freddy Lobaton. No names are mentioned, but there is a devil involved. From the album Social Distancing

Sana NaganoLoud Dinner Wanted
Insistent, hammering riffs and eerily dancing tritones give way to a horror interlude anchored by booming bass chords and a minimalist stomp in this shrieking, dystopic tableau from the jazz violinist’s album Smashing Humans

Tiffany NgDark Matters
The carillonist rings out big emphatic splashes of color within an allusively menacing, hypnotic bell choir. Title track from her latest album

The JCA OrchestraRomapole
A colorfully bellicose Turkish-inspired big band jazz epic. From the album Live at the BPC

HK et les SaltimbanksDanser Encore
The mighty Romany jazz-flavored protest anthem that became the unofficial theme for this past year’s protests throughout Europe. The point is that we’ll dance again…but not the way the totalitarians want us to, literally, “on a chord chart.”

Dave Specter and Billy Branch – The Ballad of George Floyd
The Chicago blues guitarist and blues harpist build a slow, venomously simmering groove: “Eight minutes of torture, begged for mercy, then he was killed.”

DisturbiosSurf Gnossienne
Matt Verta-Ray’s spare guitar over his wife Rocio’s tremoloing funeral organ blend for a haunting reinvention of the Erik Satie classic. From the band’s first album

TsibeleMir Veln Zey Iberlebn (We Will Outlive Them)
When the Nazis marched into Lublin, Poland in 1941 and rounded up the Jews there, they were as sadistic as usual. Driving the population out into the fields, they commanded the captives to dance. Their response was this song, a defiant Middle Eastern-flavored singalong recreated by the New York klezmer band as a seven-minute epic.

Ward WhiteLet’s Don’t Die At the Stoplight
Rhyme schemes, metaphors and reflections on anomie fly fast and furious in this Bowie-tinged capsule of road rage. From the album The Tender Age

Azure RayAlready Written
An allusive, bittersweetly devastating psychedelic pop gem: “Now I’m somewhere between what I hear and when I listen, try to write it down but it’s already written – how I miss those days.” From the album Remedy

Bare Wire SonFingernest
Spare, Lynchian guitar figures fuel an emphatic, pulsing, hypnotic dirge, rising to Comfortably Numb proportions. From the album Off Black

Nick WaterhouseVery Blue
Gorgeous, Orbisonian early 60s style Nashville noir, complete with desperately hammering piano, bittersweet major/minor changes and flurrying early ELO strings. From the album Promenade Blue

The Brooke Maxwell Ensemble – Be Safe Be Good
Although this searing satire of everyday paranoia was written before the lockdown, it resonates even more now. From the Ride the Cyclone soundtrack

Carola OrtizCorro per la Nit
A harrowing nocturnal chase scene, through a werewolf intro, to leaping, Balkan-inspired rhythms and suspenseful lulls. From the Spanish clarinetist’s album Pecata Beata

The Armoires – Great Distances
A soaring but poignant lockdown-era tableau that could be the great harmony-rock tune the Jayhawks left off Sound of Lies. Originally released under the pseudonym The Gospel Swamps. From the album Incognito

Changing Modes On an Island
Drummer Timur Yusef’s gracefully tumbling Atrocity Exhibition-style drums bookend a gorgeously symphonic, surreal lockdown escape ballad. From the album Wax World

Five Times AugustSad Little Man
A vindictively hilarious, singalong folk-rock portrait of the evil Dr. Faulty and all his flip-flopping

The Speed of SoundTomorrow’s World
“We were offered Star Trek, but they fed us Soylent Green,” guitarist Ann-Marie Crowley sings to open this dystopic retro new wave tune. From the album The Museum of Tomorrow

BesarabiaOroneta
A lush, slashingly chromatic, trickily rhythmic Andalucian-tinged dance with eerie, Bulgarian-tinged vocal harmonies, From the album Animal Republic

James McMurtryOperation Never Mind
A slashing, spot-on, cynical, twangy critique of American foreign policy misadventures in Afghanistan before Biden’s disastrous pullout: “We won’t let the cameras near the fighting. that way we won’t have another Vietnam.” From the album The Horses and the Hounds

RC the RapperJust Say No
One of the big boombox hits from this summer’s protests here in the US. “It isn’t a theory if it keeps coming true.”

Five Times August – Outttayerdaminde
A rapidfire Subterranean Homesick Blues flavored broadside that pokes savage fun at soyboys and other narcissists run amok on Tik Tok.

Acoustic Syndicate – Bertha
A cover of the Grateful Dead classic, with a tightness and a snarl that the original band sometimes let slip away. “Test me test me test me test me, why don’t you arrest me?”

Changing ModesNothing to Say
Frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam dismissively critique social media over haphazard Beatles blues. From the New York harmony-rock band’s latest album Wax World

Castle Rat Different Dirt
A killer fuzztone doom metal dirge in a grimly sludgy Electric Citizen vein.

Nikolaj Hess ECM Country
A brooding, expansive, windswept waltz, the pianist playing suspiciously blithe, light-fingered, bluesy lounge phrases over the mournful, Lynchian swells of the string section. From the album Spacelab & Strings

FortidPandemic
A stomping, Middle Eastern-tinged chromatic black metal anthem that seems to address repression more than it does any perceived threat of a virus. From the album World Serpent

Caamaño & AmeixeirasManeo de Cambre
A bracing, Andalucian-tinged waltz from accordionist Sabela Caamaño and violinist Antía Ameixeiras with a plaintive solo from powerhouse guest clarinetist Carola Ortiz. From the album Aire

Erkin Cavus and Reentko DirksMaksim
A lingering, Satie-esque Turkish twin-guitar instrumental: with its sepulchral echo effects, it’s the most desolately gorgeous track on the album Istanbul 1900

The Armoires  – I Say We Take Off and Nuke This Site From Orbit
A seethingly Beatlesque critique of social media – the quote at the end of the song is too good to give away. From the album Incognito

Bare Wire Son Saved Alone
Menacingly anthemic, twangy reverb guitar riffs, whispered vocals, a lulling organ interlude and ragged crescendo in this grim World War I tableau. From the album Off Black

Katayoun GoudarziSweetest
The Iranian chanteuse’s rapturous setting of a famous Rumi poem, ney flute trading off mysteriously with Middle Eastern-flavored sitar. From the album This Pale

Van Morrison – Duper’s Delight
A pulsing midtempo ballad that could be about a femme fatale, or lying lockdowners: “You don’t notice when they’re trying to confine you, you don’t notice when they doublecross.” From the album Latest Record Project No. 1

Menahan Street BandDevil’s Respite
A slinky, darkly anthemic oldschool soul instrumental from the album The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band

Here Lies ManCollector of Vanities
Afrobeat as Black Sabbath might have played it: funereal organ, punchy chords, allusive chromatics. From the album Ritual Divination

Derrick Gardner and the Big Dig! BandPush Come da Shove
Mozartean exchanges of voicings, careening swing, elephantine, undulating drums and a firebomb of a false ending on the most wildly turbulent track from the big band jazz album Still I Rise

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic DogThe Activist
The protean, agelessly relevant guitar icon takes aim at limousine liberal yuppie puppy entitlement in this hilariously verbose parody of cancel culture. From the album Hope

Langan Frost & Wayne – The Alchemist of Hazy Row
A sobering Kinks-inflected psych-folk narrative with a darkly enigmatic violin solo and a trick ending. From the band’s debut album

The Speed of Sound – Impossible Past
A knowing chronicle of revisionist history set to enigmatic new wave rock: “Duck-and-cover A-bomb drills among dark satanic mills.” From the album The Museum of Tomorrow

Sarah McQuaid The Day of Wrath, That Day
An eerily echoing, chiming, increasingly macabre guitar instrumental: McQuaid is known as a singer, but she wails on the frets. From the record The St Buryan Sessions,

The CCCC Grossman EnsembleDavid Dzubay: PHO
Not a reference to Vietnamese cuisine: the title stands for Potentially Hazardous Objects. The ensemble work every trick in the suspense film playbook for playfully maximum impact in the most animated and strongest piece on the album Fountain of Time

Lia SampaiUna Llum (A Light)
A slap upside the head of a petty tyrant whose insatiable desire for control backfires and ignites a revolution. From the Catalan singer’s album Amagatalls de Llum (rough unpoetic translation Hidden in Plain Sight),

Anbessa Orchestra Gobez (Brave)
This single is more spacy and atmospheric than the incendiary, guitar-stoked Ethiopian jam they used to slay audiences with in summers where people congregated freely here in New York.

Ward WhiteOn Foot
A brisk new wave/powerpop murder ballad whose cruellest joke is musical rather than lyrical. From the album The Tender Age

Ward Hayden and the OutliersNothing to Do (For Real This Time)
Jangly bluegrass-tinged highway rock with a chilling lockdown-era narrative: “This is what happens when you wake up, all the cool kids in the class, just actors in a mask.” From the album Free Country

Willie Nile – Blood on Your Hands
Steve Earle guests on this stomping, venomous Americana rock broadside aimed at oligarchs everywhere: “There’s bodies piled up down on Blueblood Street.” From the album The Day the Earth Stood Still

The Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout – Sheba
Surf Ethiopiques recorded in the backroom of a legendary onetime speakeasy. From the album The Boog At Sunny’s

Cate Von CsokeCoyote Cry
Link Wray meets Morricone somewhere in the Australian outback. From the album Almoon

Sam LlanasAutumn Is Falling
A Nashville gothic-tinged, metaphorically-loaded reflection on the grim passage of time, spot-on for 2021. From the album Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels

Abigail DowdApple Trees
A chillingly metaphorical tale of plans suddenly derailed, set to spare, brooding folk noir. From the album Beautiful Day

The Colorist Orchestra and Howe Gelb Tarantula
A clip-clop southwestern gothic opening credits-style instrumental theme from the desert rock icon and European art-rockers’ debut collaboration Not on the Map

Opium MoonWisdom
More than eleven minutes of austerely enveloping, gracefully violin-driven Middle Eastern and Indian-flavored rapture. From the double album Night and Day

Esquela Oradura
A grim account of the Nazi massacre of the French village of Oradour Sur Glane in 1944, set to snarling guitar-fueled desert rock. From the album A Sign From God

Space SummitAncient Towers
Lush, richly clanging layers of guitar permeate this mighty, allusive art-rock anthem from twelve-string maven Marty Willson-Piper’s latest project. From the album Life This Way

SwerveEbbs & Flows
“Try to fight this feeling, that I’m gonna die up on this hill” – political Oasis, like one of that band’s good rare b-sides. From the album Ruin Your Day

Victory BoydThe Star Spangled Banner
The 2021 equivalent of Jimi Hendrix’s version. Boyd’s is intricate and acoustic, a protest against totalitarianism instead of the Vietnam War.

Carola OrtizCarmeta
Her bass clarinet dips to gritty, noirish lows in this instrumental, shifting from a shamanic musette to a slinky, tricky Balkan groove. From the album Pecata Beata

Becca Stevens and the Secret TrioPathways
The art-rock singer contemplates a refuge “away from the noisy crowd, where I can see the pale stars rising,” over a magical blend of the Balkans and catchy American janglerock. From their debut collaboration

Monsieur DoumaniTiritichtas
An undulating, loopy, rembetiko-inspired chromatic theme with half-whispered lyrics about a trickster archetype. From the album Pissourin

Antonis Antoniou Doulia
Circling chromatic bouzouki riffage over a trippy groove permeates this icy Balkan-tinged psychedelic tune. From the album Kkismettin

Perry Carditis & the mRNA’s – Christmas medley
Coffee and Covid published this ridiculously entertaining spoof of infomercials for holiday albums, with updated lyrics for the age of lethal injection campaigns. Scroll down for the video.

Nirvana A – Pure Blooded
One of the funniest protest songs of the past year, set to the tune of the silly 70s Foreigner lite-metal hit Hot Blooded.

Dennis DavisonThe Guise of Comedy
A twisted, phantasmagorical 60s-style psych-pop tune from the former frontman of the late, great Jigsaw Seen

Castle Black Radio Queen
A sleek, rhythmically tricky take on grim minor-key early 80s punk. From the album album Get Up Dancer,

Dan BlakeThe Grifter
A complex and crushingly cynical, bustling jazz portrait of a would-be political savior with a dark undercurrent and a spot-on sax solo out. From the saxophonists’s latest album Da Fe

DictaphoneIsland 92
A trippy, shadowy rembetiko-ish noir theme fueled by bass clarinet. From the album Goats & Distortions 5

Lake Street Dive Hush Money
“You can’t win the game so you wanna throw it, but I’ve got a whistle and I’m gonna blow it,” singer Rachael Price insists, over a Beatlesque, quasi trip-hop sway. From the album Obviously

Icon of Sin – Clouds Over Gotham
Shifting between gentle, early Genesis-tinged interludes, a fullscale stampede and nightmarish symphonic angst, the Brazilian metal band captures the anguish of the early days of the lockdown here…but if their prophecy comes true, we will rise again! From their debut album

Shuky Shveiky – Espinelo
One of the most dramatic, flamenco-tinged numbers on
Sarah Aroeste’s album Monastir, exploring the global pre-Holcaust roots of a Macedonian center of Jewish culture

Frankie & the Witch FingersMepem
A heavy, dark psychedelic soul jam with wah guitar and organ. Like Nektar covering War, with a surprise ending

The Shining TonguesAnnihilation
A wealth of dark textures: fuzztone repeaterbox guitar, symphonic keys and a lush bed of acoustic guitars. The most lavishly orchestral track on their debut album Milk of God

Dot AllisonThe Haunted
A spare, stark art-rock epic about ghostly presences, both phantasmic and psychological. From her album Heart-Shaped Scars

White Lightning – 1930
Little did the Minneapolis heavy psych band realize that when they released this rare Move-influenced protest single in 1969, how relevant their historical parable would be fifty years later. From the compilation album Brown Acid: The Twelfth Trip

The Airport 77sBad Mom
The funniest, most satirical track on the powerpop band’s hilarious album Rotation: this horrible parent lets her kids play with water pistols!

Black River DeltaSolitary Man
Not a cover of that awful Neil Diamond song. Set to a brooding web of acoustic guitars, this original is a harrowingly detailed account of the slow decline of a member of the crew of the Enola Gay. From the album Shakin’

Kristy HindsMiss Morocco
An icy Bliss Blood-style noir cha-cha: ‘Put her up in a sweet hotel, so sweet she didn’t notice the smell.” From the New Mexico chanteuse/ukulele player’s album Strange Religion.

MantecaIllusionist
Guitar noir reverberations plus darkly bluesy horns and keys over a cantering, boomy rhythm in this brooding instrumental. From the album The Twelfth of Never,

Davheed BehrooziRoyal Star
Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky done as a jazz waltz, more or less. From the album Echos

Charming DisasterOurobouros
Arguably the noir rock superduo’s hardest-rocking song. A phoenix in the making, or just a pile of bones? “Is this annihilation or metamorphosis?”

Jack Grace Smokehouse Discrepancy
A smoking mashup of surf rock and Booker T. instrumental soul, From the album What a Way to Spend a Night

Mike NeerAfrican Flower
A lingering, steel guitar-driven Big Lazy-ish take of the Ellington classic. From the album Keepin’ It Real

Los Tangueros del Oeste – Zamba Zefardim
An elegant, shapeshifting klezmer-tango theme from the album Alm Vieja

Olcay BayirKayip Cocuk (Lost Child)
Brooding, hypnotic trip-hop rising to an imploring, accusatory peak. “Who can give me my future? Take your dirty hands off from my hope and dreams,” Bayir sings in Turkish. From her album Inside (İçerde)

Emily FrembgenButterfly
“Little child, going nowhere, I can’t touch you when you turn away from me,” the folk noir singer relates gently in this chilling, tersely detailed portrait of clinical depression. From the album It’s Me or the Dog

Peggy James – Joan of Arc
A venomous, fire-and-brimstone political broadside set to a mashup of Badfinger and 70s Nashville pop from the album The Parade

The ReducersLet’s Go
Written back in the 80s when traveling the world was something everyone did. This chugging punk-pop hit with a sizzling Hugh Birdsall guitar solo might be the high point of the band’s archival album Live: New York City 2005

Lauren AndersonYour Turn
A big orchestral ballad, the blues belter’s emotionally devastated narrator out on the highway, driving through a haze of wine and tears. From the album Love on the Rocks

Warish Say to Please
“Burn your bridges to stay warm!” guitarist Riley Hawk hits his chorus pedal for icy 80s sonics and a tantalizingly messy guitar solo. From the album Next to Pay

Ensemble Mik NawoojMozart on Joy
A wickedly clever mix of famous riffs by the ingenious classical/hip-hop ensemble, rapper Sandman cutting loose with one of his most sharply ironic lyrics. From the album Death Become Life

Tribal SeedsVampire
Grittily orchestrated late 80s Burning Spear-influenced roots reggae – what a trip. From the album Live: The 2020 Sessions

Delgres – Lese Mwen Ale (Let Me Go)
A scrambling, vindictive Mississippi hill country-style blues escape anthem. From the album 4:00 AM

Daz Band – We Are the 99%
The most authentic folk song on this list: haphazard, catchy and pissed as hell

The 50 Best Albums of 2021

The 50 Best Albums of 2021

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4 was his prophetic cautionary tale. He wrote it in 1934. By then, Stalin’s genocidal regime had already reached holocaust proportions. Hitler’s was in its early stages.

In 1946, Vaughan Williams took several themes from that symphony and built his Symphony No. 6 around them. It was his big “I told you so” moment. Together, the violence and gloom never lift throughout the London Symphony Orchestra‘s recording of those two symphonies. It was the one album that was on loop here more than any other one this year.

Antonio Pappano led this resolute ensemble in a fierce, cataclysmic performance of No. 6 on March 12, 2020. As of today, this remains the final orchestral concert recording made in the UK when it was a free country. In a stroke of serendipity, the album opens with Pappano and the orchestra playing Symphony No. 4, recorded in concert on another pivotal date in British history, Election Day, 2019. None of this is easy listening, but if you can handle it, it’s impossible to turn away from. And as a parable of what happens when we fail to recognize evil for what it is, it’s never been more relevant. That’s why it’s New York Music Daily’s pick for best album of 2021.

Otherwise, 2021 might be the weirdest year in history for recorded music. What you see here underscores artists’ resourcefulness and resilience in the face of the most crushing odds. What you don’t see here speaks to how so many styles of music have been completely decimated over the past twenty-one months.

Those who’ve followed the annual best-of-the-year lists here will notice that for the first time, an unusual number of the streaming links here – click on each album title below for full-length audio – are not at Bandcamp or Soundcloud, but at Spotify. That’s because there’s less rock music on this list than at any other time in this blog’s ten-year history. Without tour money to finance recordings, most rock artists haven’t been able to make them. What’s left is a crazy mix of jazz records whose release dates were put on ice by totalitarian lockdowns, some classical albums financed largely by government and nonprofit money, along with the usual sounds from around the world.

The best rock record of the year – which could just as easily be categorized as soul or blues – was Van Morrison‘s cynically titled Latest Record Project No. 1. This mammoth double album is somewhat subtler than the series of protest songs he released at the end of 2020, but it’s just as fearless. A rotating cast of musicians provide a purist, inspired backdrop and Morrison, who never loses his sense of humor, is at the top of his game as lyricist and charismatic frontman. That it took a 75-year-old icon from the 60s to release the most rousing call for freedom released in 2021 does not speak well for younger generations.

Beyond the next ten or so records on this list – the rest of the creme de la creme of 2021 – everything here is in completely random order, irrespective of when it was officially released, or when it was reviewed here. Click on the album title for streaming audio; click on artist names for their webpages. There are hours and hours of pleasure and solace here; you might want to bookmark this page.

Jordi Savall/Le Concert Des Nations – Beethoven Revolution: Symphonies 1 a 5
Beethoven’s first five symphonies recorded with stunning intimacy and detail, closer to how they would have been performed in the composer’s time. Comparing any of the other albums on this list to this magnum opus is a bit of a stretch.

The Boston Symphony OrchestraShostakovich: Symphnies No 1, 11 and 15
A mammoth, impassioned new live recording that also includes Rudolf Barshai’s string orchestra arrangement of Shostakovich’s harrowing, antifascist String Quartet No. 8.

Rafael Gintoli and the Siberian State Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Argentine composer Alicia Terzian’s Violin Concerto and Three Pieces for Strings
Two of the most foundational and most otherworldly microtonal classical works

The London Symphony OrchestraShostakovich Symphonies, No. 9 and No. 10 
Withering sarcasm, vast expanses and furtive chases brought to life in two hauntingly electric concerts from 2018 and 2020 right before the lockdown

The Minguet Quartett and the Lucerne Academy OrchestraKonstantia Gourzi: Anájikon
Gorgeous, poignant Greek and Middle Eastern classical themes which also feature violist Nils Mönkemeyer and pianist William Youn

Ward White – The Tender Age
Parlor pop, psychedelia, janglerock and more on the most menacing album of the year, from the polymath LA tunesmith and multi-instrumentalist

Mostly AutumnGraveyard Star
The most epic, relevant rock album written during the lockdown, an anguished but guardedly hopeful mix of towering, resolute, epic anthems and more delicate Britfolk-inspired themes

Derrick Gardner & the Big Dig! BandStill I Rise
Pummeling, hard-swinging big band jazz from this mighty trombone-led ensemble

Bence Vas’ Big Band –  Overture et. al
Organ-driven big band jazz has seldom been this orchestral or toweringly haunting

Sana NaganoSmashing Humans
A dystopic sci-fi-themed suite set to a blend of savage guitar, violin and a taut rhythm section, with a surprise ending

Tiffany NgDark Matters: Carillon Music of Stephen Rush
The most unselfconsciously beautiful album on this list is built around a paradigm-shifting suite from the late 80s, rich with overtones and otherworldly ringing textures

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard L.W.
The astonishingly prolific Australian psychedelic band’s most deeply Middle Eastern-inspired album

The Catalyst QuartetUncovered Vol. 1 – Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
An inspired classical ensemble revisit the ruggedly individualistic, Balkan and Dvorak-inspired black classical composer from the late 19th century

The London Philharmonic OrchestraDmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11
A vividly desolate, elegaic requiem for the millions murdered by the genocidal Stalin regime

The Malta Philharmonic OrchestraContemporary Colours
Colorful, often Middle Eastern-tinged works by contemporary Maltese composers including Albert Garzia, Alexander Vella Gregory, Veronique Vella, Christopher Muscat and Mariella Cassar-Cordina

The Armoires – Incognito
An audacious stunt – releasing a wildly eclectic series of singles under tongue-in-cheek, fictitious bandnames like October Surprise – resulted in the band’s most diverse and lyrically rich record

Erkin Cavus and Reentko Dirks –  Istanbul 1900 
Plaintive, broodingly evocative microtonal acoustic guitar instrumentals inspired by urban neighborhoods now gone forever

Bare Wire SonOff Black 
Multi-instrumentalist Olin Janusz’s bleak dirges built around journal entries by mothers who lost their sons in World War I

Katla – Allt þetta helvítis myrkur (All This Hellacious Darkness) 
Austere Icelandic folk and grimly ornate metal epics

VolurDeath Cult 
A searing blend of black metal, Nordic folk and psychedelic 70s art-rock from the violin-and-bass-driven trio.

Michael SmallParallax View Original Soundtrack
The creepy, ultra-noir, furtively orchestrated score to Alan Pakula’s 1974 political assassination thriller hasn’t been available as a stand-alone recording til now. Not online, although the film is available on VOD

FortidWorld Serpent
Forlorn cinematics, Viking stampedes and rapidfire chromatics throughout this dystopic metal masterwork

The Pocket Gods – Another Day I Cross It Off My Bedroom Wall
The most surreal lockdown-themed album released to date, a witheringly cynical, satirical, sometimes unexpectedly poignant mix of styles from these snarky British pop polymaths

Patricia KopatchinskajaSchoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire
Pianist Joonas Ahonen and an inspired ensemble join the colorful violinist in a wild version of the iconic loony puppet’s tale, along with a collection of biting miniatures

Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond Ride the Cyclone original soundtrack
No style of music is off limits to this duo’s merciless satire: American and foreign hip-hop, circus rock, corny G-rated Lawrence Welk church-parlor pop and much more

Fanfare CiocarliaIt Wasn’t Hard to Love You 
Explosive, rat-a-tat minor-key dancefloor jams from one of the world’s most electrifying Balkan brass bands

James McMurtryThe Horses and the Hounds
Doomed American troops in Afghanistan, aging drunks and lovers defying the odds, and cautionary tales of all kinds from one of the alltime great Americana storytellers

Katayoun GoudarziThis Pale
Poignant, often plaintive ghazal settings of classic Rumi poems from this nuanced, crystalline-voiced Iranian singer and bandleader

BesarabiaAnimal Republic
Fiery, serpentine flamenco, Middle Eastern, Balkan and Romany dance tunes

The ReducersLive: New York City 2005
An incendiary, whirlwind 40-minute set of cynical, catchy punk and pub rock from late in the legendary New England band’s career

The Academy Blues Project The Neon Grotto
Slyly lyrical, shapeshifting jamband rock with influences as diverse as the Grateful Dead, Steely Dan, Supertramp, P-Funk and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis.

Changing ModesWax World
Brooding, desolate lockdown reflections, shapeshifting art-rock and slashingly cynical, psychedelic harmony-pop from one of New York’s best bands from the past decade or so

Carola Ortiz – Pecata Beata
Whirlwind, shapeshifting, flamenco-inspired songs from the Catalan singer and clarinetist

Lia Sampai – Amagatalls de Llum
Disarmingly intimate, strikingly imagistic, fearlessly political songs from this individualistic Catalan songwriter

Gabriel AlegriaSocial Distancing
A chillingly allusive, insightful Afro-Peruvian jazz album exploring the fateful first year of the lockdown

Sam Llanas  – Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels
Haunting Nashville gothic, countrypolitan and Americana tunesmithing by the agelessly soulful former frontman of heartland rock legends the BoDeans. Not available online, but there are several tracks on Llanas’ more recent concert video 

Şahan ArzruniAlan Hovhaness: Select Piano Compositions
A fascinatingly diverse, sometimes minimalistic, sometimes rapturous world premiere recording of rare works by the arguably greatest American classical composer of alltime

Satoko Fujii – Piano Music
Extended-technique inside-the-piano sonics spun through a bunch of effects for one of the year’s trippiest, most hauntingly enveloping albums

DictaphoneGoats & Distortions 5
Darkly cinematic, dub-inspired, bass clarinet-driven sounds that expands on the group’s exploration of what they call “morbid instruments.”

Matthew Shipp – Codebreaker
Eerie close harmonies percolate through the legendary jazz pianist’s diverse, highly improvisational latest album

Frank KimbroughAncestors 
The late, great jazz pianist’s saturnine swan song, with an inspired, unorthodox trio

Opium MoonNight + Day
Rapturous, hypnotic Indian and Middle Eastern-tinged themes and variations on this vast double album

Menahan Street BandThe Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band
Oldschool soul instrumentals with a dark psychedelic streak

Jovica Ivanović and the Ukrainian Chamber OrchestraPiazzolla and Galliano
Majestic accordion concertos by the iconic Argentine bandoneonist and also by the great Richard Galliano

Greg Loughman – RE: Connection 
A vivid, cinematic jazz suite reflecting on the disastrous effects of the lockdown, but ultimately offering a message of hope

CanLive in Brighton 1975
Sprawling, smoky sometimes twenty-minute instrumental jams from the legendary German band at their psychedelic peak

The Shining TonguesMilk of God
Moody, gothic-tinged folk-rock and art-rock from the surviving members of the Infinite Three

The Colorist Orchestra and Howe GelbNot on the Map 
A lavish mix of dusky, sweepingly orchestrated art-rock and southwestern gothic from one of the guys who invented the style

Langan Frost & Wane – their first album
Trippy, Mediterranean-tinged retro 60s sunshine pop and psychedelic folk

Willie NileThe Day The Earth Stood Still
Stomping, surreal, allusively lyrical lockdown-era powerpop anthems and some surprising detours into slinky, funky, psychedelic sounds

Becca Stevens and the Secret Triotheir debut collaboration
Art-rock songwriter and Balkan/Armenian traditional band team up for spare, crepuscular magic

Metal! Live in Bahrain Vol. 2
Thrash, death metal and post-Metallica sounds from Persian Gulf bands Hellionight, Ryth, Necrosin and Lunacyst

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

Ward White Finds New Levels of Creepiness in a Proto-Metal Classic

Back in June this blog got all wound up about how Ward White’s Leonard at the Audit was the best rock album of 2020 at that point. Four months down the road, it’s still as strong a contender as any. White is sort of a heavier, more psychedelic and menacing Elvis Costello. Since White’s landmark non-linear art-rock record Bob topped the best albums of the year list here in 2013, violence and death have become recurrent themes in his music, even if that’s usually implied.

Although White very rarely covers other artists (under his own name, anyway – he played bass in Rawles Balls for awhile), when he does he has impeccable taste and always finds new levels of disturbing content. A few years before he got brain-drained out of New York for Los Angeles, he pulled out a plaintive, haunting take of the BeeGees’ Nights on Broadway that would rip your face off.

To celebrate Halloween this year, White has released another unlikely cover, a grimly atmospheric reinvention of the Beatles’ Helter Skelter. Hearing White in full-on crooner mode, soaring and then almost whispering over John Spiker’s desolately drifting reed organ is pure evil: the calmest moments are the most lurid. And the ending is priceless. Siouxsie slayed with her version, but this is just as good.

Artfully Orchestrated, Gorgeously Angst-Fueled Tunesmithing From Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding

Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding play an achingly lush, angst-ridden brand of chamber pop that looks back to 50s lounge music but isn’t cheesy. Brian Carpenter‘s most noirish adventures, Ward White‘s work with Joe McGinty, and Jon DeRosa at his most orchestral are good points of comparison. Dawson’s latest album Last Flight Out is streaming at Bandcamp.

The album opens with the slow, undulating title track, awash in strings far more stark than syrupy. Dawson sings in an uneasy, somewhat gritty tenor. Jason Adasiewicz’s rippling vibraphone enters over the lithe acoustic rhythm section of drummer Charles Rumback and bassist Jason Roebke ; the song could be about escaping an invasion, or a metaphor for a doomed relationship.

Despite the persistent extinction metaphors, there’s hope in Mastodon, a brokenhearted waltz, Rumback’s cymbal washes mingling with creepily fluttering strings and the echo of the vibes. Built around a simple, catchy string riff, However Long It Take has a steady clave beat and rousingly optimistic gospel harmonies.

The Monkey’s Mind Is on the Prowl has a cocooning, lullaby-esque atmosphere that hits a peak with a balletesque coda from the strings and then a long, hypnotic outro. The album’s starkest and best song is While We Were Staring Into Our Palms, a cautionary tale about eternal vigilance being the price of liberty:

It might have all gone differently
The chemistry failed
That tree just had to come down
Blind rage prevails
Oh say can you see?

It’s Not What You Think has a flinty, Sam Reider-esque folksiness, a wise admonition not to take things on face value. What a refreshingly original, smart, tastefully crafted album.

Ward White’s Leonard at the Audit – Best Rock Record of 2020 So Far

Since the early zeros, songwriter Ward White has been on a creative tear matched by few other artists, ever. In context: Bowie in the 70s; Aretha in the 60s; Elvis Costello from 1977 to about 1985; and Steve Wynn pretty much since birth. Hall of fame company. And White just doesn’t stop: his tenth and latest album, Leonard at the Audit, is streaming at Bandcamp. In terms of searingly literary lyricism set to imaginative, catchy rock changes, White is pretty much unsurpassed these days.

This particular record is probably the closest thing to White’s sinister nonlinear song cycle Bob – rated best rock record of the year here in 2013 – that he’s released since then. The album title reflects parallel narratives: Leonard Cohen’s 1960s flirtation with Scientology, and a seemingly mundane but actually much more grim story that looks back to the deadly geopolitics of the Bob record. Is this a sequel? Maybe.

The opening track, Bubble and Squeak, is White at the top of his imagistic, slashing game. A creepy cast of characters from the deep state along with an undertaker’s assistant make their entrance, none of them identified by name. “If you tangle with the Pharisees, be prepared to give up a son,” White warns. Musically, this sounds like the Police, built around a recurring guitar figure that White calls “seasick.” The band – Andrew Bird keyboardist Tyler Chester, Jakob Dylan drummer Mark Stepro and bassist John Spiker – maintain a low-key new wave pulse alongside him.

White goes for a more lush, ornate, briskly backbeat-driven feel in Not the Half, probably the only song to date to make the connection between Dylan Thomas final post-barroom collapse and lockdown-era respirator deaths. Above the watery web of guitars, the story references a hostage but also issues of artistic posterity or lack thereof.

The voice of a seemingly stoned and enlightenment-fixated Cohen alternates with someone whose marriage is going to hell on the express track in the similarly enveloping, jangly Ice Capades – or maybe it’s just a single narrator. The journey to the center of White’s songs is always a challenge, but an irresistible one.

Awash in hazy mellotron and icy chorus-box guitar, the Pink Floyd-inflected title track weighs the sacred against the profane – alongside what might or might not be a plane crash. The next song’s “Kleenex/Phoenix” rhyme is one of White’s funniest lyrical moments ever, and the litany of 70s references afterward are just as amusing, as is the central guitar hook – in a skeletal art-rock song about a contract killing, no less.

Likewise, the opening clang of Edmund Fitzgerald Is a Wreck (DAMN, White nails everything 70s here!), a sick, distantly late Beatlesque, characteristically image-rich Wisconsin death trip.

The backdrop shifts ten years forward into allusive 80s powerballadry with Try Me. The suspense and the black humor are relentless:

I was talking to the funeral director
Asking him how much this might all cost
He said “It’s hard to put a price on a relationship with God”
I said “Try me”

The surrealism reaches fever pitch in Dreaming of Dentistry, a druggy El Lay tableau akin to Floyd doing a sneering take on 70s lounge-pop with more than a hint of southwestern gothic. Dead People Fucking is one of White’s more Costelloesque numbers, referencing James Joyce, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, and others with wry imagery that’s part Shakespeare, part Warren Zevon.

White sets the ominous gambling metaphors of You Gotta Have a System to a slow, lingering sway:

Lucky with queens, but not in spades
I told you to hit me!
Diamonds retreat where the heart invades
You might as well double down

He winds up the record with the Bowie-esque Pornographic Ennui, connecting the bloody dots between dirty pix and police state ruthlessness:

He was a man who liked machines;
On cocaine it was guns, on beer, anything that runs on gasoline

If it still makes sense for there to be such a thing as a music blog in December 2020 – let’s hope there is – you’ll see this again, high on the best albums of the year list.

Seething Satire and Corrosively Lyrical Narratives From Office Culture

Office Culture play a suspiciously deadpan, sharply satirical take on lyrically-driven 70s and 80s top 40 pop. The kind of people who use the word “adult” as a verb would no doubt call the group’s shtick ironic. The band’s debut album A Life of Crime – streaming at Bandcamp – actually doesn’t have much real irony, although there’s no shortage of sarcasm, starting with frontman Winston Cook-Wilson’s tirelessly pitchy attempts to play lounge lizard. This band sound like they’d be a lot of fun live: give them a Saturday night at the Rockwood and see if anybody in the house actually gets the joke. They’re playing the Sultan Room on Jan 22 at 9 PM; cover is $10. Assuming they hit the stage on time, you can still get home afterward before the nightly L-pocalypse starts.

The album begins with A Sign, its enveloping sonics and warmly vamping, Grateful Deadly chord changes masking a ruthlessly cynical barroom pickup scene. Hard Times in the City, a glossy early 80s-style faux-funk number, skewers Wall Street yuppie money obsessions with a similarly jaundiced eye.

With its cheesily twinkling electric piano and ersatz jazz flourishes, Diamonds languidly chronicles a guy who’s “been pogo sticking around the Valley for half my life.” It’s Ward White lite. I Move in Shadows, a phony soul song, is so over-the-top awful that the satire gets lost. Likewise, Home on High is an exercise in scraping the bottom of the synthesizer patch barrel, “trying to use some new shtick on these hucksters,” an allusively grim narrative sinking amid blithely plasticky sonics.

If Lee Feldman had been writing songs back in the 80s, he could have tossed off Too Many and its chronicle of slowly losing it. The cynicism hits redline with Parade, its Trumpie protagonist making fun of a protestor. The final cut is Monkey Bone, which works on many levels: as apocalyptic parable, love ballad parody and swipe at young Republican entitlement. The world needs more bands as venomously amusing as Office Culture.

Tredici Bacci Bring Their Sick Sense of Humor to the Mercury

The album cover painting for cinematic, lushly orchestrated psychedelic band Tredici Bacci’s new album La Fine del Futuro – streaming at Bandcamp – shows a knife stuck in the back of a beach chair, blood dripping from the blade. How much of that is outright menace and how much is the band’s signature, cosmopolitan snark? This time out, the jokes and the satire in bandleader/bassist Simon Hanes’ themes are much more front and center. You can decide out for yourself at the album release show at 11 PM on Valentine’s Day at the Mercury; cover is $12. Since the band name is Italian for “thirteen kisses,”  they get a pass for booking a show on one of the three nights when everybody should stay home (St. Paddy’s and New Years Eve are the others).

In the time-honored tradition of Booker T & the MG’s and the Ventures, there were two versions of this band in their earliest days: in their case, one in Boston and one in New York. That might explain why their Bandcamp page doesn’t have musician credits. The baritone sax solo in the new album’s first number, Titoli de Testa, sounds like a series of split-second attempts to cover mistakes. However, versatile singer Sami Stevens’ deadpan arioso vocals seem committed to the bouncy, blithe, bossa-tinged theme. It brings to mind Banda Magda before they got serious and political.

In the 1970s is a bizarre mashup of Italian film score and fluffy American disco, Stevens enumerating how many reasons things were better forty-plus ago. As anybody who was there will tell you, they weren’t – it’s just that contested elections were swung by phony ballots instead of Russian hackers, and in lieu of mining data, employers and banks simply wouldn’t hire or lend to people from certain neighborhoods.

Minimalissimo pokes fun at both 70s motorik instrumentals and peevishly repetitive 20th century composers – and the 21st century ones who still don’t know better. Barbarians is a mashup of the album’s first and third tracks: repetitive hooks, operatic vocals and a tongue-in-cheek heroic fanfare at the center. Complete with peppy brass, Stevens’ high-voltage vocalese and a probably intentionally wretched attempt at singing by one of the guys in the band, Emmanuelle could be the great, twisted lost spaghetti western psychedelic pop tune from Manfred Hubler’s Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack.

Felicity Grows could be Weird Al Yankovic making fun of Burt Bacharach, with a woman out front. Promises, Promises is much the same: it’s so spot-on it could be a Dionne Warwick b-side from when she spelled her last name with an E. As a parody of 70s easy-listening pop, The Cavalry is even more blithely savage: Ward White at his most sardonic comes to mind.

Awash in elegant strings and woodwinds, the moody Impressions shifts in and out of waltz time: it’s the only track on the album that doesn’t sound like a joke, at least until the bizarre mashup of tropicalia and horror film score kicks in. Ambulette is a series of variations on a simple, ridiculously obvious theme – it’s not a real ambulance, get it? To close the album, the band make disco out of a phony patriotic tune they call The Liberty Belle. How apropos for 2019, right? If this isn’t the best album of the year, it’s definitely the funniest so far.

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

Another Withering Lyrical Rock Masterpiece by Ward White

It’s time we put Ward White up there in the pantheon with Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Rachelle Garniez, Steve Wynn, Ray Davies and any other first-ballot hall of famer you can think of. Over the last fifteen years or so, the now LA-based White been on a creative tear to rival any one of those songwriting icons. Bowie’s work in the 70s is a good comparison, although where the Thin White Duke would reinvent himself just about every year, White has crystallized a classic three-minute janglerock sound, often veering off to the psychedelic side. 

Lyrically speaking, nobody writes more compelling, allusively macabre narratives. The devil is always in the details: in this case, the crack in the porcelain, the kind of soap in the bathroom, the objects on either side of where the dead bird has fallen out of the sky. White’s 2013 release Bob got the pick for best album of the year here, but that might just as easily be said for anything he’s put out since, including his latest one, Diminish, streaming at Bandcamp. As usual, White keeps his songs short, everything less than five minutes, some less than three. White plays all the guitars, elegantly and tersely, joined by keyboardist Tyler Chester and the low-key rhythm section of bassist John Spiker and drummer Mark Stepro.

It opens with Titans, its plotline as inscrutable as its melody is straightforward and hard-hitting. Twin guitar leads roar up to a menacing, chromatic chorus: it’s one of White’s louder numbers. An infant’s death and a possible terrorist attack may be related, or just parallel events. “This is no time for dreams,” is the mantra: welcome to the end of the teens, USA.

Noise on 21, a punchy backbeat anthem with blippy organ, is a classic White urban tableau, the yuppies upstairs staying up late just to seal another sordid deal while the narrator reaches breaking point: “Some things that you should never see are happy in the shadows, now it’s time to go home.”

Back to the End, with its cruelly Beatlesque chorus-box guitar, is a throwback to White’s late 60s psych-pop period a few years ago, a characteristically allusive, twisted scenario tracing the ugly logic of a S&M scenario: “Cannibals don’t waste their time with darkening the roux.”

Canopy, a brief, catchy number with uneasily warpy 80s synth, is one of the more unselfconsciously poetic songs in White’s catalog, contemplating endings from contrasting viewpoints

Awash in jangle and starry synth orchestration, Flood paints a grim picture of dysfunction on a Hollywood film set, with a shout to Baudelaire:

Send a dozen roses up to Noah’s favorite failures
Don’t believe the rumors of a plague upon this town
This bar never closes and it’s filled with drunken sailors
For every one, an albatross who should have let him drown

Watch the Hands is the great lost track from Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces: “Your best laid plans will never bite you in the ass unless your turn your back and leave them starving,” the child killer taunts.

With White’s lingering, detfly textured guitar multitracks, Cowboy could be the most gorgeous, bittersweetly surreal number here. It’s White’s La Chute:

Tell Bob I’m not busy being born, or dying, just alive
Some flights leave too early out of Kennedy
And some pricks play the Castro card for years

White puts a fresh spin on an old myth in Sodom, bristling with Syd Barrett-ish changes, sardonic backing vocals and glammy guitars.

Some call us sacrilegious
The chafed and the chosen few
You polish your barnyard idol
I’ll tarnish the ewe

Alternately balmy and burning, Every Night I Have This Dream is another of the murder ballads White is unsurpassed at – it’s not clear whether this is really a dream or not:

Double nickels all the way
I can’t afford to lose the day
They pop that trunk trunk and we are done, and I’m not going out that way

White puts a sinister edge on a mashup of blithe Bacharach 60s bossa-pop and watery, artsy Beatlesque jangle in Uncle Bob (Akron), the album’s most corrosively cynical number. That’s hardly a surprise, considering it’s a tale from the campaign trail told by the manager of a candidate who turns out to be something less than ideal

The album’s final cut is The Living End, a somber, mostly acoustic portrait of defeat as harrowingly detailed as Richard Thompson’s Withered and Died:

Buried with your artifacts
Pharaoh’s favorite son
Too late to think of what you’ll do with what you’ve done

You’ll see this in a few days on the best albums of 2018 page.