Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Top 50 Albums of 2008

Conventional wisdom be damned: the cd is far from dead, in fact maybe more alive than ever since independent bands and artists have reclaimed their turf from the major labels. Most of what’s here are independent releases, with a few smart independent labels represented. For the rationale behind this list, we set up a rationale page for the truly obsessed.

 

Three of these cds in particular stand out from the hundreds of thousands – or maybe even millions – released in 2008. Our pick for best album of 2008 wasn’t by a multimillionaire New Jersey trust fund kid living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or a computer nerd with glasses the size of Elton John’s head, or a silicone-poisoned porn actress with a cable tv reality show. Rather, it was put out by a veteran Irish-American rock band whose lone brush with mainstream stardom came and went in the blink of an eye about fifteen years ago. Iraq by Black 47 isn’t just a good collection of rousing, Celtic-tinged rock tunes: it’s the most important album of the year, an unforgettable look at the war through the eyes of the soldiers just trying to get out of there alive. Black 47 frontman Larry Kirwan is also an accomplished novelist, and it shows in these songs: the black humor, the dialogue and the war’s sad drama have never been portrayed more powerfully or evocatively than they are here.

 

The party album of the year, the one that everybody was talking about and to which we assigned the #2 spot, was Sonido Amazonico by Chicha Libre. With this wickedly smart, fun, sometimes lovingly satirical collection of classic covers and originals, the Brooklyn band singlehandedly spearheaded a revival of the wildly psychedelic, surfy sound that was all the rage in the slums of the Peruvian Amazon 35 years ago. With its playful, hypnotic bounce, it made an irresistible soundtrack for the summer of 2008.

 

The darkest and most haunting album of the year, clocking in at number three, was Celestina by long-running California art-rockers 17 Pygmies. Based on a short story by frontman/guitarist Jackson Del Rey about love and betrayal in outer space, it’s a majestic, epic, eleven-part symphonic rock masterpiece.

 

And the rest of the list is incredible as well. Last year, our best albums list stopped at #20; this year, it felt egregiously unfair to cut this one off at #50. Many of these you know; some you may not. Enjoy!

 

4.  Marcel Khalife – Taqasim

A dark, stately, beautiful trio suite for oud, bass and percussion from the great Palestinian oud virtuoso.

 

5.  Kayhan Kalhor & Brooklyn Rider – Silent City

The Iranian multi-instrumentalist string player/composer teamed up with the adventurous Brooklyn string quartet for a lush, intensely beautiful, powerfully compelling collection.

 

6.  Matt Keating – Quixotic

This gorgeously jangly double cd marks the high point in the New York rock songwriter’s career.

 

7.  Erica Smith & the 99 Cent Dreams – Snowblind

The NYC noir Americana songwriter/chanteuse proved equally mesmerizing at janglerock, bossa nova and even an early 70s style heavy metal song.

 

8.  Mascott – Art Project

Simply gorgeous, sunny, gemlike guitar-and-keyboard pop song perfection.

 

9.  System Noise – Give Me Power

The NYC rockers’ second official release proved they could be as melodic and danceable as they are savagely ferocious, frontwoman Sarah Mucho’s unearthly wail soaring over the din.

 

10. Aimee Mann – Fucking Smilers

She just keeps going, maybe better than ever; this one’s more keyboard-based but no less brilliant than anything she’s ever done.

 

11. Elvis Costello – Momofuku

A return to his lyrically dazzling, scorched-earth late 70s style guitar-and-keyboard lyrical rock, yet another addition to his pantheonic body of work.

 

12. Steve Wynn – Crossing Dragon Bridge

Wynn’s best cd studio cd since…his last one is a sometimes majestic, sometimes stark detour into hauntingly orchestrated rock, his trademark menace front and center as always.

 

13. Melomane – Look Out!

Frontman Pierre de Gaillande’s ongoing disaster song cycle is a clinic in brilliantly lyrical, orchestrated rock understatement, a particularly timely release.

 

14. Ward White – Pulling Out

His best album: the New York underground janglerock songwriter has never been more catchy, more brilliantly acerbic or savagely funny.

 

15 Mavrothi Kontanis – Sto Kafesli Sokaki

One of the oud virtuoso’s two debut cds released this past summer, this is a haunting mix of Greek and Turkish songs from decades past, many of them obscure but all of them first-rate

 

16. Mark Sinnis – Into an Unhidden Future

The Ninth House frontman’s solo debut, a haunting collection of Nashville gothic songs, was impeccably produced with the same dark, minimalist restraint as Johnny Cash’s Rick Rubin albums.

 

17. Amanda Thorpe – Union Square

The darkly riveting chanteuse’s second solo release was worth the wait, all stark, rain-drenched beauty and anguish.

 

18. Patty Ocfemia – Heaven’s Best Guest

There are few songwriters who tell a story as well as this relatively under-the-radar New York artist with a strikingly subtle, breathy vocal delivery.

 

19. Curtis Eller’s American Circus – Wirewalkers & Assassins

The oldtimey banjoist is also a first-rate songwriter with a potently lyrical edge and a distinctly oldtimey New York ragtime feel.

 

20. Teslim – Debut cd

The Bay area Middle Eastern improvisers blend klezmer and Arab maqams into a deliriously psychedelic acoustic brew.

 

21. Ljova & the Kontraband – Mnemosyne

The multistylistic Russian/Balkan string band mix rousing dances, haunting ballads and atmospheric soundtrack-type stuff on their superb debut cd. 

 

22. Natacha Atlas & the Marzeeka Ensemble – Ana Hina

A career-best for the former Transglobal Underground frontwoman,  mostly acoustic, heavily Fairuz-influenced versions of classic Arab film music and also a Frida Kahlo poem set to music.

 

23. Sounds of Taarab – Zanzibar, NY

New York‘s pioneering Zanzibar revivalists have singlehandedly renewed interest in the great dance music and ballads from the area from the 20s and 30s, dark Middle Eastern melodies over catchy African rhythms.

 

24. Katie Elevitch – Kindling for the Fire

The NYC noir siren’s finest hour, a rivetingly lyrical, passionately intense effort.

 

25. The Dixie Bee-Liners – Ripe

The brain trust of the RMA’s Bluegrass Band of the Year, 2008, Buddy Woodward and Brandi Hart are the Richard and Linda Thompson of the bible belt, pushing the envelope with a fire and a dark vision unsurpassed in their field.

 

26. Mavrothi Kontanis – Wooden Heart

The second of the great oud player’s debut cds released this year – the title refers to the oud, made of wood –  is a stark, mostly instrumental mix of Mediterranean classics and originals that sound like classics.

 

27. Des Roar – Demo ep

One of NYC’s most exciting rock bands, with a viciously satirical edge, their punk/garage intensity never lets up. This one contains the classic Ted Bundy Was a Ladies Man

 

28. Black Fortress of Opium – First cd

Aptly titled, this dark, anthemic Boston band adds a majestically beautiful Middle Eastern tinge to their eerie, macabre, noisy gothic-tinged anthems.

 

29. The Dog Show – Nicotene & Bluz

The band may be on hiatus, but frontman Jerome O’Brien keeps writing and recording good songs, in a smart, virtriolic mod punk vein not unlike the Jam.

 

30. Metropolitan Klezmer – Traveling Show

One of New York’s finest live acts, this live cd was a stroke of genius and is pure bliss to listen to, every style of haunting or boisterous Jewish roots music you could ever want.

 

31. The Roots of Chicha compilation

Barbes Records’ collection of brilliant, obscure Peruvian surf-dance songs available for the first time ever in North America.

 

32. Lee Feldman – I’ve Forgotten Everything

A subtly powerful, rivetingly dark piano-based concept album that traces one man’s descent into madness.

 

33. Patti Rothberg – Double Standards

The powerpop masterpiece that the Go Go’s should have made after Talk Show but didn’t.

 

34. Municipale Balcanica – Road to Damascus

The Italian Balkan dance band crosses genres and raises the temperature to boiling point with their fiery instrumentals.

 

35. Jenny Scheinman – Crossing the Field

The latest smart, counterintuitive instrumental album from the multistylistic violinist/composer and frequent Bill Frisell collaborator 

 

36. Willie Nile – Live from the Streets of New York (live)

Also available as a DVD, this is the great underground NYC anthem songwriter and his volcanic band at the absolute peak of their power, live at the Mercury Lounge. 

 

37. Serena Jost – Closer Than Far

Imaginative, subtly nuanced, utterly captivating, artsy songs that bridge classical, jazz, torch song and rock, by the former Rasputina multi-instrumentalist.

 

38. The Nice Outfit – Kissing Jocelyn (ep)

Slashing, somewhat Radio Birdman-inflected garage punk from these excellent Milwaukee vets. 

 

39. The Lash Outs – First cd

True to the spirit of classic punk, this ferocious Dallas band refuses to submit to authority, stands up for the cool kids and generates a lot of laughs on their debut cd.

 

40. This Reporter – Five Smooth Stones (ep)

Mostly acoustic dreampop with sultry vocals from frontwoman Jennifer Curtis. One of the most captivating ipod albums of the year.

 

41. Devi – Get Free

This snarling yet beautifully melodic, guitar-fueled, female-fronted power trio just gets more and more interesting, with a smartly improvisational edge.

 

42. The Romeros – Better Than Your Girlfriend

Roaring punk-pop in the style of Stiff Little Fingers from this fiery Chicago band.

 

43. Lazy Lions – Keep Your Love Away

When they’re at the top of their game, this New York band’s snarlingly lyrical, sardonic songs rank with anything Elvis Costello ever did.

 

44. Burning Spear – Jah Is Real

The best studio cd in ages from this roots reggae legend, a contemporary of Bob Marley who though now in his sixties remains absolutely undiminished.

 

45. Mighty High – Mighty High in Drug City

Arguably the funniest album released in many moons, this heavy metal parody band nail absolutely everything they set their sights on because they know the source material so well. 

 

46. Zikrayat – Live at Lotus

Classic and obscure Levantine dance music, slinky and gorgeous, recorded all-acoustic so as to capture the vitality of the originals.

 

47. Little Pink – Gladly Would We Anchor

Frontwoman Mary Battiata and her rootsy Washington, DC band evoke Richard & Linda Thompson at their most lyrical on this impeccably crafted, often haunting cd.

 

48. The Bedsit Poets – Rendezvous

The harmony-driven New York band explore new territory – pretty much every cosmopolitan European style from the 60s – as well as bossa nova and Mediterranean ballads on their sophomore effort.

 

49. The Sweet Bitters – Debut ep

The folk/pop duo of Sharon Goldman and Nina Schmir blend their beautiful voices together in a mix of deviously funny and wrenchingly haunting songs.

 

50. Edward Rogers The Bedsit Poets’ singer offers a masterfully crafted mix of late 60s/early 70s Birmingham, UK style anthems and irresistible pop hits.

 

And just for fun – and to add some perspective to this list – here’s Lucid Culture’s pick for best album of 2007 along with our predecessor e-zine’s picks for best album of the year going all the way back to its inception in 2000:

 

2007: Rachelle Garniez – Melusine Years

2006: Radio Birdman – Zeno Beach

2005: LJ Murphy – Mad Within Reason

2004: Botanica – Botanica vs. the Truth Fish

2003: Richard Thompson – Semi-Detached Mock Tudor

2002: Bob Dylan – Love & Theft

2001: Steve Wynn – Here Come the Miracles

2000: Mary Lee’s Corvette – True Lovers of Adventure

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December 20, 2008 Posted by | Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Top 20 NYC Concerts of 2008

The first of our end-of-the-year lists is by far the most subjective one, and also the most fun to put together. If you really have to read the disclaimers and know all the whys and wherefores about this list, we’ve set up a page for them here. While we’re calling it quits early, what a great year it’s been for music in this town! Among us, we couldn’t decide on what was the best one of them all: the Dixie Bee-Liners at le Poisson Rouge are a strong contender, but then again so was the last-ever Tashi show at Town Hall. And back in August, the Brooklyn What played what was probably the funnest of them all. Whatever the case, rather than trying to rank these shows in any kind of order, here’s a chronological look at some of the most amazing concert moments of the year:

 

Jennifer Niceley at Rockwood Music Hall, 2/7/08

 A dark, sultry performance by the noir Americana chanteuse and her killer backing band.

 

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Play Brahms and Shostakovich at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, 2/10/08

This world-class orchestra tackled Brahms’ First Piano Concerto with a playful aplomb and then brought out every ounce of anguish and triumph in Shostakovich’s transcendent, redemptive post-Stalin masterpiece.

 

Sarah Mucho in Subterranean Circus at Don’t Tell Mama, 2/14/08

The System Noise frontwoman’s cabaret extravaganza was a riveting display of eerie surrealism, making for a perfectly counterintuitive Valentine’s Day.

 

LJ Murphy at the Knitting Factory, 4/2/08

The master of New York noir at the peak of his slashingly lyrical powers, with a careening, blues-fueled band behind him

 

Tashi’s Final Concert at the Town Hall, 5/4/08 playing Wuorinen, Takemitsu, and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

The legendary quartet went out on a high note – in what was probably their last-ever show, they delivered what was arguably the high point of the Messiaen centenary.

 

Ljova & the Kontraband at Trinity Church, 5/8/08

The multistylistic Russian/Balkan string band sizzled their way through a wild set, probably the most boisterous thing the church had seen in decades

 

Gail Archer plays Messiaen at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, 5/29/08

The Barnard College Music Dept. chair mesmerized the crowd with a marathon performance of the Book of the Holy Sacrament – another highlight of the Messiaen centenary.

 

Barbara Dennerlein at the organ at Trinity Church, 7/10/08

It was a good year for organ shows, and the German jazz genius effortlessly blended groove, soul and epic classical grandeur.

 

Katie Elevitch at Rehab, 8/13/08

An astonishingly intense, powerful performance by the noir NYC siren and her fiery, improvisationally-inclined band.

 

The Brooklyn What at the Brooklyn Lyceum, 8/22/08

Definitely the funnest show of the year, these fearless old-school Brooklyn punk rockers put on a powerful, wickedly funny show.

 

The Disclaimers at Spikehill, 8/29/08

With the two women up front singing, their slashingly lyrical, soul-stoked guitar/keyboard attack has never sounded better.

 

The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Vivian Girls and Devin at South St. Seaport, 9/7/08

The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble played ridiculously catchy jazz instrumentals over a hip-hop beat. The Vivian Girls we like not only for their beautiful harmonies and catchy, fun tunes but also because stereogum hates them. Devin and his endless supply of hilariously filthy hip-hop rhymes were the perfect soundtrack to an afternoon without tourists, the “hurricane” having apparently scared them off.

  

The Inbreeds at Freddy’s, 10/24/08

The country satirists made savage fun of everything redneck and right-wing, definitely the most amusing show of the year. 

 

Carol Lipnik at the Spiegeltent, 10/30/08

Lipnik walked into a sonic quicksand pit and with her sensational four-octave voice and amazing noir New York songs, sang her way out.

 

Little Annie and Paul Wallfisch at Santos Party House, 11/6/08

The noir cabaret chanteuse and the equally noir Botanica frontman/bandleader at the peak of their smoky, haunting powers together.

   

Escarioka at the Fortune Cookie Lounge, 11/13/08

Nonstop danceable intensity from this deliriously fun rock/ska en Espanol band.

 

The Brixton Riot and the French Exit at Mercury Lounge, 11/16/08

Smart, lyrically-fueled, post-Wilco indie rock and then a smoldering, evilly beautiful show by the Brooklyn noir trio.

 

Thy Burden, Across The Aisle and System Noise at the Delancey, 11/19/08

Exhilarating, virtuosic, improvisational bluegrass, a wickedly fun set of ska and then NYC’s darkest, most slashing and intense rock band at the top of their game.

 

Brooklyn Rider play Kayhan Kalhor, Bartok and Armenian folk songs at Barbes, 12/10/08

Originals, original arrangements and also a brilliantly macabre take of the first Bartok string quartet.

 

The Dixie Bee-Liners at le Poisson Rouge, 12/14/08

Careening intensity balanced with lush, sultry lyricism and vocals from Brandi Hart and her genre-blending band of bluegrass hellraisers

 

 

December 20, 2008 Posted by | Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, New York City | , , , | 1 Comment

Song of the Day 12/20/08

If you’re going out this weekend and wonder where our constantly updated NYC live music calendar went, it’s here. In the meantime our top 666 songs of alltime countdown continues, one day at a time all the way to #1. Saturday’s is #585:

History of Brazil – Movie Tune

Don’t bother googling this – it’s nowhere to be found. This scorching guitar-and-keyboard anthem from the Maine band’s 1983 cassette-only debut ep blends the majestic fire of 70s art-rock with skittish new wave. Hard to imagine a stronger candidate for inclusion on a “best obscurities ever” compilation. Keyboardist Alan Walker would later go on to found another cult band, retro NYC R&B/Americana revivalists the Brilliant Mistakes.

December 20, 2008 Posted by | Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music | , , , | 1 Comment