Santa Cruz-based acoustic Americana hellraisers The Devil Makes Three play Maxwell’s tonight at nine. If you miss the Asylum Street Spankers, The Devil Makes Three are just as entertaining – and like the Spankers, they also happen to be an excellent band. The most recent album from guitarist Pete Bernhard, upright bassist Lucia Turino and guitarist/tenor banjo player Cooper McBean came out a couple of years ago. It’s called Do Wrong, Right, and it’s something that should have been on our radar at the time but wasn’t. It’s not just bluegrass with funny, surreal lyrics – the band also plays country swing, blues and Nashville gothic and does that stuff period-perfect as well.
The album is sort of a cross between the Spankers and Mojo Nixon’s duo stuff with Jello Biafra. The opening track, All Hail is a genuine classic: as they see it, the world is populated with clueless shoppers all wasted on crack and antidepressants: “It ain’t a drug, goddamn it, I give it to my only son,” says the guy on the way to the office thorazine party. The amusing intro of Poison Trees gives no indication of the ominous, apocalyptic shuffle that follows. The title track is a bouncy, violin-fueled bluegrass tune; they follow that with Gracefully Facedown, a woozy swing shuffle like early Dan Hicks. It’s a tribute to anyone who subscribes to the idea that “drinking bottom shelf bourbon seems to work all right til closing time.” For Good Again cynically mythologizes the band’s roots living in squalor, paying the rent in illegal drugs and writing songs that someday they’d get paid to play. “Everybody who’s anybody at one time lived in somebody’s hallway,” they assert, and they’re probably right.
Their Working Man’s Blues isn’t the Merle Haggard standard – it’s a haunting tobacco sharecropper’s lament with blues harp that sounds like it was recorded on another planet, a feeling echoed on a biting version of Statesboro Blues. The Johnson Family is an eerie, carnivalesque gypsy waltz; Helping Yourself puts a devious Curtis Eller-style spin on oldtime country gospel, spiced with an unexpectedly searing slide guitar solo. A spot-on early 50s style honkytonk tune that does double duty as raised middle finger to the boss, Cheap Reward unexpectedly quotes Elvis Costello; there’s also the careening slide guitar shuffle Aces and Twos and the unexpectedly epic Car Wreck. Good album – where the hell were we when this came out? You can get it at the band’s site or pick one up at the show.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #697:
The Asylum Street Spankers – What? And Give Up Show Business?
Hope it’s ok with you if we stick with the oldtime swing for a couple days in a row (we’ll be back with the rock on Saturday). For the better part of 15 years, the Asylum Street Spankers were arguably the funniest band on the planet, a raucous acoustic Americana counterpart to the Dead Kennedys. Fearlessly political, they took on the Bush regime with a ferocious sarcasm matched by few other bands (their best being their last big hit, the Iraq War satire Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your SUV). This 2008 double cd is sort of a greatest-hits collection, recorded in front of a packed house at New York’s Barrow Street Theatre. Frontwoman Christina Marrs and percussionist/singer Wammo banter back and forth over sizzling violin, guitar and mandolin, through a mix of originals and classic blues and gospel tunes. The best of these is My Baby in the CIA, a hilarious, spot-on critique of corporate-sponsored American anti-democracy moves over the years. There’s also the equally spot-on Winning the War on Drugs, an equally funny update on Black Flag’s TV Party, the Medley of Burnt-Out Songs, the amazing, intricately arranged My Favorite Records, and Marrs’ Hawaiian-flavored homage to marijuana, Pakalolo Baby. They also intersperse several skits between songs, the funniest being the Gig from Hell, which every musician will relate to. Mystifyingly hard to find as a torrent; the Spankers (who’ve recently disbanded, reputedly for the last time) still have it at their site.
This is the list we like best for so many reasons. When we founded this blog in 2007, live music was our raison d’etre, and after all that time it’s still the biggest part of the picture here. While along with just about everyone else, our 100 Best Albums of 2010 and 100 Best Songs of 2010 lists have strayed further and further from what the corporate media and their imitators consider the “mainstream,” this is still our most personal list. As the year blusters to a close, between all of us here, we’ve seen around 250 concerts – the equivalent of maybe 25% of the shows on a single night here in New York. And the ones we saw are vastly outnumbered by the ones we wanted to see but didn’t. The Undead Jazz Festival, where all the cheesy Bleecker Street clubs suddenly became home to a horde of jazz legends and legends-to-be? We were out of town. We also missed this year’s Gypsy Tabor Festival way out in Gerritsen Beach, choosing to spend that weekend a little closer to home covering punk rock on the Lower East, latin music at Lincoln Center and oldschool soul in Williamsburg. We worked hard to cast a wide net for all the amazing shows that happened this year. But there’s no way this list could be anything close to definitive. Instead, consider this a sounding, a snapshot of some of the year’s best moments in live music, if not all of them. Because it’s impossible to rank these shows in any kind of order, they’re listed chronologically:
The Disclaimers at Spike Hill, 1/2/10 – that such a potently good band, with two charismatic frontwomen and so many catchy, dynamic soul-rock songs, could be so ignored by the rest of the New York media and blogs speaks for itself. On one of the coldest nights of the year, they turned in one of the hottests sets.
Jenifer Jackson at Banjo Jim’s, 1/21/10 – on a welcome if temporary stay from her native Austin, the incomparably eclectic, warmly cerebral tunesmith assembled a killer trio band and ripped joyously through a diverse set of Beatlesque pop, Americana and soul songs from throughout her career.
Gyan Riley and Chicha Libre at Merkin Concert Hall, 2/4/10 – Terry Riley’s guitarist kid opened with ambient, sometimes macabre soundscapes, followed by the world’s most entertaining retro 70s Peruvian surf band synching up amusingly and plaintively with two Charlie Chaplin films. Silent movie music has never been so fun or so psychedelic.
The New York Scandia String Symphony at Victor Borge Hall, 2/11/10 – the Scandia’s mission is to expose American audiences to obscure classical music from Scandinavia, a cause which is right up our alley. On a bitter, raw winter evening, their chamber orchestra sold out the house and turned in a frenetically intense version of Anders Koppel’s new Concerto Piccolo featuring hotshot accordionist Bjarke Mogensen, a deviously entertaining version of Frank Foerster’s Suite for Scandinavian Folk Tunes, and more obscure but equally enlightening pieces.
Masters of Persian Music at the Skirball Center, 2/18/10 – Kayhan Kalhor, Hossein Alizadeh and their ensemble improvised their way through an often wrenchingly powerful, climactic show that went on for almost three hours.
The Greenwich Village Orchestra playing Prokofiev and Shostakovich, 2/21/10 – like the Scandia, this well-loved yet underexposed ensemble plays some of the best classical concerts in New York, year after year. This was typical: a playful obscurity by Rienhold Gliere, and subtle, intuitive, deeply felt versions of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto along with Shostakovich’s dread-filled Fifth Symphony.
Charles Evans and Neil Shah at the Hudson View Lounge, 2/28/10 – February was a great month for us for some reason. Way uptown, baritone saxophonist Evans and pianist Shah turned in a relentlessly haunting, powerful duo performance of brooding, defly improvisational third-stream jazz.
AE at the Delancey, 3/8/10 – pronounced “ash,” Eva Salina Primack and Aurelia Shrenker’s innovative duo vocal project interpolates Balkan folk music with traditional Appalachian songs, creating all kinds of unexpectedly powerful connections between two seemingly disparate styles. They went in and found every bit of longing, intensity and exquisite joy hidden away in the songs’ austere harmonies and secret corners.
Electric Junkyard Gamelan at Barbes, 3/20/10 – most psychedelic show of the year, bar none. Terry Dame’s hypnotic group play homemade instruments made out of old dryer racks, rubber bands of all sizes, trash cans and more – in a marathon show that went almost two hours, they moved from gamelan trip-hop to rap to mesmerizing funk.
Peter Pierce, Erica Smith, Rebecca Turner, Paula Carino, the Larch, Solar Punch, Brute Force, Tom Warnick & the World’s Fair, the John Sharples Band, the Nopar King and Out of Order at the Full Moon Resort in Big Indian, NY, 4/10/10 – this one’s the ringer on the list. We actually listed a total of 21 concerts on this page because even though this one was outside of New York City, it’s as good a choice as any for best show of the year, anywhere. In order of appearance: janglerock; haunting solo acoustic Americana; country soul; more janglerock; lyrical retro new wave; jamband music; a theatrical 60s survivor and writer of novelty songs; a catchy, charismatic noir rocker; a band that specializes in obscure rock covers; soul/funk, and an amazing all-female noiserock/punk trio to wind up twelve hours of music. And that was just one night of the festival.
Rev. Billy & the Life After Shopping Gospel Choir at Highline Ballroom, 4/18/10 – an ecstatic, socially conscious 25-piece choir, soul band and a hilarious frontman who puts his life on the line every time out protesting attacks on our liberty. This time out the cause was to preserve mountaintop ecosystems, and the people around them, in the wake of ecologically dangerous stripmining.
The Big Small Beast: Spottiswoode, Barbez, Little Annie and Paul Wallfisch, Bee & Flower and Botanica at the Orensanz Center, 5/21/10 – this was Small Beast taken to its logical extreme. In the weeks before he abandoned this town for Dortmund, Germany, Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch – creator of the Monday night Small Beast dark rock night at the Delancey – assembled the best dark rock night of the year with a mini-set from lyrical rocker Spottiswoode, followed by amazingly intricate gypsy-tinged instrumentals, Little Annie’s hilarious poignancy, and smoldering, intense sets from Bee & Flower and his own band.
The Grneta Duo+ at Bechstein Hall, 5/27/10 – Balkan clarinet titans Vasko Dukovski and Ismail Lumanovski joined with adrenalinista pianist Alexandra Joan for a gripping, fascinating performance of Bartok, Sarasate, Mohammed Fairouz and a clarinet duel that stunned the crowd.
The Brooklyn What at Trash, 5/28/10 – New York’s most charismatically entertaining rock band, whose monthly Saturday show here is a must-see, roared through a characteristically snarling, snidely funny set of mostly new material – followed by Tri-State Conspiracy, the popular, noirish ska band whose first few minutes were amazing. Too bad we had to leave and take a drunk person home at that point.
The New Collisions at Arlene’s, 7/1/10 – Boston’s best rock band unveiled a darker, more powerpop side, segueing into one killer song after another just a couple of months prior to releasing their stupendously good second album, The Optimist.
Martin Bisi, Humanwine and Marissa Nadler at Union Pool, 7/2/10 – darkly psychedelic bandleader Bisi spun a swirling, hypnotic, roaring set, followed by Humanwine’s savagely tuneful attack on post-9/11 paranoia and then Nadler’s pensively captivating solo acoustic atmospherics.
Maynard & the Musties, Me Before You, the Dixons and the Newton Gang at Urban Meadow in Red Hook, 7/10/10 – the one Brooklyn County Fair show we managed to catch this year was outdoors, the sky over the waterfront a venomous black. We lasted through a spirited attempt by the opening band to overcome some technical difficulties, followed by rousing bluegrass from Me Before You, the twangy, period-perfect 1964 Bakersfield songwriting and playing of the Dixons and the ferocious paisley underground Americana rock of the Newton Gang before the rains hit and everybody who stayed had to go indoors to the Jalopy to see Alana Amram & the Rough Gems and others.
The Universal Thump at Barbes, 7/16/10 – amazingly eclectic pianist Greta Gertler and her new chamber pop band, accompanied by a string quartet, played a lushly gorgeous set of unpredictable, richly tuneful art-rock.
Etran Finatawa, los Straitjackets and the Asylum Street Spankers at Lincoln Center, 8/1/10 – bad segues, great show, a perfect way to slowly return to reality from the previous night’s overindulgence. Niger’s premier desert blues band, the world’s most popular second-generation surf rockers and then the incomparably funny, oldtimey Spankers – playing what everybody thought would be their final New York concert – made it a Sunday to remember.
Elvis Costello at the Greene Space, 11/1/10 – as far as NYC shows went, this was the best one we saw, no question – along with maybe 150-200 other people, max. Backed by his most recent band the Sugarcanes, Costello fielded questions from interviewer Leonard Lopate with a gleeful defiance and played a ferociously lyrical, assaultively catchy set of songs from his latest classic album, National Ransom
Zikrayat, Raquy & the Cavemen and Copal at Drom, 11/4/10 – slinky, plaintive Levantine anthems and Mohammed Abdel Wahab classics from Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat, amazingly original, potent Turkish-flavored rock and percussion music from Raquy & the Cavemen and then Copal’s trance-inducing string band dancefloor grooves.
By any standard, this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival is one of the best ever: of all of New York’s summer festivals, this is one you really should investigate if you’re in town – especially because it’s free. Sunday’s lineup outdoors on the plaza under the trees was an improbable but smartly assembled “roots of American music” bill.
“Are you awake?” Etran Finatawa’s electric guitarist asked the crowd, in French: from the response, the answer was barely. With their swaying triplet rhythms and expansively hypnotic, gently crescendoing one-chord jams, the Niger-based duskcore band were a perfect choice to get the afternoon started. They’re as captivating as Tinariwen, starting methodically and getting more diverse and interesting as the set went on. One of the earlier numbers started with a meandering solo guitar intro, like a Middle Eastern taqsim, and grew surprisingly into a boisterously shuffling anthem. One of the band’s percussionists – dressed in what looked like warrior regalia – opened a percussive, stop-and-start number solo on screechy ritti fiddle. Desert blues bands change modes more than they change actual chords, but Etran Finatawa’s most memorable song, an especially epic one, worked a dramatic shift from minor to major and then back again for all it was worth. And then like many of their other songs, they shut it down cold.
Los Straitjackets, arguably the world’s most popular surf band after the Ventures and Dick Dale, made about the most incongruous segue imaginable. But counting them as a roots band isn’t an overstatement: there isn’t a band alive in the small yet thriving surf rock subculture that hasn’t felt their influence, especially because they write original songs, in a whole slew of styles. Happily keeping the choreography and the cheesy stage antics to a minimum, they aired out their repertoire instead with a mix of cheery Buck Owens-flavored country stomps, Gene Vincent twang, three-chord Chuck Berry-style shuffles, and a couple of attempts at a happier spaghetti western style (along with one that was not happy at all – it was the highlight of the show). Drummer Jason Smay’s playful Gene Krupa-isms got the crowd roaring on an extended surf version of Sing Sing Sing; guitarist Danny Amis (who played bass on one song) led the band in a rousing version of a Jimi Hendrix song (ok, it wasn’t a Hendrix song, but that was Jimi on lead guitar on Joey Dee and the Starliters’ Peppermint Twist). Guitarist Eddie Angel showed off expert and boisterous command of every twangy guitar style ever invented, from Dick Dale tremolo-picking to sinuous, fluid Bill Kirchen country licks. The crowd screamed for an encore but didn’t get one.
The Asylum Street Spankers were their usual adrenalized selves, but a sadness lingered: the band is breaking up. Other than the show they played right afterward at Joe’s Pub (one hopes they got there in time), this was their last one in New York. It’s hard to imagine another band who were as funny as they were virtuosic. Banjo player Christina Marrs, multi-instrumentalist Charlie King, resonator guitarist Nevada Newman and the rest of the crew (Wammo was AWOL) all showed off their prodigious chops in turn, tersely and intensely. Their big college radio hit, Scrotum, was “a mixed-blessing song,” as Marrs put it, but she traded off vocals with Newman and King with a freshness and salaciousness that made it hard to believe they’ve sung it a thousand times before. The high points of the show were the political ones: the hillbilly sway of Lee Harvey Was A Friend of Mine, which cites Jack Ruby as “the biggest sleaze in town,” and My Baby in the CIA, a hilariously understated chronology of CIA-sponsored anti-democracy coups over the decades – and a lot of other things, some relevant, some less so but still fun, like King’s throat-singing. Marrs cranked up the volume with her amazing pipes on fierily sultry covers of the Violent Femmes’ Jesus Walking on the Water and Muddy Waters’ Got My Mojo Working; they closed with a swinging version of Don’t Let the Music Die, but it was about to and that was too bad. At least it’ll be fun to find out where all the individual Spankers end up once this year’s ongoing farewell tour has run its course.
The Asylum Street Spankers – the world’s funniest, most irreverent (and many would say, best) oldtime Americana hellraisers are playing the Bell House at 8 PM on January 9 – tickets are going fast, get ‘em while they last. Wammo, the Spankers’ singer, washboard player and one of the group’s several resident wits took some time out of his busy holiday season to answer a few questions about the show and the band’s new album:
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: Your new cd God’s Favorite Band is just out. How much if any rightwing backlash has there been? Did Oral Roberts issue a fatwa against you before he croaked?
Wammo: Did Oral Roberts finally die? Remember back in ’87 when he announced that God would kill him if he didn’t raise a million dollars? That guy was a genius.
LCC: OK, is there a tally of pissed-off atheists? Or do they realize that like all the other styles of roots music that the Spankers play, it’s just classic Americana, really not so much of a divergence from your other stuff?
Wammo: I think you answered that one yourself, so I’ll ask my own question to all of the atheists out there. If you were standing on an icy sidewalk and down by your feet was a steaming cup of hot chocolate and as you were reaching down to grab the delicious beverage, your pants split, making you jerk, rip your shirt open and slip on the ice, only to plummet and land chest first into the boiling confection, horribly scalding your areola but enticing a little puppy to scamper up and begin licking the hot chocolate off of your heaving nipple, how could God not be the force that didn’t make this scenario not happen?
LCC: Is it rude of me to ask about your own spiritual beliefs, upbringing and/or lack thereof?
Wammo: No, I don’t think it’s rude at all.
LCC: One of your originals on the album asserts that God drives a Volkswagen Thing. I was pleasantly surprised to see that you’d do a song about a VW Thing, let alone that you’d make it divine – and that you’d make the connection to the Nazi WWII vehicle which it pretty much was a carbon copy of, with a little bigger engine. Why a VW Thing, instead of, say, a Beetle, which floats and therefore could be construed as walking on water?
Wammo: Back in the ’70s, Volkswagen created these ridiculous commercials that depicted VW Things painted all kinds of crazy ways: flags, starscapes, rainbows, etc.. Even as a little kid, I knew that they must have found a cheap way to get the old Nazi jeep back into production. I’d be watching The Dirty Dozen and suddenly a commercial would come on with hippies riding around in the same ugly-ass jeep that Lee Marvin blew up only seconds before. I figured God would want a little anonymity when visiting earth, so God would pick the ugliest car for cruising around. Hence, God drives a Volkswagen Thing. The joke, explained.
LCC: What’s the inspiration for the other original of yours, Right and Wrong? Is that a Bush War era song or does it go back further than that?
Wammo: I think the concept of right and wrong goes back further than the Bush administration but it’s so hard to remember… I wanted to write a song that showed the absurdity of the “my God is right” mentality. I intended for it to go in that direction but it ended up becoming confessional. It’s like being in such a hurry to get your shoes on, you don’t realize that you’ve tied your laces together.
LCC: What’s the genesis of this album? Was this a deliberate attempt to make another thematic live album a la What? And Give Up Show Business?, or did you just have the tracks kicking around and figured, holy smokes, we can get another live album out of this?
Wammo: The whole thing was planned out — booking, rehearsing and playing the gospel shows, hiring someone to record the shows, buying new gear, having Christina [Marrs, the Spankers’ frontwoman and multi-instrumentalist] learn how to use the gear and then mix the record. She did a great job, don’t you think?
LCC: Um, if it’s ok with you it’s ok with me. Seriously, though, I like the album a lot. So what can we expect from you at the Bell House on January 9? Are you doing a straight-up gospel show or are you going to air out a few fan favorites? At least the Medley of Burnt Out Songs?
Wammo: This is the Salvation and Sin tour, the first half is stuff from the new gospel record and the second half is all of the dirty, nasty, secular stuff. We give you redemption and follow it with madness. If you think about it, that’s the way it usually works in real life. Show starts at 8 PM.
LCC: After this album and this tour, what’s next for the Spankers? Or has the big G not told you yet?
Wammo: We’ll be heading to Europe and Japan this year but believe it or not, we’re cutting back on touring. There’s a new album already in preproduction, so we’ll be recording sometime this year. I’ll be doing some solo gigs and Fringe Festival stuff. I did a one-man show at PS 122 in Manhattan and I’ll be touring that soon. Last time I called the big G, I couldn’t get past the automated menu, “If you’re in hell, press one. If you’re on Earth, press two. If you’re having an existential crisis, press null…”
Things like this happen with bands who’ve been around awhile and have the good sense to record themselves in fortuitous circumstances. Back in 2006, the Asylum Street Spankers – the world’s smartest, most deliriously fun oldtimey Americana band – recorded some live performances at the Saxon Pub in their hometown of Austin. Among the songs were several traditional gospel tunes along with a handful of originals that wouldn’t be drastically out of place, musically at least, in a straight-up gospel set. It isn’t implausible to imagine the band hanging around the dressing room one night after a show after someone put these songs on a boombox, while a joint made its way around the room. Suddenly percussionist/singer Wammo has an epiphany and turns in amazement to multi-instrumentalist/siren Christina Marrs: “Holy shit, we have a gospel album here!”
As improbable as it might seem at first thought for the Spankers to be doing a gospel album, it actually makes perfect sense when you consider how deep their knowledge of American roots music is. As sacriligeous as the band is, Marrs has an amazing set of pipes and pulls out all the stops here. Likewise, the band’s vocal harmonies are tight and inventive when they’re not being tight and absolutely period-perfect, as with their minstrel-esque version of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.
An ancient-sounding instrumental version of the Blind Willie Johnson blues Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground opens the cd and sets a rustic tone. The standards Each Day, Down by the Riverside, By and By and Wade in the Water each get a fervent, ecstatic treatment which rather than being camp reaffirms the band’s seemingly innate feel for these songs as universal expression of the human spirit that transcend any doctrinaire limitations. Then they do the same thing with a contemporary Christian song (yes, that’s what it is), the Violent Femmes’ Gordan Gano’s Jesus Walking on the Water.
But as expected it’s the originals that bring down the house. Wammo’s somewhat snide Right and Wrong has an ironclad Iraq War-era logic to go along with the stoner humor: “I ain’t got no problem with Buddha, ’cause he’s a huge Nirvana fan.” And his other song here, Volkswagen Thing reclaims a Nazi-era relic as vehicle for the divine. In case you don’t remember it, the Thing during its brief revival in the 70s was one of the most unsafe cars ever built, a car so rear-heavy that it could pop a wheelie despite being ridiculously underpowered. Satan, on the other hand, drives his Mercedes like the pig he is – and he’s got a Hummer, too. The band closes out this raucous collection with a defiant version of Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So, a vivid reminder of where they’re really coming from for anyone who might not have been paying attention. Steampunks everywhere, not to mention fans of both traditional and secular gospel alike (the Lost Crusaders and Rev. Vince Anderson especially come to mind) will love this album. The Spankers made it to NYC a couple of times this year and they will doubtlessly be back (they recorded their sensational What? And Give Up Show Business? live cd here), watch this space for details.
You’ll notice that aside from the #1 spot here, these aren’t ranked in any kind of order: the difference, quality-wise between #1 and #50 is so slight as to make the idea of trying to sort out which might be “better” an exercise in futility. If you’re interested, here’s our 100 Best Songs of 2009 list.
1. The Brooklyn What – The Brooklyn What for Borough President
Like London Calling, it’s a diverse yet consistently ferocious, sometimes hilarious mix of styles imbued with punk energy and an edgy, quintessentially New York intensity. Time will probably judge this a classic.
2. Matthew Grimm & the Red Smear – The Ghost of Rock n Roll
The former Hangdogs frontman’s finest, funniest, most spot-on moment as a fearless, politically aware Americana rocker.
3. The Oxygen Ponies – Harmony Handgrenade
Dating from the waning days of the Bush regime, this is a murderously angry album about living under an enemy occupation: love in a time of choler?
4. The Beefstock Recipes anthology
5. Dan Bryk – Pop Psychology
Arguably the most insightful – and most brutally funny – album ever written about the music industry. The tunes are great too.
6. Balthrop, Alabama – Subway Songs
The sprawling Brooklyn band go deep into 60s noir with this brilliantly morbid, phantasmagorical ep.
7. Bobby Vacant & the Weary – Tear Back the Night
In the spirit of Dark Side of the Moon and Closer, this is a masterpiece of artsy existentialist rock. You’ll find several tracks on our Best Songs of 2009 list, including our #1 pick, Never Looking Back.
8. Botanica – americanundone
All the fearless fury and rage of a Botanica live show successfully captured at a show in Germany late last year.
9. Kelli Rae Powell – New Words for Old Lullabies
The amazingly lyrical oldtimey chanteuse alternates between sultry, devious romantic stylings and sheer unhinged anger.
10. McGinty & White Sing Selections from the McGinty & White Songbook
Ward White and Joe McGinty’s wickedly lyrical collaboration puts a fresh spin on retro 60s psychedelic pop.
11. The Church – Untitled #23
The Australian art-rock legends’ latest is yet another triumph of swirling atmospherics and intense lyricism.
12. Amy Allison – Sheffield Streets
Her best album – the New York song stylist has never been funnier or more acerbic. Includes a charming duet with Elvis Costello.
13. Steve Wynn and the Dragon Bridge Orchestra – Live in Brussels
A lush, majestic effort recorded with the stellar crew who played on his most recent studio album Crossing Dragon Bridge.
14. Elisa Flynn – Songs About Birds & Ghosts
Haunting and poignant but also cleverly amusing, the New York rocker has never written better or sung more affectingly.
15. The Jazz Funeral – s/t – free download
The best band ever to come out of Staten Island, New York, these janglerockers write excellent lyrics and have some very catchy Americana-inflected tunes.
16. Jay Bennett – Whatever Happened, I Apologize – free download
The last album the great Americana songwriter ever recorded, a harrowing chronicle of dissolution and despair.
17. Marty Willson-Piper – Nightjar
The Church’s iconic twelve-string guitarist’s finest work ever, a sweeping, majestic, multistylistic masterpiece.
18. Black Sea Hotel – s/t
New York’s own Bulgarian vocal choir’s debut is otherworldly, gorgeous and strikingly innovative.
19. Rupa & the April Fishes – Este Mundo
Latin meets noir cabaret meets acoustic gypsy punk on the Bay Area band’s sensational second album.
The tenor saxophonist/composer goes straight for wherever the melody is, usually in four minutes or less, with one of the world’s great rhythm sections, Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. Time may also judge this a classic.
21. The New Collisions – s/t
All the fun and edgy intensity of vintage 80s new wave reinvented for the next decade by platinum-haired frontwoman Sarah Guild and her killer backing band.
22. Ten Pound Heads – s/t
The great long lost Blue Oyster Cult album: relentlessly dark, edgy, occasionally noir art-rock songs with layers of great guitar.
A hilariously woozy, fun romp through the songs from Sergeant Pepper, by the allstar NYC reggae crew who brought us Dub Side of the Moon and Radiodread.
24. Jeff Zentner – The Dying Days of Summer
Intense, memorable Nashville gothic songwriting from one of its finest practitioners.
25. Chris Eminizer – Twice the Animal
Cleverly lyrical art-rock songwriting with tinges of vintage Peter Gabriel from this first-rate New York rocker.
26. Tinariwen – Imidiwan: Companions
The Tuareg rockers’ most diverse, accessible album, as memorable as it is hypnotic.
27. Monika Jalili – Elan
Classic songs from Iran from the 60s and 70s, fondly and hauntingly delivered by the Iranian-American siren and her amazing backup band.
28. Ivo Papasov – Dance of the Falcon
The iconic Bulgarian clarinetist delivers maybe his most adrenalizing, intense album of gypsy music ever.
29. The Stagger Back Brass Band – s/t
The Spinal Tap of brass bands are as virtuosic and melodic as they are funny – which is a lot.
30. Eric Vloeimans‘ Fugimundi – Live at Yoshi’s
The Dutch trumpeter leads a trio through a particularly poignant, affecting mix of classically-tinged jazz.
31. The Asylum Street Spankers – What? And Give Up Show Business?
Recorded at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York last year, this is a boisterous, furious mix of hilarious skits and songs by the Dead Kennedys of the oldtimey scene.
32. Salaam – s/t
Sister-and-brother Dena and Amir El Saffar’s richly memorable, haunting seventh album of Middle Eastern instrumentals and ballads.
33. Fishtank Ensemble – Samurai over Serbia
Their shtick is that they add an Asian tinge to gypsy music, giving it an especially wild edge. The singing saw work on the album is pretty amazing too.
An eerily glimmering, suspensefully minimalist masterpiece by the baritone sax player and pianist, recorded in a sonically exquisite old church earlier this year.
35. The Silk Road Ensemble – Off the Map
Their first one without Yo-yo Ma is also their most adventurous mix of Asian and Middle Eastern-themed compositions (by Osvaldo Golijov, Angel Lam, Evan Ziporyn and others), played by an allstar cast including Kayhan Kalhor, string quartet Brooklyn Rider, pipa pioneer Wu Man and a cast of dozens.
36. Linda Draper – Bridge and Tunnel
The NYC songwriter’s most straightforward, catchy yet also maybe her most lyrically edgy album yet – and she has several.
37. Darren Gaines and the Key Party – My Blacks Don’t Match
Wry, Tom Waits-inflected noir songs by this excellent NYC crew.
38. Love Camp 7 – Union Garage
A deliciously jangly followup to their classic 2007 album Sometimes Always Never.
39. The Komeda Project – Requiem
The New York jazz crew’s second collection of works by the Roman Polanski collaborator who died tragically in the 1960s is brooding, morbid, cinematic and Mingus-esque.
40. Si Para Usted Vol. 2 – The Funky Beats of Revolutionary Cuba
Like the Roots of Chicha series, Waxing Deep’s second devious, danceable collection of genre-hopping obscure Latin funk from 1970s Cuba onward is packed with obscure gems.
41. Huun Huur Tu and Carmen Rizzo – Eternal
Ominous, windswept, atmospheric North Asian ambience produced with stately, understated power.
42. The Moonlighters – Enchanted
Another great album: gorgeous harmonies from Bliss Blood and Cindy Ball, charming retro 20s songwriting and incisive steel guitar from NYC’s best oldtimey band.
43. Minamo – Kuroi Kawa/Black River
Pianist Satoko Fujii and violinist Carla Kihlstedt share a telepathic chemistry in duo soundscapes ranging from clever and playful to downright macabre.
44. Robin O’Brien – The Apple in Man
The multistylistic chanteuse, legendary in the cassette underground, gets her haunting, intense, otherworldly vocals set to smart, terse new arrangements from dreampop to 70s style Britfolk to trance.
45. Devi – Get Free
Ferociously smart pychedelic power trio rock with one of the most interesting lead guitarists out there right now.
46. Obits – I Blame You
Dark, catchy, propulsive retro 60s garage rock with echoes of the Stooges and early Pink Floyd by this inspired Brooklyn band.
47. HuDost – Trapeze
Sweeping, sometimes hypnotic, artsy songs that move from Americana to gypsy to goth, with frontwoman Moksha Sommer’s graceful vocals.
48. Lenny Molotov – Illuminated Blues
Hauntingly visionary, provocative, politically aware songs set to gorgeously rustic, late 1920s blues, swing and hillbilly arrangements by the great Americana guitarist.
49. Chang Jui-Chuan – Exodus: Retrospective and Prospective 1999-2009
Fearless conscious bilingual hip-hop (in Taiwanese and English) from this international star.
50. Les Triaboliques – rivermudtwilight
A trio of old British punks – Justin Adams, Ben Mandelson and Lu Edmonds – combine to create a masterpiece of desert-inspired duskcore.
Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Sunday’s song is #381:
Black Flag – TV Party
With the litany of all those long-forgotten network tv shows from the early 80s, it’s a little dated, but the hardcore anthem still packs a punch, Henry Rollins showing off a sense of humor that very rarely made it into any of his songs. “I couldn’t live without my tv for a day, or even a minute/Don’t even bother to use my brain anymore, there’s nothing left in it!” From Damaged, 1981; mp3s are everywhere. The acoustic version by the Asylum Street Spankers has more current references and is just as savagely funny as the original.
In case you don’t get the reference, the album title is the punchline of an old vaudeville joke: the guy shovels shit, gets the short end of the stick every time, really has nothing to do with what’s happening onstage, but he just can’t quit the job. This sequence of tracks taken from their stagy, vaudevillian series of shows last year at the Barrow Street Theatre captures the band at the absolute peak of their consistently hilarious, raucous, virtuosic powers. In a lot of ways the Asylum Street Spankers are sort of the Dead Kennedys of oldtimey music, fearlessly aware, politically spot-on and funny as hell, especially in a live setting. This sprawling two-cd set intersperses several skits among a grand total of 25 songs. Smoking pot figures heavily in a number of them; sex is abundant, and there’s also one about beer. In other words, this is a party album guaranteed to clear the room of tight-assed yuppies and young Republicans in seconds flat.
Trying to choose which song is funniest is not easy. Everybody will get a kick out of their acoustic cover of the Black Flag hardcore classic TV Party, updated with contemporary references to emphasize the fact that the trendoids vegging out to Adult Swim or the Daily Show are no cooler than the bozos in the original, glued to Hill Street Blues. My Baby in the CIA is blackly funny, offhandedly managing to mention every CIA-sponsored coup against a democratically elected government around the world over the past half-century. The Medley of Burned-Out Songs, designed to placate rabid fans who can’t wait til the band plays their favorite, overplayed number is something that more bands should do. There’s also Christina Marrs’ deadpan Hawaiian swing number Pakalolo Baby, sounding something like the Moonlighters on good weed (or Pakalolo, for all the Hawaiian speakers out there). Winning the War on Drugs takes a quizzical, red-eyed view of prohibition, posing the logical question of why, if there’s a war on, are drugs so easy to find (My Baby in the CIA has the answer). The most technically dazzling number of them all is the medley My Favorite Records, kicking off with an absolutely perfect acoustic evocation of Black Sabbath, moving to Zep, Marrs eventually bringing down the house with her choice. And then they work a complicated contrapuntal vocal vamp to a crescendo where they replicate the sound of a stuck record without missing a beat.
Most of the skits are also funny, especially the Gig from Hell which any musician who’s spent any time on the road can relate to: not enough inputs for all the vocals, a stage that smells like vomit, the house manager trying to rip off the band like he did the one before…the list goes on and on. There’s also some remarkably straight-up and soulful blues and ragtime here too. The show finally ends with a full-length version of one of the heretofore Burned-Out Songs, the well-loved Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your SUV (this having been recorded during the waning days of the Bush regime, there’s an undercurrent of righteous wrath just fractions of an inch below many of the jokes). The Asylum Street Spankers play the Bell House on May 19 with oldtimey/delta blues siren Mamie Minch opening the night auspiciously at 8:30 or so.