We’ve been doing this every Tuesday – to cut down on the workload here while we attend to some infrastructure things, we meant to suspend the feature for awhile. Before we do, here’s this week’s top ten. As always, you’ll see this week’s #1 song on our 100 Best Songs of 2009 list at the end of December, along with maybe some of the rest of these too. This is strictly for fun – it’s Lucid Culture’s tribute to Kasey Kasem and a way to spread the word about some of the great music out there that’s too edgy for the corporate media and their imitators in the blogosphere. Every link here will take you to each individual song.
1. Bobby Vacant & the Weary – Never Looking Back
So far this is the best single song we’ve heard this year, a defiant look back on a checkered past. Suits us just fine. From the new cd.
We’re late in picking up on this snide classic by the Canadian powerpop rocker. He’s at Union Hall on 10/15.
3. Karine Poghosyan with the Kokolo String Ensemble - Haydn F Maj. Piano Concerto
The fiery pianist with an equally inspired chamber orchestra behind her.
4. Sarah Lov – Tell Me How
“It is all I ever feel, like nothing good is ever real,” she laments over a catchy Aimee Mann-esque midtempo anthem. She’s at Union Hall on 10/16 at 8.
5. Izzy and the Kesstronics – Hanging Death Waves
Izzy from Uncle Fucker on guitar plus a sax and rhythm section playing weird funny surf/garage/roots stuff. They’re at Beauty Bar in Bushwick on 9/27 at 9ish.
6. String Driven Thing – Suicide
Every now and then we run across a classic like this. This is from a reunion concert by the 70s art-rock cult favorites sometime in the 90s, a bitter, somewhat brutal graveside scene for a dead rocker:
The T in contract
The I in empire
The M in muzak
The E in Ex-Lax
The S in suicide
7. Erin Hill – Girl Inventor
Classical harpist who sounds absolutely nothing like Joanna Newsom playing psychedelic pop. More like Kate Bush actually.
8. The MK Groove Orchestra – MCP
Woozy, inventive groove-driven big band jazz. They’re at Spikehill on 9/26 at 10.
Danceable Japanese noise-rock with a real screamer on vocals, cool stuff.
10. Don’t Give Small Money Chance Brass Band – It Is Raining
Brooklyn big band playing horn music from Ghana! Pretty wild.
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.
This is one of those rare works of art where every element strengthens and reinforces the other. Consider the cd package: the wraparound cover photo shows a house at night from the shadows, beckoning yet unreachable like Kafka’s castle. Inside under the cd, another photo, a weatherbeaten wooden shack behind a picket fence, decrepit lounge chair rotting in front of a half-furled plastic canopy. Truth in advertising.
Roger Waters once said that he crafted the lyrics to Dark Side of the Moon to read as simply as possible to make sure he got his point across and the same applies to singer/songwriter Bobby Vacant. His words are plainspoken yet potently metaphorical: there’s always another level of meaning lurking underneath, and it’s not pretty. It would not be an overstatement to call the new album by Bobby Vacant & the Weary a classic of dark existentialist rock, right up there with Closer by Joy Division and anything Pink Floyd ever recorded. Vacant sings in the thin, worn-down voice of a middleaged man. Homelessness and addiction are not merely alluded to but addressed directly with a disconcerting offhandedness: there’s a ring of authenticity here. Yet as bleak as much of this is, Bobby Vacant maintains a vise grip. “Don’t look to tomorrow, just get through the day…don’t go gently, just leave the sky aflame,” he encourages in the nocturnally atmospheric Some Walk. From time to time, he imbues the songs with a gallows humor, as in the hypnotic seafaring ballad Waveflowers, where he can’t resist pulling up anchors and slipping off unseen into the night: “And if they ask/What the hell is the past/Just tell ‘em it’s deep down below.” Or on the vitriolic Dylan’s Dead, a Nietzschean slap upside the head of boomer complacency:
You’re the one said Dylan’s dead
Flew a jet right through his head
Once again we killed the dream
Onward marching soldiers sing
The Weary (AKA George Reisch, mastermind of Chicago’s Luxotone label, one of this era’s most acerbic, accessible writers on philosophy and editor of Pink Floyd and Philosophy and other titles in the series) takes Vacant’s simple, catchy songs and orchestrates them with the gravitas of Floyd yet also with the terseness of Joy Division: as with pretty much everything else Reisch has ever recorded, there are no wasted notes here. A bell tolls in the distance, just twice, as Some Walk builds to a close. The title track works up an understated feast of jangly guitars worthy of the Byrds. The marvelously textured crescendo of guitars on Dylan’s Dead takes a blithe Forever Changes mood into surreal, distantly reverberating Sandinista territory; the stark twelve-string on Waveflowers evokes Marty Willson-Piper of the Church. There’s also a beautifully wistful interlude straight out of the Moody Blues circa 1967, and the even more lushly, vividly plaintive crescendo that closes the album.
Vacant vacillates between embracing the darkness and the occasional grasp backwards at a doomed relationship. The opening track, Don’t Love Me Anymore cautions that he won’t be around much longer: “All my years just wasted smears, wings too wet to fly.” The title track, on a literal level a snide after-the-party tableau, gleefully announces that “The night is kind, the night is warm, the night is calling your name.” The best song on the album is Never Looking Back, an anthem for anyone with a checkered past. “Here we go. Stand back. It’s a road. It’s black,” Vacant sings with not a little triumph in his voice: he knows that this isn’t merely where we all end up – it’s where we’ve been all along, and he’s finally been vindicated. “Went to the town, went to the school, went to the park with the lonely fool, uh huh,” he relates: the story of our lives, isn’t it?
Not much is known about Bobby Vacant. His real name is Tom Derungs, he lives in Switzerland, records vocals and guitar tracks in his home studio and sends the product to Luxtone for overdubs, mixing and pressing. He also plays the occasional acoustic gig (the next one is in Lausanne on August 14) and contributes to the blog Library of Inspiration. One hopes this cd – as strong a contender as any for best album of 2009 – will not be his last.