Dark, prolific rock songwriter Mark Sinnis’ long-running band Ninth House may be on life support at this point, but his solo career is thriving – he sold out the House of Blues in New Orleans the last time he played there. The powerful baritone singer’s fourth and latest solo album, The Undertaker in My Rearview Mirror, is arguably his deepest and darkest. A loosely thematic collection of songs with a cautionary “carpe diem” message, it’s a mix of Johnny Cash-influenced Nashville gothic along with artsy, atmospheric rock, including a handful of Ninth House songs radically reinvented as hypnotic, brooding ballads. The quavery wail of Lenny Molotov’s lapsteel seeps from many of them like blood from a corpse; other than Sinnis’ pitchblende vocals, that’s the album’s signature sound. Zach Ingram provides deft, low-key keyboard orchestration on several of the songs, along with Ninth House drummer Francis Xavier, and Matthew Dundas’ incisive, gospel-tinged piano on three tracks.
The title track is a talking blues of sorts, a metaphorically-charged race with a hearse that wryly nicks the melody from Sympathy for the Devil, Molotov weaving back and forth across the yellow line in a duel with former Ninth House guitarist Bernard SanJuan. The angst-ridden Injury Home plays down the bluesiness of the Ninth House original in favor of atmospherics and a nonchalantly slashing Dundas piano solo. Peep Hole in the Wall was a standout track on Ninth House’s 2000 breakout album, Swim in the Silence; the version here is even creepier. Likewise, Cause You Want To takes an balmy wave pop song and makes a dirge out of it, courtesy of Susan Mitchell’s lush string arrangement. The most death-obsessed tracks here are the straight-up country numbers: 100 Years from Now, a voice from beyond the grave, and Sunday Morning Train, which looks grimly at the marble orchard as it passes by (the metaphors don’t stop coming here). Yet the closest thing to Johnny Cash here, a solo acoustic track, is also the most upbeat and optimistic.
With Xavier’s distantly echoey drums and mariachi trumpet, their version of Ghost Riders in the Sky imaginatively recasts it as an apprehensive border ballad. They also redo Merle Travis’ Sixteen Tons as a revenge anthem, with lyrics updated for the new Great Depression, a theme they revisit with the bitter, tango-flavored Hills of Decline. The two most visceral tracks here both feature Randi Russo on vocals: a majestically orchestrated, vertigo-inducing version of Death Song (another Ninth House number) that chillingly pairs off her haunting stoicism against Sinnis’ morbid croon, and the David Lynch-style noir pop duet To Join the Departed in Their Dream. On her new album Fragile Animal, Russo sings with tremendous nuance; her vocals here are nothing short of exquisite.
The album ends with an uncharacteristically lighthearted singalong (lighthearted by comparison to everything else here, anyway), I’ll Have Another Drink of Whiskey, ‘Cause Death Is No So Far Away. A shout-out to Shane MacGowan, it’s a bittersweet enticement to seize the moment while it’s still here, even if that’s only to drink to forget how soon that moment will be gone. It’s also the funniest song Sinnis has ever written: if you can get through the turnaround into the chorus without at least cracking a smile, either you have no sense of humor, or you don’t like to drink. Count this among the increasingly crowded field at the top of our picks for best album of 2011.
One of the few downsides of running a music blog is that concerts become less of a social event: if you’re going to write about them, you need to pay attention. Another downside is that your favorite bands get squeezed out. The freedom to go up to Rodeo Bar on the spur of the moment to see Demolition String Band quickly disappears as the calendar fills up. There’s no shortage of good music in this city, the corporate media couldn’t care less and most of the blogs as well – somebody ought to be paying attention, and that’s where we come in. It’s a big job, and somebody’s got to do it, or at least try to, because that’s where our roots are. We spent our first year chronicling great New York rock bands who were far too scary and intelligent for the bland, conformist Bushwick blogs and the corporate media they imitate. But, predictably, this blog didn’t really take off until we expanded our base and started covering other worthwhile artists who’d built a larger following than the obscure local acts we love so much. However, it’s always a bad thing to forget your roots: humble as ours are, we’re proud of them, and we made it a point to revisit them this past weekend. Big mistake.
Mistake #1 was going to Astoria on a Friday night. It didn’t seem that way in the beginning. Ninth House (whose frontman Mark Sinnis has a ghoulish new acoustic album out and a cd release show Saturday night at Duff’s) were in rare form in the middle of a sleepy residential block at an opulent Greek bar that seems…um…to have an alternate source of income, considering that the only people in the place were the 25 remaining goths in Queens (it was goth night). It’s no secret that this band’s days are numbered: since Sinnis’ solo career has taken off, the band has become more of a side project. They’re not playing any more gigs until the Coney Island rockabilly festival around Labor Day, and then that might be it for them. If so, they had a great run. This show mixed old classics like the swaying, Nashville gothic Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me with a tremendously poignant, restrained version of the big escape anthem Long Stray Whim and newer material like the cynical Fallible Friend, a showcase for guitarist Keith Otten’s surreal, maniacal post-Jimmy Page attack. Never mind that the sound was far from perfect and it was a slow night: they gave 200%, closing with an uncharacteristically lighthearted country drinking song from the new Sinnis solo record that got the crowd singing along (think for a minute about how hard it is to get goths to do anything in unison, let alone raise their voices).
By one in the morning, the place wasn’t exactly hopping, and it was time to head out. And there were no Manhattan-bound trains, which meant a 45-minute trip deep into Queens. Not so bad if you live there, but if it means having to turn around and go back to Manhattan, with two out of three subway lines out of service at this particular station, that’s a dealbreaker. Will we be back? Maybe, but not if it means a three-hour subway ride. Could something as mundane as bad subway service destroy what’s left of good live rock music in New York? You figure it out.
Saturday’s debacle was a different kind of scenario. If you’re in the right mood, Tompkins Square Park is a great place to be on a Saturday, whether for a punk show, or the Charlie Parker Festival. This past Saturday was the Howl Festival, a longrunning annual event in homage to Allen Ginsberg that ignores his NAMBLA affiliation. It’s basically amateur hour. There’s nothing wrong with setting up a neighborhood stage so that friends and neighbors can share songs, but it’s usually not something you would want to see unless you happened to be playing yourself, or have a friend who is. So it was a lot of fun to show up around three and discover a tuneful, hypnotic, psychedelic Afrobeat band onstage who call themselves Timbila (after the Zimbabwean proto-vibraphone that frontwoman Nora Balaban played nimbly and energetically). Singer Louisa Bradshaw joined voices with her for some often otherwordly harmonies, singing in Shona, while guitarist Banning Eyre jangled and tossed off one incisive riff after another over the trancey groove of bassist Dirck Westervelt and drummer Ed Klinger. On one long number, Balaban switched to a mbira (thumb piano) that she’d hooked up to an amp: because it’s tuned to a microtonal scale, the dissonances with the guitar made for some blissfully strange timbres and textures.
Eventually, a couple of neighborhood guys did low-key but inspired versions of an old Fugs song, and a William Blake poem set to a pensive minor-key guitar tune. LJ Murphy was next on the bill. He’s been on our radar since his long-running weekly residency at the old C-Note a couple of blocks east of the park about ten years ago. He’s amazingly charismatic: give this guy an audience, and he delivers. What mot juste would he pull out of his hat in front of this crowd? Nothing, as it turned out. His set was cut back to two songs, the second, Barbwire Playpen a ferociously pun-infused tale of a Wall Street swindler who can’t resist the lure of the dungeoness, “begging to be punished while he’s dancing like a jester,” as the song goes. And then he was off the stage. Their loss.
At least Randi Russo’s show at Matchless the weekend before last was problem-free. One of us first saw her play a songwriters-in-the-round type thing way back in 2000 and was intrigued by her lefthanded guitar style. Seeing her with a band for the first time at the old Luna Lounge that same year, we were absolutely blown away. Since then she’s become one of the endless succession of New York rock acts who’s popular in Europe (her new album Fragile Animal, which we’ve ranked #1 for 2011 ought to go over well there) but plays it pretty low-key here in town, probably because she never fit in with the zeros’ trendoid esthetic (they only like other boys) or with this decade’s doucheoisie invasion (she sounds nothing like Bon Jovi). And the average, intelligent rock music fan thinks to himself or herself: Williamsburg on a Sunday? Trains aren’t running, are they?
But they were running, and she made it worth the effort. From show to show, she thrives on the unexpected: her last show featured a full band, keyboards and two drummers, while this one was just Russo methodically strumming her Gibson SG, and drums. Behind the kit, Josh Fleischmann was just as interesting as she was: watching him build the songs, following and enhancing Russo’s lyrics, crescendos and quieter passages literally phrase by phrase was something you don’t expect to see from a rock drummer (this guy’s very diverse, it turns out). He gave the towering, angst-driven anthem Wonderland a lush bed of cymbals, brought out every bit of the funk in the biting, bitter workingwoman’s anthem Battle on the Periphery and then negotiated the endless tricky time changes of the playful, funky shuffle Parasitic People and made it look easy. And made it easy to forget that the act who’d preceded them was an American Idol wannabe.
And the next band, Bugs in the Dark were great too! Two singers, two guitars and drums. The first song sounded like a haunted Middle Eastern version of Sonic Youth crossed with My Bloody Valentine, with defiant, pissed-off vocals, scorched-earth guitars and gargantuan drums. The second song was more of a dreampop stomp. What a fun discovery they were: so many good bands, so little time to see them all.
The brand-new reissue of Elvis Is Back – a twofer with Presley’s subsequent 1960 album Something for Everybody, plus a whole slew of singles, some of them iconic, some mostly forgotten – is just out from Sony. The argument’s been made that Elvis Is Back was his best album, and that’s not true: he did his best work for Sun, and then in the 70s when he was on autopilot, but with an amazing band behind him ( and the ’68 comeback isn’t bad either). But this period piece – an essential collectors item for the Elvis cult – still oozes energy. Let’s not forget that only two years earlier, his career had been put on hold by racists who were terrified that the era’s best-loved pop culture figure was converting young white people to black music faster than any racist could stop him. So whatever his experiences were in the Army, there’s no doubt that Elvis was glad to be back – and the musicians behind him obviously agreed.
Interestingly, Elvis Is Back is mostly an album of ballads: that they stand up as well as they do fifty years later testifies to how much care and anticipation went into this. The shuffling David Lynchian vibe of Girl Next Door Went a-Walking is still irresistible, and the blues numbers, Reconsider Baby and It Feels So Right foreshadow what would sustain him so effectively throughout the ’68 special. Done with only bass and percussion, his cover of The Fever falls somewhere between the Peggy Lee hit and the Cramps. And Such a Night reminds how much more sophisticated a singer he’d become since he’d first recorded the old Drifters hit in 1954: it’s Elvis and band doing the Rat Pack, right down to the nonchalant exuberance of the drum outro.
That Elvis and the band could have recorded all but one of the dozen tracks on Something for Everybody in one night – or have been subjected to that by the label, considering his artistic status, never mind his value to them – is pretty remarkable. Then again, that was how albums were made in those days. Elvis sounds no worse for the marathon, and the band rises to the occasion as well. The real stunner here is the perfectly Orbisonesque noir pop ballad There’s Always Me, capped off by an unexpectedly explosive outro. Did a teenage Van Dyke Parks play along to the creepy music box piano of It’s a Sin? Did a young Roger McGuinn do the same with the proto folk-pop of Gently? Did the Searchers use the boisterous uptempo guitar blues of Put the Blame on Me as the prototype for an entire career? It would seem so.
To sweeten the pot, there are also a dozen singles included. In hindsight, Fame and Fortune (which Arthur Kent ripped off for Skeeter Davis’ The End of the World) stands out as a dismissal of celebrity that might be far less ironic than it seems. As a blueprint for Mark Sinnis’ Mistaken for Love, Are You Lonesome Tonight takes on a new intensity. And the completely over-the-top tango Surrender, with its James Bond ambience, is impossible to hear without smiling. The rest of the stuff either burned out long ago on oldies radio or never made it that far to begin with. All together, this trip back to a time before autotune is an awful lot of fun.
Since it was impossible to whittle this down to the original 50 we were shooting for, we went for 100 – so much for the canard that the album is dead. As with last year’s list, everything here is in pretty random order. Is Paula Carino’s wounded, lyrical janglerock (#1) any “better” than Bobby Avey’s intense piano jazz (#100)? Who cares? It’s all good. If you want single tracks, here’s our 100 Best Songs of 2010 list.
1. Paula Carino – Open on Sunday
This one tops the list this year because every single song on this moody, pensive, wickedly lyrical janglerock album is good – not a single miss here. It’s been a long time coming. As a lyricist and tunesmith, Carino ranks with Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson, a great wit, fearless nonconformist and unaffectedly compelling singer.
2. Ran Blake and Sara Serpa – Camera Obscura
Serpa, a sometimes chillingly intense third-stream composer and singer, is a protegee of Blake, the preeminent noir jazz pianist of the last fifty years. Their collaboration is fascinatingly unpredictable: when it comes to longing and angst, they don’t disappoint.
3. Norden Bombsight – Pinto
Intense and often unhinged, the Brooklyn band’s darkly psychedelic art-rock blends 70s orchestrated rock influences with macabre goth tinges and the occasional Americana theme. Frontwoman/keyboardist/electric mandolinist Rachael Bell’s savage wail brings the intensity to redline.
4. Sarah Manning – Dandelion Clock
Haunting, intensely lyrical, sometimes anguished jazz concept album – about the fleeting nature of time – from this brilliant alto saxophonist/composer and her quartet with Art Hirahara, Linda Oh and Kyle Struve.
5. The NYFA Collection
A massive five-cd box set that aims to be a definitive history of edgy avant garde music and jazz in New York that succeeds amazingly well: it’s the new music equivalent of the Harry Smith albums. Too many artists here to list: see our review from November.
6. Redhooker – Vespers
Hypnotic, ambient soundscapes and pensive avant-chamber instrumentals from Stephen Griesgraber’s marvelously shapeshifting new music ensemble.
7. The Roots of Chicha 2 anthology
It’s the Rosetta Stone of classic psychedelic Peruvian cumbia-rock from the 70s and 80s, a wildly entertaining blend of instrumentals, dance songs, twangy guitar and rhythms from just about everywhere south of the border.
8. The Tivoli Trio’s first album
Jazz pianist Frank Carlberg’s phantasmagorical, carnivalesque, often macabre trio project.
9. Las Rubias del Norte – Ziguala
Surreal, otherworldly and mysterious with gorgeous harmonies and a global mix of songs with latin, Bollywood and Mexican influences, it’s the Brooklyn band’s best album – in a lot of ways, it’s the great album Chicha Libre didn’t put out this year, plus vocals.
10. The Snow – I Die Every Night
Intense, smartly lyrical, alternately lush and sensuous art-rock and chamber pop from Pierre de Gaillande and Hilary Downes’ eclectic New York band.
11. The New Collisions – The Optimist
The Boston new wavers’ dark, brilliantly lyrical shift into straight-ahead powerpop.
13. Botanica – Who You Are
This era’s foremost art-rock band’s most diverse and ultimately most optimistic album, but where frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch went further toward psychedelia and soul, guitarist John Andrews picked up with an ominous, reverb-drenched, Beatlesque roar.
14. Bad Reputation: Pierre de Gaillande Sings Georges Brassens
The first full-length English-language album of songs by legendary French songwriter Brassens is as potent and obscenely hilarious as his own work.
15. Thomas Simon – Moncao
Another album of swirling cinematic soundscapes, these with more of a guitar-driven, apocalyptic goth menace.
16. The Larch – Larix Americana
Finally, the classic album these Brooklyn new wave throwbacks always hinted they had in them: an especially tuneful, gleefully sung, ferociously lyrical and funny one.
17. The Jack Grace Band – Drinking Songs for Lovers
A country concept album that needed to be written, and it’s a good thing this wry honkytonk baritone crooner and his oldschool 60s-style band were the ones to do it. Drinks for breakfast; birthday drinking; drinking at the racetrack, and drunk parents are just some of the topics covered on this crazed, hilarious album. There should be a Jack Grace Band drinking game.
18. Bassam Saba – Wonderful Land
A tribute to the multi-instrumentalist composer’s native Lebanon, it’s a characteristically lush, diverse album with influences that range from classic Egyptian anthems to western baroque composition.
19. Elvis Costello – National Ransom
This is the one album on this list that we didn’t review, because we figured you already knew about it. No? It’s a double album with his most recent band, Americana rockers The Sugarcanes, and it’s one of the best things he’s ever done.
20. The Marc Cary Focus Trio – Live 2009
Dark, magisterial, hypnotic and haunting, it captures one of the most powerfully melodic, interesting jazz pianists of this era at the top of his game.
22. Cousin Silas – Canaveral Dreams
Yorkshire’s most evocative soundscape composer offers an often terrifyingly allusive collection of electroacoustic tableaux here; his latest one Adrift Off the Isles of Langerhans promises to be just as good.
23. Tris McCall – Let the Night Fall
Richly lyrical, uneasy New Jersey-themed concept album by the Overlord keyboardist: a vivid, understatedly angst-driven portrayal of stripmall hell by someone who’s lived it.
24. Ben Syversen’s Cracked Vessel’s first album
The highly sought-after Balkan trumpeter also leads this scorching, assaultive, aggressive trumpet-and-guitar noiserock/avant jazz band – it’s a wild ride.
25. Katzenjammer – Le Pop
Edgy, biting, satirical noir cabaret and new wave-inflected accordion rock from this wildly popular all-female Norwegian quartet.
26. Natacha Atlas – Mounqaliba
A biting, haunting, richly melodic look at the state of the world, another classic-style Levantine art-song masterpiece by one of this era’s most socially aware artists.
27. Under Byen – Alt Er Tabt
Stark, intense, moody chamber-rock from this ethereal Danish band.
28. Ted Hearne – Katrina Ballads
Sort of like the Dead Kennedys for chamber orchestra. It’s a cerebral, brutally honest, often brutally funny depiction of the early days of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, with songs incorporating art-rock, avant-garde chamber music and jazz.
30. Patricia Vonne – Worth It
The Texas Americana rock chanteuse’s most diverse album blends anthemic, characteristically lyrical janglerock with a brooding southwestern gothic vibe.
31. My Education – Sunrise
Bracingly ambient, reverb-drenched guitar soundscapes in a Mogwai vein from this excellent Texas post-rock crew.
32. Gaida – Levantine Indulgence
Slinky ballads and instrumentals drawing on Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian influences by the New York-based chanteuse and her excellent group.
33. Liz Tormes – Limelight
Smoldering, venomous, lyrical Nashville gothic songwriting by the New York noir songwriter with a great band behind her. If revenge songs are your thing, nobody writes them better than Liz Tormes.
34. Little Annie and Paul Wallfisch – Genderful
The noir cabaret legend and her reliable cohort, Botanica frontman Wallfisch team up for a characteristically haunting yet often very funny album, their best together.
35. Fernando Otero – Vital
Intense, dark solo piano compositions from the eclectic Argentinian composer.
36. Brooklyn Rider – Dominant Curve
The adventurous string quartet’s tribute to Debussy, including his string quartet along with pieces by Colin Jacobsen, Kojiro Umezaki, Dmitry Yanov-Yanovsky and Justin Messina.
37. Avi Fox-Rosen – Welcome to the Show
Smart, sardonically timely concept album for the new depression by the eclectic Brooklyn guitarist/songwriter and his funky, artsy, Steely Dan-ish band.
38. Either/Orchestra – Mood Music for Time Travellers
Witty, virtuosically cinematic Ethiopian-flavored big band jazz, the playful large ensemble’s first album in close to a decade.
39. The Rough Guide to Arabic Lounge compilation
An eclectic mix of cutting-edge pop, classical and cabaret from around the Middle East…but no lounge music.
40. Bobtown’s first album
With their lush, beautiful four-part harmonies, stark, clever melodies that blend old time chain gang songs, bluegrass and blues and macabre sensibility, Bobtown established themselves as one of the most original bands in Americana.
41. The Mingus Big Band – Live at Jazz Standard
Allowing this album on this list is just plain unfair. It’s an ecstatic New Year’s Eve show by some of New York’s best jazz players, a wall-to-wall collection of Mingus classics, mostly from the late 50s Mingus Mingus Mingus era.
42. Newspeak – Sweet Light Crude
Potent and politically aware third-stream music that matches Lynchian ambience to depressed Michigan autoland and covers Missy Mazzoli with a vivid, hypnotic swirl.
43. The Universal Thump – First Spout
Art-rock composer/pianist Greta Gertler’s irrepressible, unpredictable sensibility has never been more potent or tunefully in effect than she is here – and the album isn’t even done yet.
44. Annabouboula – Immortal Water
Slinky, psychedelic Greek rock with Greek, Turkish, reggae and trip-hop music.
45. Krista Detor – Chocolate Paper Suites
Some lists consider this a 2009 release (to be fair, we’ve snuck a few others from late in that year onto this list – hey, a good album is a good album). Either way, it’s a torrent of pensive lyrics delivered with Detor’s eerie calm and eclectic sense of melody.
46. Ninth House – 11 Cemetery & Western Classics
Eleven years after they began, who would have thought that New York-based Nashville gothic rockers’ best album would come out in 2010, after a flurry of lineup changes and stylistic shifts? It may be their loudest and most intense one yet.
47. Klezwoods’ first album
Ostensibly this is klezmer, but violinist Joe Kessler’s big band plays music from every corner of the former Ottoman Empire, with wit and intensity.
48. Khaira Arby – Timbuktu Tarab
An innovative, fearlessly feminist mix of desert blues, art-rock, afrobeat and psychedelia by the pioneering Malian desert blues diva.
49. Vieux Farka Toure – Live
About time the Malian guitar god (Ali Farka Toure’s oldest kid) made a live album – it’s sort of like an African Albert Collins record, all chilly sonics and lightning riffage but no wasted notes, just raw adrenaline.
50. Robin Aigner – Bandito
Aigner gets props for her sultry, soaring vocals, but she’s also a tremendously witty songwriter with a smart sense of history, a love for sly innuendo and purist taste in Americana and oldtimey songwriting.
51. John Sheppard: Media Vita – Stile Antico
A mammoth collection of otherworldly, death-obsessed Renaissance vocal works by the hardworking, wildly popular self-directed UK choral group.
52. Tarbaby – An End to Fear
One of the most unbelievably tuneful jazz albums of the year – and a powerfully socially aware one too. Pianist Orrin Evans is on the hook for a lot of this, along with
bassist Eric Revis, drummer Nasheet Waits plus the estimable JD Allen on tenor. They cover the Bad Brains and give a shout-out to the Jena Six.
53. Brass Menazeri – Vranjski San
Fiery Balkan brass dance tunes and anthems from this Bay Area crew.
54. Changing Modes – Here
Artsy, smartly lyrical somewhat retro 80s rock that ranges from snarling punk to creepy, goth-tinged songs: if this album came out 25 years ago, it would be regarded as a cult classic today.
55. Kasey Anderson – Nowhere Nights
Snarling, Steve Earle-style lyrical Americana rock. Anderson’s forthcoming 2011 album Heart of a Dog goes in an even harder-rocking direction.
56. Abaji – Origine Orients
The multi-instrumentalist and instrument inventor’s latest eclectic collection draws on Middle Eastern, Greek, and gypsy music as well as Americana.
57. Marianne Dissard – Paris One Takes
A brilliant way to build a fan base: edgy,world-weary, amusingly lyrical French rocker Dissard offers this one as a free download. It’s one of the funnest albums of the year – even if you don’t speak French.
58. Copal – Into the Shadow Garden
Slinky, hypnotic, original Middle Eastern and gypsy-tinged violin-and-cello world music dancefloor vamps from the most original groove band on the planet.
59. The Spy from Cairo – Secretly Famous
Hypnotic, psychedelic dub-flavored Middle Eastern instrumentals, many with a trip-hop feel.
60. El Pueblo – Isla
Warmly hypnotic and psychedelic, this has to be the most diverse roots reggae album released in awhile – the Brooklyn band have more dubwise styles than you can count.
61. The One and Nines’ first album
Sultry oldschool Memphis style soul from these New Jersey revivalists: what Sharon Jones did for Harlem, these guys (and their fearless frontwoman Vera Sousa) are doing for a more southern soul sound.
62. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba – I Speak Fula
Hypnotic, diverse anthems and ballads from the Malian lute virtuoso and his desert blues-style band.
63. Fishtank Ensemble – Woman in Sin
Raucous original gypsy music taken to the next level with jazz and Middle Eastern influences, with a frontwoman whose vocal wail and theremin are hard to tell apart.
64. Benjamin Herman – Hypochristmastreefuzz (More Mengelberg)
Don’t let the silly title scare you away – this wild, psychedelic, surfy jazz album covers some of famous Dutch jazz composer Misha Mengelberg’s most memorable tracks.
65. The Rough Guide to Desert Blues anthology
At the risk of giving you too many of these, it was a good year for the Rough Guides: this has all the usual suspects (Etran Finatawa, Ali Farka Toure and Tinariwen) but also a ton of obscure brilliant cuts by Marien Hassan, Tartit, Malouma and Tamikrest.
66. The Sometime Boys – Any Day Now
The debut of the acoustic Americana side project by the brain trust from artsy, powerful rockers System Noise is funky, virtuosic and tuneful with some of frontwoman Sarah Mucho’s most compelling vocals ever.
67. Mostly Other People Do the Killing – Forty Fort
A clever, often hilarious whirlwind of postbop quotes and japes from these self-styled “bebop terrorists,” with some of the funniest liner notes ever courtesy of nonagenarian jazz know-it-all “Leonardo Featherweight.”
68. The Dither Guitar Quartet’s first album
Swirling psychedelic avant garde dreampop instrumentals by five cutting-edge composers: layers and layers and layers of screaming, atmospheric, reverb-toned menace and whisper.
69. The Cookers – Warriors
Deliciously tuneful, inspired 1960s style postbop jazz from a bunch of vets: Billy Harper, Craig Handy, Cecil McBee, George Cables, Billy Hart, Eddie Henderson and David Weiss.
70. The Debutante Hour – The Birth and Death of Meaning
Quirky, fun, harmonically beautiful oldtimey sounds with cleverly amusing lyrics from this sultry all-female Brooklyn trio.
71. Mark Sinnis – The Night’s Last Tomorrow
Arguably the finest and most diverse effort to date from the ominous baritone frontman of Nashville gothic rockers Ninth House, ranging from noir cabaret to dark blues to country. He’s the guy that Voltaire ripped off.
72. Bryan and the Haggards – Pretend It’s the End of the World
Outsider or mostly outside jazz guys (Bryan Murray, Jon Irabagon, Jon Lundbom, Moppa Elliott, Danny Fischer) cover Merle Haggard. As absurd and cruelly funny as you would expect.
73. The City Champs – The Set-Up
Like a more diverse, cinematic, noir Booker T & the MGs, the Memphis organ instrumental trio offer a psychedelic yet danceable collection of grooves.
75. Black 47 – Bankers and Gangsters
Larry Kirwan never runs out of ideas, never gets stale. We ranked these Irish-American legends’ 2008 album Iraq as that year’s best; this depression-themed one is just as tuneful, wittily perceptive and anthemic.
76. Ken Fowser & Behn Gillece – Little Echo
Torchy, period-perfect late 50s style vibraphone jazz. It ought to be the soundtrack for Mad Men’s next few seasons, if the show lasts that long. Unselfconsciously sexy stuff.
77. The Pre-War Ponies – Introducing the Pre-War Ponies
Daria Grace, their frontwoman and baritone uke player, is one of the most casually compelling, sultry voices in oldtimey and Americana music. This is her charming, unselfconsciously romantic 20s/30s project where she covers all kinds of great obscure period pieces.
78. Gato Libre – Shiro
Quietly tuneful Japanese gypsy jazz-flavored tunes from pianist Satoko Fujii’s obscure accordion project – like one of those great bands that only plays Barbes once every couple of months.
79. Thunderball – 12 Mile High
Spinning with layers of dub-inspired keys, guitars and effects, their cinematic instrumentals are trippy beyond belief, and funny too.
80. Comic Wow – Music for Mysteries of Mind Space and Time
We’re sticking all the psychedelic stuff here for lack of a better place to put it. Some of this you might call dubstep, some is cinematic, some is funky, some is disco. Either way it’s insanely layered, insanely good stoner music.
81. The Smiles and Frowns’ first album
Period-perfect: these guys sound like they stepped out of a Top of the Pops performance alongside the Pretty Things and Electric Prunes, 1968. Whatever they’re smoking out in Arizona where this band is from seems to be working just fine.
82. Jeremy Messersmith – The Reluctant Graveyard
File this under psychedelic pop, with a goth touch – it’s nothing if not original. Clever lyricist, solid powerpop tunes, a 60s fascination that’s not cheesy – he saved that for his Star Wars song.
83. Flugente – Flugente 2
A guy after our own heart: the once-and-future Blam frontman hates gentrification, despises yuppies and trendoids and has the lyrical chops to give his somewhat Leonard Cohen-esque acoustic rants an original, witheringly funny edge.
84. Jim Guttmann – Bessarabian Breakdown
Joyously and often darkly eclectic klezmer themes and dances from the Klezmer Conservatory Band’s bassist.
85. Very Be Careful – Escape Room
We don’t usually pay attention to bloggers who can’t write, but one of them actually complained about how loud the accordion on these wild LA cumbia punks’ album is. Reason enough for us to put it on the list.
86. The Ellen Rowe Quartet – Wishing Well
Lush, plaintive, beautifully lyrical jazz from the pianist/composer and her inspired band including several memorable Ingrid Jensen cameos.
87. The Whispering Tree – Go Call the Captain
These folks really love 6/8 time, and it works for them, through an uncommonly smart mix of uneasy acoustic Nashville gothic and Appalachian-tinged ballads.
88. Razia – Zebu Nation
Eclectic rock, Afrobeat, jazz-tinged ballads and Mediterranean-style songwriting from the Malagasy chanteuse and her band.
89. Phil Sargent – A New Day
We love albums like this, that transcend boundaries and push the envelope. Guitarist Sargent, backed by a rhythm section and Aubrey Johnson supplying vocalese, runs from motorway ambience to roaring metal/art-rock and pensive jazz instrumentals.
90. Bern & the Brights – Swing Shift Maisies
Lush yet austere: art-rock with indie production values, but which actually enhance the violin-fueled bite of the surprisingly complex, counterintuitive songs.
91. Jacam Manricks – Trigonometry
Bad title, great album. The alto saxophonist’s previous album was all about lush, gorgeous charts and tunes; this one’s about great playing – with more of those tunes, albeit somewhat more stripped down.
92. Alma Afrobeat Ensemble – Toubab Soul
This is one of the most amazingly melodic, memorable albums of the year even though most of these instrumentals are basically one-chord jams! Lush, hypnotic, often fiery Ethiopian-influenced grooves from this smart Barcelona-based group.
93. Jay Banerjee – “Ban-er-jee,” Just Like It’s Spelled
Like a lo-fi Byrds, the impresario behind NYC’s best rock event, Hipster Demolition Night airs out his bag of catchy, retro 60s Rickenbacker 12-string janglerock licks and savagely satirical lyrics.
94. Debo Band – Flamingoh (Pink Bird Dawn)
The Boston-based Ethiopian dance band’s debut ep – a deliriously fun live recording made on tour in Africa – would be further up this list if it was longer. Which it will be soon – watch this space.
95. Spanglish Fly – Latin Soul y Bugalú
Their debut ep is a throwback to Spanish Harlem circa 1965 or 1966, a blend of oldschool retro soul and oldschool retro salsa – think Joe Cuba but with better production values. Plus you can dance to this like crazy.
96. Jason Robinson and Anthony Davis – Cerulean Landscape
This is about as bluesy as Shostakovich, but it’s gorgeously melodic, with all kinds of interplay between the adventurous, eclectic saxophonist (who stays within himself pretty much here) and the glimmering third-stream piano titan.
97. Denis Matsuev/Valery Gergiev/Mariinsky Orchestra – Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.3./Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
How do you resist putting a recording this robust of two of the iconic late Romantic masterpieces on a Best Albums list? Answer: you don’t.
98. Magnifico – Magnification
Stagy, wry, tongue-in-cheek, sometimes over-the-top Balkan dancefloor madness. He satirizes dumb American culture, and fascist Balkan dictator types, and gets away with it because everybody loves it and it’s so psychedelically tuneful.
99. The Joel Yennior Trio – Big City Circus
Either/Orchestra’s trombone guy’s alternately retro and rather chillingly noir small-combo debut – check out the righteously wrathful suite Justice Lost.
100. The Bobby Avey Trio – A New Face
On one level, it kills us to put such a great album – magisterial, frequently murky modal jazz piano from one of the best up-and-coming players out there – at #100. Then again, a lot of people scroll all the way to the bottom. And he doesn’t need the press from us anyway.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #783:
Mark Sinnis – The Night’s Last Tomorrow
As the leader of dark, artsy Nashville gothic rockers Ninth House, Mark Sinnis and his ominous baritone have been a forceful presence in the New York music underground since the late 90s. Lately, he’s been devoting as much time to his solo acoustic project, most fully realized with this one, his third solo release, from early 2010. It’s an obscure treasure and it’s probably the best thing he’s ever recorded with any group. This one mixes brand new tracks with a couple of radically reworked Ninth House songs and classic covers. 15 Miles to Hell’s Gate, a not-so-thinly veiled requiem for a New York lost at least for the moment to gentrifiers and class tourists, is a stampeding rockabilly number just a little quieter than the Ninth House version. Likewise, the lyrically rich Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me (which made our Alltime Best 666 Songs list) doesn’t vary much from the original, although the Cure-inflected Quiet Change is….um, quite a change. With a new last verse, Sinnis’ version of Gloomy Sunday leaves no doubt that it’s a suicide song. Likewise, the cover of St. James Infirmary is definitely an obituary, although the Sisters of Mercy’s Nine While Nine is a lot more upbeat, a vividly brooding train station vignette. The catchy, rustically swaying Skeletons and the downright morbid, Johnny Cash-inspired In Harmony wind it up. This is one of those albums that’s too obscure to have made it to the usual share sites, although it is available at shows and at cdbaby.
This is sort of our weekly, Kasey Kasem-inspired luddite DIY version of a podcast. Every week, we try to mix it up, offer a little something for everyone: sad songs, funny songs, upbeat songs, quieter stuff, you name it. We’ve designed this as something you can do on your lunch break if you work at a computer (and you have headphones – your boss won’t approve of a lot of this stuff). If you don’t like one of these songs, you can always go on to the next one: every link here (except for #1 this week) will take you to each individual song. As always, the #1 song here will appear on our Best Songs of 2010 list at the end of the year.
1. Klezwoods – Cuperlika
Centerpiece of the Balkan/klezmer/Middle Eastern band’s titanicallly good new cd Oy Yeah. Put it up on the web somewhere guys, you’ll sell a lot more records!
2. Serena Jost – Stay
Characteristically stark and compelling solo cello art-rock song from her forthcoming cd.
3. Band of Outsiders – Graveyard
Absolutely off the hook post-Velvets guitar madness, live at the Parkside this year. They’re at Bowery Electric on 9/23 at 10 opening for Richard Lloyd.
4. Ninth House – Down Beneath
Frontman Mark Sinnis was making this video in a cemetery in upstate New York when he noticed that the seemingly random grave he’d chosen to lie on belonged to one Mary Ann Larson, who died on Sinnis’ birthday in 1853. Coincidence? The band play the cd release show for their new one on 9/24 at at UC 87 Lounge, 87 Ludlow St. at 11.
5. Amy Bezunartea – Doubles
Hang with this – it’s worth your 3 minutes. Not your average girl with acoustic guitar, described by her label (Jennifer O’Connor’s project Kiam) as “kind of Joni meets Magnetic Fields” but better. Free download.
6. Zikrayat – Ish-Showq Mihayyarni
Classic obscure 50s Egyptian film music from the movie ‘Aziza’ starring Naima Akif, live at Galapagos last year. The song starts about 1:20 into the clip. They’re at Moustache (Lex and 102nd) at 8 PM on 9/24.
7. The Poludaktulos Orchestra – Rajkos
Brass band intensity – the missing link between Greece and Serbia, with Klezwoods’ amazing guitarist.
8. Gertrude Michael – Sweet Marijuana
Via night of the purple moon – precode movie music from 1934.
9. Amanda Thorpe – River Song
The dodgy sound reflects the crappy venue this was recorded at, but Thorpe’s voice transcends it – a classic that sounds as good as it did a couple of years ago.
10. Los Incas Modernos – Terremoto
An early Peruvian surf band – you can get lost in this stuff on youtube.
Long-running New York rockers Ninth House have been through as many incarnations as David Bowie or Madonna. Over the last decade, they’ve played ornate goth-tinged art-rock, straight-up punk, rockabilly, and even went through a brief jamband phase. Their new album 11 Cemetery & Western Classics finds them digging deep into frontman/bassist Mark Sinnis’ signature Nashville gothic songwriting style, and they’ve never sounded better: track for track, this is the best thing they’ve ever done. It’s a welcome return to the hard-hitting, stripped-down sound they first mined as a three-piece over ten years ago, with the added advantage of now having former Gotham Four frontman Keith Otten on guitar. He’s the best lead player you’ve never heard of, ripping through one intense, fire-and-brimstone solo after another, yet also just as likely to toss off a tongue-in-cheek rockabilly riff or poignant, plaintive washes of sound if a song calls for it, over the rumble and swing of Sinnis and drummer Francis Xavier.
They kick it off angry and bitter with Fifteen Miles to Hell’s Gate – “From New York City, the one that drags me into a hole,” Sinnis rages in between Otten’s alternately sparse and anguished leads. The relentless, doomed, pulsing Funeral for Your Mind features one of the most spine-tingling solos on any rock record this year; the fatalistic, tango-inflected Fallible Friend has a trumpet section that adds a spaghetti western feel, Otten’s savage, sardonic guitar a perfect complement to Sinnis’ cynical lyric. Otten’s countrypolitan guitar blends warmly with Susan Mitchell’s rustic, pastoral violin on the swinging Nashville gothic anthem The Room Filled Beyond Your Door, while When the Light Blinds and You Die takes a gospel melody and imbues it with suspenseful Steve Wynn-style psychedelic atmospherics.
A couple of tracks here date from the band’s landmark 2000 album Swim in the Silence. The Head on the Door-era Cure-style pop of Down Beneath is more swinging and carefree than the original, while Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me, a genuine classic the first time around, trades lush 80s ambience for a raw, wounded intensity.
The album also includes a couple of covers: Lost Highway owes more to the Psychedelic Furs than it does Hank Williams, Mitchell adding unexpected flair with her violin, while guest pianist Matt Dundas gives a honkytonk edge to the Social Distortion-style stomp of Johnny Cash’s Blue Train. The album ends on a high note – as high a note as a song this morbid can hit, anyway – with the chaotic, sprawling country ballad 100 Years from Now, Sinnis announcing that when his time is up, he wants to be buried with a bottle of whiskey. Ninth House play the cd release show for this one on Sept 24 at midnight at UC 87 Lounge, 87 Ludlow St. between Delancey and Broome with free admission before 11.
Plaintive, moody and often downright haunting, the Whispering Tree’s new cd Go Call the Captain is a strong contender for best debut album of the year. Pianist/frontwoman Eleanor Kleiner’s wary, pensive, unadorned voice makes a potent vehicle for their gothic Americana songs. Many of them are in stately 6/8 time, spaciously and tersely arranged with keyboards, guitar and frequent orchestral flourishes. The title track starts out as a plaintive Applachian ballad but quickly grows to a towering art-rock anthem:
False prophets, liars and thieves rule the world…
Pull the veil down over our eyes
While we frantically follow behind
I’d rather be lost than led by the blind
And unlike a lot of the songs here, it ends on an upbeat note. “We can rule the world,” Kleiner asserts, if we overthrow these monsters. Claustrophobia pervades much of what’s here, both metaphorical and literal, on the fast, oldtimey swing shuffle So Many Things – which Kleiner would gladly toss out the window, to watch them smash on the street and destroy all the memories attached to them – and The Tallest, which laments being surrounded by “rooftops stretching as far as the eye can see.” The bitter ballad Las Vegas has Yoed Nir’s cello combining with Thad Debrock’s pedal steel and Elie Brangbour’s incisive guitar for a bracing, uneasy undercurrent, and maybe the most haunting honkytonk piano solo ever. “Those colored lights they hypnotize,” Kleiner warns.
The late-summer ominousness of Something Might Happen is visceral, crescendoing with a biting guitar solo. The angst reaches breaking point on Soon, the darkest and most intense track here, Kleiner going as high and distressed as she can, the band taking it down and then back up again with a searing, psychedelic interlude. There’s also a pensive, slow number spiced with Beth Meyers’ plaintive violin, a surprisingly jaunty mandolin tune and the apocalyptic closing track, Washed Ashore. Fans of the Handsome Family, Nick Cave, Liz Tormes and Mark Sinnis owe it to themselves to get to know the Whispering Tree.