The best of New Zealand music 2009

20:35, Dec 21 2009

I love New Zealand music. But I hate the genre-name/allocation "New Zealand Music". I think for the music to truly stand up and be counted it must be considered against the rest of the world.

We fall into describing things as "really good - for a New Zealand album", unaware that it's the ultimate backhanded compliment. We're basically saying that the album wouldn't get released elsewhere, wouldn't see the hype elsewhere - but we'd better accept it because it's a Kiwi release. And we're Kiwis!

Say anything bad about a Kiwi album - especially one that a record company is spending a lot of money on - and you get accused of Tall Poppy Syndrome.

This will then usually go on to calls for a reviewer who is objective. This is absurd; reviews should not - by their very nature - be objective. Of course they are one person's opinion.

And we have been over and around this subject a few times here at Blog on the Tracks.

And the wider subject of New Zealand music has been discussed a great deal too. For the month of May I posted something about New Zealand music - an interview, a review, a discussion, a gig preview - every day. It felt good to focus on the disparate vestiges: to explore the obvious stuff, to peel back a layer and look at some older things and of course to address the obvious material.


I have been asked to put together Best of 2009 lists for a few publications/programmes - you will be able to hear a radio show where I debate the best and worst of 09 with Grant Smithies from The Sunday Star Times. And it was during the making of a list for that programme (which we used as a guide) that I realised I could easily make a Top 10 list of the year that was all Kiwi music. Not just a Kiwi Top 10 - that would be easy. But a Top 10 that happened to be all-Kiwi. In the end my list had about six NZ artists on it because I couldn't make a gimmick-list of all New Zealand music; it would not be quite true. There were several international artists that made albums I adored in 2009. Some of them didn't even end up on my year-list, even though should have. An example is Lee Fields & The Expressions' My World.

That's one of the problems with lists - you forget. But I guess a bonus of lists is that after you have made them you remember!

There are also triggers from other people. I start a list here and it triggers some of you to create a list. Your lists then remind me of things I have been listening to...our lists combine; our lists help us.

Grant Smithies' list helped me. We did not look at the best-of lists we'd compiled. He had a Top 10 and I had one. We had two albums that we both listed. Both were Kiwi albums. Discussion of them triggered comments from me about other albums I had picked - and of course from Grant about albums he had picked. It was a good chat - and hopefully it'll be edited down to a decent programme which you'll be able to hear as part of the Summer Edition for Music 101 on Radio NZ National.

Anyway - since recording that conversation, I have thought of loads of other albums I could have mentioned; both from NZ and from abroad. I should point out that when we discussed the worst things in 2009, musically, we both homed in on two Kiwi artists too. The same two. That was kinda interesting.

I have - apparently - been critical of a lot of New Zealand music this year. I know this because the people who do not read every blog-post - the ones who would never read an interview with Phil Judd or for that matter with David Dallas - tell me I am out of line for calling it how I see it when it comes to Fat Freddy's Drop's boring live sound.

Barnaby Weir from The Black Seeds was very unhappy when I reviewed Homegrown. Of course I am going to give my opinion on his band as part of that show - that's my job. He's probably a nice guy - I don't know, haven't met him - but if I think he writes terrible lyrics (which I do) then it is my job to say it (and I did).

You pick on The Black Seeds and Fat Freddy's Drop and you have a sizable portion of people going against you. This was fine for me as I tend to be not that interested in BBQs so haven't run into many of the fans of these bands.

But I was also critical of Flight of the Conchords twice. (See here and here.) And everyone likes them!

I too like the best of the Conchords; I would have thought that came across in the writing. But I've learned doing this - blogging - that people only read what they want to read.

So - here we are at the end of 2009. And I still have no issue writing that I love a lot of NZ music. And that I have liked more NZ music this year than I have disliked. I have also liked more NZ music this year than any year for the last decade (although I'm only guessing there). I guess I find it amusing in the wake of some of the grief I have been given for writing some of the posts here at Blog on the Tracks. Understand, I don't mind being given grief. It's part of the job - I really like seeing that people are passionate about music - even if, as is the case with so many John Mayer fans, it happens to be a little misguided.

I am going to give you a list of New Zealand albums that I loved this year. And I want to stress that I loved them because they were filled with great music - not because they were from NZ. That was a bonus - or maybe even an afterthought?

But first, I just have to stress that I really hated Midnight Youth - as I said here. Their record company pretty much stopped sending me material after I wrote about Midnight Youth. Obviously it was their pet project for the year and they couldn't see that me saying negative things about the band - especially in a forum where fans could write in and defend their favourite group - could be as useful for the band's sales/music as someone raving about the act.

I also hated Gin Wigmore - as I said here. Fortunately her record company didn't care. They continued to send me CDs because they were able to see that they didn't actually make the album, they just promoted it. They also - possibly - recognised that me having a rage against their machine might actually promote sales, or it wouldn't matter to them. They knew that I also raved about some of their acts - and I guess they took the good with the bad.

So what did I like this year from our shaky isles?

Well - I didn't mind the second Fat Freddy's Drop album - but in New Zealand once you have said one bad thing about a band you are expected to always have that opinion. Right?

I loved the album by An Emerald City - you can read the review here.

Other favourites included Rhian Sheehan's Standing in Silence (a masterpiece of textural sound as far as I am concerned). His show - previewed here - was superb. I was baffled to read the Festival of the Arts Programme and not see his name; I was convinced they would be aware of what he was producing as a one-off and want to have it repeated for their programme. Oh well, their loss.

Jan Hellriegel released a brand new album this year. Her first in a while. I felt like an early champion of this album - getting to hear it before it was released. And getting to interview Jan also. I love her All Grown Up; it's an album of brilliant songs.

Sam Hunt released an album with David Kilgour. I was lucky to interview Sam (click here). The album, Falling Debris, is amazing; it was like the best of what both Hunt and Kilgour can do - with each of them bowing down to and celebrating the other's strengths. Using their own strengths of course to achieve this.

Kilgour had a great year when you consider The Clean album, Mister Pop. This is one of my favourites of the year - making a late play for my album of the year. I bought the LP version (as with Fat Freddy's Drop and An Emerald City I love that NZ albums are, in some cases, available on vinyl again).

Recently I looked at the Chris Knox tribute album Stroke - you would have to call it a New Zealand album given that the songs were written by a New Zealander, right? It deserves a position on the list of best albums of 2009. And that's a position that's not given lightly.

James Duncan's Hello-Fi is also very close to being my album of the year; making a late play also, as I'm revisiting it a lot lately. James was so giving of his time when I interviewed him for Blog on the Tracks. And I think he is one of New Zealand's greatest up-and-comers.

I'm not alone in raving about Lawrence Arabia's Chant Darling - and again I appreciate his time (click here for the interview) and just the other week really enjoyed his recent tour. He's one of our best new songwriters.

The Rosy Tin Teacaddy album is a gem - one that rewards repeated listens. And again - I have to thank them for their time, but this time for interviewing themselves here at Blog on the Tracks.

There are so many Kiwi albums I have loved - another is Ed Cake as Ed Pie with his Pie Warmer album. I also was lucky to interview Ed (but I won't link to it; because I don't want to give off the impression that I only liked albums by Kiwi acts I got to interview). In fact that was not the case. I wanted to like the David Dallas album - and he was a nice guy to chat to, but I didn't really dig his album.

In terms of local hip-hop, though, I did really like PNC's Bazooka Kid - a great album. Very clever. But that probably doesn't matter. I wrote this and that resulted in me not getting any more work - ever - for Rip It Up. Once you annoy the hip-hop crowd you're done. Oh well. I'd rather tell my version of the truth than play suck-up.

Grant Smithies reminded me of the albums this year by Dimmer (see here) and Bachelorette (here). It was good to be reminded - I have to admit the Dimmer album didn't grab me quite like the last one did, but I still really liked it. Shayne Carter has been on a roll. But the Bachelorette album was one I did really love.

New Zealand music has figured big time here at Blog on the Tracks - the old and the new. I feel very lucky to have talked to some of our greatest musicians - it was my great thrill to bring readers the Phil Judd interview. And then to hear Tim Finn's side of things.

I was thrilled to finally get to interview Dave Dobbyn. I hope to one day write his biography.

Both Tim Finn and Dave Dobbyn released great double-CD anthologies this year also.

And I enjoyed liaising with Anika Moa so that she could interview herself for this blog. The other guest blog with a Kiwi music connection that I was very pleased to bring to readers was the piece by Roger Shepherd of Flying Nun fame.

Yep, 2009 has been a special year in New Zealand music for me. I hated some of the key releases. I cut some tall poppies. So what? I listened - I said what I thought. I gave credit where I thought it was due. What more do you want?  Rip It Up, Real Groove and New Zealand Musician can only give you a version of the truth.

So all I did was give you my version of it.

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