2013's best music: Hottest sounds around
Grant Smithies honours the year's best albums . . . and one that really wasn't worth the hype.
Opening track The Sing sees this Maryland singer contemplating loneliness in a bar, his laconic baritone delivering such priceless lines as "The only words I said today were ‘beer' and ‘thank you'." Elsewhere he notes that "mountains don't need my accolades", pondering his own insignificance against the majesty of nature over a swirl of flutes and pattering congas. Languid, cinematic, weary and wise, with pitch-black humour offsetting yearning melancholia, Dream River affirms Callahan as a master of using simple language to reveal profound truths, with Small Plane and Summer Painter two of the greatest songs of his distinguished career.
Vibration Animal Sex Brain Music
Orchestra Of Spheres
Recorded on tour in Italy using a profusion of homemade instruments and pensionable keyboards, this Wellington band's second LP is a funky primal psych-rock epic so life-affirming that it should be dispensed to every citizen by their GP. In any given song you might find a hypnotic Krautrock groove entwined with jazz fusion keyboards and tribal chants, or chunky disco hi-hats shamelessly cohabiting with Nigerian hi-life guitars, the resulting joyful racket then overlaid with gloriously deranged lyrics that recall cosmic jazz pioneer Sun Ra.
Music, Culture and Identity in the Caribbean 1920-72
Mirror To The Soul
This bountiful box set contains two CDs of music recorded in Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, Trinidad, Colombia and elsewhere, a 75-page book and a superb doco whittled down from early British Pathe footage. As with the old "Maoriland" newsreels in which Aotearoa was presented as a tourist utopia populated by happy natives, the doco is a fascinating expose of how colonial powers portray subjugated cultures, while the music bristles with cultural independence. Lord Brynner's The Queen Sings Calypso imagines HRH belting out carnival songs around Buckingham Palace, while Don't Blame It on Elvis sees The Fabulous McLevertys insisting that wild dancing originated in the Caribbean, where locals had been "shaking the pelvis, village-style, ever since the River Nile . . ."
The Flying Nun reissue programme continued apace this year, with ripper releases from The Clean, The Bats, Skeptics and Bird Nest Roys. But the standout for me was this sparkling 1988 EP, its sound falling midway between indie rock and electronic music, with debts owed to Can, Velvet Underground and New York synth-punk duo Suicide. Peter Gutteridge maxes out his fuzz pedal and sings over red-lining organ riffs from Christine Voice while future 3Ds guitarist Dominic Stones works up a churning guitar grind and Alan Haig plays drums as uninflected as any drum machine. Standouts? Buddy and Hang On still thrill 25 years on, while Cause of You transports Neu! to deepest Dunedin.
The Primrose Path
A collection of eloquently disenchanted break-up ballads in which the former Brunette finally eschews whimsy and wholeheartedly embraces frustration, anxiety and recrimination. The 60s production flourishes and bruised romanticism recalls a jilted indie Jacques Brel, but there's also an undertow of threat and a piquant garnish of caustic wit. Seven sees this wounded narcissist in the arms of a new girl while still thinking about his ex; Boxes contemplates personal and professional irrelevance, and Booty Call, Crippled Darling and Beat Your Head are as bracingly astringent as a salted lemon.
Wise Up Ghost
Elvis Costello and The Roots
On paper, this should have been terrible: Bookish old grump makes record with Philadelphia's finest hip-hop crew. But Wise Up Ghost is an unexpected triumph, its compressed energy, political paranoia and raw bile recalling the brilliant early new wave LPs Costello made with The Attractions. Costello plunders his own back catalogue for lyrical and melodic starting points throughout, bolting his razor-sharp couplets and increasingly grainy voice to sparse beats that the Roots have cobbled together from hip-hop's original building blocks: 70's funk, disco, jazz fusion, Stax soul and springy Motown pop.
We Knew It Was Not Going To Be Like This
With hooky melodies galore and a burnished chime to the guitars, here's another slab of beguilingly blurry indie pop from the band who gave us 2010's damn fine Kudos debut. Singer Davin Stoddard's voice alternates between disaffected Stephen Malkmus shrug and golden Brian Wilson croon, so several songs recall Pavement jamming out Beach Boys covers after a few too many spliffs. Unabashed pop ditties Claims of a Galactic Medium, No Place To Go and I Had The Starring Role will trigger widespread swooning, while connoisseurs of homegrown Krautrock will go direct to Song From A Short Lived TV Series and Oceanic Graphs of the Wilderness.
Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-68
To my ears, the best reissue of the year was this peerless collection of late-60s garage band leer-ups, raggedy blues blasts, stoner R'n'B and acid-fried jug bands, selected by future Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, and originally released as a vinyl double LP in 1972. The Electric Prunes, The Standells, The Seeds, Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Count Five - as Kaye points out in the liner notes, many of these bands only ever recorded one genius song amid a pile of mediocre crap, but those career highlights are all right here, freshly remastered to delight us all anew. A portable jukebox, crammed with killer singles from a transitional period in American rock'n'roll.
Wakin' on a Pretty Daze
The follow-up to 2011's Smoke Ring for my Halo, this sprawling affair was less immediate than its illustrious predessessor but equally rewarding, with an unhurried beauty to the best songs, many of which scrape the 10-minute mark. The title track has the sweetly trippy chug of a David Kilgour acoustic ballad, KV Crimes belies an infatuation with Neil Young, and Was All Talk considers Vile's own trajectory from forklift driver to alt-rock deity over stacked acoustic guitars and brisk electronic percussion. Several tracks dissolve into the kind of hazy electric wig-outs you might find on a Dinosaur Jr record, and you gladly sink down into them, mesmerised, wishing even the longest tracks would drift on all day.
Existential angst. Bone dry wit. A tendency toward the anthemic. Pretentious backstories involving Greek gods. A faint whiff of maple syrup. Yes, my friends, it's the return of Montreal collective Arcade Fire, with their intermittantly brilliant fourth album. The mandolins and marching drums have been cast aside and a mirrorball now hovers over the sound, summoning forth the dancing ghosts of Bowie, Eno and late-era Talking Heads. Producer James Murphy has fattened the drums, added hefty dub undercurrents and positioned Win Butler and wife Regine Chassagne's emotional outpourings within majestic, gleaming structures built from disco strings and secondhand New Order synthesisers. We Exist layers 80s guitars over the Billie Jean bassline. Flashbulb Eyes is a Canadian post-punk take on Jamaican dancehall. Joan of Arc sports a glam-o-matic Glitter Band bassline, and Here Comes The Nightime is a punked-up tropical carnival song.
LETDOWN OF THE YEAR
Random Access Memories
For months before this overhyped turkey was released, you couldn't venture online without being assailed by teaser ads where collaborators testified in hushed tones to this French duo's genius. But, in truth, the robot helmets and Vocoders seem very passe now, and these Parisian cyborgs haven't given us anything truly thrilling in more than a decade. Spectacular live shows and media carpet-bombing made them the biggest electronic act of the 1990s, but you can only get so far on irony and spectacle and they finally hit the wall with this collection of reheated 70s yacht rock and elevator disco. Only Chic-inspired chart-topper Get Lucky and borderline psychotic tribute track Giorgio By Moroder transmitted any real sense of joy or risk. Elsewhere, this was merely a series of expensively glossy surfaces with little heart.
Regular reviewers James Belfield and Mike Alexander hand out 2013's musical bouquets.
Keeping a Record of it
Utterly mesmerising soulful psychedelia from an outsider US sculptor who turned to music in his 60s. From a base of cotton-field slave chants and blues rhythms, Holley's unique keyboard style weaves around his poetic incantations. - "Weird-but-wonderful" award
Sequel to the Prequel
Pete Doherty and co's first outing in six years proved a smashing return. Just loose and punkish enough to recall the chemical excesses of youth but with sharp storytelling and tuneful nods to the Kinks, Clash and, heck, even Bob Dylan. - "I can't believe he's not dead, yet" award
The Canadian indie kings threw the kitchen sink at their fourth full-lengther. And everything stuck. LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy's glitterball co-production and a guerrilla marketing campaign to match Daft Punk marked Arcade Fire's growth into a truly massive band. - "Least surprising smash hit" award
Heavy Metal Ninjas
Two Koras, laser-shooting guitars, hard 'n' heavy epic riffs, bandanna masks . . . what's not to like about this cosmic Auckland instrumental five-piece? - "Out of this world" award
Now That's What I Call Sea Shanties: Volume 1
Wellington Sea Shanty Society
OK, it's a bit of a nautical novelty item, but it takes some real balls to put out a collection of ancient drink-and-dance ditties. Probably New Zealand's best dance album of the year and far more fun than watching America's Cup sailing. - "Back to basics" award
Wakin' on a Pretty Daze
The warmest guitar of the year weaves Vile's stoned country wisdom around shuffling drums in songs that go on forever. Vile's fifth solo full-lengther had to wait out the southern hemisphere's winter before coming into its own as our sun started to shine. - "Wise highs" award
. . . Like Clockwork
Queens of the Stone Age
Josh Homme's sleaziest-yet experiment to undermine hard rock included cameos from Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears, Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner, U.N.K.L.E.'s James Lavelle, and even Sir Elton John - as well as Dave Grohl's tub-thumping and Mark Lanegan's vocals. - "A-list party I'd like to be at" award
Push the Sky Away
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Rock 'n' roll's renaissance man celebrated 30 years and his 15th outing with the Bad Seeds with a dark masterpiece encapsulating love, loss, literature, death, religion and science - and the song title of the year in the Higgs Boson Blues. - "Brain the size of a planet" award
My Number is the danciest single of the year and comes from a sparkling, hook-laden album of stunning modern guitar disco-rock perfect for barefoot festivals and beach parties. - "More hooks than a boat-load of pirates" award
The 20/20 Experience
JT proved he was bigger than Yeezus in 2013 with his challenge to mainstream RnB. Polished, soulful, innovative, luxurious pop by a true global megastar. - "JT 1: Kanye 0" award
- James Belfield
Struggle for Pleasure
Rerelease of the 1983 album, with two bonus tracks, that put Belgian composer Wim Mertens at the forefront of minimalism. It's still perplexing that his huge body of orchestral ensemble and solo piano work has yet to find a more appreciative audience.
Boards of Canada
There's always been both a jarring sense of timelessness and an ambient tranquillity in the output of reclusive Scots Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin, the human wiring behind Boards of Canada. That has always made for interesting and sometimes demanding listening which is their greatest strength - creating sound mirages which billow and take shape but never really resolve in the way you might expect.
I Am the Centre
A superb overview of independently issued "new age" music free of anything that sounds remotely like Yanni or Enya. All of the source material has previously been available only on tape and gives a proper context to a genre which is so much more than merely elevator music though it does elevate.
Beneath the Weissenborn
A sonically evocative and beautiful instrumental album by a New Zealand master of the Weissenborn lap steel guitar. The multi-talented Oliver rates alongside Leo Kotke, Ry Cooder and Michael Hedges as someone who has made a guitar album a must-buy.
For Now I am Winter
An Icelandic composer of classically oriented moody electronics, who studied the techniques of fellow national Hilmar Hilmarsson, and has drawn comparisons to Max Richter after two of his compositions, Allt Varð Hljótt and Til Enda, were respectively featured in the scores for The Hunger Games and Looper.
The Best of Buddha Bar
The DJ as a mood magician has never been more interesting than when Claude Challe opened the original Buddha Bar in Paris in 1996 and started compiling his exotic scene setters. He might have moved on but Ravin has continued to share his musical ear for out-of-this-worldliness.
Surprisingly, this is just the second film score by New Zealand's most celebrated and intriguing composer of the last decade. Psathis and the equally accomplished Maori music ethnologist Richard Nunns combine in a black and white sort of way with compelling, sometimes brutal and highly evocative musical ways that underscore the central themes of the movie.
Cluster's Hans Joachim Roedelius, who had such a significant impact on shaping Brian Eno's early ambient works, teams up again with an heir-apparent in Stefan Schneider. Tiden isn't as well defined or genre specific as their previous effort Stunden as it heads into a more abstract direction with squelchy synthesisers blips and blurps over plaintive piano lines. It's still paradise regained for fans of early German electronic.
In a Time Lapse
Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi has done more to bring minimalism to the masses than Phillip Glass, Michael Nyman or Steve Reich. Yes, it's pretty and dreamlike but lurking beneath the surface are moments of haunting beauty.
The long-term Brian Eno collaborator continues to blossom and step out of the shadows of influences into his own life force of tactile and lyrical ambience.
- Mike Alexander
Sunday Star Times