Listen, hear

Dunedin songwriter Kane Strang. Photo by Sam Valentine.
Dunedin songwriter Kane Strang. Photo by Sam Valentine.

In the final Suitable Alternative for 2015, music columnist Sam Valentine recounts his most-listened-to and most-loved releases of the past 12 months.

As always, it's been an incredible year for New Zealand music, and this week I look back on my favourite local releases, many of which I've covered in greater detail in these pages during the year, and compile an international list for good measure.

Each one of these

is an absolute gem. Thanks for reading.

 

NEW ZEALAND ALBUMS OF THE YEAR

1. Kane Strang
Blue Cheese (Dunedin)

The songs on Blue Cheese are the most direct in Dunedin singer/songwriter Kane Strang's songbook to date.

They're sharper, more refined and pointed.

It's no longer the woozy '60s kaleidoscope of sound found in his melancholic and poetic Bandcamp history, but energetic, dark indie rock.

Drawing more from bony guitar bands such as Slint and Speedy Ortiz and skimping on the psychedelia, Blue Cheese is the commanding sound of a young man getting out of the garden of his imagination and heading to the city for the first time.

"I think I've found my sound now,'' he said back in June.

"It was taking all the things that I liked from my older stuff, all the ideas within those that I found interesting and cutting out all the bull****.''

2. Nadia Reid
Listen to Formation, Look for the Signs (Dunedin)

Dunedin songwriter Nadia Reid lets her rich gothic alto voice and hushed ghostly instrumentation carry her perfectly formed debut Listen to Formation, Look for the Signs.

Working within the muted grave palette of songwriters such as Gillian Welch or Lucinda Williams, Reid brings her own warm personality and pop sensibilities to the well-mined pastoral landscapes of Americana and new folk.

Album closer and lead single Call the Days is simply exquisite, with its rich and rhythmic droning acoustic strum rolling throughout.

Reid sings beautifully, with a timeless melancholy of "cutting the sleeves off'' all she knows.

"She sounds like a worker,'' The Eastern's Adam McGrath said of her back in 2012.

"One who cares for her craft and the path in which she intends to take it. Her songs shape and turn and lie carved in the air, they carry your ear and lift your eye to the back of the room, the corner of your heart and the world outside your window but sometimes that's not enough. If you're a listener then you can trust her, it helps to know she refuses to take it lightly and will work as hard as she wants you listen.''

3. The Phoenix Foundation
Give Up Your Dreams (Wellington)

The sixth album from New Zealand's version of Wilco sounds like it should be a solid downer, but the album's killer pop buoyancy belies the sardonic existentialism of the title.

Trawling through rock history and hitting on acrobatic psych-kraut rhythms, hallucinogenic swirls of Eno synths, and maximalist Kraftwerk-inspired R&B production choices, it's the Phoenix Foundation doing what they do best with a bold new electro flavour.

Sitting alongside the likes of Tame Impala or perhaps even Daft Punk, Give Up Your Dreams is a fabulously lush work from a band at the peak of its craft.

These guys are a national treasure.

4. Carb on Carb
Carb on Carb (Auckland)

For their debut album, two-piece Carb on Carb almost totally redefined their sound.

Putting out a '90s inflected emo/pop-punk record may have surprised some of their fanbase, but here the band sound stronger and more self-assured, both sonically and lyrically, than before.

Vocalist and guitarist Nicole Gaffney's melodies are at once gorgeous and angular, and her emotionally restless yet catchy guitar licks underpin a voice straining with passion, personality and urgency.

Gaffney's a straight shooter though.

She never gets weighed down in overwrought metaphor or the soppy self-pitying outsiders often accuse emo music of perpetuating.

It means her lyrics about being not cute anymore, weird relationship experiences, confronting your own attitudes towards your city, or being able to be proud of something flawed, hit you squarely in the gut.

It's music about finding your place, be it a Midwestern basement or inner-city Auckland.

5. Triumphs
Beekeeper/Bastardknocker (Dunedin)

Emerging underground heavy-psych power duo Triumphs released its debut album, an instrumental concept LP through revived Dunedin vinyl-only label Monkey Killer Records this year, and boy is it a doozy.

To quote the label, "the album, Beekeeper/Bastardknocker pays tribute to New Zealand's forgotten history of psychedelic mountaineering through mind-bending riffs and ritualistic drums, tracing Sir Edmund Hillary's transformation from humble beekeeper to world-striding bastardknocker''.

Mixing metal with melancholy, and employing ample volume and simplicity to get their point across, John Bollen (guitar) and Matthew Anderson (drums) create epic, lumbering immersive tone-scapes of immense power and beauty.

Rounding out my top 20 are: Death & the Maiden, Death & the Maiden (Dunedin), 6; Yesses, Yesses EP (Dunedin), 7; Salad Boys, Metalmania, 8; Opposite Sex, Hamlet (Dunedin), 9; Anthonie Tonnon, Successor, 10; Seth Frightening, But We Love Our Brothers and Sisters, 11; Fazed on a Pony, Hunch EP (Dunedin), 12; Space Bats, Attack!, Space Bats, Attack (Dunedin), 13; Sunken Seas, Glass, 14; Totems, Elixir, 15; Wormstar, Turning Red, 16; The Violet Ohs, Battlephant (Dunedin), 17; New Gum Sarn, New Gold Mountain, 18; The Shifting Sands, Cosmic Radio Station (Dunedin), 19; Strange Harvest, Pattern Recognition (Dunedin), 20.

 


NEW ZEALAND SINGLES OF THE YEAR

1. i.e. crazy, you're a stranger to me now

2. Mermaidens, Seed

3. Leisure, Got It Bad

4. Silicon, Burning Sugar

5. Fazerdaze, Little Uneasy

6. Yumi Zouma, Alena (Race Banyon Remix)

7. SoccerPractise, Windfall

8. Govrmint, On Screen

9. Kairi, Placid

10. Trust Punks, Mother's Veil

 


INTERNATIONAL ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
 
1. Grimes, Art Angels
 
2. Tame Impala, Currents
 
3. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
 
4. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell
 
5. Archy Marshall, A New Place 2 Drown
 
6. Ought, Sun Coming Down
 
7. Vince Staples, Summertime 06
 
8. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Multi Love
 
9. Protomartyr, The Agent Intellect
 
10. Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp
 
Honourable mentions: Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly; Metz, II; Weed, Running Back; Jamie xx, In Colour; Deafheaven, New Bermuda; The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die, Harmlessness.


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