Nick Bollinger revisits a few of his favourite local sounds of 2018.
It’s that time again: the final Sampler for the year and time to revisit some of the music that stood out for me over the past twelve months. There was plenty, and a lot of it came from somewhere not too far from home.
Avantdale Bowling Club
Avantdale Bowling Club is the self-titled project of New Zealand rapper Tom Scott, and I know mine won’t be the only list in which this album claims a place. It’s a stunning piece of work: personal, reflective, at times heartbreakingly sad, yet ultimately uplifting – in part because it’s just so joyously musical.
Scott first gained notoriety as the voice of Auckland hip-hop crew Home Brew, celebrating a disaffected and dissolute lifestyle in irreverent rhymes and sampled beats. This new project is located in those same West Auckland streets, yet musically and philosophically it could be light years away. Throwing aside thoughts of fashion or commerce, Scott has teamed up with some of Auckland’s best modern jazz players, and he more than holds his own; with his breathtaking flow he’s the vocal equivalent of a jazz soloist. But this record is not just more musically mature. Writing from the perspective now of a young father, Scott looks back in unstinting detail on his own troubled childhood. And in spite of the grim realism in these rhymes, he leaves you with images of regeneration and hope.
Zealandia by Dudley Benson
If there was a local album this year that doubled as a kind of state-of-the-nation address, it was this one.
Eight-years-in-the-making Zealandia, was worth the wait. Zealandia is the name sometimes given to the huge mostly-submerged continent, of which Aotearoa/New Zealand is but a fragment. But this idea of an unseen land, a country yet to be invented or fully realised, is itself a kind of hidden element that underlies this album.
Epic in every sense, the record incorporates orchestras and choirs, electronica and taonga puoro, bagpipes, harps and harpsichords along with Benson’s versatile voice, and the harmonies and tensions that result just help bring to life songs in which he explores big questions, like what does to mean to be a New Zealander?
If that all sounds a bit heavyweight for what is still, at its core, a pop record – albeit an arty one – Benson carries it off spectacularly.
Future Me Hates Me by The Beths
If your notion of great pop is all about guitars and drums, hooks, choruses and packing it all into three-and-a-half minute sound bombs, you couldn’t do better than The Beths.
Singer, guitarist and chief songwriter Liz Stokes is a huge talent. Her songs are gloriously melodic, catching your ear from the first line and just getting hookier as they build, from verse to chorus to bridge, and she’s got a tight, no-nonsense band who not only navigate the changes but effortlessly throw in harmonies, handclaps and, in the case of lead guitarist Jonathan Pearce, great succinct solos.
But both the charm and the bite of The Beths lies in the way Stokes matches such relentlessly upbeat tunes to lyrics that are like case studies of romantic anxiety and self-doubt. The album’s title says it all. It’s called Future Me Hates Me, but songs like ‘Happy Unhappy’, ‘Little Death’ and ‘You Wouldn’t Like Me’ just amplify the theme.
My Designs, On Others’ Lives by Estere
Estere, Wellington-based singer, songwriter, producer, beatmaker, dancer and anthropologist; and she gives a workout to all those skills on her debut album My Designs, On Other’s Lives. The first thing you notice are the beats. They are deep and danceable, crossing funk and R&B with more exotic strands.
Those beats are the springboard for her observations and commentaries, which range from an ironic celebration of being able to pay one’s rent as an artist, to a political parable about a prostitute who becomes president of the United States. My Designs, On Other’s Lives is a whip-smart, rhythmic and textural feast.
Sex and Food by Unknown Mortal Orchestra
There’s always been a bit of a question as to whether or not you could call Unknown Mortal Orchestra a New Zealand band at all. Formed on the West Coast of the US, home base for Kiwi-born frontman Kody Nielson, the Orchestra’s Kiwi quotient grew this year with the official addition to the lineup of Kody’s brother Ruban. But the album they released, Sex and Food, presented near-paranoid visions of a dystopian world that seems somehow more American than Antipodean.
Then again, perhaps you have to have an outsider’s perspective to write a song that warns: ‘Oh no, here comes the American guilt’.
Ruban Nielson always has something to say and always from a personal and uniquely skewed perspective. But that’s only a fraction of what’s going on in these songs. And as much as any kind of social observation, Sex and Food is a celebration of music made for the sheer creative joy of it, from sonic explosions to the lullaby groove of ‘Hunnybee’.
Snow Bound by The Chills
Silver Bullets, from three years ago, was the first new Chills album in decades and a very respectable comeback. Now Snow Bound shows that wasn’t a one-off. In fact, it’s better. Those big churning chord changes remain a Martin Phillipps signature and you can recognise his voice a mile off. But these new songs show that he’s not dwelling in some heavenly pop past; rather, he’s thinking about his role in the present. How do we engage with the world as we get older? What can we learn from our past mistakes?
Loss, ideals, responsibility; these are the earnest themes of Snow Bound. And yet as always Martin Phillipps sweetens the seriousness with beguiling tunes that could only have come from one place.