24 Dec 2022

The Sampler: The best local albums of 2022

From The Sampler, 2:00 pm on 24 December 2022

Tony Stamp reflects on ten of his favourite NZ releases from the past year.

Venus is Home by Erny Belle

Erny Belle

Photo: Suppled

The debut from this Tāmaki Makaurau artist showed a knack for gorgeous hooks and acerbic lyrics, as well as neat conceptual framing for each song.

The woman behind the Erny Belle moniker is Aimee Renata, a musician of Ngāpuhi descent who describes her sound as "part K Road, part rural town up North". She splits her time between Auckland and Maungaturoto, where she recorded the album.

The quirks in its songs, like the cheeky backing vocals in 'Burning Heaven', are part of what set her apart. Renata has a background in acting, and a flair for the theatrical - it’s there in her delivery and her amusingly dark videos.  

There's a dissonance between the beauty of the music and how sardonic it sometimes feels. These songs are smooth, but on closer inspection, covered in barbs.

Uralic Songs by Lázsló Reynolds

On his latest album, Auckland musician László Reynolds channelled music older and farther-flung than contemporary Aotearoa, covering songs sung in Uralic (the language family which contains Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian, and 35 more).

His grandfather was Hungarian so curiosity stemmed from that, learning a few phrases in his teens, and eventually whole songs with the help of online translations. Learning this just makes it more impressive how thoroughly he makes each track his own.

Reynolds played every instrument on Uralic Songs, aside from the clarinet and violin which appear on a few tracks. It’s all very accomplished, and his voice is the best thing in his arsenal, pure and mournful, but malleable.

Uralic Songs is impressive for many reasons, and it’s also just a great listen, regardless of whether you understand the words. These songs are very well-chosen and say so much about Laszlo Reynolds, even though he didn’t write them.

Warm Chris by Aldous Harding

Each time Aldous Harding releases an album, the music press clamours to figure out what it all means. She’s been riding a wave that’s hers alone for a while now, and the beauty of her songwriting is that no matter how well thought-out it is, it feels spur of the moment.

On Warm Chris, it felt like she was playing a different character in each song, mostly due to the mercurial nature of her delivery and accent work, morphing between NZ and Australia by way of Scotland and Northern England.

Speaking to Pitchfork recently about the way she puts on voices, Harding said "I don’t feel like different kinds aren’t mine to use", and I get that this is part of her artistic process, but I also think it speaks to the thing people undervalue about her: her sense of humour.

She seems to strike people as an enigma, but honestly, I feel like I’ve known plenty of Aldous Hardings - people who grew up in a small town, who happen to have an endless well of creativity inside them, just waiting for an outlet. Outside of her musical gifts, which are huge, she’s just never shied away from her impulses, however silly they may be. When I see headlines wondering who the real Aldous Harding is, I think ‘she’s been right in front of us this whole time’.

Te Kaahu O Rangi by Te Kaahu

In September 2020, pop musician Theia unveiled her te reo Māori project Te Kaahu. First single 'E Taku Huia Kaimanawa’, was dedicated to her late grandmother Rangirara and felt very personal. Nearly two years later the LP Te Kaahu O Rangi arrived, a meticulous package of gorgeous songcraft - every word, image and sound the product of deep thought from its writer, designed as an immersion into te ao Māori.

These songs are very different to Theia’s pop output, which is brash and loud. When asked about the difference, she said she wanted to make something that her tupuna wahine would enjoy; gentle and nostalgic. 

The thing I find staggering each time I listen to the album is not just how disarmingly beautiful it is, but how simple. Simplicity in songwriting is hard, and speaks to how gifted Theia is, but she also packs each track with meaning.

She’s said the Te Kaahu kaupapa is to "heal, restore and empower her people", and it’s hard to imagine a more honourable motivation for making an album.

Joy on Tick by Baecorp

Nirvana Haldar & Sam Denne (Baecorp)

Photo: Supplied

A while back a few tracks by this Auckland duo charted on student radio and were attention-grabbing purely through their names. Their moniker is a reference to a debt collection agency, and the songs were called ‘Can I Tick a Feeling’ and ‘Pak n Gap’.

All this wordplay lets you know exactly who this band is, and where they’re coming from. And listening to their music confirms they have songs to back it up; cynical and sweet in equal measure.

This is an album that credits its producer as ‘Depression’, but there’s obvious zest in the music, from blasts of shoegaze guitar to delicate instrumentals. Each one impressed with their musicality, and diversity.

12 EPs by SR Mpofu

This Tāmaki Makaurau beatmaker released an EP every month during 2022, and it wasn’t just the work ethic that impressed me, it was also the consistency of ideas and production; the sound of someone nudging forward with every release, chasing the perfect groove.

He works in the same mode as legends like J Dilla or Madlib: nothing is sitting exactly on the beat; every drum is giving room to breathe. It suggests he played each sample by hand and gives the music a distinctly human feel. 

Over the course of the year, Mpofu channelled seventies soul, jazz, funk, and psychedelia within the framework of beat music. The mixes were always perfectly balanced, which should be taken for granted, and the 12 EPs provided a journey of their own as he dabbled in dancefloor tracks and eventually the hyperactive genre Footwork. It was the sound of someone who's found what they love to do and is working hard to keep doing it.

The Water by Dale Kerrigan

The Dunedin noise-rockers released their second album in August, full of squalling riffs and pummelled drums, the odd stretch of serenity, and some very NZ lyricism. On the track ‘Stormy 2’, they hit a monotonic krautrock groove and tell a lowkey story about bad weather, punctuated by a noisy chorus in which songwriter Shlee Nichols yells “I put my raincoat on you/ I was wearing two”. Despite the rowdy attitude, it’s funny; even a bit touching. 

The seven tracks here run the gamut from sluggish post-rock to brief punk blasts, angular riffs and towering walls of noise. There’s screaming, storytelling and singing, and each track swells and breaths to suit. 

The album was released on Trace/ Untrace, who consistently showcase some of the country’s best guitar music. Dale Kerrigan nod to similar bygone acts, but come close to genres like hardcore and 90s grunge too. The reason it works so well is the lack of any sort of posturing - it’s an intense and cathartic outpouring from four people just a few years into their musical journey.

Everything's Going to be Alright by Princess Chelsea

Chelsea Nikkel’s first solo album Lil’ Golden Book came out just over ten years ago and mixed petite bedroom arrangements with knowing, cynical lyrics. Her latest album feels like the work of an artist with her guard somewhat down. There’s an ease to it, and a confidence that's well-earned.

Nikkel is a musician slash producer, and in the past has played or sequenced most of her albums, but for this one drew inspiration from her live band in terms of the arrangements. The band appears on at least one song, the epic and energising ‘The Forest’.

Nikkel’s previous two albums of original material were called The Great Cybernetic Depression and The Loneliest Girl, so as a title, Everything is Going to be Alright was slightly surprising, even if it felt perfect for a world of increasingly alarming headlines.

It does sound optimistic, with a lot of songs that, on the surface at least, celebrate long-term relationships and love. But her music has always been about conflicting impulses, so read the lyrics and you might start to wonder - is everything going to be all right?

Pieces of Driftwood by Maxine Funke

A compilation was released this year collecting rarities and unreleased tracks by this Dunedin artist, who’s released four albums since 2008, distributed on American and Australian labels, and despite emerging from a lofi, experimental background, mostly writes intimate acoustic ballads. Despite the pedigree and length of her career, she’s still somewhat unknown, but to those familiar with her work, Maxine Funke is one of our finest songwriters. 

The songs here span ten years or so, but are consistently tonally pleasant - the sound of her fingers on the strings, the guitar’s wood, a layer of room sound and tape hiss, and her calm delivery are usually the only elements.

They feel like tiny gifts pulled from some attic, covered in a layer of dust that has become part of the object itself. Her work has been distributed overseas and reviewed in international publications like Pitchfork, but she seems to have no ambition beyond crafting perfectly formed pieces of audio, whether they involve her guitar and voice, or aim for something more abstract and explorative. Her career is far enough along to justify this compilation, and Pieces of Driftwood - a lovely and perfectly descriptive name  - serves as a good entry point to her alternately fragile and sturdy songcraft.

All of Human Emotion on Microfiche by Karl Steven

Karl Steven

Karl Steven Photo: supplied

It’s immediately obvious that the debut album by Karl Steven, co-frontman for Supergroove and veteran of bands like The Drab Doo Riffs, is showing another drastic change of sound: brittle and electronic. But it’s recognisably the same musical mind from those earlier bands, and the inclusion of Steven’s voice throughout, often speaking, is a clear throughline.

It’s also fun to hear him employ different techniques, like the specific ‘bouncing ball’ stutter he gives the vocal on ‘The Message’. These are, by Steven’s own admission, experimental compositions, but his pop instincts shine through, like the whiff of funk to that song's bassline, and the satisfaction of the beat kicking in. 

Speaking with bFM, he said the album came about when he found he couldn’t focus on his work composing for the screen. He said he wrote its songs to combat the "bad weather in [his] brain", calling them "random foolery" that was therapeutic. He described the process as making "maps out of the funk" that had clouded his mental health.

Which marks this as a very personal album, and not one necessarily designed for release. In the press material, he says it was the label SunReturn that encouraged him to collect and release these songs, which he describes as the "sound of his mind occasionally boiling over".

In all those quotes it’s obvious that Steven is full of poetic turns of phrase, and this album is ambitious and frequently emotive.