26 Dec 2023

The Sampler: The best local albums of 2023

From The Sampler, 7:00 pm on 26 December 2023

Tony Stamp looks back at some of his favourite local releases of 2023, including club cuts, Western ballads, Afro-centric jazz, and Pacific pop.

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Ideal Home Noise by Vera Allen

The fourth album by Wellington musician Vera Ellen was born from personal turmoil, but that’s not immediately apparent. Largely made up of frothy indie-pop, it’s often joyous: major chords, splashes of synth, and Ellen using every colour in her vocal palette.

It’s only once you pay attention to the lyrics that you realise how deeply confessional the record is, reaching its cathartic highpoint on the spine-tingling ‘Broadway Junction’.

…And Nobody Made a Sound by Model Home

I was slightly caught off guard by Ōtautahi quartet Model Home. Their emo and punk influences are not ones I’m familiar with, but that doesn’t matter when faced with songwriting and performances this impassioned and impeccable. 

Singer Rachael Norcross’s knack for emotive storytelling is at its best on ‘Midnight, Dragon Garden’, a tale of working class friendship that takes place over decades, which I found incredibly moving.

Not your Cupid by Erny Belle

Aimee Renata doesn’t just helm one of the country’s funniest Instagram accounts, she’s also the singer-songwriter behind the Erny Belle moniker, mixing classic song structures with a wicked sense of humour, and plenty of flair. Not Your Cupid does what great second albums should do, digging deeper into her brand of nihilistic ballads, while expanding she and her band’s sonic palette.

Every song stretches out sonically, with a late album highlight arriving in ‘C’est La Vie’, Renata’s measured delivery joined by carefully-chosen piano notes and cinematic strings.

Dreams by deepState

What I really appreciate about the work of Tāmaki Makaurau producer deepState is the lack of irony or remove in her compositions, which sound modern, but deeply honour the legacy of club music in ways that suggest total immersion.

Aside from her innate understanding of the form, what impresses me most about Dreams is Morgan’s skill at mixing. These tracks are expertly mixed, and she’ll throw in things like interesting pan effects for extra ear candy. 

It’s an album that perfectly evokes the feeling of being lost on a dance floor, and the mix of melancholy and euphoria this type of music does so well.

Spirits by The Circling Sun

The first release from The Circling Sun features a specific description in its notes: "progressive Afrocentric-inspired jazz".

Ride cymbal shuffles rub up against double bass, saxophones, flute and trumpet, as well as vibraphone and Rhodes piano. It’s music indebted to the past with an eye on the future, layering in modular synth and peppy Latin percussion.

There’s a part in the liner notes which refers to the solos here as "improvisational storytelling". It’s an interesting notion, and every member gets to tell their story within these buoyant arrangements.

Lone Rider by D.C. Maxwell

The songs on D.C. Maxwell’s debut are well-written, and invested with lush, ornate production. But its main strength might be his sense of storytelling; I found myself waiting for plot points to resolve as much as I looked forward to the next melodic hook.

No surprise to learn that he has a background in creative writing.

In his bio Maxwell mentions baroque pop acts like Scott Walker and slightly punk-tinged singers like Nick Cave and Chris Knox. He was frontman for the punk outfit Roidz, who got some acclaim here and Stateside, but Lone Rider is an album with a sound dictated by its characters, and the Western landscape they inhabit.

Feed Me To The Doves by Guardian Singles

Guardian Singles features Thom Burton, who’s played in Wilberforces and SoccerPractise, and makes electronic music as Crash Teslas, and drummer Fiona Campbell, who played in local greats The Coolies, and American outfit Vivian Girls, and possesses phenomenal technique and timing.

They’ve been joined since 2018 by Yolanda Fagan, of Half Hexagon, and Durham Fenwick, who makes ambient music as Green Grove. There’s prestige all round, and together, a palpable chemistry, making music that’s angry and brimming with anarchic energy.

As you might expect with the talent involved, Feed Me to the Doves is a record where every member leaves a distinct impression. It’s safely categorised as post-punk, drawing on a legacy of bands like Wire and Mission of Burma, and like those acts, there’s strong melodic nous at work on each track.

Ebony Lamb by Ebony Lamb

The frontperson of Eb and Sparrow released her self-titled solo debut in 2023 with assistance from none other than Bic Runga and Kody Nielson.

She favours broad statements like “put a record on”, “I still want you to drive me around”, and “brother get me home”. Much like the music, there’s room to breathe, and interpret.

Each song simmers with meaning, and is always led by Lamb’s voice, which flits between ranges, and finds the best in each one. Whether hopeful, mourning, or something in between, every word is sung like she truly means it.

Laundromat by Pickle Darling

For the past six years, Ōtautahi resident Lukas Mayo has been crafting diminutive bedroom pop opuses, and for an artist whose persona is so tied to their hometown, and indeed, their home, the release of their third full length was given a notably international reception. 

Laundromat is a further refinement of Pickle Darling’s homespun sound, which has gone up a notch in fidelity on each release.

One song has the lyric “Disclosure: my fists are made of feathers”, a neat summation of their amiable type of sarcasm. Another that stands out is on ‘Invercargill Angel’, a repetition of “I hope he makes you feel at home”, exemplary of their music’s generosity.

Dog by Jazmine Mary

Dog is a clear progression of the style that Tamaki-based artist Jazmine Mary laid out on their previous album. Stately piano or acoustic guitar frame the songs, allowing room for brass or strings to periodically interrupt. These additions are always admirably sparing, introducing new melodies and a pleasant sense of friction.

There’s further refinement and more disruption, these two impulses propelling the artist closer to neighbouring genres, as on ‘Getting Down’, with its unmistakable soul influence.

Another standout is ‘You’re Never Alone If You’ve Got Music’, a title which almost dares you to not take it seriously, with the song delivered completely straight-faced, warm and celebratory.