I always preface this year-end list by saying that I’m not a fan of years in review. Culture’s not a tax statement; you don’t have to file your movement by an arbitrary date. But sure, a bunch of things happen and are worth discussing – as long as there’s not any hierarchy, no unified theory of 2012ness that we try to festoon on everything, that’s aight.
Rules of the game: these are ten or so songs I listened to, or simply heard a lot this year. I don’t like all of them, but I either played them by choice or encountered them wherever I happened to be. Other rules: they’re more or less from this year. Also: no adding to the vast, open-cast pit of white people’s bad anthropological writing on ‘Gangnam Style‘/Channel Orange/Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. I think all these things are good, but I can’t offer anything original or meaningful as to why they’re good. So I won’t. Finally, you owe it to yourself to listen to the songs no matter what I say and form your own opinion. Apart from the one that the ‘dark side of the New Zealand left’ doesn’t want you to hear (actual & rare FB quote).
“Thank You Ladies For The Spread“
Here’s what I was moved to write about “Thank You Ladies For The Spread” back in September:
“Post-cultural cringe, we’ve reached a point where the same slices of rural conservatism – farmers’ wives wakes in the War Memorial Hall; starchy platters; hidden urges as murmured carpark asides – that informed plenty of our best fiction and art have finally crept into our pop music. But if people like James Milne are viewing it through a lens of wry sepia affection, Sam Bradford and the Sharpie Crows are fucking terrified, hinting at murder, disease, intruders, arson and one great big reckoning under the surface.
Bradford never raises his voice above a slurred murmur, but there’s nothing murky about this. It’s about as precise and clean as we’ve ever heard the group, light-years away from their no-fi Bastard Sons Of Grey Power beginnings. There’s incredible, fluid drumming that reminds me of Can’s ‘Vitamin C’ grounding the entire thing, a melodic break where the chorus should be that’s more frightening than uplifting (with horns!) and it’s nice to hear a guitarist who was actually listening to Gang Of Four, right? I mean, he’s not playing staccato figures over some hi-hats, the instrument’s a full-on protagonist here. It’s the baleful, wrenching call-and-response to Bradford’s guilty conscience. More superficially, they look very cool in the video.
I saw them play one of the best shows of the year back in January at Whammy Bar, and this number stuck out even then – but this treatment’s exceeded my wildest expectations. 2012’s greatest bummer in a year where we all got perversely interested in people on farms taking each other out, it’s New Zealand Gothic done without stupid and obvious alt-country signifiers. I love it.”
I still stand by it. The cultural cringe thing is over-stated, of course – plenty of people have always making febrile art (painting, sculpture, plays, hip-hop) situated in New Zealand and asking questions about New Zealand identity. What you did have, and you’ll probably always have, were a lot of middle-class and overeducated and itchy-heeled kids who held onto this fantasy of ‘somewhere else, somewhere bigger (but still Anglophone)’ and unintentionally made perfectly servicable music that eschewed the local (and the personal and political that comes out of that locality) in order to be more marketable to that ‘somewhere else’.
You could say this is a reaction to branded Kiwiana and Warehouse compilations with the Four Square guy on them, but I mean, you look at ‘somewhere else’ and they’re doing exactly the same thing. Fleet Foxes aren’t singing about a drunken handjob thwarted in the toilets of their Seattle local or watching friends lose their twenties to a numbing recession, they’re going to just keep being vanilla pastoral nostalgia creeps ’til the money runs out. Meanwhile, the Sharpie Crows released a compilation of their self-released caterwauling early stuff called Nostalgia Kills (choice line: ‘How can you make country music when there’s no country anymore?’) at the same time they released their most focused and remarkable (danceable!) single yet, a fever dream of murder, sickness and terror in the blue-rosette countryside. They get the distinction between being a nostalgic and being a witness, and that’s something more universal than being a ‘New Zealand band’. Can’t wait for what we get next.
Cards on the table. Coexist is my album of the year. I’ve listened to it more than anything else; I believe that in time it will be recognised as the superior of the xx’s two albums; I believe it’s been given a middling critical run because it’s an minimal house/R&B record marketed and anticipated as quirky electronic pop (cf: their first album) – conversely, many of the people who I suspect would enjoy and appreciate it most probably haven’t bothered to hear it.
The most galling remark I’ve seen used and reused has been some Pitchfork placeholder like “I miss poignant and simple lines like ”We watch things on VCRs”.Where’s this album’s heart?” Newsflash: there’s nothing in the group’s aesthetic to have ever justified that line. They’re not Neon Indian, they’re not positing anything else ‘retro’. They don’t watch things on VCRs. It was a fucking affectation. If Coexist’s song cycle is missing these offbeat little fragments, maybe it’s because totalising, deadbolt heartbreak isn’t offbeat.
What we get here is simple, direct and sad. It’s courageous enough not to blink – no more so than on the brittle and extraordinary “Reunion”. If virtually all of Coexist deals with ex-lovers communicating through self-imposed walls, this is the one moment of actual intimacy, and it makes that moment every bit as tentative, exhausted, and (eventually) desperately passionate as it always is. Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sims trade off emotional wishlists – “Did I see you – see me – in a new light?…Never not ever, never not ever again” but there’s a palpable finality to the encounter (“There’s an end to us with someone else in sight”). Sonically, it’s an emotional wallop. Jamie Smith first incorporated steel drums into his production on 2011′s superb “Far Nearer“; I find the moment when they shiver into focus here, dischordant notes and all, too beautiful to stand. When it turns into a somber house track on the other side, it’s maybe the most immersive they’ve been. The last, craven orgasm has never sounded so beautiful.
It’s possible I’m overestimating Coexist (though definitely not “Reunion”) because of how disappointing I was expecting it to be – I was expecting, you know, Florence bad. I thought they’d second-guess themselves and go large, or someone would prey on them for being young and naïve and go large on their behalf. As it is, three musicians under the spotlight, under so much scrutiny, doubled down and generated this quiet, remarkable storm. Over and over, I keep going in and pinching myself trying to believe that they managed it.
“About To Die”
Can’t remember where I saw it, but I read someone making the salient point this year that music critics are always happy to frame music negatively by making reference to its fans being somehow beneath them – younger, stupider, less educated, ‘tradies’, students, etc. On the other hand, no one ever dares to acknowledge the possibility that music is being made for people who are brighter or better than them.
So here goes. I believe Dirty Projectors fans are smarter than me. I believe they will have studied to postgraduate level and will be fluent in two languages or more – I believe they have read widely and deeply and challenged themselves while I passively wait for Jeffrey Eugenides and Zadie Smith books to be served up to me on a Guardian-vetted critical platter. They may have some knowledge of music theory. They will have a sense of aesthetic and design that runs from their bedroom to their outfits, and they may have the skill to create some of those aesthetic and design elements themselves (ie: they are crafty). They will be in a better position to understand or profess to understand Dave Longstreth’s elliptical references and cryptic lyrics, and have the patience for the at times labyrinthine music his band creates. I am a lumpen and craggy outsider, some sort of squat Nixon or Muldoon-like figure claiming to represent the feelings and wishes of the ‘silent majority‘. I like to think those feelings and wishes are: this band is obnoxious, vile and hideous and I wish they wouldn’t come to my beautiful country.
Let’s flash back to the Yale-educated Longstreth’s 2009 New York Times interview – he drops calculated references to Monteverdi, James Joyce, William Blake, and Richard Wagner as he tries to explain why the music he makes is “not terribly easy to apprehend”; enigmatically, he instructs his chanteuses to make their harmonies ‘more Slavic’. One of those unfortunate home-schooled children who makes his upbringing a point of nobility (no TV! No computer!) he talks about how ‘distasteful’ it was to have friends who played Mario Kart. I find the hubris hard to swallow, and I mean, I say this as a fan of the singer and performer Morrissey. The Dirty Projectors constantly obfuscate their promising melodies with haphazardly wan arrangements, with a cluttered busyness and distracting vocal acrobatics, a barrier to entry without reason or reward. And if you think that’s fine and dandy, stop and think about what this means when they start appropriating elements of other contemporary music trends.
That is to say: modern R&B, which Longstreth readily takes from, is some of the most refined, complex, and sonically perfectionist music being made right now. People like Terius Nash, Miguel Pimental and Abel Tesfaye have created stuff streets ahead of what the Dirty Projectors have tried to reach for in terms of sound, structure and basic human satisfaction. Unlike Longstreth and his band, however, their greatest feat is packaging that accomplishment in a way that’s triumphantly and transparently populist.
So why – on 2012′s “About To Die” and the farting, barren “The Socialites“, on 2009′s Mariah Carey-aping but aimless one-liner “Stillness Is The Move“, are the Dirty Projectors trying to intellectualise R&B, to make the sophisticated more sophisticated? Because it’s predominantly made by blacks? Because its traditional audiences are likely to be younger, poorer, and less educated, and there’s a burning need for a version of it that speaks to our intrinsically different middle-class concerns? Is there a special and transcendent place this music can reach in Longstreth’s capable hands, as he interpolates an American Negro slave spiritual into some opaque blather about old-world hero Ferdinand Magellan? Is the weird, gauche “Hey, baby” thrown into “About To Die”s mix a homage to the lowbrow, or really just an unintentionally apt throwback to “Pretty Fly For A White Guy“? And why do their videos, time and again, show us blonde cloaked women seeking out some kind of agrarian pastoralism, to locate and uncover deeper truths that the urban is somehow depriving us of?
Bottom line – I think this band are tedious and full of themselves, but I also think their attitudes to race and class, their need to convert the self-sufficient cultural output of others into some perceived high-brow of their own, are really troubling. My big wish for popular music this year is that they stop attempting to make it.
(Postscript: I gave their 2007 album, ‘Rise Above’ a rave review in Real Groove when it came out. ‘Rise Above’ was an attempt to recreate Black Flag’s seminal 1981 punk record ‘Damaged’ without revisiting the source material. I believed at the time Longstreth’s tribute was at once sincere and radical – devoid of any background biographical knowledge, I’d presumed that he’d been a punk ‘lifer’ at 20 and that it was a clever, moving exercise in toying with ideas of memory and authenticity. More and more, I wonder whether it was in fact just a smarmy punchline, and he actually held the original work and its context in a certain leering contempt. Personalities aside, I still think it’s a flawed but interesting work. What’s come since is worthless.)
Tono & The Finance Company
This is all going to look decidedly creepy come the New Year, when I appear on 95bFM’s ‘True Fan‘ also discussing why I like Anthonie Tonnon’s work so much. But I do – I think he’s an original voice; I like that he’s a songwriter who actually thinks about composition and arrangement as having a bearing on the lyric, that treats the exercise as a complete short story and doesn’t think a couple of earnestly strummed chords alone will do (by this measure, 99 percent of singer-songwriters just want to tell you a really ripping pot-boiler of a story but carriage it in the prosaic prose of an airport dad novel). To make this paragraph in some way constructive and not just effusive, I also like that his ambition with a lyrical conceit will sometimes overreach and that he’s come up with a couple of complete clunkers as a result. It’s better than never trying at all.
Given that this was a year that the smuggest real estate agency billboard in Christendom went up in my neighbourhood (“Grey Lynn sure is getting popular. Sorry about that.”) I would have liked to hail “Marion Bates Realty‘ on this list, but that predates 2012. I’ll settle for “Tim“ - because musically, it sends me into synaesthetic conniptions. There’s the crystalline but irresolute guitar line that matches his rallying cry: ‘Tim, this city is ours now!‘. A gnarly guitar line, off-kilter to the rest of the song, lurches into focus for a second and shunts to a halt on a harmonic as “a band is playing underground to a well-dressed, desperate crowd”, and, lo and behold, you’ve been pulled into Whammy for 30 seconds before stumbling out and pretending to check your phone.
This is so wild to me, that there’s this spatial and sensory awareness going on even though it’s just indie rock. It works as travelogue and as a platonic love song to a friend. Plus, as a born-and-bred Aucklander I find the story of someone from somewhere smaller arriving and finding it so alive, so vibrant and full of possibility, genuinely moving.
‘Plastic Magic’ (ft. Esther Stephens)
Not because they’re the best, or anything like that (though “Plastic Magic”is a genre-confounding and compellingly dark exercise in atmosphere that’s only tangentially hip-hop, and I love it) . But because, gloriously and anarchically, they made their mark in print, online and in the real world this year. An amazing jacking of the final Volume magazine ever, a three-day album release party in an ex-brothel, a pop-up store, a mercurial Twitter presence, a #1, an unforgettable appearance at the NZ Music Awards that made David Farrar effectively blow up on the launch pad in a classic ‘sedentary libertarian blog bro encounters rap music’ flashpoint. It’s been a lot of fun, but more importantly and beyond the main protagonists and parties, this is the sort of mythos-building stuff 14-year-old boys and girls will remember in half a decade’s time. They’re seeing that it can be done, and it was done here. Quieter though more capable performers well always lay in state to be cratedigged and re-evaluated; in the meantime, local kids need big and brash outlaws, and Home Brew, with their humour and social conscience, have served this purpose wonderfully.
An aside: I have no idea if the organisers of 2012′s Music Awards expected things to go down like they did. But if so, I admire their courage and hope they have the gumption to do it all over again. Like it or not, we are small: distinguishing ourselves from the pomp and ceremony of other countries with surprise and strangeness is important.
I really enjoyed most of what came my way from Halifax-based Ryan Hemsworth this year. The lead-off on his EP Last Words became a sort of signature tune of his, and it manages to handily incorporate plenty of the things he’s amalgamating effectively – a sort of choral, portentous DJ Shadow thing, the last hazy vestiges of preset chillwave, chopped ‘n screwed samples that he’s wisely using as an added texture rather than ‘the hook’ (here, it’s incarcerated Harlem rapper Max B, born Charles Wingate). Like Clams Casino in 2011, that hint of aural murk is really satisfying – but unlike Clams, he’s working in a mid-fi of chimes, martial timpani, and woozy analogue sighs that might be easier to keep changing up on a bigger stage. At any rate, it’s instrumental music too lively and playful to slip into the background, but never insecure enough to feel it needs to be ‘on’ all the time. Lots is happening, sure, but it’s not a hyperactive mess.
Part of me wonders if we’re headed towards some horrible cloud-rap producer equivalent of Girl Talk within the next 12 months – some dude comes in on the tail-end of something that was done and dusted, and grave-robs it in a super obvious way for adoring frat party crowds. Just imagine slowed-down Destiny’s Child and TLC ad nauseum over vanilla trance beats with a bit of delay and reverb for ‘children of the 90s’. Horrible, right? Inevitable, right?
When this day comes, I think Hemsworth (and maybe other guys like Dev Hynes, who’s ‘Losing You‘ and ‘Everything Is Embarrassing‘ are both fantastic, but definitely the work of a generous, self-effacing dilettante) are going to get some stick for opening the gates, but they shouldn’t. I really rate Hemsworth. If you like this, check out his FACT mag mix from October, the way his treatment of Waka Flocka Flame’s ‘Bill Russell’ skirts the vaporwave plaza for food-court leftovers, and the also-excellent Supreme Cuts’ gloriously verdant remix of his ‘Overthinking‘.
“What’s gonna happen when my parents die?/What’s gonna happen when I lose my mind?” Let me be completely honest. I enjoyed the Eversons when I first heard a couple of songs in early 2012. If they felt like an unabashed rip of a nervy sweatered white-guy college rock thing from Jonathan Richman, to Pavement, to Weezer, at least they were shameless about it – they even tagged their Bandcamp so fans of their predecessors might stumble upon them. In particular, I liked ‘Could It Ever Get Better?‘ for tapping into a panicked deep-night vein of anguish about loss, aging and change – things that you still think all the time when you’re ‘young and hip’ but don’t ever get to express. Basically, it’s the kind of therapeutic public service that indie rock should be offering, moribund genre or no.
Anyway, then they wrote ‘Harlot’, a musically and morally useless B-side following a ‘classic’ ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl becomes prostitute, girl comes crawling back on ‘er knees ‘n eager to please, allllllright’ trajectory. Now, I may not be the target audience here, since I stopped finding anything intrinsically funny about someone being a prostitute when I was approx 13 or 14. Presently, I’m more inclined to see them as undertaking work that can potentially be empowering, but is also cloaked in seriously negative stigmas and systematically robbed of the dignity of other paid work. There’s an aura of shame and silence that makes sex work a lot more dangerous than it should be for many men and women. And, you know, there was also the fact that the frontman’s ex-partner had worked in the sex industry. The Eversons’ counter-claim – that the song was nearly a decade old and this was all a dreadful coincidence – washes pretty fine if you assume that its composer was in an induced coma between writing ‘Harlot’ and 2012 and missed that wee patch where a former girlfriend worked in a profession he decided to publicly mock and slut-shame.
But they eventually put out a long and what seemed like a fairly heartfelt apology out, even if it clearly lacked a certain precision. In the meantime, it was great fun (ie: aggravating and disappointing) looking at everyone else who chipped in from the sidelines.
Firstly: I cannot understand why anyone would start an indie label without having or wanting some aesthetic or creative control or oversight over their roster (you certainly aren’t doing it for the money). Lil Chief appeared to have nothing constructive or intelligent to offer either before or after the fracas, although we eventually received a press release for the ages which began by invoking Carly Simon and Alanis Morrisette to justify writing mean songs about breakups. Except that this wasn’t about a breakup, it was just interpreted that way. But it was definitely sexist and misogynistic. Er. I appreciate Lil Chief at least recognising it should take a more active role in vetting its future releases. This sort of stewardship is important for any brand (yeah, brand. A label isn’t a commune) and can actually stop a young band from making bad decisions. Otherwise they may as well go it alone.
Meanwhile, the Internet was just wonderful. For years I had some pretty mistaken assumptions of Wellington as being a sort of intimidatingly healthy egalitarian utopia where men and women cohabited in harmony and started bands together. Actually, it’s just a bunch of hormonal young dudes being like “Don’t apologise for your art!” and shrieking about censorship (nobody censored anything, the band voluntarily removed their MP3 following a number of complaints) and gravely intoning “Today I have seen the dark side of the New Zealand left”. My other favourite comment of note: “when people are offended it’s because they are afraid.” Yeah, totally.
I also found it uncomfortable how Simon Sweetman suddenly started rhapsodizing about the band about a fortnight after the controversy, taking pains to talk about everything – anything – but what had gone down around ‘Harlot’, and ultimately coming off as making a bizarre apologia for them. Given that his newspaper reported on the controversy, it’s impossible to believe he wasn’t aware of it. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and if you choose to pretend it does, why are you bothering to write about it?
By December I’d decided it had blown over, and that I wasn’t actually going to bother writing about the Eversons, but then they put out ‘The Christmas Suicide Song‘, because losing a family member forever in late December and being consigned to associate the holiday season every year with that moment you found their body is really courageous observational humour (Lil Chief’s hot update: “It’s a sad fact that more suicides occur now than at any other time of year…still a novel subject matter for a 2 minute pop hit if you ask me.”). I stand pretty firm that there’s nothing wrong with making fun – even superficially – of the powerful, but the sort of targets the Eversons have chosen this year are generally vulnerable ones, and that’s unequivocally straight-up wrong. And so it was hard not to look back and single them out for ‘Harlot’ and ‘Xmas Suicide’, even if I thought they had a harmless charm at the start.
Hey, how good was it to get our first decent Cat Power album in close to a decade? Sun isn’t perfect by any means but it has a handful of moments of emotional salvation, some great ‘songwriterly’ moments where Chan Marshall lashes out at the world at large – and ‘Cherokee’, which sounds at once kinda dated and kinda timeless, serves as her M.O this time around (“I’ve been a little out of it, but I’m going to attempt a glossy dance record and see how it goes”) and ends up at a point far from where I expected it to start – for the first 20 seconds, as Marshall mumbles into focus, it felt like it could have come off Moon Pix or You Are Free.
Which are great albums by the way. And The Greatest and Jukebox, with their weird, tedious rites of smoky soulful authenticity, definitely aren’t. Re: The Greatest – never understood why some people were like ‘this was the album she was always meant to make’ unless they’d always seen her as some sort of Duffy-style antiquarian artifact. The kind that did cloying soul revues, where she would individually introduce the members of her ensemble and have them play some virtuosic little fill while you wait for the actual song. Meanwhile, Jukebox was just painful, nowhere more so than a nauseating easy-listening cover of her own ‘Metal Heart‘. Imagine if Ian Curtis had lived to be 40, fat, and balding and re-done ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ in 1996 as some ‘Champagne Supernova’ strum-along – anything to dull that feeling of being young and catatonic with sadness and isolation. Anything to take the edges off the past. Then you’ll get a sense of what this self-cover felt like. Jukebox‘s ‘Metal Heart‘ is possibly my least favourite recording by anyone ever.
In comparison, what makes ‘Cherokee’ and the rest of Sun enjoyable is a comfort within its own skin. The song’s been bagged for sounding ludicrously out of step, from the high-wire 90s AOR drama of its piano refrain to the .wav file bird noises – but I mean, the trip-hop shuffle and Casio beats of ‘American Flag’ and ‘Free’ sounded equally off when they came out in 1998 and 2003. Marshall has never been a cutting-edge style pirate on the Bullet Train to Futureville (© Stevie Kaye) , but the sense that she’s never really engaging with any zeitgeist, brand new or retro, means she’s always an interesting prospect from record to record. She’s fucking with her own rep now in a really self-aware and entertaining way, too: watch this video where, once again, she struggles to make her way through a performance without breaking down in front of her audience. Even when they’re 6-year olds.
And I’ll just mention Sharon Van Etten here because if you liked Moon Pix or You Are Free at all then it’s likely you’ll adore Tramp. ‘In Lines’ was one of the few songs to really leave me with a catch in my throat this year.
A couple of years or so ago, the Tampa, FL trio Merchandise were still doing lockjaw hardcore and observing a strict straight-edge lifestyle. In a city that’s relatively inured from trends, spending your social time in a subcultural niche that favours thrift and conformity, it’d be easy to keep doing the same thing at blastbeat pace until you didn’t, simply looking inward until you grew up. And though, sure, Carson Cox and Dave Vassalanti hit the booze and dairy, growing up really constituted a questioning and repudiation of insularity, of their own scene and the identity politics that came with it – and watching that play out on their sprawling Children of Desire is genuinely thrilling. Songs that owe nothing to hardcore apart from a go-for-broke (but freshly untethered) romanticism, ten minute-plus epics that declare “The music started/I realised it was all a lie/The guitars were running out last year’s punk” before becoming operatic industrial piledrivers.
‘Time’ is really where the wheels leave the ground though, an unqualified bid for anthem stakes that has lots of modern-day indie signifiers (the rickety pulse of old drum machines, peals of alarm-clock feedback reinforcing its choruses) but also has all the messy hugeness of ‘Dancing Queen’ heard through a transistor – imagine the corkscrewing guitar line that cracks the ceiling about 30 seconds as if it had been a small army of angelic Scandinavian backing vocalists, and you’re almost there. Meanwhile, Cox’s lovelorn vocal turn seems less like a drippy Anglophilia thing to me and more like an act of Tin Pan Alley showmanship that makes the whole deal a whole lot more make-and-break then we’re led to anticipate at the start.
I’m also a fan of the way ‘time’ stays slippery as a concept here over the course of a few relatively simple lyrical fragments – alternately used to address the persistence of childhood memory (“But when I was a boy/I would have nightmares in the day’) as something to be occupied, filled and killed with a grim and careless necessity, and finally something that’s slipping away fast. We’re still young, baby, but we’re getting old. With so many homogenous white guys out there staring down at an array of pedals and mumbling sweet nothings , this is the one I’m going to keep pulling out as the crushing, gorgeous exception to the norm, probably for a good while past 2012.
(Shoutouts to Merchandise and their label Katorga Works, who have made ‘Children of Desire’ free to download here)
We still know virtually nothing about Lorde – apart from the rumour that she’s 16(!!!!!!) and in Auckland, somewhere out there in the suburbs. I’d venture we barely know enough to be cynical – so I’m just going to keep being floored by ‘Royals’ and its immaculately presented brethren on The Love Club EP. If you make international comparisons (and you should, this is the standard we’re talking) and look to the first assemblages of songs from Azaelia Banks and Sky Ferreira, then there’s just no comparison in terms of the unity and confidence on offer here. And she’s younger than both of them.
‘Royals’ is one of a very select batch of pop songs to tackle what it means to be young, ordinary and in love with pop music and do so without generating an unreal nostalgia for the present and recent past, or worse, bandwagoneering. The breathtaking naturalism of some of the lines: “My friends and I, we’ve cracked the code/We count our dollars on the train to the party” sits alongside the glorious cognitive dissonance of blinged-out party music, of commercial rap and Top 40 pop’s excesses recast as a medieval bacchanalia: “But every song’s like/gold teeth, Grey Goose dripping in the bathroom/blood stains, ball gowns, trashing the hotel room”. The keen appreciation of that gap between how we live and what we consume, what we dream of and what can make us happy now, and the value of performance and fantasy somewhere in between, has rarely been isolated and tagged like this. The track by itself, apropos of nothing else but a few “let’s make out” placeholders, would have still been great – closest I’ve heard to the sort of whip-crack coolness perfected by latter-day Robyn. But the lyrical acuteness gives it an amazing gravitas. It already feels like a classic.
Last point, bearing in mind we don’t have the full story at our disposal: no NZ On Air funding I can see, no fighting to be heard on theaudience.co.nz‘s growing signal-to-noise ratio. Just one illustration and five songs and a Soundcloud. If this is all for real, it suggests we sometimes overthink the mechanisms and metrics on which we need to succeed – particularly when no one holds the reins or pursestrings in your ability to market and promote yourself anymore.
Beyond (well, before) 2012, other things I really enjoyed discovering this year included:
Bruce Russell’s long-awaited compiliation Time To Go – The Southern Psychedelic Moment: 1981-86. Stuff I had never heard (The Playthings, The Shallows); artists I finally had an incentive to delve further into (Roy Montgomery and The Pin Group); and the towering highlight, the Victor Dimisich Band’s ‘It’s Cold Outside‘, rivalled their own ‘Native Waiter’ for beautiful pastoral dread.
Ex-pat New Zealander (now Hollywood film composer) Graeme Revell’s 80s industrial outfit SPK, and their transition from making some of the most punishing scorched-earth noise music I’ve ever heard to eerie, damaged disco built from analogue pings, stutters and shudders.
Bristol outfit More Rockers – one half Rob Smith of Smith & Mighty, one half Peter D. Rose, who provided the first incarnation of Massive Attack with their cavernous basslines. Dub Plate Selection Volume 1 is a prescient combination of breakbeats, dub and r ‘n b that feels oddly in situ alongside contemporary UK club music trends.
German experimental composer Conrad Schnitzler’s blurry neon autobahn synthscapes, best showcased on the three long pieces that make up Slow Motion.
American country singer Steve Young’s career seems pretty typical of a lot of the B-listers of his era – his best known songs rendered by stars like Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr, most of his bank probably still coming from The Eagles covering his song ‘Seven Bridges Road‘ – but his 1969 debut album Rock, Salt And Nails is almost unclassifiable. I’d argue it’s much too weird to even be seen as outlaw country, with haunting virtually acapella tracts on ecological devastation (‘Coyote‘) and ornate, lambent heartbreakers (‘Kenny’s Song‘) alike.
Memphis rapper Tommy Wright III, who matched bracingly hard and violent crime lyrics to his own mordant and toxic lo-fi MIDI beats and set a sonically-unified precedent for what Main Attrakionz and Lil B are doing 15 years on.
Didn’t touch the final Afghan Whigs album, 1965, for way too long – I lived under the misapprehension that they were a spent force by 1998, but the record contains a couple of Greg Dulli’s finest songs (‘Uptown Again‘, ‘John The Baptist‘) and makes an effective bookend for the case that they were the best rock band of the nineties. I’ll also just note again that The National’s trek further and further away from the template the Whigs set them, into a sort of bathetic 30-something every-man’s land, has been their spiritual undoing.
Living with Tim Gentles of ROSE QUARTZ this year meant my weekend pottering was set to a metronomically steady diet of early house and techno (and a little too much vaporwave – but whatever, we’ve got some really good writing and thinkpieces out of it). This rubbed off best when I got my teeth into primitive 1980s Chicago house duo Virgo Four – something about their liminal slace between raw performance and the slick reliability of loops and technology appeals for my need for grit, those traces of human error and exploration.
I also picked up on Scottish 80s girl duo Strawberry Switchblade, who put out an album or so of implacable music – somewhere between arch baroque goth, sixties bubblegum, and mysteriously, J-pop (yeah, they were big in Asia). I also really enjoyed following the cover lineage of their two ‘best-known’ songs, ‘Since Yesterday’ and ‘Trees And Flowers‘ – 90s wet-blanket shoegazers Revolver do the former well, and Dum Dum Girls’ shot at the latter this year may be their finest moment to date. Both the originals and the tributes hit that weary hint of night-bus optimism as dawn hits the outer suburbs and municipal services shut down. Welcome to the new year.