The best music of 2004.
BY NICK BOLLINGER
1. SMILE, Brian Wilson (Nonesuch).
Conceived almost 40 years ago and abandoned when dissent within Brian Wilson's band, the Beach Boys, reached flashpoint, this brand new recording presents the first complete version of Wilson's ambitious song cycle in all its rococo splendour. The melodies are magnificent and Van Dyke Parks's libretto outrageous yet essentially coherent. But even had it been completed in the 60s, it would never have achieved Wilson's goal of besting the Beatles. Rather, it would have marked the early invention of alternative rock.
2. VAN LEAR ROSE, Loretta Lynn (Interscope).
Jack White's production of this septuagenarian's comeback-cum-crossover had the potential for star-sponsored folly. But White pulled off a coup, placing Lynn's down-home homilies in tough musical settings that veer off into rockabilly, psychedelia and White's patented garage-punk. And even when Lynn borders on the cornball (such as the unfeasibly cheerful "High on a Mountaintop"), White keeps things on the affectionate side of camp.
3. ESCONDIDA, Jolie Holland (Anti/Shock).
Originally from Texas, Holland is an itinerant art waif, who founded post-folkies the Be Good Tanyas in Vancouver before heading to San Francisco alone. Along the way she picked up elements of Appalachian balladry, delta blues, lounge-bar jazz and Anglo folksong, which she mix-matches in dream-inspired originals and road tales from the beatnik underground.
4. YOU'VE GOT TO HEAR THE MUSIC, Dimmer (Festival/Mushroom).
In his Dunedin days Shayne Carter was the only Flying Nun musician ever to namecheck black acts like Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, both of whom he quotes on the funkiest, friendliest album he has ever made. But a stronger influence comes from closer to home. The big, sparse grooves show the lessons of Poly-funksters like Fat Freddy's Drop and Trinity Roots, and when Bic Runga and Anika Moa join him in harmony, it almost becomes the Shayne Carter Showband.
5. CHUTES TOO NARROW, the Shins (Sub Pop).
The Shins come on like relics of the British invasion; short sharp songs full of ringing guitars, soaring melodies and giddy energy. But their neuroses are peculiarly American, and James Mercer, who fronts this Albuquerque quartet, articulates these in dark riddles with ominous titles like "Pink Bullets" and "Kissing the Lipless". If you regret that the dBs never lasted to fulfil their promise, this is for you.
6. OUR ENDLESS NUMBERED DAYS, Iron and Wine (Sub Pop).
Florida native Sam Beam makes such soft, woody music that it is a while before one notices that the subjects of his songs are rarely pleasant. The settings are pastoral, Beam's voice easy and melodious, yet a sense of foreboding underpins it all. His mythical South is a land where "there are guns growing out of our bones", or, to quote another Beam lyric, "there will be teeth in the grass".
7. DOWNTOWN PUFF, Edmund Cake (Lil' Chief).
While other members of the former Bressa Creeting Cake reinvented themselves as thinking-person's pop stars Goldenhorse, Edmund Cake (formerly McWilliams) went solo, taking the wilful eccentricity of his old band to further extremes. From sublime beauty ("Golden Man", "The Airshow") to unhinged humour ("My Son the Harpist", "Silverdale"), Downtown Puff makes the case for Cake as the Kiwi Brian Wilson.
8. GET A HAIRCUT, Various artists (Zerox).
Thirty-one songs tracking just over 40 years of local rock'n'roll, from Johnny Devlin to the Datsuns. But this is not a history of Kiwi rock so much as a journey through the mind of its compiler, John Baker, who finds the common impulse in proto-punks the Enemy and a 1950s student spoof (Clyde Scott and the Zany-opolis's "Gravedigger's Rock"). And who else would think to put tracks by Ray Columbus and the Scavengers back to back, knowing it would flow?
9. HOME, LAND & SEA, Trinity Roots (Trinity Roots).
One can hear the deep space of reggae, the interplay of jazz and the raw feeling of R&B in the music of this capital trio, but specific influences have long since been absorbed into a style that is all their own. And while most of the songs on this sophomore set are typically long and free-ranging, the pair of songs that bookend it are simple, economical anthems.
10. OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW, Old Crow Medicine Show (Nettwerk).
Gillian Welch's guitar-genius partner David Rawlings produced the debut of these neo-hillbillies, whose playing is so personal that even the century-old standards that make up a sizeable part of their set sound like their own stories.
BY JON BYWATER
1. HOLY GHOST, Albert Ayler (Revenant).
Much great music from the Vietnam era has been unearthed on CD, but few documents could rival this staggering nine disc set, all previously unreleased material by American free jazz saxophonist Ayler, who stands alongside Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles as one of the giants of his time. His rapturous, chanting playing makes nursery rhyme sense on one level and is as challenging as the most difficult work of his colleague John Coltrane on another. (Ayler live at Coltrane's funeral is just one of the impossible treasures brought to light.)
2. SUNG TONGS, Animal Collective (Fat Cat).
One of the freshest, most sustaining new sounds in home-recorded pop, New York's Animal Collective take more than a few risks in their constant aim to capture in sound a transcendent, childlike beauty. These pay off, and brilliantly, on a generously sprawling, long album, wearing a profound combination of polish and nonchalance.
3. ESPERS, Espers (Locust Music).
In a year where quirky folk music got a lot of attention, Espers stand out as classicists. This relatively strait-laced, homage-like album gets at the elegance and peace of the best of the era it emulates - predominantly British folk circa 1970. The Philadelphia group start from a slightly icy, straight-backed, chamber music sound. Such school-music-room simplicity as autoharp and recorder is central to an embroidery of dulcimers, guitars, chimes and other extras. From here, sheets of fuzztone and a tone generator quietly lead us deeper into the psychedelic forest than wackier experiments ever could.
4. END OF THE CENTURY: The Story of the Ramones, directed by Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields.
Johnny Ramone shows up in this straightforward but excellent rockumentary as shrewd and brutal, a right-wing, working-class New Yorker, who aside from being a brilliant guitarist, was the man who drove the Ramones, his unbetterable band, for better and, perhaps, into the ground. It's joyous and grim, a classically rock'n'roll story. He died in September: R.I.P. Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny.
5. 76/77, Cobra Killer (Monika).
Smarter and more enduring listening than almost any other electropunk, Cobra Killer still have the glamour and the manic energy that that flavour is all about. From the drily antagonistic "Let's Have a Problem" to "I'm Finished", 76/77 burns with the intoxicating energy of alcohol, oestrogen and brains.
6. TOO MUCH GUITAR, Reigning Sound (In the Red).
No one much has heard of Dan Penn's Nobody's Fool or Sir Douglas Quintet Plus 2 either, but those are the high benchmarks of Southern, blue-eyed soul to which this noisy garage-rock album comfortably measures up. An online interview has the lead singer, Greg Cartwright, specify his humble ambition to make a record someone would be excited to find at a garage sale one day. This one means he already has.
7. OPEN SESAME, Shaft (Lil' Chief).
Fans of this Auckland act will have known at least half of the songs on this, their debut album, by heart years ago. And they'll still like them. This finely crafted disc presents Shaft's strangely normal songbook and it's as fresh as if it were plucked out of the air yesterday.
8. THE THIRD UNHEARD: Connecticut Hip Hop 1979-1983, Various artists (Stone's Throw).
About a million years before Pharrell, Outkast and the Roots ruled the roost, around 1979, stacks of homemade records looped the breaks and busted rhymes in a way that now sounds better than ever. Hopefully heralding the start of a new, more careful archiving of the tiny labels that released cuts by such as the scene stars here, Pookey Blow and Mr Magic, this regional survey avoids the rather random, "Block Party Breaks" type approach to hip-hop history, and critically beats down on the lazy, NYC-centric Sugarhill Gang orthodoxy about this early era.
9. ALL TIMES THROUGH PARADISE, the Saints (EMI).
Having hit upon the 70s punk recipe all on their own, in Brisbane, arguably earlier than the Damned or the Ramones (helped by Australia's own Coloured Balls and the sharpie scene, perhaps), the Saints made one of the best rock records of all time, I'm Stranded. That LP, the other two they managed during their first and fieriest incarnation, a live show from '77, indeed every scrap they recorded between '76 and '78, has never sounded crisper than on this meticulously produced set.
10. I COULD DESTROY YOU WITH A SINGLE THOUGHT, Kraus (try PO Box 1320, Dunedin).
The superpowered arrogance of the title matches the pains taken to craft this 10-track instrumental album, somewhere between a pop Moog record and the harshest no wave. Short melodic and rhythmic figures are worked hard into the knife edge between queasy claustrophobia and rigorous brilliance. By turns evoking glam rock and cold wave, Kraus takes up the Crude aesthetic and makes the most exciting contribution in a while to the local underground.
BY JIM PINCKNEY
1. MORE CREATION, Lennie Hibbert (Studio One).
As band leader of the celebrated Alpha Boys School in the 60s, vibes specialist, multi-instrumentalist and arranger Lennie Hibbert mentored many of Jamaica's greatest musicians. His second, extraordinary album of gentle rocksteady and Caribbean jazz has long been unavailable, and is quite simply without compare. The passing of label founder Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd this year makes it even more fitting that this diverse and unique album should finally get a decent issue.
2. THE GREY ALBUM, Danger Mouse & Jay-Z (download).
Swiftly curtailed by heavy-handed action from EMI's lawyers, the combination of the a cappellas from Jay-Z's farewell The Black Album and the Beatles' "White Album", superbly disassembled, justified the media hoopla. Most mash-ups and bootlegs have a short shelf life, but this skilfully crafted musical mismatch is a great deal more than just postmodern pranksterism.
3. SOUTHERN LIGHTS, SJD (Round Trip Mars).
Well, I have to claim self-interest, as this album is on my own label, but the critical and public acclaim speaks for itself. Sean Donnelly firmly steps onwards and upwards from 2001's Lost Soul Music with assistance from his own band, Victoria Kelly, David Kilgour, Don McGlashan, Angus McNaughton and others.
4. FREE THE BEES, the Bees (Virgin).
An album recorded at Abbey Road that does justice to the legendary studio and throws a little more colour into the mix than the majority of the currently feted rock'n'soul revivers. From heartbreak ballads to unrepentantly groovy swingers, Syd-style psychedelia and even a gritty reggae instrumental, this wide-range brew should have been charming the pants off the masses.
5. BREAK IT TO PIECES, Feelstyle (Can't Stop Music).
There's simply no excuse for ignorance of this sophisticated Samoan lyricist and his diligent beat brother Submariner any more. Building on a strong musical foundation that encompasses sly funk, reggae and our own island styles, there's humour and intelligence to spare on the grown-up hip-hop of this crucial summer charmer.
6. CARIBBEAN CONNECTION, La Favella & DJ Buddha (Da Mixtape Bully).
Reggaeton, the street end of the Latino dancehall combination, truly came of age this year. Still (just) underground and devilishly hard to track down, artists like the superstar in waiting Tego Calderon, Daddy Yankee, Voltio and Don Omar are producing scorchingly fresh tunes.
Combinations with savvy hip-hoppers like NORE may lead to this music spreading further - in the meantime, it's a mixtape thing and this one, which blends it up with Jamaican material, is the best.
7. MUSIC & RHYTHM, Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra (Ubiquity).
Styled as a 70s library album of background music, this is in fact the work of one man, Shawn Lee, a kind of independent Brit-based Beck. None of the 25 predominantly instrumental cuts runs longer than two and a half minutes, but each adroitly conveys its mood through the mediums of lounge, psych, folk and swampy funk to stunning effect.
8. LIFE:STYLES, Coldcut (Harmless).
An outstanding, unmixed collection from the UK vinyl fiends that places obscure French library tunes alongside the Temptations or timeless reggae harmonies next to a goofy 1954 rendition of "Hernando's Hideaway". Bobby Shad & the Bad Men's storming version of "I Want You Back" justifies the price tag, but there really is something for everyone on this album.
9. COLLEGE DROPOUT, Kanye West (Rocafella).
Marginally edging out Nas's just-released, breathtaking odyssey Street's Disciple for the hip-hop honours, West showed that his rap skills are right up with the
production talent that got him accepted into the Rocafella camp. Only marred by some tiresome, unamusing skits, this debut justifiably ruled the roost this year, with certified gems like "All Falls Down", "Jesus Walks" and "Two Words".
10. MASTER VIEW, Hexstatic (Ninja Tune).
Now that so many releases include dubious DVD discs to divert people away from downloading, it's heartening to see justice being done to the format. Every single track from this album gets its own video clip (some more than one), with most requiring the use of the supplied 3D glasses for full enjoyment. Musically, it's right up there with the best of the Ninja Tune catalogue, flexing everything from infectious Brazilian dancefloor tunes to relaxed electronic atmospheres. This is the full package.
BY IAN DANDO
1. DOUGLAS LILBURN, Complete Electroacoustic works (Atoll ACD 404).
New Zealand composers hogged 2004 as in no other year - 16 CDs from Lilburn alone. First up was his Complete Electro-acoustic works, a box set of three CDs and one DVD. Lilburn's evocation of cicadas, kokako bird calls, breaking waves, Maori speech and rippling streams in his electronic landscapes is so much ingrained in Kiwis, it surprises me that these works aren't more popular here. Lilburn never clutters. His elegant cleanness uses no more than two or three strands at once.
2. DAN POYNTON, Lilburn's Complete Piano Music Vol 1 (MMT 2053).
Dan Poynton is now up to volume two of a projected three-CD set of Lilburn's complete piano music. Volume one contains a natural charmer in the 26 Occasional Pieces. The innocent beauty of these
miniatures bowled me. Poynton plays them so infectiously, too.
3. DOUGLAS LILBURN, The Landscape of a New Zealand composer (SOUNZ).
Just to hand is this 10-CD box set. Lilburn's death in 2001 prompted Radio New Zealand to get producers Gareth Watkins and Roger Smith to spend a year culling information from 25 of Lilburn's closest family, friends and colleagues. The resultant 10 one-hour talks, first broadcast by Concert FM, are now on CD. The cost is $150. Order from SOUNZ Centre for NZ Music, PO Box 10042, Wellington or Radio Freeplay freephone 0800 737 529. This is advance info to enthusiasts, as my review, just dispatched, will miss 2004 by a hair's breadth.
4. NZSO/KENNETH YOUNG, David Farquhar: Three Symphonies (MMT 2060).
Although the circuitous discourse in the Farquhar Three Symphonies lacks Lilburn's lucid train of thought, his symphonies have a rugged emotional volatility absent in the reserved Lilburn. The power-ful third, written in 2001, shows fine -marriage of technique and emotion.
5/6. JACK BODY, Composer Portrait (Waiteata, WTA006) and Pulse (Rattle D009).
I'm not alone in rating Wellingtonian Jack Body as the finest of our currently active composers. Newly appointed composition teacher and composer Gao Ping, who came here direct from the US, agrees and goes even further, rating Body highly on an international level. If his Composer Portrait reveals his astonishing versatility, Pulse, representing his cross-cultural phase of writing, was my most thrilling New Zealand disc for the year. It should be a staple of anyone's New Zealand CD collection. A bonus disc contains the sources (many being Body's own field recordings) from diverse areas such as Madagascar and China. On CD, you can hear the results of Body transforming these ethnic pieces into the manicured formality of Western concert hall music. These are instantly appealing works from a highly inventive musical mind.
7. IAN PACE, Dusapin 7 Piano Etudes, Concerto à Quia (Naïve MO 782164 two CDs, one DVD).
On Dusapin 7 Piano Etudes, Concerto à Quia I discovered one of the 21st century's most innovative musical minds. Frenchman Pascal Dusapin's Piano Concerto (2002) is unique to the genre. The "à quia" in the title refers to nonplussing your opponent by reducing him to silence. This tactical battle between piano and orchestra has moments of lunging abrasiveness, reminding you that he was Xenakis's favourite pupil. Although a few of the études (written between 1998-2002) are violently rhythmic, the majority are intensely personal studies in sadness. Pianist Ian Pace, whose specialty is post-war moderns, is right inside these unconventional works.
8. PIERRE BOULEZ, Works by Debussy and Ravel (DG471 614-2).
Boulez's ear for subtleties of sonority and choice of singers serve him well in Works by Debussy and Ravel with the Cleveland Orchestra. The two song cycles - Ravel's sensuous Schéhérazade and Debussy's Poèmes de François Villon, with its medieval atmosphere, come across with wonderfully limpid imagery. He gives finely crafted performances of the popular orchestral works - Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, Pavane and Debussy's two Danses for harp and strings.
9. OWEN MORIARTY (Manu 5003/4).
Ode Records boldly debuts 23-year-old guitarist Owen Moriarty on a CD double. What a winner they backed. His versatile repertoire ranges from Bach to New Zealand pieces and tangos. Whatever he chooses, it is all in perfect style, with exemplary technical neatness. One of the finest guitar recitals I have heard from a New Zealander.
10. ANDRAS SCHIFF, Bach's Goldberg Variations (ECM 472-185-2).
Pianist András Schiff has the mentality to give this masterpiece the intellectual and spiritual powers it needs. These are very lifelike and sometimes contrarian performances. His rhythmic ebullience shows how Schiff sees a strong dance element in these variations.