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The Listener's 20 Best Albums of 2018

Marlon Williams – who tops Listener music reviewer James Belfield’s chart – talks to Russell Baillie about his very big year. See the rest of our top picks below.

Marlon Williams. Photo/Getty Images

As well as picking up the Listener’s album of the year, your accolades for 2018 include a Silver Scroll and three Tuis. Nice work. You must feel bad for anyone who happened to be nominated against you?

Ha ha, of course. In classic Kiwi fashion, I find that kind of recognition completely embarrassing. I mean, New Zealand’s the only place one would even be asked that question.

Has your appearance in the movie A Star is Born had an effect yet?

I’ve been getting nice messages from all over the place. My part in the film is so minimal, but I guess it speaks to the phenomenon of the project.

Given how first-person and personal Make Way for Love was, does that make it challenging for your songwriting since, or in the future?

I feel like every push in a new artistic direction is inherently an escape from the past. That friction is really important to me and I relish the opportunity to contradict myself again.

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And given the stylistic shift of Make Way for Love, how country are you feeling these days?

I think that sense of fatalism that is so prevalent in country music has well and truly fused with my DNA. I still listen to country music as much as I ever have and I’m actually about to start a little side project that’s more materialistically aligned to it.

2018 … your greatest moment was?

Sharing a meal with Steven Adams. Nothing could possibly top it.

Also in 2018, did you get what you want, perhaps disproving a well-known theory as expressed in a certain song?

I got many things I wanted, but as Schopenhauer said, “satisfaction … is only the beginning of a new striving”.

Early in 2019, you’re playing the “Tūrangawaewae Tour”. What does that title signify and where do you consider your tūrangawaewae to be?

It has a double meaning for me at this point in my life. New Zealand is my geographical tūrangawaewae and indeed, in some sense, my metaphorical locus. But it also speaks to the fact that in the past few years, touring itself has, by necessity, taken on the shape of home, too. It’s a wee joke.

And lastly, the best album, other than your own, you heard in 2018?

The best album in 2018 for me was pretty undoubtedly Laura Jean’s Devotion. Her talent for nuance has always made her one of my favourite songwriters and to hear it fully realised as pop music is something to behold.

Marlon Williams is on tour in February and March, playing wineries in Nelson, Hawke’s Bay, Auckland and Martinborough and indoor shows in Dunedin and Christchurch.  

1. Make Way for Love by Marlon Williams

Caroline/Universal

A swag of awards – including the Tui for album of the year and Silver Scroll for Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore – and a Hollywood debut alongside Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born mean Marlon Williams can claim ownership of 2018 in terms of Kiwi music. Make Way for Love, though, is much more than a hit-machine breakup album; it is the album in which Williams finally found the honest songwriting skill to match that spellbinding voice.

2. Heaven and Earth by Kamasi Washington

Young Turks

A mesmerising gig at Auckland’s Powerstation in March hinted at the powerful double album to follow mid-year. Heaven and Earth is a stunning vehicle for Washington’s sax and his band’s flawless, frenetic music, as well as a landmark for 21st-century jazz in the way it weaves traditional styles with hip-hop, psychedelia, Sun Ra mysticism and even the odd Bruce Lee movie sample.

3. Future Me Hates Me by The Beths

Carpark Records

Gloriously tongue-in-cheek angsty punkiness from a group of Aucklanders whose debut album spawned Rolling Stone’s song of the summer (Happy Unhappy) in the US and bouncy dance-along tracks such as Uptown Girl, which is on high rotation on World Surf League broadcasts. Fast, loose and fun.

Courtney Barnett. Photo/Getty Images

4. Piano and a Microphone 1983 by Prince

Warner

The perfect first post-death Prince album had to be a pre-Purple Rain rarity that referenced his final tour, which came here in early 2016 – and this meandering, intimate, 35-minute, single-take piano jam does just that. There’s bound to be more like it in those Paisley Park vaults, but this one reveals plenty about the breadth of his artistry.

5. Tell Me How You Really Feel by Courtney Barnett

Remote Control

This 31-year-old Aussie’s second solo album uses slacker rock and punkish spleen-venting as a weapon against prejudice and indifference. Her music still seems underpinned by anxiety, but via Nameless, Faceless and I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch she’s channelled a way to challenge it with honesty and observation.

6. Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino by Arctic Monkeys

Domino

The Brit rockers’ sixth outing takes a masterful U-turn from their usual social-commentary punchiness, instead choosing a louche, off-kilter surrealism packed with weird spacey synths, Alex Turner’s lounge-core crooning and songs about a gentrified lunar colony. It swaggers and leers, but is oddly compelling.

Tami Neilson. Photo/Shot by Mrs Jones

7. Sassafrass! by Tami Neilson

Southbound

Tami Neilson’s Sassafrass! riotously genre-hops its way around the 20th century’s great styles to truly earn its titular exclamation mark. From the crashing, brassy fusillade that opens Stay Outta My Business, and the roisterous smirking Bananas, it’s clear that Neilson is just as happy channelling the 50s jazz-pop of Rosemary Clooney and Della Reese as revelling in the more familiar territory of Patsy Cline country ballads, swampy rockabilly and soulful rock’n’ roll.

8. Avantdale Bowling Club by Avantdale Bowling Club

Years Gone By

Fatherhood and a return from Melbourne inspire a stunning – and surprising – jazz-fusion album from ex-Home Brew, @peace rapper Tom Scott. Skittering, edgy and earnest, complete with excellent cameos from other top-quality Kiwis such as Teeks and Estère.

9. Lightsleeper by Neil and Liam Finn

Inertia / [PIAS]

All the comfort and familiarity of a Sunday afternoon family jam session, all the artistry and left-field production techniques of two generations of genius Finns. Lightsleeper flits between Greek myth and psychedelic funkiness and still has time for a lullaby so exquisite that it was gifted to the PM’s new baby.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson. Photo/Getty Images

10. Tū by Alien Weaponry

Napalm Records

Te reo thrash from Northland seldom sneaks onto the Listener’s top-20 list but this trio’s pounding beats and intelligent, emotionally charged songwriting have seen them rightfully burst onto the world stage carrying a strong message for Māoridom and Kiwi music.

11. Sex & Food by Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Jagjaguwar/Rhythmethod

One-time Mint Chicks, brothers Ruban and Kody Nielson, reunite for a warped indie album of psych-pop that was recorded in Seoul, Reykjavik, Auckland and Portland, and from that world of influences came some of 2018’s strongest grooves.

12. The Window by Cécile McLorin Salvant

Mack Avenue

Hot on the heals of Dreams and Daggers, songs from which featured heavily in her New Zealand shows in March, The Window provides a companion piece as McLorin Salvant genre-hops from Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder to Nat King Cole and Cole Porter – all while letting that incredible jazz voice soar, shift, pause and patter. Unmistakable greatness seeps from all her recordings and this is no different.

Cécile McLorin Salvant. Photo/Getty Images

13. Walls by Barbra Streisand

Sony

Lush, bold, glorious orchestras and Streisand’s passionate, superstar performances. This 76-year-old was never going to get back into the studio unless she had some powerful songs to back her – it just so happened she found inspiration in a ferocious anti-Trump tirade. “Facts are fake and friends are foes/And how the story ends nobody knows.” Fair enough.

14. Shining Day by Delaney Davidson

Southbound

Workaholic Kiwi singer-songwriter-producer Delaney Davidson’s ninth solo outing is typically dark, brooding and eccentric. And bloody wonderful for it.

15. Sleepwalking by Jonathan Bree

Lil’ Chief

Jonathan Bree’s bizarrely choreographed, masked concerts were the live local highlights of 2018, and admirably suited to this perfectly produced album of off-kilter 60s pop. Bree’s making some of the best music in New Zealand at the moment and Sleepwalking deserves to be his breakthrough.

Barbra Streisand. Photo/Getty Images

16. 13 Rivers by Richard Thompson

New West

British folk legend Richard Thompson is 18 albums into a solo career – let alone all that 60s and 70s output with wife Linda and Fairport Convention – and still he’s capable of a plugged-in, relevant, rocking album such as 13 Rivers. His guitar is outstanding, his voice still bold and gritty, and his songs strong and sincere.

17. Everything Is Love by The Carters

Sony

When Beyoncé  and Jay-Z drop a surprise album, the world stops to listen. And what they hear is a life-laid-bare steamroller of relationship revelations and world views. Whether you care is down to whether you care about billionaire rappers, but, heck, the way they spin their stories is pretty damned classy.

18. My Design, On Others' Lives by Estère

Rhythmethod

The voice alone earns Estère Dalton a place in any year-end list, but her production finesse and ability to weave world-music beats with found sounds and beautiful lyrics make her a Kiwi who’s clearly going places.

The Carters.

19. Negative Capability by Marianne Faithfull

BMG

As an artist who turns 72 this month, Faithfull is staring mortality full in the face in Negative Capability. Her voice and songwriting have matured to a wise perfection, and her choice of covers – such as Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue – reveals an honesty and artistry that can only have come from five decades in the industry.

20. And Nothing Hurt by Spiritualized

Inertia

Grand, anxious, staring down the world then melting into shimmering terror, Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce has long used his rock’n’roll guitar drones and drug references to deal wonderfully to death, sex and self-destruction. And Nothing Hurt is his curtain call, summed up in his line, “If you want wasted, loaded, permanently folded … I’m your man.”

This article was first published in the December 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.