Amplifier's Top Twenty Albums of 2011
All the staff at Amplifier have come together for the 6th consecutive year, entering into intense deliberation as to what they consider to be the Top Twenty Albums of 2011.
It was an epic skirmish, taking place over an almost-as-epic dinner, but in the end it succeeded in showing the following releases as Amplifier's Top Twenty Albums of 2011.
Spunk Records is proud to present Some Were Meant For Sea, the debut album from Tiny Ruins. Its songs, composed and performed by Hollie Fullbrook, follow a year spent collaborating and performing internationally in which the young artist's worldly voice and stories would connect with audiences as distant as Northern Spain and with artists including Joanna Newsom, Beach House and Holly Throsby.
Both vocally and instrumentally, Some Were Meant For Sea exists in dappled warmness: Fullbrook's striking timbre recalling a smooth Jolie Holland and conjuring a similar natural imagery born from earth and sea.
It is a mannered album, one whose traditional arrangements and classic key are gently commanding and reminiscent of folk's greatest storytellers: Carole King, The Unthanks and Richard Thompson. She writes with humour and fantasy of cats in hallways, journeys taking flight on moonlight, and priests who float into the sky on strings of balloons.
Amplifier says: Personal, immediate and introspective; Hollie Fulbrook lets her 11 mostly autobiographical songs breathe and linger with sparse production and a swoon inducing rich vocal that captures and ultimately melts you. It's an intimate collection with a sprinkling of cello and piano and some subtle, accomplished guitar playing. Our album of the year and one of the most stunning debuts you'll come across. Sit down in a quiet spot and let this one consume you. Superb.
Listen to: Adelphi Apartments
He enlisted his younger brother Sam, bandmates Iain Gordon and Toby Laing from Fat Freddy's Drop, Mike Fabulous from The Black Seeds, PK Hoskin and the Yeabsley Brothers from Twinset and others from such groups as The Phoenix Foundation, The Eggs and The Scribes of Ra.
Early in 2010, The Yoots began to chart a slightly different course. Along with the rocksteady rhythms of Don Drummond and The Skatalites, other sounds and famous melodies from Aotearoa began to feature on the programme. A new era had commenced, in which the band's new album Sing Along With The Yoots has emerged.
Amplifier says: One of the things that came up in selecting this year's Album of the Year was that a great album should move you. It should grab your emotions and give them a good shake up. That's why we couldn't split the top two albums this year. They both appealed to our senses, but at totally different ends of the spectrum. The Yoots came out of nowhere for us. In typical Economy Records fashion we heard about it quite late in the piece and there was a bit of a scramble to get Sing Along With the Yoots ready for digital release. But I can still clearly remember when the disc arrived and we put it on the stereo for the first time. The album bursts into life with Nga Iwi E being counted in (Toru, Wha!) and in the true fashion of dance halls in the 40's and 50's, the album finishes up with the slow burning Po Atarau. In between you're taken on a tour of the Maori songbook and if you buy the CD and you're also given the songbook so you can sing along.
I started smiling when I first heard Sing Along With the Yoots, and now, if I'm feeling a bit blue, or the stresses of running a music retailer in a declining market get to me, I put this album on and for nearly 44 minutes the rest of the world doesn't exist.
Listen to: Me He Manu Rere
These persevering working class beauties -pizza delivery, guitar teaching, labouring, carpenters, dead end jobs, dole queues, hangovers, housewives - are all distilled into their self-titled album.
The Vietnam War are influenced by closed curtains, fuzz bass, harmonica, country music, doo wop rock 'n roll, old guitars, warm tubes, vintage 60s drums, day time TV morphine ballads, minding their own business, anxiety, sleeplessness - all sorts.
The Vietnam War are a five piece band making honest guitar music in isolation.
Amplifier says: The Vietnam War's debut album has been a long time coming - and this shows in the quality of the material the band have turned out. Being an album of the alt-country genre, you've got to admire The Vietnam War's achievement in instilling it with very much a local flavour. It could have easily ended up as a record permeated by Americana imagery. As a whole, the album is one of absolute honesty and great continuity, making for an outstanding listen.
Titled Free All The Monsters, The Bats' eighth album shows them in top form. Recorded at Seacliff, a former asylum in the grand Victorian-style just outside of Dunedin, and masterfully produced by Dale Cotton (HDU, Dimmer), it captures some of their strongest songs to date.
From the melodic and insanely catchy title track, through to the psychedelic thrum of second single In The Subway, the lo-fi folk of Simpletons and the soaring instrumental passages, Free All The Monsters is filled with powerful and haunting guitars, delicate vocals and rhythms that swerve and stomp throughout.
It's a tale overflowing with cleverly crafted tunes. One that immediately pulls the listener in, and reveals a Bats sound that's even deeper, darker and more affecting than before.
Amplifier says: It seems fitting that in 2011, which marks the 30th anniversary of iconic Dunedin record label Flying Nun, the historic organisation should have one of the original forgers of the Dunedin Sound flying the flag for them with a brand new album.
But it's not just any brand new album. Free All The Monsters represents the Sound's continuing development, in correlation with the constant technological innovations in music production. This album embodies outstanding mixing, managing to include almost countless layers of sound whilst not being overwhelming to the listener. Free All The Monsters is a very atmospheric record - as exemplified by the opening track Long Halls - and also includes many instances of driving rhythms - as is the case with radio single In The Subway.
The Bats have gifted their audience with a brilliant contemporary take on what Flying Nun bands have on offer. It just goes to show the label has a heck of a lot of fantastic work to share with us in the years to come.
Listen to: Long Halls
Their three short years as The Unfaithful Ways has seen them rise to support Band Of Horses, Justin Townes Earle, appear at the 2010 APRA Silver Scrolls Awards and Big Day Out 2011.
Free Rein fuses songs of love, loss and the darker side of human emotion, while taking inspiration from The Byrds and Townes Van Zandt to weave together their own brand of toe-tapping country tunes and rich harmonious ballads.
Amplifier says: The Unfaithful Ways are one of those artists who have had to embark on a bit of an uphill battle following the devastating earthquakes in Canterbury. The Lyttelton Harbour band made a great return with this full-length Free Rein, having released an acclaimed EP in 2009. This is a case of a fantastic bands' work coming to its welcome fruition, against all odds. Thank goodness it did, because Free Rein really does set country music - the likes of The Byrds and The Eagles - on a great trajectory for the New Zealand market.
Listen to: Trouble I'm In
Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Keoghan released his debut album Arctic Tales Divide, a remarkable combination of Keoghan's classical training in singing and violin, with elements of pop and folk - you could even call it chamber-pop.
The first single of the album, Ca Va Bien Merci was released last September for radio play, a Serge Gainsbourg-influenced tune that has aired on stations including 95bFMand Radio New Zealand National.
Released on Brave Beluga Records, the album was produced by Wayne Bell, whose production credits include Jan Hellriegel, Bic Runga and Gin Wigmore. Arctic Tales Divide features such talented New Zealand musicians as Jol Mulholland (bass and guitar), Ben King (vocals and guitar), Wayne Bell (drums, percussion) and Victoria Girling-Butcher (vocals), with input from members of Goodshirt,The Mots, Goldenhorse, Dictaphone Blues and Tim Finn's band.
Amplifier says: There is a group of musicians, producers and engineers working in a secret lab in Mt Eden creating some of the finest local albums Amplifier Towers have heard over the last few years - releases from Victoria Girling Butcher, Flip Grater and Lisa Crawley. They combine once again, this time behind the considerable talents of one Andrew Keoghan. Arctic Tales Divide combines harmonic layering, understated synths and syncopated rhythms all wrapped up with sublime vocals that are the highlight of an album with so much to recommend it. A little bit Chamber Pop, a little bit Grizzly Bear a whole lot of originality. An astonishingly good debut with top notch production.
Listen to: Carnival Lights
Ruban Nielson, along with teen wunderkind Julian on drums, as well as production savant Jake on bass, have released Unknown MortalOrchestra's self-titled debut to the world, via Fat Possum in the US and Seeing Recordsin New Zealand.
With a sound drawing on the freedom of 1960s psychedelia and swampy 1970s funk, this self-titled, highly-anticipated debut album finally comes after the band blew up the blogosphere, essentially identity-less, about a year ago.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra first appeared more as a song than a set, more an idea than an identity. They dazzled all who heard them with multi-tracked sound and heavily treated vocals recalling the raw emotion of R&B from any era.
Amplifier says: So much was expected from this one, internet hype was huge and the critical blogs were bloated with praise. When I found out UMO was behind the wonderful one hook, 60's psych-pop of Thought Ballune, I was sold. On the back of a bandcamp EP came the full album, complete with a bafflingly appropriate cover of an abandoned Yugoslavian monument. In the wake of The Mint Chicks, the Neilson brothers keep astounding us with their imaginative and seductive pop arrangements. Reuben and friends nail this one. Kody's not far behind (maybe 2012 will be the year of the Opossum).
Listen to: Strangers Are Strange
They have come together to make a record, for and about their community, the profits and proceeds of which will find their way back to Lyttleton and the people that need it - the first project was paying for children's rides that the Christchurch City Mission hired for a post-quake community day!
Thirteen new or re-imagined alt-folk-country-punk tracks from a collective featuring some of the harbour basin's best known and best kept secrets.
Amplifier says: The fact that the numerous musicians who came together as The Harbour Union did so in the name of donating all profits and proceeds to those in Lyttelton affected by the Canterbury earthquake in February 2011 is a wonderful example of the overwhelming compassion that New Zealanders have felt and shown for each other in the wake of the disaster.
Scores of iconic venues and cafes such as Harbour Light, Wunderbar, The Volcanic Café, El Santo (The British Hotel) and The Empire Hotel were rendered uninhabitable by the quake, taking a toll on the town's vibrant artistic community.
But the actions of The Harbour Union just goes to show that whilst some people had been sorely affected by the disaster, they also recognised that there were some whose trauma was irreparable without the help of others. What's more, the band went on tour in September, spanning from north to south, generating even more funds to aid the people of Lyttleton. It really was a heart-warming show of compassion in one of Canterbury's darkest times.
Listen to: Ghost Of This Town
Bachelorette's self-titled third album is also her last.
Delicate electronic indie pop melodies with Annabel's luscious layered vocals once again are the focus of the album.
It was recorded around the world and mixed with Nicholas Vernhes at Rare Book Room (Animal Collective, Baby Dee, Dirty Projectors).
Amplifier says: Annabel Alpers' final album under the Bachelorette moniker proved a fitting finale in what turned out to be a trilogy of albums. Her brilliant electro-astral landscapes once again welcomely riddled her self-titled release; and it was also replete with tracks appropriately looking toward the future, such as Grow Old With Me, The Last Boat's Leaving and Not Entertainment. I'm sure we can get justfiably excited about Alpers' next exploit under her next alias.
Listen to: Polarity Party
Bannerman features the songwriting of Richard Setford, whose work is diversely affecting, slightly unhinged, fragile and quietly dramatic. The Bannerman world is a place of imagination and cinematic ambition. Think wind swept battlefields, detached murderers, nostalgic lovers, natural disasters and the shadow of time. All these themes and images are at play on his new album Dearly Departed.
Amplifier says: An infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters could doubtless come up with a review of this album that was fair and balanced. On the other hand, if an equally infinite number of monkeys with an equally infinite number of typewriters worked for Amplifier, they would still be accused of nepotism if they rated this album well. The fact is, we're confident our expression of approval can be justified by the scores of great reviews that Bannerman (aka Richie, Mr Music Manager at Amplifier) has garnered for Dearly Departed. Good music is good music - and Dearly Departed is good music.
Listen to: I Was Only Having Some Fun
The five years since her last album of new material have passed quickly, especially for Bic Runga, with the 2007 birth of her son. The constraints of parenthood necessitated a new approach to her work, so she tried something she had never seriously contemplated before - and it led to an artistic rebirth.
Bic Runga embarked on a series of songwriting "blind dates" including a co-write with Dan Hume of Evermore which resulted in the album's first single Hello Hello, and collaborations with James Milne (Lawrence Arabia), and Ruban and Kody Nielson (The Mint Chicks).
Belle was produced by Kody Nielson and mixed by Justin Gerrish (Vampire Weekend), Tom Rothrock (Beck, James Blunt, Foo Fighters) and Kody Nielson.
Amplifier says: Before Belle there was Kody and Bic and Darkness All Around Us. On the strength of that track, I was very much looking forward to an album of the duo's haunting melodies. Well that happened, but not in the way I expected. Bic Runga's 4th studio album is, it must be said, a group effort. Co-writes with James Milne, Jon Hume and the Neilson brothers ensure a solid collection of tunes that slightly off balance the album as a whole. However it's Bic's enthusiasm that unites it and she fills each song with her abundant talent. Belle is at once removed from previous Bic Runga albums as it is tied to them. Contemplative and joyous.
Listen to: Everything Is Beautiful And New
Cobra Khan is back and proud to announce the upcoming release of their new album Adversities. Some may say little has been heard from this Auckland five-piece since the acclaimed 2008 effort Helgorithms, but having simply been hidden away in home studios, bedrooms and the practice room alike, Cobra Khan are now ready to deliver.
Tracked under the watchful eye of bassist Evan Short and produced by both Evan and Milon Williams (vocals/guitar), it will quickly become obvious that Adversities is a monstrous and most welcome injection into the local heavy music scene, with enough riffs, evil vocals and huge drums to blow the doors off a resprayed Holden ute at ten paces.
Amplifier says: Hard + Heavy + Fast = GOOD!
Listen to: Blackened Royalty
The physical Rose Tint album takes it a step further with four new songs featuring some of the United States' hottest talents, along with a bonus disc of the instrumentals.
Tracks produced by Fire & Ice, P-Money, Dan 'Exile' Mawby and Nick '41' Maclaren.
Amplifier says: David Dallas really has done himself proud this year. The Rose Tint is truly a solid album, having been endorsed by thousands of devout fans both here and overseas. His songs are even doing laps of MTV in America - and for good reason. The album sets David Dallas on a roll, and you'd best get on to him if you haven't already!
Listen to: Take A Picture
On 9 May 2011, from a practice room in the depths of the Security Intelligent Service's former vault, Wellington's best kept secret was disclosed. Beastwars arrived fully formed and delivered an album of equal parts heaviness and heart.
There was plenty of online hype and five star reviews which led to the public embracing the album and landing it at number 15 in the top 40 charts - pretty good for a band that had to be seriously persuaded to even release on a format other than their preferred gatefold vinyl.
The album was produced by Dale Cotton and Beastwars and mastered by John Golden. The Tui Award-winning oil on canvas cover art is by Nick Keller.
Amplifier says: It's hard to know where to start when commending these metal monsters on their outright-successful year. Should we pay attention to the fact that they exploded out of nowhere, achieving great chart success with this accessible-yet-heavy release? Is it that they treated the country to a stunning succession of national tours? Or is the fact that the mesmerising album cover won a Tui Award most exciting? I think we should just recognise that Beastwars achieved all of this on the back of a very solid album, and look forward to more inevitably awesome material that these dark horses are building up to bring us in the future.
Eugene Told Me You Were Dead is the latest offering from musician/sound engineer Jol Mulholland. Still playing with his Mots, Mulholland is Jol's way of finally releasing all the music that keeps getting stored in his many hard drives.
The album was written and recorded in a small North Shore bedroom, mixed at Neil Finn's Roundhead Studios, then flown to Aussie to be mastered. It is an album that has already been praised by musicians and critics.
Amplifier says: Eugene Told Me You Were Dead really is a kiwi album through-and-through, having spawned from the incredible mind of Jol Mulholland. The peculiar instrumentation is a welcome component of an album that is somewhat psychedelic, quite warm, quite quirky and doesn't take itself too seriously. It's obvious Mulholland himself took it seriously, though. Such works as Realizing We Are Nothing really would have required a solid effort - and we reap the rewards!
Listen to: Everything's Gonna Be Alright
Cut Off Your Hands take a plunge into retro power pop territory on Hollow , having been influenced by breakout '60s artists like The Byrds and Bob Dylan - not to mention the kiwi pop and paisley underground acts that ran with those very same influences in the '80s and '90s, including such acts as The Bats and Bird Nest Roys.
Hollow was self-produced at the Auckland abode of drummer Brent Harris' parents, where the New Zealand natives previously recorded their debut EP in 2006. Everything from the moonlit melodies of Echo and the Bunnymen (Nausea, Hollowed Out) to the shimmering 12-string guitars of The Go-Betweens (You Should Do Better) can be heard in the light and dark shades of Hollow.
Amplifier says: Hollow is the album Cut Off Your Hands wrote in response to their experience trying to crack the UK market; and fittingly there is a languid weariness that permeates the record. Produced and recorded by the band at home in NZ, it's obvious Cut Off Your Hands are relishing the control they have over their new material. Long codas unfold and develop, it drives in all the right places with great bass playing and drumming, the arrangements are smart and the melodies assured. I listened to this album probably more than any other local release this year.
Listen to: Buried
Little Bushman have released Te Oranga, their long anticipated follow up to 2007's Pendulum. This third studio album was written and recorded over the last two years at Warren Maxwell's own recording facilities, Stonefeather Studios. Venturing at times into the shadows, then veering off up into the cosmos, it is sure to satisfy all who ingest.
From a delta-esque hoedown recitation of the cycle of life, to an alternative cosmic take on Creation - Te Oranga is their tour de force. The sheer diversity between the songs themselves allows for a meandering dynamic, which promises to make for great listening.
"Te Oranga is mostly a celebration of the warmer side of humanity," says band frontman Warren Maxwell.
Amplifier says: Often it can be where you first encounter music that leaves a lasting impression. I had to drive to Hamilton to speak at a music seminar. Attending music hui is part of the job and we're always very honoured to be invited. This particular hui though was less than well attended, and in the end our panel spoke to an entire audience of 6 people (two were speakers from the previous panel, and one was an event organiser). Hitting State Highway 1 back to Auckland I put Little Bushman's not yet released Te Oranga in the Passat's stereo. Now I don't try and hide the fact that I'm a Bushies fan - Warren Maxwell can do little wrong in my mind - but Te Oranga provided nearly an hour escape from the monotony of one of the world's most boring drives. In only 8 songs Little Bushman manage to deliver a complex mix of blues, rock and psychedelia, and on Dream of the Astronaut Girl they could easily be Ziggy Maxwell and the Bushman From Mars. And I'm sure that if the rest of the Amplifier Album of the Year voting panel had been in the car with me that day then Te Oranga would easily have ended up in the top 5.
Listen to: Te Oranga
With Princess Chelsea's debut album, Lil' Golden Book, she wants you to take this treasure home, curl up under the covers and get lost in a world of greedy monkeys, slumber parties and robot children.
Written, performed and recorded by Chelsea "Princess Chelsea" Nikkel; with production assistance from Jonathan "The Brunettes" Bree and a guest vocal by James "Lawrence Arabia" Milne.
The amazing artwork is designed by Brad "Brand New Math" Fafejta.
Amplifier says: One of our most original talents. Princess Chelsea filters her classical music background through an animators pen in a fantastically themed album which includes robot children, bad monkeys, unhealthy habits and a whole cauldron full of charm. Want to know what this sounds like? The video for Machines Of Loving Grace has Atreyu and Falkor soaring through the skies of Fantasia. The Nothing has retreated and the Ivory Tower beckons them forward. Somewhere, in a school attic a little boy waits...
Listen to: Cigarette Duet
While known for her jazz background, L.A. Mitchell's love of innovation sees her constantly exploring new ways of recording and performing her songs.
For the second of her collaborative EPs she worked with Wellington DJ/producer D:UNK (George Duncan) to combine his digital funk with her mighty soul vocals.
"I hope the finished EP conveys how exciting it was to build this. Each track was a really delightful exploration into layering and processing vocals and synths. I've used the voice as an instrument to create often very non-voice-like textures to compliment George's beats and define the sometimes gritty emotion of the songs", explains L.A. Mitchell.
Amplifier says: The Concept EP#1 with Isaac Aesili kinda passed me by. This one grabbed my ass and took me out. When It's All Too Much was the track that did it. An unexpected grimey slice of soul pop that ranks as one of the best singles of the year. Wellington producer D:UNK flatters Mitchell's songs with some wonderful vocal treatments, squelchy bass and delicious synth pads. An inventive and meticulous 5 track marvel.
Listen to: All For Nothing
The pair have been quietly collaborating since 2009 - their first and only physical correspondence being two CDs of instrumental soul/funk/lounge/pop that Mike Fabulous sent from Dunedin to James Milne's mum's place in Christchurch. James then went into his childhood bedroom and composed lyrics and melodies over four of the instrumentals within about two hours of receiving the package. The following day in Dunedin, Mike received an email containing these early efforts.
Over the following two years, interrupted by all manner of world tours, Mike and James exchanged further ideas down the wires, and even met up once to record together.
Unlimited Buffet is the fruits of their labours and contains flawless harmonies, interjections of brass and smatterings of searing guitar, all underpinned by an elastic and funky rhythm section.
Amplifier says: It's notable how much Fabulous and Milne spent working on this album, given that it has come out quite distinct from anything that either artist has released previously. Although Milne's characteristic dry lyrical wit is still present (as uttered in the opening track The Ballad Of State Highway 1: "ice cream looks good" and "a bag of weed in the glove box"), Unlimited Buffet also contains unique instrumentation, harking back to the relaxing-yet-indulgent feel of late 70s and early 80s yacht rock.
Listen to: The Ballad Of State Highway 1
- Some Were Meant For Sea
- Sing Along With The Yoots
- The Vietnam War
- Free All The Monsters
- Free Rein
- Arctic Tales Divide
- Unknown Mortal Orchestra
- Dearly Departed
- The Rose Tint (Deluxe Edition)
- Te Oranga
- Lil' Golden Book
- The Concept : EP #2
- Unlimited Buffet