Amplifier's Top 20 Albums of 2012
In a tradition now spanning seven years, the Amplifier staff have gathered together (with their varied musical and culinary tastes) to collectively decide on their Top Twenty Albums of 2012.
The conversation was held over an Indian lunch, and was appropriately fiery - but I think we're all pretty happy that the following releases made the ranks of Amplifier's Top Twenty Albums of 2012.
Marlon Williams; the effortless hope, and clarity of a 21 year old wunderkid and Delaney Davidson; conjuring dust, silk and the sharp end of the stick, an international touring song writing machine.
The meeting of Williams and Davidson is an interesting and compelling mixture of the "Sad But True" cliché, twisting and turning the concept on its head and feeding them back into the Folklore machine with a seemingly random precision.
Amplifier Says: Two men standing tall, matching each other stride for stride, comfortable in their craft and steeped in the traditions of storytelling and Americana. It'd take a cold, cold heart to ignore the pitch perfect performances, melodic ache, gloomy soothsaying and mad joy that is played out here against a southern landscape, kiwi accents firmly in check. With Sad But True, country music continues to prove it's worth in the modern music environment. We believe this year, no one has bettered the work of these two troubadours.
Listen to: How Lucky
Bic Runga lends vocals while father Chris Nielson (a regular Mint Chicks
collaborator) plays trumpet. The rest comes directly from the brain, hands and heart of Kody - home-written, recorded and mixed by himself with just the final mastering courtesy of Howie Weinberg.
Amplifier Says: In a spritely half-hour, Nielson's musical venture throws the listener more impossibly catchy hooks and experimental sonic curve balls than most bands could manage in 70+ minutes. Electric Hawaii isn't short on instantly palatable radio hits, either - the funky Blue Meanies, the sleek-yet-heavy Cola Elixir and splendid opener Girl all stand as good examples. Like an energetic but benevolent soundtrack to minor surgery whilst under heavy sedation, this album has something everyone can take comfort in, whilst also feeling invigorated.
Listen to: Blue Meanies
The band started work on Coral in February 2011 and proceeded to write, rehearse and demo songs throughout the year, while also playing as many shows as possible in order to develop their songs and maintain their tight-knit, indie-rock sound.
Amplifier Says: Not only do Artisan Guns imbue Coral with some of the warmest vocal and instrumental deliveries we've heard all year, but also with deftly constructed musical narratives. Many of the songs focus on complicatedly fragile protagonists, giving you the impression that you're listening to a series of musical short stories. Compositions such as lead single Pulled You In are so intelligently and delicately written that it would be hard for the average listener not to close their eyes for a moment, whilst they take in all the layered concepts and sounds. Waiuku's Revolver Studios may have turned out the best example of studio production in New Zealand this year with Coral.
Listen to: Pulled You In
Summer Feeling follows on from The Everson's self-titled EP released in 2011. It is the Wellington based band's debut album; witty, punchy guitar-based alternative pop tunes somewhere in between Supergrass and The Clean.
Amplifier Says: Listening to this album makes me feel old. Summer Feeling is so full of youthful brio and energy that it instantly reminded me of Supergrass's 1995 debut album, I Should Coco. Lyrically intelligent, full of catchy melodies, there wasn't really anything to not like about this album.
Listen to: Marriage
There's been an audible hum ever since Sam Perry's latest musical output, Zen Mantra, signed to MUZAI Records early in 2012. How Many Padmes Hum? shows that such high expectations were not only warranted, but also exceeded. Let the buzz begin.
As the evenings grow lighter in New Zealand, the weather getting warmer and the seasons imminently changing, How Many Padmes Hum? has ideally managed to emerge ahead of another (hopefully pleasant) summer - and with songs such as the dreamy Cloudgazer or the hedonistic-blast of Change, becomes one of the most apt releases from MUZAI in 2012.
Amplifier Says: There's nothing quite like the feeling of hearing an artist for the first time and instantly connecting with them. That fleeting sense of ownership, the smugness of discovery. There's so much to like about this debut effort. The album is mostly mid tempo, with a certain sense of dishevelment and aloofness that isn't tiring. Sam Perry's songs sizzle and daydream in equal measure and at nine tracks, it doesn't overstay it's welcome. Barely a foot wrong, Zen Mantra is our find of 2012.
Listen to: La La La La La
A lot has happened to them and where they live (Christchurch) in the past year and they have a lot of stories to tell and a bunch of things to sing about...
Amplifier Says: Far from merely acknowledging it in passing, Hope And Wire fully encapsulates the spirit of Canterbury in its post-earthquake recovery. Somewhat like the region and the Garden City that is Christchurch, The Eastern have been around for a while now and are definitely holding on to their past, despite overwhelming adversity. That's just as well, because both the place and the band exude amazing culture that we absolutely must keep in touch with as a nation.
Listen to: North Wind
It features vocalists Tom Scott (Home Brew) and Lui Tuiasau and the production of El Truento, Hayden 'Dandruff' Dicky and Brandon Haru.
Amplifier Says: A collab project involving Tom Scott, Lui Tuiasau, Christoph 'El Truento' James and Hayden 'Dick Dastardly' Dick, who met at Ponsonby's Base FM. The self-titled nine track album is a thought provoking one, while remaining lush and full of lyrical dexterity. There's also plenty of flavour, mixing together Latin influences with a smattering of soul and a dash of jazz. This is in part thanks to El Truento's role as producer, along with renowned Wellington beat maker Benny Tones, who came on board to master the tracks.
Listen to: Sky Is Falling
Strobosphere sees New Zealand indie-noise pioneers Bailterspace return, after a 13-year hiatus, to a markedly different musical landscape, honed new variants of guitar-based melodic noise, while maintaining the quartet's utterly distinctive sound.
The band were once described by Pitchfork as "simultaneously beautiful, jagged, atonal, and supremely melodic" and Strobosphere emerges at a time when the band's trailblazing sound has never been more relevant.
Amplifier Says: For a while there it felt like Bailterspace were never going to record any more music, after going on hiatus in 2004. Their well-rounded back catalogue was satisfying enough, but with Strobosphere, the band have reached right up to their previous brilliance and perhaps even set a new benchmark in noisecraft. The tracks here are not only suitable to be played loud - they're intelligent as well. As soon as I heard the album's debut single No Sense, I knew this would be a release to be reckoned with - in all the right ways.
Listen to: No Sense
Where the former band were more the headiness of the dance-punk era, Sunken Seas have brought the sometimes underlying broodiness to the forefront with this new venture. It's more cold and more industrial.
Amplifier Says: With nearly half the tracks on Sunken Seas' impressive debut album reaching over six minutes in length, it's not for listeners lacking in attention spans. Everyone else, though, really should give Null Hour a listen. It's all too infrequent that a band comes out with such a cohesive structure of driving post-punk contained in a cold industrial dirge that reels you in rather than repels.
Listen to: High Rise
It's been four years since Kora launched its self-titled, worlds-colliding debut album, that connected the dots between funk, rock, reggae, metal, hip hop and electronic rhythms. Now this five-strong collective of fearless sonic explorers have discovered a whole new constellation of future-shocked funk, soul and r'n'b - dubbing it 'alien funk'.
Kora's anticipated new album Light Years steps into the unknown on a bass odyssey, eschewing guitars in favour of a high-tech arsenal of synthesisers, live and sampled drums plus the otherworldly four-part harmonies of the brothers Laughton, Francis, Stuart and Brad Kora and brother-in-arms Dan McGruer.
Amplifier Says: Light Years is an 11-track record borne out of a four-year hiatus for brothers Laughton, Stuart, Francis and Brad, as well as 'brother-in-arms' Dan McGruer. The album ambitiously delves into futuristic musical exploration, while keeping just enough of the familiar. Kora's distinctive blend of funk, rock, roots, reggae and dub is still there, but with heavier, driving bass lines and more synth. All of this combined with smooth four-part vocal harmonies and it's a testament to their music making abilities that they can manages to blend such a diverse range of genres into a nice, tight musical package. There's no doubt hardcore Kora fans will be happy with this offering. And for the less musically adventurous... this electro-funk space odyssey is definitely a grower and a dish best served LOUD.
Listen to: Story Ain't Over
Venturing away from the harmony-laden, classic pop production of the previous album, The Sparrow is a more measured and minimalist work, drawing particularly on the influence from the symphonic late-sixties work of Scott Walker and Serge Gainsbourg.
Amplifier Says: It is the aural space that exists on The Sparrow that makes the album a winner. Milne's voice is granted an increased presence in the mix, allowing us to become ever more conscious of his witty lyrics and countless pop culture references. Very different from his preceding records, but also very much lifting and testing his already high standards. A pleasure to listen to.
Listen to: Travelling Shoes
Following a stint as co-producer and keyboard player in Neil Finn's Pajama Club, and marshaling an all-star cast for the Breast Cancer Foundation release of Chris Knox's Not Given Lightly, Sean has returned to his solo synthesized roots with a stunning set of new songs on the 2012 release Elastic Wasteland.
Amplifier Says: Consistently inventive and critically lauded, over a six album career Sean James Donnelly would have few peers. Elastic Wasteland finds him alone again, in a room of synths and drum machines, reflecting on a serious health scare. No surprise then that it's a personal record, exceptionally arranged and produced. The one, two punch of These Are The Names and Lena, halfway through the album, are a fine example of an artist at the top of his game.
Collaspsing Cities' debut Elixir Always was a critical favourite that bought the popular Auckland indie outfit a ticket out of the country, flying the quartet's acidic anthems to the UK in 2008. The singles clicked into extensive airplay not only on their hometown station bFM but the UK's XFM and Radio One. Not long after, NME hailed them as one of the magazine's '10 Hopes of the Near Future'.
In 2010, Collapsing Cities returned home to New Zealand to begin a new album, which ended up being two years in the making. Strangers Again marries the band's Gang Of Four post-punk sensibility with smart lyrics and great pop hooks.
Amplifier Says: Often artists who have struggled and strived to make good abroad break up, or at best slowly disappear from our conscience on the fumes of creative exhaustion. With Strangers Again, Collapsing Cities have stood apart from that kind of defeatism and pounded out a second album that pulls finger at a dog-eat-dog industry. It's an immediately recognisable album, intelligent and with moments of furious energy that collide with English melancholy. The success of this record, and its greatest strength, is in how united the group still feels. A champion effort.
Listen to: Mega 5th
Some Kind Of Eden is the second album from Dear Time's Waste, following up the critically lauded Spells from 2010. Recorded in a cramped Eden Terrace flat, the album breathes with pulsating, malleable texture.
Born from sleepy disillusionment with life in Auckland's leafy suburbs, Dear Time's Waste paints an aural picture of soft water colour with a grey wash of light.
Amplifier Says: Claire Duncan's latest offering under the Dear Time's Waste moniker serves up a many-layered sonic tapestry, which is both complex in construction and beautifully simple by turns. Duncan proves her worth as an astute, literary voice once again, with carefully chosen lyrics deliberately placed. The vocal delivery slowly pushes and pulls, wrapping the listener in layers of richly textured soundscapes. Etheral yet melancholic, uplifting yet introspective - this album instills a sense of other-worldliness that is just as present on the twentieth listen as it is on the first.
Listen to: Head To Toe
With their previous releases earning them a Groove Guide album of the week, two number ones on the bFM Top Ten, a Roundhead Studios Live In Session, opening slots for Darwin Deez, The Clean and a noteworthy performance at 2012's Auckland Laneway Festival, Sherpa painted the year in a psychedelic haze with the release of their anticipated debut album - Lesser Flamingo.
Twistedly described as "the sound of a flamingo giving birth to a band playing music", Lesser Flamingo is a 12-track technicolor experience complete with summertime hooks, glossy guitars and fluttering synthesizers.
Amplifier Says: I really didn't see this coming. Sherpa released an EP in 2011 that left me ambivalent. Almost a year later and I was prepared to worship at their spotty, psychedelic alter. I have been besotted by this collection of songs since March. These are tunes of colour and adandon. The band's energy on record is infectious and the songs sound completely effortless - which can't have come easy. It's been a while since I've heard a group have so much fun and being a grumbly old man, Lesser Flamingo was as welcome as gravy on mash.
Listen to: Tired Again
After the success of Get It Together and its accompanying remix album, Sola Rosa are ready to release their fifth studio album - another record jammed full of thick bass lines, deft musicianship and tight production.
Written over the past three New Zealand summers and drawing together a host of familiar names, plus fresh faces to boot, Sola Rosa's new album Low and Behold, High and Beyond is a sonic tonic for anyone interested in where hip hop beats, nu-soul and funk converge.
Amplifier Says: Any new Sola Rosa album is an event - and Low and Behold, High and Beyond is no exception. Contributions from L.A. Mitchell, Oliver Daysoul and Spikey Tee make for as colourful an affair as ever. The fact that the album has been receiving recognition from Jeremy Sole and Anthony Valadez on Los Angeles radio station KCRW just goes to show how worthy of our fandom Sola Rosa's latest material is.
Maisey Rika's third release and second full length studio album is a beautifully sung and performed Te Reo recording.
If you were to take a scenic journey down the eastern coast of New Zealand, you would most likely hear the sounds of waves crashing on the beach, tui calling from the trees and the spiritual sound of Maisey Rika.
Amplifier Says: Whitiora is special, being the highest ever charting album of original Te Reo Maori waiata compositions, and also the second highest ever charting album of Te Reo Maori waiata in general, second only to Dame Kiri Te Kanawa's 1999 album Maori Songs. It might have passed you by, but this is a landmark album in the annuls of Maori music. Give it a listen.
Listen to: Pomarie feat. Hairini Rika-Hill
After stints with Nova Echo, Robot Tigers and Trees Climbing Trees, Djeisan Suskov gradually found himself moving away from the sound that each of these bands made and headed back to the studio to find a different path for his music - taking the form of Cool Rainbows.
The resulting album Whale Rocket has the depth of sound that you would expect from someone who has grown up in a studio. He took as a part inspiration some of the late-period work of John Cale (such as the album, Homosapien) and a general love of 60s psychedelic music. Yet
the instrumentation also draws from other music from the last forty years of popular music - as on 100 Voices, where synth lines drift in-and-out and the melody of vocals are brought forward in the mix, almost giving it the feel of a song by the Psychedelic Furs/Chills.
Amplifier Says: You wouldn't believe that Djeisan Suskov first embarked on his journey as Cool Rainbows simply by composing basic tunes on his laptop. Whale Rocket sounds like the work of a musician and producer who has been in the game for decades - with shimmering synth washes and complex layering predominating throughout the album. It's all augmented even more by proficient contributors Cass Mitchell (Bannerman), Alex Freer (Artisan Guns), Paul Roper (The Mint Chicks) and Jonathan Bree (The Brunettes), resulting in a solid album that will surely be great to spin over summer.
Listen to: Southern Summer Sun
It features vocal injections from friends throughout the record, including Princess Chelsea, Jonathan Brunette, Lawrence Arabia, Ryan McPhun (Ruby Suns), Jacob Moore (The Checks), Lee Devenish and The Unfaithful Ways.
Amplifier Says: There's a grand vision and a somewhat old-fashioned heart at the centre of this album, performed with gusto by Eddie Castelow, Myles Allpress and Rob Collins. It's a mad melting pot of music that references everyone from Elvis Costello to Meat Loaf. Guitars are proudly front and centre, whether the chugging variety (Cliche) or the acrobatic kind (Spicy Fruit Loaf). Eddie knows his way around a great tune but isn't afraid to let the song dictate if the band are on top, and Dictaphone Blues definately come out on top.
Listen to: Radio Heart
20. Various - Songs From The Inside (CD/DVD)
Songs From The Inside, the successful Maori Television series that followed four top Kiwi musicians as they teach songwriting to prison inmates, has its own album. Gritty and thought-provoking, the show received critical acclaim when it aired on Maori Television early in 2012.
The series followed singer-songwriters Anika Moa, Warren Maxwell, Maisey Rika and Ruia Aperahama as they taught 10 inmates at Rimutaka and Arohata Prisons the art of writing, performing and recording their own songs in just 10 weeks. This 13-track album Songs From The Inside is the deeply personal conclusion of the musical journeys of the seven prisoners who completed the course.
Amplifier Says: There are times when the story behind an album can surpass the importance of the music on an album and Songs From The Inside is one of those occasions The songs in themselves are great - but what makes them even more significant and resounding is their representation of the effort and creativity that the authors had to go to in order for them to be realised. A truly heartwarming back story to a beautiful album.
Listen to: Tama - Just Like You