1. Scott Walker - “The Drift” (4AD) Okay, so at first it seems totally unlistenable, but the next 30 or so listens reveal a vast, complex, dark and ambitious piece of work that pays no heed to any current trends. That voice seems to be in better nick than it was on 95’s “Tilt”, the lyrics are a tangled web of references to claustrophobia, death, oppression, Elvis’ dead twin, Mussolini’s wife and 9/11 conspiracies (and this is just the more fathomable stuff). Not one I plan on putting on over Xmas dinner, but great art nonetheless - worlds away from “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”…or maybe it is just the same thing, recast for the modern world?!
2. Arctic Monkeys – “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” (Domino) Finally a young English songwriter talented enough to accept the mantle from Ray Davies, Morrissey, Jarvis Cocker et al. Effortlessly the best debut of the year, and a rare case of “do believe the hype”. The (appallingly named) Arctic Monkeys were a breath of fresh air at a time when Brit Indie rock was becoming nothing more than a parade of fashionable haircuts and tight trousers, with precious little to back it up in terms of songs. Alex Turner’s lyrics and the band’s razor sharp riffing must have soundtracked thousands of teen romances and nights out in suburban Great Britain, and if he is writing songs as good as these at 18 or 19, the possibilities seem limitless. Very, very good.
3. Joanna Newsom – “Ys” (Drag City) Another astonishingly complex and ambitious piece of work. I really wasn’t much taken with elfin pixie-woman Joanna Newsom’s earlier album “The Milk Eyed Mender”, and had her lumped in with Devendra Banhart’s Nu-folk bandwagon, but on this latest effort her Kate Bush/ Bjork-esque eccentricities are married to an earthy, real sound courtesy of engineer Steve Albini, given magnificent string arrangements by Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks, and mixed to perfection by rock-snob producer extraordinaire Jim O’Rourke. Reminiscent of the ghostly, ethereal sound of the amazing Judee Sill, and formulated as a song cycle of 5 long tracks which eschew regular verse-chorus-verse structure, this is, for me, one of the year’s great surprises, and one which gains extra points for what is perhaps the first use of the word “spelunking” in a popular song.
4. Bob Dylan - Modern Times emotional depth. Again, it has taken quite a few listens to really get inside this record, but as a companion set to the previous two albums (“Time Out Of Mind” and “Love And Theft”) it makes for a pretty heady triple whammy. It shares the former’s dark, melancholic sound and sombre preoccupations, but has the latter’s playfulness (whilst shedding the straight ahead ’boogie’ aspect that makes “Love And Theft” the weakest of the three). Truly on of the great originals of our, or any, time.
5. The Reduction Agents – “The Dance Reduction Agents” (Lil’ Chief) / Lawrence Arabia – S/T (Honorary Bedouin) Okay, so I’m cheating by having two albums as one, but as they are both the brainchildren of the immensely talented James Milne (ex-Brunettes), they are both liberally sprinkled with great songs, and I find it difficult to choose one over the other I am just going to have them both. The Reduction Agents album is a far more straightforward affair, basically Mr Milne and co in beat group mode a la The Kinks, early Beatles etc, with the finest songs (“Urban Yard”, the Silver Scroll nominated “The Pool”, the epic “Couldn’t Anymore”) being amongst the finest to come out of this country in years; whilst for his solo project Lawrence is a tad more eclectic, with woozy electronica nesting alongside witty, wistful tunes like “Talk About The Good Times” and oddball creations like “Everyone’s Had Dinner With Rabbit” which recall Syd Barrett and Skip Spence. A great talent (and the only one of my top 5 to have played a Slow Boat instore this year!).
Other high points of the year:
# The All Blacks continued improvement and sublime form; 12 wins out of 13 matches, an ability to play a very physical game accurately and at high speed, and the ultimate justification of Graham Henry’s rotation policy, with top notch back up developed in most positions. Roll on the World Cup!
# Le Moulin bakery in Willis Street. Delicious cakes and sweets, and the best French bread this side of Paris (or Hanoi).
A little disappointing…
# Morrissey’s “Ringleader Of The Tormentors”. Whilst the critics fell over themselves calling it his ‘best album since The Smiths’ (it’s not – that would be the sublime “Vauxhall & I”), the much vaunted collaboration with veteran Bowie/ Bolan producer Tony Visconti was a tad stodgy and rockist (a la the much maligned “Maladjusted”), short on truly memorable songs (a la “Southpaw Grammar”), and a drop in form from the previous album “You Are The Quarry”.
# The Bic Runga “Birds” show, where somehow a band featuring the combined talents of some of the biggest names in NZ music (Neil Finn, Shayne Carter, Anika Moa, Riki Gooch and more) somehow managed to deliver less than the sum of their parts from an album (her best) which contains some truly sublime moments.
1.Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – “The Letting Go” (Drag City) Another grower from the increasingly dependable Will Oldham. Songs of love and longing, recorded in Iceland – and somehow it sounds like it.
2. Bruce Springsteen – “We Shall Overcome” (Columbia) I’m no great fan of Pete Seeger, but on this tribute to the legendary folkie The Boss breathes new life and fire into his back catalogue.
3. Cat Power – “The Greatest” (Matador) Harnessing the mad(dening) genius of Chan Marshall to a group of top Memphis session musicians proves to be a sure fire winner. This is her most accessible, assured and best album to date.
4. Dudley Benson – “Steam Railways Of Great Britain” (Golden Retriever) The best, and most probably oddest local release of the year. Floating vocal harmonies and naïve piano with precious little else, this is a curious and charming release.
OE: Brazil Dud of the year:
Various Artists – “OE: Brazil” (LOOP) Send a bunch of mediocre Welly-dub ‘heroes’ on holiday and get them to record their inane ‘feel-good’, positive affirmation lyrics over the top of some decidedly tepid Brazillian rhythms. Thanks, Bacardi…
1. Dion – “Bronx In Blue” (Razor & Tie) A marvelous evocation of Dion’s blues roots
2. Jules Shear – “Dreams Don’t Count” (Mad Dragon) With string accompaniment only to Shear’s lugubrious drawl, a real grower.
3. Samite – “Embalasasa” (Triloka) Gorgeous debut from Uganda; spare delicate and moving.
4. Billy Burnette – “Memphis In Manhattan” (Chesky) Fantastic one take live sound of real rockabilly.
5. Brian Protheroe – “Pinball and Other Stories” Best of idiosyncratic English singer-songwriter from the 70’s – great to hear again.