Top 10 albums of 2016

From hard as nails metal to timeless soul music by Beyonce’s little sister, it’s been a great year for new music. Here are my albums of 2016 (for what it’s worth).

NAILS

You Will Never Be One Of Usnails-you-will-never-be-one-of-us

How can an album as short as this – clocking in at just 21 minutes – be so brutal and relentless? The Californian trio’s third album, which merges death metal and raging hardcore, is made up of 10 lethal songs that slice, dice and maim. Yet, like any metal album worth it’s weight in heaviness, songs like Savage Intolerance give way to grooves that make you feel bulletproof. It’s a scary visceral attack that’s as hard as, well, nails.

Watch You Will Never Be One Of Us here (hold onto your head)

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SOLANGE

A Seat At the Tablesolange_cover

Beyonce may have released big budget extravaganza Lemonade, but her little sister released an angelic, angsty, and ambitious, yet beautifully refined soul record, that gets better with every play. And it’s been played a lot. Akin to Erykah Badu, Solange wends and winds her serenades through songs like single Cranes In The Sky, the sweet thumping swagger of Mad (with Lil Wayne) and the wiggy, head nodding boogie of Junie. Her songs may not have the butt shaking glamour of Beyonce, but who needs to dance when you make music with soul, style, and intrigue.

Watch Cranes In the Sky here 

3

MOTHRA

Decision Processmothra

The New Zealand instrumental metal trio – named after a song by extreme music pioneers Godflesh – make music that is heavy and soothing all in one. There’s only one other band that does it as well and that’s fellow Kiwis Jakob. Mothra’s long-awaited debut is a beast that ebbs and flows with beauty and brutality. Heavy music is about summoning power and songs like Cataclysm (a merciless mangled beast) and Elements of Sleep (delicacy, grunt and power all in one) do just that.    

Watch Splinters here

4

SUMAC

What One Becomessumac

For a metaller, Aaron Turner is an arty bugger. While his former band Isis was stunningly heavy, and at times beautifully tranquil, Sumac is seething, primal and unhinged. The slugging onslaught of Image of Control (II) is harrowing and testament to the deeply unnerving music Sumac make. On Clutch of Oblivion (Pts I & II) the songs disintegrate into a cacophonous maelstrom and 10 minute epic Blackout (I) is an art metal cocktail of bludgeoning brutality and brain rattling intensity.

Listen to Clutch of Oblivion here     

5

NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS

Skeleton Treenick-cave

While some of the songs on the Bad Seeds’ 16th album were written before the tragic death of Nick Cave’s son, it was always going to have a sense of heaviness and sadness attached to it. The first listen was hard to take – and tears were shed. Nick Cave has a knack of throwing your heart and soul on the rack every time an album comes out but Skeleton Tree was next level. Achingly sad and fragile, yet powerful, this album is a musical rarity that takes you to a higher, usually unattainable plain.

Watch Girl In Amber here

6

KATE TEMPEST

Let Them Eat Chaoskate-tempest-let-them-eat-chaos

There’s a line from Ketamine For Breakfast that sums up spoken word artist Kate Tempest’s poetic prowess. “Through the hallway, ancient wall paper, nicotine gold, up the stairs rickety, loaded with history” she says. It’s one of the many catchy and dark lines on her second album – and it’s when Ketamine kicks in, with an agitating mix of synth and beats, that shows how stirring and powerful Let Them Eat Chaos can be. The same goes for Perfect Coffee, with dissonance giving way to melodic whimsy and deadpan mantras (“squats we used to party in are flats we can’t afford”), and Pictures on a Screen is heartbreaking and touching as it dials up 80s Stranger Things-style synth.

Watch Kate Tempest live here

7

RADIOHEAD

A Moon Shaped Poolradiohead

A Radiohead album hadn’t grabbed me properly since Kid A, or perhaps Amnesiac. Although Lotus Flower was a wonderfully warped and dancey highlight of The King of Limbs. The thing is, I’d lost interest in Radiohead. But the ebbing strains of Burn the Witch was a riveting opener to their ninth album, and the song that hooked me back in. A Moon Shaped Pool had the musical mood swings and sonic exploration that define Radiohead – from the catchy and noisy pitter patter sing-a-long of Identikit, through to the probing and simmering centrepiece Ful Stop. Radiohead were well and truly back.

Watch Burn the Witch here

8

MESHUGGAH

The Violent Sleep of Reasonmeshuggahtheviolentsleep

Just another brute of an album from the Swedish metal overlords. For non-believers Meshuggah sound like a mangled and twisted wreck. Which is the whole point, because it’s hard work sounding like this, and no other band does. Even after eight albums it’s incomprehensible how they keep churning out this sort of scything sonic terror. The Violent Sleep of Reason is bound together by uncompromising heaviness and a willingness to see just how far a song can be pushed. It’s an album – with songs like Nostrum, a relentless mix of pathological beats and fiery frills – that leaves you feeling beaten, battered and bloody, but somehow, ready for more. Bring on the Powerstation (Auckland) show in March.

Listen to Nostrum here (play it loud and be sure to wait for the two minute mark)

9

MOODYMANN

DJ Kicksmoodyman

This long running mix series has turned out some classics in its 20 year history – Kruder and Dorfmeister, Rockers Hi Fi, and Playgroup to name a handful. This year saw Detroit techno / house dude Moodymann let loose with a sprawling and soulful compilation of 30 tracks taking in everything from rebirth of cool jazz and thigh slapping disco house, through to some abrasive and darker beats (including NZ’s own Julien Dyne and Mara TK on Stained Glass Fresh Frozen) to make it gritty and intense. It’s a provocative dinner party compilation with a good dose of head nodding and finger tapping beats, but with some niggle and volatility for when the conversation turns.  

Listen to Stained Glass Fresh Frozen here

10

GOJIRA

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There is much serenading amidst the hammering and savagery. The French behemoths are one of extreme music’s most grandiose bands but they never let the frills detract from the heaviness – like The Cell which morphs from a bruising stampede into a detuned massacre with a hand-on-heart croon. Then there’s Pray, a primal maelstrom with deathly chants, that’s like Sepultura’s Roots Bloody Roots done French style. But it’s the title track, a merciless mantra that never rises in tempo above a staunch walk, that proves the power of Gojira.        

Watch Silvera here

A healthy dose of Psychocandy

It was one of the highlights of Coachella 2007.91xJPzgu-ZL._SL1417_

Scarlett Johansson duetting with reunited and scuzzy Scottish legends the Jesus and Mary Chain on Just Like Honey. Scarlett didn’t sing much, or even add anything apart from some eye candy to JAMC’s most beautiful song, but it was the unlikely combo of Hollywood’s latest star with grumpy old Jim and William Reid that made it memorable.

Scarlett was there mostly thanks to director Sofia Coppola having seamlessly woven Just Like Honey – and My Bloody Valentine’s Sometimes among other tunes – into Lost In Translation.

It wasn’t ideal seeing JAMC – one of my favourite “alternative” British bands of the late 80s and 90s – in a sprawling polo field-turned-festival site with 80,000 other Coachella revellers and ravers. But hearing songs like Never Understand (JAMC doing a punky Beach Boys) and the dead beat dancey thud of Blues From a Gun at typically ear splitting volume felt good.    

They even played – according to my very murky memory – Sidewalking that night, a glorious grind of a song. So they better play that song at their sold out Powerstation show in Auckland tonight. Chances are they won’t given it’s a tour where the band is playing the entirety of 1985 debut, Psychocandy. Which is fine by me. It’s worth celebrating the distortion and haze soaked record because it’s an album that was – and still is – both intriguing yet baffling, even for me and my weird-music-loving mates.      

It was poppy, but with a wall of beautiful noise and guitar feedback lashed and laced throughout the songs. It could be downright nasty too when it wanted with the ear drilling distortion of In A Hole and Taste the Floor.

Still, even though Psychocandy is regarded as a classic that ushered in the era of shoegaze, it’s songs and legacy made many queasy. People like my first year university room mate who we used to call Jim because he went to the gym a lot. Jim was a top chap but to be fair was more of a George Thorogood and the Destroyers man than the Jesus and Mary Chain.

After a hard-out gym session, or a few rounds of Tae Kwon Do, he used to bowl back intoIMG_0677 our room and if JAMC or My Blood Valentine was playing he’d implore me: “Scotty, turn this bumble bee shit off would ya.

Hey, while Jim may not have had much musical taste (he won’t mind me saying that because he always said I was a music snob), somehow, weirdly, he knew his stuff. Bumble bee music pretty much sums up the haze, the sting, and the honey-like qualities of JAMC’s songs.

Right then, I’m off for a big hit of Psychocandy.

Instrumental metal rocks. Yeah! 

Lyrics just aren’t that important.taylor-swift-shake-it-off-music-video-051

Yes, Robert Smith from the Cure preaching that “It doesn’t matter if we all die” may have piqued my pimply teen interest, and these days when Taylor Swift starts rapping about “this sick beat” it’s great to sing along.

But the thing that really gets me going is how the music alone makes me feel. It’s visceral rather than lyrical. It could be a songs “sick beat” (Black Steel In the Hour of Chaos by Public Enemy ), or the simmering intensity of a track like Tool’s Stinkfist. Mostly though it’s about the sonic power a song wields that gets me jumping (or at least swaying and swooning), like Nice Day For An Earthquake by Hawkes Bay instrumental trio Jakob.

Ah yes, instrumental metal is my ideal.

Not that Jakob can be defined as strictly metal – they’re as much beautiful as they are heavy – but their power to make you swoon and sway is why they are one of my favourite New Zealand bands.

mothraAnd every now and then an instrumental metal album – or post metal as the label goes – comes along that has the Jakob affect on me. Bands like Kiwi instrumental destroyers Kerretta, and Russians Circles and Pelican, are worth checking out. Most recently Auckland trio Mothra released its debut album, Decision Process, and it has a wonderfully belligerent yet melodic temper to it.

With support slots for everyone one from Dillinger Escape Plan to Earth, it gives an indication of the breadth of Mothra’s sound. Opener Awake The Machine sets the scene with its ebbs and flows of beauty and brutality, Escapism escalates into deep merciless thuds akin to Tool, and Cataclysm is a mangled beast that fires shards of heaviness in all directions.   

It’s 7 minute epic Elements of Sleep where Mothra show their true mettle by stretching a song out to its extreme limits with a mix of delicacy, grunt, and power.    

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There’s another more selfish reason I like Mothra too. They are named after a song by Godflesh, a band that shaped my love of heavy music. And it’s Godflesh who is to blame for my passion for instrumental metal. Because while Justin Broadrick from Godflesh sings (well, kind of), it’s the unbridled and extreme instrumental heaviness the band conjures up that makes me beat my chest with primal joy. Music is about summoning power.

Sorry. Got a bit carried away there.

Put it this way, I would be happy if some of my favourite bands – Deafheaven, Isis, Tool – did instrumental versions of their albums. I could listen to a whole Tool album without Maynard’s vocals, even though I love his voice and it’s an instrument all on its own. But I’m happier getting down to a sick and brutal beat matched with a wild guitar slaughter. That sounds like far more fun than singing a song.

High dependency reunion

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I won’t be at the Laneway Festival on Auckland Anniversary Day. I wanted to go, but I’ll be working, organising a factory opening up in Northland. Hardcore. So enjoy the sun, sounds, and especially the intensity of HDU (aka High Dependency Unit).

Along with Grimes and Battles, the reunion of the beautifully noisy and trippy Kiwi trio was the reason I wanted to be there.

The inner city festival has always been cool – perhaps a little too cool for me, given I haven’t heard of half the bands. But when Laneway organisers bring old noisy favourites back together then I’m happy. While Bailter Space in 2013 weren’t quite as devastating as they were in the 80s and 90s, it was just good to hear gems like Your Invisible Life again.

It’s been a little while since HDU played, but brace yourself.

The band’s gigs were something else. Volatile, suffocatingly intense, and beautiful. The songs built up, lurched, and were at times tranquil, before another slab of heaviness and intensity was added to create something all consuming and beautifully brain-rattling.

They could nut off too – Visionon off Fireworks (2001) is evidence of that.    

I remember a gig at Galatos, sometime in the mid 2000s, for a classic moment of HDU volatility. It’s a little hazy, because they were good fast times, but the show was going along nicely until Tristram Dingemans (singer and guitarist) wound up his guitar and hurled it into the back of the stage, just missing drummer Dino Karlis’ head by inches. Dingemans walked off, yet Karlis and bass player Neil Phillips kept playing an unflinching and fiery groove until Dingemans returned and the gig resumed. It was menacing psychedelic rock theatre at it’s best.

I also interviewed the band in the early 2000s before a show at Auckland’s Kings Arms Tavern. I jokingly dropped in that Amino had “a bit of U2 about it”. Well, it does, listen to it! Dino jumped down my throat. Tristram looked pissed off. And Neil just sat there looking concerned, similar to what he looked like most nights on stage.

The thing is, yes they took their music seriously, but HDU played every song as if they were never going to be able to play it again. More bands should have that philosophy. And to be able to combine that unbridled approach to playing with a fearsome mongrel like HDU did is what made them so magical, transcendental, and heavy.

That’s what will hopefully unfold at Laneway.

If the health and safety guys allow it onsite at Marsden Point tomorrow (not likely) I’ll be listening to HDU’s finest work, Cross Channel Multi-Tap, in my headphones as I set up tables and make sure the marquee isn’t going to blow away. There are no records quite like it.

Postscript: No, I can’t make it to the band’s side show at Kings Arms tonight either, so I’ve got all my HDU CDs out and I’m playing them LOUD.

Top 10 albums of 2015

For what it’s worth, here are my top 10 albums of the year.

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Sunn O)))

Kannon (Southern Lord)

More blissful brutality from the hooded Seattle drone masters. As opener, Kannon 1, smoulders like a glacial avalanche across almost 13 minutes, you can’t help but marvel at how something so slow and exquisitely static can be so powerful and heavy. This follow up to last year’s excellent Soused (which was a collaboration with Scott Walker) is in keeping with Sunn O)))’s punishing trademark minimalism and is best listened to loud, on headphones, and in one sitting with a glass or two of the hard stuff beside you ready to go.

Listen to Kannon here

Unknown_Mortal_Orchestra_-_Multi-Love_album_cover

UMO

Multi Love (Jagjaguwar)

There’s nothing that sounds like UMO. And this third album is band leader Ruban Nielson’s most self assured and fully realised record to date. He well and truly nails down the lo fi, scratchy old sound, yet somehow makes it big, dynamic, and danceable. The cute and glitchy boogie woogie of Can’t Keep Checking My Telephone will have you and the kids dancing round the kitchen table for years to come, and the delightful whimsy of the album as a whole makes this one of the most irresistible records of the year. You really can’t help but multi love it.

Watch Can’t Keep Checking My Telephone

GRIMES-ART-ANGELS-NO-4

Grimes

Art Angels (4AD)

Like a Taylor Swift album for freaks and weirdos. Or for old middle aged buggers like me who like their pop music a little twisted yet catchy. That’s Grimes for you. On the back of 2012’s Visions she was touted as one of the next big things – problem was, she didn’t have the songs to back it up. On Art Angels, with its vast sonic scope that takes in everything from the cooing head nodding pop of Flesh Without Blood through to the industrial clamour and double dutch of SCREAM, she could just be the new Taylor – only sicker, grimier, and better.

Watch Flesh Without Blood

Napalm-Death-Apex-Predator-Easy-Meat

Napalm Death

Apex Predator – Easy Meat (Century Media)

An absolute brute of an album – and considering these guys have been making brutish, grinding, and cathartic metal for almost 30 years across 15 albums, that’s saying something. At times warped, with opener and title track a rigorous and disturbing listen, then unhinged (Smash A Single Digit moves from fast and heavy to harrowing), and always raging. But as with anything Napalm Death, the fury is tempered by the thrilling and fun chest beating music that they make.

Watch Smash A Single Digit

Kendrick_Lamar_-_To_Pimp_a_ButterflyKendrick Lamar

To Pimp A Butterfly (Top Dawg)

Yeah, yeah, he’s on everyone’s best of list I know. But the thing about Kendrick Lamar is he’s more than just a rapper. He’s a clever and wily vocalist, and a musician with a vision. To Pimp A Butterfly is so dizzying and dense, even after endless listens there’s still so much to discover. Although as quick fixes go, a song like King Kunta – with its beat, funk, and cocky vocal – is a stand out and candidate for track of the year.

Watch King Kunta

Jamie_xx_-_In_Colour (1)

Jamie XX

In Colour (Young Turks)

Similar to Kendrick Lamar’s King Kunta, Jamie XX’s Loud Places is a song you can listen to over and over. The soothing calm that escalates into an anthemic, loved up chorus, makes it a feel good hit of summer. But In Colour also indulges the producers love of awkward beats, dance oonst, and bits and pieces of sound, that he brings together to make the most intriguing and magical electronic music around.

Watch Loud Places

Deafheaven
Deafheaven_-_New_Bermuda

New Bermuda (ANTI-)

What do you do to follow up Sunbather, one of 2013’s most doted on records? Make a more intense album that’s more listenable of course. Yes, while the San Fransisco band, who mix black metal, beautiful metal, and shoe gaze, still let rip with outbursts of blood curdling screams, there’s a refined sense of clarity to this set of songs. For starters, the timing of when they stand on the throat of a song, and refuse to let go, is more calculated. Baby Blue builds beautifully in a Jakob vein before it is held down and plied with riffs and screams. At more than 10 minutes, never has a long song not been long enough. Thrilling stuff.

Listen to Baby Blue

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Mbongwana Star

From Kinshasa (World Circuit)

As you’d expect with music that comes from the streets of Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo, it’s raw, exciting, and has a relentless pulse running through the entire album. Mbongwana Star, which includes members of street band Staff Benda Bilili, take you to the heart of Kinshasa with the brain rattling bustle of Malukayi (featuring Konono No.1), Kimpala is unnerving yet alluring, and with Kala you finally arrive at the dance party. So pack your bags, this is one hell of a trip.

Watch Kala

Ghost_Culture_Album_ArtworkGhost Culture

Ghost Culture (Phantasy Sound)

This debut album from British electronica boffin James Greenwood mixes whimsy and melancholy (similar to the mood Damon Albarn’s The Good, The Bad, and The Queen project conjures), playful synths, and simmering trancey grooves with Answer sounding like Kraftwerk’s Autobahn has taken a detour through an endless field of flowers. The album also makes my top 10 list for the simple reason it’s one of the records I’ve listened to most this year, and because Greenwood is another current musician – like Jamie XX – whose making intriguing electronica with soul.

Watch Lucky by Ghost Culture

imgres-1Killing Joke

Pylon (Spine Farm)

Killing Joke continue their run of second career album highs with a record that harks back to the anthemic Love Like Blood-era on tracks like New Cold War and New Jerusalem, albeit underpinned with a more energetic grind and groove than the band’s mid 80s canon. However, Pylon escalates into a more frantic and intense mood where Jaz Coleman and the band do what they do best – and that’s whip up a lyrical maelstrom and a fine musical racket.

Listen to New Jerusalem

Shellac – Live at Kings Arms

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The last time Shellac played in Auckland it was at the beautiful Mandalay ballroom in Newmarket in March 2001. Sadly the venue is long gone, but the memory of Shellac’s angular attack and searing assault has been etched permanently in the recesses of my rock’n’roll mind.

So the return of the band led by Steve Albini – the former frontman of nice’n’nasty noise makers Big Black, producer to the stars (Nirvana’s In Utero, Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, and, um, Bush), and the man whose lent a unique bite to the sound of numerous bands (Fugazi, Mogwai, and our own HDU to name a few) – is long awaited to say the least.

Indeed, that night at the Mandalay, Shellac were supported by HDU who were at the height of their volatile sonic tenure following the release of the Albani-produced Fire Works.

While HDU split up, and will reunite for next year’s Laneway, Shellac have never gone away and these days they are no different. Perhaps a little less confronting as people, but still musically abrasive, uncompromising, and riveting. It’s the sort of music that makes you feel tough.

In the 15 years since their last visit, Albini and band, also made up of drummer Todd Trainer and bass player Bob Weston, have only released two albums, including this year’s Dude Incredible. And they play some new songs, including the creepy stealth of album highlight, Riding Bikes, but the set is more of a trawl through the band’s beautifully caustic canon.

The mangled, throat wrecking shriek of Canada sets the tone for the night with classic Albini lines like, “Imagine there was a time your cigar was ironic. You’ve been at it so long, it’s chronic”.

Yet Shellac are just as capable of full blown theatrics and utter self-indulgence as they are of making their famously discordant racket.

The epic (and seemingly endless) End of Radio is a minimal masterpiece made up of Weston thrumming three chords, Albini soliloquising, and Trainer stalking the stage with a portable snare drum. It might sound a little pretentious, but it’s just Shellac toying with you, getting inside your head, and casting their spell of unease.

And besides, it’s not all serious music geek fodder. There are many laughs and even sentimental moments. During Weston’s impromptu Q&A sessions between songs we find out his favourite memory is the first time he kissed his wife.

But a Shellac show isn’t about telling stories, it’s about the songs. And few bands are capable of whipping songs into powerful pieces of ammunition like Shellac does tonight on My Black Ass from 1994’s At Action Park. It’s masterful, with guitar, drums and bass slugging it out in perfect unison.

You could even say, “Dude. Incredible”.