Hard News by Russell Brown


Music: 2017 – this is not a list

I hate end-of-year "best of" lists. I mean, I like reading them, but they make me feel inadequate. They're always full of records I haven't heard – or even heard of. Some writers conjure great insight into every pick when I'm just, well, I liked that.

I'm not all that systematic anyway, least of all when it comes to something as fuzzy and close as music. But I have had some pretty great experiences with music this year, so I thought I should contemplate my musical memories of 2017 in a non-listicle way.

Things kicked off well, with dancing to the amazing Theo Parrish on the roof of the art gallery.  And then, a few days later, a transcendent experience with Nick Cave at the then-Vector Arena. I'd seen and been moved by the remarkable film Cave allowed to be made in lieu of press interviews for Skeleton Tree, so I understood when was going on emotionally with this return to the stage. But the joy and power of it was something I've rarely experienced – and I've been to a lot of gigs.

The same month, Laneway Festival made the big move to Albert Park. I really liked Bob Moses and I loved the cavernous set from The Veils, but most of all I think I just really liked the new venue. I hope they can stay there a long time.

I missed Fazerdaze, whose Morningside became one of my go-to albums for 2017, but happily Flying Out put together this video of the band preparing for and playing the festival.

In February, one of my favourite records of the year, Nadia Reid's Preservation was released. Its a deep record, one that gves up a little more with each play, and my enjoyment of it was enhanced by Nick Bollinger's wonderful review on RNZ, which offered insights into the poetry of the songs.

February was also Splore time, and deep into the Saturday night, with my friends around me, I danced to one of the best DJ sets I've ever heard, from the young Danish DJ Courtesy (she's back next year, with one of her Copenhagen crew in tow). Fat Freddy's Drop's Sunday set, with all the mud people, was a community experience.

As March began, Lorde returned. I loved the teaser and reveal for 'Green Light' and, when Melodrama was duly released, I liked that too. If the challenge for Lorde was to demonstrate that she had a career in her and not just one, very singular, album, then she more than passed that test. Her No.2 place on Metacritic's list of 2017 lists suggests I wasn't alone. But ... although I loved her writing more than ever, I did reach a point on repeated plays where the production became wearying. And much as I loved her Powerstation show, I did wonder whether the next time she goes out she'll want to have someone else on stage to interact with and a more flexible approach to playing those songs live. But this is quibbling. She's awesome.

The following month, Lorde provided a handy benchmark for the rapid and prodigious change underway in music industry revenues. As I wrote:

Further evidence: this week’s figures from Recorded Music NZ, showing that in 2016 streaming accounted for half of recorded music revenue. Three years ago, when Pure Heroine came out, the figure was 7%.  Lorde’s second album will earn its keep in a very different way to the first.

Moreover, the 700% growth in streaming revenue – from $5m in 2013 to $43.3m in 2016 – has helped the industry to a second year of growth, after a long decline. And, because people still like to buy things, vinyl now accounts for 14% of sales – $2.5m in 2016, up from $1.6m the year before. Public performance income (mainly licensing revenue from sound recordings aired on TV and radio, and public performance of recordings in bars, gyms and the like) is up too, at $14.2m, from $13.7m in 2015 and $11.6m in 2013.

The same post also noted a different kind of disruption: the kind evidenced when police entered a show at the King's Arms and seized the amplifiers after a noise complaint from a come-lately resident. I think we're still not dealing adequately with the conflict between denser city living and the need to maintain a culture. But, as Anthonie Tonnon pointed out in a lovely column about noise complaints shutting down the mythic Barrytown Settlers Hall, it's not just the cities where this is an issue.

April also came with another live highlight: Underworld's brilliant show out west at Oro Festival:

It struck me at the time that it wasn't just the beats, it was the peculiar Englishness of Underworld that makes them so appealing. In an age of empty EDM, they're full of art.

One of the more satisfying things I did this year was retrieving this lost, vital musical taonga as part of participating in Base FM's Cover Stories II exhibition.

It was interesting that both Stridulators, Chris Burt and Steve Roach, were astonished by how good this literally homemade recording sounded when they went back to it at my request more than 30 years later. Musicians, like any creative artists, sometimes lose touch with how good their work is.

Having rediscovered this part of their creative histories, Steve and Chris decided that perhaps a digital re-release of these long-unavailable songs would be in order. And this week, they finally got around to it: On the brand new House of Squirm Bandcamp page, you can now buy 'Queue' and 'The Inside Track' plus the original unlisted track on the 7" for $5. There's also an entire 1986 show at the Rising Sun by Selwyn Toogood (Steve and Ben Hayman) as a free download.

In June, the Exponents were the subject of a pretty-good TV biopic that brought back some memories for those of us who were thereabouts at the time. It was a good year for musical documentaries too, with Film Festival premieres for two very different but peculiarly personal films, Julian Boshier's Head Like a Hole story Swagger of Thieves and Simon Ogston's beautiful, quizzical, contemplative film about Bill Direen, A Memory of Others.

Watch out in 2018 for Andrew Moore's King Loser documentary You Cannot Kill What Does Not Live. I've seen some of the work in progress and it's wild. The film has, of course, an added resonance with the passing this year of the wildest girl of all, Celia Mancini.

This year too, we lost Roi Colbert, one of the kindest, funniest men I've ever known.

My reissue of the year was Loop Recordings' first-time-on-vinyl release of Micronism's Inside A Quiet Mind, the album that virtually defined New Zealand techno. Remastered by Chris Chetland, it sounded quite magnificent.

In August – once a week for a month – we were treated to the warm-up for and recording of Neil Finn's album Out of Silence, live on the internet. I really can't say enough about what Neil did here – those Friday nights brought me a way of interacting with music, at the point of its creation, that I'd never experienced before. There was another novel feeling when the album came out – I'm sure that I wasn't the only one who felt a sense of ownership in it because of that experience.  You live in a small country, it's up to you to make it interesting. Bravo, Neil. Bloody bravo.

There was a very welcome return from Disasteradio, whose album Sweatshop was full of the familiar chip-pop, but with a new melodic dimension. And, of course, this amazing video.

Disasteradio was also part of the lineup for The Other's Way Festival, where again, Ben Howe and his team turned K Road into a big musical party. I loved his manic set atWhammy, I was taken quite by surprise by Arthur Ahbez's joyous retro-fest and and I saw out the evening dancing to Micronism. This is such a great event.

In September, The Clean were honoured at the Silver Scroll Awards in Dunedin, and I got some chaps in to wax lyrical.

The first week of October brought the grim news that The Golden Dawn, a great home for music despite its triangular room, is to close in March. And we're still not clear on what might fill that gap when the GD and the KA are gone. But there was cheer, too, with the release of the first taste of a new Anthonie Tonnon album. I was lucy enough to hear some more of the songs at a tiny gig at West Lynn's Freida Margolis and I really am struggling to wait:

One interesting feature of that Freida Marolis gig was Tono playing a Synthstrom Deluge. I met Rohan Hill, the creator of this remarkable portable synthesiser a while ago and I was hugely impressed by both the device and by the way Rohan had created it almost from scratch. I suspect even he was surprised to see it in the hands not of an electronic music producer, but a one-man band like Tono.

Not long afterwards, we were lucky enough to be invited to a little showcase at Golden Dawn for Julia Deans' forthcoming follow-up to Modern Fables, the album We Light Fire. And we weren't alone in being blown away not only by the new songs, but by her performance of them. And yes, that's another album we'll have to wait till next year for. It's just cruel.

Happily, I was able to bridge the gap somewhat by inviting Julia to play at our final Orcon IRL event for the year. Here she is doing the title track ...

Julia confessed to being a bit croaky after the New Zealand Music Awards three days before. Yeah, me too. But I will say that I think it was best, tightest stage presentation since the event moved to the Arena. My favourite part of the evening was Ladi6 winning her award, and what Ladi said about accepting the sacrifices involved in pursuing a creative life. They're good people – and I can heartily recommend the soulful, expansive Royal Blue 3000 EP Ladi and her crew put out in June. It's just $7 on Bandcamp.

You should take with a grain of salt news reports that RMNZ is planning to take the whole thing back to the industry and away from the public. That's not really going to happen – but next year will be the first Music Awards in many years not produced by J&A, so it will be different in that respect at least.

And then, by golly, it was Heed the Call, the marvellous, loving compilation of Aotearoa soul, funk and disco put together by Alan Perrott and John Baker. I think both of them have been quite taken aback by the response to the record, but it really deserves applause. And apart from anything else, the vinyl sounds great: given the frequently indifferent quality of New Zealand pressings at the time, you could confidently say these tunes have never sounded better.

I should note that a had a very happy time dancing to the other Mark Williams song on the album, 'House for Sale', at the little launch evening at Golden Dawn. What beautifully-made track that is.

And then, swooping in as a late treat for 2017, came Troy Kingi's magical soul-funk sci-fi concept album, Shake That Skinny Ass All the Way to Zygertron. This is pretty already my album for the coming summer. It's about those warm, hazy evenings ...

Here are Troy and the Galactic Chiropractors playing a RNZ session ...

I can see I'll also be doing quite a bit of irie vibing to the reunited Unitone Hi-Fi if they can deliver more like this late-breaker ...

The best local remix of the year came late too. DiCE's rework of Aldous Harding's 'Horizon' goes to a whole 'nother place, but it's a place that makes perfect sense (and it's still a free download):

And that's it! The summary above is based mostly on things I actally wrote about here, so there are a few gaps (for some reason I never ended up writing about one of my favourite songs of the year, Reb Fountain's 'Hopeful and Hopeless'), but feel free to add your own thoughts below.

For now, we're looking forward to another full summer of music, especially in festival lineups. I'll be going to a bunch of those, starting with Wondergarden on New Year's Eve, but you'll also find me out on the deck in the gathering dusk, trying to find the way to Zygertron ...

Have a happy summer, whanau. See you down the front.


PS: Some other lists from people who can actually write lists ...

The Metacritic List of Lists

Bandcamp's Top 80 albums for 2017

The Quietus' Albums of the Year 2017

The Best of Elsewhere 2017

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