For The Lumičre Reader, Music Editor BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM, and contributors GEOFF STAHL, JAMES ROBINSON and ALEXANDER BISLEY review the year in albums, singles, and memorable gigs.

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Brannavan Gnanalingam
Music Editor, The Lumičre Reader

With all the melancholy over the world’s economic situation, it’s easy to think that this could be the end of the apparent period of indie that we’ve just lived in – prog, tribalism, globalised music, hip-hop have been big for a while, and to an extent reflect the economic wellbeing of the last decade. Of course, it will continue to thrive as it always did, but it’s easy not to get cynical and wait for the new back-to-basics movement to be anointed by the rabid canon. After all, grunge and English punk gained their canonical resonance through the tough social and economic conditions of their time, and if the reports of the “perfect economic storm” prove to be correct, then the excesses of some of this decade’s music may not live too long in the commercial industry’s memory. But that’s taking the simplistic approach, because as always, there’s been plenty of good music from a variety of genres. Plenty of hype, cross-cultural fertilisation, and energy. The proliferation of music and people writing about music doesn’t seem to be slowing down either – and the sheer number of music around makes condensing it all down to Top Tens just as problematic and pointless as it ever was (though long may it continue).

New Zealand’s had a solid year in terms of music – from being dubbed a “pop mecca” in the English institution The Times, thanks to artists such as the Ruby Suns and the Brunettes, to having Flight of the Conchords achieving a high for a New Zealand band on the American charts, to Lawrence Arabia, Savage and Liam Finn among others achieve some global recognition, there’s plenty out there doing some good things. There’s also the other less publicised artists who are putting out some excellent work – SJD, Luke Buda, Samuel Flynn Scott, The Bats, Over the Atlantic, Little Pictures, White Swan, Black Swan, Flip Grater, Chris Knox, Steve Abel, Coco Solid, An Emerald City, Thought Creature, Bevan Smith and his various incarnations, Campbell Kneale and his various incarnations, plus many, many more.

1. Alegranza!, El Guincho
Spanish DJ Pablo Díaz-Reixa gleans together samples and loops from all over the show, and weaves them together to make one of the most joyous celebration of music made this year. Partly primal and raw, partly reflective of the treasure trove of music that exists in these globalised times, Alegranza! is a smile-inducing farrago. Hopefully rumours of an impending visit to New Zealand in February prove to be true.

2. For Emma, Long Ago, Bon Iver
This was technically released last year, but only found its way outside of the US this year. An album that traverses loneliness, desolation and redemption, it’s one of the most beautiful singer-songwriter releases of recent years. Justin Vernon’s soft voice and offbeat lyrics convey real emotion without mawkishness, and the result is a stunningly moving album.

3. London Zoo, The Bug
London dubstep producer Kevin Martin has been making music for over a decade, though his latest London Zoo captures the beats, the lyrics and the energy of the genre at its peak and then some. He utilises some of most uncompromising and innovative beats this year, and commands a wide array of excellent vocalists/toasters. A classic party/politics album.

4. Chemical Chords, Stereolab
Have Stereolab ever put out a bad, or even mediocre, album? One of the brainiest and most interesting bands around, they’ve been amalgamating all forms of music well before it was fashionable to do so. Chemical Chords is a rather upbeat album musically, reflecting a love of Motown, and full of organic instruments and poppy songs, but the lyrics are as dark and pointed as ever.

5. The Awakening, Dudley Benson
Dudley Benson is one of the country’s most innovative musicians, and his debut chamber-pop album The Awakening highlights just how talented he is. His idiosyncrasies and quirks make him distinctive in this country’s musical environment, and his ability to craft a pop song around some gorgeous melodies is only going to get better – a real talent.

6. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend
Vampire Weekend faced a lot of hype and a big backlash this year, which was rather unfortunate. They make great pop songs. Sure, it sounds like they’ve been slumming it on the streets of Soweto at times, and their songs aren’t the most challenging in terms of songcraft, but they do it so well, and write such great gems that it doesn’t really matter.

7. Third, Portishead
Portishead have been away for so long that this album could have been a debut one. Plus, it sounds nothing like their brilliant trip-hop work from the ‘90s. Instead, this is a brutal and dark album, Beth Gibbons’ vocals don’t merely sound alienating, they sound positively frightening. A dark masterpiece.

8. Youth Novels, Lykke Li
You only have to listen to single ‘Dance.Dance.Dance’ to realise that damn do the Swedish know how to write a great pop song. Following in the footsteps of Robyn, and featuring the production help of Björn from Peter, Björn and John, Lykke Li’s debut album is full of charming offbeat pop songs and unconventional instrumentation.

9. Los Angeles, Flying Lotus
Los Angeles demonstrates just how influential J Dilla was in his time, basically developing on the template created by records such as Donuts. However, this album by Steven Ellison (Alice Coltrane is his great aunt) is a porous album, the beats floating and swooping into one brilliant coherent work.

10. Fordlândia, Jóhann Jóhannsson
Based on a Henry Ford failed utopia (which was anything but – more a tribute to inhumanity), Johann Johannsson second part of a trilogy (the first IBM 1401: A User’s Manual) is a haunting, expansive work. Tip-toeing around areas of classical and electronica (though leaning towards the former), it’s a work of sheer beauty and sadness – a moving soundtrack to man’s folly.

There have been a number of excellent live shows this year. It’s hard to go past Ween for example, whose epic three hour set left the audience demolished. A late challenger was the brilliant Mountain Goats show. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ performance at Womad was classic – she set the laidback festival alight with her dynamic funk. But on a personal level, the Okkervil River show was remarkable for its intensity – a band whose show was quite, quite stunning.

Single of the year: Luke Buda’s ‘My Imminent Demise’. Sheeeeeit those Phoenix Foundationers can write a melody.

Geoff Stahl
A lecturer in Media Studies at Victoria University, Stahl is also an occasional dance party host and the man behind Ping Pong Country in the guise of TV DiSKO.

Albums:
» Sexuality, Sebastian Tellier
» Chemical Chords, Stereolab
» Angst is Not a Weltanschauung, B. Fleischmann
» Colours of the Sun, Hatchback
» Where You Go I Go Too, Lindstrřm
» Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, David Byrne and Brian Eno
» Devotion, Beachouse
» No Way Down, Air France
» Au Contraire, Pas Chic Chic

And squeezing in under the wire:
» Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend

Singles:
» Discodeine, ‘Joystick’ (Tomboy Remix)
» Elitechnique, ‘Munich Emotions’
» Elvis, ‘Crawfish’ (Pilooski Edit)
» Esser, ‘Satisfied’
» Hercules and Love Affair, ‘Blind Death’ (Immuzikation Blend)
» In Flagranti, ‘Business Acumen’ (Holy Ghost! Cover Version)
» It’s a Fine Line, ‘Woman A Makhnovshchina Reposession’
» Lykke Li, ‘Little Bit’ (Hand Remix)
» Rubberroom Rerubs, ‘Hippie Dance’
» Sam Taylor-Wood & Pet Shop Boys, ‘I'm In Love With A German Film Star’ (Gui Boratto Mix)
» Sebastian Leger, ‘Talisman’
» Soft Rocks, ‘Disco Power Play Vol. 3’
» Vampire Weekend, ‘The Kids Don't Stand a Chance’ (Chromeo Remix)

And too many re-edits to mention...

Reissues:
» Dogs of War, Dogs of War (great cosmic pop and downtempo disco)
» Hercule, Little Green Man (if Jean-Jacques Perrey got really hopped up on disco and drugs in the 70s, it might well have sounded like this)
» J.P. Massiera, Psychoses Freakoid 1963-1978; Discoid 1976-1981 (the French answer to Kim Fowley, as prolific, durable and mad)
» VA, Des Jeunes Gens Mödernes, Vols. 1-3 (French synth pop and new wave from the late 70s to early 80s)
» VA, WIZZZ: Psychorama Française, Vol. 2 (long-awaited followup to the first volume,French psychedelia, yé yé, and jerk)
» VA, Well Hung: 20 Funk Rock Eruptions from Beneath Communist Hungary, Vol. 1 (from Andy Votel and others, a nice mix of prog and funk tunes)
» VA, Twistin’ Rumble, Vols. 1-7 (great swamp rock, r‘n’r, exotica and trash, in the Frolic Diner/Las Vegas Grind vein)
» VA, Finlando Suomalaisen Diskomusiikin Helmiae 1980-1985 (Finnish covers of electro and synth pop classics)
» VA, Parties Fines: A Voluptuous Journey Through 70s French Erotic Cinema (lush and erotic, with many an obvious ancestor to Air!)
» VA, The Lost Tapes/The Found Tapes (two volumes of minimal wave from Europe and North America, 1981-1987)

Notable absences run the gamut from MGMT to Fleet Foxes for me. Decent singles, but the albums wore thin after a few listens.

James Robinson

I’m bad at summarising a whole year without reverting to sweeping, obvious generalisations. We all know that downloading is eating into the financial profits of musical corporations. We all hear about how the album is dead, and how soon we’ll just have music mechanically scanned into our retina within a year or two. My take on it all is that it’s a format thing, there’s just no viable method of delivery that is not susceptible to being undercut by the massive succubus of free-market downloading. But the album, I think, is not dead. Collective strong bodies of material will always have me coming up for more. Much like last year, the top albums in my estimations were all mostly album albums. Strong thematic, sonic and textural links all throughout. Bands like MGMT wore thin on me, despite great songs. Once the giddy rush of the singles wore off, all we had left was a loose affiliation of vastly different filler. I like to be pulled into a world, not feeling like I’m scanning through the radio dial. And I don’t really see that ever not being the case with me.

So with out further ado...

1. For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver
This album has been my favourite since it was released in February of this year. For an album that barely touches the half hour mark, this album has surprising legs. The back-story is well established; depressed, heart broken musician Justin Vernon moves into the wilderness and makes a classic record. But For Emma, Forever Ago provides much more than emotional histrionics. It’s much more of a mood piece than a heart on the sleeve souvenir of Justin Vernon’s time of crisis. Tracks like ‘Flume’ and ‘Stacks’ are examples of stunning, layered pop-acoustics that reveal their beauty further and further with subsequent listens. ‘Skinny Love’ and title track ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ provide shimmering kicks of emotion, while never falling into obvious territory. I’ll swear by this record. Number one by a good long way.

2. Dear Science, TV On the Radio
TV On the Radio make immaculate records, and are no strangers to top ten lists. I love, love, loved debut Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, but follow up Return to Cookie Mountain was sparse and alienating in places, despite its sonic depth and complexities. Dear Science is beautiful, but engaging in a way its predecessor wasn’t. It brings a little Prince to the mix, a little funk to it all. ‘Dancing Choose’ is the TV on the Radio we all know and love with an immediate groove; ‘Golden Age’, ‘Crying’ and ‘DLZ’ bring a perfect pop-music sensibility to their previously laid art-rock template. ‘Family Tree’, as pointed out to me by a friend, is the song that Brandon Flowers wishes he could write, but will spend his whole life falling short of.

3. The 59 Sound, Gaslight Anthem
New Jersey punk rock, filtered through the music of local hero Bruce Springsteen. Lyrically grand, and fifties-obsessed – the Gaslight Anthem sing of jukeboxes, top-down convertibles and sailor tattoos; but it’s never ridiculous. Even if when you do the math it could be, the Gaslight Anthem hit the perfect line between melody and grunt. Songs here keep you on the hook, but never over-reveal – the verse, chorus, verse reliance of traditional pop-punk is shunned, but there are enough sharp lyrical and melodic turns here to keep knocking you out months down the road.

4. Hold on Now Youngster…/We are Beautiful, We are Doomed, Los Campesinos!
Overly verbose Welsh indie-kids (who are barely twenty) release two albums in the space of nine months – their Spanish (!?!?) name means “the peasants”, and they did the thing where they all changed their last name to Campesino. By rights this should fall into a territory reserved for everything both cutesy and annoying that is doomed to be forgotten. Fortunately these two albums are full of winding, infectious story-songs full of gritty stories of rock concerts, throwing up in toilets, lost love and – my favourite – sexual attraction to sharp looking stationary. It is a blast – energetic Pavement-esque indie-rock sound-tracking the inner-monologue of a hugely appealing down-on-his-luck fool.

5.= Visiter, The Dodos; Saturdays=Youth, m83
I couldn’t separate these two out. I came to them the same day, both of them are kind of specific, sticking to a sound and really nailing it. m83’s Saturdays=Youth is lush, deep, layered electronic-pop. It is gorgeous and irresistible. ‘Kim and Jessie’ would be close to my favourite song of the year, its keyboard line soars higher than most of the best classic singles of the 80s. The Dodos’ Visiter is swirling acoustic rock‘n’roll. Layered acoustic and electric guitars ebb and flow over sparse drumming, the songs change time and place, rushing and meandering, as the melodies are given time and space to find its way. ‘Fools’ manages to hit both frenetic, jammed out instrumentation and singing-at-the-rafters catchy. ‘Joe’s Waltz’ is delicate and gritty in equal amounts.

7. Bake Sale, Cool Kids
Blissed out, so relaxed it is nearly vertical Chicago hip-hop from two just turned twenty hipsters. It calls back to a slightly older school of hip-hop, and is pretty true to genre. But despite a slight simplicity to it all, it is an amazingly cool way to spend half an hour. Watch out for these guys.

8. Lights Out, Santogold
As stated, people will tell you that the album is dead. That what matters now apparently is the single. But as albums full of loosely connected songs and singles quickly edge themselves to the back of my memory, Lights Out was a favourite that never faded. There’s an edgy, creative energy and enthusiasm that spreads through all of the tracks here; whether its the jerky MIA-ish dance hall of ‘Creator’ or the Pixies-meets-Tegan and Sara guitar hooks of ‘L.E.S. Artistes’ and ‘Lights Out’. Despite mass amounts of variation in the collective inspiration of Lights Out (humorously nodded at by the cover image of Santogold throwing up a big pool of stardust), it holds together – and never feels put on, or like needless genre aping in the same way that the Ting Tings or MGMT managed to come off at points.

9. When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, Atmosphere
Minneapolis based Atmosphere, fronted by MC Slug, have been hip-hop tradesmen for a while now. They’ve risen above the underground without ever catching on in any great way. Slug’s style is appealing; on previous albums such as Seven’s Travels or God Loves Ugly his self-deprecating, inward focus was easy to identify with. In a genre constantly defined by self-deification – Slug was looking to his flaws for inspiration. But he was getting a little too comfortable and obvious with himself as his subject matter, and on When Life Gives You Lemons he looks elsewhere for material. Doubled with a move into live instrumentation over sampling, this album became a refreshing left-turn. I forgot about this album initially, it never stuck with me. But this is a great record, and increasingly satisfying to me as the work I put in with it paid off. It is full of tales of down-on-life waitresses, homeless, drunks and actors – all filtered through Slug’s now finely honed story-telling strengths. Slug is a great MC, low-key and relatable at the same time as being able to rise seamlessly into in-your-face intensity. The instrumentation works, and from the acoustics of ‘Guarantees’ to the slow piano-build of ‘Puppets’, it breathes new energy into Slug’s stories.

10.= Modern Guilt, Beck; Made in the Dark, Hot Chip
That Made in the Dark is a great record is unsurprising, as Hot Chip have become a fairly dependable source of big fun electro-pop. Hot Chip bought it home to roost here – tying their electronic sound and studio ability into a stronger sense of song craft. Made in the Dark is full of the giddy-fun of previous favourites like ‘Over and Over’, and it can drop the pace without meandering, an area where their last two records slightly lost their way. ‘Caramel’ and ‘Ready for the Floor’ are two of the most fun songs this year period; ‘Made in the Dark’ and ‘In the Privacy of our Love’ show Hot Chip to have previously unknown levels of heart. Beck’s Modern Guilt ties it, and both deserved to make the list. Modern Guilt is a half-hour shot of psychedelic pop that just demanded repeated listens. It is gloomy and apocalyptic, rife with great tracks and for once Beck has made his first tight album in a while, rather than a collection of songs of vastly varying quality in desperate need of editing.

Alexander Bisley
Associate Editor, The Lumičre Reader (alexander.bisley@gmail.com)

Top Three Music DVDs...

» Gold: I’m Not There (Warner Bros/Icon, $39.95)
The most imaginative, sensuous musical DVD of the year. Lucent yet enigmatic; sometimes exhilarating. It’s also 2008’s best DVD commentary. Director Todd Haynes is uncommonly cerebral and engaging, lyrically conveying his impressive Dylan understanding.

» Silver: Shine a Light (Roadshow, $39.95)
Scorsese’s use of music is superb. In this enjoyable concert film, he pays tribute to a foremost inspiration, The Rolling Stones. DVD includes some stellar songs, like ‘Paint It Black’, that didn’t make the theatrical length version.

» Bronze: Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison ($39.95)
Documents Johnny Cash’s rollocking, totemic performance at California’s Folsom Prison that day in ‘68.