For the first and last time, Henry Oliver gives his definitive account of The Spinoff’s best New Zealand music of 2018. Read it and get angry.
Here it is, my ten best albums and ten best songs, all from Aoteroa, all released in 2018. The one rule: appearance on one list disqualifies that artist from appearing on the other list. Okay? Okay.
1. Chelsea Jade – Personal Best
Chelsea Jade has always cultivated an air of mystery – a combination of art school obfuscation, an inconsistent release schedule, and her fierce independence in a genre that typically relies on deep-pocketed labels to pay for the revolving congregation of writers and producers we’ve all come to think of as necessary. But this year, her stream of consistently impressive singles and EPs finally coalesced into a debut album and it cleared the high bar of expectation she’d generated.
Personal Best is everything a listener could want out of this new kind of pop music that isn’t that popular (someone I was talking to recently called it ‘unpop’). It’s catchy but weird, combining nods to the genre’s leading lights (Robyn, Carly Rae Jepsen, etc.) with production flourishes of ASMResque coughs, clicks and gasps. Just as the music is made with a keen ear for detail, the lyrics are alive with social nuance and microscopic moments. They read more like little essays than poems. (Personal Best makes me want to write all the words I hate to be used to describe music like ‘smart’ and ‘literate’.)
And all of it is wrapped in this look and vibe that is unlike anything else in 2018. It’s easy to overlook the degree of difficulty Chelsea Jade has set for herself. The photos, the videos, the dances, the live show, the Instagramming, the ‘personal brand’ – it’s such a small target she’s been able to hit. A few degrees off and it all looks fucking ridiculous. But Personal Best – and everything surrounding it – hit the bullseye.
2. Avantdale Bowling Club – Avantdale Bowling Club
The day ‘Years Gone By’ came out, I was hooked instantly. It’s my most-played New Zealand song of the year on Spotify and it’s seven minutes long! Its achievement is kind of profound – one person recounting their life, almost year-by-year in seven minutes while still holding to a rhyme scheme and something close to a song-structure. Those detailed moments of childhood, the pains of growing up, his parents fucking up, him getting fucked up, him getting semi-famous and then getting cut down, him growing up, getting married, having a child. Several months and many plays later, I still get goosebumps when I hear the lines “And now I watch his eyes watching mine / Watching life on rewind, too divine to define in one line.” If you know, you know.
Like Personal Best, one of the things that remain so impressive about Avantdale Bowling Club is how hard it is to do this well. Imagine being a rapper and telling your collaborators something like, “You know A Love Supreme? I want to make a record kinda like that but a rap record.” It’s preposterous. It’s like saying, “Yeah, I want to make a movie like Citizen Kane, but a superhero movie.” Yet, somehow he pulls it off again and again. ‘Pocket Lint’, ‘F(r)iends’, ‘Water Medley’, ‘Home’ – all are filled with intricate rhymes that so empathetically describe a specific New Zealand life, covering inequality, creativity, property, friendship, fatherhood, hope, hopelessness.
3. The Beths – Future Me Hates Me
Emo lyrics, pop-punk guitar sounds, 60s harmonies, power pop hooks – this is the record I didn’t know I needed (or even wanted) in my life in 2018. Future Me Hates Me is guitar pop songwriting at it’s best. There is no guitar-based album in 2018, anywhere, as catchy as this one. You might prefer the Mitski record or the 1975 record or the Courtney Barnett record or the Snail Mail record, but none of them is as catchy as this. Because it’s not empty catchiness – the lyrics are honest (sometimes a little cringy even) and funny. “Our genre is hooks,” guitarist Jonathan Pearce told us a month or so ago. And sure, hooks aren’t everything, but they make you want to press play and then press it again and again and again.
4. Marlon Williams – Make Way for Love
There’s no voice like Marlon Williams’. Not here, not anywhere. I can listen to it for hours. His voice could soothe the world. It should soothe the world. I love a record so specifically about a break-up, even though it’s been a long time since I could relate to any of it in the slightest. But I love ‘Love Is A Terrible Thing’. I love ‘Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore’. I love ‘The Fire of Love’.
5. Fanau Spa – Fanau Spa
If you want an album that could only have been made here, could only have been made in 2018, Fanau Spa is it. Building on the collaboration behind Coco Solid’s COKES mixtape, Fanau Spa is a fluid combination of Coco Solid, Queen Kapussi, Joe Kori, Big Fat Raro, Xamiishi, Manu, Brown Boy Magik, TH1R§T3EN and Yumgod. There’s literally nothing else like it.
6. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Sex and Food
Weird how only months after its release people seem to be sleeping on this album. I mean, to be fair, I hadn’t listened to it that much after seeing them play Whammy Bar in the middle of the year, but going through it now, there are so many tunes on this album. I was going to include ‘A God Called Hubris’ on my songs list because A. I love it; B. it sounds like what The Mint Chicks might now if they were still a band, and C. I thought it’d be funny to include a 41-second song on my songs list. But that wouldn’t be fair to ‘Not in Love’, ‘Break Yourself’, ‘Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays’. Not to mention ‘Hunnybee’ which isn’t my favourite song on the album but is an undeniable feel-good disco banger.
7. Julien Dyne – Teal
This is a mind-bending, toe-tapping, knee-drumming bursting-through-the-speakers rhythm bomb of an album. You just give yourself to it and not your head slightly out of time. (Also, features one of my favourite songs of 2017, ‘Hours’ with Ladi6.)
8. October – Ultra Red
Take bombastic industrial beats, sugary pop production, Jesus and Mary Chain fuzz guitars, grind it up, pour it out and you have October’s Ultra Red. I’ve said it elsewhere but goth is having a moment in a bunch of different places (anyone else psyched about those This Mortal Coil reissues?) and it’s only a matter of time until someone figures out how to merge it with forward-thinking pop and find their way into teenager’s psyches around the world. There’s no reason why it couldn’t be October in a year or so.
9. P.H.F. – I Hate Myself
P.H.F.’s I Hate Myself is like the degenerate twin of The Beth’s Future Me Hates Me. Liz Stokes might hate herself in the future, but Joe Locke is way ahead of her. Like Future Me, I Hate Myself is a hook-laden power-pop-punk affair but shrouded in static. It’s a bit Weezer, a bit Smashing Pumpkins, a bit all those late-00s “shitgaze” bands. So good! (Shouts to twitter power user @m_h_lumber who tweeted this to me a number of times throughout the year.)
10. Princess Chelsea – The Loneliest Girl
I never thought 2018 would be a big year for the Lil’ Chief aesthetic. The scene that kinda reached its peak they year(s) when The Brunettes, The Ruby Suns, The Reduction Agents, but produced two high-quality albums this year (see below for the other). Princess Chelsea’s The Loneliest Girl is full of wit and honesty.
1. Church & AP – ‘Ready or Not’
It might be recency bias, but fuck it. If not now, when? Live for the present, amirite? I mean, I liked their Thorough Bread record a lot, but still wasn’t prepared for this bona fide radio-friendly HIT. Song of the year? Why not? Give me a reason not to! “Savignon blanc? I saw that shit and I gave it to ma.”
2. Hans Pucket – ‘Fuck My Life’
I wrote what I have to say about this song in our reader’s survey post. In short: this song is a hit and in any other time, in any other media landscape, this would be on the charts. Still…
3. Tiny Ruins – ‘How Much’
“On a lilo reading your letter,” is probably my favourite opening line of a New Zealand song in 2018. What a scene! I love that this song subtly expands the Tiny Ruins sounds without taking too far into the psych-lite territory it could have easily arrived at. I just want to live in this world all the time. And I’m giving bonus points for the bass solo of the year.
4. JessB – ‘Set It Off’
Play this next time your phone is plugged in at a party. Play this to your kids. Play this all summer with your car windows down. One of the live highlights of the overly-polite music awards is one of the highlights of the whole damn year.
5. Delaney Davidson – ‘Shining Day’
I love this plodding dirge of a song. Co-written with SJD, ‘Shining Day’ is the positive affirmation you’ve been waiting for. Whatever it is you want to do – don’t wait. Today’s the day. This day. This is your shining day.
6. Drax Project – ‘Woke Up Late’
I used to hate Drax Project. Maybe I still do, I don’t know. But one day, my friend and boss Duncan Greive asked, “have you heard the new Drax single?” Of course I hadn’t! Weren’t they those Wellington music school kids who did covers of radio hits? Why would I keep up with their output? Well, sometimes the stars just align. And this is it. The best commercial radio hit to come from these islands this year. By far. No question. This should be on the soundtrack of every Hollywood teen movie for the next two years.
7. SWIDT – ‘No Emotions In The Wild’
SWIDT goes dark! There’ve been some challenges to the crown this year (see #1 above) but until someone comes out with a full-length as good as Stoneyhunga, SWIDT is still the rap group to beat. And while this year’s EP wasn’t quite as good, it’s enough to hold the spot.
8. Death and the Maiden – ‘Wisteria’
Before the time of writing, the last time I listened to this song was driving over the hills north of Dunedin on the way to Moeraki. It was raining, foggy as fuck, and there was nothing that sounded as perfect as this song. I can recommend the experience.
9. Jonathan Bree – ‘You’re So Cool’
I mean, I don’t know exactly what to think about this. Is this super earnest or super ironic? Too earnest or too cold? Does it matter? It’s just such a well-crafted song – economic yet expansive, lush production. And the look! The video!
10. Carb on Carb – ‘It’s Been a Rough Year’
It certainly has. (Seriously – I didn’t know I wanted to ever hear second-wave emo again until I heard this record. It’s so good though. It goes to many places I, as a listener, am not always keen to go. But I love it for it.)
This content was created in paid partnership with NZ on Air. Learn more about our partnerships here.
So much of the music mentioned above – songs and/or albums by Chelsea Jade, Marlon Williams, The Beths, October and more – was made with the help of NZ on Air. We thank them.