TRADITIONALLY, AROUND ABOUT this time critics put together their ‘best of the year’ selections. Twenty years ago, it may have been possible to nominate the finest recordings, if you were to ignore the then-emerging underground represented by independent labels, and if you were willing to pretend that the only music that mattered was made in America, England or the colonies.
As if critics’ lists weren’t troublesome enough back then, now they’re next to impossible. The idea that one music reviewer could – from the plethora of music spilling out from every sub-cultural crevice of the internet – choose a definitive ‘best of 2014’ is an enormous conceit.What we end up with is (on the one hand) a dreary conformity as journalists still sucking on the nipple of the corporate music machine restrict their choices to the most risible examples of the industrial musical machinery, and (on the other) a world of bloggers choosing the most obscure online-only releases but lacking the basic requisites of written articulation with which to explain those choices.
It’s mindboggling, and like finding music generally in 2014, a hugely frustrating job. Frustrating, that is, for those of us who like to graze across a wide variety of genres and musical geographies. Ironically, with such an enormous music library now available, nearly all the online advice assumes that if we like an album or artist in one genre, that everything else we like is going to follow suit. That’s what I miss about old-fashioned record shops, where a good sales assistant would build up a genuine customer profile built on real experience of your personality and taste, and potentially open up a world of music.
But I digress. Despite all of the above, I’m now going to subject readers of the Perreaux blog to my ‘best of 2014’, and some of the worst. It’s a personal list based on what I heard this year. My regret is that – with real-world grown-up responsibilities like a hungry wee diva-child to feed – I’ve not had more time to explore those nooks and crannies much beyond that which has landed in my lap. New year resolution, then!
I’ll start with the boring old fart stuff: the reissues.
I was pretty excited about the new Led Zeppelin remasters, even though I felt a bit sniffy about forking out for a third time. First we had the rather poor vinyl-master CDs back in the late ‘80s, then the much better but still compressed-sounding remasters in the ‘90s. The latest batch features LP replica covers that are rather finely rendered – even the cardboard spinning wheel on Led Zeppelin III is reproduced. Each album also contains an extra disc of sometimes illuminating, sometimes boring, demos and live takes. In keeping with the era, the albums are also available on vinyl, and as mammoth box sets. Led Zeppelin (1969), Led Zeppelin II (1970) and Led Zeppelin III (1970, all Warners) make for a killer threesome, and show a group actually evolving a new form of music at a time that rock was still seen as a legitimate underground, anti-society undertaking with the ability to change the world. Ha.
From this distance, it’s easier to see just what was going on in this music revolution: how the group exploited one American music form (the blues) and Europeanised it with Jimmy Page’s sonic artistry. Using the studio in a way no one had done before, Page created monumental riff monsters that, in retrospect, are more Wagner than Muddy Waters, and in that sense, the group can be seen more in the tradition of Bartok, whose orchestral scores were stoked with Hungarian folk melodies. There are of course, huge differences between Bartok and Led Zeppelin, but the experimental vigour with which Zeppelin worked with the then new studio technology can’t be underestimated, and it inspired a whole new genre: heavy metal.
The group is at its very best on tracks like ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘Immigrant Song’, but I still have issues with the way they sound on my system, even through my lovely Perreaux. The latest mastering makes everything clearer, and the incredible machine that was the interplay between bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John “Gonzo” Bonham is more evident, but some of the guitar and vocal tones still sound edgy. Then again, maybe it’s just the compression that was used in the original mix to accentuate certain aspects of the music. I played these tracks (loud) on my shitty car system and they sounded great. Typical.
Bottom line: Own the first three Zeppelin albums, forget the rest. Sheer genius. I mean, who needs to hear ‘Stairway To Heaven’ ever again?
On an earlier Perreaux blog I got a bit excited about the lavish reissue of Jethro Tull’s Benefit. The one that really thrilled me to the bone however, was the more recent remaster of their 1973 album, A Passion Play (Warners). I remember buying this when it came out after an infatuation with their wonderful Thick As A Brick, but it was quickly discarding when I couldn’t make any sense of it. But I was only 14 at the time. Now reissued in a hardback book-like edifice and boasting a Steven Wilson remix job (the original mix is also contained on the accompanying DVD, along with a 5.1 mix), A Passion Play is revealed as one of the more audacious and entertaining albums of the era.
I can now see why I found it so difficult in 1973: compared with Thick As A Brick, it’s boggling in its complexity, and has so many twists and turns and possibly pointless time changes that some will find it overbearing. But it’s so packed with musical and lyrical ingenuity that I found it endlessly entertaining, and I couldn’t help wondering why practically no music (outside of obscure modern classical releases) contains this kind of musical statistical density.
Bottom line: For anyone investigating the heyday of progressive rock, this album is a must. It will astonish you. And it sounds good.
The ‘60s and ‘70s was a huge growth period for hi-fi, so it’s not surprising that rock bands were enmeshed in the parallel development of studio craft. Sadly, in 2014 the bigger the production, and the bigger the act, the nastier it’s likely to sound on any system worth its salt. The Miley Cyrus’s of this world seem to inhabit a soundworld that’s predicated on lo-res internet radio streaming, but not to worry, there’s better stuff out there.
One of the year’s revelations was the work coming out of a tiny studio in Lyttelton (New Zealand), the Sitting Room, and appearing most often on Lyttelton Records. I don’t know what kind of equipment producer/engineer Ben Edwards is running, but invariably, the result is pleasing. Easily my favourite so far (and an album I have raved about previously on this blog) is Aldous Harding’s self-titled debut. Like all their productions, it’s not “audiophile-grade”, but it’s a long way from the nasty-sounding Flying Nun 4-track recordings of the early ‘80s. Turn Harding’s album up loud and you get the essence of her gorgeous voice – up close and intimate, a voice you can lose yourself in. While most of the recordings coming out of these studios seem to have a slightly alt-country twang, Harding’s is, apart from the occasional fiddle, a kind of gothic folk with beautiful fingerpicked guitar. These songs are lovelorn meditations that still have me spellbound.
Bottom line: Support local produce, not because it’s local, but because it’s amazing.
Speaking of spellbound, the former Split Enz singer-songwriter (and wayward genius) who wrote a song by that name, Phil Judd, released his finest work to date in Play It Strange (Ode). Judd has been in a world of pain these last years, but has re-emerged with this incredible 14-song selection that shows the mastermind behind The Swingers (and that perennial “Counting The Beat”) hasn’t lost his ear for a lemon-twist (Lennonish?) Beatles melody or a pungent lyric.
All produced in his home studio, most of it overdubbed by the man himself (with a little help from former Enz mates) it’s not going to win any awards for audio engineering, but man, it’s great.
Bottom line: One of NZ pop’s errant geniuses returns in his 60s and the unthinkable has happened: it’s his best album yet!
Apart from the plastic pop that hogs the charts (it’s like rock never happened), the most disappointing thing about 2014 for me is the number of old farts disgracefully plying their increasingly shop-soiled goods for loot they don’t actually need. This pertains especially to acts like the Rolling Stones, who could have given retired gracefully in the ‘80s and kept their dignity intact. Instead, they keep trotting it out to millions worldwide who don’t care that they’re being sold short, and that the standard of performance is shoddy and sloppy. I saw a replica of progressive rock band Yes this year and it was disgraceful: a karaoke stand-in for their singer Jon Anderson, and two of the guys were so rotund that they made a mockery of their rock star garb.
In this new world where most of us seem to think it’s okay for sub-par, crinkly versions of top rock acts to trot out their stuff for vast sums, it’s fantastic to find that some old bastards are still cranking out brilliant stuff and at the peak of their creativity. Phil Judd is one. Another is Scott Walker, the dulcet-toned singer who, after his hit-making stint in the Walker Brothers in the ‘60s was a kind of easy listening guru doing luscious Jacques Brel-inspired tunes with existential lyrics before reinventing himself in the ‘80s as something altogether more experimental.
The 71-year-old has just released one of the most amazing records of his career, a collaborative album with the bizarre rock group Sunn O))), called Soused (4AD). Sunn O))) specialise in drone-type structures, while Walker has a huge voice that’s almost operatic. The same could be said of his lyrics, which would probably read like a libretto if you could disentangle
them from the sounds he makes with his mouth. Soused isn’t the kind of thing you’d put on at a family barbecue (unless you want to start a revolution), but it’s great to know that at least some former pop stars are growing into their twilight years, perhaps at their creative peak, and evolving their music, not just churning out the greatest hits.
Bottom line: Challenge yourself. Go on! You might just grow into it.