Like the previous two before it, June has been another busy month for album releases, releases that included a handful of much-anticipated drops. “Melodrama” finally arrived and went to number one in the process, while another young New Zealand prodigy Kane Strang also dropped his album. As we are now halfway through the music year, the music press has also been dropping their best of the year lists, lists which have shown to me just how mixed this year has been so far for music. Yes there have been some outstanding albums such as “DAMN.” and “Process,” but there have also been some average albums, and some much-hyped releases that failed to measure up, I’m looking at you The xx. After two outstanding years for music in 2015 and 2016, I’m beginning to worry that this year might not live up to those previous heights, however, am still hopeful that the remaining six months offer up something good. In the end, here are my favorite releases from the last thirty days.
Benjamin Booker – “Witness”
American soul and garage blues man Benjamin Booker returned this month with his second studio album “Witness.” With a voice that sounds a bit like Tom Waits, Booker mixes things up nicely on this album with high-velocity garage rock tracks, soul ballads, and blues stompers. The garage and blues-rock scenes are very crowded at the moment with the likes of Alabama Shakes and Gary Clark Jr. leading the pack. However, with songs as good as “Believe,” Booker is certainly hot on the heels of the modern-day blues stars.
Fave Tracks: Witness, Motivation, Believe, Overtime
Jono Das – “Fiction”
In what is a thriving hip-hop scene in Aotearoa New Zealand, the latest talent in the production line Jono Das has released an instrumental hip-hop record of top quality. Having previously featured on Grow Room tapes, Das’s talent was already clear for all to see. However, on Fiction,” his full-length debut project he takes it up another notch. The beats are smooth, the production is slick, and the use of a sample of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” was a risky masterstroke that paid off in spades. This project is of international quality and sits comfortably alongside Stones Throw Records Kieran Riggins instrumental project from earlier in the year. With albums of this standard dropping on a regular basis now, it wouldn’t seem out of place for me to declare that New Zealand is in the midst of a golden age of hip-hop. Long may it continue.
Fave Tracks: Hurricanrana, Kowabunga, Jonah Was a Rockstar, Off The Wall
Kane Strang – “Two Hearts and No Brain”
I’d be lying if I thought the hype around Dunedin’s boy wonder Kane Strang was justified. I didn’t think much of his debut album and found his performance at the critics choice awards turgid and uninspired. Given all this, I was desperate for him to deliver on his second album “Two Hearts and No Brain” because had he not, I might just have tuned out altogether. Thankfully though, he has delivered, and in spades. “Two Hearts and No Brain” is a great indie guitar pop album with amazing deadpan harmonies, Syd Barrett-like vocals and great songwriting throughout. Kane has left behind the labored and robotic-like sound of his first album in favor of a more varied melodic sound here. The minor key harmonies draw you in, while combined with the droning guitar sound, at times, on listening it even feels like you are about to enter a hypnotic state of consciousness. New Zealand’s indie guitar pop game is strong at the moment, perhaps the best it has been since the Flying Nun days, with Kane, Merk, Fazerdaze and the Beths among others leading the way. Long may it continue to, because with albums of this quality I want to be there for the ride.
Fave Tracks: Lagoons, See Thru, My Smile Is Extinct, Don’t Follow Me (I’m Lost)
Lorde – “Melodrama”
In what can only be described as one of the most anticipated albums of 2017, the question on everyone’s mind was, could Lorde deliver with “Melodrama”? After hearing “Green Light” and “Liability” I had my doubts, and I questioned this new heavily produced direction Lorde seemingly was going down. However, upon listening to “Melodrama,” it is now clear that Lorde has produced a mammoth pop record and that “Melodrama” is as musically relevant as any record going around this year. From the quirky pop of “Sober” and “The Louvre” to the balladry of “Writers in the Dark” and the anthemic “Perfect Places,” “Melodrama” has it all and is extremely varied musically as a record. With shades of Fleetwood Mac and Kate Bush, Lorde has shown her ability to evolve as an artist and in the process proved that “Pure Heroine” was by no means a one-hit wonder. With the great reception this album has received, crowning in the amazing achievement of becoming the first New Zealand artist to top the Billboard 200, Lorde has well and truly established herself as one of the ultimate queens of pop. Your move next TayTay.
Fave Tracks: Sober, Homemade Dynamite, Writer in The Dark, Perfect Places
Ride – “Weather Diaries”
2017 is the year of the shoegaze comeback with Slowdive and now Ride releasing their first albums of new material in over twenty years. While Slowdive’s self-titled comeback was dark and moody, Ride’s new album is sunny and melodic, with jangle pop more the order of the day than shoegaze. In a genre that is anchored firmly in the 90s, a question hovering over this comeback album was would it sound dated in a contemporary 21st-century context? Thankfully though, the guitars hum and the melodies simmer in what can only be described as a sunny Californian alt-rock record. This is shoegaze as it should sound in the 2010s and with this record, Ride has proven that there could still be legs yet in this old, but popular genre.
Fave Tracks: Charm Assault, All I Want, Rocket Silver Symphony, Cali
Vince Staples – “Big Fish Theory”
In all honesty, when I first heard this album it did not impress me. I had pre-conceived expectations of its quality after the NME gave it a perfect score and declared it was better than Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN,” one of the absolute albums of the year so far. However, after multiple listens, the album has grown on me and it is arguably for mine Vince Staples best album. There is definitely a heavy electronic influence on “Big Fish Theory,” and Vince has done a great job in mixing things up stylistically. This album is quite unlike anything I have heard in hip-hop for a long time, with its ferocious beats and electro-heavy production. It might yet even be a game changer as NME said pre-release in terms of paving a new way for electronic and dance beats to play a part yet again in hip-hop moving forward. Only time will tell if this is the case, but at least Vince tried to shake up the game and bring a bit of dance energy back to hip-hop.
Fave Tracks: Crabs In a Bucket, Love Can Be…, 745, BagBak