Between them, Herald reviewers GRAHAM REID and RUSSELL BAILLIE got to grips with nearly 500 albums this year. Here are their 20 favourites.
(See end of this article for details on how you can win all 20 albums!)
1. Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warners)
In a year where garage-band rock made a rowdy return and grabbed headlines, the experimental and often oddball Flaming Lips from Oklahoma turned down the volume and turned up the intimacy. Some of these are actual proper love songs (albeit a bit bent) and the opener is a probing piece of self-analysis on the nature of courage and manhood. Or something like that. The Lips emerged two decades ago sounding like a Flying Nun outfit (check their recent retrospective double disc, Finally the Punk Rockers are Taking Acid 1983-88), but here display the lightness of helium punctuated by deft electronica and found sounds. Somewhere in this is a concept album also, so the parts add up to something greater than the whole. But in its gorgeously simple melodies sung by mainman Wayne Coyne in a fragile and almost weepy voice, and the dreamlike quality it evokes, this is one of those albums which arouses quiet passions and its timelessness means it will be a keeper for a long while yet. And shouldn't those be hallmarks of any album of the year?
2. Red Hot Chili Peppers: By the Way (Warners)
Just when the rap-rock-funk style they pioneered should have seen them consigned forever to decades past, the Red Hot Chili Peppers returned with an album which reminded that even tattooed post-rehab millionaire Californian punks entering their forties have something to say. Or at least, the ability to write and deliver a glorious bunch of songs which, together, added to the best pop opus of their 20-year career. Like the Flaming Lips, this one echoed the Beach Boys in their cosmic harmony heyday. But there was a whole lot more West Coast in those grooves, while the playing and singing showed that very quality this band had tried so hard to avoid for the best part of its career - restraint. The best album by a very big band in a very long time.
3. Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man: Out of Season (Go Beat!)
When the eerie voice of Portishead, Beth Gibbons, teamed up with former Talk Talk member Paul Webb (aka Rustin Man), the result was like Gibbons' other outfit with the colour turned up and the clocked turned back. It's still a noir affair, with the singer occasionally chanelling Billie Holiday on songs that suggest everything from a twilight-zone Burt Bacharach to English folk legend Nick Drake (yes, well, one of the tunes is called Drake, innit?). And it's one of those albums which creates its own little world of sound as it runs a fine line between tortured and torch tune.
4. Queens of the Stone Age: Songs for the Deaf (Interscope)
Their previous, Rated R, was the hard rock album of 2000, and funnily enough its follow-up wins - in this list at least - the same accolade. The Californian band with the open-door membership policy, but helmed by guitarist-singer Josh Homme and bassist Nick Oliveri, not only got the drumming help of Foo Fighter and former Nirvana sticksman Dave Grohl, but managed to make a weird diversity of songs - some came with tunes, some screamed their head off, some sounded like they'd just escaped across the border from Mexico while under the influence - sound like they were meant to be together on the same strange but loud record.
5. Tim Finn: Feeding the Gods (Periscope/ EMI)
The Finns don't lack for recognition in this country, just for real enthusiasm for anything they've done since going out under their own names. That need to prove something about his creative vitality seemed to feed Finn snr's sixth out-alone album and the result was his rockingest, most satisfying solo effort yet.
It helped that he kept it simple, kept it lyrically direct, kept it bouncing on its toes even in the ballads, but kept from it slipping into maudlin singer-songwriter-isms on one hand, or sounding desperate to be contemporary on the other. It's just a great pop-rock album centred on a familiar voice. If you'd said at the beginning of this year that the best New Zealand album of the year would be by Tim Finn, you would have been thought terminally un-hip. Oh well, too bad. It still is.
6. Grant Lee Phillips: Mobilize (Zoe)
Yes, maybe this is his early Bowie album, but the strength of the songs and hypnotic narratives they convey means this one still commands an unnatural amount of airplay in discerning homes. Memorably melodic pop songs with depth and emotional power, and the most hallucinatory road song in many years. Everyone sing, "We're off to see America ... "
7. Neil Halstead: Sleeping on Roads (4AD)
See, losing your girlfriend and having to sleep in the studio isn't always bad. In the case of former Slowdive/Mohave 3 singer-songwriter Halstead, it meant time to make a lovely album where Americana met the Anglofolk of Bert Jansch and Nick Drake (him again). Folk-pop of nuance and naggingly beautiful songs, plus a step back to Slowdive's scouring guitar on one track just to keep you alert. An unexpected gem.
8. Dubious Brothers: Trade Secrets (Mai Music)
The most fully realised New Zealand hip-hop album so far? Certainly the best out of Hamilton, anyway. The Brothers - Chris Macro and Tyna - brought a cinematic approach to the art (Johnny and Jenny is Once Were Warriors with a glorious chorus, The Accident is a multiple viewpoint story of a car crash), and peppered it with subtle and effective samples which hook like a gaffe on the first hearing. All that, and a brilliant name. We are dubious no longer, brothers.
9. Goldenhorse: Riverhead (Siren)
The debut album by this shy Auckland band with outgoing musical ideas was an unalloyed gem and a rarity too - an offering by a guitar band where you only occasionally notice the guitars. You do, however, notice singer Kristen Morelle's keening voice, and the style shifts - pastoral pop to ska, to torch tunes, to songs of uneasy gothic strangeness which she and the band navigate with canny songcraft, imaginative arrangements (including some seriously lovely strings) and a literate, askew lyrical approach. But they're not too clever to stop you humming along either.
10. The Vines: Highly Evolved (Capitol)
The headrush title track to this debut by these Aussies annointed as Next Big Things in Britain and the US before anyone had heard of 'em at home (aka the Datsuns syndrome) was the best one minute 34 seconds of rock'n'roll that 2002 delivered. Rest of the album wasn't bad either, a riveting pile-up of Beatles-shaped tunes, Nirvana-inspired screaming and some very big choruses. Though they did other things than just damaged thrilling rock'n'roll, with a line in thoughtful, psychedelic pop excursions which put them in a different class to the rest of the garage rocks Class of 2002.
11. Foo Fighters: One by One (RCA)
The recording of the fourth album from Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters was abandoned, then restarted after the singer-guitarist returned from drumming with Queens of the Stone Age (above). The busman's holiday seemed to work wonders with a set of songs that excites with its sheer sense of swagger and with its emotional punch too. The eight-minute grand finale Come Back was the best post-Nirvana rock moment of the year, and all the sweeter considering Grohl's family tree.
12. Beck: Sea Change (Interscope)
See, losing your girlfriend ... Part II. Odd too that Beck, like Halstead, above, gravitated towards Americana-meets-Anglofolk on these songs where the hip-hop has been turned off and, as on his superb Mutations, found himself in simple and direct songs, some orchestrated by his dad. Melancholy and glum even - over the long haul, but thoroughly engaging and possessing that rarest of virtues, emotional honesty.
13. Coldplay: A Rush of Blood to the Head (Capitol)
After Parachutes, the forlorn English band's album-of-the-year debut of two years ago, this was always going to seem like an extension. At times it's just as soppy, just as melancholy, just as hopelessly romantic in its tunes. But given time, Rush of Blood becomes a wider, deeper, darker affair with the weight of the world upon its slender shoulders. If songwriter Chris Martin over-reached himself with his global concerns, he can still turn a telling line as on the title track: "I'm going to buy a gun and start a war, if you can tell me something worth fighting for".
14. Bic Runga: Beautiful Collision (Sony)
The second coming of our pre-eminent female singer-songwriter showed the worrying number of intervening years between her hit debut and the arrival of this had allowed her a considered approach to the follow-up, and a musical sophistication several stages away from the naive folky charms of her first outing. Which meant we got everything from symphonic swingers to country waltzes, to sunny pop jangles, to aching ballads, to spidery rock, and Runga - and that voice of hers - carried it all off quite beautifully.
15. Orchestra Baobab: Specialists in All Styles (Nonesuch)
Given a chance, this could get the Buena Vista Social Club award for slow-creeper and steady-seller. Senegalese musicians who were influenced by Cuban styles, the Orchestra last recorded 20 years ago and the reissue of that excellent album Pirate's Choice prompted a re-formation. The result is this diamond of sinuous saxophone and out-there wah-wah guitar, just in time for summer.
16. Tom Waits: Alice (Epitaph)
Waits released this and Blood Money simultaneously. This is the better in its jazz-noir, oddball percussion and heartbreaking, eloquently beautiful melodies delivered in that idiosyncratic rasp. Beautiful as a broken spider's web.
17. Norah Jones: Come Away With Me (Blue Note)
Is it jazz if it's on a jazz label? Does it matter? Not really, because although now sounding slightly threadbare from over-exposure, these songs announced the arrival of a fresh talent who was as adept as writing classic-sounding originals as breathing life into Hank Williams and Hoagy Carmichael. Still the best pinot gris in the jazz-pop crossover.
18. Nesian Mystik: Polysaturated (Bounce)
Mid-90s local chartbusters Supergroove had only one Che-Fu. The new Supergroove have five. Or that's how it can sound on the deft debut album by the group, still in their late teens but already with a very smart grasp on how R&B, reggae and hip-hop can be melded into something that sounds like and speaks as if it sprang from life in the middle of the world's biggest Polynesian city. It is its infectious pop vocal exuberance which makes Polysaturated such an feelgood affair, as well as winning the prize for the utterly Auckland album of the year.
19. The Datsuns: The Datsuns (Shock)
We were working on a theory that the Datsuns were Head Like A Hole with better stylists, but when we finally heard this, the Cambridge four's debut album, we thought better of it. Their highly developed sense of irony never got in the way of the energy or a sense of goofy fun and the result: 39 minutes, 21 seconds of unrestrained rock'n'roll glee. The best songs showed that this wasn't another band just performing a well-timed rock'n'roll rewiring job. No, this was genuinely inspired nonsense.
20. David Bowie: Heathen (Sony)
What with his recent Greatest Hits double album and this return to form, it really has been David's year. This durable 55-year-old plays a straight bat to archetypal Bowie tunes which recall his Hunky Dory/Space Oddity days, or drops judiciously chosen covers. David still does Bowie better than anyone.
Want to hear them for yourself?
We've got one set of the 20 best albums of the year to give away and all you have to do to enter is tell us: The name of two acts in the list who are directly linked in some way. There's more than one - and tell us one that didn't occur to us and you increase your chances of taking out the grand prize.
To be in to win, post your entry to:
TimeOut CD giveaway
Features Department, New Zealand Herald
PO Box 3290
Entries close January 8 and winners will be announced on January 11.