The Year and Decade in Review: Music

It’s customary for music to be relegated to decades, to era-defining moments. The 60s gave rise to psychedelia, Brit-invasion; the 70s prog, punk, disco, and so on. This was always problematic: the reducing of considerable diversity down to a few pat labels. The same can be expected of this decade, and there were a few key trends.

MP3s

Music consumption has shifted. I’d feel sorry for the record companies if they hadn’t been so myopic and slow to react. And while sales are propped up by targeting those who don’t traditionally download (i.e. the older demographic, music DVD sales, pop singles via iTunes), there is a whole new generation of music listeners for whom music doesn’t need to be a physical artefact for it to be meaningful, and who will be the main consumers in decades to come. The record companies are on their way to oblivion, and frankly, it’s their own fault.

The Internet

Outside of downloading, the internet has seen information about music disseminate around the world in ways never seen before. Previously, only the truly adventurous could find music from outside of their comfort zone—“world music” or obscure indie artists, for instance, struggled to be heard, and if they were, they were only years after the music was made. Today, we find an excess of music websites and blogs transmitting their own cultural obscurity as a way of selling itself. A website like Pitchfork, which seemed positively revolutionary in the early 2000s, is now Dad rock with its predicable Radiohead, Animal Collective, Arcade Fire end of year/decade lists. Blogs came and went; artists found themselves able to publicise without the need for print, radio, or record label support. And listeners with an internet connection now have no excuse to limit their music taste to a few select bands.

New scenes popped out of nowhere: Barcelona neo-tropicalia, Taiwanese hip-hop, dup-step, Baltimore indie. It all made it exciting to be a listener and a gleaner, and it must have been exciting to be a musician: the sheer diversity of music around at the moment is testament to that. However, it also made exploring more banal than it used to be—but that’s the price you pay for more knowledge. It also made it more difficult to characterise the decade in sweeping generalisations. The recent proclaimed “lo-fi movement” is all well and good, but it would be pointless suggesting 2009 is a return to rock when great albums were released by the likes of the Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, and Camera Obscura. And, lo-fi artists like Jay Reatard, Ghost Club, and others, would say it never left.

The Importance of Live Performance

Music has always been a live art form. It’s an immediate art form; transient, exciting, vital. While live music didn’t disappear with the advent of the album as the “highpoint” of musical creativity, it re-emerged in the 2000s as the primary way in which a band can make money. Of course, indie bands relied on touring in the 80s to make up for their lack of income. But now, you have bands like the Rolling Stones making a reported half a billion from their last tour. The Pixies, who wouldn’t have made a cent from their legendary hey-day, are now multi-millionaires. And these artists hadn’t released anything of note for decades. It also meant music that had relied on live performance to begin with—indie, metal, electronica—thrived.

So many decade-defining lists have considered the top albums and singles of the ‘noughties’, and for the record my top ten albums are:

  1. Congotronics, Konono No. 1
  2. Silent Shout, The Knife
  3. Kid A, Radiohead
  4. Drop, Cornelius
  5. Since You Left Me, The Avalanches
  6. Donuts, J Dilla
  7. Kala, MIA
  8. Alegranza, El Guincho
  9. Amlux, Merzbow
  10. From Here We Go Sublime, The Field

And top ten singles:

  1. Hey Ya!’, Outkast
  2. Senegal Fast Food’, Amadou et Mariam
  3. One More Time’, Daft Punk
  4. Jimmy’, MIA
  5. The Past is a Grotesque Animal’, Of Montreal
  6. Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken’, Camera Obscura
  7. Do You Realise???’, The Flaming Lips
  8. Jin Ma Jin Ma’, Orchestra Baobab
  9. Mon Meilleur Ami’, Yelle
  10. Seasun’, Delorean

However, given this decade has seen much more of an emphasis on live music—perhaps the most for decades—it seems fitting to pay credit to some of the great live shows that have passed through this country. Of course, live shows are more transient—you’re either there or you’re not—and what one person may consider a masterpiece could be lacklustre to another. However, this decade has seen some incredible performers visit our shores. These were likely due to a number of factors:

  1. A high New Zealand dollar. A live show is like an import, so it’s not surprising that when the Kiwi dollar was doing well, more bands came.
  2. The rise of bands who realised playing live was the best way to make money.
  3. Visionary promoters. The last few years have seen some great promoters take some risks in New Zealand, often to the point where artists would play here months or years ahead of being heard of, and to small crowds. Special mention must go to the people without whom local fans wouldn’t have had a chance to see some of the decade’s defining acts: Jim Rush, Gordon Campbell, Matthew Crawley, Ben Howe, Simon Coffey, Xan Marshall, Ian Jorgenson in particular.

And there were plenty of great performances and moments I haven’t mentioned in the list below: Brian Wilson accompanied by a thirty piece band; Will Oldham; YACHT; Camera Obscura; Calexico the first time around; John Darnielle joking that nobody had bought his album, followed by someone in the audience saying they had borrowed his album from the library once; the Stooges showing everyone that age really doesn’t matter; Guitar Wolf making their speakers catch fire from a guitar solo; Evan Dando jumping into the audience to punch a crowd member for singing along to his songs off-key; RJD2 playing four decks at once (each one like a virtuoso); Dudley Benson and his choir, recorders and strings soaring in a church; REM playing ‘Nightswimming’ as the crowds descended into the moat at the Bowl of Brooklands; Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’s astonishing interplay at the Paramount; the crowd dancing with Yeasayer into the night…

The Ten Best Live Performances of the Deacde

1. Flaming Lips, Big Day Out (2004)

I could have died of happiness at the Flaming Lips’ Big Day Out closer in 2004. And everyone I’ve talked to who was there agrees. It came at the end of a long day of great music and glorious sunshine, but few would have expected the absolute high that resulted from watching the Flaming Lips. Unconcerned that their live show might appear gimmicky and outrageous, the Flaming Lips won me over with sheer force of personality and friendliness. I spent days afterwards trying to re-capture the euphoria the band left me in, but there was little point. Their show displayed the beautifully sad ephemerality of music, life, love. And all it took was an air-raid siren, avant-garde video-projection, a giant ball and some great, great songs.

2. Shihad w/ Fur Patrol, Wellington Town Hall (2000)

Shihad became one of those formerly fashionable bands, following the release of their disastrous Pacifier album. Which is a shame because Killjoy still freaks the shit out of me, and The General Electric and ‘The Fish’ album had some great singles. Their March 2000 concert was held in a Town Hall so packed, it must have come close to breaching fire standards. Shihad have always been a great live band, but this show had an intensity I have rarely seen since by any band. As a raw sixteen year old, the performance I witnessed won me over to such an extent, that I started writing about it.

3. Okkervil River w/ Ladybird, San Francisco Bathhouse (2008)

One of those shows that didn’t start off in the most promising surroundings: a small audience, a rainy night, the middle of winter. But Okkervil River didn’t seem to care, as they went full bore to farewell their long-time guitarist Brian Cassidy. Another perfectly constructed set, with the sheer melodrama of their songs showcased to a dumbfounded crowd.

4. Deerhoof w/ So So Modern, San Francisco Bathhouse (2006)

Right from the opening moments, when So So Modern announced they were something pretty fucking awe-inspiring live, to the closing when Deerhoof’s astonishing control of dynamics were cut loose, I could sense I was witnessing greatness. It was a shame there were only fifty people at the gig.

5. David Bowie, Westpac Trust Stadium (2004)

While it wasn’t technically the greatest performance (although it was still pretty amazing—not even an opening act by perhaps my most hated artist, Brooke Fraser, could ruin it), it stood out for the fact that the old master performed in what was Wellington’s worst floods in fifty years. There was nothing to do but dance in the rain. And, he played ‘A New Career in a New Town’.

6. Salif Keita, WOMAD (2007)

WOMAD 2007 was fantastic: from the Gotan Project’s oh-so-sexy electronic tango, to Mr. Scruff’s dance set in the rain, to Ensemble Shanbehzadeh, all of which should be in this top ten. But Salif Keita stood out for his breathtaking performance. His voice could have launched a thousand ships, and he timed his set to perfection, moving from haunting solo numbers to bravura dance extravaganzas. I have never seen so many people so quiet and so in awe at one moment in time.

7. Lightning Bolt w/ Campbell Kneale, San Francisco Bathhouse (2009)

It took three days for my ears to recover from this show. And I was wearing earplugs. I’d already resigned myself to tinnitus from the 1000s of live bands I’ve seen perform, but this incredible performance probably hastened my hearing’s demise by a couple of years.

8. Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, WOMAD (2008)

Sharon Jones was told she was too short, too fat, too old to make it as a musician. Someone should have listened to her music first. And someone should have told her audience at 2008’s WOMAD, who moved like I’ve never seen a crowd move before. In time.

9. Trinity Roots, Wellington Town Hall (2005)

The Wellington dub scene became uncool really quickly, and hipsters tried to show their hipster-ness by outdoing other hipsters’ dub epithets. There is no doubt that the lyrics by most of the dub bands are terrible, and the Black Seeds really are awful—but seeing a band like Trinity Roots play showed just how good it can be. Part of the reason is that Warren Maxwell is a natural rock showman, but he also understands that good dub requires tension, propulsive energy and dynamic shifts. The Tsunami Benefit Gig was to be Trinity Roots’ final show, and it resulted in a packed Wellington Town Hall. The Town Hall is the best venue in the city, and when it’s full there’s nothing that comes close in terms of atmosphere. The show was quite something: I had never seen quite a cross-section of Wellington present in one gig, and if the night was the band’s funeral, all I can say is I hope my funeral’s like that.

10. Ween, San Francisco Bathhouse (2008)

Plenty of great indie bands from the 80s and 90s have realised that touring now, while indie music is the dominant musical trend (hell, have you seen the artists on the new Twilight soundtrack?), is the best way to guarantee some financial reward for the musical influence they have had. However, many go through the motions when they play. Not Ween. Their show in Wellington was three and a half hours long, and left the audience in some sort of carnal frenzy by the end. Apparently their show in Auckland was even longer.

Brannavan Gnanalingam has been writing for The Lumière Reader since 2006. He is also a novelist, with his first two books, Getting Under Sail and You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here, released by Wellington publishing collective Lawrence and Gibson.


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