Year in Review: My top 12 pop-culture moments of 2019

It’s 2020, and I’m still getting used to that fact. While I’m recovering from three weeks in California and a return to New Zealand summer, let’s hit my 12 favourite pop-culture moments of 2019!

* It’s an obvious pick, but … Avengers: Endgame, Captain America and that hammer. Marvel fanboy bliss in a movie full of great moments and the culmination of an act of movie world-building this comic book geek couldn’t have imagined possible back in 1984. 

* Exploring the bizarre world of China Mieville’s Bas-Lag with his novels The Scar and The Iron Council. Superb reads and a doorway to exploring the whole remarkable “new weird” genre for me (latest obsession, Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne and Area X trilogy).  

* Accepting middle-aged manhood with a newfound appreciation for jazz and sax men, mainlining Miles Davis and Coltrane riffs, and catching an awesome Auckland show by Kamasi WashingtonThe wails of a saxophone soothes the savage breast of a middle-aged dude.

* The Chills are some of the greatest pop musicians New Zealand has ever spawned, and a fantastic documentary on the ups and downs of their mastermind Martin Philipps is a great look at their career. Seeing it at a special showing with Philipps himself in attendance and singing a few songs was fantastic. More reading: Martin Phillipps and the endless cool of The Chills

* The Hulk can be anything, and Al Ewing’s Immortal Hulk continues to be the best comic book Marvel’s done in ages, combining horror, heroics and awe as we discover there’s life galore in the gamma giant yet. This is the only entry to repeat from last year’s list, which tells you how good it is. 

* Watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show in a cinema for the first time in years on Halloween night in a benefit hosted by creator, songwriter and actor Richard “Riff Raff” O’Brien. Go-go dancers, flying toilet paper and profanity, spooky, hilarious fun and sweet transvestites galore. 

* The Mandalorian and finally seeing an IG droid do its thing nearly 40 years after The Empire Strikes Back. I can’t tell you how geeked out IG-11 made me feel. More reading: The Star Wars scene I’ve wanted for 38 years.

* Rediscovering Akira Kurosawa. Even though I love Seven Samurai, Ikuru and the Yojimbo series, my knowledge of Kurosawa’s deeper filmography has been sadly lacking, until now. High And Low, Stray Dog, Red Beard, The Bad Sleep Well and so much more are like full-course meals for the head and heart. 

* Volunteering at the Pop-Up Globe for a third season this year and, particularly, seeing their fine version of Hamlet at least 8 or 9 times, each time the performances and bottomless wisdom of the play getting deeper and deeper for me. More reading: Hamlet, the play that never ends 

* Superheroes are everywhere, and it’s impossible to see every movie and TV show, but a real highlight this year was DC’s quirky, foul-mouthed Doom Patrol series, which captured the surrealism and horror of Grant Morrison’s epic run nicely. More reading: It’s the end of the world and I like it

* Bong Joon-Ho’s astounding Parasite and those stairs. Best movie of the year in a year with a whole lot of great movies? I have to suspect it is. 

* The opening of the heartfelt and gorgeous Tongan/New Zealand documentary For My Father’s Kingdom at the NZ International Film Festival, in a colourful gala packed with Tongan spirit, music and pride. Tongans are among my favourite of New Zealand’s rich tapestry of diversity, and in a year that also brought us the horror of the Christchurch attacks, this night at the movies was an inspiration of what this country is really all about. It was a privilege to witness this. More reading: Film festivals are the best-ivals

Next time, I’ll get negative with a look back at a few cultural lowlights of 2019! 

I can’t stand it, I know you planned it: My top 25 albums of 1994

Everyone’s favourite year in music is probably the music of their youth, but come on, people – objectively speaking 1994 was one hell of a year for popular music. 

It was 25 years ago now, and I can slap together a list from memory easily of 25 fantastic albums from ’94 that I still listen to regularly. 

1994 was a crazy, buzzing year in my memory – graduated university, grabbed my first job at an actual newspaper, fell in and out of love a bit, and spent a hurly-burly summer working as an intern at Billboard magazine in New York City, surrounded by and swimming in the music of the times. Some of the music I discovered that summer – Guided By Voices, Freedy Johnston – still grab me today. Others were just in the air, like Nirvana or Green Day. 

Yes, this list is a bit white, alternative and male, but to be fair that’s what I was listening to in 1994. It’s the songs that stick with me a quarter of a century on, a soundtrack to a year I’ll never forget. My top 25 albums of 1994, in alphabetical order: 

1. Tori Amos, Under The Pink: One woman wearing her heart on her sleeve, confessing everything, afraid of nothing. 

2. Bad Religion, Stranger Than Fiction: Punk unafraid to preach, and soaring with erudite anger at the state of the world. 

3. Barenaked Ladies, Maybe You Should Drive: Their open-hearted power pop swung between sentimental and wordy, and here they hit the perfect balance. 

4. Beastie Boys, Ill Communication: It still seems wrong that the Beastie Boys are over now, but we’ll always have “Sabotage.” 

5. Beck, Mellow Gold: “Loser” was everywhere, but this is overall a fundamentally weird, ramshackle record, ambling along to its own strange beat. 

6. Blur, Parklife: Is “sassy” the right word here? Britpop’s finest hour IMHO, swinging and smart and cynical. 

7. Johnny Cash, American Recordings: A giant takes the stage for a valedictory round that very nearly surpassed all he’d done before. 

8. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Let Love In:  A noir tale of a tall handsome man, in a dusty black coat with a red right hand.

9. Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Brutal Youth: A burst of venom and flame from someone who’s not quite an angry young man any more, an overlooked and underappreciated gem. 

10. Green Day, Dookie: Pop-punk propelled along at 1000 miles an hour, ephemeral and yet unforgettable. 

11. The Grifters, Crappin’ You Negative: Rusty grunge from deep in the heart of Memphis, a hidden gem I wore out on road trips through Mississippi in the summer of ’94. 

12. Guided By Voices, Bee Thousand: Glittering shards of surreal power pop, hit records from another dimension – it hooked me on GbV for life.

13. Hole, Live Through This: Subtract all the Courtney Love baggage you might have – this album is still one fierce wound of a record.

14. Freedy Johnston, This Perfect World: Heartbreakingly gorgeous, wistful songwriting by a guy who should’ve been huge. 

15. Nine Inch Nails, The Downwards Spiral: The sound of not knowing, and screaming in the dark. 

16. Nirvana, MTV Unplugged In New York: A curtain call, a last bow, what might have been, what never was.

17. Pavement, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: Unfolding like songwriting origami, nuggets of obscure beauty – go back to those gold soundz, and keep my advent to yourself. 

18. Pulp Fiction Soundtrack: Music curation is an art form, and Tarantino’s never done it better than this perfect mix tape. 

19. Tom Petty, Wildflowers: You belong among the wildflowers; the late Petty’s greatest album, contemplative and gorgeous and at peace. 

20. REM, Monster: Fuzzed-out and distorted, REM at their peak of fame, and their still strangely askew, enigmatic run of hits. 

21. Soundgarden, Superunknown: IMHO, Pearl Jam’s stuff hasn’t really endured that well; Soundgarden’s angst-filled grunge has. 

22. Velocity Girl, ¡Simpatico!: Effortlessly charming, sunny grunge-pop, well worth seeking out. 

23. Velvet Crush, Teenage Symphonies To God: Power pop with a ‘90s sheen, sweet harmonies and teenage kicks. 

24. Weezer, The Blue Album: One of the great power-pop debuts of all time; I hear it makes you feel just like Buddy Holly. 

25. Neil Young, Sleeps With Angels: Of the approximately 457 albums Neil Young has released, this one has the beauty of a dusty abandoned saloon falling apart somewhere way out in the wild west. 

Bubbling just under: Sugar, File: Under Easy Listening; Outkast, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik; Sebadoh, Bakesale; Veruca Salt, American Thighs; Portishead, Dummy; Meat Puppets, Too High To Die; Youssou N’Dour, The Guide (Wommat); Frank Black, Teenager of the Year; Alice In Chains, Jar of Flies. 

The Kinks, the Australian Outback, a memory, a dream

I’m roaring through the Australian Outback, more than 100km/h, past red dirt and yellow grass and under blue skies, and I’m listening to the Kinks. 

Every day I look at the world from my window – Waterloo Sunset, The Kink

I’d always wanted to go to the Red Centre, the wide-open Outback sung about in songs by Midnight Oil and ancient, enigmatic and empty. I went a few years back to Alice Springs, isolated and strange, and Uluru, the massive sandstone monolith hunched right at the heart of the old country. 

There was no internet, and a few CDs I’d grabbed in Sydney in my rental car for the 4-hour drive from Alice Springs to Uluru. One of them was the Kinks’ Something Else, their fifth album, from 1967. 

Uluru stands out alone in the middle of a vast plain of red dirt, a giant unopened eye half-peering over the horizon, expanding in your car windshield from a distant hill to a  towering monolith, all the more impressive for its isolation. 

This is my street and I’m never gonna to leave it / And I’m always gonna to stay here if I live to be ninety-nine – Autumn Almanac, The Kinks

The Kinks are a band that grows on me more and more the older I get. Perhaps it’s because of all the big ‘60s bands, The Kinks are the ones who seemed middle-aged even when they were young. Oh, they were hell raisers, don’t get me wrong, but Ray Davies’ lyrics always looked inward, introspectively. They were nostalgic for a world that’s never been. Ray Davies’ world view always seemed perpetually middle-aged. 

Time is as fast as the slowest thing – Wonderboy, The Kinks

The Beatles looked back at the past either with droll mockery (“For The Benefit of Mr. Kite”) or soul-baring pathos (“Eleanor Rigby”). The Stones generally only looked back at things that involved them getting laid. The Who looked back, with anger. 

But The Kinks often looked back with rose-coloured glasses, with wistful thoughts of the way things used to be, or should’ve been. “Waterloo Sunset,” “Death of A Clown,” “Victoria,” “Celluloid Heroes,” “The Village Green Preservation Society.” 

I miss the village green, And all the simple people. – The Village Green Preservation Society, The Kinks

The Australian Outback humbles you. It’s vast, sprawling, primordial and raw. It’s the oldest place I’ve ever been. Hiking through 40C+ heat, desert black flies pickpecking away at all your exposed flesh, the world reduced to prime colours – red, blue, brown blending into yellow. You feel a weight. You feel history, and the weight of something that’s been around way longer than you, or anybody you’ve ever known. 

Nobody has to be any better than what they want to be – Australia, The Kinks

The Kinks felt a weight too, even if they would never articulate it precisely as that. It’s the weight of what might’ve been, what was, what could never be. Sometimes music and a place blend together in your mind, and you can’t separate the two in your memory. 

The Outback is an old, old place, older than just about anywhere else, and Ray Davies sings for me. 

As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise.

I’m Gen-X, and all my rock heroes are dying

Somewhere in the last few years, my music collection began to contain more dead people than live people.

It’s been a grim decade for my tastes. Bowie. Prince. Cohen. Tom Petty. Aretha. The Fall’s Mark E. Smith. Lou Reed. Scott Walker. Just in the past few weeks alone, Daniel Johnston, Eddie Money and Ric Ocasek all took the last train from the station. 

When both The Cars’ Ric Ocasek and Eddie Money died within a few days of each other recently, it felt like another thudding harsh reminder that my cassette-filled, Atari-drenched ‘80s childhood was in fact more than 35 years ago now. That the towering pop stars of my youth were now becoming old men. 

Eddie Money, portrait of an ’80s rock schlub.

Eddie Money’s delightfully overwrought 1986 hit “Take Me Home Tonight” is the sound of your 14-year-old author, jittering with hormones and intensity, in unrequited love with a girl with spray-gelled hair dancing with her friends on the other side of the junior high school gym. I’ve never actually owned an Eddie Money album, but Eddie Money was part of the ‘80s DNA, in that same endearingly awkward rock crowd that included Billy Joel and Huey Lewis. You absorbed their hits, maybe you hated them, maybe you loved them, but 35 years on, they’re the sound of your youth.

And The Cars were always cool and gawky, all at the same time, which is the best possible way to be. Ric Ocasek did not look like David Lee Roth; he looked like a guy in the shadows at the coffee shop reading a beat-up William Burroughs book. The Cars crafted perfect little new wave power pop gems that always sounded vaguely spooked by something far outside their control. 

I know they say rock ’n’ roll is a young man’s game, for young people by young people, but for some reason most of the musicians I’ve dug have always been older than me. Being a Gen-X music fan often meant digging artists a decade or more older than you were. Bowie was already in his 30s when he became a superstar in the “Let’s Dance” era. Someone like Bruce Springsteen or Phil Collins always seemed like an adult. Morrissey, The Clash, The Cure – they were all at least 10 years older than teens in the 1980s. 

All the rock stars who defined the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s are entering their 60s and 70s now. We’ll continue to see a slow drip of rock star deaths for years to come, and every one of them will make some of us feel a bit more mortal ourselves. 

One morbid thing about living in New Zealand is that if a “legacy” act comes here, you jump on it, because it might be the last time they ever come down this way. I saw Mick Jagger strut like a golden god with the Stones in 2014, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I didn’t get to what turned out to be Leonard Cohen’s last concert, ever, anywhere, right here in Auckland in 2013, and I’m kicking myself forever. 

Watching the stars who peopled your teenage dreams grow old and fade away is a striking reminder that it’s happening to you, too. I’m afraid my musical tastes have become even more calcified with age, and I’m far more likely to listen to a Ramones album or the Kinks than I am a Tekashi 6ix9ine. 

On disc or stream or vinyl, they’re all still young. They’re still there, forever young, no matter how many years pass or obits roll. To quote The Cars, “Uh oh, it’s magic, when I’m with you.” 

Review: Aldous Harding, The Powerstation, August 31, Auckland

IMG_6778It takes a lot to shush up an Auckland Saturday night crowd with a single look. But Aldous Harding was able to do that with a mere glance at the sold-out Powerstation gig celebrating our home-grown songwriter’s success.

Harding is one of the more unique voices sprouting from New Zealand’s fertile music scene these last few years. At just 29, she’s crafting the kind of edgy crossover career that wins lifelong fans while never sounding like anything other than herself. She’s mysterious and strange, sometimes sounding like an alien come down to earth, with a voice that moves from angelic highs to booming lows with ease, and song lyrics that defy easy interpretation. There’s hints of Bowie, Laurie Anderson and Kate Bush in her work, but it’s all dipped in an antipodean magic all its own. Her “Horizon” is one my favourite singles of the last few years, and her latest album “Designer” is one of 2019’s best. 

Dressed something like an extra in a 1990s Beastie Boys video, Harding took the stage alone, with a single guitar, and rather daringly played two of her most hushed, intimate numbers at the very start of the show. The crowd at the bar shushed; you couldn’t even hear glasses jingle, nothing but Harding’s chameleon voice echoing around the Powerstation. It was a masterful entrance by a performer who already clearly knows how to hold attention, and when the slower songs gave way to the full band joining her on the joyously bouncy “Designer,” it was a powerful burst of catharsis and exhaled breaths. 

Harding has developed a reputation for her striking performance style, sometimes gurning and contorting her features in confrontational ways. She was less trippy last night than some of her performances I’ve seen, but she still has a gift for upsetting audience expectations with an unexpected twist of her lips, roll of her eyes, or a kabuki-like set of gestures.  The show moved between quieter numbers and ecstatic jigs by her excellent band – there’s definitely a more pop sensibility in the songs of “Designer,” and a song like “The Barrel” is an anthem that still remains distinctly its own thing, with lyrics like “The wave of love is a transient hunt / Water’s the shell and we are the nut” rattling around your brain. 

IMG_6758I’ve been to shows at the Powerstation before for similarly stark, intimate shows and left annoyed by the singer being overwhelmed by the crash of beer bottles and the yammering of the audience. That wasn’t a problem tonight. On a cold August night, Harding felt like the hottest thing in town, something new and old at the same time blooming with an energy all its own. She closed with a magnificent, aching cover of Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down The Line” and terrific new song, “Old Peel,” that left me with no doubt about her future. 

She wasn’t much for banter, but she gave us a glimpse of her self as she sighed with a tight smile at the encore, “What a life, eh?” Whatever strange roads Aldous Harding takes to in the future, I’ll be there. 

The Elvis Presley behind the jokes

elvisSometime in the next few months, Elvis Presley will have been dead longer than he’s been alive. 

It’s 42 years today since Elvis died at age 42 in 1977, and it took a long time for me to take him seriously. For most of us Gen-Xers, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll who died fat and a parody of himself was a joke. It took me years to see that there’s a thousand different Elvises. 

I was a California kid, but I lived in Elvis’ backyard for much of the 1990s, just outside Memphis and just an hour down the road from his birthplace of Tupelo. I wanted to work at Graceland for a summer job, but I couldn’t beat the competition. I fell in love with a girl from Tupelo. I slowly found the King behind the jokes. 

There’s at least four eras of Elvis proper – the young fiery prodigy, captured best in the haunting Sun Records recordings that still amaze today; the post-Army burnout whose talents were wasted for years in movies and cheesy soundtracks; the black leather-clad colossus who stormed his way to a ’68 comeback, and who then melted into the sad sweaty mess of his final years. 

When a legendary person dies, they slowly transform into myth. There’s a Shakespearean heft to the Presley story, a boy from nowhere who conquered the world. Elvis becomes a trailblazing comet or a paunchy punchline, a star of endless daffy movies, a boy who mourned his mother, a kung-fu kicking drug case who once pestered his way in to see Richard Nixon. 

I like the “Comeback Elvis” years the best, from that stunning 1968 TV Special on to the early ‘70s. At his best, he’s like a lone gunslinger bashing through the saloon doors, reminding all the young guns why he mattered. It’s the height before the fall. He’s got the years to give him authority, but he’s still young enough to prowl like a tiger in that insane leather jumpsuit. There’s a horrible trail of wasted possibilities in the Elvis story, which you can lay at the feet of his drug problem, his emotional immaturity, or the terrible mismanagement by the Colonel, who never really understood the power of Elvis. The story is Elvis is a story of lost dreams. 

Imagine if a 60-something Elvis had gone on to have a Johnny Cash-style latter years revival, if he’d just taken a stage with a guitar and a song and captured something of the haunting echoes of the Sun Studios years. 

One of my favourite Elvis songs is “Hurt,” (not the Nine Inch Nails/Johnny Cash version, of course) which he covered just a year before he died. I used to listen to it with a jaded, ironic eye, because Elvis sings the HELL out of this song, murdering it with an unrestrained abandon that teeters right on the edge of parody. But listen to it, man. Listen to the voice breaking as the song launches into the stratosphere, listen to the way his voice dips deep into the canyons as he sings how he’s hurt “way deep inside of me.” He’s singing about a lot more kinds of hurt than just being dumped. This is Elvis in his autumn, looking back at his highs and lows. 

It’s easy to see a punchline in the thousands and thousands of different Elvises the world has seen in the last 42 years. But deep inside the best of his songs, whether it’s the slow burn of “Mystery Train” or the unrestrained operatic bombast of “Hurt,” the real king still awaits. 

Just can’t get enough: Depeche Mode, I just can’t quit you

depeche-modeIf I ever was to bottle the essence of my late teenage angst circa ages 16-20, it would smell a lot like Depeche Mode.

Of all the ‘80s alternative icons I revisit in my dotage, there’s few  more evocative than Depeche Mode. There’s a grandiose charm to Depeche Mode’s work. It’s the kind of twisted pleasure you sometimes get from being alone in your room, miserable, but yet you don’t really want to be anywhere else. 

The Cure were dark, Joy Division were doomed, but the spice that Depeche Mode has comes from Dave Gahan’s sonorous voice, a bombastic prophet who makes everything he sings seem like the most important words anyone’s ever had to say. His Las Vegas-style showmanship isn’t subtle, but combined with the ever-inward songwriting of Martin Gore and the epic swirling keyboards of Alan Wilder, it made for a combination of gloom-pop you could dance to. Doubt and fear never seemed so glamorous. As Gahan sang on on 2005’s “Lillian,” “Pain and misery always hit the spot.” That’s Depeche Mode in a nutshell. 

One of my bigger teenage regrets was not seeing Depeche Mode on their ‘101’ tour when it passed through Sacramento. It would’ve been a great first concert for teenage me; instead I saw synth-popster Howard Jones, whose keyboards malfunctioned and he swore dramatically at them. 

1990’s “Violator,” released just shy of 30 years ago now, was peak Depeche Mode. The deeply layered woe-is-me “Enjoy The Silence” was everybody’s go-to misery pop anthem. “Personal Jesus” a swinging display of nonconformity. “World In My Eyes” and “Waiting For The Night” the kind of hushed dark romantic murmurings a black-clad teen wished he could dedicate to someone, anyone. 

I got obsessive enough that I was the guy that bought the cassingle of “Personal Jesus” featuring no less than five loping, thumping versions of their hit single, carefully analysing each piece on a quantum scale of misery.

ftcms-ef2870f2-15b1-11e9-a168-d45595ad076dDepeche Mode can roughly be broken up into three periods – their lighter “synth pop” phase of the first couple albums, when Erasure’s Vince Clarke was in the band, the “imperial phase” running from roughly “Construction Time Again” to “Ultra” when they pretty much ruled the proto-emo world, and the more muted, less omnipresent latter Mode, after Alan Wilder left the band, which continues pretty much to this day.

You know what you’re getting with Depeche Mode – dark, glittery midnight music that casts pretty much every decision in one’s life as an epic battle for the soul. It can wear thin – which is why their records post-1997 or so haven’t gotten as much traction – but even the least of Depeche Mode’s albums still has one fist-pumpingly bleak anthem to moan along to. I spin “Violator” yet again and it still transports me to their stark world. After that, words are very unnecessary.