Staff Picks: The Best CDs & Vinyl of 2023 – Part 2

I’m Mark, the Music & Film Specialist at Wellington City Libraries. Every month this year my colleague’s Sam, Neil and I reviewed some new material for the music collection at Te Awe Brandon Street Library. You can check out each of our our Top 10 picks here. Following on from our picks is a selection of titles that other staff members rated as their favourite listens of 2023.

Shinji’s Picks:

Heaven / Sol, Cleo
The U.K. has a long history of producing fantastic female soul singers and now, more than ever, it’s filled with a multitude of talents – Lianne La Havas, Jorja Smith, Yazmin Lacey and Olivia Dean (see below) to name but a few. Among them, the key voice of the mysterious soul collective SAULT, Cleo Sol shines with a unique light due to her mesmerising singing and aura. Both SAULT and Sol have been very active – putting out a lot of impressive albums in a short period of time, and her third album ‘Heaven’ is another glorious work. Listening to this album, which features mostly medium/slow numbers, is an intimate experience. She sensibly keeps everything simple and shares tears, joy, and love with us. Led by her mellifluous yet powerful voice, it’s filled with a warmth and uplifting feeling as if a graceful modern gospel. Incredibly, she dropped another album, ‘Gold’, which is equally wonderful and slightly more defined, two weeks later. There is no doubt that she is an exceptional artist and with her charisma, she could become an influential figure like Erykah Badu. What a talent.

The omnichord real book / Ndegeocello, Meshell
The pandemic lockdown gave Meshell Ndegeocello, one of the most innovative, forward-thinking artists in the last 30 years, an opportunity to reacquaint herself with music. She was tired of looking at the computer screen and started to compose music on an Omnichord, a simple electronic instrument. They bore fruit in this terrific album released from Blue Note Records, collaborating brilliantly with numerous distinctive musicians including Josh Johnson (as the producer as well), Jeff Parker, Jason Moran, and Joan As Police Woman. Drawing from her extensive musical languages, she creates colourful music based on simple motifs which shift around jazz, soul, funk, afrobeat and so on. Her unique bass play as well as the polyrhythmic drums are the core of this impressive music. The album contains 18 tracks with a variety of musical styles and it’s 73 minutes long. Although it’s not easy to absorb at once, this hyper hybrid black American music is a stellar and rewarding listen.

Messy / Dean, Olivia
An alumna from the renowned BRIT school that produced Adele and Amy Winehouse, Olivia Dean gained attention from the very beginning of her career and won the breakthrough artist of the year in 2021 on Amazon Music. Her much-anticipated debut album Messy is indeed a bit of a mess, but a charming one which shows a lot of promise. There’s a touch of Amy Winehouse in her prowess and rich voice that effortlessly drifts between soul, jazz and pop. These songs tell us her personal story – about her Caribbean heritage, family, and love. The album is slightly overproduced, probably to appeal to a mass-audience, but Dean’s presence stays natural and true to herself. The UK has found another fantastic female singer, that’s for sure.

Continue reading “Staff Picks: The Best CDs & Vinyl of 2023 – Part 2”

Staff Picks: The Best CDs & Vinyl of 2023 – Part 1

I’m Mark, the Music & Film Specialist at Wellington City Libraries. Every month this year my colleagues Sam, Neil and I reviewed some new material for the music collection at Te Awe Brandon Street Library. The list below is the Top 10 picks from each us for 2023, the albums we enjoyed listening to most over the course of the year. Some of these titles featured on various critics’ Best of 2023 lists, but others are just albums that struck us as being unique and interesting.

Mark’s Picks:

Sleepwalker / Post, Louise
One of the most successful female fronted ‘Alt-Rock’ bands of the 1990s, whose influence still features prominently in a lot of contemporary bands, Veruca Salt‘s original line-up split acrimoniously after 2 full length albums and an EP, as founding members Louise Post & Nina Gordon went their own ways. Post continued with a couple more heavier albums & EPs under the ‘Veruca Salt’ moniker, while Gordon delivered a couple of much more commercial sounding solo albums. Hatches were apparently buried in 2013 when the bands original line-up, like a lot of other bands of that era, reunited to tour and eventually released a 2015 reunion album. Post & Gordon collaborated with Skating Polly on a 2017 EP, but following some touring in 2018 the band had been dormant. However Louise Post’s return to music was one of the surprising releases of last year, with her first solo album Sleepwalker. Apparently arising, like a lot of material, out of the Covid lockdowns she whittled down 50 or so tracks to the 11 that make up the album. As perhaps to be expected of someone her age, it’s a darker-tinged adult oriented ‘album’, rather than a set of singles. She really digs into mature stories of the domestic comfort/discomfort of long term relationships, alongside more upbeat tracks that work as homages to her own pop past. What’s perhaps the most surprising is how great it all sounds, as she works in a lot of genres and different instrumentation, but never loses focus on investing each track with a hooky, melodic line, disproving the long-held theory that it was Gordon who brought the ‘pop’ voice to Veruca Salt’s original albums. Her immediately distinctive voice is in great shape, and the sympathetic production puts it above the mix, so there is a real clarity to the album & it’s sound.

Rat saw God / Wednesday (Musical group)
Wednesday are a US alt-rock band from North Carolina and ‘Rat Saw God’ (a nice Veronica Mars homage), is their 5th album and first on the prominent indie label Dead Oceans, was hailed as a career breakthrough and ended up on a lot of the Best of 2023 lists last year. Helmed by singer-guitarist-songwriter Karly Hartzman the band takes it’s name from cult UK 90s band ‘The Sundays’. They fuse the vocal stylings of that band’s indie pop with the shoegazy rock of Swirlies, 90s grunge, the noise-pop of Sub Pop bands like Velocity Girl or Spinanes, as well as some alt-Country influences akin to Mojave 3. The twangy distortion creates a dirty/clean sonic aesthetic, and the combined – seemingly disparate – musical elements deliver something that, while obviously trading on past styles, still feels new & fresh. It’s an album of character studies, biting lyrics, and narratives of pain and suffering that reflect both the messy and euphoric moments of the protagonists. While they have been around for a while, there is a real sense of ‘next big new band buzz’ with this album.

Mermaidens / Mermaidens
Mermaidens returned with their fourth full length in 2023. Gone are the, sometimes, obtuse post-punk/psyche-rock overtones of their previous work for a slicker more pop sound, that harks back to the fizzy ‘Alt-Pop’ that ran through bands like Pixies, The Breeders & Belly, with dashes of 80s shoegaze & punk. With Samuel Scott Flynn (Phoenix Foundation) at the helm as producer, there is a real sense of arrival with this album. Every musical element is cleanly locked in place, the song-writing is more immediate & catchy, with plenty of pop hooks, along with more harmonies and shimmery, hypnotic, grooves. Perhaps their best album yet, and clearly one headed for the top in the next local music awards. (VINYL here for Mermaidens).

Continue reading “Staff Picks: The Best CDs & Vinyl of 2023 – Part 1”

Voyages and vespers: new classical material

At Wellington City Libraries we have the antidote to being aurally overwhelmed by a surfeit of Christmas carols: recent additions to our classical music collection include many wonderful new CDs in November and December, and this blog will explore some of these acquisitions. A special highlight is the Emerson String Quartet’s Infinite Voyage, the final recording by a venerable ensemble that disbanded in late 2023 after nearly half a century together. We also have Norman Meehan’s outstanding and much-needed biography of composer Jenny McLeod Vespro della Beata Virgine / Monteverdi, Claudio
Raphaël Pichon founded the period-instrument ensemble Pygmalion in 2006, to explore the ‘filiations that link Bach to Mendelssohn, Schütz to Brahms or Rameau to Gluck and Berlioz.’ Since then, Pygmalion has demonstrated its ability to perform an enormous repertoire of music. The ensemble also holds a residency at the Opéra national de Bordeaux, and tours and records regularly. This recording of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 opens with a veritable operatic explosion: the intonation ‘Deus, in adjutorium meum intende’ and the choral response ‘Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina’ suggest a lusty exhortation rather than a pious supplication. As the journey through Monteverdi’s Vespers continues, the overall mood remains operatic, but Pichon tempers bombast with moments of crystalline delicacy and tenderness. The instrumentalists and singers embrace their roles, expertly blending precision and expression to create a very memorable account of Monteverdi’s work.

Jenny McLeod : a Life in Music / Meehan, Norman
Norman Meehan’s biography of Jenny McLeod — one of the most extraordinary, innovative, and versatile talents in New Zealand music — is a welcome addition to our music and biography collection. As McLeod’s former student, Elizabeth Kerr, comments in her review, Meehan captures the enigmatic personality of his subject, drawing on many conversations, while also offering insightful and persuasive analyses of McLeod’s music, weaving together a narrative of her life with analyses of her music. Meehan’s depiction of McLeod is a compelling one, leading us on her journey: from Levin and Timaru to Wellington, then Paris and Olivier Messiaen, and Cologne and Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, before McLeod’s return to New Zealand and a turbulent encounter with academe at Victoria University, arguably a milieu for which McLeod’s unique vision and prodigious musical intellect were both too great and too soon.
What emerges from A Life in Music is McLeod’s lifelong ‘search for meaning’ and fulfillment in her creative and spiritual life; her continuing quest for attaining these objectives could be intellectually and physically draining, but ultimately, as works like the opera Hōhepathe score for Whale Rider, her song cycles setting New Zealand poets, the hymns and choral works, and of course, the Tone Clock pieces demonstrate, McLeod always surmounted these challenges. Meehan’s study of McLeod is, therefore, a  readable, incisive, and sensitive account of one of New Zealand’s most remarkable musical lives. Voyage / Emerson String Quartet
The Emerson String Quartet was formed when its members were still students at the Julliard School, and endured for more than four decades as one of the world’s great string quartets. After countless international tours and recordings, the Emerson Quartet decided to disband in 2023, and made their final performance on 22 October at the New York Chamber Music Society.
As David Allen wrote in his review for the New York Times, the Emerson Quartet was far more than a string quartet,  ‘an establishment, a touchstone, a catalyst’ in the musical world. Although the repertoire choices in Infinite Voyage may appear disparate, this is all music that reflects the literal and figurative journies of the Emerson Quartet’s history.  The music is ideally chosen to reflect the Quartet’s collaborations, ambitions, and friendships.  Arnold Schoenberg’s Quartet No. 2 is a work that the Emerson Quartet had wanted to record since adding it to their repertoire, and in this recording they are joined by Barbara Hannigan. Hannigan also performs in Hindemith’s Melancholie, a song cycle setting four poems by Christian Morgenstern, and dedicated to Hindemith’s friend Karl Köhler who perished on the Western Front in 1918. Chanson perpétuelle by Chausson, here in its version for soprano, string quartet, and piano (Bertrand Chamayou), speaks of loss and separation, but also the comfort of memory. Berg’s String Quartet No. 3, completed in 1910 and premiered on 24 April 1911, is a work that still bristles with a sense of the avant-garde more than a century after its composition. The Emerson Quartet captures the audacious modernism of the work, as well as Berg’s immersion in and appreciation of lustrous late Romantic opulence.

 Mass in 40 parts = Missa Ecco sì beato giorno / Striggio, Alessandro
Alessandro Striggio (c. 1536/7–1592) was a virtuoso performer on the lute, viol, lira da braccio and lirone, as well as an adept and imaginative composer, and his music dominated the Medici court in Florence during the 1560s. For many years he was best known for his secular vocal music, including many madrigals and some intermedi (precursors to opera). However, Striggio’s reputation changed with I Fagiolini‘s 2011 recording of his Mass in 40 Parts, an extraordinary large-scale sacred work. That recording won several awards including the Gramophone Early Music Award and a Diapason d’Or de l’Année. In this new album, the original recording of Striggio’s Mass has been remastered, and it is complemented by the addition of Thomas Tallis’s great 40-part work Spem in Alium. In a departure from convention, Hollingworth has added continuo instruments to Spem in Alium, adding remarkable depth and resonance to the piece, and providing a rich foundation for the towering edifice of Tallis’s motet. and Sweet Airs : a Shakespeare songbook
Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), and Joseph Middleton (piano) collaborate here on an array of settings of Shakespeare’s texts.  Their recording brings together such familiar songs as Schubert’s An Silvia (D. 106) and Haydn’s canzonetta She Never Told Her Love setting Viola’s words from Act 2 of Twelfth Night with newer responses to Shakespeare’s words, including Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s song cycle Rosalind, and Roderick Williams’s own Sigh No More, Ladies. The ingenious programming makes for diverting pairings of works: Michael Tippet’s Songs for Ariel alongside Arthur Honegger’s Deux chants d’Ariel, and Benjamin Britten’s Fancie next to Francis Poulenc’s Fancy (both setting the same text from The Merchant of Venice) demonstrate Shakespeare’s great reach across time and place. Representing the eighteenth century are J. C. Smith and Thomas Arne. The artists’ imaginative approach to this Shakespeare project makes for an illuminating song recital.

Choral Works / Cage, John
In 2022, BBC Music Magazine described performing this choral music by Cage as ‘the musical equivalent of climbing Mount Everest,’ and praised the Latvian Radio Choir for surmounting its ‘jagged, fragmented notes and pitches’ with accuracy and expression. Of particular interest is the work Hymns and Variations, in which Cage took two hymn melodies (‘Old North’ and ‘Heath’)  by William Billings that form part of the New-England Psalm Singer (1770) and manipulated the tunes by altering the note values and durations and erasing some notes. In each of the variations Cage altered these manipulations, so that a mere revenant of Billings’s original melodies haunts the texture. The result is evocative and veiled, attributes strengthened by the excellence of the Latvian Radio Choir and the intuition of their director, Sigvards Kļava.

Nocturnes & Barcarolles / Fauré, Gabriel
Recorded in 2022, these nocturnes and barcarolles by Fauré add to the more than seventy albums Marc-André Hamelin has made for Hyperion, alongside chamber music by Franck, Dohnányi, Shostakovich, Brahms, and Schumann, solo sonatas by Mozart, Haydn, Liszt, CPE Bach, and Chopin, concertos by Alkan and Strauss, and shorter works by Debussy and Catoire, Bolcom and Feldman, among many others. In these Fauré pieces, Hamelin reveals his ‘innate affinity‘ with French music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; his performance of these works explores the subtle dramas of Fauré’s music. Hamelin’s complete command of the pieces’ harmonic intricacies is almost painterly, tiny brushstrokes and choices of colour that coalesce into a large and beautiful poetic canvas.

Best of 2023: Our top fiction picks!

A beach scene. 2023 is written above 2024 in the ocean, and waves are coming into shore to wash away the old year 2023
Waving goodbye to 2023 (literally and literarily)

As we say goodbye to 2023 and hello to 2024, it is now tradition for us to take stock of the literary year and take note of some of the novels we regarded as highlights.

As always, we aim to cover as wide a mix as possible — from fabulous new Aotearoa New Zealand books to big international bestsellers and major prize-nominated books, not to mention the best of this year’s crime and thriller titles and some standout science fiction and fantasy books. We have selected books that got lots of attention as well as others we felt fell undeservedly under the radar — and we’ve also thrown in a few left-field curveballs of books we just absolutely loved and felt we could not ignore. As is always the case with these lists, some of the selections we make are by their nature subjective and we apologise in advance if we missed any of your favourites out. All in all it’s been a fascinating and exciting year for readers — roll on 2024!

So here we go — Wellington City Libraries’ very subjective list of the top 100 novels of 2023!

2023 Fiction Highlights — Browse the full list
Browse the full list with all our picks, or browse just the topic you enjoy!

Staff Picks CDs for December…

CDs on a grainy sand beach background

To round off the year, here are some Staff Picks of new & old CDs from the Library collection that out Staff have been enjoying.

Martin’s Picks:

Guts / Rodrigo, Olivia
Not a CD that needs much boosting from WCL, of course, but it surprised me by just how good a mainstream album created by a 20 year old can be. Wise and sharply witty, Rodrigo takes a wry look at her teen years, with droll lyrics and a musical nod to the pop/rock sounds of the 90s. Try ‘Bad Idea Right?‘ ‘Get Him Back!’ or the opener, ‘All American Bitch’.

The Leo Kottke anthology / Kottke, Leo
Born the same year that WW2 ended, Kottke released his first album in 1969 and his most recent in 2020. A master of the 12-string guitar as well as a self-effacing vocalist (who described his own voice as sounding like “geese farts on a muggy day”), this selection of instrumental and vocal tracks covers the first 15 years of his career. It has some of the best of his instrumental offerings, including ‘Mona Ray’ ‘Vaseline Machine Gun’ and ‘Airproofing’, all of which amply justify his place in the 12-string pantheon.

Begin to hope / Spektor, Regina
This 2006 album is a great introduction to the work of the idiosyncratic Russian/American songsmith. Her sideways view of the world and flawless ear for a hook are on display throughout. Check out ‘Fidelity’, ‘Better’ or ‘On the Radio’.

Bring it on / Gomez
My vote for ‘Greatest Band That Everyone’s Forgotten About’ goes to this lot from Southport in England. Blessed with four songwriters and three distinctive vocalists, there was almost too much talent for one band. This is their debut, and it won the Mercury Prize in 1998, beating out Massive Attack, Pulp and The Verve. Sadly – and despite a couple of equally excellent follow-ups – the band slowly slid from view over the following couple of decades. Check out the video for album single Whippin’ Piccadily to see legendary screen and TV actor Toby Jones fooling around on an escalator.

Continue reading “Staff Picks CDs for December…”

Best of 2023: Our top non-fiction picks!

Our list of the top 100 non-fiction books for 2023 is here! It includes the best in memoirs and biographies, poetry, local history, science, social history, art and more. We’ve highlighted an exciting mix of new books made up of hidden gems, popular bestsellers, literary prize winners and acclaimed local talents. There’s plenty to choose from for every kind of reader.

2023 Non-fiction Highlights — Browse the full list
Browse the full list with all our picks, or browse just the topic you enjoy!

We were thrilled to watch the ongoing success of many homegrown authors who have generously graced our physical and online spaces this year, including Redmer Yska for Katherine Mansfield’s Europe: Station to Station, Arihia Latham (Kāi Tahu, Kāti Māmoe, Waitaha) for her sublime debut poetry collection Birdspeak, and the rousing collection of diverse voices found in the anthology A Kind of Shelter Whakaruru-taha. Here are some more Aotearoa specific highlights that you’ll find within our 2023 best of non-fiction list!

For celebrity biographies there’s no prizes given for which ex-Royal’s book topped most bestseller lists this year, but not far behind a Kiwi talent shone through with Sam Neill’s Did I Ever Tell You This?. We’d recommend listening to the eAudiobook version voiced by the actor for the full experience.

In the world of art there’s plenty of talent to admire in the visually stunning and comprehensive volumes Pacific Arts Aotearoa, and Urgent Moments: art and social change. Then, take an integral look into how Māori artists have adapted age-old techniques in their contemporary practices, forming clay workers collective Ngā kaihanga uku

In Science and Environment, American author John Valiant’s Fire Weather is a must-read and recently won the prestigious Baillie Guifford Prize for Non-Fiction. But for local stories on lifetimes spent in the outdoors and helping conservation efforts, look to Dave Towns’ Ahuahu: a conservation journey in Aotearoa New Zealand and Kennedy Warne’s Soundings: diving stories in the beckoning sea. There’s also The Forgotten Forest by Robert Vennell for those wanting to take an illustrated walk through the bush via the page.

Looking under the health umbrella, local author Kristen Phillips wrote a touching memoir, Dad, You’ve Got Dementia, and Dr Emma Espiner’s (Ngāti Tukorehe, Ngāti Porou) There’s A Cure For This highlighted significant problems within our medical system and important improvements that can be made for Māori.

Rugby League in New Zealand by Ryan Bodman sums up a national pride, complete with full page photographs of unforgettable games by legendary players. And don’t miss Our Land in Colour: a history of Aotearoa New Zealand 1860-1960 to see a century’s worth of historic photographs seen for the first time in full colour. Find all these local titles, plus their internationally acclaimed counterparts in our best of 2023 selection. Happy reading!