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The 25 Best New Zealand Albums of 2023

The exciting and innovative Aotearoa albums Rolling Stone AU/NZ writers couldn’t get enough of in 2023

Best New Zealand albums of 2023

L-R: Erny Belle, Pickle Darling, Jujulipps

As 2023 came to its end, discussion in New Zealand music circles was, regrettably, disheartening. Emerging from the online echo chambers of Twitter and Substack, the discussion centred around the dearth – or even death – of music journalism in this country. “The sound is off for New Zealand music,” The Spinoff‘s doom-laden headline read, just above a picture of Auckland artist Erny Belle.

Why is music coverage struggling in other New Zealand publications? That’s not for this writer to say, but what the following list shows is that the music and the artists are, as ever, there to be written about.

When Rolling Stone New Zealand‘s writers started compiling our shortlist of the best New Zealand albums of the year, we found ourselves spoiled for choice: multiple rising stars released second albums that confirmed their talent and ambition; the current strength of the hip hop scene spawned several exceptional releases; a seasoned heavy music band challenged themselves with a sprawling historical covers collection; a longtime Bandcamp favourite finally got his due with a record deal and an album; we could go on.

Erny Belle also features prominently on this list (read our in-depth interview with the singer-songwriter here), but if you were to go to the official New Zealand Albums Chart at any point in 2023, local artists such as her would have been conspicuous by their absence.

The Top 20 New Zealand Albums Chart was dominated this year by L.A.B, who had four albums in the countdown, while the top spot was taken out by Six60 for a 10th Anniversary Edition. (The Dunedin favourites also had another four albums on the chart for good measure.)

As RNZ‘s Tony Stamp noted, it was “disappointing to see the local end of year charts so thoroughly dominated by the same names that top them every year, with the same albums.”

So, if this list could achieve one thing, it would be to encourage New Zealanders to recognise the wealth of talent currently making music in this country. Buy their vinyls; stream their singles; go to their gigs. They need the support more than the global pop star who’s releasing a deluxe version of an old album does.

Below, check out Rolling Stone AU/NZ‘s Top 25 New Zealand albums and EPs of 2023.

18

Christoph El Truento, ‘Circle of Friends’

After producing Avantdale Bowling Club’s stellar second album, Trees, Christoph El Truento gathered, well, a circle of friends for a genre-bending new album.

Ladi6, Mā, Troye Kingi, and many more lend their significant talents to the ambling collection, the producer happily shifting through genres and styles – sometimes even within the one track – at his own assured pace.

17

Beastwars, ‘Tyranny of Distance’

A heaving tribute to New Zealand music, Tyranny of Distance features covers of tracks spanning 40 years, from Marlon Williams to The 3DS, Nadia Reid to The Gordons.

Beastwars manage to make each one their own, though, and the Wellington heavyweights cleverly planned the collection so that it explores the common themes of “despair, loneliness, and existential frustration.” Tyranny of Distance might not be a cheery listen, but it’s an essential experience for fans of heavy metal and New Zealand music.

16

Foley, ‘Crowd Pleaser’

Crowd pleaser by name, crowd pleaser by nature.

Popular Auckland duo Foley brought Y2K-era pop to the 2020s on their highly anticipated debut album, which combines sugar-rush production with deeply confessional songwriting. There’s a reason Ash Wallace and Gabriel Everett’s fun-to-the-fore anthems went down a storm at this year’s BIGSOUND.

15

Jazmine Mary, ‘Dog’

Australian-born but Aotearoa-made, Jazmine Mary’s profound songwriting has been fully embraced by their adopted country, including being bestowed with the award for the Auckland Live Best Independent Debut at the Taite Awards in 2022.

Mary earned that award for their beautiful debut album, The Licking of a Tangerine, and their follow-up release, Dog, is easily its equal. Mary at turns devastates and uplifts with their lyrics in her second album, the tracks born out of their experience “understanding parts of the beauty and ugliness of the world.”

Expect Mary to feature in the Taite Music Prize shortlist in 2024, and Dog would be a worthy winner next year.

14

Kimbra, ‘A Reckoning’

Kimbra’s fourth album is a reckoning and a revelation.

Coming five long years after the art-pop artist’s previous album, Primal Heart, Kimbra makes up for lost time with 10 ruminative tracks that are unafraid to be experimental. She chases personal breakthroughs on A Reckoning, but the specificity of some of the songwriting doesn’t negate a universal listening experience, such is the insightful nature of her words.

Here’s hoping it’s not five more years before Kimora’s fifth album arrives – let’s also hope that the Gotye-related headlines about the exemplary singer-songwriter stop in the meantime.

13

Pickle Darling, ‘Laundromat’

Wherever you look on Pickle Darling‘s album, there are minuscule masterpieces that increase in size and scope the longer you listen to them.

Lukas Mayo, the thoughtful musician behind the Pickle Darling moniker, had been deserving of a breakthrough moment after years of sharing excellent gems on Bandcamp, and 2023 finally heralded their time.

After signing to Father/Daughter Records, they released Laundromat, an album full of vulnerable lo-fi pop vignettes rich in small details. Laundromat is Pickle Darling carefully following the blueprint of other lo-fi musician maestros from New Zealand including Tall Dwarfs, while still creating a wonky bedroom sound uniquely their own.

12

Ebony Lamb, ‘Ebony Lamb’

One of New Zealand’s foremost music photographers seized her moment in the spotlight this year.

The Eb & Sparrow singer’s self-titled debut solo album was made with loving help from Bic Runga and Kody Nielson, but Lamb is the star of the show.

The album is a daring artistic leap, Lamb effortlessly moving through vivid songwriting portraits of life with the tender touch of a seasoned solo artist. And she was rewarded for her honey-soaked country and folk tracks when album cut “Take My Hands at Night” was nominated for the 2023 APRA Silver Scroll Award. More solo releases by Lamb will be a welcome addition to New Zealand music.

11

Brandn Shiraz, ‘Brandn Shiraz’

Praised by Melodownz (“If I could bet all my money on anyone,” Avondale’s finest said), Brandn Shiraz has been one of Auckland’s most promising rappers since he emerged from the Grow Room community of creatives several years ago.

After offering impressive turns in collaborations with the likes of Christoph El Truento and Diggy Dupé, Shiraz dropped his debut solo album, self-titled because he’s the man of the moment.

Over seven confident and cool tracks, Shiraz shows that all the promise of yesteryear has gestated into generational talent. Brandn Shiraz, the album, is a celebration of its creator’s Cook Islands ancestry, the rapper bridging worlds between the islands he loves and the streets he knows. Shiraz is one of the shining lights of New Zealand and Pacific hip hop in the 2020s.

10

Dick Move, ‘Wet’

Auckland’s most beloved punk band of the 2020s? Probably. Formed in the bowels of Whammy Bar, Dick Move have honed their craft by playing gig after gig after gig on K’ Road and beyond since 2019, and any room they play has been packed out due to their growing live reputation.

While their raucous punk is perhaps best listened to up close, Dick Move demonstrated that they also sound thrilling as hell recorded with the release of their second album, Wet, this year.

Tracks like the comically titled “Small Man, Big Tweet” don’t hold back, and the fact that most tracks barely stretch over the minute-and-a-half mark. ‘Hit them quick, hit them hard’ could be the Dick Move motto.

A support slot for Foo Fighters is imminent, just reward for Dick Move’s passion and panache.

9

ASHY, ‘Status’

In an interview with Rolling Stone AU/NZ earlier this year, ASHY extolled the pleasures of “pure pop,” and her EP from the same year is a joyous ode to the genre she loves.

Status is short and sweet, furnished with some of the best and most direct pop anthems to come out of New Zealand in a long time. There’s also a lot going on under the gleaming surfaces, particularly in the fiery closing track “LA Talk”: the South Asian artist, who has had to work harder than some of her contemporaries to build her career, confidently chides the music industry for its weirdness and toxicity.

A third SXSW appearance in just 12 months now awaits ASHY in 2024 – expect US audiences to perk up to her stylish pop in no time.

8

Mermaidens, ‘Mermaidens’

Mermaidens self-titling their new album felt like a powerful and pointed declaration, a clear signal of intent: this is us at our best, take it or leave it.

Perfect Body (2017) and Look Me in the Eye (2019) were excellent but their latest album is striking collaborative achievement, one that brings the might of a Mermaidens live show to one’s living room.

In Lily Paris West, Gussie Larkin, and Abe Hollingsworth, Mermaidens have one of the tightest trios in current rock music, and they’ve never sounded better together than on their latest album.

All three musicians have lots going on in their lives, but it’s lucky for their fans that they found time to gather to record such a brilliant record. “This is the statement. This is the magnum opus,” as Hollingsworth said to Rolling Stone AU/NZ in November.

7

Jujulipps, ‘Get That Shot’

Has there been a more confident, sharp-shooting hip hop artist to come out of New Zealand in the last five years than Jujulipps? As her 2023 EP, Get That Shot, reveals, none of her confidence is undue, because she has the propulsive energy and ferocious flow to back her self-belief up.

Jujulipps unleashed one of the most memorable debut singles in recent years when “Hilary Banks” dropped in 2021, but Get That Shot might have its equal in its closing track, “Airplane Mode”, one of 2023’s most intoxicating singles.

The rapper’s “ultimate Afrobeat switch off anthem” can’t just be played once, or twice, at a time, such is the strength of its enveloping spirit. Get That Shot feels like just the beginning for this future global star.

6

Wurld Series, ‘The Giant’s Lawn’

An album that is weird and wonderful in the way only New Zealand music can be sometimes. 

Wurld Series are a Christchurch indie rock collective based around the sublime songwriting talent of Luke Towart, someone immediately recognisable as a music obsessive just from listening to A Giant’s Lawn. He’s joined by Brian Feary, Ben Dodd, and Ben Woods, the latter of whom featured in our best New Zealand albums countdown in 2022. 

Wurld Series’ album contains 17 Canterbury tales that all offer their own fascinating journeys to take, and you’ll definitely want to take them. There are surreal and fantastical tapestries with titles like “The Pugilist”, “The Cloven Stone”, and “Queen’s Poisoner”. (It takes a special band to make you want to listen to a track with the name “World of Perverts”.)

“Odyssey” is an overused word in music criticism, but it absolutely applies in the case of A Giant’s Lawn, which flits between earthy rock, floaty psychedelia, wistful folk, and so many other enchanting stylistic turns, and is richer for its ambitious lyrical sprawl. 

Indie label Melted Ice Cream has been producing truly excellent releases for a long time now, but A Giant’s Lawn might be the finest one yet. And in Wurld Series the label has a band continuing the fine tradition of genuine DIY music in this part of the world, even has the wider industry changes at rapid speed around them. 

5

Tiny Ruins, ‘Ceremony’

A naturalistic songwriter with few current equals, the return of Hollie Fullbrook’s band was one of the best things to happen to New Zealand music in 2023. 

Fullbrook has been creating some of the most moving introspective folk music as Tiny Ruins for over a decade now, each album growing in stature since the last, and Ceremony is her most fully realised project yet. 

“Don’t tell me what I already know,” Fullbrook sings in the bright opening track “Dogs Dreaming”, a lyric that could be an apt summary of what she’s trying to achieve on her latest album,  mining new territory.She rewards longtime listeners with an expanded sonic palette, while newer listeners will likely be bewitched by her writerly lyrics.

There’s a Nick Drake-esque magical quality to Fullbrook’s music, but on her fourth album as Tiny Ruins, she plays with the supreme musicianship that will lead folk stars of the future to be compared to her and to try to attain her level. 

4

Unknown Mortal Orchestra, ‘V’

It felt fitting that II, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s second album, was given a 10th anniversary vinyl reissue in the same year that he released his fifth and perhaps best and most personal album to date. 

Since the turn of the 2010s, Ruban Neilson has shown remarkable consistency leading Unknown Mortal Orchestra to become a global music presence, and V, released a few months before that vinyl reissue, is the sound of an artist still discovering more about his music and himself. 

The many tracks on V (it’s the band’s first double album) can be listened to attentively or from a distance, and it’s recommended that you do both: let Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s hazy psychedelia and wonky pop wash over you on a meandering car trip, but make return visits to hear exquisite touches Nielson placed in the tracks that you previously missed. It’s always been the way with his dense music. 

V is also a deep exploration of Nielson’s Hawaiian heritage, the tracks born out of him carefully examining his family’s past. When one of his Hawaiian uncles started experiencing health issues, this examination was brought into sharper focus, but the recording of his new album wasn’t put on hold for long. “I thought I was walking away from music to focus on family, but the two ended up connecting,” as Nielson said this year. It’s why V is a genuine family affair, featuring brother Kody, father Chris on sax and flute, as well as longtime bandmate Jacob Portrait, the four of them putting the final touches to the album in the US. 

But V refuses to get weighed down by heavy matters too much, and the tracks bounce from one laidback instrumental to the next, with Nielson aiming to inject some fun back into the serious business of making music.  Nielson’s restlessness as a creative means that V will, hopefully, be followed by many more Unknown Mortal Orchestra albums to be enjoyed and dissected. An endlessly surprising musician. 

3

Vera Ellen, ‘Ideal Home Noise’

When Vera Ellen travelled to Australia a few months ago for her first tour of the country, it felt like a defining moment for the artists’ career: she was no longer just for Wellingtonians – and New Zealanders – to treasure alone. 

Born in Lower Hutt, Vera Ellen Williams found her way to Los Angeles for a while before returning to New Zealand’s capital, where she found a stable home for her to properly pursue music.

And she’s done so in style: Vera Ellen is a performer of exciting swagger, who whips out indie rock anthems that surge and swell and make you want to follow the person that wrote them to the ends of the earth. 

If 2021’s It’s Your Birthday was an album that hinted at much to come, this year’s Ideal Home Noise was the confirmation, the coronation. Born out of a troubled period of Vera’s life, her latest album journeys between light and dark, hope and despair, the tracks anchored by songwriting that makes a listener feel less alone in facing their own battles. 

On Ideal Home Noise, Vera shows herself innately skilled at producing insidiously memorable singles: some artists, at this stage of their career, would kill to have just one potential singalong anthem like “Homewrecker”, but Vera has another few to boot, particularly “Imposter” and “Carpenter”. And the latter of these tracks is a towering achievement of songwriting and scope, a grand centrepiece to the album. 

A lock for a Taite nomination next year thanks to Ideal Home Noise, one hopes that the next step for Vera is taking her music even further than Australia. 

2

Clementine Valentine, ‘The Coin That Broke the Fountain Floor’

What’s in a name? As Purple Pilgrims, Clementine and Valentine Nixon were a dream pop duo that drew comparisons with such genre luminaries as Beach House and Cocteau Twins; they were creating music of a rich quality, in other words.

This year, however, the sisters decided to perform under their birth names as Clementine Valentine, and the result – their reward – is The Coin That Broke the Fountain Floor, a collection consisting of majestic and mythical properties. 

The Purple Pilgrims sound has been refined on the inaugural Clementine Valentine album, the sisters sounding as graceful and connected as they’ve ever been. They raise their voices to the heavens throughout, reaching higher and higher in search of divine exultation. 

Perhaps because they’re now performing under their own names, the album finds the sisters delving deeper into their own history and folklore, fully embracing their place in a lineage of folk troubadours and spiritual singer-songwriters; lesser musicians could be swept away under the weight of such history, but Clementine Valentine know they deserve to continue their family’s grand tradition. 

Such grandiose ambition may be too much for some to consume, but Clementine Valentine make sincerity and spirituality sound so achingly beautiful that all one can do is be in thrall to their music. 

What’s in a name? A hell of a lot. Long may Clementine Valentine continue making music together as truly themselves. 

1

Erny Belle, ‘Not Your Cupid’

New Zealand music’s best kept secret. 

Aimee Renata seemed to arrive fully formed as the artist Erny Belle when her independently released debut album, Venus Is Home, so impressed listeners in her home country that it was picked up for a repress by Flying Nun. Everything about her appeared to be perfectly aligned for stardom: the poetic storytelling, the idiosyncratic style, the mysterious allure.

In an interview with Rolling Stone AU/NZ a few months ago, Renata spoke of a manifestation list she had written bringing forth her building career – the existence of Erny Belle, the subsequent albums, awards and adulation – but believing that was all there is to it ignores the years of hard work and self-discovery that have gone into who she is as an artist today.

Hailing from an artistic family – her father is a renowned cinematographer, her mother a trainee opera singer – Renata first found a career in costume before deciding to chase her true dream of being an artist, taking up the mantle, whether a conscious decision or not, of her mother, whose promising career was tragically cut short due to terrible stage fright.

Her second album, Not Your Cupid, is equal parts elusive and invasive, melodies evading capture before planting at the forefront of one’s mind for minutes, hours, even days. The arrangements are grander and more pristine here than on her debut album, which is what all good sophomore collections should achieve.

There’s also something elementally Kiwi about Erny Belle. Venus Is Home was highly personal, a loving tribute to her late grandmother both in title and story, but the tracks were also deeply rooted in rural Aotearoa, specifically her family’s hometown of Maungaturoto. While the Ngāpuhi singer-songwriter’s follow-up album is notable for its relative lack of specificity, the swaying alt-country cuts (with Pacific-pop, 60s doo wop, and tender folk flourishes enhancing the sound when needed) evoke images of rolling North Island hills and quiet regional towns happily lost to the modern world. Her live shows so far have been held at unexpected but proudly local venues, from Point Chevalier RSA to The Civic Wintergarden.

One manifestation list has been completed and another, as Renata revealed to us, is on the way. If a second consecutive Taite nomination is on her second list, that will almost certainly be one thing ticked off; if she’s been so bold as to put a Taite Music Prize win on the list, it would be entirely unsurprising if she pulls that off too. New Zealand music’s best kept secret deserves to find wider renown; or as she sings in the haunting closing title track, “I want to see the world someday / That’s where I’m going.”