5. The Chills
“Frantic Drift” (1982)
The title of the Chills’ best-of compilation, Heavenly Pop Hits, might be largely tongue-in-cheek, but it nonetheless provides an apt description for the music of Martin Phillipps and his rotating cast of bandmates. Noted for their airy melodies and lush guitar-and-keyboard textures, the Chills instilled a certain celestial quality in their songs, even when the lyrics would turn tragic and forlorn. The 1982 track “Frantic Drift”, included on the Kaleidoscope World collection of early singles and EPs, couches Phillipps’ anxious vocals (“Tell me a story / I’m frantic, let me drift”) with a shimmering backdrop of guitar, keyboards, and chimes, varying the tension and tempos for maximum effect.
4. The Bats
Neither as noisy as the Clean nor as strange as the Tall Dwarfs, the Bats might be the most easily approachable of the top-tier Flying Nun acts. Robert Scott formed the group in 1982 after his (not-permanent) departure from the Clean, and the chemistry with bandmates Kaye Woodward, Paul Kean (of Toy Love), and Malcolm Grant (of the Builders) seemed instant. Their brand of brisk, folky indie rock was in top form from the very start, and their 1987 debut full-length Daddy’s Highway raised the bar even higher. “Treason”, that album’s lead track, finds an immediate sweet spot with its jangly guitar, loping bass, and Scott’s and Woodward’s in-unison vocals (“I know that we’re apart / But it won’t be for long / and that’s why I sing this song / And that’s why I carry on”). The song’s sadly hopeful tone gets an extra boost from guest Alastair Galbraith, on violin. Remarkably, Daddy’s Highway followed “Treason” with 11 more near-equals, making for arguably the most consistently excellent album release in Flying Nun’s history.
3. Tall Dwarfs
“Nothing’s Going to Happen” (1981)
Enemy/Toy Love bandmates Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate began collaborating as the Tall Dwarfs at the start of the 1980s, and while their work became somewhat slower and quieter over the years, their restless creativity seemed only to increase. Both stellar songwriters and 4-track mad scientists, Knox and Bathgate enhanced their pop creations with odd instrumentation, tape loops, found sounds, household items, and whatever else was at hand on the day of recording. Their inventiveness is on full display in “Nothing’s Going to Happen,” from 1981’s Three Songs EP (and later on the Hello Cruel World compilation). The track features an electric guitar in one ear and a 12-string guitar in the other, with percussion credited to a rattle and wine glasses, while Knox’s voice and densely packed wordplay take center stage. In a key verse, Knox longs for a moment where “all the children in small rooms will fall silent at a wall or window and forget to breathe for just one minute because of some beauty that has not been altered, damned, or pointed out by the clumsy, dark oafs who train them.” Fans interested in hearing the song with a much-expanded arrangement should seek out the group’s later “Wall of Dwarfs” version.
2. Alastair Galbraith
“As in a Blender” (1990)
Dunedin-based guitarist/violinist/vocalist/artist Alastair Galbraith seems to bring an eerie, magical quality to just about everything he does, whether it’s his album cover paintings, his work with early bands the Rip and Plagal Grind, or his guest spots with the Bats, the Mountain Goats, and countless others. His solo catalog is heavy on drones and mood pieces, but it also has exquisite melodies that draw you in when you least expect them. His 1990 track “As in a Blender,” available on the Seely Girn and Morse and Gaudylight collections, is as disorienting as its title suggests, with Galbraith’s violin dancing over fragmented poetry about perception and cycles of life: “All the human ages, in a dear quivering, fall and rise like waves or pulses, mud to blood, blood to mud.”
1. The Clean
“Getting Older” (1982)
This list’s one-song-per-act approach does no favors for David Kilgour and the Clean, who have countless songs that could rightfully be considered essential—from the glorious launching-off point “Tally Ho”, to prime early cuts “Beatnik” and “Billy Two”, to post-comeback highlights like “Draw(in)g to a (W)hole”. But if you’re looking for a single track to exemplify all the things that made the Clean special, the 1982 single “Getting Older” might be the best place to start. Anchored with a sturdy rhythm and a jaggedly catchy guitar tune, the track reaches greater heights as more and more elements join the mix. Sawing guitars, trumpet, viola, snaps, rattles, and backing vocals all pile together, while Kilgour’s voice forces its way through the fray to deliver the darkly humorous lyrical hook: “You’re getting older…Why don’t you do yourself in?” Best heard on headphones at a loud volume, it’s a roaring mass of shifting textures, throwing all its weight behind a perfect pop song.