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The judges’ meeting for the Australian Music Prize was well into its second day and the panel was passionately debating the merits of various albums. Tempers and nerves were a bit frayed but now, finally, they were getting down to the nitty-gritty.
Six months earlier the judges had begun listening to competition entries, albums of every stripe and colour: folk, punk, jazz, electronic, soft, loud, manufactured, homespun, brilliant, boring, terrible. In all, there were nearly 300. From there, the judges had chosen a longlist of 43. That now had to become a shortlist of nine. Dick Diver’s Calendar Days was the sticking point. One judge had declared the album his favourite of the year. Some agreed, but others were championing different records. Forty-three doesn’t fit into nine very easily. Eventually, Dick Diver was eliminated from further consideration.
A pall was cast over the meeting.
This was two years ago, at the judging for the ninth AMP. Ever since, whenever a judge loses an argument over a cherished album it is described as “a Dick Diver moment”. Last week the shortlist for the 11th AMP was announced and, happily, Dick Diver made it through. In March last year, the band released their third album, Melbourne, Florida, to great acclaim, having improved on all the qualities that made Calendar Days so unique. It is a warm, generous album, heartfelt and charming. If they were to win this year’s AMP, they would certainly deserve it.
The Australian Music Prize was founded 11 years ago by Scott Murphy, a former music executive. The AMP still flies under the radar for most people, but in music circles it is esteemed and many artists aspire to make it onto its coveted shortlist. This year has generally been acknowledged as one of the strongest in the prize’s history, with albums by industry heavyweights Tame Impala and Sarah Blasko and newcomers such as Courtney Barnett, My Disco and Royal Headache. It’s an exciting and diverse group, and each album is worth a closer look.
I should mention that I have been involved with the AMP since it began and currently serve as chair of its judging panel. The AMP has been a source of inspiration, education and, occasionally, frustration – my own Dick Diver moment came last year, when I failed to persuade the majority that C. W. Stoneking’s Gon’ Boogaloo was the year’s best record. I still believe it was but I was also happy that Remi’s Raw X Infinity took out the top honours, hip-hop having struggled for recognition in previous AMPs.
Courtney Barnett hasn’t struggled for recognition. Her career has gone from strength to strength, and very quickly. Her debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, was released last March and was named one of the albums of the year by Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and Time magazine, among others. She is nominated for best new artist at this year’s Grammy Awards, to be announced in Los Angeles on Monday, and for the 2016 Brit Awards’ international female solo artist, which will be announced the week after. Barnett’s blend of straight-ahead rock and sharply observed lyrics has been a breath of fresh air in a world of pompous, overblown pap. Her songs hit the listener like a stream of consciousness, undiluted and unfiltered. A street poet like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Patti Smith, she has an incredible eye for detail and there is an honesty about her music that is completely disarming. She makes everything she does look easy. It ain’t. If Barnett wins the AMP, she will be the second solo female artist to do so, after Lisa Mitchell in 2009, though four other AMP winners featured female musicians prominently in their line-ups – The Drones, Cloud Control, The Jezabels and Big Scary.
If, instead, Sarah Blasko wins this year, it will be third time lucky. Her effervescent album Eternal Return was a daring change of pace for the artist and one that richly deserves its place on the shortlist. Upbeat, joyful, ebullient – these are words few would have associated with the contemplative singer-songwriter previously, and the ’80s-inspired synth pop sound of her album has shocked a lot of her fans. Blasko freely admits the record was written in a state of romantic bliss. The rapture and beauty she feels is palpable throughout but, as always, there is a maturity and wisdom in the way she expresses herself. Blasko avoids cliché in her arrangements and her lyrics give her listeners an insight into her most intimate thoughts. It’s an outstanding achievement.
Although the Australian Music Prize was first awarded in 2005, Scott Murphy had floated the idea among his friends 10 years earlier. By then he had been working for Mushroom Records for a dozen years, starting as an 18-year-old schlepper before working his way up through the promotions department and eventually becoming general manager of exports. Murphy was inspired by Britain’s influential Mercury Prize, then in its infancy. “I think around ’95 the Mercury had a big impact on me and a few of my industry friends,” Murphy told me last week. “It wasn’t that big [yet] but when they announced their shortlist there were always albums on there that we’d never heard of, so we always went out and got them as soon as we possibly could – we couldn’t wait to listen to them.”
At first his idea gained little traction among colleagues, but they came around five or six years later when an out-of-nowhere artist took top honours in the Mercury: “As soon as they won, the whole world started paying attention to this particular artist. So within the industry the Mercury music prize got a different perception. It wasn’t just a cash award to artists but a vehicle to ‘break’ artists globally.”
Alongside Courtney Barnett, there are two other artists who’ve made it onto this year’s shortlist with their debut album: Methyl Ethel and Gold Class. Methyl Ethel released Oh Inhuman Spectacle last June and it’s a real grower. Dreamy, psychedelic, hypnotic; the Perth trio creates alluring soundscapes that envelop the listener and draw you in to their fantastical realm. At times you feel completely immersed, as if you’re swimming among beautiful coral canyons. It’s a great trip.
Gold Class, by contrast, are astringent, muscular post-punk. Bold as brass, tough as nails. The lyrics have a strong personal-as-political bent, and the band’s taut musicianship is dazzling. Recorded in only four days, they eschewed ostentation by choice rather than necessity. It was the best way to capture the urgency inherent in their songs and a powerful musical statement in itself. Like fellow punk rockers Eddy Current Suppression Ring, who won the $30,000 prize in 2008, they would be worthy AMP winners.
I’m always heartened to discover a great honest-to-goodness rock’n’roll album, a rare commodity. High by Royal Headache is an album that will deliver a rush to even the most blasé adrenalin junkie. The band haven’t reinvented any wheels and nor did they need to: they travel far and fast enough on the ones they found ready-made. Sure, there’s plenty of punk energy here, too, but to me they sound more like souped-up R&B. The X-factor is their lead singer, Shogun. His is one of the best rock voices to come down the pike in a good while. We’re talking up there with the all-time greats. Expressive, ballsy, soulful – this man has an incredible gift. When he slows down for a minute on the ballad “Wouldn’t You Know” we get to enjoy every nuance of his wonderful instrument. Shogun’s bandmates don’t let him down, either. This is a cracker of a record.
AMP judging differs significantly from other awards. Currently, there are 16 judges, drawn from a mix of musicians, music journalists and record retailers. In particular, no record company employees are allowed on the panel. When the prize began, like the Mercury, there was an entry fee for albums, but that was soon dropped. Now any album made by an Australian artist, or one who has been an Australian resident for two years, is automatically deemed eligible provided it meets criteria for length, number of tracks, and date of release. In 11 years, the AMP has had 120 different judges, with the presiding panel swelling to 72 in the prize’s second year. It became obvious that number needed to be trimmed because, with so many judges, difficult albums were losing out to the many “not bad” albums that no one could actively dislike. Consensus generally seemed to favour the bland and inoffensive. With a smaller panel, there was much more room for debate and for judges to be swayed by others’ passionate views.
Two of the dark horses of this year’s competition are Dan Kelly and My Disco, for different reasons. Kelly’s cheerful album of effortless indie pop, Leisure Panic!, doesn’t grandstand or play games. In a world of pretentious gits, Kelly’s unpretentiousness marks him as a bit of an outsider. Leisure Panic! wears its heart on its sleeve and wants to show you a good time. Kelly is a brilliant musician and he writes, arranges, plays and sings to perfection. Clever bastard. I ought to hate him but music like this makes it impossible.
My Disco, on the other hand, don’t seek or offer any affection. Their album is entitled Severe and it more than lives up to the name. Gloomy, plangent, forbidding, minimal, the sound is stark and sleek, like a monumental modernist building or a mortuary slab. It’s a cold comfort they offer but there is beauty and wonder to be found once you switch off your mind and tap into theirs. The AMP has a reputation for highlighting uncommon albums such as this. My Disco could never be called bland.
Then there is Tame Impala. Frontman Kevin Parker might have started as an outsider but he has been setting the entire music world on its ear for many years now. Shortlisted twice before, his third appearance, Currents, is a breathtaking album of glorious, modern pop, epic and adventurous. Almost a reinvention of his sound, he’s never written better melodies or spoken more honestly in his lyrics. The album is simply brilliant, and it has already won most of the awards going. This Monday he may well add a Grammy to his trophy cabinet. He deserves every bit of acclaim he gets, and his AMP is long overdue.
Jess Ribeiro also returns to the shortlist with her second record, Kill It Yourself. It’s a different beast indeed to her countryish debut, My Little River, whose rustic twang is long gone. While Ribeiro’s lyrics poetically describe her country town upbringing in northern New South Wales, the dark, emotionally complex music inhabits a terrain that is nowhere near Tamworth, let alone Nashville. I reviewed this album when it came out and it’s still a favourite. In fact, after the shortlist meeting finished a few weeks ago, this was the album I immediately played to de-stress. Kill It Yourself reminded me exactly why I love being involved in the AMP: discovering great artists and helping them find an audience is a reward in itself.
The winner of the 11th Australian Music Prize will be announced on Wednesday, March 9, by guest speaker Henry Rollins, immediately after the final meeting of judges.
VARIOUS Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras
Various venues, Sydney, February 19-March 6
VARIOUS Perth International Arts Festival
Various venues, Perth, until March 6
Sydney Opera House, until April 2
SCULPTURE Hard Edge: Abstract Sculpture 1960s-70s
Ian Potter Centre, Melbourne, until July
OPERA Voyage to the Moon
Melbourne Recital Centre, February 15-16, 18-19
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 13, 2016 as "Breaking bands".
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