The 2017 Australian Music Prize
Last week, the judging panel of the Australian Music Prize announced its annual longlist. After listening to 430 albums, the AMP’s 19 judges chose 46 of them as representing the best Australian recordings of the past 12 months. I happen to be the chairperson of that judging panel, so I’m in a good position to observe that it encompasses a wide variety of views and tastes. Naturally, not every album on that list is a favourite of mine, and a few others that I like very much weren’t included; however, this year’s longlist contains many albums that are truly wonderful. The complete list can be found on the AMP’s Facebook page but I’d like to single out a few of them as some of my highlights of Australian music in 2017.
Gordi is the pseudonym of Canowindra-raised Sophie Payten, but the introspective, slightly skew-whiff pop songs on Gordi’s debut album, Reservoir, don’t betray any evidence of Payten’s rural New South Wales upbringing. The album’s widescreen, cinematic production tastefully employs samples and exaggerated audio effects to tickle the ear and stimulate the imagination. It has an up-to-the-minute global sound that could have come from anywhere, which makes perfect sense since it was recorded in Sydney, Los Angeles, Bristol and Reykjavik. The production, however, never overshadows Gordi’s sensitive songs. Where Reservoir really resides is in the ever-changing terrain of the human heart.
As a contrast, Jen Cloher’s self-titled fourth album is quite location-specific. It’s a group of musicians in a room playing music together – and it sounds like it. The texture of the lyrics continues to fascinate me, as does the engaging, open-hearted music. I’ve been listening to Cloher’s album for some time now, but my affection for it hasn’t diminished one whit. Jen Cloher remains a completely fulfilling listening experience.
The most obvious feature of Teething, the debut album by Brightness, also known as Alex Knight, is its lo-fi, “dead” sound design. This gives the music a claustrophobic quality that is complemented by Knight’s unforced vocals. On the surface, the album appears rough and ready, almost casual in its construction, but there’s quite a lot going on under the hood. “Holy John” dabbles in odd time signatures, 5/4 being the most conventional, as the singer ruminates on the death of John the Baptist, sounding quite peculiar. “Waltz” is played in orthodox 3/4 time but Knight adds contrast by juxtaposing an ambient keyboard wash with a badly degraded recording of an acoustic guitar. The effect is akin to mixing ice-cream with gravel. Oddly enough, it works. Teething is a wry, understated record that will tattoo itself under your skin.
In February, the Hobart-based EWAH & The Vision of Paradise released their debut album, Everything Fades to Blue. Their Bandcamp page tells us that it deals with “themes of otherness and in-between worlds told via stories of violent crimes against women”. Lead singer and guitarist EWAH is a captivating performer who plays a twangy semi-acoustic guitar that is steeped in swampy southern blues, reminding me of The Cramps’ Poison Ivy, or The Duchess, who played with Bo Diddley. EWAH’s songs are hypnotic but her lyrics are often confronting. For example, “As The Sun Goes Down” describes a random violent attack during an early evening bushwalk.
Jumped down down upon me
Jumped down down upon me
Dragging me on the ground, falling from the tree boughs
Hand upon my mouth
“Don’t make a sound now”
All dark around
As the sun goes down.
These bruised and ornery songs do not mince words.
Kasey Chambers is another one who doesn’t shrink from a scrap. In the past few years, she has faced down the kind of challenges that would have broken a lesser spirit: two break-ups, including a divorce, as well as a career-threatening operation to remove nodules from her vocal cords. Chambers hasn’t just bounced back; on Dragonfly, she is an artist reborn. Dragonfly is a double album and its abundance of brilliant songs is ample proof that Chambers should be ranked as one of our greatest songwriters. On its 19 songs, one of which appears twice in different versions, she draws freely upon soul, blues, country and gospel for inspiration, all of it bound tightly together by the fierce honesty of her lyrics and her confident musical vision. This album is a cracker.
Dragonfly has been recorded to perfection by Chambers’ brother, Nash, who produced the second disc, and Paul Kelly, who produced the first. Kelly has also struck a purple patch himself this year, with his latest solo album, the acclaimed Life Is Fine, making the AMP longlist and reaching No. 1 on the album charts for the first time in his long and storied career.
Other music veterans who received AMP recognition for their great work this year were indie groove-meisters Underground Lovers for Staring at You Staring at Me and Dappled Cities, who returned after a long hiatus with IIIII. Former Died Pretty frontman Ron Peno released Guiding Light, his third and best album with Melbourne-based outfit Ron S. Peno & The Superstitions. Peno’s album wasn’t included in the official longlist announcement last week, but it was announced on stage during the night, having been added by the judges just before the official ceremony. Doubtless some other albums will be added to the AMP’s longlist before the judges finish, but the 47 already announced will make up the bulk of it.
Younger artists, too, consolidated their careers in 2017, following up strong debut albums with equally strong, if not stronger, second records. Gold Class (Drum) and Methyl Ethel (Everything Is Forgotten) are cases in point. Two years ago the first albums from both of these artists made the longlist and were later shortlisted, two of only nine albums to do so that year. It would be no surprise to me if their new records followed suit. BATS, the second album by Brisbane’s Cub Sport, is another album that caught my ear as being a marked improvement on its predecessor, proving that if you make a good album you don’t have to worry about any “sophomore jinx”.
Second of Spring is the third record by Beaches and each of their albums has been better than the one preceding it, which means that their new album is very good indeed. This time, Beaches stretch their guitar-laden psychedelia over two glorious discs, mashing together a potpourri of disparate influences, from shoegaze to ’60s biker instrumentals to heavy progressive rock. The ingredients may be familiar but these master mixologists have devised a heady cocktail that is intoxicating and sweet, and it packs a powerful punch. Playing Second of Spring loud is the ideal way to get a party started – and the best way to keep it going.
One of my favourite albums of the year was a jazz recording, The Vampires Meet Lionel Loueke. The Benin-born, New York-based guitarist Lionel Loueke got together with Sydney’s The Vampires for a thrilling collaboration. The album flirts with many different musical flavours and rhythm feels, such as reggae, Latin and fusion among others, and these talented players make it all sound completely natural, which is a huge feat in itself. The 10 songs were composed by saxophonist Jeremy Rose and trumpeter Nick Garbett, and some of them already sound like standards to me. In fact, yesterday I was certain that track two, “Hard Love”, was a song I had heard elsewhere until a fruitless Google search persuaded me otherwise. Its beautifully constructed melody sounded so classic, so perfect, that it had already become deeply ingrained in my memory. Of course, I have been listening to this album a lot. This one’s a real winner.
The extraordinary Wallflower, by Jordan Rakei, is another album that feels right at home on the world stage. Its dark soul grooves and deeply personal lyrics are the product of a freakishly gifted artist. Born in New Zealand, raised in Australia and a British resident since 2015, Rakei was recently signed to the influential Ninja Tune, the label owned by Coldcut’s Matt Black and Jonathan More. Like AC/DC, the Bee Gees and Crowded House before him, in the years to come we will be arguing about who can truly claim ownership of this musician, but of one thing I am certain: we will be arguing. Rakei is a singular talent who will become a force to be reckoned with in the not-too-distant future.
Last year A. B. Original’s galvanising album, Reclaim Australia, set a new benchmark for Australian rap music. They made a lot of other Australian hip-hop albums look feeble in comparison. But this year a number of artists have risen to the challenge, creating vital, engaged work to move the genre forward. Sampa The Great released Birds and the BEE9 in November and immediately turned heads. It is officially a “mixtape”, not an album, but that point seems moot because it is commercially available, something that the unlicensed sampling on mixtapes usually prohibits. Whatever it is, Sampa worked with a number of notable producers and musicians to create Birds and the BEE9 and together they’ve created some great tracks. World class.
Closer to R&B than hip-hop, A Family Portrait by Billy Davis is much lighter in tone than Sampa The Great but is just as compelling and forthright in its own way. Soulful and melodic, A Family Portrait features notable collaborators such as Kimbra and demonstrates once again that Australian music nowadays has more to offer than just white bread (and white-bred) rock.
In fact, diversity is a hallmark of Australian music in 2017. There is a pervasive feeling that nothing is impossible or off-limits for Australian artists, whether it’s the genre-smashing vibrancy of Ecca Vandal, whose one-of-a-kind self-titled album is simply bursting with energy, or the quieter rebellion of Cameron Avery and his Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams album, a loungecore throwback to Lee Hazlewood.
The change in our outlook has principally been driven by the internet. Everyone has their own private radio station at their fingertips. Regionality of culture is becoming a thing of the past as the power of connectivity enables like-minded artists from the farthest corners of the world to find each other and collaborate, forming self-supporting musical communities. Right now there are obscure heavy metal bands in the suburbs of Melbourne who make enormous sums of money from their songs being played on streaming services in Germany and Scandinavia, after being discovered via word-of-mouth and blog. The traditional gatekeepers and arbiters of taste – record companies, radio stations and, yes, music critics – are becoming less important with every passing day. Vive la révolution!
MUSIC Off the Grid 2017
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, December 22
MUSICAL Muriel’s Wedding
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, until January 27
PHOTOGRAPHY Across Five Decades: Photographing the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race
Maritime Museum of Tasmania, Hobart, until January 28
Incube8r, Melbourne, until December 23
THEATRE The Unbelievables
Sydney Opera House, December 19-29
MULTIMEDIA NGV Triennial
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until April 15
CULTURE Project Banaba
Carriageworks, Sydney, until December 17
THEATRE High Fidelity
Hayes Theatre, Sydney, until December 17
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 16, 2017 as "Outward listening". Subscribe here.