Revisiting 2018’s best albums
Looking back through my reviews for The Saturday Paper this year, I was surprised to discover that of the 17 albums I reviewed, 11 were from Australian artists. I’m a huge fan of Australian music – I make no apology for that – I’m just sorry I wasn’t able to cover more. Some records I discovered only months after they came out, others clashed with the release date of something else I liked. And then there were those confounding albums I was too cloth-eared to properly appreciate at the time. It’s strange, but those are usually the ones I end up loving the most. As this is my final review for the year, I’m going to devote it to some of the albums that got away. Think of it as a best of the rest of 2018.
I didn’t see any need for me to review Love Monster, because it was hard to miss Amy Shark this year. Her single, “I Said Hi”, was simply everywhere, as was her previous hit, “Adore”, earning her a staggering 70 million streams on Spotify alone. The Gold Coast singer has become our latest international success story, joining the likes of Tame Impala, Courtney Barnett and King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. Where Shark differs from those artists is that she makes mainstream pop, which is by far the trickiest genre to master. The pop soufflé usually fails to rise, but Shark and her collaborators achieved perfection. In terms of contemporary pop production, Love Monster was flawless.
Shark wasn’t the only one who made state-of-the-art pop this year. In July, Sydney singer-songwriter Odette released her moving debut album, To a Stranger. It effortlessly combined nimble, inventive melodies with confessional lyrics over hushed R&B grooves. Odette’s songs are much more introverted and understated than those of Shark, so they take a little longer to sink in, but it’s well worth the wait. Odette’s rich, dusky vocal tone – along with her poetic words – evinced a maturity far beyond her 21 years. Odette is an artist with enormous potential.
Abbe May has been living up to her potential for a long time now. But she’s also made a habit of exceeding the expectations of others. In 2013, May took an artistic volte-face for her third album, Kiss My Apocalypse, transforming herself from a bluesy houserocker to an ’80s electro-popper. I had misgivings because, back then, everyone seemed to be going electro. In this instance, though, it was a creative masterstroke. While she was reinventing herself, May finally found her true voice as a songwriter – sounding more powerful and self-assured than she ever had before.
This year, May released a follow-up album, Fruit. “Powerful and self-assured” was an apt description. The blues sensibility of her early guitar-slinging albums also reasserted itself, even as she dived deeper into groove-based synthesis. Fruit sounded relaxed, funky, deeply soulful and utterly contemporary. The album’s lyrics were also magnificent, exploring themes of sexual identity, romantic misadventure and the implicitly political act of simply being yourself. They were clever, comic, candid and, at times, cranky. “I’m Over You” was one good example:
You say I’m hysterical
When I know I’m righteously angry
Go fuck yourself
Yeah, you heard me
Go fuck yourself
You will not contain me
I’m over you talking over me
I’m not letting you talk down to me.
Detached from the music, these words lose some of their sly humour but there was no mistaking that May meant business. Fruit was a very forthright album. However, her strong-willed lyrics were never strident and, musically speaking, this was one of the most sensual albums I heard all year. In 2018, one of Australia’s best modern soul albums was made by a white, gay woman from Perth.
Another great modern soul album was artist-producer Alice Ivy’s I’m Dreaming, which came out in February. Partly based upon plunderphonics, sampled assemblages of other artists’ material, I’m Dreaming was smart, tongue-in-cheek and sexy. Taking samples from absurd old advertisements – radioactive skin cream, anyone? – Alice in Wonderland and Liberace in concert, perhaps via Coldcut, Ivy also enlisted a bevy of talented rappers and vocalists, including Bertie Blackman. The parts were stitched together seamlessly to create a rich sonic tapestry. Not just one of the great debut albums of the year, this is one of 2018’s best, full stop. It’s been an amazing year for Australian soul.
It was also a banner year for Australian jazz. Pianist-composer Barney McAll finally made his amazing back catalogue available on streaming platforms. It was with Zephyrix, a piece he recorded two years earlier with the Monash Art Ensemble, that the Melbourne-born, New York-based McAll caught my ear. The six compositions on this dazzling album drew upon a range of heterogeneous musical traditions – 20th-century atonal music, soul-funk, European cabaret and a wide range of jazz styles. It was an eclectic tour de force but jazz to its core.
Another notable jazz album was Animarum by Sydney bassist Jonathan Zwartz. It was a dreamy excursion into what could almost be described as cocktail music. That term is often used as a pejorative, but shouldn’t be. Zwartz’s album was super chilled and intimate without being in the least bit bland. And his musical peers obviously took notice because Animarum was voted the jazz album of the year at the APRA Music Awards in April.
My personal favourite jazz album of the year was by another bassist, Sam Anning. Across a Field as Vast as One has a strong melodic bent, like Zwartz, but Anning also flirts with 12-tone modalities and unorthodox time signatures, taking his music into pricklier terrain. The title track was inspired by a poem Anning wrote as a tribute to the late great Melbourne jazz drummer Allan Browne, who died in 2015. Though Anning was born in Fremantle, he has based himself in Melbourne for many years and Browne was an important early mentor for him. In the notes for this album, Anning wrote that he still tries to live by Browne’s dictum, “Music is far too important to take seriously.” To these ears there is a strong West Coast influence on Across a Field as Vast as One, most obviously on the playful “Sweethearts”, which is reminiscent of Vince Guaraldi. However, the album’s eight tracks will take listeners on an emotional journey, summoning feelings of joy, awe, sorrow, rapture and peaceful contemplation. Anning’s stimulating album provides nourishment for the intellect and succour for the heart.
Another genre that flourished at home this year was country music. Of course, whenever the redoubtable Kasey Chambers releases an album we’re going to experience forward progress in the field. And on April’s Campfire, she didn’t disappoint. Upon first listen, I thought it was a busman’s holiday, a bit of lighthearted fun between “real” albums. I was wrong. Chambers had stripped her music back to the bone to reveal the essence of her art. No production sheen, no fancy arrangements, just heartfelt songs and nakedly honest performances.
Chambers also appears in absentia on another great Australian country album, this time as the songwriter of “I Still Pray”, the a capella closing track of Kristy Cox’s Ricochet, which was released in January. Cox grew up in Mount Barker, South Australia, but has been based in the United States since 2013, which is a wise choice given the huge audience her beloved bluegrass music has over there. Like Campfire, the production on Ricochet is unadorned, but it is absolutely impeccable, letting the brilliance of the musicianship and the close harmony singing take the spotlight. Both albums remind us, forcefully, that in order to make compelling music, all you really need is the human voice. Everything else is just decoration.
Wherever you may find yourself in Australia, you’re never far from a rock band, but I never expected to hear great heavy metal emanating from a remote Aboriginal community in central Australia. Southeast Desert Metal hails from the Santa Teresa settlement, outside Alice Springs. Sounding like a cross between Iron Maiden and Metallica – and I’m on board with that – their second album Break the Silence is full of chunky riffs and anthemic choruses. An unexpected treat.
Tasmania may not be quite as remote but Hobart metal group Psycroptic just released their seventh album, As the Kingdom Drowns, last month and it’s a real monster. Technical metal in extremis with dizzying guitar riffs, sepulchral vocals and ridiculously pneumatic drumming, this album is a thrilling listen despite the constant pummelling – or should I say, because of it?
Another rock album that pummels listeners agreeably is Coin by Melbourne’s New War. Howling vocals, ear-splitting samples and a thundering rhythm section conspire to construct a magnificent, malevolent maelstrom. New War is a fire-breathing musical chimera – part Birthday Party, part Suicide – that’s really dirty blues band with a taste for industrial-strength musical mayhem underneath it all. This has to be the most exciting band in Australia right now. Coin is definitely one of my highlights of 2018.
I’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to albums I’ve enjoyed in 2018, but I do think it’s worth mentioning an area where there is still room for improvement. People around the world now recognise Australia as a major hub of new music. Gone are the days when British press reviews would slip snide references to wallabies and Foster’s lager into every album review. Australian music is taken very seriously and international musicians are copying and collaborating with our musicians as never before.
To me, it seems the only place Australian music struggles for recognition is right here at home, and when I say that, I am specifically referring to Australian commercial radio, which is the last bastion of the cultural cringe. You may have heard Amy Shark on mainstream radio this year, but I bet you never heard Odette, Abbe May or Alice Ivy. Broadcasters have a statutory obligation to play 25 per cent new Australian music as part of their music content. However, a 2016 study by music industry veteran Chrissie Vincent revealed most stations don’t come close to that target. And they clearly don’t care. To quote Vincent: “My research showed that during a typical week NOVA played a measly 7 per cent Australian content, Fox FM just 11 per cent and KIISFM played 13 per cent during a 24-hour period, with the stations making their quotas playing local artists from 10pm till midnight during the ‘off-peak’.”
Two weeks ago, Bill Shorten delivered the Labor Party’s music policy, “Soundtrack Australia”. The enforcement of rules about Australian content was just one of many welcome initiatives within the policy, but it was one that immediately resonated with me. My fervent hope is that in 2019 every single one of our politicians recognises that Australian music is a huge driver of our economy and is a matter of national interest. It’s high time they stopped sitting on their hands. And commercial radio? We’re coming for you.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 15, 2018 as "Australian trawl". Subscribe here.