Making an arbitrary list is like creating a mix tape, only more narcissistic and time-consuming. But compiling my top 10 favourite Australian songs has proved a pleasant distraction and an excuse to go back and revisit the work of brilliant home-grown artists. Tough decisions have been made. But here they are, in no particular order, my 10 favourite Aussie tunes:
01. ‘I AM THE SUPERCARGO’
by The Drones
This monstrous rock song from Havilah is just one of many examples that confirm singer-songwriter Gareth Liddiard’s colossal genius. This album also saw guitarist Dan Luscombe join the Drones in the recording studio for the first time. His and Luscombe’s duelling guitars form a tsunami that rises and crashes throughout ‘I Am The Supercargo’. Lyrically the song explores the “cargo cults” of Papua New Guinea, and how primitive tribes were exposed to commercial cargo routes. It’s about how modern technologies seemed God-like to a native people. Battles in World War II were fought in front of Melanesian islanders and greatly changed that people’s outlook. Liddiard also references John Frum (Google him) in his lyrics. The songwriter is a keen reader and his perspective on history is always poetic and unique. But, musically, ‘I Am The Supercargo’ is a soaring, dynamic and cinematic rock song. It also contains lyrical gems like: “You want to make good with a cannibal? You’ve got to show him how to freeze a priest.”
02. ‘EVERYTHING’S TURNING TO WHITE’
by Paul Kelly
For a die-hard Paul Kelly fan, choosing his most powerful song is a dilemma comparable to that faced by Meryl Streep in the film Sophie’s Choice. While the Nazis don’t have any known designs on Kelly’s music, picking a track from his monumental back catalogue is no simple task. But I’ve chosen ‘Everything’s Turning To White’. There’s a common misconception that the song is about a real life news story that Kelly read, but it is in fact based on the short story So Much Water So Close To Home by the great American writer Raymond Carver (which was also adapted into the Australian movie Jindabyne). This song introduced me to the late master of the short story, so I have Kelly to thank for the discovery. So while the disturbing nature of the song, and the horrible scenario that its protagonist finds herself in, can be attributed to Carver, Kelly’s distillation of the story’s concept and emotions is of equal genius.
03. ‘I SHOULD HAVE SEEN THIS COMING’
by Big Heavy Stuff
Sometimes you hear a record and think to yourself, “Why the fuck isn’t this band the biggest act on the planet?” When I first heard Big Heavy Stuff’s 2004 record Dear Friends and Enemies, I played it non-stop for six months. It was to be their final record and for some reason did not make them international superstars. The album doesn’t even have a page on fucking Wikipedia! It might have something to do with the fact that the record’s two singles ‘Mutiny’ and ‘Homesick’ are perhaps the album’s least interesting, but that is only by the smallest or margins. The record is brilliant from start to finish. The melodies are lush and encompassing. Nick Kennedy’s drumming is kinetic. Greg Atkinson’s voice is fragile and pure. ‘I Should Have Seen This Coming’ borrows a Led Zeppelin drum rhythm and has beautiful, winding guitar parts. The song shifts gears towards the finale and Atkinson’s voice crescendos as he asks: “What’s one less? No one will notice.” There’s heavy emotion in every line.
04. ‘SOMETHING BETWEEN US’
From their flawless final record, 2001’s The Go, is this slow-burning sexual number. It’s possibly the most sensual tune ever released by an Australian act and highlights what a stunning voice Aya Larkin possesses. At his most aching, the smooth vocalist’s falsetto floats through each verse before the release of each chorus. The production can’t be faulted. If you’re attempting to seduce an object of lust, you could do a lot worse than putting on this song to get the juices flowing. Thank me later.
05. ‘GREAT SOUTHERN LAND’
Through weird, discordant synth notes and echoed production, Iva Davies managed to distill the vast ancient continent of Australia into the haunting pop song ‘Great Southern Land’. The Icehouse frontman was moved to do so after flying home from an overseas tour and gazing down across the seemingly endless expanse of the central Australia desert. When he arrived home, his television was playing cheap, cliche-riddled advertisements for the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane. Davies felt his home nation was being misrepresented. He was right. And thank Christ he did something about it.
06. ‘LIFE OF CRIME’
by The Triffids
Discerning music listeners know that 1986’s Born Sandy Devotional is one of the greatest Australian records of all time. Track seven, ‘Life of Crime’, has some of singer-songwriter David McComb’s most clever and vivid imagery. The slinking arrangement, and Gil Norton’s shimmering production exudes heat. You can see the sun burning through every note. Born Sandy Devotional is one of McComb’s most confessional and explores “the idea of fidelity as a complete all-consuming faith”. The album – and this truly brilliant song – is a masterpiece.
07. ‘STAGGER LEE’
by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
Released on the aptly titled record Murder Ballads, this is Cave’s depraved and uber-violent re-imagining of the classic American folk-song character Stagger Lee. The original song is about African American pimp and murderer Lee ‘Stag’ Shelton who lived in St. Louis Missouri in the late 1800s. I can still remember being genuinely disturbed when I first heard this song as nine-year-old. Though the omnipotent narrator, Cave embodies Stagger Lee’s malevolence. The song charts the depraved lunatic’s travels, which include the indiscriminate murder of a bartender. He later forces a man to fellate him at gunpoint before executing him. It is Cave at his most nasty. Anyone who has seen the singer and his The Bad Seeds perform ‘Stagger Lee’ live are aware of its enveloping storm cloud of sizzling energy. It’s a master class in grim atmosphere. But not for the faint-hearted.
08. ‘THE PLAY YOU’RE STAGING’
by The Pictures
When Davey Lane isn’t generating big riffs with You Am I or releasing solo work, he makes music with The Pictures. They are an incredibly under-rated rock band and a live tour de force. Lane is also an accomplished vocalist and the epic track ‘The Play You’re Staging’ with its massive jams and powerful chorus is one of the best Aussie rock songs ever. Disappointingly, it does not get the attention it deserves. From 2005’s Pieces of Eight, the track is a showcase for Lane’s powerful guitar chops and equally robust vocal prowess. It’s a dynamite song.
09. ‘NIGHT MUST FALL’
by Hoodoo Gurus
Dave Faulkner’s rumination on death is a simple, yet haunting rock ballad. The closing track on the Gurus’ 1996 album Blue Cave, the song opens with Faulkner’s voice and acoustic guitar, wrestling with the unexpected loss of some close friends (“Never thought we’d ever end, I can’t afford to lose more friends”). He soon coos in a falsetto: “I’m so lonely, I’m so sorry.” It’s a slow-building track, which is one of the most formidable structures in the Hoodoo Gurus’ rock arsenal (‘1000 Miles Away’ etc). Brad Shepherd’s electric guitar seems to open the back door for the whole band to creep in and take up their instruments. Then the Gurus are again firing on all four cylinders. But ‘Night Must Fall’ remains in Faulkner’s control and his melancholy restrains the song and maintains its beauty. It was undoubtedly the singer’s best ballad until the release of ‘Evening Shade’ on their 2010 album Purity of Essence, which very nearly made this list. ‘Night Must Fall’ returns to a grief-stricken slow-burn as the track fades out. Eighteen years after its release the song still feels fresh and packs an emotional punch.
10. ‘THE ROAD’
by The Siren Tower
The Siren who? The Siren Tower. Why these guys aren’t the biggest band in the country is beyond me. The Western Australian folk-rockers released a sonically diverse and emotionally charged album, A History of Houses, in 2012. ‘The Road’ is on the record and blows my mind every time I hear it. Taking a leaf from the Paul Kelly book of direct, narrative songwriting, the track is sung from the perspective of a father who is begging his daughter not to repeat his life’s great mistakes. Superbly crafted, ‘The Road’ announces Grant McCulloch as one of Australia’s most engaging vocalists and a deft lyricist. He fills every note with a desperate plea – and he is believable. But the whole package, including the instrumentation and production, is a soaring, devastating whirlwind of angst that sweeps you off your feet and punches you in the gut. An instant Australian classic.