Our two major cities – Melbourne and Sydney – were lockdown for what felt like an eternity this year. And yet again for another year, most musicians suffered financial hardship with no way of making a living on stage in front of audiences. But somehow we all persevered and did the best we could with our lot in life. Thankfully music as an outlet in some form or another continued to find a way onto our airwaves and into our hearts. And so, to all those musicians who released albums this year, I’m sure most listeners are eternally grateful. Anyway, without further ado check out some of the outstanding albums of this year and as always I hope amongst them you find something worthy of your attention.
Ruby Fields – Been Doin It For A Bit (Independent).
I can’t remember a time in recent years when a debut album by an Australian singer songwriter debuted at number one on the Australian charts. Well, it happened this year in September with Ruby Fields’ Been Doin’ It For A Bit. At 23, Fields has been called “an indie-rocker wiser than her years” and it’s a reputation she may well have to live up to on her next record. For now, I’m happy to just enjoy the creative energy that comes through on every single track on this album. Fields reminds me of an angsty Avril Lavigne in her heyday. Importantly like Lavigne, Fields individuality shines through in her songs. Moreover there is no getting away from the fact that this is a guitar-driven album. You’ll definitely hear some strong riffs, beautiful solos and an overall exciting racket of noise.
Middle Kids – Today We’re The Greatest (Universal).
Back in 2018, I had the pleasure to chat with the Sydney three-piece Middle Kids about their wonderful debut album Lost Friends. Since then, I’ve kept tabs on their progress as one of the more interesting indie-rock bands going around. Hannah Joy who writes Middle Kids lyrics is a revelation and continues to tackle important subjects like loneliness and the uncertainty of life. Songs like Questions, Cellophane (Brain) and RU 4 Me? feel angsty but measured with some really great sonic arrangements (which include strings) and wonderful vocals. In fact, I think Joy as a vocalists has almost singlehandedly elevated Middle Kids to a new level. Middle Kids are also worthy winners of Rock Album of the Year at this year’s ARIA Awards.
Gretta Ray – Begin To Look Around (EMI).
Sometimes musicians procrastinate about releasing a debut album. They want to be sure they have created something that is worthwhile. Fair enough, right? I get that impression from Gretta Ray, who first found fame with her break-out single Drive, which I must confess is still a really cool song. Anyway, after releasing several singles and an EP in 2018, Ray it seems has finally found the right formula or set of songs that she hoped would win over critics and fans for her debut album Begin To Look Around. What I really like about Ray’s debut is how she combines her confessional-style songwriting with flashy electronic pop. It’s hard not to be mesmerised by an array of catchy song like Happenstances, Bigger Than Me and Cherish, which all possesses these amazing hooks and choruses. For someone who is still relatively on the rise, she is already a very accomplished songwriter and musician.
Odette – Herald (EMI).
Back in February I said, “I’m pleasantly surprised to hear a new depth of artistic imagination and ambition in songwriting on Herald. It’s filled with boldness and experimental flourishes that one can’t imagine what she might produce next.” For me those words still resonate and I truly believe Odette’s Herald contains some of the most interesting music of the year. Interestingly, Odette doesn’t shy away from pointing out that this album is “mostly about processing trauma and trying to be accountable for the part I played over the last few years.” Though she is quick to point out that the album also contains an underlying sense of hope and yearning.
Julia Stone’s – Sixty Summers (BMG).
I have a bit of a soft spot for Angus & Julia Stone. This singer songwriting sibling duo never cease to surprise me, seemingly employing new skills and sounds to every album that they record. So when I heard Julia had released a new solo album this year I honestly thought she would struggle without her brother’s influence, especially when you realise how much they both rely on their faithful harmonies to wash all over you. But after listening to Julia’s Sixty Summers, I will be the first to admit just how wrong I was. From the get-go, Sixty Summers is truly a transformative listen – completely absent of the indie folk-pop trappings that made her famous as one half Angus & Julia Stone. This new album is a pleasant departure of her usual sound in no small part thanks to St Vincent (aka Annie Clark) – who co-produced the album. In short, set against a sonic palette awash with synth-pop, you’ll adore her adventurous spirit here, especially her signature fragile breathy vocals.
Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth (Ourness).
It would be an absolute travesty not to have Genesis Owusu’s Smiling With No Teeth on this list. It is without a doubt one of the year’s best albums. More recently Owusu took home an ARIA Award for Album of the Year. It is an amazing achievement given the fact that it is Owusu’s debut album. At only 22, Owusu has been compared to Prince and Kendrick Lamar, as a musical genius with a flair for theatrics, but don’t be fooled it is the energy of his music, a-15-track collection of hip-hop inspired tunes that sweeps us off our feet.
Courtney Barnett – Things Take Time, Take Time (Milk! Records).
Following the success of Courtney Barnett’s previous album Tell Me How You Really Feel (2018), Barnett is back this year with her highly anticipated new album Things Take Time, Take Time. It’s fair to say “Take Time” is a more mellow version of what we come to expect from Barnett. While the sounds of jangly guitars are still very present but softer, it is her prowess as a songwriting that shines through the most here on “Take Time”. Written and recorded during the pandemic, Barnett takes us on a journey of self reflection, calmness and dare I say it even happiness. While I don’t believe it is not as good as her previous release, as one of indie rock’s most notable figures, she still manages to find enough that’s interesting musically to elevate herself above the rest.
The Avalanches – We Will Always Love You (Modular Recordings).
Every now and then, I delve into the electronic world to stimulate my senses. The Avalanches’ We Will Always Love You and H3000’s self-titled release were my go to acts this year with the former winning out making this top ten. There is so much to like about The Avalanches new album. The array of sounds and samples alone are enough to make this a completely rewarding listen. Along for the ride is an impressive guest list of vocalists who pop up.They include the likes of Kurt Vile, Blood Orange, Leon Bridges and Karen O.
Martha Marlow – Medicine Man (Independent).
Martha Marlow’s debut is one of those albums that had slipped under our radar this year. It’s not to say that it wasn’t a good album. In fact, it is a stunning album that received a nomination for an ARIA Award for Best Blues and Roots Album this year, despite the seemingly lukewarm response from music listeners everywhere. (If it is any consolation Medicine Man peaked at number six on the Australian Independent Record Labels association chart.) Earlier this year I read how the landscape painter, illustrator and songwriter was diagnosed with rare auto-immune disease midway through recording the album. It makes this album seem real maybe even more vulnerable than it should be, especially lyrically as Marlow tackles real life issues. In short, Medicine Man falls somewhere in-between indie-folk and indie-pop with an array of orchestral arrangements throughout that serve to elevate this album into a colourful listening experience worthy of our attention.
Amyl and the Sniffers – Comfort To Me (Independent).
Currently, there is no shortage of blistering punk rock inspired music in Australia. Standing tall amongst most acts is Amyl and the Sniffers. If you thought their 2019 self-titled album was a riot, then I think you will love their follow up Comfort To Me even more. Maybe not since Courtney Love have I seen and heard a live wire as exciting as front woman Amy Taylor. What is great about her is that she is completely unapologetic as a lyricist and performer. While sometimes the Sniffers music comes across as jarring and intense, make no mistake there are brilliant tongue in cheek moments in their music, especially on Comfort To Me. In short, Taylor and her band mates ooze the sort of confidence and defiance that was found with the great punk rock acts of the past, where the rush of guitars is exhilarating and the tribal beat completely bonkers.