Beat's 10 best Victorian tracks of 2021. This is what your Spotify wrap should have included...
Alice Skye – ‘Party Tricks’
(Bad Apples Music)
‘Party Tricks’ is further proof of Alice Skye’s gift for condensing complex emotional states into widely communicable vocal hooks.
Skye, a Wergaia/Wemba Wemba woman, has often spoken of her love for the late Cranberries frontperson, Dolores O’Riordan. From its slow crescendo to the heavy guitar distortion and general melancholia, ‘Party Tricks’ was born of this love.
But Skye’s vocal presence ensures the song evades mimicry. The song’s most striking lyric – “the part of me that hates me really loves you” – circulates throughout the track, with Skye alternating between sounding defeated and attempting to weaponise the sentiment.
Snowy Band – ‘Living With Myself’
‘Living With Myself’ is restrained, tender and melodic. It’s the sort of song that’ll keep you company on a lone walk or a wistful evening recline. Liam Halliwell’s lead vocals convey a sense of copper-bottomed confidentiality. Backing vocalists Emma Russack and Nathalie Pavlovic take over for the chorus, bringing a sprinkle of cheer to a song that otherwise gives the impression of someone lost in contemplation.
You might say it’s effortless, but ‘Living With Myself’ is so deeply felt that the description doesn’t do it justice.
Ferla – ‘I See You’
‘I See You’ is a limber-footed indie disco delight, which sees Giuliano Ferla shapeshift between many of contemporary life’s more toxic components. In the verses, he claims to be the embodiment of “deaths in custody”, “plastic floating in the sea” and “condescension to the poor”. But it’s not quite levity and nor does it sound sardonic. You also don’t sense he wants to evoke guilt in the listener.
Rather, ‘I See You’ feels rooted in the absurd: what an absurd world we’ve created where, on the one hand, we’re acutely aware of rampant injustice and degradation and yet, on the other, we have effortless access to such wonders of pop songcraft as ‘I See You’.
Birdz – ‘Aussie Aussie’
(Bad Apples Music)
On his latest album, Legacy, Birdz doesn’t sugar-coat his depictions of the struggles faced by First Nations people in this country. “We just want our fucking land back,” goes the central hook of ‘Aussie Aussie’. “We still living, they can’t stand that.”
But while Birdz’ writing is every bit as enraged and unforgiving as the work of A.B. Original and DRMNGNOW, he knows how to flip grim subject matter into hip hop anthems. ‘Aussie Aussie’ is perhaps the catchiest boom bap track in Birdz’ back catalogue, which puts the proud Butchulla man on course to bring his hard truths to a much bigger audiences.
Springtime – ‘Will to Power’
(Tropical Fuck Storm Records)
If you’d have told me that Gareth Liddiard’s partnership with two of Australia’s premier avant-garde and rock-adjacent instrumentalists would give rise to one of his catchiest songs in years, I’d have laughed out loud. But that’s what we get from ‘Will to Power’, the first single released by the Tropical Fuck Storm guitarist and vocalist’s newest project, Springtime, a collaboration with drummer Jim White (Dirty Three) and Chris Abrahams (The Necks).
The group’s constituents have never been interested in making formulaic pop music, and this continues in their work as Springtime, whose debut album pushes against rock and pop conventions that are otherwise rarely challenged. But I’ll be damned if this song isn’t an earworm.
Emma Donovan & the Putbacks – ‘Home’
(Cooking Vinyl Australia)
‘Home’ calls to mind the likes of Badbadnotgood and the Budos Band, acts whose funk-soul instrumentals owe considerable debt to the production style of G-funk and Native Tongues hip hop.
The Putbacks are no slouches in the groove department, but their tight rhythms are given a stratospheric lift courtesy of Emma Donovan’s always-engaged lead vocals. Donovan only knows one way, and that’s to inject her whole body and spirit into her vocal performances.
On the surface, ‘Home’ isn’t a cheery song, but it’s a paean to durable, rewarding love—the sort of love that makes Donovan want to “live my best.”
Briggs ft. Troy Cassar-Daley – ‘Shadows’
(Island Records Australia)
Briggs isn’t the most commercially successful Australian hip hop artist, but his work will stand the test of time. The Yorta Yorta MC pulls no punches on his collaboration with Bundjalung and Gumbaynggirr country musician, Troy Cassar-Daley. ‘Shadows’ is graphic from the get-go: “Where my people were killed, I see shadows on the hill,” sings Cassar-Daley.
It’s about murder, genocide, and bad faith portrayals of national identity. “They don’t wanna speak about the first battles,” says Briggs, referring to how the beneficiaries of colonialism continue to equivocate rather than acknowledge Australia’s Black history.
Briggs knows there’s no such thing as meeting half-way when the rules of the game are rigged against you. In one of the year’s most resonant lines, he turns towards the perpetrators of brutal and sustained subjugation, and asks, “Who the fuck are you to civilise?”
Courtney Barnett – ‘Rae Street’
Courtney Barnett returned to the intimate observational style of her earlier work on ‘Rae Street’, a song about life in lockdown. Although the topic has generally been a creative dead-end, ‘Rae Street’ works because Barnett doesn’t dodge the subject’s humdrum ordinariness. She also judiciously avoids contrived gratitude or entitled moaning.
Like all of Barnett’s best work, the detailed descriptions of everyday minutiae lead to a broader recognition. “Time is money and money is no man’s friend,” she sings in the song’s jangle-pop chorus.
Despite the hollow platitudes about all of us being in this together, nearly 24 months into the pandemic, we remain shackled by the capitalist machine and only moderately placated by our creature comforts.
Quivers – ‘Chinese Medicine’
Melbourne four-piece Quivers hark back to a time when simple, jangly and melodic songwriting typified rock’s new frontier. Rooted in Sam Nicholson’s heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics and unpretentious vocal candour, ‘Chinese Medicine’ sounds like it was written by a more romantic and less sardonic David Berman and performed by a Flying Nun supergroup.
That’s not to say the ‘Chinese Medicine’ arrangement is scrappy or offhand. To the contrary, the song glistens with understated charisma as it raises a glass to the intoxicating powers of love.
Emma Russack & Lachlan Denton – ‘Done My Time’
(Osborne Again/Spunk Records)
On ‘Done My Time’, Emma Russack ponders a move back to the sleepy streets of her remote hometown. She’s fed up with the flashing lights and dense social networks of the city, which once seemed so invigorating. She’s “done [her] time” and now she “want[s] to hide.”
Together with Lachlan Denton, Russack collects these thoughts into a wistful pop song, tangibly relaying the feeling of being torn between two poles. But she sounds more ambivalent than resolved—what has she achieved in the city? And who will she be when she goes back home?
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