greatest australian songs of all time photo

The 200 Greatest Australian Songs Of All Time, Part One  

Words by Music Junkee

By Music Junkee, 3/11/2020

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Over the last two years, Music Junkee has slowly and steadily been piecing together a canon of Australian music.

Former Mess + Noise editor Doug Wallen and David James Young teased out the history of indie rock, Kish Lal has chronicled Australian hip-hop over the decades, Bianca Davino did the same with heavy music, and Joseph Earp and I pulled together the biggest list of them all in the history of Australian pop music. We’ve also spent time diving into the careers of Australia’s biggest artists, from Flume to You Am I to Sia to Paul Kelly and plenty more.

All of it has been a humble attempt to sketch out Australian music history, to create a library for music lovers to lose themselves in and find, or rediscover, new songs and albums to devour.

So while the prospect of pulling together a list of the 200 Greatest Australian Songs obviously felt a little overwhelming, we knew it was a mountain we wanted to climb. Most of the lists compiled on the subject seemed to stop in the early ’90s or, at a stretch, the early ’00s. Most focused on the classics we all know and love — and while those songs are certainly worthy, and you’ll find plenty of them in our list, we knew it was time for an update.

Because Australian music has exploded in the last 30 years — there’s more diversity than ever before, and for the first time ever our music industry is finally beginning to represent and elevate non-white, non-male, non-cis voices. Make no mistake: there is still so much work to be done, but we have come a long way.

There was no way we could pull together a list like this by ourselves, of course. We put the callout to artists around the country for submissions, and plenty of lists flew back in. We dived back into triple j’s Hottest 100, the ARIA charts, our own wrap ups of genres and artists and history. We were striving for as broad a list as possible — one that spanned genres, ages, decades. We looked at criteria like cultural resonance, commercial success, critical acclaim, and a nebulous score we labelled ‘General Belovedness’.

All of them, in their own unique way, occupy one piece of the jigsaw of Australia — its best parts, its worst parts, its people and cultures and landscape and weather and feel.

The resulting list — split into two parts, this being the first — is wildly eclectic. Old favourites and pub classics bump up against neo-jazz explosions and modern queer bops and dancefloor crushers. Some of the artists are veterans of the industry, some are at the very beginning of their careers. But all of them, in their own unique way, occupy one piece of the jigsaw of Australia — its best parts, its worst parts, its people and cultures and landscape and weather and feel.

A list such as this will always feel unfinished, perhaps underdone, but we hope that you use this list to launch yourself into the kaleidoscopic history of Australian music, to revisit old loves and discover new favourites.

— Jules LeFevre, Music Junkee editor

Music Junkee would like to thank the following artists for their contributions: Powderfinger, Cub Sport, Dallas Woods, Hauskey, Eves Karydas, Azure Ryder, Thandi Phoenix, Winston Surfshirt, GL, Young Franco, CLYSPO, San Mei, Taka Perry, EAST AV3, A.GIRL, COLLAR, Carla Wehbe, Isaiah Firebrace. 

#200. Wafia — ‘I’m Good’

From the moment that bassline bellows in at the four-second mark, Wafia has you by the throat. It’s impossible to dislike ‘I’m Good’ — it’s three minutes of intelligent, well-constructed pop, delivered with a wink and chuckle by Wafia as she twists the knife into the heart of an ex-lover. Kiss-offs have never sounded this good.

— Jules LeFevre 

#199. Lonelyspeck — ‘My Angel Goes Before Me’

There’s an entire world hidden within Lonelyspeck’s ‘My Angel Goes Before Me’, and it’s almost overwhelming to behold. The track swells and retreats, it blasts off from the earth, then vanishes, it never once settles in one place — making it absolutely necessary to keep going back in for another round. — JL

#198. Children Collide — ‘Jellylegs’

You’d be hard pressed to find a more consistent and hardworking band in the late ’00s than Children Collide. With a gilded reputation for spectacular and sweaty live shows, their recorded output was equally distinguished. ‘Jellylegs’, ‘Across The Earth’, ‘My Eagle’…they could all arguably occupy this position — but we’ll give it to ‘Jellylegs’, a restless and frenetic cut of prime Aussie indie rock. — JL

#197. The Sleepy Jackson — ‘Good Dancers’

A song which proves Luke Steele — who would go on to form Empire of the Sun after The Sleepy Jackson fell by the wayside — grew up on a diet equal in George Harrison, John Lennon, Beck, and The Go-Betweens. Unsettling, skittish, eccentric, and sophisticated — it was The Sleepy Jackson to a tee. — JL

#196. The Native Cats — ‘John Sharp Toro’

‘John Sharp Toro’ has so many serrated edges that you’re gonna get cut no matter how you pick it up. Combining the oblique lyricisms of Mark E. Smith with a crunched glass melody that is purely the Native Cats’ own, it’s an often violent, frequently beautiful thing. That final minute, in which it descends into one long drone, is a kind of magic.

–Joseph Earp

#195. Holly Valance — ‘Kiss Kiss’

‘Kiss Kiss’ is sometimes treated as a joke or a novelty these days, obscured under layers of irony and nostalgia. But fuck that. In its compact simplicity, Holly Valance’s breakout hit has a joy entirely of its own. If only “trite pop” was still this inventive and infectious. — JE

#194. Harmony — ‘Water Runs Cold’

The booming voice of Harmony’s Tom Lyngcoln always sounds like it’s coming to your ears from the bottom of a well. ‘Water Runs Cold’, arguably the band’s finest hour, plays that up to the hilt — it’s a swamp monster of a song, hulking its way back and forth between hope and despair. — JE

#193. AC/DC — ‘Jailbreak’

How could you deny that opening riff? The rusted closer of AC/DC’s finest record, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, is a tangled rat-king of guitar lines, screamed lyrics, and a chugging drum line. It’s an unescapable song, with a melody that will hunt you till you’re crawling on your knees. — JE

#192. Confidence Man — ‘Boyfriend (Repeat)’

What Australian band of the last few decades has more Big Dick Energy than Confidence Man? A collection of withering put-downs set to a stripped-back, dance punk-inspired beat, the band’s ‘Boyfriend (Repeat)’ emanates a joyful hostility and swagger that makes everyone else sound positively trite in comparison. And then there’s the mid-song breakdown, an audio pile-up that retains its manic energy even on a dozen listens. Don’t listen to the haters: Confidence Man are the real deal. — JE

#191. Cloud Control — ‘There’s Nothing In The Water We Can’t Fight’

‘There’s Nothing In The Water We Can’t Fight’ sounds like five songs hammered together into one slightly rattly corrugated iron roof. It’s lucky then, that it still works to keep the rain out. A standout from their 2010 album Bliss Release, it hums along with airy interlocking rhythms and wispy harmonies. — JL

#190. Bernard Fanning — ‘Wish You Well’

Bernard Fanning was supposed to take a year off from Powderfinger — instead, he wrote a solo acoustic album that become wildly successful and established himself as a reputable artist in his own right. ‘Wish You Well’ hit #1 on triple j’s Hottest 100 of that year, and it was deserving; an easy, glaringly sunny pop folk track that we guarantee you still have in your head now, 15 years on. — JL 

#189. Good Pash — ‘A Yacht In Sydney Harbour’

There’s no surer way to ruin a song than by trying to make it “witty”. That is, unless you’re Good Pash. The Sydney-based band have a smirking sense of humour that’s more honed and fulfilling than that of 99% of their peers, precisely because it’s rooted always in the human — ‘A Yacht In Sydney Harbour’, a song about an expensive party that eventually transforms into a treatise about truth-telling, never makes a joke at the expense of treating its cast of characters with respect. It’s unbeatable. — JE

#188. The Necks — ‘Rise’

Abstract, quasi-ambient jazz trio The Necks make music that’s deliberately hard to write about. Their songs aren’t really “about” anything, and even pinning down the emotional tone of a 15-minute epic like ‘Rise’ is impossible. So don’t try to. Instead, just sink into the thing, and let it happen to you. — JE

#187. Bored Nothing — ‘Let Down’

When we lost Fergus Miller, the artist behind the Bored Nothing name in 2016, we lost one of the brightest voices in Australian music. ‘Let Down’, released back in 2012, is the summa of his talents — a warm-hearted, fuzzy slice of sonic empathy. Miller was unparalleled, and we don’t often enough talk about every one of his array of talents. Listen to ‘Let Down’ now, and be awed again by the scale of its feeling. — JE

#186. Jen Cloher — ‘Regional Echo’

It takes a lot of confidence to drop a self-titled album deep in your career. But that’s the word you’d use to describe Jen Cloher, the magnum opus of one of our finest Australian poets.

The 11 songs contained within know exactly what they want to say, and exactly how they’re going to say it, no more so than ‘Regional Echo’. A lament about the state of Australian suburbs that slowly shifts into a love letter dedicated to future possibility, it’s a melancholy masterpiece. “I’m never gonna lose my head to a setting sun” is a line of unusual grace. — JE

#185. Karnivool — ‘Themata’

Sure, some might cringe a little at the output of Karnivool and Ian Kenny’s other band, Birds Of Tokyo, but there’s no denying the force of ‘Themata’. Taken from their beloved 2005 record of the same name, it’s a creeping menace of a song, a wolf stalking its prey.  JL

#184. Silverchair — ‘Miss You Love’

Neon Ballroom is a baroque work of art; rich and antic, like a ballet set on Mars. Pretty much any of its songs could sit on this list, but for sheer extremity of feeling, it’s ‘Miss You Love’ that makes the cut. Australian ’90s rock rarely got this sincere, or this full-throated. It’ll swallow you whole. — JE

#183. South West Syndicate — ‘Are You With Me Out There’

As Kish Lal writes in her expansive history of Australian hip-hop, ‘Are You With Me Out There’ is a call to arms, brimming with hope for the young. The track was pivotal in the growth of Sydney’s hip-hop scene, intended as a beacon for Indigenous Australians, and youth from non-Anglo backgroundsJL

#182. Dick Diver — ‘Calendar Days’

“Sweet” is usually a reductive adjective, designed to belittle rather than build up. But ‘Calendar Days’, the best song in the Dick Diver arsenal, is precisely that; a little slice of kindness, designed to make you lean back a little in your chair and let your arms go slack. — JE

#181. Angus & Julia Stone — ‘Chateau’

At their best, Angus & Julia Stone are capable of writing truly transcendent songs. ‘Chateau’ is them at their best — a song that hums like a well-oiled engine, their vocals layered and floating in the warm LA breeze. — JL

#180. Bob Evans — ‘Don’t You Think It’s Time’

If you were to dream up the simplest, most perfect folk pop song, it would sound something like ‘Don’t You Think It’s Time’. Bob Evans — AKA Jebediah frontman Kevin Mitchell — had noodled around on the Perth scene for a few years before striking gold with 006 album Suburban Songbook, which also carried the wonderful jaunt ‘Nowhere Without You’. When people describe songs as ‘sunny’, they’re referencing this song. — JL

#179. Kira Puru — ‘Molotov’

The top comment on ‘Molotov’s YouTube page sums it up: “The whole video is just an overall mood.” It’s true. ‘Molotov’ crackles, a prime rib of alt-pop, buoyed by the enthralling confidence of Puru — “just point me at the dancefloor/Throw me in,” she asks of us. We’re right behind her. — JL

#178. 5 Seconds Of Summer — ‘Youngblood’

Sometimes, songs achieve greatness by parsing out pleasures slowly, stringing you along and building anticipation. And then there are the songs that achieve greatness by giving you as much pleasure as possible, for as long as possible; IV drips of red cordial entirely stripped of subtlety. ‘Youngblood’ is a latter kind of classic, a titanic chorus nestled amongst verses that are 10-miles wide. — JE

#177. Jack Colwell — ‘Don’t Cry Those Tears’

Mixing old school crooning with an entirely modern honesty and style, Jack Colwell’s ‘Don’t Cry Those Tears’ sounds, to borrow a line from David Bowie, like the future. It’s actually been released twice; first as a single, then, years later, as a track on Colwell’s debut album Swandream. It could be released a hundred more times, once each year, and still retain all of its class and beauty. — JE

#176. Kate Miller-Heidke — ‘Caught In The Crowd’

“Every time I play a show now I still get someone coming and telling me that they were James in school,” Kate Miller-Heidke told The Feed’s Patrick Abboud last year, referencing a central character in the song who is bullied relentlessly. “Perhaps their actual bullies have never apologised to them, but to hear that apology from me in that song somehow helped them to heal.”

Miller-Heidke’s simple and direct storytelling — which earned her and husband Keir Nuttall the grand prize at the International Songwriting Competition — bottled something pure and heartfelt. It’s now even a part of the anti-bullying curriculum across the country, which is not an accolade most songs in this list can lay claim to. — JL

#175. Operator Please — ‘Just A Song (About Ping Pong)’

For years, Operator Please were forced to answer the question: “Okay, but what is it really about?” The band maintained it really was just a song about ping pong, and we’ll believe them. A track that took over the airwaves and our lives for all of 2007, and it’s just as good nearly 15 years on. — JL

#174. Portal — ‘Heirships’

Outre, Portal’s second album, was born out of frustration — they had been unhappy with the more direct, unadorned textures of their debut. And so they went weird. The result: one of the most distinct, terrifying Australian metal albums ever recorded. ‘Heirships’, emerges out of fuzz and feedback like a horror lurching from an abandoned hospital. There is nothing in this world quite like it. Thank God. The Universe only feels strong enough to support the weight of a single ‘Heirships’. — JE

#173. Bardot — ‘Poison’

The pure pandemonium that is unleashed on the dancefloor of a queer nightclub when you drop this song is something to behold. Bardot’s ‘Poison’ is a dripping ’00s masterpiece, and it’s a cruel twist of fate the band split acrimoniously after just two years on the scene. — JL

#172. Nick Cave And Kylie Minogue — ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’

A leather glove cast in iron, Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue’s ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ makes death and despair sexy again. The meeting of two such titanic voices was always going to be culture-changing, but with its sopping tragedy, the song is even better than it has any right to be. Let every inch of it unfurl in your ears. — JE

#171. Savage Garden — ‘To The Moon & Back’

You don’t often hear a ripping guitar solo in pop songs these days…or for that matter a string and piano outro, or a flamenco guitar interlude in the middle. The opener to Savage Garden’s self-titled record is a deceptive piece of pop songwriting, as Darren Hayes and Daniel Jones weave in influences from the Eurythmics, Tears For Fears, and the whole cast of 1980s UK pop — all filtered through Logan, Queensland. Utterly delectable. — JL

#170. Tame Impala — ‘Let It Happen’

‘Let it Happen’ is a song of resignation; a kind of long, colourful sigh. It’s also, like all of Kevin Parker’s masterworks, extremely detailed — you could study this thing under a microscope for the rest of your life. Perhaps no other musician has such a sense of focus as Parker — there are pleasures here that only make themselves known on the tenth or eleventh listen. — JE

#169. Cable Ties — ‘The Producer’

‘The Producer’ takes its time. Opening with a drum fill that sounds like it’s been dredged up from the bottom of the ocean, it spends six long minutes laying apart first the music industry and then the content machine at large. When the chorus first breaks, some two minutes in, it sounds like an entire world ending. Fury has rarely sounded this artful, or this precise. — JE

#168. Stella Donnelly — ‘Boys Will Be Boys’

It’s impossible to hide from ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, a lilting song that serves as a simple and searing indictment on rape culture and toxic masculinity. Sit still and listen, it deserves to be heard. — JL

#167. Kaiit — ‘Natural Woman’

A slick, neo-soul hummer that inches Kaiit inexorably closer to legends like Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. The fact it was her first single should strike awe in every music fan. Every line is a playful wink (“Quit when I was 11 to work on my tennis/Now all I do is run from love/And now I guess I’m Galileo coz all I do is reach for the stars/And Mars/And Venus/Serena”) and you’ll come out the other side just wanting to dive back in. So sink in to the sand and let it flow over you. — JL

#166. Washington — ‘Who Are You’

A song that pulls you along as it rushes headlong into the fray, propelled by Megan Washington’s melancholy ache of a vocal. It will overwhelm you. — JL

#165. Tkay Maidza — ‘Switch Lanes’

She’d already broken through the dancefloor with the full throttle ‘Brontosaurus’, but ‘Switch Lanes’ was where the young Adelaide MC showed her chops. A hooky pop melody, a spitfire flow, a confidence that threatens to singe the stereo on the way out. Irresistible. — JL 

#164. Sia — ‘Breathe Me’

Sure, Sia’s gentle ‘Breathe Me’ feels like it has soundtracked every death scene in every medical show on earth for years now, but that cringey association does little to distract from the fact that it is a completely, and utterly, gorgeous song. ‘Breathe Me’ rises and falls like a deep sleep, it buries itself inside your chest and before you know it, will bring you to tears. A reminder that Sia doesn’t need to unleash the power of her lungs to stun. — JL

#163. Divinyls — ‘Pleasure & Pain’

Literally any Divinyls song ever recorded could have been called ‘Pleasure & Pain’. After all, mixing the sugar with the spice was their entire modus operandi for the sadly short time that they were together, and Chrissy Amphlett’s titanic voice was all about pushing prettiness until it became punishing. ‘Pleasure & Pain’ is a leather boot, pinned directly into your chest. — JE

#162. Tropical Fuck Storm — ‘Chameleon Paint’

With Feelin’ Kinda Free, The Drones took their sound to their natural endpoint, making the kind of album that couldn’t be topped. So Gareth Liddiard, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, started again.

With a new band, Tropical Fuck Storm, Liddiard maintained his vicious lyrics, but changed up the music that surrounded them, laying his epithets and epilogues on a bed of Fela Kuti-esque springy funk. The result — one of the boldest and most fascinating bands in Australia, and their masterpiece, the winking ‘Chameleon Paint’. — JE

#161. Faker — ‘This Heart Attack’

A handful of bands defined Australia’s mid-2000s indie explosion, and Perth’s Faker was right there in the middle of it all. ‘This Heart Attack’ is brash, proudly immature, recalling sticky floors and Converse shoes and tight black skinny jeans. Never has a breakup song sounded like this much fun. — JL

#160. TISM — ‘Whatareya (You’re A Yob Or You’re A Wanker)’

No song that starts with the words, “I’m a wanker” repeated ad nauseum deserves to be this good. But that’s the thing about TISM — they’re masters of turning shit into diamonds, and vice versa, grubbying up the established norms of Australian rock and pop and making jokes about James Hird seem like Shakespearean wordplay. And then there’s the music video for ‘Whatareya’, in which the band crash a morning television exercise regime. Who says Australia has no high culture? — JE

#159. Camp Cope — ‘Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams’

Georgia Maq’s unrestrained vocal powers this crusher from Melbourne’s Camp Cope, which skewers shitty men and systemic sexism in some of the sharpest lyrics every written. Lines like “you carry keys between your knuckles when you walk alone at night” feel ice cold water running down your back. — JL

#158. Archie Roach — ‘Took The Children Away’

Great art pays testimony. ‘Took The Children Away’, Archie Roach’s era-defining masterpiece, does just that, examining one of the great crimes in Australian history with clear, penetrating eyes. — JE

#157. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — ‘Red Right Hand’

Despite the grand statesman image cultivated for him by the press, Nick Cave is determinedly silly — his Grinderman project alone proves his skill when it comes to dropping dad jokes and outsized rhymes about sex. Even ‘Red Right Hand’, one of his career-topping masterworks, has a sloppy sense of humour about it.

It’s more like a Tex Avery cartoon than an Old Western. No wonder it became the unofficial theme song for the Scream franchise; both works of art have the same sly wink about them. — JE

#156. Paul Kelly — ‘Deeper Water’

Paul Kelly is a kind of magician. I don’t know how else to explain his ability to make so much out of so little on a song like ‘Deeper Water’, taking an old, well-worn subject matter — love and nostalgia — and making it fresh again with little but an electric guitar and his weathered, beautiful voice. — JE

#155. Tina Arena — ‘Sorrento Moon (I Remember)’

While ‘Sorrento Moon’ sounds like it could soundtrack every honeymoon trip to the famous Amalfi Coast town, Tina Arena actually wrote it about her childhood trips to Sorrento, Victoria — which might be a little less exotic but I’m sure still does a roaring trade in chianti. She told Vice in 2017 that she’d only just visited the Italian town for the first time in 2016.

Regardless of what Sorrento you’re inhabiting, Arena’s 1995 single still sounds wonderfully light and frothy — with one of the best pop choruses ever written. — JL

#154. Matt Corby — ‘Brother’

Matt Corby’s song of apology and hurt still feels as raw now as it did in 2011 — the pain that engulfs his voice as he tears his throat is something to behold. — JL

#153. The Go-Betweens — ‘Cattle & Cane’

You know that moment when the cool change comes rushing up to you after you’ve spent a long, hot day at the beach, surrounded by lovers or friends? That’s this song. It is a kind of relief, as weightless and invisible as air. I can barely even believe it exists. — JE

#152. Crowded House — ‘Into Temptation’

Sure, there are those that will still crow and crow about Crowded House being strictly a New Zealand band. And, of course, they do have a Kiwi heart, thanks to the Finn brothers — but it was in Melbourne the band was born, with Australians Paul Hester and Nick Seymour on drums and bass, respectively, supporting Neil Finn.

But there’s no question that Crowded House’s songs have woven themselves into the fabric of Australian culture, and to exclude them from a list such as this would be peculiar. ‘Into Temptation’, their first song in this list (spoiler, it won’t be the last) is a slinking Cheshire cat of a song, a hand beckoning you through the door. — JL

#151. Yothu Yindi — ‘Djapana’

It is impossible to overstate the impact Yothu Yindi first had when they exploded onto the Australian pop scene. Inspired, original, and politically engaged, the band carved a niche wholly for themselves, launching a thousand less successful imitators in the process. This list could have contained every one of their pop hits, and it still wouldn’t do them justice. But with its fiery emotional heart, ‘Djapana’ earns this spot a dozen times over. — JE

#150. Touch Sensitive — ‘Pizza Guy’

To hear ‘Pizza Guy’ today is to seal yourself in a time capsule and slide back to the early 2010s, when dance label Future Classic had a grip on the airwaves thanks to acts like Hayden James, Chet Faker, and Flight Facilities, and Australian dance sounded as summery and light as a Bondi sunset.

Touch Sensitive — the project of Van She’s Michael Di Francesco — sat comfortably in the middle of these proceedings, and with its rubbery basslines and galactic synths, it still sounds as fresh as it did the day it was delivered. — JL

#149. Midnight Juggernauts — ‘Into The Galaxy’

Another beloved band born in Australia’s indie explosion, Midnight Juggernauts were more concerned with creating dense cyberpunk galaxies rather than the upbeat, buttoned-up pop of their peers. ‘Into The Galaxy’, their propulsive and swirling mission statement, is a black hole pretending to be a pop song. — JL

#148. Royal Headache — ‘Another World’

The Royal Headache formula was simple: take a complex, nuanced emotion and grind it down until it becomes a two minute-long shard of scuzzy pop. But that simplicity doesn’t make it any less impressive. After all, the years of failed Royal Headache impersonators should prove that what the band had was special. Just have another listen to ‘Another World’, their masterpiece, and let the true extent of their invention slowly sink in. — JE

#147. Fisher — ‘Losing It’

For some, ‘Losing It’ might be something of an elaborate meme, most notable for its insistent drop. But you underestimate the viral dance hit at your own expense. ‘Losing It’ is silly, sure, but in its overcranked pleasures, something genuinely innovative lays hidden. Listen to it again with fresh ears, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. — JE

#146. Vanessa Amorosi — ‘Absolutely Everybody’

No one that lived through the Sydney Olympics can hear this song without being tossed bodily back to that closing ceremony in 2000, flags and pyrotechnics and tens of thousands of smiling faces. ‘Absolutely Everybody’ is a knockout, perfectly geared for the raise-your-hands-cos-we’re-all-human vibes of the Olympics. For a moment, it was the song of a beaming nation. — JL 

#145. Slim Dusty — ‘A Pub With No Beer’

A shining example of Australian bush songwriting, as country as the crunch of eucalyptus leaves underfoot. It’s impossible to listen to without absentmindedly swatting a phantom fly in front of your face. — JL 

#144. The Saints — ‘(I’m) Stranded’

The Saints tend to get talked about as the punk band’s punk band, best known for the impact that they had on other musicians rather than any of the songs that they released themselves. They were, for instance, one of the formative influences on Kurt Cobain, he of Nirvana fame. But don’t just take Kurt’s word for it. Put on ‘I’m Stranded’, their lopsided anthem, and be reminded of their talents all over again. — JE

#143. The Avalanches — ‘Since I Left You’

What Australian band is more mercurial than The Avalanches? For years now, the outsider outfit have released only what they want, and only when they want to. ‘Since I Left You’, the opening track from their album of the same, shows the benefits of such an obscure approach to art-making — it’s the kind of baroque, oversaturated pleasure that only The Avalanches could release. No wonder it took them over a decade to plan their comeback; a pop hit like this is hard to top. — JE

#142. Sports Bra — ‘Sparkle Heart Emoji’

Sydney’s Sports Bra write songs that embrace you with their arms wide open. ‘Sparkle Heart Emoji’, their finest hour, is proof positive of that modus operandi — a pop-punk anthem that is clear-eyed and serious about love without ever being trite or cliched, might be one of the most humane songs in the modern canon. That chorus lives somewhere very deep inside me, and has since I first heard it. — JE

#141. Hilltop Hoods — ‘The Nosebleed Section’

Despite completely misunderstanding where the nosebleed section actually is — MC Suffa incorrectly refers to it as the front of the crowd, rather than the back high seats — ‘The Nosebleed Section’ captured Australian ears like nothing else when it was released in 2004.

The Adelaide crew have dominated Australia hip-hop for decades now, establishing the larrikin, relatable, ‘capital A’ Aussie content that was soon adopted by dozens of copycat artists. — JL 

#140. Bridezilla — ‘Brown Paper Bag’

Hyper-cool outfit Bridezilla would eventually go their separate ways, with the band’s Holiday Sidewinder Carmen-Sparks still making excellent and inventive music under her own name. But for the short period that they were together, they reshaped the sound of mainstream Australian indie, combining the invention of Arcade Fire with the attitude of the New York post-punk scene. Their scrappiest masterpiece? ‘Brown Paper Bag’, an assembly of angles and wet-lipped come-ons. — JE

#139. Baby Animals — ‘Early Warning’

‘Early Warning’ is an erroneous title, because the songs does anything but — it grips you from the first explosion of drums, the guitar riff flying out like shrapnel. It’s as red-blooded and full-throated as a rock song gets. — JL

#138. Architecture In Helsinki — ‘Heart It Races’

Proudly immature, delightfully batshit, ‘Heart It Races’ captures a very specific time in Australian indie — where the phrase ‘less is more’ was a completely unknown phrase to everyone involved. — JL

#137. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard — ‘Work This Time’

Talking about King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard in a meaningful way is a little like talking in the abstract about colours; the band has so many hues, textures and applications that being monolithic about their career is a doomed exercise.

What does a King Gizzard album “sound like”? Whatever the fuck the band want it to — and what they want changes from song to song, not to mention from album to album. ‘Work This Time’ is only the “typical” Gizz’ song because it’s not typical at all, an explosion of psych-roch experimentation that mumbles itself in and out of a melody. — JE

#136. The Reels — ‘Quasimodo’s Dream’

A twisted, stalking song, ‘Quasimodo’s Dream’ might be one of the strangest singles to gain popularity in Australia — although it was a commercial failure. Songwriter and vocalist Dave Mason spins his story of alienation and self-loathing over a spacious and unsettling backing, the instrumentation sounding like it was dropped from the top of an aircraft hanger. — JL

#135. The Birthday Party — ‘Dead Joe’

Sure, sure: sedate, classy Nick Cave is a lot of fun. But so is the gasoline-snorting, depraved monster that he began his career as. The Birthday Party, fronted by Cave and fellow Australian icon Rowland S. Howard, took the sonic experimentation of bands like The Fall to its natural endpoint, coating post-punk nightmares in a thin film of bodily fluids. For sheer brutality, there’s no song quite like ‘Dead Joe’ — either in Cave’s career, or in Australian music generally. — JE

#134. Magic Dirt — ‘Dirty Jeans’

The song that changed the way we looked at ‘ordinary boys’ on the train. Magic Dirt (appropriately) captured the grimy Aussie suburban existence better than most bands in the ’90s, and ‘Dirty Jeans’, with its mountains of guitar fuzz and Adalita’s classic laconic vocal, will raise hairs on your neck and draw eyeliner on your eyes. — JL 

#133. Mike Noga — ‘All My Friends Are Alcoholics’

When we lost Mike Noga earlier this year, we lost won of our most considered, nuanced voices. The man could sing about anything with passion and intensity, and his whole discography is a collection of tight, knotted lines of poetry. But ‘All My Friends Are Alcoholics’, the single that would eventually become his signature song, is his finest hour — a work of finely wrought honesty. It has never gotten its proper dues. Let’s hope that soon changes. — JE

#132. The Preatures — ‘Is This How You Feel?’

Isabella Manfredi is a classic sort of musician, literate and learned, and possessing of an unparalleled ear for simple but effective pop hooks. ‘Is This How You Feel?’, which begins with its iconic vocal pops, before arching its back into one of the most recognisable choruses of the last few decades, lays out each of those talents in turn.

The Preatures would never try to release a single like it again, sure, but who can blame them: this is the sort of achievement that towers above the rest solely on its own. — JE

#131. Hermitude — ‘Hyperparadise’

While it’s arguably better known now as its remix version, done by Flume, Hermitude’s original ‘Hyperparadise’ deserves this spot in its own right. A glittering missile of Australian dance, it’s as energetic as a swiftly downed Smirnoff Black. A masterclass of composition. — JL

#130. Laura Jean — ‘Girls On The TV’

‘Girls On The TV’ was custom-made to score first kisses at a roller-rink, or lonely nights strolling across the beach. It takes what has long been special about Laura Jean as a singer-songwriter — her eye for detail, and her Mary Oliver-esque sense of humble, understated poetry — and smothers it in ’80s soft rock stylings, creating something both infectious and quietly devastating in the process.

In an alternative world, this song would be lighting up stadiums. I guess Jean will simply have to settle for excellence instead. — JE

#129. Something for Kate — ‘Monsters’

Paul Dempsey’s sorrowful vocals laid atop the cold acoustic guitar at the beginning of ‘Monsters’ creates an immediate atmosphere, like having cold water tossed in your face in an icy wind. Something For Kate’s ode to isolation and disassociation still packs a gut punch today. — JL 

#128. Boy & Bear — ‘Fall At Your Feet’ (Crowded House Cover)

In the hands of Crowded House, ‘Fall At Your Feet’ is a gentle and obedient pop song. In the hands of Sydney’s folk-pop heroes Boy & Bear, who rose in the waistcoat radio years alongside Mumford & Sons, ‘Fall At Your Feet’ becomes a haunting plea to a distant lover.

The cover, written for the EMI compilation He Will Have His Way, struck such a chord with audiences that it landed at #3 in triple j’s Hottest 100 of 2010, and has become a staple of their setlist since. The swelling crescendo never fails to move you. — JL

#127. Jessica Mauboy — ‘Burn’

The last two decades of Australian music is littered with failed careers of reality TV popstars. Jessica Mauboy, who blitzed the judges from the outset with a stunning cover of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Have Nothing’, has eclipsed (dozens of times over) the career of Damien Leith, who triumphed over Mauboy in the final of Australian Idol in 2006.

Mauboy’s ‘Burn’ is as infectious a pop song as you’ll come across, driven by her powerhouse vocals which slam through the song like a road train. — JL

#126. Troye Sivan — ‘Youth’

Don’t let his pop sheen seduce you: underneath it all, Troye Sivan is a quietly subversive talent, capable of writing the kind of chorus that sinks into the soft folds of your brain before you’ve realised quite how weird it is. ‘Youth’, his masterpiece, is a perfect example of such a talent: that whorled scream of a central melody sounds like a Suicide riff coated in several lashings of pink paint. — JE

#125. Cut Copy — ‘Hearts on Fire’

Eerily timeless and yet so obviously of a time, Cut Copy’s most-loved track was built on grimy dancefloors and festival stages — it’s a shimmering, genre-less mush, and that glowing saxophone solo shines through like a beacon in the dark. — JL

#124. DMA’S — ‘Delete’

Sure sure, Newtown outfit the DMA’s may have been dismissed at first as a cynical ape of Britpop and the Gallagher brothers, but it quickly became apparent that there was substance hidden under all those tracksuits.

Their cover of Cher’s ‘Believe’ has rightly become one of the most beloved Like A Version’s of all time (as well as one of their most streamed songs) but it was the delicate and tender ‘Delete’ that first snuggled into the hearts of Australians. — JL

#123. Mallrat — ‘Charlie’

It seems almost unfair that at the age of 22, Grace Shaw has already written one of the most pure and open-hearted songs in the history of Australian music. Named after her golden retriever, ‘Charlie’ is a simple declaration of love, delivered earnestly and without ulterior motive.

“I want coffee for breakfast/I want warm cups of tea/I just might love you forever/I hope you warm up to me”, Mallrat sings, somehow making the idea of unconditional love sound entirely new again. Let it wrap you in its arms. — JL

#122. Sarah Blasko — ‘We Won’t Run’

Sarah Blasko has spent her entire career growing smaller, quieter, and more direct, swapping up the overzealous flourishes of her debut for something altogether more oblique. The perfect middle ground between those two points? ‘We Won’t Run’, which combines Blasko’s theatricality with her fondness for using three words when another singer-songwriter might use 20. That mid-song swell should be studied in music classes across the country. — JE

#121. Gang Of Youths — ‘Let Me Down Easy’

There’s a reason why Gang Of Youths have built such a devoted following since they crashed onto the scene with The Positions back in 2015. Dave Le’aupepe and co offer songs full of heart and life, that detail the depths of despair but point a way forward to better times.

“Slit the throat of fear and be brave,” Le’aupepe urges us over the chugging guitar — go out and fall in love, don’t stop believing, go and fight for a cause. In any other hands it would be cringe-worthy, but Gang Of Youths power ahead with such purpose that it’s impossible to not be swept along with them. — JL

#120. Richard Clapton — ‘Girls On the Avenue’

Yacht rock never really exploded in Australia in the same way it did overseas. But hey, that doesn’t mean we don’t have any great yacht rock songs, Richard Clapton’s ‘Girls on the Avenue’ amongst them. Borrowing equally from Steely Dan and the impeccable production of a Michael Bolton-type crooner, it sure does go down easy, that chorus in particular.

The way Clapton sings the word “glass” should guarantee him a place in the annals of Australian pop for all time. — JE

#119. Rowland S. Howard — ‘Autoluminescent’

Up until his tragic passing, Rowland S. Howard would always be overshadowed by his considerably more famous ex-bandmate, Nick Cave. But Howard is no second fiddle. His entire discography — and his debut record Dead Radio in particular — trembles with invention and an intelligence entirely of his own. ‘Autoluminescent’, a Walt Whitman-esque song of the self, builds an entire universe out of a simple drumline, some buzzing guitars, and Howard’s thick, beautiful voice. — JE

#118. Sampa The Great — ‘OMG’

Australians should feel extraordinary lucky that Sampa The Great — born in Zambia, raised in Botswana, and briefly based in the US — has now chosen to reside in Melbourne, as she’s unquestionably one of the finest hip-hop talents on the planet right now.

We’ve piled up the accolades at her doorstep — she made history as the first artist to win two Australian Music Prizes — and yet it still doesn’t feel like we’ve honoured Sampa Tembo enough. Her groundbreaking 2019 album The Return was an immersive sonic journey that explored place and displacement and the struggle to find somewhere that truly feels like ‘home’.

‘OMG’ crackles with her Herculean presence. The Great, indeed. — JL

#117. Sneaky Sound System — ‘UFO’

There was a glut of mediocre Aussie dance-pop through the mid to late ’00s, none of which (thankfully) has survived into the next decade — except in the odd Jeep advertisement. Sneaky Sound System, however, rose above the rest. ‘UFO’ is a straightforward sugary explosion; there’s no tricks or illusions here, just a whipsmart chorus hook. — JL

#116. Tame Impala — ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’

With one iconic clattering drumfill — a sound that resembles an entire orchestra being pushed down the stairs — Kevin Parker and his band of psych-rock troubadours announced their ascendency. It’s rare that a single song makes a career as big and influential as Tame Impala’s, but ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’ did exactly that, making it clear that the sound of pop radio was about to change for quite some time. And even now, after the countless imitators it has spawned, it still sounds as fresh as ever. — JE

#115. Cub Sport — ‘Come On Mess Me Up’

It almost feels like the word “heartfelt” was invented to describe the music of Cub Sport. ‘Come On Mess Me Up’, a series of drifting green weeds tied to each other in complicated, delicate patterns, is the sound of musicians getting together and singing their every single desire. — JE

#114. Kasey Chambers — ‘The Captain’

Those who find Kasey Chambers’ distinctive twang too much for their ears are depriving themselves of a true joy. Her timid, cracking vocal carries the gorgeous ‘The Captain’, as perfect a country-pop song as there ever was. — JL

#113. Smudge — ‘Outdoor Type’

Tom Morgan might be our finest author of love songs. As the frontman of Smudge, the musician spent his entire career sizing up human affection, and then twisting it off into a series of frequently funny, often devastating barbs. ‘Outdoor Type’, a lovesick paean about trying to be more impressive and down-to-Earth than one actually is, doesn’t just blur the line between the tragic and the hilarious, it outright obliterates it.

Those of us who never learned to pitch a tent have never felt more seen. — JE

#112. Ratcat — ‘That Ain’t Bad’

The songs of Ratcat are like silver foil dragged across fillings — buzzy and ever-so-slightly painful, in their own upbeat way. ‘That Ain’t Bad’, the group’s signature song, is the platonic ideal of such a style: It’s an ode buried amongst an entire broken speaker’s worth of feedback that eventually descends into a series of scream-sung promises. Blast it outside the house of your beloved through a cassette player held aloft over your head. — JE

#111. The Middle East — ‘Blood’

Much has been written about the eventual implosion of The Middle East, a band of honey-voiced folk singer-songwriters who announced their disbandment part of the way through a gig. But not enough has been written about the highs they reached when together — ‘Blood’, the song that made their name, has a strange, creeping magic all of its own, one potent enough to sustain almost a decade of writing about their cut-short potential.

Genuine cult objects are rare, but ‘Blood’ is exactly that. — JE

#110. Kylie Minogue — ‘Spinning Around’

Is there any other musician who can mine as much power and intensity from repetition as Kylie Minogue? Our Kylie, as she shall forever be known, can spin more textures out of the same phrase than pretty much any of her contemporaries. ‘Spinning Around’ is the song that goes meta about that skill; a series of auditory closed loops about closed loops. It could play on a 50-hour repeat, and I’d still never grow tired of it. — JE

#109. The Jezabels — ‘Hurt Me’

Other songs by Byron-Bay/Sydney crew The Jezabels could occupy this list — ‘Mace Spray’, ‘Dark Storm’ — but ‘Hurt Me’ is by far the most deserving — a sweeping, baroque masterpiece that thrashes forward on Sam Lockwood’s guitars and Nik Kaloper’s drums. Hayley Mary’s whiplashing vocals lead it forward to its stunning crescendo. — JL

#108. Paul Kelly — ‘Everything’s Turning To White’

Paul Kelly might be best known for his more bombastic tunes — the songs that come tramping into your life and force you, sometimes kicking and screaming, to encounter the parts of yourself that you have been trying to ignore. ‘Everything’s Turning to White’ is a different proposition entirely.

Based on the short story ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ by Raymond Carver, it uses a fictional tragedy as a springboard for an exploration of fatherhood and mortality. The final line, drenched in Kelly’s silken falsetto, is genuinely devastating. — JE

#107. Hunters & Collectors — ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’

Nobody that has witnessed this song being sung drunkenly in a pub by a hundred people, arms linked, can deny its hold over the Australian psyche. A song which throws open its arms and beckons you in. Timeless. — JL

#106. Redgum — ‘I Was Only 19’

There are few protest songs as angry as ‘I Was Only 19’. A rebellion not only against the Vietnam War, but war in general. It’s a work that finds the personal in the universal and vice versa. That title phrase alone has more melancholy and rage in it than can be found in the entire career of some musicians. — JE

#105. Men At Work — ‘Down Under’

How could ‘Down Under’ not be included on this list? It’s so ubiquitous in the sphere of Australian pop music that it’s pretty much a meme — those infamous, highly contested central chords are a way to describe our entire country. But peer down beneath the shallow rip-offs and auditory jokes, and you’ll find a work of considerable, deep-fried charm. It’s silly, of course. And yet it’s silly in a way that forever endears, now maybe more than ever. — JE

#104. Hiatus Kaiyote — ‘Breathing Underwater’

Melbourne’s Hiatus Kaiyote, led by the formidable Nai Palm, surged into the public eye in 2012 following their unexpected (but thoroughly deserved) Grammy nomination for Best R&B Performance for ‘Nakamarra’, from their debut album Tawk Tomahawk. 

Their twisting neo-jazz compositions stretched even further on their excellent follow-up, 2015’s Choose Your Weapon, and ‘Breathing Underwater’ stands out as its energetic, kaleidoscopic heart. — JL 

#103. The Bee Gees — ‘Stayin Alive’

We don’t often enough stake a firm claim on the Bee Gees. Sure, they were born overseas, but they grew up on our fair aisles, and their back catalogue is influential and impressive enough for us to try and steal their reputation, as we did with Russell Crowe. After all, we deserve ‘Stayin Alive’, a work of ornate disco that just about conceals an undercurrent of darkness and despair. We should build statues of that central vocal line and erect them on every single Australian street corner. — JE

#102. John Farnham — ‘You’re The Voice’

‘You’re The Voice’ is colossal. From the moment the metallic piano blasts through the drums, it feels as if Farnham himself is standing atop the Harbour Bridge, gigantic speakers sending ripples across the surface of the harbour. Nothing about this song is timid — and nor should it be.

This is a song to fill your lungs and yell until you’re blue in the face. This is a song that will send shivers down your spine no matter how big your cultural cringe is. Plus, not enough pop songs have a bagpipe solo. — JL 

#101. The Presets — ‘This Boy’s In Love’

The marriage of chaos and calm that defined The Presets’ Apocalypso reached its zenith on ‘This Boy’s In Love’. It’s a slow dance in the middle of a raging thunderstorm, a strange moment of stillness before the world explodes. Disorder reigns within too, as the guttural synths clash with crystal clear piano that feels like it’s falling from the sky. — JL 

Part two of our Greatest Australian Songs ranking will be out later this week.

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