It’s a cliché to say Australians punch above their weight when it comes to music, but it’s true. Practically any era or genre has yielded some unlikely ambassador on our part, whether it’s AC/DC’s powerhouse pub-turned-arena rock or Tones and I’s ubiquitous pop earworms.
That’s especially true of indie rock, fostered in the tight-knit DIY scenes of cities and communities large and small. Even before that term took hold in the 1990s — gradually overtaking both “alternative” and “college rock” as a blanket term of choice — Australia had produced overseas breakouts like The Divinyls, The Go-Betweens and The Church, as well as punkier exports like The Saints and The Scientists. Yet even when absorbing the influences of our largest counterparts (most obviously the US and UK), Australian music has its own persistent voice.
Not just great songs, but songs that speak to something wider than themselves. Using the songs as markers, we’ve attempted to map out a broader evolution.
Tasked with following Aussie indie rock from the Nirvana-anointed ’90s to the progressively fragmented platforms and formats of today, we found a constant in songs that stand out (then and now) as emblems of their specific time and place. Not just great songs, but songs that speak to something wider than themselves. Using the songs as markers, we’ve attempted to map out a broader evolution.
That said, any look back at a certain musical stretch is going to be riddled with gaps, even one narrowed down to a single (albeit nebulous) genre. But the aim here is to reflect significant movements in Aussie music over the past three decades, represented in a year-by-year timeline of highlights and touchstones rather than some definitive ranking of the country’s absolute best output.
But the aim here is to reflect significant movements in Aussie music over the past three decades, represented in a year-by-year timeline of highlights and touchstones rather than some definitive ranking of the country’s absolute best output.
Nailing down exactly what constitutes indie rock was a challenge in itself, one we navigated by avoiding songs that seemed too overtly heavy or punk-leaning (and perhaps already covered in Adrian Cunningham’s brilliantly thorough journey through Aussie punk for Music Junkee), or anything that hewed too close to other genres, or acts that seemed more like the province of the mainstream than the “indie” realm.
Then again, some of these songs were indeed released on major labels rather than independent ones, and some did find success far beyond the underground.
Even within those self-imposed guidelines, hopefully the songs below tease out the continued stylistic breadth of Australia’s indie/alt/whatever canon. And where once the standard-bearers were predominately white men with guitars, more and more there’s newfound space for anyone to make their voices heard.
— Doug Wallen
Midnight Oil — ‘Blue Sky Mine’ (1990)
The Oils had already scored an international smash three years earlier with ‘Beds Are Burning’, a protest anthem disguised as a fist-pumping ’80s sing-along. ‘Blue Sky Mine’ pulls off a similar trick, flanking damning moral judgement with funky shards of guitar, forceful harmonica and a driving rhythmic urgency.
Inspired by workers’ suffering after years toiling in asbestos mines — and the corporation that looked the other way — ‘Blue Sky Mine’ feels sadly timely, especially after last year’s Australian election, and the refrain “Who’s gonna save me?” proves all the more fitting for today’s collision-course climate crisis.
“Nothing’s as precious as a hole in the ground,” spits Peter Garrett in this rousing ‘fuck you’ to big business. It’s social critique applied at the mainstream level — the sound of a disenfranchised pub-rock band seizing the full potential of its unlikely new prominence to air generations’ worth of accumulated grievances.
— Doug Wallen
Yothu Yindi — ‘Treaty’ (1991)
Another landmark ambushing of the mainstream, ‘Treaty’ is all the more notable for being Australia’s first hit song in an Indigenous language (Yolngu-Matha).
Written with creative input with Paul Kelly and Midnight Oil, the song responds to the broken promise of a proposed treaty between the Australian government and the Indigenous people. It became a chart-topper for Yothu Yindi, who, along with Coloured Stone and No Fixed Address, carved out a commercially viable space for Aboriginal acts playing genres like rock and reggae.
A hypnotic, danceable fusion of musical and cultural touchstones, the song was revisited in 2018 with rising Arnhem Land rapper Baker Boy (who placed two tracks in the most recent Hottest 100). As the #changethedate movement and the Adam Goodes saga have played out in recent years, ‘Treaty’ is a protest song that still rings very true today.
Just check out the lyrics: “This land was never given up” is now echoed on a daily basis (and rightfully so) in the increasingly ubiquitous reminder that “sovereignty was never ceded.”
Frente! — ‘Accidently Kelly Street’ (1992)
Not just a drastic change of pace from the two songs above, Frente!’s playful surprise hit was (and remains) welcome counter-programming to the brooding angst of grunge bands invading the charts from late 1991 onward.
Heralded by its naff misspelling of “accidentally” and a tongue-in-cheek Playschool-esque video that became a weighty albatross around the Melbourne band’s neck, the song has aged well, riding high on a serene breeze of chiming melodies and Angie Hart’s singsong invocation of everyday joys.
Those affectionate lyrical details foreshadow later indie pop breakouts like Ben Lee, The Lucksmiths and Darren Hanlon, and while the lyric that most endures is the chorus’ “I never thought life could be so sweet,” Hart also notes the difficulty of staying upbeat: “Perhaps this optimism will crash on down/Like a house of cards.”
There’s no perhaps about it, but why not enjoy the feeling while it lasts?
You Am I — ‘Berlin Chair’ (1993)
Cathartic right from that opening muddy guitar and Tim Rogers’ gloriously frayed vocals, ‘Berlin Chair’ proved that Australia could do dark and stormy alt-rock just as well as America.
Lodged on You Am I’s 1993 debut Sound As Ever, produced by Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, the song saw release as a single the following year and hit #23 on the Hottest 100.
It remains one of the band’s most impressive calling cards, flexing and gnashing with enormous friction in the space of just two and a half minutes.
Of course You Am I went on to write longer and more complex songs, but ‘Berlin Chair’ is so highly regarded because of how much pain and longing it packs into such a short space, with its damning lyrics open-ended enough to apply to any doomed relationship or emotional black hole.
Rogers famously follows his invitation to “Lean on me till I break” with the repeated declaration “You’re too late,” a bitter finish that taught an entire generation how to hold a grudge.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — ‘Red Right Hand’ (1994)
Before it soundtracked Peaky Blinders and several Scream movies, Nick Cave’s slinky slice of charismatic menace appeared on The Bad Seeds’ eighth album, Let Love In.
Thanks to its second life on screens (and getting covered by everyone from Arctic Monkeys to Snoop Dogg), ‘Red Right Hand’ has become the most recognisable song (at least overseas) for one of Australia’s most distinctive exports.
All metallic clangs and taunting organ, this gloomy, looming, Milton-inspired vision of undeterred vengeance would be unpacked further on the next year’s Murder Ballads. It’s Cave as he’s best known — sly and macabre to the point of vicious glee — while the eerie accompaniment is, in its own way, every bit as confronting as his more grotesque turns in The Birthday Party and Grinderman.
Custard — ‘Apartment’ (1995)
Now an accidental hero to kids across Australia as the voice of Bluey, David McCormack was once a different kind of role model thanks to fronting Custard, Brisbane’s answer to artfully skewed US indie bands like Pavement. Compact and punchy, ‘Apartment’ was the top-placing Aussie entry in 1995’s Hottest 100, coming in at #7.
Like all the best Custard songs, it feels at once anthemic and lackadaisical as McCormack drawls and yelps about the comforts of a new apartment as the angular, era-appropriate hooks careen around him. Along with bands like TISM and Regurgitator, Custard made the second half of the ‘90s a welcome space for being funny in music again, thumbing their nose at angst.
Spiderbait — ‘Buy Me A Pony’ (1996)
In the history of the triple j Hottest 100, ‘Buy Me A Pony’ holds two distinct titles. It is not only the first Australian #1 in the entire history of the countdown, but it is also the shortest song to ever get in.
It’s an accurate depiction of the song itself — top-tier, but also minimal on time-wasting. It’s also a dissection of the music industry and scene politics that hits so hard and so fast that the impact isn’t even felt until after that final chord rings out and Finlay’s finest trio down tools after an exhaustive 1:44. Pony up.
— David James Young
Silverchair — ‘Freak’ (1997)
Here’s how good ‘Freak’ is: it sports what is widely regarded to be one of the worst opening lines ever, but it also sports such a gargantuan behemoth of a guitar riff that the lyric essentially gets carried through via Trojan horse.
It’s a song full of bile, contempt and teenage exuberance – a hocked loogie in the eye of every single person that had bullied, mocked and doubted them after Frogstomp. It’s a song that launched a thousand ships — all carrying kids with guitars who tuned to drop-D and promptly churned out that damn riff.
Dirty Three — ‘Deep Waters’ (1998)
Deep waters indeed: Dirty Three had been around for years by 1998, but Ocean Songs saw the instrumental Melbourne outliers spread out in a way that was more expansive and profound than ever before.
More than 16 minutes long, this gorgeous track showcases the patient (and yes, tidal) interplay of violinist Warren Ellis (soon to become Nick Cave’s close collaborator), guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White. While it doesn’t hit the wild-eyed heights of many Dirty Three entries, its path-finding intuition is very much on display.
As post-rock bands like Tortoise took hold overseas, Australia could lay claim to our own humble trio of wordless voyagers — though anyone who’s seen them live knows that Ellis more than compensates with his unhinged banter.
Killing Heidi — ‘Weir’ (1999)
In a flurry of wind machines, fluoro hair dye and walloping ride-cymbal bells, ‘Weir’ delivered the chorus that saw the ’90s off with a definitive, conclusive bang. The fact it was being bellowed by a powerhouse vocalist that was all of 16 at the time, reflecting on her city living while yearning for her small-town upbringing, made things all the more resonant and direct.
Ella Hooper’s heart may have been in Violet Town, but her words rang true for people all over the country — young and old. Twenty years removed, it still sparks joy whenever its distinctive faux-strings start swelling.
Magic Dirt — ‘Dirty Jeans’ (2000)
In what could be seen as a symbolic farewell to the ’90s, underground Geelong rockers Magic Dirt opted to streamline their spark-spitting turbulence on album #3, bearing the self-aware title What Are Rock Stars Doing Today.
Cleaning up their volatile sound yielded their signature song, a bright burst of alt-rock bubblegum complete with handclaps and Adalita Srsen’s almost stream-of-consciousness vocal delivery. She waxes romantic about “An ordinary boy” while navigating an active nightlife that leaves her “On a train in the corner with a mindnumbing headache,” dispensing every lyric with cheerful alacrity.
Then there’s the clincher: “I haven’t washed my jeans in three months or more/ And that’s the way I like it.” Taken in contrast to Magic Dirt’s (recently reissued) early material, ‘Dirty Jeans’ feels all the more startling in its pop-driven directness. But it works — and then some — while retaining the band’s identity.
Since they’ve been out and touring again (with Cold Chisel no less), this song has remained a crowd-pleasing gateway to their deep and engaging discography.
Something for Kate — ‘Monsters’ (2001)
‘Monsters’ does all it can to subvert being pop. It’s a prolix, weightily structured and polyrhythmic song that nails its fair share of lyrical triple-word scores and makes no bones about its explicit misery and dread.
Even still, here it stands — not only one of the most beloved songs of the entire 2000s, but far and away the most successful song Something for Kate ever released.
In spite of all of the above — or perhaps even because of it — the song’s melodic strength and emotional depth transformed it into a signature song any self-respecting band would kill for.
The Vines — ‘Get Free’ (2002)
Shit just went flying when ‘Get Free’ played back in the day. The music video sees all three band members get promptly exploded, like an action movie gone awry.
The now-infamous performance on Letterman saw Craig Nicholls hurl his entire body into Hamish Rosser’s drum kit. No-one was safe when that unmistakable guitar line bent into shape. They still aren’t.
It’s the kind of song that, as Henry Rollins would put it, came here to fuck on the floor and break shit. It’s 21st century catharsis, and its ability to send a crowd absolutely positively berserk are very much still intact.
The Sleepy Jackson — ‘Good Dancers’ (2003)
Powderfinger were everywhere in Australia circa 2003, and Jet’s ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl’ was released locally and in the UK (with the US to follow in 2004), but The Sleepy Jackson’s swooning, sometimes cryptic debut LP emerged as one of the year’s most acclaimed exports.
A reverent cherry-picking of sun-warmed cues from the ’60s and ’70s alike, Lovers introduced the world to future Empire of the Sun founder Luke Steele (brother to Little Birdy’s Katy Steele).
While ‘Good Dancers’ didn’t crack the Hottest 100 like lead single ‘Vampire Racecourse’ did, it became the Perth ensemble’s international calling card. Leaning into George Harrison-style slide guitar and other reeling embellishment while guided by Steele’s transporting falsetto, it feels like a lullaby that’s floated gingerly over from a neighbouring dimension.
Only one more Sleepy Jackson album would follow (2006’s ambitious Personality), but Lovers reminded the world of Australian acts’ magpie-like parsing of components from all over.
Little Birdy — ‘Beautiful To Me’ (2004)
Electric rockers, dream-poppers, synth wielders…Little Birdy did an awful lot with a relatively short lifespan, and don’t get nearly enough credit for it.
Here the Perth quartet turned their focus to the world of alt-country. ‘Beautiful To Me’ is a heartwarming, endearing love song in the spirit of Tammy Wynette or even Dolly Parton. It’s accentuated by warm pedal steel and an even warmer Katy Steele, whose distinct vibrato gives the song the exact amount of sentimentality it needs.
It’s fitting that the album ‘Beautiful To Me’ stemmed from was called BigBigLove — it didn’t get any bigger than this.
The Drones — ‘Shark Fin Blues’ (2005)
Penned after frontman Gareth Liddiard lost his mother, The Drones’ best-loved song is a singularly tempestuous account of grief and depression.
Liddiard imagines himself on a sinking ship circled by the titular sharks and other ominous emblems (the Bible’s Jonah, a Coleridge-esque albatross) while the song lurches from its unsteady, whammy-barred opening through dire verses into a throttling fit of catharsis that feels oddly empowering despite the raw despair.
That intense exorcism opens the band’s 2005 epic Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By, which won the inaugural Australian Music Prize.
The song itself was similarly celebrated, getting named the best Australian song to date in a 2009 triple j poll of some of the country’s most famous songwriters. These days Liddiard is arguably outdoing even The Drones’ most climactic turns with Tropical Fuck Storm’s brain-busting sensory overload, but that doesn’t diminish the dogged, teeth-gritted endurance of ‘Shark Fin Blues’.
Augie March — ‘One Crowded Hour’ (2006)
It’s fitting that a song about a potent stretch of time should seem to suspend time entirely.
Maybe it’s the scene-setting keyboard drone or the inviting wisps of guitar that herald Glenn Richards’ tender, characteristically bookish ruminations (Augie March are named for a Saul Bellow novel, after all), but that stark minute and a half before drums and fuller instrumentation arrive is more than enough to cast a spellbinding hold over the listener (both live and on record).
Despite Richards describing his “wreck and ruin” as a direct result, ‘One Crowded Hour’ can’t help but feel romantic in its singalong sweep and loadbearing lyric: “But for one crowded hour you were the only one in the room.”
Thanks in part to the serpentine inscrutability of Richards’ other lyrics, the cumulative mood conveys a tantalising otherworldliness, like an out-of-reach bubble of time and space we would love to inhabit, his warnings be damned.
Architecture In Helsinki — ‘Heart It Races’ (2007)
They may have had up to eight members in the early days, but Architecture in Helsinki first made their mark with intimate bedroom pop fashioned almost in miniature.
Then came the more assertive (by comparison) dance summons of 2005’s ‘Do the Whirlwind’, foreshadowing the rhythmic focus of later records. But ‘Heart It Races’ is where it really clicked: a distortion-loving DIY patchwork of layered group vocals and fleeting funhouse embellishment like steel drum.
While AiH would streamline and polish that spontaneous party vibe further with 2011’s Prince-ly ‘Contact High’, ‘Heart It Races’ arrived with fortuitous timing, just as indie pop bands around the world began shedding their wallflower timidness in favour of body-moving abandon.
The Melbourne ensemble only evolved from there, signing to Modular and flirting with “proper” pop music — all without losing the keen ear for melodic intricacy that distinguished their earliest work.
The Middle East — ‘Blood’ (2008)
A year before Mumford & Sons crashed the mainstream with rustic folk tropes, a little-known Townsville band quietly self-released an EP and then promptly split up. They’d reconvene, of course, and score two songs on the following year’s Hottest 100 when the EP was re-released in slightly different form: the haunting ramble ‘The Darkest Side’ and the eerie breakthrough ‘Blood’.
For a song that’s since travelled so far and wide (including placement in several Hollywood movies), it remains startling just how close to the chest ‘Blood’ feels, from the audible rustle of fingers across guitar strings to the plaintive lead singing and rousing harmonies to the sidelong glints of xylophone and whistling.
The Middle East only recorded one album after that, brilliantly showcasing the handful of singer/songwriters that would soon go their separate ways. But what they did leave behind would only grow in stature in the intervening years, such that their 2019 return to the Sydney Opera House and beyond was very much an event.
Like so many songs on this list, ‘Blood’ reflects its time of origin while standing apart from it. Lots of bands have aimed for this level of whisper-weight vulnerability — before and since — but The Middle East captured it in a way that feels remarkably true.
Lisa Mitchell — ‘Coin Laundry’ (2009)
If this airy ode to the promise of romance at the laundromat feels somewhat slight in retrospect, that’s exactly what makes it so fascinating as a breakout song for Australian Idol graduate Lisa Mitchell.
Sounding very much like a spontaneous bedroom recording, the low-key gem cracked the Top 30 on the ARIA chart and hit #7 on the Hottest 100. Mitchell’s characteristically pliant singing and somewhat twee lyrics make it an even more unlikely crossover.
It wasn’t just a passing fluke either: ‘Coin Laundry’s equally quaint video is now approaching two million views on YouTube, while Mitchell’s single ‘Neapolitan Dreams’ from the year before has more than twice that, perhaps owing to its use in commercials overseas. But in a crowded field of rock-centric noisemakers, both then and now, Mitchell’s cosy, relatable balladry stands right out.
The Jezabels — ‘Mace Spray’ (2010)
Of course The Jezabels would scale grander heights to come, but this early single announced the Sydney quartet’s capacity for dark, large-scale drama as well as frontwoman Hayley Mary’s windblown, Kate Bush-worthy vocals.
As bands like The National took hold overseas with songs that could climb from brooding to climactic with stubborn inevitability, Mary and co. leaned into their own turbulent mechanics and favoured trajectory towards epic, arcing release.
An initial trio of EPs led to three albums and more recently some ’70s-influenced solo work from Mary, but The Jezabels flourished during a turning point where Australian indie bands (Gotye, The Temper Trap) seized upon the most widescreen canvas possible, scoffing at tall-poppy syndrome in the process.
Twerps — ‘Dreamin’’ (2011)
Between its unassuming cover photo and unadorned production, Twerps’ self-titled debut was charmingly lo-fi, yet found a wide audience.
That’s thanks largely to opening track ‘Dreamin’’, a twanging jag of guitar-pop that sprang from a jangly pocket of Melbourne acts that included Lower Plenty and Dick Diver. Liberally likened to The Go-Betweens and New Zealand’s Flying Nun label, these bands staked out poignant snatches of everyday life without frills or fireworks.
But ‘Dreamin’’ had added resonance, written about Martin Frawley grieving for his late father, respected musician Maurice Frawley. Between the personal meaning and the song’s breakout success, Frawley distanced himself from it, singing on 2014’s ‘Consecutive Seasons’: “I don’t want to sing ‘Dreamin’/It’s lost every single meaning.”
Twerps only made one more album (2015’s Range Anxiety, boasting an equally insistent calling card in ‘Back to You’), with Frawley and co-leader Julia McFarlane each pursuing solo work that’s every bit as worthwhile.
Tame Impala — ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’ (2012)
Before Kevin Parker was taking calls from Mick Jagger (as recounted on this year’s ‘Posthumous Forgiveness’), he dismantled a million heartstrings with this forlorn ballad about a frustrating emotional treadmill.
Set to a head-nodding distorted beat and blessed with Parker’s reeling falsetto, it’s more accessible than the niche psych thrills of Tame Impala songs before it, hinting at the everyman universality that’s positioned Parker as a Coachella headliner today. (It even earned a heartbreaking rendition from a choir of schoolchildren.)
As much as Parker is hailed as a visionary when it comes to production, his lyrics have forensically detailed his interior life since 2010’s InnerSpeaker — something he continues to do, even after working with Lady Gaga and Mark Ronson.
It’s that very real heart that makes Tame Impala so alluring — not just the headphone-courting earworms, but Parker’s diary-like confessions travelling the length of the world to lend solidarity to people who have felt exactly the same way.
Violent Soho — ‘Covered in Chrome’ (2013)
It’s telling that a lot of ‘Chrome’s lyrical imagery stemmed from the Hungarian uprising. Whenever the Mansfield natives drop this at a festival, it’s like being on the edge of a revolution.
The response that this song gets is visceral — it’s sung until throats go hoarse, it incites moshpits until there there’s no-one left standing still and its famous double-expletive has gone on to be both a t-shirt slogan and the band’s catchphrase.
There hasn’t been a song quite like it this decade, and for that alone deserves commendation. Still no word on what the fuck “a pussy is a piece of skin wrapped in a pocket” means, though.
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard — ‘Cellophane’ (2014)
It’s tough to reduce King Gizz’s behemoth popularity (and staying power) to a single song — especially with such pronounced shape-shifting from album to album, often in the space of a single year.
But ‘Cellophane’ became a firm live staple right around when the band were coalescing into something beyond merely a well-liked Australian ensemble. And it nails their frantic appeal, zinging with maniac melodies (both vocal and instrumental) atop its dank boogie bent.
That a band with a casually over-the-top name and rapid-fire left turns would become one of our most robust exports still feels pretty wild. But the 3D clip for ‘Cellophane’ has surpassed a million views, and King Gizz have been selling out massive venues in Europe and beyond.
Meanwhile, drummer/manager Eric Moore has been busy transforming his in-house label Flightless into a powerhouse, opening a record store in Melbourne last year and signing fellow larger-than-life ambassadors Tropical Fuck Storm and Amyl & The Sniffers.
Courtney Barnett — ‘Pedestrian at Best’ (2015)
While ‘Avant Gardener’ was her overnight breakthrough, this song from a couple years later is Barnett at her most quintessential.
Flying the anxious-meets-wry flag for her first proper album, ‘Pedestrian at Best’ opens by addressing the claustrophobic echo chamber that comes with modern fame: “I love you, I hate you, I’m on the fence.”
But where it really connects is with the chorus, where our would-be slacker slams down on the distortion pedal and warns her sudden legions of fans not to expect too much: “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you/Give me all your money and I’ll make some origami, honey.”
It’s a combustible bundle of nervous contradictions — wanting but fearing success, courting yet cautioning fans and, most importantly, mocking yourself more harshly than anyone else can – that would later be explored in 2018’s similarly internet-skewering, but much darker, ‘Nameless, Faceless’.
A queer young woman from Tasmania who’s found herself suddenly on Barack Obama’s playlists, Barnett is a DIY outsider accepted by the masses, bridging the gap between the weirdest and straightest among us thanks to a drawling, sprawling narrative voice that seems to validate the 24/7 experience of feeling totally conflicted.
Cub Sport — ‘Come On Mess Me Up’ (2016)
Although Cub Sport have all but abandoned the tropical-flavoured indie pop with which they originally made their name, they can never outrun this song. Nor should they.
A resplendent, shimmering slow-dance through self-destruction and subterfuge, ‘Mess Me Up’ is one of the most vulnerable and heart-wrenching pop ballads of the decade — from any country, from any artist. Tim Nelson’s vocals and strikingly honest lyrics are paired with Zoe Davis’ glistening guitar work to create something truly singular.
In a way, though, it doesn’t belong to them anymore. It belongs to those it has helped along the way.
Stella Donnelly — ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ (2017)
Emerging the same year as Camp Cope’s on-point takedown ‘The Opener’ — which called out the music industry’s reluctance to accept female and non-binary artists as anything more than a token support act — Perth’s Stella Donnelly released this sharply articulate ballad about a victim of sexual assault being blamed instead of the perpetrator.
Delivered in the manner of a lilting lullaby, the lyrics are all the more brutal for being so depressingly true to life. Here and elsewhere, a long tradition of obscure wordplay in indie rock suddenly gave way to loud-and-clear accounts of public hypocrisy and personal turmoil, whether in Cable Ties’ raging anthems or Julia Jacklin’s acute self-reflection.
As women confidently took charge of indie rock on the world stage — Mitski, Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy, boygenius, Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten, et al — Donnelly followed up this unforgettable single with 2019’s debut Beware of the Dogs, further holding abusers and oppressors to account on songs like ‘Old Man’ and the title track.
Many other songwriters at home have followed suit, utilising their lyrics as pointed meditations on the injustices that still plague our times.
Mo’Ju — ‘Native Tongue’ (2018)
“I don’t speak my father’s native tongue,” opens Mojo Ruiz de Luzuriaga on this powerful song about straddling different worlds. Then known as Mojo Juju, she’s since rebranded as Mo’Ju out of respect to other cultures, she reflects on her Filipino and Wiradjuri ancestry and confesses, “I don’t know where I belong.”
But from that sense of dislocation comes a profound assertion of self-empowerment and agency: “I will not apologise for takin’ up this space,” declares Mo’Ju against corroded, almost industrial electronics and the eerie haloing effect of the Pasefika Vitoria Choir.
Between her swaggering, wide-ranging voice and a truly entrancing video, ‘Native Tongue’ was head-turning enough to attract the ire of Andrew Bolt. And though Mo’Ju’s response to him was remarkably kind, she warns all potential trolls in the song: “Every time you cut me down/I’m gonna come back fierce.”
Thelma Plum — ‘Better in Blak’ (2019)
Written in direct response to a flood of cruel online abuse she endured after standing up to an obnoxious band, Thelma Plum’s ‘Better in Blak’ is the best possible riposte.
Not only it is a great indie-edged pop song — lean and propulsive, packing strummy guitar and dramatic atmosphere into not much more than three minutes — but it reached #9 on the Hottest 100, making the Gamilaraay songwriter the contest’s highest ranking Indigenous artist ever.
And for the lyrics, they’re a knockout combination of self-belief and defiance under fire: “If I had lighter skin, maybe I would win,” Plum repeats with damning significance, while also acknowledges the challenge of stepping forward: “But if I just keep quiet/I’ll be the one who’s dying too.”
Citing actual phrases from the racist venom that came her way, Plum brings the song to a striking culmination as she makes up her mind to hold her position: “If I knew what I know now, maybe I would take it back/But fuck that, I look better in blak.”
An earworm ode to not letting yourself be silenced, it’s the game-changing Australian anthem we needed to hear. What happens next is up to us.
Doug Wallen is a freelancer music writer and critic, and former editor of Mess + Noise. Follow him on Twitter.
David James Young is a freelance music writer, and host of All My Friends Are In Bar Bands podcast. Find out more at www.davidjamesyoung.com.