The story of Australian pop isn’t a linear one.
A mess of a thousand different conflicting influences and commercial pressures, our mainstream is weirder than pretty much any on the planet. We’re constantly in the process of reinventing ourselves, taking fads to their logical endpoints and speaking old ideas aloud in a new, surprising voice.
Unlike Americans, who tend to follow one or two sonic leaders at any one given time, we’re always in the process of finding fresh angles to explore, scattering to the wind in a hundred different directions at once.
Over the decades, as our artists pushed and bent the boundaries of the genre, our attitudes towards pop changed — and keep changing. Where once pop music was dismissed by eye-rolling rockists, perceived as the domain of silly teenage girls, over the last decade it has shimmied its way into previously locked rooms, respected by even the most buttoned-up alternative fan. Not that pop needed, or even cared, about that begrudging respect — pop has been the domain of some of history’s most iconic artists, its place in the canon was never in doubt.
We’re always in the process of finding fresh angles to explore, scattering to the wind in a hundred different directions at once.
Pop music, more than any other genre, reflects the temperature of the time. After all, it is “popular music”. We can see that in Australia from the throbbing, rush-chasing ’80s, to the Y2K End-Of-The-World disco eruption of the 2000s, through to the boundary-less, malleable genre that we know as pop today — created by the streaming boom and collapse of traditional genre tribes.
It also, of course, reflects the power structures of society — for a long time, pop music in Australia was the domain of white, straight artists. And while there have been powerful voices from people of colour and queer artists throughout that time, it was undoubtedly driven by the overwhelmingly white music industry. In recent years that has shifted, but there is still a long way to go.
Here then is the story of our country’s mainstream in 60 disparate, distinct tracks — a story not with one or two heroes, but with dozens of them, each more unique than the last.
#1. The Easybeats — ‘Friday On My Mind’ (1966)
Like all cultural movements, the story of Australian pop doesn’t necessarily start on one particular day. The mainstream was formed by thousands of social forces, from our country’s obsession with the radio coming out of America and England, to our constant and niggling sense of inferiority. But ‘Friday On My Mind’, a Fab Four-inspired hit that collects the sound of a time and distills it into two minutes and 47 seconds of pure confection, sure does feel like our origin story. No other song makes more clear the point from which our radio mainstream got started.
#2. Peter Allen — ‘I Go To Rio’ (1976)
Peter Allen is a mainstay of the Australian pop scene for a reason. Combining theatricality with verve and wit, the man basically defined an entire era with that rich voice, and winking sense of wit. Of them all, ‘I Go To Rio’ is the stand-out: a twinkling and misty-eyed slice of romance. There’s a reason that we can’t stop talking about this guy, some four decades after he released the song for which he is best known.
#3. Little River Band — ‘Help Is On Its Way’ (1977)
The late seventies was the era that Australian music hit the international scene — and no band typified that crossover success better than Little River Band. Formed in Melbourne but quickly enjoyed internationally, the band had the gusto and drive of Creedence Clearwater Revival, combined with an easy attitude that was entirely Australian. Their masterpiece? ‘Help Is On Its Way’, a rollicking, vicious work of art.
#4. John Paul Young — ‘Love Is In The Air’ (1978)
The story of Australian pop is incomplete without a mention of John Paul Young, that golden-voiced troubadour who built a long and storied career on the back of one song. ‘Love Is In The Air’ might sound dated now, but it was a ballad of the highest order at the time, building on the sultry style of an entire genre and giving it an upbeat twist. Listen to it without all the baggage of its many years as a sonic joke, and its pleasures will reveal themselves quicker than you’ll probably be prepared for.
#5. Men At Work — ‘Down Under’ (1980)
‘Down Under’ is still the shorthand for our entire nation — that controversial flute trill summing up the myth of the laidback, carefree Australian. Again, for some listeners, it’s impossible to hear the song as it might have sounded when first released; it’s now tied up in so many clichés as to seem almost like a joke. But there’s real weight here, and real intelligence to the songwriting. The way the chorus fades and then builds? Pure pop bliss, whether you’ve heard it for the first time or the thousandth.
#6. Billy Field — ‘You Weren’t In Love With Me’ (1981)
Field’s smash single is a perfect example of a brand of pop hit that went extinct somewhere in the early ’90s — a lilting piano ballad about being extremely sad. But Field’s entry into the Softboi Canon isn’t some run-of-the-mill exercise in self-depreciation. Rather, it’s one of the most keenly felt ruminations on lost love that Australian pop has to offer, buoyed by one helluva chorus. Each time Field belts that titular phrase, you believe it a little bit more.
#7. Mental As Anything — ‘If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?’ (1981)
There’s really no band like Mental As Anything, either at home or abroad. Combining the kitsch, daggy qualities that lead guitarist Reg Mombassa brings to his visual art with the springy basslines of that era’s pop, the band still sound like they’re making music beamed over from an alien planet. ‘If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?’ might be their most traditional song, but it’s not normal by any stretch of the imagination — just listen to the way it darts and jumps around your ears.
#8. Olivia Newton-John — ‘Let’s Get Physical’ (1981)
Maybe no Australian pop act was more killed by kindness than Our Olivia. Of course, ONJ has had a long and healthy career, one bolstered by the release of the excellent 1981 single ‘Let’s Get Physical’.
But as acclaimed — and as commercially lucrative — as that song has been, it’s always been treated with reductive platitudes, designed to limit its pleasures rather than expand them. In actual fact, this is no infectious, frothy slice of nothing. Instead, ‘Let’s Get Physical’ is a technicolour masterpiece; an unbeatable slice of camp that fulfils a kitsch-hungry audience without ever pandering to them. Long may it live.
#9. Australian Crawl — ‘Reckless’ (1983)
By the early ’80s, Australian pub rock was in full kilter, taking the energy of American acts like Bruce Springsteen and giving it a distinctly grubbier and uglier feel. Australian Crawl took that formula and made it art, leaning in to the genre’s crunchiness and power-pop choruses to fashion something wholly unique. ‘Reckless’ is a V8 engine, filled up with VB, and the way it moves — in spurts, at random — is like nothing else.
#10. Crowded House — ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ (1986)
Neil Finn might be the closest that we have to an Australian Leonard Cohen. With his delicate, sensitive voice, and poet’s eye for detail, the man writes songs that take you up in their arms and hold you there. His whole back catalogue is one that trembles with emotion and joy, but ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ — what has now become their signature song — exists in a universe entirely of its own. Who can listen to those opening chords and not immediately and abruptly burst into tears?
#11. John Farnham — ‘You’re The Voice’ (1986)
John Farnham might not be the ’80s popstar that Australia wants. His music is, after all, aggressively boorish, full of a swagger and a bloated self-confidence that now seems as antithetical to what’s considered cool as is possible to imagine. But there’s a reason he’s hung around for decades, stepping away only to be immediately called back into action, like a world-weary cop constantly two weeks from retiring to the Bahamas.
He is the ’80s popstar that Australia so desperately needs — his music full of exactly the mix of blast, bombast and nervous, self-conscious energy that defines every aspect of our culture, from our Prime Minister to our choice of beer. ‘You’re The Voice’ is our substitute anthem, whether we like it or not.
#12. INXS — ‘Need You Tonight’ (1987)
1987’s Kick is a masterpiece. Thick, dense and full of some of the catchiest melodies this country has ever produced, it’s clearly the work of a singular talent just starting to warm up to their own skills. The record had four singles, dropped over a period of months, but ‘Need You Tonight’ was the only one to really capture the attention of the Americans.
It was the song that made INXS superstars. They would never be the same. Neither would Australian pop. And though the career that followed would be far too short, ‘Need You Tonight’ still stands as a shining testament to everything that could have come from that singular talent.
#13. The Church — ‘Under The Milky Way’ (1988)
By 1988, The Cure had launched an all-out international offensive. The clearest indication of their success? The wave of homage-paying up-and-comers they inspired, chief among them The Church. But ‘Under The Milky Way’ isn’t just some limp Head On The Door rip-off. Instead, it takes the spirit of Robert Smith and his band of wispy-haired goths and throws it in bold new directions, creating something mysterious and strange in the process.
#14. The Go-Betweens — ‘Streets Of Your Town’ (1988)
Robert Forster and Grant McLennan have been compared to Paul McCartney and John Lennon, heralded as Australia’s perfectly-balanced duo of popsmith and subversive boundary-pusher.
But any comparisons fail to capture what is truly special about The Go-Betweens, a band that forged a distinctly Australian identity without lazily poring over the music coming out of American and the U.K. Their music was alternatively grotesque and romantic; bucolic and deeply modern. Take, for instance, ‘Streets Of Your Town’, a song that captures a thousand things, many of them contradictory. It might be one of Australia’s greatest love songs, precisely by being hardly about love at all.
#15. Kylie Minogue — ‘The Locomotion’ (1988)
All this discussion of Minogue’s “pop princess” status tends to obscure her true talents. After all, she isn’t some waifish Diana, crafting diamond tiaras of songs. She’s something of a subversive sleeper agent, smuggling strange new textures and tones into upfront pop songs.
Nowhere is that better displayed than on ‘The Locomotion’. It might be about as compact as Australian pop gets, but it’s far from regular: at its heart, ‘The Locomotion’ is a kitsch, plastic monument to excess. It’s not just a disco hit. It’s a Jeff Koons artwork, blown up to monolithic size.
#16. The Divinyls – ‘I Touch Myself’ (1990)
Australia didn’t have a Prince throughout the eighties, and we really needed one. While the American mainstream was getting dirtier, raunchy and more avant-garde, we were going the other way — our radio stations were awash with ballads and love songs.
It wasn’t until the early ’90s, and the arrival of The Divinyls, that we really started working to understand our own relationship with sex. And ‘I Touch Myself’ was the song that kicked that off. An orgiastic ode to self-pleasure, the song wasn’t winky or obscured. It wore its libidinal desires right on its sleeve. And our country’s music was better for it.
#17. Yothu Yindi — ‘Treaty’ (1991)
Throughout the eighties, Australian pop was embarrassingly white, chaste and non-political. In fact, it’s still too much that way, with our pop heroes too rarely speaking out when they should. Consider Yothu Yindi the exception that proves the rule, then. With ‘Treaty’, their 1991 masterpiece, the group set the agenda for all political pop that followed it. The song’s fiery, furious, and unforgiving — but it’s fun too, with one of the richest and smartest melodies this side of the eighties.
#18. Tina Arena — ‘Chains’ (1994)
What ’90s pop song has a longer tail than Tina Arena’s ‘Chains’? Given new life thanks to a Matt Corby cover a few short years ago, the song is one of the staples of our entire way of making art — this trembling, open-hearted thing that simply won’t die.
Arena’s career is bigger and more complicated than ‘Chains’, of course: she’s proven her chops in about every arena that you can imagine, from production to stage musicals. But ‘Chains’ is the work that typifies what makes her great. Let it cast a spell on you.
#19. Christine Anu — ‘My Island Home’ (1995)
‘My Island Home’ was originally written and performed by the celebrated rock group Warumpi Band. But it was Christine Anu that catapulted the song into the stratosphere. Her version makes the song quieter, gentler, but still keeps all of the beatific majesty of the original prose.
Basically, it’s all you could ever want from a cover — one that expands the pleasures of the original, without ever sacrificing what makes the song special. No wonder that Anu has had a long, storied and celebrated career off the back of this song. It’s a real keeper.
#20. Nick Cave And Kylie Minogue — ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ (1995)
The story of ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ is usually framed as the meeting between a dark outcast prince and a pop princess, the two spheres of Australian music — the mainstream and the alternative — coming together in fruitful unity. But fuck that.
Nick Cave’s been a pop artist since the day he left the Boys Next Door, and Minogue is more experimental and forward-thinking than half the artists in the history of Aussie punk. No, the story of ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ isn’t one of opposites attracting, but like-minds, with two of Australia’s most important and towering musicians coming together for a distinctly subtle murder ballad that strips away every bell and whistle, leaving only their voices, and the great depth of their feeling.
#21. Kate Ceberano — ‘Pash’ (1997)
Is there a better slang term for kissing than ‘pashing’? I don’t think so. And that’s what makes Ceberano’s breakout hit such a pleasure — it has all the grubby, slightly naughty joy that its name implies. Oh, and how can you not fall head over heels in love for a song that contains the line, “I really love to speak in tongue”?
It’s pop as it should be, silly and fun without ever tipping too far over into reductive clichés. Ceberano knew what she was onto with the song — there’s a reason that she named her debut studio album after it.
#22. Savage Garden — ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ (1997)
Savage Garden have always had a slightly lopsided, oddball take on the mainstream. Rather than ever come at a song head on, the band have a penchant for surprise, choosing to duck underneath expectations and make something antic and odd in the process.
Never has that been more the case than on ‘Truly Madly Deeply’. Ostensibly a regular old song of love and devotion, the ditty starts bizarre and only gets weirder. It’s a slice of pure, late-nineties charm, and nobody has even tried to replicate its textures since.
#23. Natalie Imbruglia — ‘Torn’ (1997)
Did you know that ‘Torn’ is a cover? Of course you did. What you might not have known is that ‘Torn’ is one of the most energetic and original pop songs of the entire nineties. No wonder that it has the reputation that it does even to this day. The song’s only a meme because it’s everywhere, and it’s only everywhere because it’s one of those ditties that inspires devotion in literally anybody who hears it. Basically, the thing is undeniable.
#24. TISM — ‘Whatareya’ (1998)
In the music video for ‘Whatareya’, the masked members of TISM (an acronym of This Is Serious Mum, arguably the best band name this country ever produced) storm the set of a fitness video, lurching about the place with tinnies and smokes before eventually turning their destructive attention to the straight-faced aerobics instructors around them.
It’s a masterstroke of a video, but also the thesis statement at the heart of TISM — the clearest indication of what the band were about. Over the course of their short career, they invaded the Australian mainstream before tearing it apart from the inside, borrowing the language of kitsch suburban ‘Strayan dagginess and pushing it to horrifying new limits. The result: one of the most influential and important bands in the Aussie pop canon.
#25. Vanessa Amorosi — ‘Absolutely Everybody’ (1999)
Sure, Vanessa Amorosi might eventually have been presented with the Australian Centenary Medal by the Government of Australia in tribute of her bold and adventurous musical career. But to be honest, they should’ve given her the Pulitzer Prize years before, in recognition of ‘Absolutely Everybody’ absolutely slapping.
It’s the pinnacle of a certain era of Australian pop — a song that ties up an entire movement of sensitive, smart and boppy commercial radio fare into a bow. No act could ever top it, so most didn’t try to, instead pushing the mainstream into grittier, heavily shaded places.
#26. Madison Avenue — ‘Who The Hell Are You?’ (2000)
Madison Avenue were a strange pop group. A dance music duo formed by Andy Van Dorsselaer and singer-lyricist Cheyne Coates the pair were perhaps permanently undone by a glass of water. If you don’t know the (very odd) story, here’s the primer: at the 2000 ARIA Awards, Coates requested a glass of water to parch her considerable thirst. But instead of drinking it, she immediately popped it onto the floor, where it sat for the rest of the duo’s performance, in full view of the cameras.
Basically, it was the early 2000s version of a meme, and the band’s reputation never fully recovered from it. Which is a shame, given that ‘Who The Hell Are You?’, one of their breakout singles, is a work of genuine intelligence and wit. We should have had a thousand more pop hits from the pair. That we didn’t is a real shame.
#27. Bardot — ‘Poison’ (2000)
We don’t put enough respect on Bardot’s name. One of the few Australian pop acts to be born from the reality music television machine, they were unashamedly baroque and strange. Nothing they did was by halves, and their music hums with the energy of four young performers willing to throw pretty much anything at the wall.
They were not long for this world, breaking up a mere three years after their first single, but their strange, chaotic impact can still be felt at any packed party where somebody starts requesting ‘Poison’. Truly, we did not deserve them.
#28. Kylie Minogue — ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ (2001)
You really thought we’d be done with Kylie that soon? The story of Australian pop is so tied up in our most successful export that it’s pretty much impossible to only include a single one of her songs. After all, over a decade after the release of ‘The Locomotion’, Kylie changed the landscape again with ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’, a high camp explosion of synths, with a chorus that can swallow you whole. It was the kind of second masterpiece that can cement the career of any artist. And it turned Kylie into one of our true musical heroes.
#29. Alex Lloyd — ‘Amazing’ (2001)
‘Amazing’ dropped a mere six days after September 11, which seems rather unthinkable now — the song is a pure, upbeat ray of sunshine that dropped during one of the modern world’s most troubled times.
But maybe that’s just what people needed in those horrifying days: escapism. And they found it in Lloyd’s hit single, a simple, straightforward, four-chord ditty that elevates the humble love song into something glittering and powerful.
#30. Kasey Chambers — ‘Not Pretty Enough’ (2002)
The Loved Ones, a dark Australian slasher about a young woman obsessed with the high school jock, doesn’t just use ‘Not Pretty Enough’ all over its soundtrack — it hijacks its entire ethos, expanding the creepy plea at the heart of the Kasey Chambers hit into an entire bloody ordeal.
But that intense, worrying sentiment at the song’s heart isn’t an accident; it’s the whole point. Pop music has always been about obsession, and with her 2001 single, Chambers took that to its natural endpoint, crafting the most unnerving love ballad since The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’.
#31. The Waifs — ‘London Still’ (2002)
It’s hard to imagine a country folk song landing at #3 in triple j’s Hottest 100 now, but back in the early 2000s it was a reality. The Waifs’ heartfelt, plucked ode to missing home resonated with every Australian that has ever found themselves in a far-flung, cold place somewhere across the globe. Inside Josh Cunningham’s scratched and ringing guitar was the warmth of a Perth summer’s day, as Australian as a crinkled eucalyptus leaf.
The wry opening line: “Wonder if you can pick up my accent on the phone?“, sung in the strongest ‘Strine voice Donna Simpson could muster, will always coax out a smile.
— Jules LeFevre
#32. Delta Goodrem — ‘Born To Try’ (2002)
Author Bret Easton Ellis once divided world history into two distinct stages — the Empire era, spanning from the dawn of the industrial revolution to 9/11, and the post-Empire era, covering everything after that. Then, he took his theory home: according to him, Delta Goodrem is an Empire singer living in a post-Empire world.
Nobody’s ever nailed the strange, utterly sincerely, keenly-felt magic of Goodrem better. There’s no tricks; no great ironic deceptions to her music. With Goodrem, the first thing you encounter is the truth, even if the truth is confronting, and lopsided, and so emotionally honest that your initial impulse is to laugh. After all, who else could pull off a ballad with all the intensity and intelligence of ‘Born To Try’? And who else would even try, given that we live in a post-Empire era?
#33. Guy Sebastian — ‘Angels Brought Me Here’ (2003)
Australia loves an underdog, so of course the culture would eventually sideline Guy Sebastian in favour of the man that he pipped at the post, Shannon Noll. But turning Sebastian into the punch-line of a decades-long joke about the relevancy of reality TV winners is to deny the weird pull of his music, singles as daggy as they are genuinely moving. ‘Angels Brought Me Here’ has nothing up its sleeve; it’s Sebastian laying his clichés on the table and committing to them, fully. Australia’s never had another like him, for better and for worse.
#34. Pete Murray — ‘Feeler’ (2003)
Australia’s obsession with folk-rock-pop reached its zenith with Pete Murray. The Byron Bay local released tracks that slotted neatly alongside Missy Higgins, The Beautiful Girls, Bernard Fanning, and anyone else who earnestly lay their hearts out over a simple four chord progression.
There’s genius in simplicity — it’s the key to any good pop music — and Murray had it in spades: tracks like ‘Better Days’, ‘Opportunity’, and ‘Feeler’, with their easy indelible cadences and hooks, immediately felt like we had been singing them for years. No wonder they slipped so easily into our ears.
— Jules LeFevre
#35. Missy Higgins — ‘Scar’ (2004)
Missy Higgins almost didn’t release ‘Scar’. She was so worried by the song’s admittedly over-the-top textures, that she considered shelving it. According to her, the Australian public wasn’t ready for that much cheese. How wrong she was. Within weeks of its release, ‘Scar’ had transformed Higgins into a national icon. Rove McManus spoofed it at the ARIAs, it made it onto the soundtrack of One Tree Hill, and Higgins’ love life was picked over for months by the tabloids. Song still slaps, too.
#36. Ben Lee — ‘Catch My Disease’ (2005)
Ben Lee is Australian pop’s wunderkind, a musical sponge who soaked up decades of radio fare and twisted it into his own breathy, upbeat style. ‘Catch My Disease’, the song that turned him into something of a household name — albeit for a limited time — is proof of that chameleonic adaptability, as he nabs bits from folk, indie and alternative rock. The result? One of the most emphatically catchy choruses in Australian pop history.
#37. Lee Harding — ‘Wasabi’ (2005)
The Australian pop institution has always had an interesting relationship with punk, borrowing its clothes in order to better sell what were essentially sped-up ballads played with louder instruments. Consider Lee Harding’s ‘Wasabi’ the exception to that particular rule then.
Delightfully literal — she’s spicy, she’s like wasabi — and lyrically vague in a way particular to great pop, Harding’s song only feels dated because it was so fruitfully, wonderfully of its time, leaning heavily into punk and alt-rock in a way that happens all the time now (see entry 53 in this list), but never then. Lee Harding: true innovator.
#38. Youth Group — ‘Forever Young’ (2006)
Alphaville’s original cut of ‘Forever Young’ is a timeless classic, a swirling mix of electro and cooed, New Wave voices. But Youth Group’s 2006 cover is something else entirely, transforming that song into a plaintive, mournful urge to the unceasing passage of time. It’s also, of course, a downright banger, as catchy as it is cerebral. Little wonder that it came to define the early two thousands.
#39. Sneaky Sound System — ‘Pictures’ (2006)
It’s impossible to imagine the mid-2000s without the dominance of Sneaky Sound System. Combining the rhythmic pleasures of Hot Chip with the experimentation of the dance-punk explosion in New York, the band were part pop machine, part subversive boundary-pushers.
Their debut album, dropped in 2006, is an ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail, full of glitchy beats and sing-song choruses. But no song off that album is better than ‘Pictures’, a glorious throwback anthem with a stop-motion music video that remains iconic to this day.
#40. The Veronicas — ‘Untouched’ (2007)
‘Untouched’ is a queer anthem; a part of sonic heritage; the song that sums up the modern pop machine in its entirety. We could have made this entire list up of this tune, explained and unravelled in 60 different ways.
But instead, we’ll just leave it at this — there is a whole generation for whom ‘Untouched’ is more important than anything released by the Rolling Stones, or Fleetwood Mac, or any of those legacy acts. And for good reason. With its trembling, unvarnished heartache, it’s pop at its most direct and unfettered. May we continue to turn it into memes for a hundred years.
#41. Operator Please — ‘It’s Just A Song (About Ping Pong)’ (2007)
Taking the pleasures of The Strokes and Blur and compacting the bands down to their most essential, intense form, Operator Please were a one-and-done extraordinaire. Seriously. Listen to ‘It’s Just A Song’ again — those aren’t rosy-tinted glasses clouding your vision.
The song really is just that good, bouncing all over the place with an antic energy that no other group since have ever even tried to replicate. Sure, the rest of the Operator Please back catalogue isn’t as good. But who gives a shit? The band couldn’t have ever topped the pleasures of this thing even if they had a thousand years to do so.
#42. Gabriella Cilmi — ‘Sweet About Me’ (2008)
That chorus. It’s just undeniable, even now, some 12 years after it was dropped an unsuspecting Australian public. Climi had been working on her debut album, and the single that made her name, since she was 16.
But when she did hit the mainstream, she did so with no forewarning, armed with that distinctive, smoky voice, and one of the catchiest songs of the year hanging out of her back pocket. Mired in nostalgia, but no mere empty-headed repetition of the past, ‘Sweet About Me’ is an old-school banger of the highest order.
#43. Empire of the Sun — ‘Walking On A Dream’ (2008)
Is there a band more maximalist than Empire of the Sun? Since their very conception, the group have always looked to take things as far as possible, pushing the limit of just about every standard on the planet. ‘Walking On A Dream’, the big, bombastic anthem that made their name, represents that extremity at its most engaging and upbeat.
Imagine a small orchestra pushed down a flight of stairs and you’re at least somewhat close to the crescendo that this song reaches, eventually collapsing under the sheer weight of its own ideas.
#44. Kate Miller-Heidke — ‘Caught In The Crowd’ (2009)
Kate Miller-Heidke is one of the stranger artists in the pop music machine — hovering somewhere between the avant-garde experimentation of Kate Bush and the bombast of Lesley Gore, she’s a bull rampaging through a china shop, sending toy porcelain animals of choruses crashing through the floor.
It’s never subtle, but it’s always interesting, and ‘Caught In The Crowd’, one of her quieter moments, still sounds like nothing else released in the last decade or so.
#45. The Temper Trap — ‘Sweet Disposition’ (2009)
The Temper Trap are the band that launched a thousand indie-pop imitators, clogging the radio waves with derivative rip-offs of their upbeat, slick sound for at least half a decade. But hey, there’s a reason that they changed the sound of contemporary mainstream fare.
Those opening strains of ‘Sweet Disposition’ might first register a shudder of embarrassment, given their sheer oversaturation. But keep going, and let the song work its magic on you. Beneath that misleading exterior lies a work of real intelligence, and heart.
#46. Bluejuice — ‘Broken Leg’ (2009)
What an odd band Bluejuice are. Each passing year they seem more like an anomaly, peddlers of the kind of straight-up-and-down rock-and-roll that no popstar has been interested in making for at least half a decade.
But that’s not to say that the band weren’t without their flashes of brilliance. ‘Broken Leg’, a thick, towering slab of a song, starts big and only gets bigger. If you’re going to play around with clichés like these ones, you might as well make them as silly and oversized as you possibly can.
#47. Angus & Julia Stone — ‘Big Jet Plane’ (2010)
Where did Angus & Julia Stone come from? Their folky stylings feel perfectly of time and yet completely out of it, and their relationship with the rest of commercial pop could best be described as estranged.
They only ever fail when they try to catch up to the mainstream, as with the prickly and thin Snow, rather than letting the mainstream catch up with them; theirs is a sound that makes a little space all of its own, and nestles there. How else to explain ‘Big Jet Plane’, a quasi-John Denver rip-off that has the chilling understatement of a centuries-old folk song?
#48. Jessica Mauboy — ‘Inescapable’ (2011)
There’s no voice in Australian pop quite like Jessica Mauboy’s. And it’s not just that her pipes are technically impressive, though they are most certainly that. It’s the sheer amount of emotional nuance that she can pack into every note. In the hands of another singer, ‘Inescapable’ could have been a slightly embarrassing bit of throwback kitsch. But with Mauboy singing that chorus, you believe every last word of it. Long may she run.
#49. Gotye — ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ (2011)
Gotye never wanted to be famous. Every musician says that, of course, but in the case of Gotye it feels obviously true. The man made his music in his bedroom, crafting colourful spikes of melody that he’d later unveil at well-attended but small warehouse shows.
Gotye didn’t go to the mainstream — the mainstream came to him, briefly, for one shining moment in 2011 when his song ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ became a certified viral hit, and launched ten thousand imitators.
#50. Flume — ‘Holdin On’ (2012)
Is there an Australian artist who has more influenced the direction of international pop than Flume? I don’t think so. Turn on the radio, any channel, at any time of the day, and you’ll find someone trying to rip off the sound of our most popular export.
But hey, none of them can hold a candle to the OG, who manages to hide dense, surprising sounds under a surface layer of glossy, plastic sheen. You could say that any one of his tracks changed how we think about modern pop, but ‘Holdin On’ is the true Rosetta stone of all his work, packed with all of his stranger obsessions and desires.
#51. Iggy Azalea — ‘Fancy’ (2014)
Iggy Azalea is an easy — and often very fair — target, what with her shameless and problematic mining of American culture, and her distinct down period, during which she released a stream of some of the dreariest singles ever to reach human ears.
But, briefly, she was also very, very good, and proof of her talents lies right there in her biggest hit, ‘Fancy’. Cool, smooth, breathlessly modern while also being distinctly reverent of the past, it’s the most commercially successful Aussie pop/rap crossover of the last ten years. Of course, part of that praise goes to Charli XCX, who takes the track to bold new places.
#52. Sia — ‘Chandelier’ (2014)
Sia’s story is one of the strangest in the history of Australian pop — a shy young indie darling who somehow became one of the biggest musicians on the entire planet. Of course, it’s ‘Chandelier’ that’s central to that narrative, the iron-wrought swansong that helped her become “that singer in the big blonde wig.”
Its power hasn’t waned in the years since. The whole thing still drops right onto the centre of your head, crushing you down and overwhelming you with the kind of emotions that most songs never even attempt to take on.
#53. 5 Seconds Of Summer — ‘She Looks So Perfect’ (2014)
You’d only be able to say that 5 Seconds of Summer are victims of the Australian penchant for tall poppy syndrome if Australians ever actually considered them tall. In actual fact, the mainstream press’s attitude towards the boyband has been widespread dismissal — not so much taking them down a peg, but ignoring them and their pegs altogether. Which is unfortunate, really, for both the band and the critical mainstream.
In fact, 5 Seconds of Summer aren’t the Strayan One Direction equivalent — they’re that band’s equals, fully capable of belting out pop earworms in a way that straddles the sincere and the sly. ‘She Looks So Perfect’ isn’t just a radio-friendly unit shifter. It’s an honest to God banger.
#54. Tkay Maidza — ‘Switch Lanes’ (2014)
The opening strains of ‘Switch Lanes’ still feel as fresh and distinct as they did when they dropped some six years ago. They’re just so damn charming, as is the rest of the bubblegum banger that follows.
Not many artists invite such passionate adoration from her fans as Maidza. And it’s for good reason — there are few rappers in Australian pop who wear their heart so clearly on their sleeve. And ‘Switch Lanes’ is the song that takes all that to the extreme, bubbling and wobbling with delight.
#55. Troye Sivan — ‘Youth’ (2015)
It was easy to be sceptical about Troye Sivan’s move into the music industry. When he released Blue Neighbourhood, his excellent debut album, he was mostly known for fooling around on his wildly popular YouTube channel, where he would occasionally film covers.
Blue Neighbourhood washed away the sceptics: it was forward thinking, intelligent pop music with a lot of heart. And ‘Youth’, the brimming, breakthrough single, represented the best of it.
— Jules LeFevre
#56. Jack River — ‘Ballroom’ (2018)
There was something in the water in 2018. After a few years of timidity, homegrown pop roared back into life with a legion of new artists ready to stretch the genre to its boundaries. Acts like G Flip, Amy Shark, Kota Banks, Kira Puru, and Mallrat began crowding the airwaves and festival stages, giving the genre a much needed boost.
The best album to come from the boom was Jack River’s heart-wrenching debut Sugar Mountain, which packaged black grief and pain into explosions of psychedelic pop colour. There are many highs on the album, but the peak is ‘Ballroom’; impeccably written and emotionally piercing, it was a clear and bright indication of just where Australian pop was heading.
— Jules LeFevre
#57. CXLOE — ‘Show You’ (2018)
Another track to emerge in the ’18 boom, ‘Show You’ introduced Sydney’s Chloe Papandrea in spectacular fashion. Writing in our wrap of the best singles of the year, contributor Richard S. He wrote that ‘Show You’ sounded like an instant, star-making hit, standing on ‘a razor’s edge between self-doubt and fantasy.’
It didn’t quite launch CXLOE to stardom, but 18 months on, with a bunch of excellent new singles now under her belt, it’s only a matter of time.
— Jules LeFevre
#58. Kira Puru — ‘Molotov’ (2018)
“I can’t find a fuck to give,” Puru sings over a throbbing bassline, as synths collect around the words. “Imma let this whole thing burn.”
It’s a defiant song of the self, a singer putting their entire worldview into one whipsmart chorus. By the time it ends, smattering itself into a collection of fiery pieces, it’s as though the planet has been laid out at your feet — a way of being made new, and explained. What would we do without Kira Puru?
#59. Mo’Ju — ‘Native Tongue’ (2018)
Mo’Ju’s gritty and visceral ‘Native Tongue’ cracked across the mainstream upon its release in 2018. An examination of heritage, identity, and trauma, Mojo Ruiz de Luzuriaga — then known as Mojo Juju — sculpted ‘Native Tongue’ from blues, folk, R&B, and something else entirely. Defying any particular genre pigeonhole, it pointed a way forwards for the Australian mainstream.
— Jules LeFevre
#60. Thelma Plum — ‘Homecoming Queen’ (2019)
Thelma Plum might be one of the most important artists that we have. Mixing the delicate strains of the indie pop movement with a steadfast belief in change and disruption uncommon to radio fare, her music is a thousand things, all at once. Pretty much every song that she’s ever dropped is a total banger.
But ‘Homecoming Queen’ is the song that has already become her trademark, a thudding reclamation of her own narrative, that has already secured its place in the story of our entire country’s way of making music. We are lucky to have her.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @Joseph_O_Earp.
Jules LeFevre is the editor of Music Junkee. She tweets at @jules_lefevre.