There is no Right Way to write a list of the 200 Greatest Australian songs of all time.
There are as many approaches to such a list as there are people in Australia, let alone a practically uncountable number of variants that could fit into the ranking. As a result, no matter who your favourite band is, or what genre you’ve dedicated your life to, you’ll undoubtedly see a name on this list that’ll cause your nose to wrinkle, or you’ll think of a missing name that seems like an unthinkable exclusion.
In compiling our list, we here at Music Junkee have used a careful schema — we’ve ranked songs on such factors as commercial heft, critical acclaim, and how well they’ve aged — but there’s no such thing as objectivity in these matters, and a 100 people could use our precise same criteria and form a 100 different lists.
But that’s kinda the point. We believe that there’s something exciting about forming a critical canon, elevating songs in the most direct and praise-worthy way possible; by calling them, in no uncertain terms, The Best. But there’s also something exciting about generating a conversation. If this list seems wonky to you in some way, and that wonkiness makes you think about your own criteria for greatness, well that seems like a big part of the fun.
That’s all to say we definitely understand that this list will prompt conversations — when we interviewed the artist who took out the top spot, she told us as much herself. But such conversations don’t seem like a bug. They seem like a feature.
This piece is the second part of the list — we’ve previously published the songs that made up 200 to 101. Take your time walking through this one — get distracted, listen to these songs and the album that spawned them, and generate lists of your own. Because what this list really represents is an open-armed celebration of Australian music.
— Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this article may contain the images, voices and words of people who have passed away. —
#100. PNAU — ‘Chameleon’ (feat. Kira Devine)
For a while, it seemed as if PNAU’s best music was behind them. After establishing themselves firmly on our dancefloors with frenetic experiments like ‘Embrace’ and ‘Wild Strawberries’, they took a couple of left turns with Soft Universe and Good Morning To The Night, the latter being widely panned.
But we learned we should never count PNAU out — after a few years away and dabbling in other projects, Nick Littlemore, Peter Mayes, and the newly added Sam Littlemore came back together with the the bounding and enthralling ‘Chameleon’. No comeback has ever sounded this good. — Jules LeFevre
#99. Custard — ‘Apartment’
Subversive rockers Custard spent their entire career making music the way that Jackson Pollock made paintings, flicking different textures and tones about the place and working out what stuck only after the fact. ‘Apartment’, probably their best known single, is the most slapdash song in their entire catalogue — but all the better for it. That curling melody and that snarling bassline are works of art by themselves; together, they produce a singular kind of antic magic. — Joseph Earp
#98. Empire Of The Sun — ‘Walking On A Dream’
Nick Littlemore and Luke Steele had flittered around in each other’s work for a few years before ‘Walking On A Dream’ surfaced. Littlemore had contributed a little to The Sleepy Jackson, and Steele had returned the favour by helping with Littlemore’s underrated project Teenager. Eventually, the pieces fell into place and they realised that hey, maybe making this an official gig could be a way to go.
We’re lucky they did — while Empire of the Sun’s output certainly varied over the years, ‘Walking On A Dream’ feels like just that…a sugary fever dream running a temperature of 45 degrees. — JL
#97. A.B. Original & Paul Kelly — ‘Dumb Things’
Triple j’s Like A Version makes careers, but it doesn’t always make timeless art — the covers produced are usually talking points rather than classics that will echo through history.
Consider ‘Dumb Things’ the exception to that rule, a collaboration between incendiary two-piece A.B. Original and a harmonica-wielding Paul Kelly. The original is a trembling, shredded masterpiece, sure, but the cover is something different again. It’s just so angry; so utterly contemporary; and so deeply personal. It’s proof positive that sometimes, you can in fact improve upon perfection. — JE
#96. Cold Chisel — ‘When The War Is Over’
There are some moments that every music fan should get to experience once in their lives, and the sight and sound of Jimmy Barnes and Ian Moss in full flight in front of a sweaty and swaying crowd for ‘When The War Is Over’ is one of them. A song brimming with heart. — JL
#95. Bag Raiders — ‘Shooting Stars’
‘Shooting Stars’ might be best known these days as a meme, scoring videos of pratfalls and public failures for almost a third of a decade now. But all that context aside, the song’s more sly and winking than its reputation would have you believe. Those opening bars saturate the internet for a reason — they’re a rousing pop intro of the highest order — and the song only gets weirder and more psychedelic from there. It’s a hall of mirrors, not just a bit of half-amusing internet detritus. — JE
#94. Jack River — ‘Ballroom’
“I was trying to give myself a way…I was trying to provide an answer,” Holly Rankin told Music Junkee at the end of 2018, after the release of her acclaimed album Sugar Mountain.
She’s talking about the tragic loss of her sister when she was a teenager, a loss which threw her into a grief so dark that it took years to climb out of. Sugar Mountain was a dispatch from the darkness, but also a beacon offering safety. ‘Ballroom’, with its crystalline guitars and River’s steady and determined vocal, is the brightest of them all. — JL
#93. Silverchair — ‘The Greatest View’
“I had a lot of people who were watching over me and watching my every move making sure that I didn’t fall back in to the heap that I fell in to whilst writing Neon Ballroom,” Daniel Johns has said of writing ‘The Greatest View’, the lead single from Silverchair’s fourth album, Diorama.
But that crowd of eyes didn’t stifle his creativity. In fact, they stoked it. The Greatest View’ is a direct response to being the most observed person in any room, a song about staying true to some sense of your own destiny, even as all those around you doubt that you’re up to it. It’s pop autobiography of the highest order. — JE
#92. The Temper Trap — ‘Sweet Disposition’
You can see it in your mind’s eye even now, can’t you? That scene in 500 Days Of Summer, the city and buildings gliding by while the guitar riff taps and hums and Dougy Mandagi’s vocal lifts off from the ground.
The film catapulted the Melbourne band to festival stages around the world, and every song they’ve recorded since has been an attempt to capture the exquisite magic of ‘Sweet Disposition’. They’ve never climbed to those heights again, but it doesn’t matter — we’ll always have this. — JL
#91. Spiderbait — ‘Buy Me A Pony’
Spiderbait managed to carve an Australian classic in just one minute and forty fucking seconds — how’s that for talent? A short, tight, explosion of guitars and open hi-hats. It requires no further explanation — that would simply take up too much time. — JL
#90. Kate Ceberano — ‘Pash’
Susan Sontag says that to be camp, a work of art needs to be alive to the multitude of ways it can be taken. How better to explain Kate Ceberano’s ‘Pash’, an oversaturated delight that manages to be both gilded and ironic and deeply personal and authentic? We should all be leaving daily gifts at the shrine of that central guitar-line. Oh, and how the line about crawling into mouths? This isn’t an advertising jingle. It’s fucking batshit. — JE
#89. Powderfinger — ‘These Days’
On November 13, 2010, Powderfinger played their final ever show (well, at the time) in their beloved hometown, Brisbane. The song they chose as their final ever song? ‘These Days’, their grim and desolate musing on the shortcomings of an ordinary life. “This life it is slipping through my hands,” Bernard sings, close to tears, as the crowd bellow it back to him. Perhaps he wasn’t so alone after all.
#88. 1200 Techniques — ‘Hard As Hell’
1200 Techniques are largely considered the outfit responsible for bringing underground Australian hip-hop crashing into the mainstream. Their ferocious blend of rock, funk, and hip-hop — heavily influenced by the likes of The Prodigy — swept into the charts and brought about a new era for the genre locally. ‘Hard As Hell’ is ferocious, like an adrenaline shot straight to the heart. — JL
#87. Gotye — ‘Hearts A Mess’
Before he was the author of one of the biggest pop singles in history, a genre and era-defining break-up song that continues to score car adverts to this day, Gotye was a weirdo playing basement shows in Melbourne and building ballads out of whatever glimmering melodies caught his eye, magpie-like. ‘Hearts A Mess’ is the summation of Gotye’s career before he became Gotye.
It’s also, on its own merits, a total banger — a thin spider-web that calls to mind Elliott Smith, the more poppy work of Arthur Russell, and the poetry of Rilke. If that sounds like a bold claim to make of such a shimmering tune, then just go back to it, and drink in its pleasures all over again. I bet they’re stranger than you remembered. — JE
#86. Icehouse — ‘Great Southern Land’
These days, ‘Great Southern Land’ gets talked about like a trinket, rather than what it actually is — a towering, bright pink gothic castle of a song, both gaudy and daunting. Sure, that chorus might sound a little chintzy in certain contexts, decades after its release.
But play it loud and in full, and the sheer scale of the thing becomes clear. When that final minute kicks in, you’ll start to feel like the edges of the song have fallen away; like you’re floating in the thick ridiculousness of it all. — JE
#85. Magic Dirt — ‘Plastic Loveless Letter’
Adalita’s vocal vibrato cuts through ‘Plastic Loveless Letter’ like a machine gun through paper. This song is a torn up bedroom, a heartthrob poster ripped from the walls — it thrums with rage and lust and longing. — JL
#84. Manu Crooks — ‘Fuego’ (feat. Anfa Rose)
For most of the 21st century, Australian hip-hop has been dominated by the kind of ocker, parochial strains pioneered by the Hilltop Hoods. In recent years though, there’s been a significant gear shift, and now the likes of Manu Crooks are creating export-worthy hip-hop that’s closer to Atlanta than it is to Adelaide. ‘Fuego’ is a sultry, mesmerising swirl — if this is the future of Australian hip-hop, then we have so much to look forward to. — JL
#83. Itch-E & Scratch-E — ‘Sweetness And Light’
It was the speech that ricocheted across the nation: “We’d like to thank all of Sydney’s ecstasy dealers, without whom this award would not be possible,” Itch-E & Scratch-E’s Paul Mac declared on stage at the ARIAs after winning the first ever Best Dance Release for ‘Sweetness And Light’.
A few years back, Mac told inthemix that the speech was intended as a bit of a ‘fuck you’ to the rock-loving music execs in the crowd. “It was like, ‘Look, come on kids – anyone can do this, we can sit at home in our bedrooms with no record company money’,” Mac said. “I don’t regret a thing… I still believe every word of it.”
There was no better song to win that award, which, in doing so, ushered dance into the Australian mainstream for the first time ever. ‘Sweetness And Light’ is a true classic, and still causes euphoria on any dancefloor where it’s unleashed. — JL
#82. Missy Higgins — ‘All For Believing’
The Sound of White is a record at odds with itself, both keenly felt and obsessively polished; both populist in its sheer emotional heft, and thoroughly unique in the odd contours of Higgins’ voice. ‘All For Believing’, the opening song, sees those dialectics laid out in full — summoning itself with a bunch of scratchy curses, it eventually flowers into a Donovan-esque ballad, with a rising piano scale that teeters right on the edge of good taste. — JE
#81. Yves Klein Blue — ‘Polka’
For a generation of Aussie indie lovers, the disintegration of Brisbane’s Yves Klein Blue remains a source of heartache. One album and two EPs was all that was left of the group, as they went on to populate bands like Babaganouj. But that was more than enough to imprint upon the Australian landscape. ‘Polka’ was inescapable after its release, and even now it will bring forth a wry grin from any who hear its slanty, jaunty strains. — JL
#80. Ball Park Music — ‘Coming Down’
Ball Park Music’ Sam Cromack sketches a grimy charcoal portrait of drug-addled chefs and the long slow journey down from a high. There’s a weariness to Cromack’s voice as he sways through the song, supported by simple instrumentation and some childlike harmonies, as if he’s staring at a sunrise after a long, hard night. But there’s comfort in his voice — the rocky part of the ordeal is over, what’s next is a warm pillow to rest your head on. — JL
#79. Midnight Oil — ‘Blue Sky Mine’
Not many other bands have been so determined to excise and put on display Australia’s cruel history than Midnight Oil. Their back catalogue is a bloodied history book, raging at the evil powers that be and tearing at the seams of racist white Australia.
‘Blue Sky Mine’ tells the story of Western Australian’s Wittenoom, a town which found wealth, and ruin, thanks to its massive and deadly asbestos mine. The town has become the most dangerously contaminated area in the Southern Hemisphere — more than 2000 residents and workers died from asbestos-related diseases. The company in charge, CSR, was found to have completely health warnings about the mine.
Peter Garrett’s howl of “Who’s gonna save me?” is ice cold and despairing, a plea in the darkness. — JL
#78. Peking Duk ft. Nicole Millar — ‘High’
Plenty of songs are written with stadiums and festivals in mind — the songwriters have rapid strobes in their eyes as they imagine how that drop will spill out over ten thousand sweaty bodies. But it’s a lot harder to write a good stadium song, a song that dials up heart rates and sets you on your toes, ready to jump.
‘High’ is as epic a stadium tune as you’ll come across, and it skyrocketed the Canberra party starters to stardom — it landed at #2 in the Hottest 100 (at the time the highest ranking dance song ever), won them an ARIA, and went platinum three times over. Not bad at all. — JL
#77. Silverchair — ‘Freak’
No wonder Silverchair get talked about as a grunge band, despite the fact that they spent their whole career moving from style to style with a post-modern eye for subversion — with their single ‘Freak’, they took the genre to its natural conclusion, stripping out the springy choruses of Nirvana and compressing coal-black guitar parts into diamonds.
Silverchair would never sound so direct again. That, after all, was their modus operandi for the years they were together: leap into a neighbouring sonic realm, make musicians there seem like children, and then move on. — JE
#76. Josh Abrahams & Amiel Daemion — ‘Addicted to Bass’
There’s no two ways about it: ‘Addicted To Bass’ is just one fucking hell of a song. Whether it’s Amiel Daemion’s desperately sexy vocal, the splintering breakbeats that hammer into your skull, or that shuddering bassline — it forces its way into your head whether you wanted it to or not. Pure ecstasy. — JL
#75. The Whitlams — ‘Blow Up The Pokies’
Public opinion rapidly cooled on The Whitlams after the Newtown band pumped out a stack of ubiquitous singles from the late ’90s into the early ’00s. Not without reason either — there’s a lot of their back catalogue that can be done away with.
But ‘Blow Up The Pokies’, whichever way you slice it, is a classic — a monochrome painting of the filthy and beloved Sandringham Hotel and the characters that flowed through its doors. The orchestral crescendo will still raise goosebumps on your arms. — JL
#74. Montaigne — ‘What You Mean To Me’
Imagine a Kate Bush song dragged through a haunted forest backwards, and you’ll have something like Montaigne’s ‘What You Mean To Me’, a platinum-embossed love song with something dark lurking underneath its surface.
I mean, the chorus that drops about a minute in has an entire library’s worth of poetry jammed into a few sparkling lines. And then it gets even better, throwing in every instrument, effect and kitchen sink to hand. Who said more is always less? — JE
#73. Baker Boy — ‘Cloud 9’ (feat. Kian)
If you’ve been lucky enough to catch Baker Boy live and in full flight, you’ll know just what an experience it is. The Yolngu man is a force of nature, and he knows it: “You wanna be as good as me? Boy you better practice/Step back feel the power of my blackness!” he throws down on the relentless ‘Cloud 9’.
When ‘Cloud 9’ broke into the triple j airwaves, Baker Boy became of the first artists in mainstream Australian music to rap in language. “No one was rapping in language so I thought I’d try [to] make history to be the first…and it happened, which is crazy, it’s so insane!” Danzal Baker told SBS.
“Every time I’m on stage it’s like I’m a different person — I’m Baker Boy, not Danzal. It’s two different personalities,” he continued. “Danzal is basically me. He sometimes stutters with English, is shy and stuff, but then on stage he transforms into Baker Boy… Baker Boy, well that guy is in the zone! He just has this amazing presence and only wants to marryuna.” — JL
#72. Mental As Anything — ‘If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?’
Mental As Anything guitarist Reg Mombassa is arguably better known for what he would go on to do: the Mambo illustrations that would saturate the early two thousands. But he draws from the precise same wellspring of feeling for the underdog and zany, wild-eyed sense of humour to his music as to his sketches.
After all, ‘If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?, a gonzo anti-break-up song with a melody line as big and gaudy as one of Jeff Koons’ flower dogs, is a cartoon in and of itself. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see scribbled on the side of a wall, rather than playing on the radio. And that’s its genius. — JE
#71. The Cruel Sea — ‘The Honeymoon Is Over’
It was the early ’90s, and The Cruel Sea singer Tex Perkins had just run into a broken-hearted stranger at the bar. The man was in a predicament — what to do with his tattoo, the name of an ex-lover that he had got permanently scrawled across his chest?
Perkins didn’t have an answer, but he did eventually have a song — ‘The Honeymoon Is Over’, a rich, laquered oak table of a rock belter that features everything from a scat chorus to a sea of tendrils for a guitar part. It’s pub rock laced with LSD; a panic attack in a dive-bar bathroom. There’s nothing like it. — JE
#70. Christine Anu — ‘My Island Home’
One night in June 1985, Warumpi Band’s Neil Murray was travelling on a bus from central Australia to Sydney, dreaming of Elcho Island in Arnhem Land, of long days spent fishing in the blue waters. He knew he had a song in his head, but didn’t have a notebook to write it down. When he pulled into Sydney he grabbed his guitar out of the luggage hold and searched for the chords to ‘My Island Home’.
A few years later, Christine Anu picked it up and redressed it for her debut Stylin’ Up, adding some booming drums and shimmering guitars, but retaining the vital, fierce longing of the original. — JL
#69. Disembowelment — ‘The Tree of Life and Death’
You could spend the rest of your life trying to define the 10 nightmarish minutes of Disembowlment’s ‘The Tree of Life and Death’. Is it doom? Thrash? Stoner metal? Who knows.
All I can tell you is that it doesn’t sound like something produced by human hands. A mess of screams, drum rolls, and thick-voiced curses, it feels like something that might genuinely have the power to raise the dead. And so it sits here, sandwiched inbetween GANGgajang and Christine Anu, just as the dread Gods intended. — JE
#68. GANGgajang — ‘Sounds Of Then (This Is Australia)’
Lightning cracking over cane fields, breathing in humidity, lying in sweat, brick veneers…GANGgajang were determined to paint their version of Australia in ‘Sounds Of Then’.
Don’t mistake this for a love letter though — songwriter Mark Callaghan was recounting the immense culture shock of moving to rural Queensland after growing up in soggy England, but that hasn’t stopped the song from becoming a defining portrait of the nation. — JL
#67. Little River Band — ‘Help Is On Its Way’
If that peppy opening bassline doesn’t put a spring in your step, we don’t know what will. If ever a song was to be described as a “rollicking good time”, it would be ‘Help Is On Its Way’. — JL
#66. God — ‘My Pal’
God was made up of a bunch of teenagers when they wrote ‘My Pal’, a frenetic ballad that contains one of the most iconic riffs in modern Australian rock — famously, they were often turned away from the venues that they were booked to play on account of being underage. Guess there are some things you can only do when you’re young, and that writing a perfect, scuzzy pub rock song is one of them. — JE
#65. Violent Soho — ‘Covered In Chrome’
In the world of Mad Max: Fury Road, those sick and pale cult members known as the War Boys spray chrome in their mouths to give themselves a last burst of energy as their tumour-encrusted bodies fall apart.
‘Covered in Chrome’ doesn’t just share the same central substance as that act, it also shares that same sense of doomed, desperate finalism. It’s a song about giving it one last go before you fall apart completely — which is why that chorus sounds so much like someone saying goodbye. — JE
#64. The Peep Tempel — ‘Carol’
There’s perhaps no singer-songwriter on the planet as good at naming people as Blake Scott of The Peep Tempel. ‘Carol’, the band’s masterpiece, contains not one moniker but two — Carol, the love object of the title, and Trevor, the Christmas ham who’s just not good for her.
And in those two, short proper nouns, Scott spins an entire world; a whole breathing, piss-soaked story about love and betrayal. Most people spend their entire lives trying to hone what the band achieve here in just a few short minutes. — JE
#63. Gang Of Youths — ‘Magnolia’
“There was this moment, where the belief that there would never be anything more than the shit and piss in everything overwhelmed me for a moment, and I made a decision to make it all stop for good,” Dave Le’aupepe wrote on Instagram a few years ago on June 3 — the day known by Gang Of Youths’ fans as ‘Magnolia Day’.
‘Magnolia’ might have been written as its creator was on the brink, ready to launch off this mortal coil, but it overflows with life and rage and a desperate hope that life can get better. As Le’aupepe flails at the cars swerving around him and curses heaven and hell and threatens to “kick some fucking ass tonight”, he finds a release and comfort that we all crave in our darkest moments. — JL
#62. Sampa The Great — ‘Final Form’
Producer Silentjay sculpts the perfect throne for Sampa The Great on ‘Final Form’, with a blaring sample from The Sylver’s 1973 track ‘Stay Away From Me’ blooming under Tembo’s commanding flow. “Ferocious”, “insurmountable“, “incomparable excellence” is how the single was greeted after it landed in 2019, and the critics were bang on. A towering masterpiece. — JL
#61. Delta Goodrem — ‘Innocent Eyes’
Delta Goodrem is generally underrated these days, but her skills as a storyteller are particularly so. After all, ‘Innocent Eyes’ is one of the narrative triumphs of modern Australian pop songwriting, one that trades on vague signifiers without ever slipping into fuzzy cliches.
And then, just when the tale reaches its breaking point, Goodrem gives up on words altogether, and drops a chorus mostly composed of la-las. It’s not just carefully knotted, emotional pop of the highest order. It’s also weird, suffused with auditory left turns. All hail Queen Delta. — JE
#60. Sia — ‘Chandelier’
It’s not often that a pop star writes a song that changes their life forever. Then again, there are not many songs like ‘Chandelier’. An honest look at addiction and trauma nestled like a snake inside one of the biggest choruses in Australian musical history, it’s a thousand things to a thousand different people; a shape-shifting, chameleonic work of art that will give out literally whatever you want to bring to it.
Which is why I’m so thrown off every single time I hear it tinnily playing over the speakers at my local Coles. This isn’t a song for the supermarket aisles. It’s a song for a lifetime. — JE
#59. Augie March — ‘One Crowded Hour’
Genius doesn’t come quick. Glenn Richards spent two long years fiddling around with ‘One Crowded Hour’, writing the frame of the song while house-sitting for Deborah Conway and then fine-tuning an acoustic version before ever bringing it to his band, Augie March.
Obviously, that hard work paid off — ‘One Crowded Hour’ is the group’s finest moment, a ballad that trembles back and forth between anthemic statements of the self and hesitant, quiet asides. That chorus gets dropped on your head from the height of a skyscraper. — JE
#58. Midnight Oil — ‘Power And The Passion’
True story: That crash you hear at the end of Rob Hirst’s indulgent and brilliant drum solo is the sound of a fluorescent light tube raining down glass on his kit, having just been smashed with his stick.
Then again, ‘Power And The Passion’ is the breaking glass tube raining down on us all — an almost unbearable screed on the failings of modern Australia, from Pine Gap to multi-national corporations and deadly complacency of a country bathed in sunshine and living “paradise”. — JL
#57. Dirty Three — ‘Deep Waters’
Is there a band more nuanced and capable than Dirty Three? The instrumental three-piece can span entire dimensions, precisely thanks to the fact that they (mostly) reject words altogether. What is a song like ‘Deep Waters’ actually about? Who knows.
The best way to explain it is to describe what it sounds like, which is a thousand years of human history packed into a scattershot drumfill, and an entire life-time worth of love, devotion and heartbreak in the interplay between a guitar and a violin. Every single note lands. — JE
#56. Savage Garden — ‘Truly Madly Deeply’
“The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long,” Eldon Tyrell told Roy in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, but he could equally be talking about Savage Garden’s career.
The unlikely pop superstars from the humid suburban sprawl of Logan, south of Brisbane, looked to the greats like Madonna and Prince when crafting their two albums, Savage Garden and Affirmation, and their songs proudly reflected their ambition. They were going to be the biggest in the world, they declared to the world — and for a while, they were.
‘Truly Madly Deeply’ is pristine pop, a song that walks that line between obsession, devotion, and surrender. — JL
#55. Helen Reddy — ‘I Am Woman’
Not many artists in the world can claim their song became an anthem for a political movement, but Helen Reddy can.
“I couldn’t find any songs that said what I thought being woman was about,” Reddy said in an interview in 2003. “I thought about all these strong women in my family who had gotten through the Depression and world wars and drunken, abusive husbands. But there was nothing in music that reflected that…I certainly never thought of myself as a songwriter, but it came down to having to do it.”
According to Reddy, the label never considered the song good enough to release it as a single in its own right. How wrong they were. — JL
#54. The Vines — ‘Get Free’
‘Get Free’ doesn’t sound like anything else in this world — it’s a bull tearing off a car door, a drum kit being kicked and hurled across the room, plasterboard being ripped down from a wall. It’s completely animalistic, and completely arresting.
Early demos of the song had Craig Nicholls’ vocals dialled way down, almost muted, so thank god the Sydney band saw sense and fired a rocket up him for the final version, as his throat tearing performance gives the songs its gall. — JL
#53. Grinspoon — ‘Chemical Heart’
“I finished the vocals, and I thought nothing of it,” Grinspoon’s Phil Jamieson recounted to Music Junkee last year about ‘Chemical Heart’. “I mean, I thought it was alright — I was probably more like, “Whatever.” [laughs] Everyone else was enthusiastic, though. There was a sense that they all thought it was a great track.”
Never have we been so happy for Jamieson to be wrong. A change in direction for the band which initially worried their fans, ‘Chemical Heart’ has grown to become arguably their most beloved track, a ringing and tender reprieve. — JL
#52. Little Red — ‘Rock It’
“Aside from ‘Rock It’, most people couldn’t name a single song by Little Red if their life depended on it,” Albert Santos boldly wrote in his retrospective on Australia’s indie explosion in the late ’00s. Whether you can or not, it doesn’t really matter — ‘Rock It’ is good enough to count for a dozen albums.
It was a defining song of the scene, rightfully earning the Melbourne outfit the #2 spot on the Hottest 100 of that year (they were beaten by Angus & Julia Stone’s ‘Big Jet Plane’, a travesty if there ever was one). Richly textured, with a bass that punctures the drums like a fist through a window, it’s still irresistible, all these years later. — JL
#51. Olivia Newton-John — ‘Physical’
Is this the horniest song in Australian pop history? Made up of locker-room sweat, perfume, and two punnets of blended raspberries and glitter, it’s a noxious ode to the body and all the things that human beings are capable of. Put it on at a party and wait the three seconds required before everyone in earshot collapses into a gyrating, multi-backed mess. — JE
#50. Powderfinger — ‘My Happiness’
“If you can’t cop a bit of emotional stuff then you should go and get the lamp shade extracted from your arse,” songwriter and frontman Bernard Fanning instructed fans after some dismissed ‘My Happiness’ as top 40 bullshit. “If you don’t think there is enough rock in your life then let me know and I will personally come around to your house and chuck stones at you.”
Sure, some fans hated it — but the majority of the country strongly connected to Fanning’s sombre musing on love and loneliness. It topped the Hottest 100, peaked at #4 on the ARIA charts, and even appeared in Billboard’s rock charts, a first for the band. It also casually went five times platinum. Fanning didn’t need to throw rocks, he could have bought a whole quarry to dump on his disinterested former fans. — JL
#49. Mo’Ju — ‘Native Tongue’
There are some songs that sound as if they’re not of this world, born from another place or another time that we mere mortals can’t access. ‘Native Tongue’ is one of those songs. A gritty and visceral interrogation of place, belonging, colonialism, and racism in Australia society.
“I wrote this song as an expression of some complex emotions, such as grief for a loss of culture and Indigenous languages and other impacts of assimilation, colonisation and the white-washing of non-western cultures,” Mo’Ju wrote in an open letter to conservative twat Andrew Bolt in 2018, after he labelled the song a “complaint”. “This is not a song of self-pity, it is a song of self-empowerment.” — JL
#48. AC/DC — ‘Back In Black’
What does Australian rock even look like without this iconic chorus? It’s like trying to imagine the Louvre without the Mona Lisa, or the Vatican City without the Pope — perhaps not unthinkable, but certainly very impoverished. It’s the sound of a form being taken right to its creaking, straining extreme, and every inch of it screams of perfection. — JE
#47. Ngaiire — ‘Once’
“You don’t have a clue who’s driving the train,” Ngaiire cackles at the end of the video for ‘Once’. “You’re just going for it.”
That fearlessness and acceptance in the face of fuckery defines Ngaiire, the Papua New Guinea-born, Australian-based singer who slowly and surely built a dedicated fanbase thanks to future soul offerings in Lamentations and Song For No One. ‘Once’, taken from her confronting and brilliant album Blastoma (named after the disease she had as a child) is pure beauty, like falling asleep in silk sheets. — JL
#46. A.B. Original — ‘January 26’
“We don’t want to piss on your nan’s grave but that’s what it means to us,” Briggs said of ‘January 26’ after its release in 2016. “It’s a slap in the face. It’s a hard thing for us to discuss. It’s a difficult topic, when we’re usually met with such resistance.”
“Change doesn’t really come from people being comfortable and complacent,” producer Trials added. “If that means that we’re the guys up there being a little uncomfortable by spreading and sharing this message, then we’re prepared for that.”
White Australia deserves to be uncomfortable, to be sat in the Clockwork Orange chair and bear witness to the atrocities that have been committed against First Nations people in this country. ‘January 26’ grabbed the ignorant by the guts and made them pay attention. — JL
#45. The Angels — ‘Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again’
Back in 2018, Triple M voted this one of the “Ozzest” songs of all time. Who knows what that even means? Not only is our cultural identity a complex, ever-shifting thing, rather than the kind of static tag you can use to rank this country’s creative output, but The Angels were barely an Australian band at all.
Sure, the members were all born here. But their viscous choruses and production-heavy ballads belong more to the Americans than to anything their colleagues were making. Which isn’t a problem. In fact, it’s entirely the appeal of ‘Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again’, a slick work of machinery that still feels genuinely undeniable all these years later. Those opening lines can still blow the back of your brain out. — JE
#44. The Avalanches – ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’
‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ has all the beats of a bad, absurdist joke — a “why did the chicken cross the road” gag stripped of a punchline. That’s not a criticism, mind you. Indeed, the interplay between its absurdist edges and that towering melody is where all of the fun lies. And that’s not even to mention the horse neigh that stopped a nation, a demented topping on one of the strangest bops The Avalanches — or indeed, most Australian bands — has ever written. — JE
#43. PNAU — ‘Embrace’
A song that bottled lightning and poured it into the mouths of ravers around the country, ‘Embrace’ feels like a message from the heavens. A vocal driven belter (the pipes were supplied by the indomitable Ladyhawke), it serviced the Australian public’s new hunger for indie dance, pushed by the likes of Cut Copy, MGMT, and LCD Soundsystem. — JL
#42. You Am I — ‘Berlin Chair’
You Am I’s Sound As Ever is a work of greatness recorded in the shadow of more greatness — Tim Rogers and his band decamped to an American studio to record with Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth shortly after Nirvana had used the same space to put together In Utero. Of course, a song like ‘Berlin Chair’ is a far cry from both Kurt Cobain and Ranaldo and his noise-rock pals. It’s its own terrifyingly sharp, jade green object; quintessentially You Am I, while also being the kind of fuzzy pleasure they’d never attempt again. — JE
#41. John Paul Young — ‘Love Is In The Air’
A couple of years ago they hung ‘Love Is In The Air’ in the museum, where it belongs, folding it into the National Film and Sound Archive’s Sounds of Australia collection. Little wonder why. Beneath that droll chorus and Young’s lilting, diamonte-studded voice, an entire ocean of desire and aching passion lies dormant. Young would never top it. But he didn’t need to. You could write a song this perfect, never pick up an instrument again, and still rank amongst the most impressive Australian musicians in the canon. — JE
#40. Tame Impala — ‘The Less I Know The Better’
Kevin Parker isn’t a rockstar; he’s a grandfather tinkering his way around an old shed, welding old cans onto the side of a rusty bed frame and somehow making art in the process. His influences on ‘The Less I Know The Better’ are clear — the ancient-sounding choruses of Pink Floyd meshed with an entirely new, exciting form of pop songwriting — but somehow it ends up being so much more than the sum of its parts. It’s not just Tame Impala’s standout moment as a band. It’s the summa of the entire psychedelic imagination. — JE
#39. Madison Avenue — ‘Don’t Call Me Baby’
The first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Madison Avenue is that infamous glass of water onstage at the ARIAs. The second thought you have is, undoubtedly, ‘Fuck that song was good.’
Yeah, it is good. It’s goddamn brilliant actually. ‘Don’t Call Me Baby’ was a playful and quirky slice of 2000s disco pop that nobody expected to soar to the top of the charts. Hell, singer Cheyne Coates recorded the vocals on an $80 microphone, and they were forced to overlay crowd noise to mask people chatting in the background.
“We were doing 20 flights a month around the world,” Andy Van told news.com.au of the hectic time following their initial success. “It’s a lot of pressure, and you’re exhausted. We once went to Poland for six hours, did 27 interviews, then left. It was too much, too quickly.”
They failed to recapture the magic for a second album, and quietly disbanded. But we’ll always have ‘Don’t Call Me Baby’. — JL
#38. Flight Facilities — ‘Clair De Lune’ (feat. Christine Holberg)
“I mean, we make pop songs, but that track was not meant to be one of them,” Flight Facilities’ Hugo Gruzman told our parent site inthemix back in the day. “We make a whole lot of three and four minute vocal tracks and people are like ‘Yeah this is fun’. Then you make one self-indulgent, eight minute almost entirely instrumental tune and that’s the one that hits the charts.”
The duo never expected the single to work — and on paper, why would it? It’s a seven-and-a-half minute lilting dance song that meanders along at a pace of a resting heart beat. But it helps that those seven-and-a-half minutes contains some of the most beautiful music ever created — a sprawling, gentle dream. — JL
#37. Regurgitator — ‘! (The Song Formerly Known As)’
When Regurgitator first pivoted to writing music for children, it was described as a sonic left-turn — a kind of unpredictable twist. But the joy of the band has always been that they skirt close to both novelty and the puerile.
Even at their most ribald, they still sound like an out-of-control after-school care group going to town on a bunch of poor, unsuspecting instruments. ‘! (The Song Formerly Known As)’ isn’t even really a song. It’s a work of punkish extravagance, dressed in nothing but a streak of yellow paint and with murder on its mind. — JE
#36. The Saints — ‘This Perfect Day’
It was Christmas Day, 1977, and Ed Kuepper had been left to his own devices, with his parents out at church. So he did what he did best — he picked up his father’s old classical guitar, and he wrote a song. The resulting ballad, ‘This Perfect Day’, is a far-cry from the singles that made The Saints famous.
But it’s no less powerful, or urgent. This is a velvet glove cast in iron; all soft, rippled textures and crushing rock riffs. The Saints would never write anything quite like it. — JE
#35. The Easybeats — ‘Friday On My Mind’
Earlier today, I wrote a version of the blurb for this song. It wasn’t very good. So I listened to the song again, got up, and did some other odd jobs around the house. The entire time — and I mean the entire time — I had the chorus of ‘Friday On My Mind’ going around my head in near-constant loop.
We toss around the word “undeniable” to describe pop hooks far too often. But how else to describe the iconic central section of this song, a miniature masterpiece of form and tone that you literally cannot shake from your mind? — JE
#34. Kylie Minogue — ‘The Loco-Motion’
Kylie Minogue has never been one for subtlety. Thank God. Can you imagine a half-tilt version of ‘The Loco-Motion’, for instance? The song’s entire magic comes from its maximal approach to pop excesses; a red cordial-fuelled appetite for strangeness. She didn’t write the song, of course — it had been around for decades before she turned her glitzy talents to the hit — but in her hands, the thing takes on an entirely new life and energy. It’s the sound of a performer approaching a wall, and then breezing right through it, shrugging off constraints and making the old brand new all over again. — JE
#33. Killing Heidi — ‘Weir’
“We needed one more killer song for the record, and people were putting pressure on us,” Killing Heidi’s Ella Hooper told Vice in 2016. “I wasn’t used to writing to a brief or with any pressure from producers, but if memory serves me correctly — which it might not now — the consensus from the many cooks in the kitchen was that we needed something ‘Big!’, ‘Uplifting!’, ‘Iconic!’. I think I eventually belted out the chorus of ‘Weir’ half out of frustration.”
The cooks were onto something — Hooper’s jet engine vocals cause ‘Weir’ to lift entirely off the ground. There’s no tricks or illusions hidden within it — just a straightforward killer pop rock track, the jewel in Killing Heidi’s crown. — JL
#32. Courtney Barnett — ‘Pedestrian At Best’
‘Pedestrian At Best’ was the song that changed Courtney Barnett’s entire career, transforming her from a Melbourne indie star to an international titan, appearing on ex-President’s favourite songs of the year list and playing to packed crowds across America.
But it’s also one of the most direct and efficient demonstrations of her talent. Witty without ever being overly knowing, self-effacing without ever being downtrodden or whiney, it’s a singer-songwriter staring themselves down in the mirror, and noting their entire life up to that point in spare, funny lines of poetry. — JE
#31. Divinyls — ‘I Touch Myself’
Sometime around the late 1980s, Chrissy Amphlett met songwriter Billy Steinberg in a dim Hollywood club. Her and Mark McEntree had reached out to Steinberg and his writing partner Tom Kelly to help them with songs for their upcoming album, Divinyls; the duo had previously written hits for Cyndi Lauper and The Bangles.
Steinberg showed her some lyrics he’d jotted down. “I nervously pulled out my notebook and allowed her to look through the lyrics,” he recalled in an interview years later. “I had written the first verse and the chorus lyric and that’s the one she liked best.”
The next day, the four of them sat down and pulled it all together. The song, of course, was ‘I Touch Myself’ — a groundbreaking release that would rattle the prudish public perception of female sexuality. The video was even banned in Australia for a time, but was a hit on MTV and ended up as one of Divinyl’s biggest hits. — JL
#30. Flume — ‘Never Be Like You’
From the moment we first heard those chimes fall like raindrops at the beginning of 2016, it was all over.
Flume’s lead single from his hotly anticipated new album Skin, the follow-up to his wildly successful debut, dominated the year in music — there was never any question it would take out #1 in triple j’s Hottest 100 (the first dance release to do so). It’s now his most-streamed song by a country mile.
‘Never Be Like You’ is Flume as his sharpest — his pop sensibilities and ear for complex rhythms had never been better. — JL
#29. Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody — ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’
All great protest songs are, at their heart, songs of longing, stinging with a hunger for a better world. So it goes with ‘From Little Things’, a trembling anthem with simple chords that sets just about every evil in the world in its sights. Never has so little said so much. — JE
#28. The Triffids — ‘Wide Open Road’
There’s no lonelier song on this list than ‘Wide Open Road’, a paean to isolation that takes the metaphor of setting off by yourself to its logical endpoint. “I lost track of my friends, I lost my kin,” David McComb barks at the outset, and things only get bleaker from there. When that famous chorus hits, it doesn’t sound like a release. It sounds impossibly sad; an echoing, tar-thick acknowledgement that sometimes the best thing you can do is to simply turn and walk away. — JE
#27. The Presets — ‘My People’
“I wanted to write a desperate-sounding song…from the perspective of someone who is locked up, needing to hear that there are people outside who are behind him and supporting him,” Julian Hamilton said of the song.
A brutal indictment of Australia’s horrifying treatment of asylum seekers wrapped inside a festival ready blaster, ‘My People’ is almost too much to bear. It pins you down by the throat, with that stomping bassline mercilessly marching forward. — JL
#26. Skyhooks — ‘Horror Movie’
The lyrics of ‘Horror Movie’, the Skyhooks masterpiece, sound almost like a bad joke — if you wanna know real terror, don’t watch a slasher; watch the news. But this song hasn’t earned its place on this list because it’s a searing takedown of modern industrial capitalism, or the news media’s involvement in it. It has earned its place on this list because that chorus is a dagger pressed with gold leaf; a snaking, vicious piece of art that mixes high camp theatre with Beach Boys-esque sonic chops. When I’m not listening to it, I can’t entirely convince myself that it actually exists. — JE
#25. The Waifs — ‘London Still’
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. — JL
#24. Missy Higgins — ‘Scar’
‘Scar’ is a song unafraid to be literal. In that very first verse, Higgins draws the world’s most direct metaphor, scrubbing herself clean of someone by, y’know, scrubbing herself clean of someone.
But it’s not just the words that aim for greatness by pointing at it; that iconic chorus works in the same way, layering on pleasures on top of pleasures, right up till the point the banquet table seems ready to buckle underneath its own weight. Oh, and then, just when you think you’ve had enough, the brass part kicks in. — JE
#23. Gotye — ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’
Of course, if this was a list that judged solely on commercial heft, then ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ would have to sit around this spot anyway, if not higher. But you can strip the modern classic even of its cultural ubiquity, and still grant it such a serious standing — it’s just so undeniable.
Sure, you might feel the urge to scoff at it, but how to deny the way that it echoes throughout you for days on end? Or, even, the sentiment at the heart of the song — the way lovers sink into being strangers, captured here with both deep melancholy, and a sense of catharsis. I’m not denying that it’s weepy. I’m just saying that its weepiness is precisely the point. — JE
#22. Kasey Chambers — ‘Not Pretty Enough’
2009’s The Loved Ones, a horror film about an obsessed stalker, put Kasey Chambers’ hit in the mouth of its villain. But it wasn’t subverting the song; it was just making the subtext into text. ‘Not Pretty Enough’ is a ballad about over-stepping boundaries and weaponising self-hatred. The creepiness is already there.
That title is not an accidental straying into unusually ugly territory for pop music. It’s a gloriously uncomfortable tilt into the painful things about love, and how often relationships become terrible, overwhelming ways of revealing ourselves. — JE
#21. Cold Chisel — ‘Flame Trees’
Cold Chisel drummer and songwriter Steve Prestwich initially wasn’t impressed when bandmate Don Walker brought the lyrics of ‘Flame Trees’ to him. Prestwich had been fiddling around with the song for ages, mumbling over a bassline — he’d come to Walker for help with the final topline.
The song rattled round in Walker’s head for about 18 months, but he finally fell upon the story: a recollection of his childhood in the country town Grafton, the bright red leaves of spring and the long, weary roads. He wrote it in a couple of afternoons in his Kings Cross home.
It was also written amid a “toxic” time in the band, as they were on the road and breaking up — the lyrical phrase “set fire to this town”, is reflected in an early Chisel song, and its placement in ‘Flame Trees’ was intended as a sad bookend.
“As Cold Chisel was just starting to take off, after we’d been together for a few years, I wrote a song called ‘Merry-Go-Round’ and it’s got this phrase in it ‘I’m going to set fire to the town’,” Walker told The Age a few years ago. “Flame Trees was a song that was written at the end of our career, pretty much as we were breaking up. Because that phrase had been such a fixture of our live shows I just decided to revisit that phase in a later song.” — JL
#20. The Go-Betweens — ‘Streets Of Your Town’
Robert Forster and Grant McLennan tend to be talked about as Australia’s answer to Paul McCartney and John Lennon, a songwriting partnership made up of a pop star and an experimental, literate weirdo.
But Forster andMcLennan don’t sound like anyone else, and their skills are entirely their own — how could you ever compare to ‘Streets of Your Town’ to the work of any other modern band, let alone The Beatles? Sour and sweet, fast and slow, it’s a collection of extremes that eventually collapses into one of the most heartfelt admissions of love in the face of terrible change in the modern canon. — JE
#19. Tina Arena — ‘Chains’
The video for ‘Chains’ is simple — Tina Arena sits in a darkened room, paper covering the windows, and slowly but surely comes to life. Halfway through the song, she’s tearing herself free of the prison. By the final bar, she’s staring into the camera and smiling.
It’s heightened, ridiculous stuff, of course. But so is the song itself, a story of gradually falling back in love with your own potential, and understanding anew that you are capable of all of the sorts of things people have spent your entire life telling you that you’d fail at. There are no songs as well-suited to being bellowed in the dark of the night, when your reserves of strength are at their very lowest. — JE
#18. INXS — ‘Need You Tonight’
According to Andrew Farriss, the most famous guitar lick in INXS’ career — maybe even in Australian rock — came to him suddenly, without warning; he had just jumped into a waiting cab when it came roaring into his head.
Unperturbed, he asked the driver to wait, ran upstairs, spent an hour laying down the guitar part to tape, and returned eventually to the very pissed off man who’d been idling for him. Surely, in retrospect, it was worth that wasted time. ‘Need. You Tonight’, a horny work of pure, sticky-sweet devotion, wouldn’t work without that iconic repeated ice pick stab. You could crawl up into it live there for the rest of your life. — JE
#17. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — ‘Into My Arms’
“I don’t believe in an interventionist God,” Nick Cave opens one of his most famous songs. “But I know darling that you do.” What other singer-songwriter in the country — maybe even in the world — would assemble those words in that order, let alone sing them as a plaintive ballad?
‘Into My Arms’ isn’t just a song of devotion. It’s a song of genesis, an attempt to understand and unpick the entire universe and its creator, and in the process, to find a way to convincingly explain your love for the person you want to be to for the rest of your life. There are few more romantic statements in modern songwriting. — JE
#16. Natalie Imbruglia — ‘Torn’
Every couple of years, the news does the rounds that (GASP) Natalie Imbruglia’s ‘Torn’ is actually a cover. And yes, it is: it was originally released by Ednaswap, and was subsequently picked up by Danish band Lis Sørensen. But it wasn’t until Imbruglia got her hands on it that the song took off.
She was in sessions for her album Left Of The Middle when producer Phil Thornalley suggested they add a cover to the record. She gave it a shot, and the rest was history.
“We didn’t think anything of Natalie’s version — (we thought) it’s just another European cover. And we really didn’t give it another thought,” Ednaswap’s Anne Preven told News Corp earlier in 2017. Her bandmate and songwriter partner Scott Cutler agreed: “Honestly, I didn’t love it.”
They may not have, but the rest of the world did. It blitzed charts around the world and its video — featuring Imbruglia twirling and spinning as an apartment deconstructs itself around her — is ingrained in Australian consciousness. — JL
#15. RÜFÜS DU SOL — ‘Innerbloom’
“Epic“, “mesmerising“, “a journey”, “beloved”, “euphoric”. Many descriptors have been applied to RÜFÜS DU SOL’s nine-minute masterpiece, and none of them are out of place. It’s the definition of a slow burn — the Sydney band eke out the suspense until it threatens to tear at the seams, and then it does, exploding into singer Tyrone Lindqvist’s desperate offering: “If you want me/If you need me/I’m yours.”
“We had a lot of chats with the label [and] radio people about how putting out a nine-minute song isn’t the usual done thing,” band member Jon George told triple j. “But we stuck to our guns and we were very sure we didn’t want to change the arrangement.”
Its success was an equal slow burn. It didn’t make the Hottest 100 at all, but landed at #5 in the Hottest 100 of the Decade, five years later. — JL
#14. The Church — ‘Under The Milky Way’
Earlier in this list, Joseph Earp described Icehouse’s ‘Great Southern Land’ as a bright pink gothic castle of a song. Well if ‘Great Southern Land’ is the castle, then ‘Under The Milky Way’ is the song murmured after the walls have been breached. Haunting, elegant, it captures a chilling portrait of the Australian landscape — its greatness and its vast emptiness.
Lead singer Steve Kilbey has been wildly critical of the song since its release — once describing it as “flat, lifeless and sterile” — so irked he was by its massive success that threatened to drown out every release that followed. He’s softened on it recently, but still maintains he’d be happy to never play it live again. — JL
#13. Midnight Oil — ‘Beds Are Burning’
Released just months before Australia marked the 200th anniversary of the first fleet arriving, ‘Beds Are Burning’ was a harsh and necessary reminder that modern Australia was built on genocide and oppression.
Written in the wake of the band’s Blackfella/Whitefella tour with Warumpi Band and Gondwanaland through Indigenous communities, it was intended to drown out the gross bicentenary celebrations that would occur the following year. In many ways, they succeeded — ‘Beds Are Burning’ is the band’s biggest song, and while they have faced criticism from some who argued their dominance drowned out Indigenous voices, their relentless advocacy started a conversation that white Australia had previously ignored (and continues to ignore).
Midnight Oil wielded the song as a political weapon, most notably in their performance at the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 olympics — the word ‘Sorry’ scrawled across their black jumpsuits. In recent years, the song has taken on an entirely new meaning — as a warning and call to action in the climate crisis. — JL
#12. The Veronicas — ‘Untouched’
In the lead up to 2019’s Field Day festival, headliner, rapper Cardi B, was the most keenly anticipated act — she was the hottest artist in the world after her album Invasion Of Privacy and singles like ‘Bodak Yellow’ and ‘I Like It’. Her resulting set was suitably excellent, but it wasn’t the biggest moment of the day.
That honour went to The Veronicas, who appeared during Mallrat’s set and caused complete pandemonium by tearing through their beloved ‘Untouched’ — the “Australian national anthem”, as the Origliasso twins have been known to call it.
‘Untouched’ is perfect pop — a heady, frenetic rush from start to finish featuring arguably the best-known violin riff of modern times. It wasn’t their biggest hit upon release, that’s ‘Hook Me Up’, but in the years since it has taken up a special place in the hearts of Aussie music lovers. Maybe they’re onto something with the national anthem thing? — JL
#11. Gurrumul — ‘Wiyathul’
Frequently, true masterpieces are ignored in their time. But in 2008, Gurrumul released one of the most important records in the modern canon, a softly sung work of impossible beauty known as Gurrumul — and it was immediately recognised as such. Within a matter of weeks, the record was a best-seller, adored by critics and held up as one of our music scene’s truly unrivalled achievements.
It hasn’t faded in the years since, either. If anything, its pleasures have only become more beloved; its message only more urgent and timely. To put on a song like ‘Wiyathul’ is to be submerged in something vast and beautiful, like floating in a deep body of water, staring upwards at the sky. — JE
#10. Kev Carmody — ‘River of Tears’
Kev Carmody has never been a songwriter to use a few words when he could use one, and ‘River of Tears’, his chilling protest song, is as direct as they come.
The first stanza lays out the horror in a matter of mere lines — “A brother murdered in Sydney Town,” Carmody howls over the sound of guitars and rhythmic percussion. “Marrickville brother under supposed legal cover, in his home they gunned him down.”
The rest of the song after that first trauma is just one long process of grieving, eventually becoming wordless and grim, fading out, becoming silence. It will stick with you for the rest of your life. — JE
#9. Silverchair — ‘Tomorrow’
‘Tomorrow’ is a tossed-off song, written after the then 15-year-old members of Silverchair watched a program on TV about a rich man being talked through the experiences of those less fortunate than him. Daniel Johns, the lead singer, and Ben Gillies, the drummer, didn’t have extraordinarily high hopes for it, either — it was written as part of a back catalogue they were taking into a competition for school-based bands.
When it eventually won a national competition looking for the country’s most successful young acts, it was something of a surprise to the teenage group, and even more of one when triple j later picked it up and ABC recorded a video. They thought they’d written a quasi-comedic rock sketch. What they’d actually written was one of the best and most innovative songs in the Australian rock catalogue.
There are weirder Silverchair songs, of course — within a couple of years, the band had thrown off their grunge rock origins and started playing around with more innovative, bigger sounds. But here, all of their pleasures remain in their most crystalline, essential form, from that horizon-sized chorus to Johns’ emotional, whiskey-and-honey voice. This is their ragged ur-text, a band laying out their past, present and future all at once. — JE
#8. Crowded House — ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’
On November 24, 1996, Crowded House said farewell to the world on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. Moments before the last song, drummer Paul Hester wipes some tears from his face, throws down his towel and looks out at the glimmering crowd of 100,000 devoted fans. Even the stoic and steadfast Neil Finn looks overwhelmed as he contemplates the end.
The song they chose to wave farewell was, of course, ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, their hopeful, melancholy, emotional anthem that has tenderly held Australian in its arms since its release in 1986.
After the song has been swept away, Finn presses ahead and leads the crowd through one final chorus. The people oblige, and the strains echo across the black water. Simply, one of the most magnificent moments in music history. — JL
#7. Paul Kelly — ‘To Her Door’
Some of the best singer-songwriters in the world need an entire album to tell the story of a lifetime. Paul Kelly just needs one brief, three-minute long pop song. ‘To Her Door’ is like a Raymond Carver story with everything but the verbs snipped out, a warm salt lake of a narrative that passes through self-destruction, heartache, and then all the way through to something like grace.
Wilder still, Kelly was 32 when he wrote it. You can’t tell by listening to the song. With its world-weariness and its wisdom, it sounds like an admission of guilt penned by a man three or four times older, looking back on the crooked path that took him to this sad, battered moment of reflection.
It would make Kelly’s career — or at least, take it to a new level. And even after all the ways that he’s pushed and changed himself since, it still remains the core of his songwriting process; an entire way of looking at the world, set to a simple guitar line and slapped with one of the most nimble choruses in recent memory. — JE
#6. Yothu Yindi — ‘Treaty’
In 1988, after being presented with the Barunga Statement in the Northern Territory, Prime Minister Bob Hawke promised he would act and begin negotiations on a treaty between Aboriginal people and the Australian government.
“The Government hopes that these negotiations can commence before the end of 1988 and will lead to an agreed treaty in the life of this Parliament,” he strongly asserted.
But history would determine otherwise. Hawke failed in his promise; the treaty never came, and hasn’t come since. Yothu Yindi, led by Dr Yunupingu, didn’t want Australia to forget the promise, and so they wrote, with the help of Paul Kelly, ‘Treaty’. It cracked the Australian mainstream — helped along by a wildly popular remix — flying up the ARIA charts and remaining there for 22 weeks. Its significance cannot be understated — this was a call to action, and one of the first times First Nations voices had been heard so loudly in Australian music.
“It was released at a time where the Mabo case was in the High Court. It highlighted the whole Indigenous movement,” Kev Carmody told Double J last year. “It was one of the first commercial songs in about 20 years that had Indigenous input into it. We have Jimmy Little in the ’60s and Lionel Rose, and then you have ‘Treaty’, it was a real high point and a pinnacle from an indigenous point of view in music.
“The legacy of it is still an ongoing progression,” he continued. “We’re still looking at this concept of a treaty and the recognition in the constitution of our custodianship of this country for 50,000 years.” — JL
#5. The Drones — ‘Shark Fin Blues’
The Drones, led by Gareth Liddiard, have something of a strange connection to ‘Shark Fin Blues’. They stopped playing it live for a while, and speak sometimes with a degree of uneasiness about its success.
It’s not hard to see why. The Drones are a band that move in a blur, never committing to one clear style or tone. Calling ‘Shark Fin Blues’ the best song of a band just as capable of making a crooked punk song like ‘She Had An Abortion She Made Me Pay For’ or the Fela Kuti-esque funk of ‘Boredom’ seems like a form of reduction. The Drones aren’t ‘Shark Fin Blues’, and ‘Shark Fin Blues’ isn’t The Drones; it’s just one snatched moment of a multi-year long process of metamorphosis.
The best way to appreciate the song then, is as its own shivering, distinct beast. It’s not the summa of The Drones’ career. It’s just one brief moment of it; a doomed ballad about staring down the barrel of your own destruction, as water rises and shark fins appear like kites on the horizon. — JE
#4. INXS – ‘Never Tear Us Apart’
For all of their sonic experimentation, ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ is probably the most basic INXS song in the book. It’s a waltz, mostly carried by synthesisers, and suffused with lyrics that trade in signifiers as big as the side of a barn. There are few metaphors; even fewer similies. Things aren’t like anything. They are just as they are.
“I was standing,” lead singer Michael Hutchence sings on the bridge, his voice filled with the arch, playful dismissiveness of a shrug. “You were there.” What other pop song is as blunt as that? Hutchence never flourishes for your gaze. He demands it through his stillness.
There’s a word for such songwriting. It’s naked, a kind of unfettered form of communication that makes such an impact precisely because the speaking is done through silence. The song has gaps that you could drive a bus through, these big breaks in the action as the artificial strings part, and Hutchence explains an entire way of living by explaining nothing at all. That’s a kind of magic trick. And Michael Hutchence is one of the only performers in our history who could have pulled it off. — JE
#3. Thelma Plum — ‘Better In Blak’
“I was writing this record when I was coming out of a very dark place,” Thelma Plum told Music Junkee last year. “Once I was able to write it down and articulate how I was feeling, it was like therapy. I could acknowledge how I was feeling, and bring myself out of that dark place.
“There’s absolutely no way you can bring yourself out from there if you don’t acknowledge how you’re feeling in the first place. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, I’ll be fine,’ and just press through pretending you are. It doesn’t work that way.”
The origin story of Plum’s ‘Better In Blak’ is well known: after refusing to cower to a disgraced band’s hatred, she was relentlessly harassed and abused by their fans — so much so that she was forced to have security on stage at some festival slots. “It’s a pretty shitty feeling, fearing for your own safety while you’re on stage trying to perform,” she told Music Junkee. “How could you want to do something like that to someone that you don’t even know?”
‘Better In Blak’ is her powerful response, gripping from the first line: “Do you know what it’s like/To get calls in the middle of the night/Saying ‘you’re not worth it’?/’You deserve it’?”
Plum packaged defiance, grace, and fierce determination in barely three minutes of delicious pop. It feels like a purr, but it packs an iron punch. — JL
#2. Paul Kelly — ‘How To Make Gravy’
If ‘To Her Door’ is Paul Kelly at his most essential and direct, then ‘How To Make Gravy’ is Kelly at his most oblique. After all, as the memes make clear, the song’s a recipe, first and foremost. How many singer-songwriters could construct a recipe so beautiful as to make you cry?
That’s the thing about the pop canon, after all. Talking about songs as masterpieces, saturating them all across the radio, handing them out awards — that’s a process that can make even the wildest piece of art feel genteel and handsome, like an old leather chair. But that’s not the joy of ‘How To Make Gravy’. It’s not stately. It’s vicious, and human, and funny in a kind of lopsided, grotesque way.
Listen to it again, stripping apart the contextual merit and praise foisted upon it by lists like this one, and remind yourself just what a brave, unparalleled choice it is to pivot from lines about dollops of ketchup to heartfelt admissions of wrongdoing. That’s not a safe choice. That’s throwing a lit match onto a Jackson Pollock painted in gasoline. — JE
#1. Kylie Minogue — ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’
Kylie Minogue doesn’t really think she deserves the top spot on this list. When Music Junkee told her that ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ was going to be ranked the greatest Australian song of all time, she could only describe the decision with one word. “It’s crazy,” she said.
As to what she would pick, the choice came to her easily. “‘Need You Tonight’, come on,” Minogue said while casting her eye over our list of 200 songs. “I don’t know. It’s going to be a contentious list, I know that much.”
Perhaps Minogue is underselling herself. From the day ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ dropped, all the way back in 2001, it’s been recognised as an all-timer; not just the buffed diamond in Kylie’s own crown, but one of the most perfect and carefully textured pop hits this country has ever produced.
It’s only grown in stature since then. Indeed, to say that time has been kind to the song might even be something of a fib. Now, compared to the sleepier pop of our age, Kylie’s work sounds positively unstoppable; a kitsch, pink-plated train gone careening off the side of a cliff.
The song has also, as with so many of Minogue’s hits, revealed itself to be stranger and more slippery than it first appeared. There is something giddy about its insistence — those opening bars sound positively eerie in their crisp, heavy repetition, like the high heels of a killer pacing back and forth in front of your hiding spot. “It’s an earworm,” Minogue said. “And it had more of an electronic feel than the fluffiness and sunshine of Light Years.”
Much of that subversion went unnoticed at first. This is how it tends to go with Kylie: the press has long had a habit of talking about her as though she performs mere trinkets, underselling her art at every turn. Hell to that. Kylie’s skill is that somehow, against the odds, she writes songs that have it all, at once eminently listenable, imbued with life, and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, subtly willing to take apart everything that usually makes pop bangers what they are.
Credit must also go to the song’s original writers, Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis. They were the pair who first composed the track, and Minogue only got involved after the hulking, silver thing had been riveted together.
“‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ is an entire approach to art condensed into one all-too brief piece of perfection.”
Her initial response? Fear. “I think it was 20 seconds in,” Minogue told Music Junkee. “I just had that feeling or that sensation of, ‘What am I listening to? This is absolutely incredible.’
“Then came a slight sense of panic. I said, ‘Are you sure? Have we definitely got this song? I need this song.’ I just knew it, I knew I needed it.”
That instant connection can be heard humming through the song itself: ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ knows Kylie, and Kylie knows ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head.’ It is a love story of sorts; an artist at a key stage of her career who meets the perfect song, and has her life changed forever.
As to why Minogue herself thinks that the song has held up so well, the answer is simple. “Well, because it’s good, for a start.”
Again, Minogue is underselling herself. ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ is an entire approach to art condensed into one all-too brief piece of perfection; the Sistine Chapel ceiling daubed in bright neon paints. — JE