Best-of lists are always some of the hardest things to put together, for the main reason that there’s so much amazing musical talent Australia has to offer – talent that flourishes even amid uncertainty and hardship, as the protracted pandemic has shown.
But NME Australia has still managed to shortlist 15 of the best Australia-made records of 2021 so far. Get stuck in and let us know what we missed.
‘Drinking With My Smoking Friends’
In the lead-up to his fourth full-length ‘Drinking With My Smoking Friends’, Allday made a point to dub the release as his “guitar album”. The jump he makes from his woozy brand of hip-hop to shimmering alt rock/pop is admirable, but not as impressive as his ability to convincingly do both.
Whether it’s the blazing summer of ‘After All This Time’, the deadpan ramble of ‘The Paris End Of Collins St’ or the spotlit ballad ‘Bright’, Allday’s fourth album cements his versatility and his bravery, yet still seamlessly weaves in the musical elements he’s built his career on thus far. ‘Drinking With My Smoking Friends’ isn’t a shocking 180 – it’s the evolution of an artist coming into his own. Jackson Langford
Allday’s ‘Drinking With My Smoking Friends’ is out now via Allday Music/Believe.
Divide And Dissolve
The instrumental duo’s cathartic third album – produced by Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson – at once confronts white supremacy and colonialism while carving out a space for hope and resistance, challenging conventional musical structures to craft a unique, incendiary record.
Throughout the odyssey that is ‘Gas Lit’, Takiaya Reed (saxophone/guitar) and Sylvie Nehill (drums) explore beautiful noise and crushingly heavy discordance, coalescing doom, drone and classical influences together. The result is an intense experience that amplifies their vital message, demonstrates the duo’s tight-knit creative chemistry, and cements them as a vital sonic force to be reckoned with. Alex Gallagher
Divide And Dissolve’s ‘Gas Lit’ is out now via Invada.
‘Smiling With No Teeth’
Concept albums are rare in Australia; perhaps cultural cringe makes the enterprise seem pretentious. No one told 22-year old Kofi Owusu-Ansah that, though. He studied rap epics like ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, and decided to birth his own mythology on his debut album as Genesis Owusu, ‘Smiling With No Teeth’.
- READ MORE: Genesis Owusu: “I’d rather be a legend on my own little island than compete for a throne”
His 15-track fable tells of a struggle against two spectral black dogs – depression and racism – backgrounded by a splatter painting of his every musical influence. The Prince funk (‘Don’t Need You’), Kanye swank (‘Gold Chains’) and Talking Heads rhythms (‘Drown’) are obvious – but their improvisational composition renders those sounds misshapen, and utterly new. It marks Owusu as a modern Australian maestro. Josh Martin
Genesis Owusu’s ‘Smiling With No Teeth’ is out now via OURNESS/House Anxiety.
‘Face Of God’
Holiday Sidewinder has charted a unique path from fronting indie rockers Bridezilla to the fractured ’80s pop of ‘Forever Or Whatever’ to… well, whatever this is. Woozy, lysergic electro-prog? Day-glo depressive jazz-rock? Downtempo apocalyptic retro-futurism? Or all of the above?
- READ MORE: Holiday Sidewinder and Nick Littlemore on new album ‘Face of God’, a “beautiful wake” for the apocalypse
A years-long collaboration with PNAU/Empire Of The Sun fulcrum Nick Littlemore has resulted in eight languid tracks of drifting melodies and Littlemore’s soul-black lyrics delivered by Sidewinder in her most ethereal Elizabeth Fraser-matching falsetto. It’s been described, accurately, as the soundtrack to the end of the world. We’ll be lucky if that’s anywhere near as beautiful and brilliant as this. Andrew P. Street
Holiday Sidewinder’s ‘Face Of God’ is out now via Lab78.
Arriving nine years after her last solo LP, Julia Stone’s ‘Sixty Summers’ is the mark of a singer reinventing herself. Largely shaking off the indie folk she’s best known for, she delves into an array of slightly darker sounds, toying with jazz and electronica. She weaves webs of romantic lyricism across the record, regaling the listener with cinematic dramas, passionate love affairs and moonlit frolics in her soft, breathy drawl.
- READ MORE: Julia Stone: “I’ve been amazed over the years how some people really don’t like finding out who I am”
The result is a multifaceted yet fluid body of work, reflective of a musician who’s pushed her own creative boundaries and emerged a new, exciting artist. Greta Brereton
Julia Stone’s ‘Sixty Summers’ is out now via BMG.
On ‘Leafcutter’, it’s just June Jones, the synthesiser and you. The minimal instrumentation demands your undivided attention as Jones sings of therapy, memory and her lived experience as a trans woman with ADHD. Each song is confessional in nature, bringing you up close with the singer’s inner fears: “I try to not disappear… I try my best to exist.”
- READ MORE: June Jones: “Even when the world feels extremely difficult, there is always humanity and care and solidarity”
Jones’ decision to self-produce this record, unlike her 2019 debut ‘Diana’, only enhances the storytelling taking shape over its ten songs. It’s not an album thrown on in the background, but one as intent and intimate as the counselling sessions she reflects on. Caleb Triscari
June Jones’ ‘Leafcutter’ is out now via Emotion Punk/Remote Control.
King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard
As they near the 20-record mark, King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard still want to impress. ‘L.W.’, their 17th album and their second of 2021 (last week, they dropped ‘Butterfly 3000’), finds the devil in the details with knowing nods to their previous work.
‘If Not Now, Then When?’, for instance, is a grab bag of the best boogie ideas from ‘Oddments’ and the light touch of ‘Paper Mâché Dream Balloon’. One thing remains a constant: frontman Stu Mackenzie’s trademark “woos” and whelps. He keeps the magic alive with the same emotional tone – excitement. Mikey Cahill
King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard’s ‘L.W.’ is out now via Flightless Records.
KUČKA has long been known for buzzy features on tracks by A$AP Rocky, Vince Staples and, yes, Flume. But, with her debut album ‘Wrestling’, the electro-pop vocalist, songwriter and producer reclaims her own identity.
KUČKA’s airy soprano is juxtaposed against glassy synths and glitchy SOPHIE-style beats – but she never loses herself in cerebral soundscapes, instead delving into self-realisation, freedom and queer love. ‘Wrestling’ offers intimate avant&B for headphone listening on existential journeys and, with the sensuously rhythmic ‘Afterparty’, daydreaming. Yet the emotional apex is ‘Eternity’, a sublime ballad about being present. Cyclone Wehner
KUČKA’s ‘Wrestling’ is out now via Soothsayer/Lucky Me.
‘First Time Really Feeling’
Liz Stringer scales emotional peaks in ‘First Time Really Feeling’. Looking back on life through the clear lenses that come with newfound sobriety, her pulsing ballads trace tales of displacement from rising city rents, budding youthful friendships and the burden of patriarchal expectations.
- READ MORE: Liz Stringer – ‘First Time Really Feeling’ review: a singer-songwriter at the peak of her powers
Stringer’s steady, resonant voice is a lantern, guiding listeners through this sombre, yet strong record. While she doesn’t shy from bold embellishments – like the glimmering keys, bleeding strings and blooming choral harmonies on ‘The Waning Of The Sun’ – the disciplined composer is careful never to overpower her finely detailed stories. Belinda Quinn
Liz Stringer’s ‘First Time Really Feeling’ is out now via Milk!/Remote Control.
Four albums in, Sydney’s Mere Women are at the top of their game. ‘Romantic Notions’ is an urgent and unswerving album of propulsive post-punk that examines idealism as a coping mechanism in the face of unacceptable, coercive behaviour women experience to this day.
- READ MORE: Mere Women: Sydney post-punks take apart “double-edged” romanticism on their fourth album
These themes are not new to singer and keyboardist Amy Wilson, but ‘Romantic Notions’ brings things closer to home this time, taking inspiration from Wilson’s great-grandmother’s diaries and her own family history. A sonically complex record that covers Siouxsie Sioux-esque gothic rock, arena-sized alt-rock and dissonant no wave, ‘Romantic Notions’ is a visceral and vital triumph. Tom Walters
Mere Women’s ‘Romantic Notions’ is out now via Poison City.
‘Today We’re The Greatest’
Middle Kids hit the ground running from day-dot – so much so that it wouldn’t have surprised many if they suffered a one-and-done implosion. Not only have they avoided the sophomore slump, however, they’ve surpassed their prior body of work entirely.
- READ MORE: Middle Kids on their new album ‘Today We’re The Greatest’: “We know who we are, and this is it”
‘Today We’re The Greatest’ documents a band in repose and reflection, adding a further emotional depth and texture to their already maximalist indie rock. Bookending the album with the career-best balladry of ‘Bad Neighbours’ and the title track, the Sydney trio double down on their searing confessional style to full effect. This record is an accomplished, fully realised effort that rewards fans both old and new. David James Young
Middle Kids’ ‘Today We’re The Greatest’ is out now via EMI.
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
Recorded under the stasis of the pandemic, ‘Carnage’ is a big departure from Cave and Ellis’ last full Bad Seeds record, the gossamer ‘Ghosteen’. It’s riddled with discord and brittle humanity, pounding synths, recurring motifs and classically Cave-ian religious references, both subversive and devotional.
As with all of Cave’s work since the passing of his son, the album explores humanity’s capacity for violence and love, but by the end of ‘Carnage’, you get the feeling he’s reconciled himself with the fact that easy answers will remain elusive. ‘Carnage’ is Cave at his disturbing, electrifying and prophetic best. Nick Buckley
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis’ ‘Carnage’ is out now via Goliath.
Odette was at her lowest when she wrote ‘Herald’. The emotionally-concentrated follow-up to 2018’s ‘To A Stranger’ centres around a particularly difficult breakup and her struggles with mental illness. Here, she’s traded in some of her hallmark neo-soul ways for frustrated, glitching electro-pop and ballads that dance a line between bitter and broken.
Sitting alongside the heaviness, though, is surprisingly whimsical production, used to express how grounded the 24-year-old feels amongst nature. Her microcosm in ‘Herald’ is littered with classical strings, Disney-esque flutes, and synthetic insect sounds. It makes clear that there is still hope. Odette’s complexities may run as deep as the women who’ve inspired her – Fiona Apple, Björk – but her emotions, in this collection, are universal. Debbie Carr
Odette’s ‘Herald’ is out now via EMI.
‘A Ton Of Colours’
So sweeping and shivering is Ryan Downey’s natural baritone that it could threaten to overshadow his actual songs. Thankfully he squashes that risk flat on his second album, which is a step up from the Melbourne singer-songwriter’s promising 2018 debut.
The grandiosity of ‘A Ton Of Colours’ is grounded in Downey’s newfound showmanship. The arrangements follow suit, arcing upwards and outwards with a ripe dramatic flair befitting the lovestruck lyrics. Straddling luscious soft rock and arty indie pop, Downey lets loose on every front here, belting out his intense and timeless feelings like a neglected torch singer who’s suddenly hellbent on making himself heard. Doug Wallen
Ryan Downey’s ‘A Ton Of Colours’ is out now via Dot Dash/Remote Control.
Sarah Mary Chadwick
‘Me And Ennui Are Friends, Baby’
There is nowhere to hide on Sarah Mary Chadwick’s latest and almost certainly greatest solo album: the songs were recorded in a handful of takes, the sole instrumentation is an upright piano, and the New Zealand-born and Melbourne-based singer-songwriter delivers them with an idiosyncratic phrasing that is both conversational and crushing.
- READ MORE: Sarah Mary Chadwick: “I always thought taking responsibility for things was just feeling bad about them”
“You’re nothing, you’re no-one to me,” begins ‘Every Loser Needs A Mother’, and the prolific Chadwick turns a brutal year of losses into caustic self-loathing and withering black humour. The title track documents reaching the point of no return, but Chadwick’s defiance gives this album compelling strengths – resilience and affirmation. Craig Mathieson
Sarah Mary Chadwick’s ‘Me And Ennui Are Friends, Baby’ is out now via Rice Is Nice.