Let’s not mince words – it’s been a thoroughly shitty year. At the start of 2020, Australia experienced some of its worst bushfires in recent history, and then swiftly went into lockdown as the coronavirus ran rampant.
2020 has been defined by bleakness and isolation, and musicians tried to alleviate the pain the way they know best, even as they struggled against the devastating loss of income dealt by the pandemic. Here are the 25 Australian releases (albums and EPs) to remember from a year we’d all like to forget.
Karen Gwee, Associate Editor
Words: Anna Rose, Brodie Lancaster, Caleb Triscari, Cyclone Wehner, David James Young, Doug Wallen, Eddy Lim, Greta Brereton, Jackson Langford, Joshua Martin, Mikey Cahill, Nick Buckley
25. Washington, ‘Batflowers’
Returning with an album after an extended period of silence can be a make-or-break moment. For Megan Washington, it was the former. Not only is ‘Batflowers’ an elegant and exciting return for the Brisbane singer, but it also reassured fans that her time spent on other projects didn’t blunt her creative edge.
Even though it breaches unfamiliar territory with its synthy beats and cabaret-style love songs, ‘Batflowers’ refuses to be an alienating listen. After all, it’s the messages of love and wonder that make it a Washington record, but it’s Meg’s push to explore new means of expressing herself that keeps us hooked. CT
Key track: ‘Kiss Me Like We’re Gonna Die’
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24. The Avalanches, ‘We Will Always Love You’
Incredibly, The Avalanches are making career-defining work 20 years after their cult debut, ‘Since I Left You’. Inspired by the tale behind NASA’s Voyager Golden Record, the eventful ‘We Will Always Love You’ is cosmically conceptual. The album’s neo-psychedelia is more ‘Age Of Aquarius’ than disco, refracting bliss, melancholy and metaphysical mystery.
- READ MORE: The Avalanches: “Now we’re just a regular band instead of the band who made an amazing debut”
The Melbourne duo transcend their old plunderphonics aesthetic – shedding the novelty factor, but not the maximalism or charm. The curation of ‘We Will Always Love You’ is imaginative, too – spanning underrated Black auteurs Sananda Maitreya (formerly Terence Trent D’Arby), Tricky and Neneh Cherry, plus buzzy newcomers like CLYPSO and Sampa The Great. It’s a journey through space, time and memory. CW
Key track: ‘Wherever You Go’
Like this? Try this: Caribou, Gorillaz
23. Alex The Astronaut, ‘The Theory Of Absolutely Nothing’
When Alex The Astronaut set out to write her debut album, the young troubadour wanted to document her observations of life, speaking to adult realities with childlike wonderment. As a result, ‘The Theory Of Absolutely Nothing’ is packed with universal truths that resonate across the board.
- READ MORE: Alex The Astronaut: “I’ll tell stories as truthfully as I can – but every truth is relative”
Tackling heavy themes with a gentle and intimate folk whimsy, Alex Lynn has crafted songs suited to our modern moment. Her new album has cemented her as an important voice to be heard. AR
Key track: ‘I Think You’re Great’
Like this? Try this: Alex Lahey, Ruby Fields
22. Ball Park Music, ‘Ball Park Music’
Self-titled albums usually mark a band’s debut or defining moment in their career. For Ball Park Music it’s the latter – their eponymous sixth studio album embodies the elements of their sound that listeners have come to know and love.
- READ MORE: Ball Park Music: “That ‘Fuck it!’ attitude is more prevalent in the band than ever before”
Peppy indie pop, quirky lyrics and punchy instrumentals form the backbone of the album, while warped guitars on ‘Spark Up!’ and ‘Head Like A Sieve’ add some psych-rock flavours into the mix. Mellow moments in the form of ‘Turning Zero’ and the melancholic ‘Cherub’ prove the band’s musical multiplicity, culminating in a cross-section of Ball Park Music at their best. GB
Key track: ‘Cherub’
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21. Hockey Dad, ‘Brain Candy’
An audience of millions awaited a new album from Hockey Dad, the band whose hometown has just shy of 3,000 people. The real-gone surfer boys of Windang were acutely aware of the formula that had worked across their previous two records – which made it all the more intriguing when ‘Brain Candy’ deviated from it in the best way possible.
The hooks abound, the lyrics are candid and the sonic landscape leaps from Spaghetti Western to emo revival without batting an eyelid. Pound for pound, ‘Brain Candy’ is easily the best record the duo have made to date. DJY
Key track: ‘Germaphobe’
Like this? Try this: Skegss, WAAX
20. Nat Vazer, ‘Is This Offensive And Loud?’
Heartbreak, loss, tragedy, gender inequality – Nat Vazer explores these themes and more over nine distinct songs on her arresting debut. While the record draws comparisons to her peers like Mitski, Jay Som and Japanese Breakfast, Vazer carves her own path with her meditative and forthright lyricism, accompanied by overdriven guitars and pounding drums.
From the addictive, singalong hook of ‘For A Moment’ to the emotionally charged ballad ‘Better Now’, ‘Is This Offensive And Loud?’ has indisputably established itself as one of the most exciting debut albums this side of indie rock. EL
Key track: ‘For A Moment’
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19. Mildlife, ‘Automatic’
This year’s restrictions have forced us to look inward, to find those wide-open spaces where the mind can wander. On Mildlife’s new album ‘Automatic’, they’ve managed to condense learnings from the wigged-out, live dancefloor explorations which have earned them their fanbase, while keeping the door open for those sonic voyagers wanting to move between worlds.
It’s a bit like when you focus the sun’s rays with a magnifying glass: expansive and celestial on one end, laser heat on the other. Taken as a whole, ‘Automatic’ is Mildlife’s best album. All that’s missing now is the sweat and sway of the crowd. NB
Key track: ‘Rare Air’
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18. Kylie Minogue, ‘Disco’
“Can we all be as one again?” That’s the closing lyric of Kylie Minogue’s ‘Say Something’, the captivating lead single of her 15th studio album ‘Disco’. Minogue revives disco-pop in an effort for all of us to escape the misery of 2020, and, for just over 40 minutes, we live the fantasy with her. Through the punchy brass in ‘Magic’ and the strutting bassline in ‘Real Groove’, Kylie stretches out her hand and invites you on a ride around the mirror ball. You won’t want to get off any time soon. JL
Key track: ‘Magic’
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17. Violent Soho, ‘Everything Is A-OK’
And to think the title of Violent Soho’s fifth album was meant to be sarcastic before everything went to shit. Still, its obvious sneering cynicism aside, there’s a lot to celebrate on ‘Everything Is A-OK’. Whether it’s the churning post-grunge guitars of ‘Lying On The Floor’, the alt-country atmospherics of ‘Slow Down Sonic’ or the propulsive ‘Pick It Up Again’, this record is proof that Violent Soho’s best days aren’t behind them even after 16 years in the game. DJY
Key track: ‘Lying On The Floor’
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16. Cut Copy, ‘Freeze, Melt’
The sweaty, heady universe of dance music has been home to Cut Copy for almost two decades. But moving a world away from familiar nightclubs and parties encouraged frontman Dan Whitford to rug up and turn inwards.
- READ MORE: Cut Copy talk going “Scandinavian minimal” for their cool, meditative new album ‘Freeze, Melt’
Written during a dark winter spent in Copenhagen, ‘Freeze, Melt’ is an anxious, almost paranoid record, conscious of the effects of climate change and a global over-reliance on technology. But it also exhales and releases that pent-up tension, letting the heat from the dancefloor steam up and turn the ice to liquid, as on the lovely ‘Like Breaking Glass’. BL
Key track: ‘Like Breaking Glass’
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15. RVG, ‘Feral’
Fundamentally, not a great deal changed between ‘A Quality Of Mercy’, RVG’s 2017 debut, and ‘Feral’. The band’s straightforward, minimal production carried over, as did Romy Vager’s unique, introspective approach. Not once across ‘Feral’’s runtime, however, does the record ever feel like it was stuck in any kind of holding pattern.
RVG operate in a continuous forward motion, propelling jangle-pop gems like ‘Christian Neurosurgeon’ and weaving through plucked heartstrings on ‘I Used To Love You’. The band haven’t compromised or backed down whatsoever. Instead, ‘Feral’ doubles down on what makes RVG such an exciting band to begin with. DJY
Key track: ‘Perfect Day’
Like this? Try this: Cable Ties, Mere Women
14. Tkay Maidza, ‘Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2’
The music writing cliché “genre-hopping” prompts scepticism in the age of streaming services – it’s often analogous to playlist bait. But make an exception for Tkay Maidza, whose second instalment in her hip-hop reinvention is at once chameleonic and natural. The 24-year-old rapper swaps the EDM beats of her past for a lookbook of neo-soul, grime and glitch, uprooted from the same city that produced the Hilltop Hoods.
In interviews, Maidza comes across as coy but her lyrics are beautiful bluster, delivered in a Russian nesting doll of flows. On ‘Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2’, moments of pop savvy are seamlessly interwoven with icy production and modern paranoia. Australia hasn’t seen a rapper with potential like this before. JM
Key track: ‘Awake’
Like this? Try this: Injury Reserve, Noname
13. Sweet Whirl, ‘How Much Works’
Esther Edquist’s musical moniker is the combination of a favourite childhood ice cream and a penchant for lyrical abstraction – an odd mix on paper, but listening to her ‘official’ debut album ‘How Much Works’ and its honeyed parables, it makes sense. The record is a collection of almost laughably beautiful analogue piano, synth ballads and literary insight.
- READ MORE: Sweet Whirl: Carole King and Jack Kerouac meet Beach House, as a Melbourne singer-songwriter turns to the world
Each song is a balm for late-20s ennui, built around the epiphany that swaddling ourselves in high culture doesn’t buy ourselves anything but chi-chi conversation (“I’ve read my Camus / I’ve read my Sartre / Still drunk the morning after”). Her sense of melody is classical, while her arrangements are angular, edited to perfection. JM
Key track: ‘Patterns Of Nature’
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12. OneFour, ‘Against All Odds’
In 2020, OneFour have blazed into the international viralsphere. Co-signed by A$AP Ferg, the Mount Druitt drill collective officially launch their takeover with the ‘Against All Odds’ EP, revealing a Stormzy-level pop ambition.
Their debut project reinforces OneFour’s communal mythos over notoriety, even as the crew acknowledge three imprisoned members and offer commentary on suburban marginalisation (as on standout single ‘Home And Away’). Crucially, OneFour flex their range, introducing R&B hooks (‘Let’s Ride’) and candidly addressing relationships (‘Leaving’). Additionally, they deliver a mega-anthem in ‘My City’ with fellow Sydney rap superstar The Kid LAROI. CW
Key track: ‘Home And Away’
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11. Blake Scott, ‘Niscitam’
Settling into outback-sized sprawl, The Peep Tempel’s mouthy larrikin populates his solo debut with dense, writerly lyrics – and an entire pub’s worth of lopsided Aussie characters. The latter may also be hallmarks of his on-hiatus trio, but ‘Niscitam’ proves uniquely brooding, a philosophical fever dream refracting Blake Scott’s anxieties about becoming a father and childhood memories of rural Western Australia.
Scott reconciles those preoccupations with a stylistic mixed bag of venomous commentary (‘Kalashnikov’) and surprising prettiness (‘Bullfloat Zen’). In the process, he showcases his most mature songwriting to date over a vivid series of mood pieces that reveal new layers (and one-liners) all the time. DW
Key track: ‘Bullfloat Zen’
Like this? Try this: Cash Savage And The Last Drinks, Cable Ties
10. Spacey Jane, ‘Sunlight’
In the lead-up to their debut album, Fremantle garage rockers Spacey Jane warned they would be exploring a different style from their earlier EPs. And what arrived was a fuller, more lush sound in the form of ‘Sunlight’. Its dreamy guitars and album title lend itself to a summery feel, and so listeners might miss some of the underlying themes of anxiety, guilt and falling out of love on the first listen.
This clash of upbeat tempo and solemn lyrics is a tried-and-true pairing that will only make the tracks on ‘Sunlight’ more fun to groove to when festivals eventually return. With musical similarities to Modern Baseball and The Kooks, as well as a J Award nomination under their belt, ‘Sunlight’ has helped Spacey Jane stand out in what can often seem like a sea of indie guitar groups. CT
Key track: ‘Booster Seat’
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9. Cub Sport, ‘Like Nirvana’
To make it through 2020, you needed to be fluid. For Cub Sport, three members of whom had their queerness suffocated and persecuted at a Pentecostal Christian school in Brisbane, rolling – and growing – with the punches has been a lifelong practice.
With ‘Like Nirvana’, Cub Sport’s songwriter Tim Nelson has found a way to reconnect with spirituality on his own terms, going through what he’s described as a “religious reckoning”.
Musically the album’s remarkable in its texture. There are psychedelic, grassy fields on the title track and a gauzy Mallrat collaboration in ‘Break Me Down’, before the church door gets kicked open by an overflowing, bombastic declaration of love on the year’s best power ballad ‘Be Your Man’.
The album is Nelson’s multifaceted expression of what a spiritual life can provide when it’s unshackled from the shame and guilt so often inflicted by organised religion. ‘Like Nirvana’ is literally transcendent. NB
Key track: ‘Be Your Man’
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8. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, ‘Sideways To New Italy’
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever came home from an 18-month world tour feeling unmoored, with holiday photo reels of Los Angeles, Italian islands and Darwin playing in the heads of the trilateral guitarist-songwriters. They channelled the dislocation into the sanguine jangle of their second album ‘Sideways To New Italy’, the contrast of the listless lyrics and the unabating groove creating a musical representation of the touring lifestyle.
- READ MORE: Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever: “Lennon, McCartney, Harrison were in competition with each other. We’re not”
‘Sideways To New Italy’ is also a travelogue of the heart, polished by the sparkling dirt of Burk Reid’s production and interlaced guitar à la Johnny Marr. Tracks like ‘Sunglasses At The Wedding’ conjure place in a novelistic fashion – but it’s ‘Second Of The First’ that best condenses the contradictory feeling of travel through a decaying world: “Nothing is the same, the street hasn’t changed”. It’s a summer record for a summer lost. JM
Key track: ‘Cameo’
Like this? Try this: Scott & Charlene’s Wedding, Dick Diver
7. DMA’S, ‘THE GLOW’
DMA’S are just as magnetic as they are tricky to classify. One song is all delicate guitar strums, another is percussive with swelling strings. Over them all is the tender, grounding voice of Tommy O’Dell.
On their third record, ‘THE GLOW’, O’Dell and guitarists Matt Mason and Johnny Took have given themselves more to do – and given more of themselves. It’s a genuine loss to not have venues, be they pub backrooms or bona fide stadiums, heaving in time to the record’s title track, the underground-infused ‘Life Is A Game Of Changing’ and the anthemic ‘Silver’.
DMA’S have consistently proved themselves to be among the country’s best pop songwriters, and here, under the guidance of producer Stuart Price (who won a Best Dance/Electronic Grammy for Madonna’s ’Confessions On A Dance Floor’), they’re amplified and exaggerated, applying that supersized approach to all manner of genres without pausing for breath. BL
Key track: ‘Silver’
Like this? Try this: Glass Animals, Blossoms
6. Cable Ties, ‘Far Enough’
With great riffs comes great rewards – and Cables Ties’ extraordinary second album ‘Far Enough’ smokes. Jenny McKechnie has a voice that transports you directly into her experience. You feel everything she’s feeling. And on ‘Tell Them Where To Go’, she sings a line that will launch a dozen bands: “Why don’t you walk out your bedroom / And steal your brother’s guitar?”
- READ MORE: “Find something to fight for and be hopeful about”: Cable Ties make music in dangerous times
Sure, 2020 turned into a write-off just as Cable Ties were about to go global. But their time will come, and by then the trio’s ball of rage will have the might and momentum of a rolling boulder. MC
Key track: ‘Sandcastles’
Like this? Try this: Amyl And The Sniffers, Ex Hex
5. Jack Colwell, ‘SWANDREAM’
The most immediate feeling running through your body once you’ve listened to Jack Colwell’s debut album ‘SWANDREAM’ is devastation. It feels like he’s reached into your chest and grabbed your heart, looking into your eyes pleading us to feel what he feels. That’s the unmistakable gravity and power that Colwell’s storytelling has, and ‘SWANDREAM’ is a story all of his own.
- READ MORE: No ugly duckling: Jack Colwell paints his own mythical, turbulent transformation on ‘SWANDREAM’
It’s a story of a young, queer man trying to blossom in a world where his mere identity could get him killed. It’s a tale of fear, isolation and confrontation. Yet, it’s also a story of growth, discovery and resilience.
Colwell makes sure that you’re listening to every word – whether it’s uttered or screamed – over the lush, piano-led production of Sarah Blasko. ‘Home Again’ arrests you with its hopeful loneliness, and ‘No Mercy’ with crunching frustration. An utterly visceral listen with immediate impact. JL
Key track: ‘In My Dreams’
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4. Tame Impala, ‘The Slow Rush’
The toughest thing for Kevin Parker about making Tame Impala’s fourth album was… Kevin Parker. He took more risks with knotty funk and strung-out anti-pop on this record because, like the best artists, the idea of repeating himself makes him sick. For better or worse Parker is wedded to this band, and he wants to be able to make music on his terms, not just pump out another herd of ‘Elephant’s.
‘The Slow Rush’ increased Tame Impala’s lead on the rock’n’roll pack with ‘Is It True’ (Daft Punk grinding on Supertramp), ‘One More Year’ (widescreen festival banger) and ‘Borderline’ (equal to Madonna’s ‘Borderline’). Thank fuck Parker listened to his inner speaker and changed the game again. MC
Key track: ‘Borderline’
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3. Ziggy Ramo, ‘Black Thoughts’
It took Ziggy Ramo five years to share ‘Black Thoughts’, his treatise on the reality of life inside the colonial project of Australia. He knew the world wasn’t ready to hear ‘Black Thoughts’ back in 2015, when he wrote it as a kind of obituary while hospitalised on suicide watch. He finally released the record in June this year, when the global movement for Black Lives reached our shores.
- READ MORE: Ziggy Ramo is the Indigenous rapper who made 2020’s most important Australian album – five years ago
The child of educators and a student of literature, Ramo treats language as both a tool to continue oral storytelling and Songline traditions as well as a sacred object, the thing white settlers tried to deprive Australia’s First People of, the first strike in the dismantling and destruction of their culture.
As black squares spread like their own virus on social media, white allies declared themselves ready to listen. This masterwork, equal parts contemporary hip-hop and historical document, is the record they need to hear. BL
Key track: ‘Black Thoughts’
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2. Gordi, ‘Our Two Skins’
‘Our Two Skins’ is wrung through with stories of place, familial bonds and emotional discovery, as lived by Gordi. There’s the one on ‘Aeroplane Bathroom’ in which she has an airborne, intercontinental panic attack; another in which she falls in love with a woman for the first time; a childhood spent cruising the 3,000-acre family farm solo on a quad bike; and most movingly, the death of her beloved grandmother Ailsa on ‘Sandwiches’.
This isn’t a record of hushed confessionals, though. The album is a momentous achievement in atmosphere, grandeur and inventive recording techniques, using wasp nest-riddled stereos, clanging sheep ramps and jingling farm gates. Gordi’s songs have the emotional clarity and majesty of the sky you only see in the country, where fields and stars stretch in all directions. It’s her blazing generosity of spirit and willingness to let the listener in that makes ‘Our Two Skins’ one of the year’s best. NB
Key track: ‘Extraordinary Life’
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1. Miiesha, ‘Nyaaringu’
Miiesha Young’s debut song collection, ‘Nyaaringu’, stands as 2020’s most compelling release. Symbolically materialising amid global Black Lives Matter protests, ‘Nyaaringu’ signalled the arrival of a new homegrown trailblazer.
A proud Pitjantjatjara and Torres Strait Islander woman, Young chronicles the ongoing impact of colonial dispossession, intergenerational trauma and racial inequality on her remote Aboriginal community in Woorabinda, Central Queensland – “Nyaaringu” meaning “what happened” in Pitjantjatjara language.
Yet, ultimately, she centres culture, family and selfhood. ‘Nyaaringu’ is truthful, empowering and poetic. Young’s songs are interconnected by recordings of her late grandmother’s insights, and on the future R&B track ‘Black Privilege’, she reclaims her identity as she explores the contradictions of resilience.
- READ MORE: Queensland storyteller Miiesha on her new collection ‘Nyaaringu’: “I had to move a long way outside my comfort zone”
Young has joined a long line of socially conscious soul artists, her voice expressive and clear. She also notably absorbs First Nations musical traditions, from gospel (the a cappella opener ‘Caged Bird’, about racial gaslighting) to classic rock (the guitar-led ‘Twisting Words’) to didgeridoo (the dancehall-leaning ‘Self Care’), adding ever deeper layers to her quiet storm grooves.
Still, working alongside producer IAMMXO (Diafrix’s co-founder Mohamed Komba), Young experiments sonically, embracing both glitchtronica (‘Hold Strong’) and trap soul (‘Blood Cells’, since remixed with Briggs). Miiesha holds multitudes – she is a movement. CW
Key track: ‘Twisting Words’
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