There’ve been few bands in Australian history as beloved and polarising as Silverchair. As three teenagers from Newcastle – Daniel Johns, vocals and guitar; Chris Joannou, bass; Ben Gillies, drums – Silverchair became an instant phenomenon upon the release of their debut single ‘Tomorrow’ in late 1994. Across five albums, they rapidly grew from teen grunge idols to kaleidoscopic pop prodigies, led by Johns’ increasingly singular artistic vision.
In Australia, Silverchair were seen as overachievers: the just-like-us teenagers who worked their way to rock stardom. But to the rest of the world, their success only made them seem more divisive. Many critics – including reviews in this publication – saw them as pretenders to the grunge throne, writing them off by the time of 1999’s ‘Neon Ballroom’.
Yet at every step of the way, there was more to Silverchair than met the eye. They were the rare band who gave their all in every aspect of their art, delivering consistently great radio singles, B-sides, albums and live shows. During the band’s run, Johns’ electronic side projects with Paul Mac – I Can’t Believe It’s Not Rock! and The Dissociatives – were equally fascinating. When Silverchair officially went on indefinite hiatus in 2011, it felt as if their story had ended mid-chapter.
Johns spent the 2010s in and out of the tabloids, while reportedly recording hours of unreleased music in his Newcastle home for his own pleasure. Between sporadic guest appearances, the two albums he did release – ‘Talk’ and DREAMS’ ‘No One Defeats Us’ – had mixed results, with flashes of brilliance. Now, in 2020 – 25 years after Silverchair’s debut album ‘Frogstomp’ – Johns’ artistic future is as big a question mark as it’s ever been.
There’s no turning back the clock. It’s easy to romanticise what Silverchair were, but it’s just as important to consider the intangible personal, artistic, and cultural reasons they’ll likely never get back together. Gillies continues to make music solo while Joannou, now a restaurateur, has seemingly retired from music.
Still, great music is eternal. Silverchair’s appeal continues to cross generations, influencing artists as disparate as Tame Impala, Zedd, Paramore, Amy Shark, Kimbra, and Northlane. Johns’ discography, with or without Silverchair, feels far too vital to exist trapped in amber. He’s been teasing a ninth album on Instagram for some time now. Let’s hope it’s as surprising as all the others.
This list includes every Silverchair and Daniel Johns studio album and EP, excluding live releases, which ultimately feel like they belong to a different conversation. After all these years, whether you’re revisiting his music or discovering it for the first time, each listen still promises new revelations.
11. Silverchair – ‘Tomorrow’ (1994)
Silverchair’s first EP, recorded in triple j’s studios after winning an SBS TV competition, captures them while they were still a garage band. ‘Tomorrow’ remains the band’s most famous recording, a Pearl Jam-like hard rock song about sticking it to the man, with an instantly memorable hook: “You wait till tomorrow!” The playing on this original version is stiffer than on ‘Frogstomp’’s re-recording, and throughout the EP, Johns sings with an Eddie Vedder-style affectation, like he’s trying on his big brother’s clothes.
On the other tracks, they’re unrecognisable as the Silverchair we know, trying several derivative approaches to grunge: ‘Acid Rain’ is funky, ‘Blind’ sludgy, ‘Stoned’ plodding. Even aged just 14 and 15, they already had some chemistry as a band: they just needed to find their voice as songwriters. The ‘Tomorrow’ EP is precocious, but ultimately just a snapshot in time. They were destined for bigger and better things.
10. DREAMS – ‘No One Defeats Us’ (2018)
The long-teased collaboration between Daniel Johns and Luke Steele, frontman of The Sleepy Jackson and Empire Of The Sun, ‘No One Defeats Us’ finally arrived in 2018 with a little fanfare. In interviews, both men talked about writing songs that made them feel like superheroes. Their motivations may have been honourable, but the results fall short of inspiration.
The album plays like a DJ set of relentless electro-funk bangers, but without the ingenuity of their influences like Giorgio Moroder or Daft Punk, nor the hunger of countless younger electronic producers. The moments of ingenuity are few and far between: the shred guitar solo on ‘Movies’, the campy Halloween vibes of ‘Odd Party’. ‘Silence’ sums up the experience perfectly: Johns’ alluring verses are the best moment on the record, but the payoff is one of many shouty, nonsensical Steele choruses.
‘No One Defeats Us’ is flamboyant and self-indulgent in all the wrong ways, with little sonic ambition or emotional vulnerability behind it. Ultimately, the band were more (in)famous for Johns’ DREAMS neck tattoo. It’s disappointing not just on its own terms, but because he and Steele are capable of so much better.
9. Daniel Johns – ‘Aerial Love’ (2015)
Released a few months ahead of the ‘Talk’ album, the ‘Aerial Love’ EP establishes the new Daniel Johns: an electro-soul balladeer. In his voice and music, there are no obvious traces of any influence we’d heard prior, but this new sound is clearly indebted to current alt-R&B and electropop: the likes of James Blake, Frank Ocean, Flume and Justin Timberlake.
‘Preach’ is a bombastic, bluesy reintroduction, though it’s an outlier: “I admit I’m living just inside my home / But I don’t wanna live here no more / Now I dance to my own beat!” ‘Aerial Love’, which also reappears on ‘Talk’, is much softer – sung in falsetto over gentle, booming 808s. The two tracks exclusive to this EP are more contemplative than much of the album: ‘Surrender’ is all finger-snaps and sine-wave blips; ‘Late Night Drive’ a dreamy synthwave cut. It’s tempting to rank ‘Aerial Love’ above ‘Talk’ itself, as it’s a more consistent listen… But it lacks the album’s truest highs.
8. Daniel Johns – ‘Talk’ (2015)
About half of ‘Talk’ is very good, if not quite great: ‘We Are Golden’, ‘By Your Side’ and ‘Cool On Fire’ nail the minimal yet cinematic R&B stylings Johns was going for. But ultimately, the album feels tentative; a huge stylistic shift without the musical ambitions to match. He and his collaborators – most notably M-Phazes, and Joel Little of Lorde fame – often feel like they’re only operating at about 60 per cent of their abilities. And while Johns has always been a soulful singer, he lacks the attitude and funk needed to elevate this material.
As a result, most of the album’s 15 tracks blend together. But on the last three tracks, the grand ‘New York’, the wonky ‘Good Luck’ and ‘Going On 16’ (a former Silverchair song), he finally breaks into the bold chords and melodies he’s known for – and the results are enchanting.
7. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Rock! – ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Rock!’ (2000)
In 2000, Daniel Johns and Paul Mac, his future Dissociatives partner, spontaneously decided to collaborate on some music in their home studios. They had no plans to release the material, until they realised it deserved an audience – and so ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Rock!’ was born.
No two songs are alike: ‘Rain’ is moody and psychedelic, unimaginable as something that came from the same mind as ‘Neon Ballroom’ a year earlier. ‘Take Her Out’ is industrial noise rock, but ‘3’ is a baroque acoustic instrumental. There’s no adherence to conventional pop structures, but Johns can’t help but write gorgeous melodies regardless.
Originally only available on their website, the EP has finally become widely available through streaming services. It’s much darker than The Dissociatives, absolutely worth a listen for fans. Daniel has never sounded so free, with so little to prove.
6. Silverchair – ‘Frogstomp’ (1995)
Released just six months after the ‘Tomorrow’ EP, Silverchair were already far more confident in their abilities. The ‘Frogstomp’ rerecording of ‘Tomorrow’ is identical in structure to the original, but it feels like life has been breathed into it. Johns begins to come into his own as a singer, accompanied by his razor-sharp drop-D guitar riffs. Chris Joannou’s bass fills the room; Ben Gillies, the band’s backbone, hits his drums hard.
Even 25 years later, ‘Frogstomp’ is too vital to be dismissed as meat-and-potatoes hard rock. There’s a lot to love, and much of it is heavy: the furious double-time onslaughts of ‘Israel’s Son’ and ‘Faultline’, the pop-punk ‘Findaway,’ the thrashy instrumental ‘Madman.’
However, their limitations are more obvious. ‘Shade’ and ‘Suicidal Dream’ tackle depression and suicidal ideation with some empathy, but the band’s approach is blunt, lumbering. They didn’t yet have the emotional nuance to deal with more mature themes. But who cares? ‘Frogstomp’ embodies the youthful, messy spirit of rock ’n’ roll, proving to countless bands that they could do it too. The 2015 remaster is incredible, and is the best way to hear these songs anew. Still, it’s never been right to call it Silverchair’s objective best album – that’d be like anointing ‘Please Please Me’ the best of The Beatles.
5. The Dissociatives – ‘The Dissociatives’ (2004)
After playing piano on ‘Diorama’, Paul Mac and Daniel Johns reconvened to plumb the full depths of their musical chemistry. ‘The Dissociatives’ combines the free-wheeling approach of ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Rock!’, the adventurous melodies of ‘Diorama’, and a lot of whimsy into the purest, most psychedelic pop record of Johns’ career. Lead single ‘Somewhere Down the Barrel’ is a technicolour journey into dreamland, his ‘Magical Mystery Tour’.
Over a bed of detailed electronic textures, Johns lays down jangly guitars and more stacked vocal harmonies than ever. There are flourishes of musical genius throughout, with plenty of dazzling melodic leaps and key changes. But between the whistling and children’s choirs, several tracks get almost intolerably saccharine. In particular, ‘Horror With Eyeballs’ veers from delusional to brilliant, where carnivalesque verses lead to an infuriating earworm of a chorus: “All of this time on my hands / So far has gone to feeding my animals!”
Electronic pop records really don’t sound like this anymore; ’70s and ’80s nostalgia soon came back in vogue, and never went away. The Dissociatives instead sound like the ’60s and ’90s, The Beatles via William Orbit but so full of childlike wonder that they’re almost wilfully uncool. Still, Mac was one of Johns’ very best foils, and this album deserves a proper follow-up.
4. Silverchair – ‘Freak Show’ (1997)
After touring the US and playing Saturday Night Live, Silverchair returned to high school in Newcastle, where Johns in particular felt like even more of an outcast. Bullied by his peers and hounded by the tabloids, he funnelled all his energy into songwriting. ‘Freak Show’ became an album for the misfits and rejects they saw reflected in their audience.
Though it wasn’t an immediate crowd-pleaser like ‘Frogstomp’, ‘Freak Show’ was otherwise better and sharper in every way. Their drop-D riffs are heavier, more twisted – ‘Slave’, ‘No Association’ and ‘Learn To Hate’ have a groove metal feel; ‘Lie To Me’ is straight-up hardcore punk. On the other hand, ‘The Door’ is an incredibly catchy power-pop song, and ‘Freak’ is all of the above – a sarcastic Gen X teen anthem with a brutally simple riff, their best single to date.
The album’s one misstep is the single ‘Cemetery’, an orchestral acoustic ballad with sophomoric lyrics: “I live in a cemetery / I need a change / Not to imitate, but to irritate.” Speaking of imitation, Silverchair were plagued by comparisons at this point in their career. Some were valid: ‘Cemetery’ is a doppelgänger for The Smashing Pumpkins’ far better ‘Disarm’. ‘Abuse Me’ was arguably the one and only time they really sounded like Nirvana; ‘Petrol & Chlorine’ deploys sitar and tabla straight out of The Beatles’ ‘Within You Without You’.
To be fair, the band’s influences were all much older and further along in their artistic development. Silverchair could have stayed a fun heavy rock band, but their efforts to expand their horizons were admirable – and mostly successful. Stuck between ‘Frogstomp’ and ‘Neon Ballroom’, ‘Freak Show’ is often considered the easiest of their five albums to overlook, but that makes it their most underrated effort.
3. Silverchair – ‘Young Modern’ (2007)
Silverchair rebooted after five years away with ‘Straight Lines’, a triumphant modern pop masterpiece that defined their career in one song. It was the ideal comeback narrative: though still in their 20s, they were no longer underdogs, but young veterans setting the bar for Australian music. The future was bright.
For the few songs that do feel like a sequel to ‘Diorama’, Van Dyke Parks’ orchestral arrangements return: the circus-mad ‘If You Keep Losing Sleep’ and ‘All Across the World’, and the wildly ambitious suite ‘Those Thieving Birds (Part 1) / Strange Behaviour / Those Thieving Birds (Part 2)’.
But elsewhere, the stakes are lower and looser. On ‘Young Modern Station’, the band sounds like a power trio for the first time in years, with a sleek new chemistry. ‘Reflections Of A Sound’ and ‘Waiting All Day’ are effortlessly gorgeous, detailed pop songs buoyed by Johns’ flamboyant vocals. On other tracks, he brings his goofy live energy into the studio – ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’, ‘Mind Reader’, ‘Low’ – for material that’s fun, but ultimately feels beneath Silverchair at this point.
By his own admission, Johns “didn’t want ‘Young Modern’ to be [their] swan song.” It’s not quite a cohesive statement, more a band finding their way back into a sound that might have solidified on the followup album that never came. But despite its flaws, Johns’ genius is undeniable. ‘Young Modern’ is the most contradictory album of his career, and a well-deserved victory lap. It’s hard to imagine it any other way.
2. Silverchair – ‘Neon Ballroom’ (1999)
Finally out of high school, Silverchair should have had every reason to celebrate. But on the inside, they were a band divided. While Joannou and Gillies were about as ordinary as 19-year-old international rock stars could be, Johns was only just emerging from serious bouts with clinical depression and anorexia nervosa. Emotions heightened, he was seeing the world – and his songwriting process – anew.
‘Neon Ballroom’ was the culmination of the many paths Silverchair could have taken up to this point. They’d never sounded heavier than on ‘Satin Sheets’, or the ferocious vegan polemic of ‘Spawn Again’. The stadium-rock lead single, ‘Anthem For The Year 2000’, depicted teens taking aim at fascism and ignorance with a blunt, but still shockingly relevant message.
But the essence of ‘Neon Ballroom’ is how it unveils the violence within its beauty. ‘Emotion Sickness’ opens the album with Daniel’s gut-wrenching vocals, backed by classical strings and piano that elevate it to high art. Its many not-quite-ballads – ‘Black Tangled Heart’, ‘Paint Pastel Princess’ – threaten to erupt into dissonance at any moment.
Best of all is ‘Ana’s Song (Open Fire)’, the first Silverchair song that could bring you to tears; that addressed Johns’ struggles with anorexia so boldly that he only played it for the band on the last day of recording. It was there, and on the anti-romance waltz ‘Miss You Love’ where he finally found his true singing voice: that lithe, feline, deceptively powerful tone we now know so well.
‘Neon Ballroom’ couldn’t have been replicated; it embodied the rawness of its creation in that moment. But in the process, Silverchair discovered an essential truth about themselves. Johns’ muse wasn’t teenage angst or heavy guitar-rock – it had always been the freedom he found within music.
1. Silverchair – ‘Diorama’ (2002)
‘Diorama’ is a miracle. It’s how it must feel to fly, to soar for the first time. It was the one time Daniel Johns deliberately set out to craft a masterpiece, and succeeded beyond anyone else’s wildest dreams. The first two singles, ‘The Greatest View’ and ‘Without You’, connected Silverchair’s rock past to their present, but were unlike anything on pop or rock radio at the time. These were songs about the beauty and wonder of life: they acknowledged darkness, but dispelled it through sheer force of will.
Johns enlisted two orchestral arrangers to translate the symphonies in his mind: Larry Muhoberac and Van Dyke Parks, the latter of which collaborated with Brian Wilson on ‘Smile’, rock music’s most mythical lost album. Through their soundscapes, ‘Diorama’ grew a timeless, golden-age Hollywood quality – standing alongside The Wizard Of Oz, Fantasia and George Gershwin. ‘Across The Night’ and ‘Luv Your Life’ spill over with joy, with left-field chords and melodies that would break any other pop song, but feel totally natural here. It’s no hyperbole to call ‘Tuna In The Brine,’ the album’s baroque centrepiece, Silverchair’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
‘Diorama’ is a testament to the power of self-belief. Silverchair carved their own path, one that sounded like an impossible dream come true. ‘Diorama’ isn’t just Johns’ magnum opus, but a work for all time.