The Go-Betweens. Sarah Blasko. Cut Copy. Tame Impala. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. What do they have in common? All have been nominated for at least one Australian Music Prize, and all have failed to win.
It started in 2005 in a similar spirit to the UK’s annual Mercury Music Prize, where the winning artist would receive a nice sum of money ($30,000 this year) with which to do whatever they wanted – tour support, paying off debt, making a record, updating gear, burying it the bush and leaving a series of increasingly cryptic clues as to its whereabouts – whatever.
What’s more, there have been 14 different winners in 15 years, as one artist has managed the extraordinary feat of winning twice: Sampa The Great scored in 2017 with ‘Birds And The BEE9’ mixtape and then two years later with ‘The Return’.
And this year’s shortlist is proof that 2020’s enduring weirdness still produced some great albums (Fanny Lumsden! Alice Ivy! Miiesha! The Avalanches!). And that’s kind of the beauty of the AMP: it’s not a popularity contest and any Australian artist can win, from the bedroomiest underground act to a chart-topping heritage act. All they have to do, theoretically, is make the best album of the year. Simple!
Of course, the devil is always in the details. And, as you can see, there are some years where winning is easier than others…
The Undeniable Years
The Drones won the first award in 2005 with the still shockingly great ‘Wait Long By The River And The Bodies Of Your Enemies Will Float By’ (you know, the one which begins with ‘Shark Fin Blues’ and is perfect? That one).
That seemed to set the standard for what was to come – and the second year seemed inevitable too. In one of those weird and unpredictable collisions of musical fashion and objective idiosyncrasy, Augie March’s ‘Moo, You Bloody Choir’ had become utterly ubiquitous, topping the Hottest 100 with ‘One Crowded Hour’ and being everyone’s comedown record for the summer of 2006.
Similarly, you have to feel sorry for everyone releasing albums in 2018 – a banner year which saw nominations for Abbe May’s ‘Fruit’, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s ‘Hope Downs’ and Courtney Barnett’s ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’, among other killer albums – when Gurrumul’s gorgeous posthumous album ‘Djarimirri (Child Of The Rainbow)’ deservedly took the gong. No-one was going to beat that.
Other years are… let’s say, not so uncontroversial.
The “It’s An Outrage! An Outrage!” Years
In 2009, Lisa Mitchell won for ‘Wonder’ – prompting outcry that largely boiled down to her being seen, unfairly, as a pop artist who’d been given her break via a TV show rather than toiling in the indie song mines like a ‘real’ artist.
And the surprise was sort of understandable given that all the previous winners were sweaty bands made almost exclusively of dudes (The Drones, Augie March, The Mess Hall and Eddy Current Suppression Ring). So it was clearly an overdue reset to give it to a performer who was a) female, b) a solo artist and c) not a cooler-than-thou hipster act.
There was more than a little misogyny in the reaction. But even so, looking back, it’s hard to argue that ‘Wonder’ was the best Australian album of 2009, when you had Sarah Blasko’s pivotal ‘As Day Follows Night’, Black Cab’s ‘Call Signs’ and Urthboy’s ‘Spitshine’. It was a strong year.
I mean, it is fascinating how influential the beats ’n’ processed vocals template of Mitchell’s single ‘Coin Laundry’ turned out to be on an entire generation of Australian artists. She was legitimately ahead of her time. Maybe a 13th anniversary tour will get her the props she deserves?
The “Vale, Indie Rock” Years
Lisa Mitchell’s win didn’t mark the end of bands winning the AMP, but it marked the end of a certain kind of winner – and the change in the winners of the award reflected wider shifts happening in music.
The victors of 2010 and 2011 were bands releasing acclaimed debuts – Cloud Control’s ‘Bliss Release’ and The Jezabels’ ‘Prisoner’ – but the following year’s winner was Hermitude’s ‘HyperParadise’. And that turned out to be a better indication of where music and the AMP was headed.
Big Scary took out the 2013 gong for ‘Not Art’, but no band has won the AMP since. What’s more, despite indie rock having an unshakeable stranglehold on the award in its early years, only one such artist followed Big Scary: Courtney Barnett in 2015 for ‘Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit’.
Hip-hop and rap have dominated since with Hermitude, REMI, A.B. Original and Sampa The Great all beating out fields which had fewer and fewer scrawny white dudes with guitars – to the point where in 2020… well, we’ll come to that.
So Who Will Win For 2020?
Tame Impala’s ‘The Slow Rush’ is the only nomination in this year’s batch to come from what passes for a traditional rock band, despite being a Kevin Parker solo project in all but name – and so, going by the trend away from guys with guitars, are probably on track to lose yet again. Or maybe the pendulum has swung around and having instruments is now adorably retro. Who knows?
And there’s no obvious pattern between ARIA wins and AMP wins, or even scoring the J Award for album of the year. Only two records have managed to do both – take a bow, Courtney Barnett and A.B. Original – so that’s of limited use for our purposes.
But there’s one interesting semi-correlation: at least two AMP winners have released excellent covers of Gillian Welsh’s magnificent death-of-the-music-biz country lament ‘Everything Is Free’: Barnett and Lisa Mitchell.
So the answer is obvious: whoever wants to win this year should rush out a version post-haste. Fanny Lumsden, over to you!
[Editor’s Note: NME contributors Sosefina Fuamoli, Mikey Cahill, Kate Hennessy and David James Young are volunteer judges for the 16th Australian Music Prize.]