2017 has been an incredible year for Australian releases, and most heartening of all is that roughly half of those on this list are the artists’ debut. These are ten of the albums and EPs that really blew me away over the past 12 months, each of them highly original and genuinely exciting.
Australian Album of the Year:
RVG – A Quality of Mercy (Our Golden Friend)
Melbourne’s RVG released an absolute classic earlier this year with their debut album A Quality of Mercy. Taking notes from the likes of The Go-Betweens while sounding consistently original, every minute of this eight song masterpiece is delivered with concision. The taught, raw emotion of Romy Vager’s vocal delivery and lyrics are balanced out by her classic approach to pop penmanship and a band that understand the power of dynamics.
Having formed for a one-off gig, the Romy Vager Group quite wisely decided to become a regular thing. Anyone who has seen them perform over the last year could attest to their power as a live act, so naturally it made sense to record the album not only as a unit, but actually set up in the Tote bandroom. Consequently the songs are delivered faithfully as they are on stage with a generous application of reverb being the only discernable added production. Said effect is a key ingredient, however, helping to align A Quality of Mercy sonically with its ‘80s influences, such as Echo & the Bunnymen and Joy Division, from the first chiming guitar notes of the title track onwards.
Underpinning everything is a concentrated energy and attitude that gives the record a propulsion that feels genuine and exhilarating. The lyrics are literate and socially conscious, but like all great pop music come wrapped in easily digestible, sweet melodies that reel the listener in with hook after hook.
Having initially launched the album at the Tote in March, and pressing 200 copies of vinyl independently, the release garnered significant praise and the group gigged heavily, their popularity visibly building at the shows. By June they signed a management deal with Our Golden Friend, and when the management group became a record label, thanks to a deal with Island Records/Universal, RVG were the first group signed in October. When they played a powerful and emotional set at Meredith a few weeks ago it felt like a culmination of the year’s efforts and the amount of people that stood enthralled the embodiment of how far the band have come since that album launch in March.
It’s genuinely impressive to see a new act come along and make a guitar based rock album in 2017 that feels this fresh. If you don’t have it, you need this album, and then go see RVG live while they are still playing pubs so you can tell your kids about it one day.
Jess Cornelius – Nothing is Lost (Dot Dash/Remote Control Records)
After four albums under the Teeth and Tongue moniker, which became a band but was always at its core based around Jess Cornelius, the Kiwi-born, Melbourne artist released her strongest work to date this year under her own name. The songs are inherently personal in subject matter, and the way in which they are delivered here, merely Cornelius pouring her heart out with an electric guitar and few overdubs, is appropriate and affecting. Indeed, her vocal has never sounded so strong and unaffected, so less indebted to any cause except communicating the hurt that spills forth over these five songs. This is a bold and beautiful release by one of this city’s highly underrated artists, stark, unapologetic and mature.
Sampa The Great – Birds to the BEE9 (Big Dada)
On Birds And The BEE9 Sampa the Great continues her artistic journey with a musically rich and thoughtful update to the sound established with 2015’s debut, The Great Mixtape. This release is reflective in nature, with barely an ounce of hip hop bombast, drawing upon African rhythms and chanting, down-tempo jazz and a fair amount of singing. ‘Protect Your Queen’ is a standout track, with Sampa flexing her lyrical dexterity over a head-nod beat laced with vibes, organ and jazzy keys. Moving easily between rapping, singing and spoken word, Sampa explores the different ways she can use her vocals effectively in a three and a half minute song, ensuring that the lyrics are always at the forefront of the listener’s attention. This is a rich and rewarding record that continues to reveal itself over repeat listens. Basically put, Sampa is a true artist – fearless, complex and great.
Saatsuma – Overflow (Independent)
Saatsuma is an evenly matched collaboration between Melbourne musicians Cesar Rodrigues and Memphis Kelly. Against a backdrop of arpeggiated synthesisers and electronic beats of varying intensities, Kelly’s vocal is strikingly sparse in both delivery and treatment. Her recitation feels so naked and unaffected that it imbues the lyrics with an extra layer of emotion, and quite wisely she is mostly mixed to the front, leaving the extended reverb tails to her own backing vocals. Rodrigues’ love for modular synths form a big part of Overflow, although the tracks do not by any means sound like they are from any other point in time. The balance of vulnerability in the vocal and lyrical content against the arrangements of synths and drum beats is part of what makes this project so special – dig in if you like electronic pop music with brains.
Stella Donnelly – Thrush Metal (Healthy Tapes)
Donnelly is one of the breakout Australian talents of this year and we are all better for knowing her brilliant, charming and highly individual vocal and guitar tunes. ‘Boys Will Boys’ is an utterly devastating account of a friend’s rape that is rendered all the more effective by Donnelly’s sweet melody and simple guitar work. “Time to pay the fucking rent” indeed. Over this all too brief EP Donnelly proves herself a triple threat – proficient enough to keep the music interesting enough when it relies solely on her own guitar playing; strong voiced, while still managing to achieve intimacy and earnestness without seeming insincere; and with a collection of songs that bore deeply into your being. There are big things coming from this daughter of Perth, look out 2018.
The Cactus Channel – Stay A While (HopeStreet Recordings)
On their third album The Cactus Channel demonstrated their natural evolution as a unit – and while they may have outgrown the Daptone reverence of their initial sound, they are unmistakably the same group, just one that has taken a great step forward. The vintage tone of the dual guitars, the warm, talkative bass style, the jazzy organ, the funky drummer and the fat horn section are thankfully still all in place, with a combined effect of hearkening back to a classic era of soul music. One of the key differences here though is the introduction of not just singing, courtesy of guitarist Lewis Coleman, but pop song structures with a slightly quirky edge. This is a band that’s grown interested in what it’s like to not play it straight, and have consequently turned out a bold album of remarkable depth.
Kllo – Backwater (Ghostly International)
In a year not short on incredible Australian electronic pop music, Melbourne duo Kllo’s debut full length really stood out. Simon Lam’s production remains in a state of constant evolution on every track, his drums and icy synth lines managing to keep the listener involved without ever feeling challenging. The music feels contemplative, even introspective, while still inviting the listener to move if they so wish. Chloe Kaul’s vocals are perfectly malleable to each track, her soft and intimate delivery matching the minor key progressions of the majority of the songs with no small amount of melancholy.
Cable Ties – Cable Ties (Poison City Records)
Another strong debut out of Melbourne, Cable Ties’ self titled album does a great job of capturing the frenetic live energy of the band’s live shows. Jenny McKechnie is a charismatic punk rock force, emitting attitude from every fiber of her being as she shouts, screams and propels these declarations forward, with the rhythm section of Nick Brown and Shauna Boyle keeping the tempo fast and furious below her. Remaining true to the three-piece setup of their live sound, the record does a band up job of ensuring each instrument sounds powerful, in-your-face and exciting.
Paul Kelly – Life Is Fine (EMI Australia)
Life Is Fine finds Paul Kelly in ‘classic’ mode – unlike many of his recent releases this album is a collection of mostly new songs performed with his crack hot live band, without having to conform to any theme other than that. While Kelly has never sounded unsure of himself by any means, he has certainly matured into his own abilities comfortably, knowing how to use what makes his singing and writing unique to his advantage. This is a strong collection of mostly upbeat rock/pop songs by a giant in the field; fans will find a lot to love here.
Saskwatch – Manual Override (Grow Yourself Up)
The evolution of Saskwatch has been interesting to observe – while they started out as a fairly straight-forward take on ‘60s soul they have readjusted their direction over the last few years, turning their hands to a brand of indie pop with a strong undercurrent of melancholy. There is still a certain amount of soul to be found in these simple but effective melodies, but the lean, classic pop structures suggest The Beatles as much as they do The Dap-Kings, while the production shows a certain amount of quirkiness and experimentation that manages to keep things feeling fresh and original. On album number four Saskwatch are clearly steering their ship in a direction of their own and remain all the more interesting for it.
Written for Beat Magazine.