Are Australian solo artists making the best music in 2016? With seven solo musicians and one duo listed here, I could certainly argue the case. That said, solo artists have always dominated my music collection; they are less swayed by prevailing trends and their music ages better.
Over the past year itâs become clear that women are making the most interesting and idiosyncratic club music. Holy Balm and Elisabeth Dixon have great new albums, Chiara Kickdrum is featured on the Domestic Documents series of local âelectronic abstractionâ, and the live sets Iâve seen recently from LA Suffocated, WDK, Lucy ClichÃ© and Workshop have been truly excellent too.
Three caveats for the following list: Lawrence Arabia is a New Zealander. Iâm not 100% sure when Jordan Irelandâs record came out because he sent me the files but didnât answer further questions. And while I usually stick to LPs, the triple album from Pale Earth listed here is balanced out by an EP from Rebel Yell.
As always, please pay for the albums you enjoy and tell me what I missed in less-visible Australian gems released in July, August and September.
Nullarbor 1988-1989 by Friendships
Where to begin with young Melbourne duo Misha Grace and Nic Brown? This debut is strange, brave and wildly exciting. Friendships dive deep into jungle, grime and dubstep, yet amid the fury of beats, breaks and fastidious production they find space to inject great helpings of heart, art, beauty and risk. And when the bass hits, it hits hard.
The record overflows with ideas. Grace did a series of (very good) paintings to accompany it while Brown delivers a conceptual narrative in gauche spoken-word sequences that seem to be set in a Wake In Fright-style outback dystopia. âRecognise something in me, love, that resonates with you/Light it on fire and piss on itâ he croaks on Footscray 1989 to the tinkle of saloon piano. The contrast between Brownâs junkie-ramble poetry and the amphetamine-charged club tracks makes this record too odd-shaped to pigeonhole. Iâve never heard anything like it.
I Had Myself A Nuclear Spring by Kate Carr
Last year Brisbane expat and field recordist Kate Carr spent a month in Marnay-sur-Seine: a small town in France next to a nuclear power plant which turned into a temporary wetland after the river flooded. She roamed âmuddy marshes filled with buzzing electrical towers, corroded machinery, shrieking birds and canals feeding a nuclear complexâ using recording gear compromised by the areaâs electromagnetism, creating the electrical hum that is this albumâs sinister thread.
If youâve ever doubted the capacity of sound art to elucidate chewy ideas, and not merely mood or some boffinâs confusing PhD thesis, Carrâs work will convince you otherwise. These pieces are full of space yet dense with a particularly modern dread. At times, to draw us closer, she plays a few reverberant guitar notes. Otherwise, itâs chirruping wildfowl, water, bass of indeterminate origin and always, the anxiety-inducing purr, buzz and whine of electricity. It is the soundtrack of psychosis for Chuck in Better Call Saul and a metaphor for the low-humming knowing that thereâs no escape, not even in nature.
Mother Of Millions by Rebel Yell
The industrial techno of Brisbaneâs Rebel Yell (Grace Stevenson) is anything but bleak. Run through a metal guitar pedal, Stevensonâs vocals are like the commands of a berserk boot camp instructor set in the bloopers reel of Blade Runner.
Stevenson says a gig she saw with Australian electronic music-makers Lucy ClichÃ©, Video Ezy and Sarah Spencer (Blank Realm) opened her eyes to industrial music, as well as a burnt CD she got from an op shop called âdark techâ. Mother of Millions is her first EP and already her sound is impressively distinct: noxious, militaristic and properly industrial. Disobey at your peril.
One Of Us by Cash Savage and the Last Drinks
If alt-country with banjo and fiddle has always seemed a bit fruity for your palate, Cash Savage and the Last Drinks may convert you to its nourishment. Savage sings like salvation depends on it â though not herâs. âFor you, for us, for everyone,â she belts out on Run With The Dogs, lassoing us all in on the ride.
The Melbourne bandâs third record is split between rousing, jam-band rock songs and tear-jerking, bushwhacking ballads. The former crest in choruses built for cathartic sing-a-longs with soaring, golden-toned guitar breaks, The War On Drugsâ highway song momentum and Patti Smithâs vocal intensity. Elsewhere, ballads like Song For A Funeral â about swallowing the bitter pill that is a loved oneâs suicide â function as forgiveness shared. Country rock can sound flat or twee on record so kudos to producer Nick Finch for making One Of Us so vital.
Deliverance by Witch Hats
Somethingâs changed, I thought, on hearing the third record from Melbourne band Witch Hats. Frozen in time since their 2009 debut Cellulite Soul (2011âs Pleasure Syndrome passed me by), their music was still personified as the combative neighbourhood punk with a point to prove. Deliverance, I realised, was Witch Hats gone dad-bod: paunchier but far better at knowing which buttons to push. Still got the swing, still got the swagger.
Kris Buscombeâs voice embodies the disconsolate sneer of late-70s UK punk, especially with uppercuts such as âFuck your mother, fuck your father too/Theyâve both got tickets on youâ on Weekend Holocauster. The ska influence is stronger now and the spectres of several of post punk bands float by â The Stranglers, Magazine â but Witch Hatsâ guitars have more meat on their bones. Ludicrous that the 3:37-minute title track has only been played once on Triple J. Just as one chorus ends, another one hits.
Jordan Ireland with Purple Orchestra by Jordan Ireland
Jordan Ireland, previously singer and guitarist in Townsville âbuzz bandâ the Middle East, told FasterLouder in May: âAll the hype and excitement surrounding our little knot of young and very naive country kids became really daunting, really quickly.â The Middle East broke up at Splendour in the Grass in 2011, the year of their first album.
Irelandâs solo album is more akin to dappled shade than sound. Strings, strumming, barely perceptible percussion, piano and flute are muted and textural, with Irelandâs voice murmuring melodies from the deep, languishing in the possibilities of the irresolute. The pastoral psychedelica of early Pink Floyd or the gently soaring vocals of Kishi Bashi are fair comparisons, though Irelandâs songs are hazier and more diaphanous.
The record was produced by Greg Walker (Machine Translations), whose intuitive touch explains how closely its sound supports Irelandâs claim that âthe birds, the air and the [purple] moodâ were all active members of the orchestra. There are no videos, press materials and no Bandcamp site. Journalists will laud it as lush baroque pop â if they ever hear it.
Always by Pale Earth
When Pale Earthâs Benjamin Thompson came to Room40 with a two-hour triple album of 33 electronic tracks, he thought label head Lawrence English would suggest he trim it to one very good album instead. He didnât, and Always was released in its entirety. To listeners used to a drip-feed of singles heralding albums that barely clock 30 minutes, the scale of Always was a challenge to rise to. âIâve been absolutely confused and excited by the people who tell me theyâre listening to it all,â Thompson said.
The songs chronicle Thompsonâs travels through Asia, Japan and (his dreams of) Korea. From shimmering ambience a la Fennesz to wonky beats and experiments in texture, the only thread sewing this collection together is Thompsonâs effort to literally create soundscapes. A drone piece evokes a cold mountain morning in Taiwan before an earthquake. Thereâs a song about how light streams through water. Thompsonâs sonic travelogue may not be translatable but his sound parcels are always interesting and often beautiful and we can only hope his travel bug is permanent.
TTNIK by Scraps
The synthpop of Brisbaneâs Scraps (Laura Hill) is described by her US label Not Not Fun as âalienated karaokeâ. Itâs spot on. She is both solo and solitary sounding, making music to dance to, despondently. No duo or trio could have made a record this entwined in its own logic; reduced to only the rawest sequencer rhythms and most essential melodies, bent to Hillâs will.
Notes snake up to coil around her vocals, before sliding away. The backdrop â enmeshed in the songs through samples â is the isolation and communion of the Australian suburbs: girls gossiping on the phone; the tipsy chatter of (what sounds like) mums at a pool party; a guy detailing his hobbies in a creepy pitch-shifting voice. Hill is a master of the waning synth note, wringing out every of drop of melancholy from the fades on Touch Blue.
Absolute Truth by Lawrence Arabia
The lyrics of New Zealand musician Lawrence Arabia (James Milne) are snort-out-loud funny but in the manner of Oscar Wilde, they ring true too. âI was so fresh and foolish/Bold and bullish, kind of toolish,â he sings on Brain Gym.
Milneâs fourth album of wry symphonic pop is out on seminal Dunedin label Flying Nun. On his last (excellent) record, Milne made genres like ragtime seem easy and heâs similarly breezy here. Thereâs a hint of Lambchopâs mid-afternoon languor on The Old Dancefloor and Yo La Tengoâs poised mid-tempo rock. Elsewhere, Milne tosses yacht rock overboard in favour of shameless cruise-ship schmaltz. On Another Century you imagine him as the performer on a late-70s liner, singing for passengers in puffy bathing suits with bronzed leathery skin. Its syrupy swooping strings, fresh-faced falsetto and âshooby do wopâ choruses stroll dangerously close to parody, but like Beck circa Midnight Vultures, if you embrace the role-play itâs fun as hell.
Wide Asleep by Sophie Hutchings
As a child, pianist and composer Sophie Hutchings would withdraw to practise alone. It explains her deeply contemplative style as well as her discomfort with playing live. âI pretty much have to be kicked onto stage,â she told music journalist Bernard Zuel.
Hutchingsâ third record is beautifully accented by cellist Peter Hollo and violinist Jay Kong. Unlike many pianists, she doesnât dazzle you with virtuosity or solicit your sentimentality. They are certainly no showy crescendos. Instead, her piano holds a healing space for you to enter and make your own. The notes swell and retreat; pool, overflow and spill. Hutchingsâ compositions are the sound of a state of flux â the principle that change is the only constant.