Top 20 Best Australian Albums of 2019

Quite frankly, we are glad that 2019 is coming to an end!

We are living in an increasingly crazy world, including the presence of dysfunctional despots, vicious volcanos, constant bushfires, rising temperatures, and compromised human liberties – however, music remains a constant form of escapement, pleasure and empowerment.

This year we congratulate the artists that have infused beauty, anger, strength, humour and introspection into their art.

Here are YMR’s Top 20 Albums of 2019.

20. My Criminal Record – Jimmy Barnes

My Criminal Record is almost a companion piece to his memoir Working Class Boy, and his first solo album of new material in nine years. Bluesy based rock, with Barnesy’s voice maturing into a much more enjoyable instrument. Highlights include the Cold Chisel sounding ‘Belvedere and Cigarettes’, the country-tinged ‘Stargazer’ and the bluesy cock-rocker ‘My Demon (God Help Me)’, where Barnes sings “I saw my demon in the mirror/Looking back at me/Right there in my eyes/And I couldn’t walk away from him/No matter how I tried” – in recent year Barnes has opened up about his life, particularly his childhood, which was filled with abuse, neglect and poverty. The man becomes more likeable as he matures.

19. Hilda – Jessica Mauboy

Mauboy has been in the public eye since 2006’s Australian Idol. Now 30, Mauboy has probably produced the best album of her career. Hilda includes sassy R&B, power ballads, and songs such as ‘Sunday’ that can hardly hide its exuberance. A polished mature album, where Mauboy seems to have opened her wings – an album documenting the trials and tribulations of relationship – with the last track ‘Wish You Well’ ending with upbeat forgiveness.

18. Inferno – Robert Forster

Inferno strength is in Forster’s lyrics and his storytelling, which is enhanced by the overall warm feel of the album. Inferno, is musically inspired, and has Forster reflecting in his own unique way. Factual. Not big on sentimentality. The album encompasses elements of rock, chamber pop and folk, incorporating guitar, keyboards, drums and gorgeous violin playing by Forster’s wife Karin Bäumler. ‘Inferno (Brisbane in Summer)’ oozes sweat. Where summer is not just summer – it’s an oppressive inferno. That relentless heat with no escape, where the heat is so bad that you are “dreaming of ice“. And not the drug kind! The song is pure Forster, a sing that jangles away with drums and guitars – with Forster telling a story. The simplicity of the song is deceiving as the story becomes apocalyptic, with the heat driving people to an abyss, “The jungle is coming and so is the drought/The people are screaming/Let me let me let me let me let me let me out!!” This album is probably the best solo album that Forster has produced.

17. Ghosteen – Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds

Does Nick Cave consider himself an Australian? Who knows? But Ghosteen is a powerful album – an album of grief, darkness and the complexities of the aftermath of loss – Cave has evasively said that the songs on Ghosteen’s first half are the children, while the interwoven triptych that follows are their parents.  Musically the album vibes and flows with strings, synthesisers, with The Bad Seed’s musically complementing Cave’s stories of grief. ‘The Spinning Song’ is inspired and is one of Cave’s best vocal performances to date – Ghosteen is brave and honest and providing a startling realisation on the brevity of life.

16. Stolen Diamonds – The Cat Empire

An upbeat album awash with reggae, SKA, salsa, and exemplifying the fine musicianship of the band. Horns have never sounded so sumptuous! Stolen Diamonds is a beautiful piece of work, where luckily The Cat Empire are producing exquisite music in their own vacuum – a glorious piece of work that would have made Clara Nunes proud! ‘Oscar Wilde’ a highlight, in an album that enlightens and sparkles.

15. Keepsake – Hatchie

Bookmark Hatchie as one of Australia’s exciting talents. Keepsake is Hatchie’s debut album – a piece of work that sounds so assured, a cocktail mixture of shoegazing, Kate Bush and Cocteau Twins – a powerful pop album that showcases Pilbeam’s voice. Highlights include ‘Without a Blush’ – a song of armageddon proportion about a crush that is destined to end, the sassy ‘Unwanted Guest’ and the oozing sugar pop of the finale ‘Keep’ – with the sweetness of the music belying the depth of the lyrics, “Would I blow out your light to brighten mine?” Glorious, beautiful and ambitious.

14. Beware of the Dogs – Stella Donnelly

Stella Donnelly’s debut is a breath of fresh air. Honest, unflinching, uneasy – the album starting with ‘Old Man’ – the song could be autobiographical, but it also encapsulates the #metoo movement with such articulation with the lyric, “You grabbed me with an open hand/The world is grabbin’ back at you/Oh, are you scared of me, old man?/Or are you scared of what I’ll do” – the album shakes with irony, but the strength of the album is how personal issues are the microcosm to greater social movements. However, the album is not overburden in seriousness – levity is in place with Donnelly’s humour and her sunshine filled voice. What a wonderful debut!

13. Amyl and The Sniffers – Amyl and The Sniffers

A hard working band that sounds so 1978 but yet so contemporary! Amyl and the Sniffers inject energy, brashness, fun and confidence into this debut. They might juxtapose the punk sounds from the late seventies, but they do it with such conviction – that you can almost taste the blood and spit howling from the lyrics. There is also a vibe of empowerment, with tongue planted firmly in cheek in many of the songs – as exemplified with ‘Some Mutts (Can’t Be Muzzled) – “You got a new dog, do you remember me?/She walks around on my old lead/You got a new dog, do you remember me?” – an album that only clocks in at 29 minutes – but has enough energy to make you feel happily exhausted.

12. Basic Love – Jade Imagine

Wonderful atmospherics with a mixture of shoegazing and new wave, Basic Love is a compelling listen. Basic Love ponders the injustices and the mundaneness of normal life – even the dark commentary comes with some sense of light. Moody guitars and an overall Liz Phair lo-fi feel gives this album swagger – highlights include ‘The News’ (“Can’t read one paragraph without feeling sore/Wanna be educated a little bit more/That’s the best in me talking right now“), ‘Remote Control’ and ‘Past Life’ – the laid back vibe of the album is its strength. An album that will grow on you with repeated listens.

11. Wild Seeds – Seeker Lover Keeper

 Sarah Blasko, Holly Throsby and Sally Seltmann blend together to create a haunting, harmonious, and organic sounding album. Wild Seeds exemplifies mature artists, with an album that sounds attractive – sometimes this beauty can take your breath away. Despite the beauty, there is a feeling that this album could have been more – but the highlights of the album redeem that feeling, including the title track, where it encompasses a sense of liberation for the actions of the past. A reflective album that seems to brood on hindsight and the need for comfort. A sparkling, beautiful sounding album.

10. Refuge Cove – Grace Cummings

Refuge Cove sounds as if it could have been made in 1969, where the music sounds so organic, where deceptively simple arrangements complement and create the colours for these amazing musical vignettes . Acoustic guitars, piano, mouth organ and Cummings’ voice. And no drums. The elements and the forces of nature are such an important part of this album. The songs exhale a dream of the Australian bush, intermeshed with the human condition – maybe the combination of heartache, longing, romance, comfort and a sense of recovery. The songs are just exquisite – each word of the songs flowing, moving and breathing to paint a picture – and due to the organic nature of the songs, the words are important – you get absorbed into these stories.  Refuge Cove needs time and space to enjoy. Maybe in an insular moment, where you can take time out from social media and the impersonal nature of this world. Take time to enjoy these wonderful songs, Cummings’ unique voice, the glorious arrangements – this album makes you feel woozy without even drinking a drop.

9. Scared of You – Laura Imbruglia

Laura Imbruglia is underrated, a woman that deserves more recognition on the strength of this album. Snarly, raw and humorous – Scared of You exemplifies Imbruglia’s songwriting talent –  a fearless songwriter that apposes the raw, the personal, with commentary about her world. Imbruglia is humourous, from the directness of ‘You’re Shit’ – but her strength is her vulnerability particularly on ‘Diptych’ and ‘Casual’ – where unrequited love is the Achilles heel – all immersed in love, fear and yearning – Scared of You is a solid album from this exciting Melbourne artist.

8. Dave Graney and The MistLY – ZIPPA DEEDOO WHAT IS/WAS THAT/THIS?

The most unlikeliest pop star ever – Graney with tongue firmly in cheek – produced an unusual yet riveting piece of work that shows his love of music, his humour and a sense of reflection of what could have been! Starting with the snaky bass of the catchy ‘Baby, I Wish’d Been a Better Pop Star’ – with Graney lamenting “I would have stayed in shape” and “picked my moments” – a humorous song that comes from his fleeting exposure of being an actual pop star! From a homage to Keith Richards, actress Gloria Grahame, a reflection on life (written post an appendix operation) – an album that buzzes, moves, squirms in a trance of rock, psychedelia and blues. A brilliant album that fuses wit, smugness and great musicianship, including the driving, sexy drumming of Clare Moore, providing rhythm to Graney’s idiosyncratic vocals. An album to experience.

7. The Best of Luck Club – Alex Lahey

Alex Lahey’s sophomore album exudes sheer energy. An album that is honest, emotional, self-aware and still ends with hope. An album that reflects on relationships, the conflict of life and work, and about the need to rebalance and nurture your mental health. Highlights include ‘Unspoken History’ – a piano led song, that shows off Lahey’s vocals. A song that seems to reflect on the change of a relationship – that feeling of change, where the relationship becomes too self-conscious that it can no longer work. A gorgeous song that encapsulates the transience of friendships that are so special, but slowly fade away. ‘I Need To Move On’ again shows Lahey’s honesty and maturity as a songwriter. A post break-up song that swirls with the anguish of regret and loss of losing someone, immersed with visions of bars, one night stands and suburbia. The song swirls with a wall of sound that makes you feel immersed in the track – this song, like most of the album, is beautifully produced by Catherine Marks. An album that is honest, emotional, self-aware, but ends with a distinct feeling of hope and love.

6. Losing, Linda – Sui Zhen

Losing, Linda is an album that overwhelms the senses – ambitious, experimental, and dealing with loss and grief. The electronica pop frames the album into different shapes and colours, the ponderment of the transience of life, and the spectre of a spiritual awakening. This album is not always easy to listen – it challenges musically and lyrically, but is definitely worth the effort, with a vibe at times that is reminiscent of Laurie Anderson’s best work. Swirling in sounds and sometimes incongruous, Losing, Linda is a major piece of work.

5. Dyson Stringer Cloher – Dyson Stringer Cloher

Arguably three women at the top of their game in their solo careers – Dyson Stringer Cloher pumps muscle, fierceness and tenderness all at the same time. Starting with a paean to the undervalued The Clouds and The Falling Joys, where Cloher sings “Nothing against Paul or Nick/But if you want to be remembered/
Then you better have a dick
” – the album brims with a sense of empowerment, glorious country tinged harmonies where every note is sung with such sincerity. An album of tight musicianship, catchy arrangements and strong lyrics.

4. Julia Jacklin – Crushing

A triumphant album, full of introspection and delivered in a subdued yet assured manner. Beginning with the startling ‘Body’ – a revelation of sorts, an emotional awakening, with a steady drum beat and a sumptuous bass melody. Crushing contains vignettes about self-discovery of the body and mind – and of the crushing impact of relationships, delivered in sinuous and sparking manner – as Jacklin tackles the emotional depths, and exemplifies the strength of her songwriting. A talent to watch.

3. Prisoner of Love – Stephen Cummings

Stephen Cummings is a national treasure. One of our best songwriters, and an eccentric, witty and engaging performer. He said that this album would be his last – however, Mr Cummings is unpredictable, tangential and if the strength of Prisoner of Love was anything to go by, hopefully more albums will be produced from this man – Prisoner of Love clocks in at 32 minutes, ten short songs that glow, bounce and move with a sense of dynamism, renewal, and tongue firmly in cheek. It shifts in moods, but there is an overall feeling of excitement – an energetic vibe that has Cummings writing succinct songs that illuminate and are genuinely uplifting. Prisoner of Love is an album that is so likeable on its first listen, but this doesn’t take away from the quirky nature of Cummings and his brilliant songs. A strong collection of songs that further exemplifies Cummings as one of our top troubadours – for an album called Prisoner of Love, he actually sounds unbridled and content – and the resultant is euphoric. We don’t think this album is the final chapter in his long career, and we look forward to hearing more from this sometimes overlooked treasure.

2. Sparrow & Swan – Rob Snarski

Sparrow & Swan shows an artist that has an innate gift of storytelling. Weaving observations, reflections, conversations and commentary on love, nature, and the human circumstance. In a bustling and crazy world, this piece of work quietly brings you to a place where everything stops – where the lyrics of the songs transport you into the worlds of everyday people, and to different parts of the world. The meshing of yearning, reflection and nature in an almost woozy kaleidoscopic vision – this is album that you will need to play again and again, and shows a songwriter reinvigorated. A sublime piece of work.

1. Stay Connected – Broads

Stay Connected is a sublime piece of work. Understated, atmospheric, with an unease that lurks underneath the sweet harmonies. Nothing is straight-forward. A gorgeous album that provides commentary on the human condition – the vulnerability of people and the need for connection – both in a physical and virtual sense. Musically it sounds like a dream, awash with synth, gliding you with a sense of fake optimism. The dream begins with ‘Mirror’, a song that captures the gloriousness and narcissism of social media – the darkness and lightness of it all. “To be brittle/to be exact/what’s the harm in that?” – the comments that stream social media in an endless supply of words; to the sweeping darkness of ‘Bones’; the etherealness of ‘Aurora’ and the heaviness of ‘Ocean’ – this album reels you in. It gathers you in an unpredictable current and takes you on a magical journey. You have no choice but to hear this album again and again and again. Stay Connected is a major piece of work – hear it, feel it – and like we said in our official review of the album, “sometimes the feeling of the album is akin to a ‘knife in a baby’s room’ vibe – that slippery feeling of sweetness and horror makes this album one of the most compelling of the year. We are under its spell”.

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