This has been another extraordinary year which has seen musicians reach peak creativity locked away in their bedrooms, recording studios, recording studios in their bedrooms and all manner of locations – a side effect of the lockdowns that have beset both Australia and New Zealand. The sheer volume of releases seems to me to have been unprecedented, which is why it has been so hard to whittle the list down. Unlike last year where I listed my favourite top twenty albums, this year I have expanded the list to my top fifty favourite albums, all of which have received high ratings in my reviews.
Why a special section for Australian/New Zealand music? This is a region that consistently punches above its weight with little exposure globally. The music I have reviewed often struggles to be heard within the region let alone across the world because it is not commercial nor aimed at the youth market, despite the extraordinary levels of talent. With a relatively small population base, per head of population, the sheer quality of output is amazing.
My list is not about the best – music should not be a competition – and I have not heard everything released in this region. Of those many releases that have crossed my desk, I have only reviewed those I loved. And even then, various circumstances have meant that I have missed reviewing some of those releases. So, here’s a list of my favourite releases from Australian and New Zealand in 2021 that I’ve mostly reviewed on Backseat Mafia, acknowledging this list is subjective, reflects my taste and is by no means exhaustive.
Follow the links for the original review.
Favourite fifty singles
Rather than listing every artist and every single, I’ve simply put together a list for you to listen to (in rough order with the most favoured first). The list includes singles from Rinse, Cousin Tony’s Brand New Firebird, Mako Bron, Jo Meares, Nik Brinkman, Fingerless, Alannah Russack, Ron S Peno and the Superstitions, Kilbey/Kennedy, Dominic Breen, Edith Thomas Furey, Dan Baker, Holy Holy, Sesame Girl, Johnny Hunter, The Goon Sax and Julia Why?.
Favourite Albums and EPs
Below, in a rough order with most favoured at the top, are my top fifty favourite albums for the year.
Rinse: Wherever I Am (EP) (Australia) – my favourite EP/release of the year
This EP has a magical immersive quality redolent of a warm cotton wool blanket that envelopes and tightly wraps itself around you. Every track is a melodic masterpiece, every track shimmers and every track glitters with a deep dream pop sensibility. This is the release of the year for me and has a permanent fixture on my turntable.
Kilbey/Kennedy: Jupiter 13 (Australia). My favourite album of the year.
This is a magnificent album – an enormously successful collaboration between two maestros of composition and exposition. ‘Jupiter 13’ is packed full of stadium-filling anthems with melody and poise while at the same time creating something alien, unnerving and wonderful in its shimmering sci-fi psychedelia.
‘Do The Understanding’ is a beautiful and mesmerising album, filled with a heart-rending purity of expression and an acerbic, gritty edge. It is an affirmation of the power and clarity of indie rock and feels like a warm and natural development from Peno’s past in Died Pretty. Indelible melodies distinctive vocals and a songwriting craft combine to produce some quite magnificent.
Holy Holy: Hello My Beautiful World (Australia)
Striding triumphantly between broad commercial pop and an independent sensibility, ‘Hello My Beautiful World’ is a magnificent and intelligent album bristling with an inherent dance sensibility and a introspective and intelligent sense of adventure and innovation.
The Aerial Maps: Intimate Hinterland (Australia)
‘Intimate Hinterland’ is an instant antipodean classic: an essential and vital piece of expressive art that captures the widescreen, cinematic and endless horizons of the Australian landscapes and infuses them with raw and honest vignettes of a mundane life – sometimes filled with pathos, sometimes hilarity but at all times compassionate and kind. In that mundanity, it becomes breathtaking beautiful: honest and poignant.
The Chills: Scatterbrain (New Zealand)
‘Scatterbrain’ is a stupendous, deep and rich album filled with love, loss and compassion, delivered on a bed of lush instrumentation, scaling riffs and melodies. The Chills continue to deliver multilayered masterpieces from the cold deep south of the world that serves to warm and brighten the universe.
The Goon Sax: Mirrors II (Australia)
‘Mirror II’ is a garment of perfectly formed pop songs with a ragged edge and blemishes – but with a golden thread of celestial choruses that binds everything together. The songs are sometimes raw and vulnerable, sometimes lush and rich. It’s a dichotomy that works well and forms a perfectly whole costume. This is a band that might well have its genes formed in the Brisbane sound but is transforming into its own unique apparition; a creation steeped in a brilliant musical history but forging its own path.
GB3: Sakura Flower (Australia)
‘Sakura Flower’ is a sparkling, shimmering piece of incandescent dream pop/shoegaze from GB3, with a mesmerising ambient undercurrent. The Church’s Steve Kilbey’s voice is distinctive: deep, evocative, velvet with a barbed wire spine and the music has the gold-plated imprimatur of Underground Lovers’ Glenn Bennie with his ability to create celestial ambient sounds that are immersive and cinematic.
From the stately and graceful tracks like title track ‘Carnage’ and the opening two tracks to the visceral and angry ‘White Elephant’ (possibly the first time Cave’s lyrics have assumed such an overt and angry political stance, in relation to the death of George Lloyd), this is an album filled with nature worship and poetry that reflects the antithesis to a year of pestilence and isolation.
Nik Brinkman: Secret Stairs (New Zealand)
‘Secret Stairs’ is a stunning debut: a collection of sparkling jewels that glitter with a melancholic sheen, while featuring glorious pop vignettes delivering melody and an ethereal grace. There is a barbed-wire spine throughout the delicate beauty crafted by Brinkman’s vocals: a deft touch of vinegar amongst the sweetest of sounds.
Courtney Barnett: Things Take Time, Take Time (Australia)
Courtney Barnett‘s style is unique and charming: there is a comforting consistency in her dry observational style and yet each release expands and enriches the colours on her canvas. Barnett is truly the uncrowned poet laureate of Australia: casting her own internal world of wonder and magic in a projection across the nation.
Allday: Drinking With My Smoking Friends (Australia)
‘Smoking With My Drinking Friends’ is an intoxicating album of perfect dream pop: achingly beautiful throughout with a magnificent poise and presence. There is not a weak spot in this album: it is filled with impeccable songwriting, a bouquet of sparkling jewels that glitter with a melancholic romanticism, delivered with world weary bittersweet vocals.
Scott Von Ryper: Dream State Treasure (Australia)
‘Dream State Treasure’ is an exquisite album, an almost hallucinogenic piece – as its title suggests – being dreamy and remote at times, an arctic chill running through it occasionally, yet still being infused by heart achingly beautiful arrangements and melodies.
Golden Fang: The Man With Telltale Scars (Australia)
‘The Man With Telltale Scars’ is a brilliant magnum opus – an immersive journey with a series of eviscerating movements carried on intertwined guitars and pounding rhythms with impossibly beautiful poetry, words filled with anger, frustration, humanity and compassion. It really is a special album.
Underground Lovers: Others (Australia)
These songs are simply too good to have been left on obscure, hard to get CD singles in dusty collections – they are pure Undies-quality gems that need to sparkle. And this collection puts them in a display case for all to enjoy.
All India Radio: Afterworld (Australia)
There is a mesmerising aura to All India Radio’s absolutely magnificent album ‘Afterworld’ that spills forth a series of incredible beautiful moments that glitter and shine. This is an album that immediately send you into a blissful reverie with its quiet, ambient moments that are emotional and affecting.
Aren’t: Creatures of Habit (EP) (Australia)
‘Creatures Of Habit’ is a beautiful and luminescent reflection of Fionn Richards’s deepest thoughts and feelings: exposed, vulnerable and extremely moving. It is a personal treatise expressed with an understated grace delivered on a crystalline acoustic cloud; a magnificent work of art, both inside and out.
End Scene: All My Ghosts (Australia)
‘All My Ghosts’ is a remarkable collection: twelve perfect pop songs bathed in a brilliant jangle of guitars, piano and billowing synths, not afraid to explore genres but always true to the strength of the melody.
Jo Meares: La Baie De Diamant (Australia)
‘La Baie de Diament’ is a glorious indulgence that transports you to a Jean-Pierre Melville world with Alain Delon in his trench coat and a sound track from a supergroup fronted by Gainsbourg and Nick Cave. In invoking these images, Meares channels songs written by Leonard Cohen and played by Tindersticks. It’s a bacchanalian orgy of indulgence and pain that is ever so good.
Birds of Passage: The Last Garden (New Zealand)
‘The Last Garden’ could be construed as a palimpsest for the loss of innocence and paradise lost – it is deeply infused with a sense of loss and mourning, stately and gracefully expressed in a series of gentle movements brought to life by The Birds of Passage’s eloquent and delicate poetry, laid across a carpet of haunting and celestial sounds.
Brigitte Bardini: Stellar Lights (Australia)
This is a sparkling collection of exquisite dream pop finery: spread across 14 tracks (including five bonus tracks) of impressive music, mostly created, played and produced by Bardini herself….There is no stylistic rigor mortis – the songs range from disco-inflected pop, dream pop fugues and shoegaze blasts to pastoral, reflective movements that are psychedelic and cinematic.
Cloud Tangle: Swells (Australia)
Cloud Tangle is back with the glorious album ‘Swells’ – another stunning dreamy ambient masterpiece that immerses the listener in a soft layered and nuanced world of electronica. ‘Swells’ confirms Amber Ramsay’s place in the firmament.
Mess Esque: Mess Esque (Australia)
‘Mess Esque’ the album is an ethereal, gentle delight: yearning brittle and delicate vocals that glide over subtle but barely restrained instrumentation that adds a gold filigree to a barbed wire brush. It has the raw and visceral edge of Velvet Underground mixed with a dream pop blur. What a magical collaboration.
Quivers: Golden Doubt (Australia)
‘Golden Doubt has all the hallmarks of classic antipodean indie pop: celestial melodies, chiming guitars, swooning strings, heavenly melodies and vaulting choruses, all delivered with a lyrical poetry that has an indelible glow.
The Paper Kites: Roses (Australia)
‘Roses’ is filled with little treasures – individual gems that fit perfectly to create a glittering whole. The guests add to the lustre: this is the first collaborative release from the band and the result is nothing short of magnificent.
Geoffrey O’Connor: For As Long As I Remember (Australia)
‘For As long As I Can Remember’ is a masterful album. It has a sepia-touched aura of another era – a sixties sparkle and lustre with a Clavichord spine. It has a style and grace that is imbued with an air of jaded sophistication and ennuie emanating from the golden thread of melancholia that sweeps across the album.
Flyying Colours: Fantasy Country (Australia)
Flyying Colours have delivered an album that has all the hallmarks of exemplary shoegaze/dream pop – shimmering walls of guitars, distant vocals and a mesmerising drone – and in the process crafted something that is unique, highly distinctive and immensely enjoyable.
Dominic Breen: Blue Volume (Australia)
‘Blue Volume’ is a magnificent piece of work: uniquely antipodean in style and yet universal in appeal with its strong foundation of impeccable melodies and harmonies, a jangle and a spark to the instrumentation, and a sense of joyous optimism amongst the yearning and melancholy.
The Nagging Doubts: Autocalm (EP) (Australia)
‘Autocalm’ is an achingly beautiful collection of songs – there is an immediacy and rawness of expression and a deep sense of yearning and melancholia in the first three quarters before a wild and transfixing explosion into something unrestrained and free. This is an outstanding release and one of the highlights of the year thus far.
The Terrifying Lows: The Terrifying Lows (Australia)
‘The Terrifying Lows’ is simply an enormous and ambitious album that delivers. Nine remarkable tracks are imbued with cinematic, anthemic pop melodies that carry dark themes across shimmering instrumentation.
Fabels: Minds (Australia)
‘Minds’ is immersive and hypnotic, exotic and alien at times, but filled with brilliant stark mysterious thrum and a stunning vibrancy. Stylistically, it’s impossible to define but has an indelible passion and euphoric glow.
Moody Beach: Assembly of the Wild (EP) (Australia)
‘Assembly of the Wild’ is a brilliant and immersive creature of pure-bred pop draped in a barbed-wire mantle. Moody Beach has created something very special and very rewarding with this EP, and all is left for you to do is to enjoy.
Dan Baker: From Corners Quiet (EP) (Australia)
Replete with regret and sorrow, leavened at times by a quite resilience, carried on the shoulders of impossibly ethereal music, this is a magnificent piece of work.
Even: Reverse Light Years (Australia)
‘Reverse Light Years’ is immense in every sense – 17 tracks that sparkle and shine with varying influences sharing a common thread: an ear for melody and a knowing sense of fun and excess. Guitar-based jangle pop that flexes its muscles and strikes a pose.
Middle Kids: Today, We’re The Greatest (Australia)
‘Today We’re The Greatest’ is a beautiful colourful tapestry woven with the finest vocals and the most expressive lyrics. It stands as a complete whole – to be listened to in one immersive hit and savoured as a beautiful representation of the vicissitudes of life.
Toby Martin: I Felt The Valley Lifting (Australia)
‘I Felt The Valley Lifting’ never settles down into cliche or complacency: it is an album filled with contrasts and an inherent glow: pastoral pop meets world music, delivering tales of ordinary life mixed in with a magical realism. Martin’s golden vocals and sense of veracity and empathy burnish this album and create a steel strong spine as the listener is taken on a mystical journey grounded in the minutiae of everyday existence.
JESSICA: With Reverie (Australia)
‘With Reverie’ is a graceful, stately album infused with melancholy and darkness: stark and beautiful.
Darren Cross: Distorder (Australia)
‘Distorder’ is a brilliant expression of our times: discordant, unsettling and at times bleak, but delivered with a swagger and a panache. Cross puts on display his musicianship and creativity, creating something dark and elusive yet touched with a certain element of wry amusement. A panoply of sonic expression, a bitter confection of dissonance but a thoroughly enjoyable and cathartic whole.
Ben Salter: Twenty One Words for Loss (Australia)
‘twenty-one words for loss’ is a tremendous and rewarding journey: an exploration of the darkness and misery that will always beset the human condition, expressed with stark beauty and an ethereal luminescence. A work of art created in an institution for displaying works of art, it’s a perfect display of a musician at his very best.
Heligoland: This Quiet Fire (Australia)
Ultimately, This Quiet Fire is a panacea for our times – a gentle salve for troubled times inducing a sense of euphoria and joy. It is wistful, melancholic and utterly beautiful.
T. Wilds: Ten Songs (Australia)
‘Ten Songs’ is a gorgeous infusion of sweet yearnings wrapped in a magical and mystical cloak. Bowers’s gentle musings are evocative and thrilling: the sounds crystalline, delicate and yet antithetically draped over a steely spine. This is an album full of an inherent grace, poised and shimmering.
Huck Hastings: Cheers To Progress (Australia)
This a collection of beautiful personal observations on relationships and love, floating across shimmering instrumentation: intelligent and arch.
Infinity Broke: Your Dream, My Jail (Australia)
‘Your Dream My Jail’ is an excoriating, driven, thunderous slice of post-punk cake that is angular, studded and visceral. Guitars wail and caterwaul, drums crash like waves on an exposed coast and singer Jamie Hutchings (formerly of nineties indie legends Bluebottle Kiss) has vocal chords that are barbed-wire wrapped velvet – whooping, sweeping, carousing, cutting.
Maple Glider: Enjoy (Australia)
‘To Enjoy is the Only Thing’ is magnificent collection of pieces of Maple Glider’s life in exile – torn between the adventures of another life yet constantly drawn to the anchorage of home. It perfectly captures in the delicate vocals the sense of introspection and alienation in a strange place, and yet throughout there is antithetically a close and enveloping sense of comfort and self expression, as well as a sense of connection.
Bob Evans: Tomorrowland (Australia)
Bob Evans has an ear for delicate and uplifting melodies that are buoyed by crystalline guitars and lush, rich instrumentation. As a result, Tomorrowland is a triumph, fusing an indelible songwriting craft with a deeply profound pop sensibility.
DMA’s: I Love You Unconditionally… (EP) (Australia)
‘I Love You Unconditionally, Sure Am Going To Miss You’ is DMA’s at their very best. There is a clear nod to their beginnings with less synth, less production trickery and more dirty guitars, but their command of songwriting is magnificent, bold and transformative. This is a very nice surprise.
Silk Cut: Astronaut (EP)(New Zealand)
‘Astronaut’, as its name implies, is a spaced out exploration into a mystical realm: replete with a floating, ethereal tone as a central thread and a psychedelic other-worldly thrum. Silk Cut have spun out something that is quite a sparkling jewel in the firmament.
Lastlings: Live Acoustic (EP) (Australia)
This is an outstanding collection of songs delivered with enigmatic and impeccable style.
Oceans: Come So Far (EP) (Australia)
‘Come So Far’ is a shimmering delight that delivers something that, while arctic and chilling, is enveloping and immersive: flashes of sparkling electro-pop cloth threaded in between a shoegaze skeleton and a dream pop cape. Elegant and melancholic magic.
Flowerkid: Everyone Has A Breaking Point (EP) (Australia)
‘Everyone Has A Breaking Point’ is at times raw and bleak, honest and emotional – but above all and throughout the darkness, it is a shining beacon of light for anyone who has ever felt different, anxious or afraid. It is a blessed panacea against normality and uniformity, cloaked in the most anthemic and joyous pop embedded with threads of diversity and inclusivity.
Restless Leg (Dream Buffet) (Australia)
Restless Leg have a huge selection of colours on which to paint on their sparkling canvass, creating a vivid and layered whole in ‘Dream Buffet’. Their influences are ever present but remain merely a sign post to the direction the band travels. And it is a very nice direction indeed.
Coalfalls: Pieces (EP) (Australia)
Ultimately, Coalfalls are proving to be the most innovative and creative musicians and ‘Pieces’ is a magnificent testimony to their ability to sculpture and mold a sonic temple that shimmers, snarls and pacifies within its spaces. Interspersed within this EP are monstrous waves of feedback frenzy and shoegaze fuzz that evolve and dissipate, alongside dreamy fugues and hypnotic drones that immerse and enfold you.
Honourable mentions also to Eilish Gilligan (First One To Leave The Party) (EP), Magnetic Heads (Moral Outage), Tori Forsythe (Provlépseis), Bitter Defeat (Minor Victory) (EP), North Arm (Bring The Daylight), Anna Smyrk (The Hour Between Us) (EP), Bryan Estepa (Back To The Middle) (EP), Imperial Broads (Counterpart)
I’d also like to express my appreciation to all the PR Agencies and Record Labels – particularly the small boutique ones that provide such a dedicated and personal service to their artists.