My top 10 songs of 2011

For the first time in memory (at least a decade), I didn’t vote in last year’s JJJ Hottest 100. It’s not that I forgot, the truth is that after a year of barely listening to JJJ, not watching tv and not really trying to keep up to date with that world of music, I would have been lucky of there were 10 songs on the list that I could recognise from the title and artist. Having made the effort last weekend to watch some of the top 100 on rage, I can now confirm that I didn’t like many of the songs anyway.

It was also a year in which the way I interacted with music changed significantly. For most of the year I didn’t have a cd player (or any cds), for a pretty big portion I also didn’t have a working mp3 player, meaning I had no access to the huge music collection that has always played such a large role in my life. I listened to local community radio stations a bit, but they didn’t necessarily introduce me to much music that had any lasting effect. Still, music as always played a pretty important role in my life, so here is the list of my top 10 songs that were released in 2011, with a bit of a story describing each one.

Ollie MC – The love that you bring

Tragically, 2011 finished with the news that Ollie Butterfield, aka Ollie MC, had died in a car crash in Victoria, having just returned from a tour to Cambodia. It came as a shock and is a great loss to the music world. As well as being a brilliant musician, Ollie was a lovely guy, a committed activist, and inspiring in the energy with which he did everything despite a spinal condition confining him to a wheelchair. But even before that Ollie deserved his place on this list, for bringing out the awesome “Navigate the Crosswind”, an album of politically inspired party hip hop.

As Australian hip hop (much of it pretty average in my opinion) grows more and more ubiquitous, it’s unfortunate that someone like Ollie MC’s music is still confined to the margins. Far from beers, breakups and Bali parties, Ollie’s wonderful lyrics are a mixture of contemporary political issues (NT intervention, refugees, exploitation), personal empowerment and an emphasis on breaking down the barriers around us – “talk to your neighbours!”

I have two lasting memories of Ollie from 2011. The first was at Broadmeadows immigration detention centre in Melbourne, when I helped wash pepper spray out of his eyes after he was brutally sprayed by a policeman while attempting an act of nonviolent civil disobedience. The second was when I randomly ran into him in Alice Springs (“Hey! Last time I saw you I was washing pepper spray out of your eyes!”) and found out he was playing at a rooftop party that night. His set was absolutely amazing, getting the whole place dancing (including himself – it’s quite a sight to see someone in a wheelchair dancing that hard) and singing along to songs about revolution. RIP Ollie, you will be missed.

The Smith Street Band – I ain’t safe

Call it dedication or just luck, but I managed to see The Smith St Band play in four different cities during 2011, as well as randomly running into singer Wil Wagner on the tram a couple of days after turning up in Melbourne. But my fondest memories of them are from the very beginning of the year, hanging out and seeing them play a couple of times as they toured with the amazing Defiance Ohio. By mid year they had released their debut album to fawning reviews and become one of the biggest bands in Australian punk rock. Which was pretty cool to see, because as well as being really nice guys, they make fun, catchy and unique punk rock.

The songs twist and turn in different directions, throwing traditional song structures out the window to indulge Wil’s story telling style. Wil also has a great ability to write truly memorable lines, which pop up in all his songs, in this case “In the warehouse district where the air smells like tyres, Lights make the sky look like a constant sunrise.”, or even better “And the smell of running water sings me to sleep now. We’ve all slept under bridges darling don’t you look so fucking proud.”

The Great Shame – Police state

The genre of Celtic/Convict folk punk has an enduring (if fairly small, in the scheme of things) popularity in Australia, leaving a constant demand for punk kids who have had lessons in violin or flute. Brisbane’s The Great Shame are a relatively new addition to this scene, but they have already built up a pretty strong following, especially in their homeotwn. Their style has a bit of a rougher edge than others, and they definitely know how to get the jigs going on the dancefloor, helped by a lagerphone that gets passed around for audience participation.

“Police state” is a bit more punk and less danceable than most of their tracks, but it is also probably my favourite, due in part to frontman Easton’s intense delivery, but mostly the wonderful violin replicating a police siren in the chorus. There is a better sounding version of this song that’s been recorded, but I quite like this video where the song is set to images of Queensland police.

Towards the end of the year I was involved in the Occupy Brisbane action, and in the midst of a series of evictions from various public spaces, I did a radio interview with local station 4ZZZ. When they asked me if I wanted to request a song I asked for this, but despite one of the band members doing a show at the station, the song couldn’t be found in the library. Shame really, I would have enjoyed this song being the soundtrack to another scene of us being dragged off by Queensland’s finest.

The Lurkers – Who’s got a padlock and chain?

Sad to say, but the political folk scene in Australia is an underpopulated one. Fortunately, one band that has been flying the flag for the last few years (on increasingly bigger stages, especially on the folk festival circuit) is The Lurkers. Like the best political musicians, they don’t limit their activism to just the stage, but are out there taking on environmental destruction with direct action as well as with banjos and sweet harmonies. And next time they do they’ll be able to sing this tribute to the lock-on, that time-honoured method of civil disobedience. Hopefully there will be plenty of opportunities for this to be sung as the Coal Seam Gas resistance movement grows.

Near the start of 2011 I was at Reclaim The Lanes in Newtown, where the Lurkers were playing on the street. In the best folk tradition, I joined in for most of the set, playing double bass and then mandolin. At the end it was put out there that they were leaving to tour Melbourne the next week – did I want to come? Alas I was about to leave Sydney, so not only did I have commitments that meant I couldn’t go with them, but when they got back I would be gone. I had missed my chance to be a part of Australia’s number one subversive homespun bluegrass band. When this album came out at the end of the year though, it was one I enjoyed listening to via the internet. If you see me at a CSG blockade you might just hear me singing this song too.

Ramshackle Glory – Your heart is a muscle

For the last couple of years, the music of Pat “The Bunny” Schneeweis has always been on constant high rotation in my listening habits. I could write a lot (and maybe one day will) about his songs, remarkably honest and perceptive lyrics and transition from the champion of nihilism, substance abuse and homelessness as Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains, to self reflective but still hating everything as Wingnut Dishwashers Union, to now (after a year’s break in rehab) cleaned up posi-folk in Ramshackle Glory. The whole way has been marked by his brilliant way with words (another who is constantly able to craft a memorable line or couplet) and cathartic honesty.

The reception to Ramshackle Glory from his many devoted (devoted is an understatement in many cases) fans has been mixed. Most people love it, but a few have complained about the thematic change. To them Pat The Bunny should always be Johnny Hobo, leading drunken singalongs about drugs, homelessness and suicide until the day he dies (which possibly wouldn’t have been that long anyway).

For me personally, as someone who has always loved his songs but sat kind of uncomfortably with some of the sentiments expressed, this record, especially the second half, is not only a collection of fantastic songs, its a relief to hear him singing with such a positive worldview. His joy is not only evident, it’s contagious. “Your heart is a muscle” is possibly the most joyous song on the record, until the last verse when he narrates the suicide of a friend. This is not some kind of metaphor, or attempt at a tortured artist persona. You know when the chorus comes back in that he really, really means it.

Video Nasty – Bong smoke

The choice of song in this case is pretty arbitrary, I can’t really distinguish between a lot of Video Nasty’s songs, and the obscurity of their recordings (they’ve released a cassette only demo, but have eschewed all kinds of digital music or the traditional ways of putting your music on the internet) means that song titles don’t really mean that much.

But I had to include Video Nasty in this list, because of the simple fact that during 2011 I saw them play countless sets, from a basement the temperature of an oven in January, to my loungeroom the week before I left Sydney in March, to a house show in Melbourne where no working microphone meant that lead singer Mishu just ran around the room screaming his throat out, to glorious DIY festivals in Sydney and Brisbane, and seemingly every time I stepped inside Black Wire Records in Annandale.

The sets weren’t always tight. In fact they often weren’t. But they were always done with maximum intensity: Oli’s hair flying everywhere; Boyer doubled over his kit, pounding away; Edo jumping around beaming, his bass slung at knee height; Mishu pacing back and forward and screaming like a man possessed. I saw them play once at a venue with a stage, and they looked completely uncomfortable without the energy of the room to feed off.

It’s funny how these things work, but when I was in Melbourne I was completely spoiled for choice for amazing hardcore bands to see. In the course of all those shows I got a bit over heavy music and wondered if I needed a break from it all. Of course I would go and see my friends play their first interstate show though, and in the end it was Video Nasty’s shambolic thrash that reminded me why I love this music.

Good Luck – Novel figure

This song actually didn’t play much of a role at all in my 2011. But I had to include it anyway, for one because of the excitement I felt towards the end of the year when I heard that a new Good Luck album was coming out. And for two, because I played their previous album “Into Lake Griffy” more than any other during 2011. It was an album I could play to sing along and dance to when I was happy, to cheer me up when I was sad, to just sit there listening to the lyrics and the imaginative guitar lines.

Good Luck are somewhat of an American DIY punk supergroup (the two songwriters were members of Abe Froman and One Reason – it’s all relative), but despite the fervour they inspire in their fans (myself included), their music is actually quite divisive – unashamedly poppy punk, but with two singers whose voices are a bit of an acquired taste. They also are one of the nerdiest looking punk bands you could ever find.

But I can’t begin to say how much I love Good Luck. They’re another band whose lyrical honesty is a strength, and Matt Tobey’s guitar playing (though I hear a bit of 90’s emo) is very much unique, a mixture of trebly chords and noodly interludes. They’re the kind of band you like more the more you listen to it, which leads me to assume that given the chance, I will grow to love their second album as much as the first.

Tangle – Wide awake

I saw Tangle play a few times during 2011. Most memorable was the time I organised for them to play at a fundraiser show, and after 5 gentle hippie bands in a row, they came on very nervous about how their emo-punk rock would be received. They appeared much more comfortable at a later show on a lazy Brisbane summer Sunday afternoon, when their music seemed to be the perfect aural accompaniment to the atmosphere.

But interestingly, when I think of their music, it’s not necessarily their shows that come to mind as much as plugging in headphones and opening their bandcamp page on a computer at the Brisbane State Library, as without a cd player or working mp3 player, the internet became for the first time in my life my main medium for playing music.

Most times I logged in, I would listen to Tangle’s ep at some point. With only four tracks, I became familiar with all the songs very quickly. The beautiful warm guitar tone goes through the whole record, including a cool harmonics bit in “Grow on”. I love the (possibly Gang Of Four inspired) bit in “No flag” where Lena speaks about nationalist indoctrination while Alex sings over the top. But best of all is “Wide awake”, finishing the record with a moment of pure pop perfection.

Bridge And Tunnel – Footnotes

You’ll have to read my forthcoming zine of music writings to hear the excessively long winded story I wrote about the night I saw Bridge And Tunnel play at the Orient Hotel in Brisbane after my then girlfriend had left the country that day, but to give away the ending it was an amazing show that was one of my musical highlights of the year. I had never really heard them before that night, but afterwards they became another band that would frequently be listened to while on the computer at the library.

They’re another band with a definite emo influence, and another band with a male and female singer (there is a bit of a trend developing here, possibly next time you see me I’ll be wearing a checkered shirt and thick-rimmed glasses), and their strength lies in their ability to mix moments of quiet beauty with a pure intensity.

They also admirably avoid cliched themes, this song is about how the research done in academic circles is alienated from most of the poulation that should be benefitting from this knowledge. Although when I first heard the line “a set of acronyms survives, but what was learned has been forgotten”, I thought it might have been having a dig at the left and its obsession with historical trivia, which I also would have liked.

Yes I’m Leaving – Untitled

Alright, so this album came out at the very beginning of 2012, but I first heard it in 2011, and there aren’t really any rules to follow when writing on your own blog anyway, so I’m going to include it. I have been known to proclaim that Yes I’m Leaving are the greatest band in the world, and though a claim like that is impossible to quantify in any way, I’m standing by it. This song is Yes I’m Leaving at their finest – heavy, always seeming on the verge of collapse, with Billy Burke howling at the microphone and then thrashing out a signature noisy guitar solo. As good as the recorded version is (and the film clip, which is awesome), nothing can quite match seeing them live.

But there’s even more reason why hearing this song makes me so happy. Yes I’m Leaving were my favourite Sydney band, but in late 2010, while they were lined up to play a show at my house, the news came that Billy had had a major health concern and was in hospital. It was unclear whether he would keep playing music. As well as losing an amazing band, this was almost inconcievable. More than anyone else I know, Billy Burke was born to play music. Away from his guitar he is quiet, even uncomfortable, but when playing he looks completely at home, and capable of music that is absolutely incredible.

It wasn’t until after I had left Sydney that I heard Yes I’m Leaving were playing a show. I wished I could have been there, but even from interstate I was so happy to see Billy back playing. When I came back to Sydney for a couple of weeks in June, I got to see them play again. The evidence was irrefutable. Yes I’m Leaving were the greatest band in the world.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “My top 10 songs of 2011

  1. Thanks for putting us in such great company, Andy!

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