Another year gone, and amongst the existential quandaries of seeing another year of your life pass you by I can at least have some relief in compiling my favourite songs of 2017. I listened to a lot of new music thanks partly to a new hobby of writing album reviews for 4ZZZ, and so it was a bit tricky to narrow down the list to 10. But here it is; a mixture of old favourites and new discoveries, local park singalongs to artists from the other side of the world. Hope you enjoy these songs as much as I do.
Combat Wombat – Let them know
It’s been a long 12 years since Combat Wombat released their last album Unsound System. They haven’t been dormant though – the members have been active in other musical projects and political mischief making. There is something special though about the music they make as a group. It’s more than just the beats and rhymes too – Combat Wombat’s music is a kind of folk music for the Australian activist subculture; their dancefloors a communal and formative musical experience. Their natural environment is played live at a blockade or protest, on their solar powered soundsystem. On this Bollywood-funk banger of a track, Izzy’s verse is a like a tribute and a motivational speech to all those out there struggling for a better world.
And so this year I spent plenty of time enjoying the long-awaited Just Across The Border, but even better was dancing to the band with the whole of the Students Of Sustainability convergence in Newcastle.
Paddy McHugh – Sean McDonough
Another long-term favourite of mine; this year saw Paddy McHugh with a new album and a new label to try to get his music the audience it deserves. The songs are a bit more epic and well-produced, but still beautifully honest stories of struggle, heartbreak and joy set against the Australian landscape.
The album includes this joyous re-imagining of the convict experience based on stories whispered through the ages of early migrants who felt more kinship with the aboriginals than their English masters. My favourite bit is where Paddy sings “I’ve been called many things, but an Englishman ain’t one.”
Arcade Fire – Everything now
It’s a sign of the times that bands who once felt truly significant now just seem like one more bit of music piled on a mountain we can’t see the peak of. Arcade Fire’s new album and this title track is about this very dilemma. “Every song that I”ve ever heard is playing at the same time; it’s absurd!” they sing; “every room in my house is full of shit I couldn’t live without.”
But they also recognise the irony of being part of this very spectacle of infinite content. Thus the juxtaposition of the track’s hectoring lyrics with a gloriously cheesy musical backing of 70’s disco piano, pan pipes and ridiculous group vocal chants. The clip is stunning too.
Ramshackle Glory – Die alone, live together
With the release of One Last Big Job at the very start of the year came an announcement from songwriter Pat “The Bunny” Schneeweis. He said this would be his last release as his muse throughout his varied and prolific output has always been anarchism – a politicial philosophy to which he no longer subscribes.
Ironically, One Last Big Job is probably the most overtly anarchist of any release he has done. A few of the songs seem to be written in the character not of an individual anarchist, but of anarchism itself. Not that the picture painted is a particularly optimistic one, but there is still a bit of joy found in the struggle. This track being a good example. “Call me ‘idealist’? I was born to lose. You’re a fucking voter. Who’s living in a fantasy?”
If this really is the end of Pat The Bunny’s musical career (which I personally am not convinced it is), it is a worthy end to an extraordinary output that has meant a lot to a lot of people over the years.
Harley Young – Kate and the old XD
I had never heard of the chronicler of suburban Brisbane life Harley Young until this song came on the radio early in the year. But I was instantly converted by this wonderful ode to the restless drifter. The song features a fantastic turn of phrase and a classically dry sense of humour (“You fell in love for the very third time”); but also contains enough insight that those with drifting inclinations ourselves can recognise the truth in it.
Tinariwen – Sastanàqqàm
Every year I listen to a lot of amazing music from the continent of Africa. This year I discovered new albums of Soweto township music, Zimbabwean pop, Congolese soukous and of course West Africa’s incredible mix of music styles. It was a massive year for releases of the distinctive desert blues of the nomadic Saharan Tuareg people – a great album from Tamikrest, a trail-blazing effort from the first ever female Tuareg rock band Les Filles de Illighadad, and best of all a new album from the legendary Tinariwen.
The story of Tinariwen is an amazing one – they grew up in refugee camps in the 70’s following an unsuccessful Tuareg independence struggle. Members would go on to fight in another unsuccessful armed struggle. They can claim to be the first band to mix traditional Tuareg styles with rock music, and they built up their reputation touring around desert camps for decades before their music gained international attention. After becoming one of Africa’s biggest musical exports they ended up on the run again following the rise to power in Mali of Islamic fundamentalists who banned rock music. And yet they have continued to make amazing music; drafting younger members into the band as the original members move into retirement.
2017’s Elwan album didn’t tread much new ground (this is, after all, a band who write most of their songs around a single chord), but it was as great as always; mixing polyrhythms, intertwining guitars, group vocals and rebel lyrics. The title of this track translates as “I Question You”.
Oumou Sangare – Kemelemba
Another Malian music legend released a powerful new album in 2017. Oumou Sangare is more than just a musician – she is a force of personality who is a fearless and outspoken spokesperson for both her marginalised Wassoulou ethnicity and her gender. A highlight of one interview I read was when she was asked if there is a word for “feminism” in her native tongue of Bambara. She said no, only for her translator to intervene and say “It’s just ‘Oumou’.”
The album is a joyous mix of traditional instruments, electronic beats, afrobeat and of course Oumou’s distinctive voice. All those elements are present on this track, whose title translates at “The Womaniser”. Plus it also features a stunning video with great choreography and cinematography; not to mention helpful subtitles so we anglophones can understand just how great Oumou’s lyrics are.
Spindles – Out of seeds that echo the winter’s breath I will spring
So this song didn’t actually come out this year, we’re still waiting for an official release from Spindles. But in any year the songs that really impact you weren’t necessarily released that year. They can be new to us as listeners, or can take on new meanings in our individual context. Anyway, this one is close enough to a new release to include.
I listened to this song so many times – often in headphones while riding around on my bike. The singing and guitar playing is beautiful (I especially love that harmonics bit on the guitar), but also the lyrics are brilliant, especially for those of us who also “can see a new world coming in”. “Oh world won’t you open up?” asks Spindles; “You’re creaking like an old gate.”
Old Crow Medicine Show – Heart up in the sky
Once again in 2017 country music played a big part in my listening habits. Again, it’s not always the newest releases that are my favourite tracks or new discoveries; when there is a whole genre that in my younger years I never explored that much.
Old Crow Medicine Show released a best of compilation this year. They are deservedly best known for their immortal ode to hitching Wagon Wheel. But the compilation featured plenty of other good but not quite as great songs, and a couple of new ones including this. It’s not always easy mixing humour and music – sometimes once the novelty of the joke wears off the song also loses its appeal. But in country there’s a long history of weaving humour into songs. And this track still manages to make me laugh, to be a great hoedown and to still be strangely moving.
Whoopee Do Crew – Badge of honour
The Whoopee Do Crew formed through songwriting workshops run by social worker and musician Tom Smith. The aim is to get people writing about their own experiences so those people, and our society as a whole, can see a value in those lives.
I had a bit to do with the Whoopee Do Crew this year. For one, our Food Not Bombs weekly street meal and the band share a home ground in West End’s People’s Park where they have Wednesday morning jam sessions. I love most of the songs, but especially this one written and sung by Nigel Quinlan. It’s about an experience many of us are familiar with – an activist asking whether all that struggling for a better world has made any difference and was even worth it. Nigel’s answer is “it’s a badge of honour”.