It’s about that time! I’ve made yet another list of incredible songs released throughout the year and smashed them all into a countdown. It’s like the Hottest 100, just with roughly 2-odd million less voters and 100% less Lime Cordiale. 100% more geriatric British men rapping, though. Swings and roundabouts.
Before we get to the crunch of the main list, please enjoy this playlist of 50 great songs from 2022 that just missed out on the top 100:
As always, DISCLAIMER: This is not a list of the most popular songs, nor is it a list curated by anyone except myself. These are, in my view, the best songs of the year. Disagreement and discussion is welcomed, but ultimately if you have any real issues with any songs that are ranked too low, too high or not at all… make your own list!
ADDITIONAL DISCLAIMER: This list originally contained the song ‘THREAT’ by Rex Orange County. It was originally removed from the list following Alexander O’Connor’s allegations of sexual assault. He was, however, cleared of the allegations – but only after the list had been finalised. So, please consider the song effectively 101 or 100a accordingly.
– DJY, December 2022
100. Viagra Boys – Ain’t No Thief
Stockholm’s Viagra Boys might be a lot of things. They may be snide, sardonic and sneering. They might be rollicking, rambunctious and rabble-rousing. They might even be the coolest band out of Scandinavia since The Hives. But as the lead single to their latest effort Cave World will testify, they’re not thieves. Across pummelling hi-hats and a growling bass-line, the case is pleaded for these eerily similar items to yours to be purely coincidental. Do you buy it? Maybe not at first. But here’s another thing that Viagra Boys are: Persuasive. They’ll make a believer out of you yet, motherfucker.
99. Highschool – Only a Dream
Highschool join a niche category of bands like Cattle Decapitation, War, A Death In The Family and Buried Alive: Great bands named after terrible things. The Melbourne-born, London-based trio offer an electronically-tinged take on proto post-punk that is simultaneously well before their time and entirely of the now. ‘Only A Dream’ encapsulates both their broad appeal and sky-limit potential, sounding a little like Nation Of Language covering ‘Hard To Explain’ mixed with The Strokes covering ‘This Fractured Mind’. They might sound a little too cool for their namesake, but tracks this uniformly excellent are proof they paid attention in class.
98. VOIID – Lexapro
If the lead single from VOIID’s forthcoming debut album had a Pinterest board, there’d be a few things on it: Kurt Cobain in a dress, the Broad City girls pushing their smiles up with middle fingers, empty blister packets and Brody Dalle licking her amp. If that’s not enough to visualise ‘Lexapro’, a humble suggestion: Play it fucking loud. It’s VOIID’s default setting, and they make red-level distortion their playground in a particularly masterful way within these three minutes. Sugar, spice and Chemical X are bubbling in-between every pedal stomp and every snare roll, resulting in a fittingly addictive listen.
97. A.B. Original – King Billy Cokebottle
Briggs and Trials have never shied away from reckoning with the dark underbelly of culture within so-called Australia. On A.B. Original’s comeback single, here comes another one: Racist comedy in this country was normalised and part of mainstream culture up until very recently. Though Briggs comes in typically strong (opening line: “Why the fuck would I welcome the oppressor?”), this is Trials’ ultimate show-stopper moment. Not only does he deliver a slamming beat, he also offers up arsenic, career-best spitfire in his own verses. Few other duos could make a six-year gap between music dissipate within a matter of minutes.
96. Magnolia Park – Radio Reject
Born of an era where music is discovered through scrolling up rather than turning dials, Magnolia Park come at the scene with a unique mission: Bringing Black excellence to the predominantly-white genre of pop-punk. “This life’s not for me/’Cause I had bigger dreams,” singer Joshua Roberts offers up over crisp guitars and pristine production, before bowling into a chorus that everyone from blink-182 to Fireworks would kill to have in their arsenal. By daring to be different and breaking from the homogeneity, the Orlando, FL sextet are setting their own trends and playing by their own rules. Duet this, rejects.
95. The Weeknd – Out of Time [Kaytranada remix]
There’s a certain ballsiness for a producer to cut in on arguably the biggest pop-star in the world. Still, if there’s anyone that can offer a fresh, rewarding paint-job, it’s surely Kaytranada. Since breaking out in the mid-2010s, the Canadian beatmaker and DJ has brought his shuffled, sizzling production finess to everyone from Craig David to Anderson .Paak. Now, it’s his fellow countrymen The Weeknd’s turn. Originally a slow-mo 80s ballad, ‘Out of Time’ is transformed into a lush, tropical late-nite groove – which fits so well, you’ll find yourself questioning why it was ever presented in any other form.
94. Slipknot – Adderall
Imagine going back 20 years and telling folks the opening song on Slipknot’s seventh(!) album sounds like a Gothic blend of Bowie’s final album (he’s dead, by the way) and Tame Impala (your kids are gonna love ’em). ‘Adderall’ is the least Slipknot-sounding song Slipknot have ever made – and that includes every acoustic ballad, that Hammond numberand whatever ‘Iowa’ was supposed to be. To be pushing outer boundaries of your sonic spectrum in your fourth decade as a band is the kind of ambition any musician should aspire to, and the weirdness present within pays off big time.
93. Teenage Dads – Hey, Diego!
Don’t mistake Teenage Dads’ goofiness for any songwriting instabilities. The Melbourne quartet might know how to meme it up with the best of them, but when it comes to their indie-pop chops there are few bands on the circuit right now that are as sharp. Case in point: This game-six three-pointer that came within the final weeks of 2022 and threatened to steal the damn show. Already a live staple, ‘Diego”s pulsing percussive drive and knife-edge guitars pack just as much of a punch in its studio iteration. And if you thought this was a belter, wait until you hear…
92. Teenage Dads – Teddy
Truly, did you go to an Australian gig in 2022 if you didn’t find yourself screaming at a bastard cop that “Teddy doesn’t live here anymore”? Weaving through irresistible synth lines, car-chase pacing and a wordless pre-chorus that will live rent-free in your head is a narrative about mistaken identity and the endless twists and turns therein. It’s thoroughly silly, but it’s executed in such a manner that you just have to see it through – if only to find out what happens next. Despite an oft-chaotic approach, ‘Teddy’ is irrefutable proof that Teenage Dads know exactly what they’re doing.
91. Pusha T feat. Jay-Z and Pharrell Williams – Neck & Wrist
While it was, shall we say, not a particularly great year for DAYTONA‘s producer, it was much better for its lead artist. King Push continues to assert himself as one of American hip-hop’s most consistent MCs, with It’s Almost Dry feeling almost like a victory lap. ‘Neck & Wrist’ showcases Pusha’s fascinating dichotomy of being able to drop constant bars while simultaneously sounding entirely lackadaisical. The velvety Pharrell beat is accompanied by some choice lines from the man himself, plus Jay-Z drops a verse that deserved way more attention than ‘God Did’… err, did. Head and shoulders above the rest.
90. Pharrell Williams feat. 21 Savage and Tyler, the Creator – Cash In Cash Out
Skateboard P wasn’t done there, either. The veteran hat-wearer and occasional producer has friends in high places, so when he asks 21 if he can do something for him, you know the answer’s yes (skraight up). The beat is a certified speaker-rattler, with Savage having plenty of fun, but it’s a verse from someone who considers Pharrell a hero that makes ‘Cash In Cash Out’. Tyler’s verse is his ‘Really Doe’ moment – in the presence of greatness, yet dishing out enough heat to make him centre of attention. Throw in a genuinely jaw-dropping music video, and you’ve made bank.
89. Party Dozen feat. Nick Cave – Macca the Mutt
Kirsty Tickle and Jonathan Boulet formed Party Dozen six years ago as a leap of faith, departing from their indieroots to venture down the rabbit hole of jazzy noise-rock. For their third album, they took a second leap and cold-called a lifetime hero to get in the mix of one of their rowdiest and hardest-hitting tracks to date. Against all odds, it worked: Nick Cave only contributes seven words to ‘Macca the Mutt’, but their indelible repetition will bark at all hours in your head once you’ve heard it. Call that a Birthday Party Dozen. There goes the neighbourhood.
88. I Know Leopard – Nothing is Real
After nearly a decade, it’s entirely to I Know Leopard’s credit that no-one is asking “whatever happened to…”, but is instead asking “what’s next?” The run of singles the trio have dropped since 2019’s Love is a Landmine is firmly within the upper echelon of their entire canon, and ‘Nothing is Real’ does not buck this trend in the slightest. Adding a skittish rush of glitchy electronica to the band’s usual baroque pop, these orchestral manoeuvres in the dark are given a neon glow that illuminates the song’s existential quandry. Bring the beat back, because shit’s about to get real.
87. Tasman Keith feat. Phil Fresh – IDK
There’s never a dull moment when it comes to Tasman Keith. Not content with being pigeonholed, the multi-hyphenate effectively released the doves on his debut – and on ‘IDK’, this is what it sounds like when doves cry. Enlisting a fellow genre-defiant type in Phil Fresh, the pair take to a velvety 18YOMAN beat from left of centre, subsequently cutting to the core in the process. Keith’s voice may be pitched and warped, and Fresh’s heavily AutoTuned, but there’s no disguising their tales of woe from the battlefield of love. Know this: These two endlessly-creative artists are the genuine item.
86. Billy Nomates – saboteur forcefield
We’re constantly on the lookout for the next “cellar door” – one of those perfect English phrases that rolls off the tongue. May we humbly put forward ‘saboteur forcefield’, Billy Nomates’ third single of 2022. Teasingly, the title itself is never uttered directly in the song itself – rather, the two words are implemented individually in its winding, syncopated chorus. There’s layers to it, you see. The same can be said for the rest of the song, which matches dark, spiraling guitar with bright bleeps of synth against the kick of a persistent drum machine. Truly, a door worth unlocking.
85. Pete & Bas feat. The Snooker Team – Window Frame Cypher Pt. II
Anyone who says that rap is a young man’s game has never heard 10 crusty old codgers pass the mic over an absolute heater of a beat. The second in the ‘Window Frame Cypher’ series saw a mess of new characters inducted, including a wheelchair-using MC named Airmax90 and a bloke with an electrolarynx. No-one quite knows where Pete, Bas and their weirdo mates all came from. When they’re dropping bars about plowing your missus and murdering someone for a fag, though, you can only be grateful that they rocked up. It’s Sindhu World’s world, we’re just living in it.
84. The Weeknd – Sacrifice
One week. One goddamn week. That’s all The Weeknd gave us of 2022 before he swooped in with Dawn FM and threatened to overshadow the remaining 358 days with one of his strongest albums to date – at times, rivalling the creativity of standard-bearer House of Balloons. Here, Abel Tesfaye became one of the most unique Venn diagrams of recent memory by enlisting both Swedish House Mafia and Oneohtrix Point Never on production. That mix of stadium-ready pop maximalism and shadowy, sinister undercurrents made ‘Sacrifice’ an undeniable contender within the first quarter of the year – and long thereafter, too.
83. Death Cab for Cutie – Here to Forever
What began in a college bedroom in the late 90s is now a festival-headlining prospect of the 2020s, and that’s just one of the things that’s changed since Death Cab for Cutie began. Ben Gibbard always knew this was coming (sample 2003 lyric: “Old age is just around the bend/I can’t wait to go grey”), but ‘Here to Forever’ reckons with ageing in realtime. Ironically, it’s also the most DCfC have musically sounded like their younger selves in some time, getting the point across with hammering snare-rim clicks and bright, churning guitars. Don’t put them out to pasture just yet.
82. Spiderbait – My Car’s a UFO
Finlay’s finest spent the year celebrating Janet English, one of the few homegrown 90s rock chicks that’s still kicking arse to this very day. To add to their Sounds in the Key of J compilation, Spiderbait pulled into the archives and found an unreleased song about alien love recorded for the underrated LP The Flight of Wally Funk. The fact that ‘My Car’s a UFO’ has made a 2022 best-of over two decades after recording is not a reflection on the current era, but rather the evergreen nature of this fantastically-fuzzy band and their idiosyncratic excellence. Beam us up, Janet.
81. Ceremony – Vanity Spawned by Fear
Remember Ceremony? The grindcore band? The hardcore band? The punk band? The post-punk band? The goth disco band? Yeah, them. Anyway, they’re new-wave now. On their curveball standalone single for the year, the rapidly-evolving Rohnert Park natives found a new muse in INXS – specifically, the era of the band where they were taking pointers from Nile Rodgers. There’s chicken-picking guitar, breathy vocals, a stank-face guarantee of a groove and even a goddamn sax solo. Who the hell had “Ceremony song with a sax solo” on their 2022 bingo card? With ‘Vanity’, Ceremony wake up to a brand new day.
Listen to the DJY100 thus far via the Spotify playlist below:
The rest of the DJY 100 will follow on these dates:
I began writing about my top 100 songs of 2021, the DJY100, on November 29, 2021. I finished writing about my top 100 songs of 2021, the DJY100, on March 31, 2022. I very nearly gave up, because I was exhausted and checked out and besides everything else, who wants to read a 2021 best-of at the start of April the following year? Is this some sort of joke? An April Fool’s? Ultimately, it got to the point where I was openly challenging myself to get this shit done – I lingered on the top 10 for weeks, especially. I’m really glad that I stuck with it. If a job’s worth doing, after all.
Before I get out of here: You can catch up on the entire list via Parts One, Two, Three and Four.
Thank you so much for reading. It means a lot. I’ll be back in about eight months or so to get into all of this again. If I get this next one finished in February 2023 then it’s over for you bitches. La la love you.
– DJY, March 2022
20. Dry Cleaning – Strong Feelings
What’s your favourite turn of phrase in “Strong Feelings”? Is it “Emo dead stuff collector”? “Spent ₤17 on mushrooms”? “Seems like a lot of garlic”? “It’s Europe”? There’s no wrong answers – and that, by proxy, can also be said of Dry Cleaning themselves. Whether you’re drawn to the rumble of the rhythm section, the Andy Gill-style guitar shapes or the droll, desert-dry delivery, you’re absolutely spot on. “Strong Feelings” was among the upper echelon of cuts from the band’s debut New Long Leg – which, itself, was among the upper echelon of 2021 albums. The top really suits them.
19. RÜFÜS DU SOL – Next to Me
Not to be all “before it was cool,” but those that knew RÜFÜS DU SOL before 2018’s Solace look at the world the Sydney expat trio have created for themselves with utmost awe. In the case of “Next to Me” and its jaw-dropping music video, that’s quite literal too. Entire universes rising and falling in syncopation with the song’s own vast landscape seems like both the perfect accompaniment and the most succinct reflection on how far RÜFÜS have come. From its solitary piano tinker to its orbiting synth spirals, everything within “Next to Me” feels properly, emphatically monumental by design.
18. TURNSTILE – BLACKOUT
Hardcore has never been the kind to shy from gory details, but the dark underbelly of “BLACKOUT” is one unique package. It’s a song about wanting your roses while you’re still alive, ruminating on the fragility of life itself – all while loud guitars slam against booming drums and percussion. It may seem at odds, but the song’s extroverted nature is Brendan Yates taking his anguish and reaching out his hand to a captive audience – as if to ask, “are you with me?” They are, of course – especially when “the main bit but slower” kicks in. Bust it.
17. Big Scary – Bursting at the Seams
After over a decade as a band, Big Scary’s fourth album Daisy made some significant changes to the mulitifaceted duo’s already-complex narrative. Amongst them came drummer Jo Syme’s long-awaited (and well-deserved) debut on lead vocals. Enter “Bursting at the Seams,” a fascinating styles clash between synth-bass disco and baroque pop in the spirit of “Love is In the Air.” Syme finds herself in the midst of new romance, and consequently tangos between love and lust. “All I want is to feel” is a bold line in its own right; when it’s suffixed with “love,” all bets are off. Terrifyingly good.
16. Olivia Rodrigo – good 4 u
Behold: The song that kicked the door open on Olivia Rodrigo’s multitudes, showing the wholly-attentive universe at large she could provide more than tear-stained balladry. It’s still at odds with the perennially jilted ex, but this time Rodrigo is pissed. Well, as pissed as one can get in mainstream pop songs – somewhere below “Caught Up There” but above “Send My Love (To Your New Lover).” Was there a better a capella on the charts this year then Rodrigo red-levelling “LIKE A DAMN SOCIOPATH”? Fuck no there wasn’t. If Rodrigo is supposedly in the business of misery, business is booming.
15. The Goon Sax – In the Stone
On Mirror II, The Goon Sax built up enough stamina to not only outrun their familial comparisons, but prove that theirs was a band prepared to go the distance. What’s interesting, though, is this much isn’t immediately apparent on “In the Stone.” In a slow-motion bloom over repeated listens, the song reveals the sum of the band’s parts in the best way possible. Louis Foster and Riley Jones circle one another in the verses, eventually actualising their synergy in the chorus that keeps on giving. Across persistent momentum and a constant stream of guitar jangle, a new legacy is solidified.
14. The Sunday Estate – Fight Me
There are certain instances you can sense with a band when you’re at the start of something big. Sometimes you’re on the money (Gang of Youths), others you’re way off (Hair Die), but that initial feeling is invariably exciting. Said feeling flutters through the pristine guitars and rumbling drums of “Fight Me,” which was not the first offering from Sydney quintet The Sunday Estate but unquestionably the first to make a lasting impression. Under the serious moonlight of tumultuous new romance, the song wrestles and writhes like late-night kisess under the watchful eye of a rainy city. Can’t fight it.
13. Middle Kids – Stacking Chairs
“Stacking Chairs” and its titular phrase feels like an unlocking: of the song, the album it’s from and the band who wrote it. “When the party’s over/I’ll be stacking chairs.” That’s love. That’s palpable love. It’s about being there when it all falls apart; about the company you keep and carry with you – root of the root. It helps that Middle Kids have hung what’s among their best-ever songs onto this rich sentiment. The bright guitars ricocheting off the military snare, the twinkling synthesizers and impeccable close harmonies showcase the Kids at full strength. The party ain’t over yet.
12. Wave Racer – Look Up to Yourself
The best 1975 song of the year was not written by The 1975. Instead, it came from a Melbourne bedroom and from a returning artist that could well have been potentially lost to the future-bass boom of the mid-2010s. It was only through a bold reinvention that Wave Racer survived – and not only that, but positively thrived at the helm of the project’s debut album. “Look Up to Yourself” is defiant in its brightness – released amidst the darkness of Australia’s 2021, it lifted spirits and provided the soundtrack to reclaiming self-belief. Once again, we race for the prize.
11. Gretta Ray – Bigger Than Me
Like most women her age, Gretta Ray grew up on Taylor Swift. She’s come to see the world through “eras,” as snakeskin sheds and butterflies rise from stolen scarves. Unlike her heroine’s clumsy foray into bombast, however, Ray lost none of her reputation rolling out her debut album Begin to Look Around. In fact, it only became stronger. Through clockwork precision and delicate layering, not to mention an assertive confidence not present in her teenage catalogue, “Bigger Than Me” took to big city life with aplomb. It’s a new world out there, but Gretta Ray is unquestionably ready for it.
10. Middle Kids – Questions
Precisely 14 days into the year 2021, Middle Kids released “Questions”. It was not the first single from their second album Today We’re the Greatest, nor was it the most successful – that would be “R U 4 Me?” on both counts there. It is, however, the single greatest song that Middle Kids have ever written. There is a very good reason that it is still holding water with such a high placing on such a list, created almost a full year on from its release.
Indeed, “Questions” is the earliest released song on the entire list – had it been released literally a week or two prior, it would not qualify. So what stood the test of time, exactly? Two things: Maximalism and calibration. The former is nothing new to the Sydney trio, of course – they arrived in a drum-roll of grandeur as early as their debut EP – but it’s the latter that’s the key to unlocking “Questions.” Instead of immediately rolling out the cavalry, the song instead builds from shimmers and glitches that are guided by hand – quite literally, as the flamenco claps pierce through the treacle of wafting synthesizers. Tim Fitz rolls through next with easily the greatest bass-line of his career, all stabs and spirals; Hannah Joy’s glowing guitar weaving between it on an upward ascent.
By going slow and steady, rather than setting off the confetti cannons in its opening moments, the trumpeting arrival (again, literal) of the song’s crescendo feels all that more rewarding and triumphant. It also plays in tandem with Joy’s lyrical framework, which is constantly seeking validation high and low in amidst the greater throes of uncertainty and indecision. Even with all the whistles and bells, when it subsides there is no grand conclusion or resolution. That’s what sticks with you – the ongoing, compelling intrigue and mystique that comes with that constant sense of seeking. When it comes to “Questions” in the grand scheme of 2021’s great singles, the first cut is the deepest.
9. The Kid LAROI feat. Justin Bieber – STAY
It’s a long way from the concrete jungle of Gadigal land to the bright lights of Hollywood. Not only has The Kid LAROI made it feel like a stone’s throw away, however, he’s broken down a myriad of barriers along the way for young Indigenous artists seeking a global stage. It hasn’t come easy, nor has it come without its own degree of backlash, but what pathway to success has? He’s part of the lexicon now, and it’s time to start putting respect on the name. “STAY” has a lot to do with this paradigm shift. Not all, of course – the Billboard smash “WITHOUT YOU” did a chunk of groundwork – but what eventuates over its 150 seconds and change of this urgent, neon-glow rush of lover’s-plea pop is a potential fully realised.
LAROI has often been labelled a rapper in the same way that Post Malone and his late mentor Juice WRLD have – insofar as the cadence and aesthetic being there to a degree, but their flows ultimately possessing too much melody to count as hip-hop in its more traditional sense. What’s interesting about “STAY,” then, is how it ostensibly serves as his audition to be the biggest pop artist in the world. Between the coarse rock-star delivery and the howling woah-ohs, a portrayal of the artist as a young Lothario comes into formation by ways of the perfect storm.
It’s gunned for with a formidable assist from two artists that have scaled the mountain themselves and lived to tell the tale: Charlie Puth and Justin Bieber. The former is responsible for the irresistible keyboard motif and the stabs of falsetto in the indelible hook, showing his prowess as one of the most distinct and compelling pop writers working today. The latter, meanwhile, makes for the jewel in the crown of 2021’s comeback king – after a disastrous yummy-yum 2020, this suave second verse recalls the Biebs at his mid-2010s peak in the best possible way.
There’s an argument to be made, then, that “STAY” is amalgamate of pop’s recent past with its present, ultimately creating something that could well be indicative of its future. For something forged beneath blinding lights, there’s a darkness on the edge of the city that feels like an old friend when “STAY” unfurls. You’ll want to stick around – may as well, after all, considering The Kid LAROI will be doing the same.
8. Lil Nas X feat. Jack Harlow – INDUSTRY BABY
The best thing Kanye did in 2021 was keep his mouth shut. No, seriously. There were moments of bliss to be found amidst the oft-delayed Donda, of course, but between his 19th nervous breakdown and the endless tirades and the unholy alliance forged between Mr. Jesus is King and Mr. Antichrist Superstar… well, you get the picture.
The best thing Lil Nas X did in 2021 was keep running his mouth. No, seriously. There were moments of bliss to be found amidst the long-awaited MONTERO, of course, but between his Satanic shoes and his new status as QPOC provocateur and the unreal music videos and the constant slam-dunks of Twitter conservatives… well, you get the picture.
Enter: “INDUSTRY BABY,” a patchwork of teamwork in tandem between two artists that have defined Black excellence in their prime. With West on the brassed-off beat to end all brassed-off beats, he allows Lil Nas to pull a classic Ye stunt: Talk his shit again. It’s a victory lap from an artist that most thought would only get one trot around the racecourse before the horse was taken off the old town road and behind the barn. It’s a double-down from an artist that had already cemented their 2021 GOAT status by literally pole-dancing into Hell and killing Satan. Oh, and why not make a megastar out of internet darling Jack Harlow while we’re at it – with what is in top contention for the best guest verse of the year.
“INDUSTRY BABY” is a great escape from the clutches of one-hit wonderdom – by this point, Lil Nas has built a boat with Tim Robbins and he is outta here. It’s at this point you realise that the hook isn’t “I’m the industry baby” – as in, he’s a newcomer – it’s actually with a comma in tow, ie. “I’m the industry, baby.” This is an arrival of the grandest kind.
7. Gretta Ray – Cherish
For a few years there, Gretta Ray was under cover of darkness. This has twofold meaning: Not only was she secretly working away on what would eventuate as her debut album, but everything she was putting out was released within the long-cast shadow of her 2016 single “Drive.” Written and recorded by Ray while still in high school, the singer-songwriter captured lightning in a bottle with an ode to young love that already felt like a classic. It was a heartfelt, endearing and endlessly rewarding song – which, in the hands of a lesser performer, could well have been her downfall.
Rather than attempt to repeat what was achieved there, Ray instead opted to keep the car running rather than hit the roundabout. If “Drive” was the car flying off at the end of Grease, then “Cherish” is the stark realisation between Sandy and Danny that this machine cannot survive in the atmosphere off true love alone. While she’s floating in a most peculiar way, Ray mourns an inevitable end over the waft of distant synths: “It’d be so brave of me to walk away,” she laments – a line so good that she opens and closes the song with it.
As the drums bring her reality hurtling down to earth, the desperation kicks in. “What do I have to do?” she asks in the song’s wrenching chorus. She’s trying to rekindle an old flame, but her match is long burnt out – just like her. High-school romance doesn’t last, and your childhood sweetheart is called that for a reason. When you’ve only just recently become legally recognised as an adult, however, there’s an unshakable sense of forever-lost innocence that comes with its demise. This isn’t just a better song than “Drive,” it’s the best song Gretta Ray has ever made. Better yet: You know now, for absolute certain, that this title will change hands once again. She is capable, she is strong, she is ready… she is cherished.
6. MAY-A – Swing of Things
In one of her earlier singles, “Apricots,” Maya Cumming boasted that she was “Something you don’t know you want.” Within that context, she was attempting to get inside the head of her crush – and, let’s face it, she probably succeeded with that kind of exuberance – but it’s also simultaneously reflective of her stature within Australian pop music. You might not have known you wanted to hear from a scrawny lesbian teen attempting to merge Avril-era punk-princess attitude with the sheen of 2020s pop, but once you’ve spent a bit of time in MAY-A’s world you start to see the bigger picture – it’s a want that quickly shifts into a need.
This is a young artist with “star” written all over them. Want proof? Here’s “Swing of Things” to get the point across. Equal parts hot pink and icy turquoise, this is Gen-Z pop that finds a way to shimmer within its verses and ultimately shine within its chorus – all while keeping its teeth gnashed and its underbelly dark. It’s pulled together by timid visionary Gab Strum (AKA Japanese Wallpaper) on production, whose ricocheting snares and distinctive beds of electronic warmth accentuate the song’s peaks and valleys. Still, it says a lot that even such a big name behind the boards is ultimately playing second fiddle to Cumming’s irrepressible presence – at once tangled-hair messy and leather-jacket cool. An island of such great complexity, this kid.
It’s a curious balance to strike between a stark, intimate confessional that can only come from direct personal experience, which is then transformed into a song that is broad and bold enough to fill out the upper tiers of an arena. This may well be the niche that MAY-A is carving for herself – a diary entry and an open book all at once. If so, it will get easier and easier to get into the swing of things as far her blossoming career goes. It’s something that – now, finally – you know that you want.
5. EGOISM – Lonely But Not Alone
Given they share most of the same letters, you’d expect the words “lonely” and “alone” to be synonymous. In reality, however, there’s a deeper relationship between the two ideas than surface value would suggest. Silverchair’s 2002 opus “Across the Night” sees Daniel Johns opine: “I don’t wanna be lonely/I just want to be alone” – the paradoxical anxious state of longing for company, but simultaneously finding yourself unable to be around people. On her 2006 track “Leave Me Alone (I’m Lonely),” honorary Australian citizen Pink wants to stew in her emotions even though she’s got someone on call – in this moment, the notion of being lonely is more enticing than being alone.
Would you have ever picked Sydney duo EGOISM to serve as the Venn diagram between Silverchair and Pink? Again, it goes beyond what surface value would suggest. The group started in high school and was originally more interested in a heavier approach to guitar music before eventually settling into artistic pop – remind you of anyone? Originally starting as outsiders, they’ve since flourished into standard-setters with a slew of certified hits to their name – remind you of anyone? Thus, somewhere in-between Diorama and I’m Not Dead, comes “Lonely But Not Alone.”
What does this script-flip mean, exactly? Weaved between its strummed bass, slick production and four-on-the-floor gridlock is a back-and-forth on last-leg relationships. It’s about sending things off with both a bang and a whimper – craving intimacy, but knowing it won’t seal up any old wounds in the process. Scout Eastment knows she’s just “another pretty girl that you messed up,” while simultaneously acknowledging that “we make up/bubble and pop” – like Bachelor Girl before her, she knows they’re bad for her but she just can’t leave them alone. In the hook, Olive Rush craves “love to borrow,” where once the transaction is complete you can “give [them] up tomorrow.” Just enough to take the edge off; just enough to last through the night.
“Lonely But Not Alone” feels, in part, like an equal and opposite reaction to 2020’s “Here’s the Thing.” While that song breached the difficulty in letting go, “Lonely” breaches the difficulty of sticking around. It’s their most ambitious pop production yet, and this shot at the moon has landed them among the stars. If Australian radio cared about supporting local music because they wanted to, not because they had to, this would have dominated the airwaves throughout 2021. Who knows, maybe TikTok will make it a hit in 2024. See you there.
4. Allday – Void
There’s a cynical framework wherein one could place Allday’s foray into indie based off his background in hip-hop – one that’s understandable, too, if you’re only across his early-to-mid 2010s output. Really? The “Fuckin” guy? The “Send Nudes” guy? What would Mr. “You Always Know the DJ” know about guitar music beyond “Girl in the Sun”? As it turned out, he knew way more than anyone was originally willing to give credit for – and so did the people he surrounded himself with while making Drinking with My Smoking Friends.
“Void,” the album’s second single, was another collaborative effort between himself and the aforementioned Gab Strum, AKA Japanese Wallpaper. Ever since the crossover of their link-up “In Motion” circa 2017, Strum has served as instrumental in Allday’s stylistic reinvention. One could argue, then, that this serves as the logical conclusion of Japanese Wallpaper renovating the frat-house that was Allday’s early work into something more architecturally sound. The song’s spiralling guitar (care of DMA’s strummer Matt Mason) feels right at home on a loop around Strum’s cooing ambient beds of electronics and Allday’s wry, tender vocal delivery.
Simultaneously daring and dreamy, it portrays a different Allday to the one we’re used to – even when juxtaposed with the singles it sandwiches on Drinking‘s rollout, both “After All This Time” and “Stolen Cars” offer a far livelier and more pop-friendly iteration of this approach. “Void” longs to be heard above the billboard noises and the city streets, offering a secret garden for listeners to revel in. It’s part reinvention and part redemption; part love-lorn and part love-lost. It’s a backyard D&M as much as it is a bedroom confessional. In a matter of minutes, Allday changes the course of his career permanently with “Void” – and it’s a rainbow road you hope will be pursued long after the final chord rings out.
3. King Stingray – Get Me Out
Place is extremely important to the music of King Stingray. As Yirrŋa Yunupiŋu sings in the first verse of the band’s second single: “There’s a place where you live/And a place where you grow.” The place where King Stingray live is East Arnhem Land, a remote community in the Northern Territory on Yolŋu country. Despite its disconnect with the rest of the Australian music community, it has served as a hub of some of the most significant names in the country’s history – among them Yothu Yindi, from whom two members of Stingray descend from, and that band’s own alum Gurrumul.
The place where King Stingray grow, however, could be anywhere – even with only a handful of songs out, they’ve already effectively purchased a ticket to the world. They’ve already set alight stages across the country, earning a reputation as one of the most intuitive and energetic new bands on a scene that’s been in desperate need of both revival and new blood. Of course, these places of living and growing are not always mutually exclusive – there’s a lot to learn from the place you were born and raised, even if so much of what we deem as life experience circles around how much we’ve travelled. If you’ve travelled for too long, you could well outgrow the place where you grow – and that’s what “Get Me Out” ultimately comes back to.
Time is also extremely important as a factor here, arguably as much as place is. When “Get Me Out” was released, it came at a time when many Australians were unable to see their friends, families and loved ones – even neighbouring suburbs felt like an ocean away in the throes of lockdowns. “The sun goes down in the distance/I wish that you could see this,” Yunupiŋu laments – a bittersweet acknowledgement that we’re all seeing the same sun set across unceded land, but we’re not able to experience it in this moment as one. “Get me out of the city” – a plea that was not only heard, but well and truly felt.
“Get Me Out” works as a lockdown-era anthem in ways that “Stuck With You” or anything from Bo Burnham’s Insidenever could – while those were largely self-serving ego trips, “Get Me Out” possesses an earthly and organic universality. Its humble pub-rock approach recalls their fellow Northern Territorians the Warumpi Band, mixing the heritage of guitar-based music with their own Indigenous tradition and even their own Yolŋu matha for good measure. It’s distinctive and definitive – in other words, Australian rock in its truest sense. No matter the time or place therein, King Stingray will always have this moment as their own.
2. CHVRCHES feat. Robert Smith – How Not to Drown
The bigger Lauren Mayberry got, the harder she fell.
You can see the trajectory of CHVRCHES’ leader purely from the trio’s live performances – she went from a statuesque figure, clinging onto an extensive mic cable for dear life, to a defiant stage commander wielding a wireless like nobody’s business. She emerged from her cocoon as a brilliant butterfly of contemporary synth-pop, suffering no fools and standing her ground – and people just fucking hated that. Whether it was misogynist trolls or Chris Brown fans – which are one and the same, but that’s another story – there was an ongoing fear that Mayberry would ultimately be taken asunder by this hideous side of her success story.
There, Lauren Mayberry stands – statuesque once again, but this time, in a sense that she refuses to back down. “I’m writing a book on how to stay conscious when you drown,” she sings – an arresting, eye-opening and borderline heart-stopping opening line, and far from the only gut-punch that would ensue over the next five minutes. Mayberry had already begun work on dismembering her would-be destroyers on the group’s previous single, “He Said She Said,” but its chirpy synths and quasi-dubstep chorus drop meant its attack was somewhat defanged upon arrival. Not so with “How Not to Drown” – in fact, this may well be the most acerbic and caustic song CHVRCHES have ever made, along with their greatest.
This is a song of survival – from abuse, from defeatism, from darkness. It’s a song that melds new wave and post-punk with the band’s usual electronic fare, creating something that revels in its sinister nature and dares you to take a step forward into its shadows. It’s assisted by The Cure’s Robert Smith, someone described as an “all-time hero” by the band themselves, who takes Mayberry’s lyrics to their own private palace of disintegration (via, naturally, Disintegration) without ever purporting to speak for her – rather, he stands alongside her and the band, as a peer. When the two sing the line “I wasn’t dead when they found me,” its impact is nothing short of astounding.
The harder Lauren Mayberry fell, the stronger CHVRCHES got. Here they stand, risen from 20,000 leagues under the sea and as tall as towers. Is that the best you’ve got?
1. Liz Stringer – First Time Really Feeling
Liz Stringer never saw it coming. Surely not.
Somewhere in the cold of Canada, in 2018 – two years before the world was upended, three before what she was about to do would ever see the light of day – the veteran singer-songwriter committed “First Time Really Feeling” to record. A keyboard hummed while the persistent drums took their place, and a guitar fumbled about getting ready – there’s even a bung note in there, but no-one seemed to mind. Six minutes later, Stringer and her makeshift ensemble of airtight session musos had laid down what has come to be the signature song and modern opus of a writer and performer never truly given her roses.
“First Time Really Feeling” was recorded what feels like a lifetime away from what we know now, but in spite of that it’s found its own context and its own rhyme and reason. At a time when many are learning to start again, Stringer’s words know what you’re going through – she had to go through that, too. To her, the titular phrase comes in the wake of her sobriety, where what she was attempting to process from a cold-turkey standpoint was bordering on a foreign concept. It was a new and uncertain place, but also one that centred on an exciting premise: The possibility.
Amongst a build of steady guitars, and guided by her resonant and smoky vocals, Stringer draws a line in the sand between her past and her present. She needs a clean break, a get away; a photo opportunity, a shot at redemption. “I just want to get out/Before it starts/To hurt me,” she sings, hurtled against the hustle and bustle of her heartfelt heartland rock. No-one said this was going to be easy, but the greatest journeys all start with a single step. By venturing forth, Stringer puts herself first – which is a miraculous feat in and unto itself, and one that should be thoroughly commended.
No, Liz Stringer never saw 2021 coming when she made “First Time Really Feeling” in 2018. As far as 2021 goes, however, it wouldn’t have made sense without “First Time Really Feeling” being a part of it. This is honesty that can’t be ignored. This is love. This is loss. This is a reeling body from a sunburnt country feeling the frost of a new terrain for the first time. It’s a new possibility. Couldn’t we all use one of those.
Listen to the DJY100 in its entirety below:
Tracks by non-male artists = 50 Tracks by Australian artists = 49
Green Screen (99, 61), Phil Fresh (97, 69), Kwame (97, 49), CHVRCHES (88, 2), Billie Eilish (86, 35), Justin Bieber (84, 9), Squid (81, 40), The Goon Sax (80, 15), Amyl and the Sniffers (79, 75), Halsey (76, 55, 54), Citizen (73, 53), Fred Again.. (68, 30), Silk Sonic (60, 37, 29), Olivia Rodrigo (50, 16), Turnstile (43, 18), Lil Nas X (39, 8), Middle Kids (13, 10), Gretta Ray (11, 7)