There is no better supporter of Australian music out there than all-round champion bloke, Jeff Jenkins. This fortnight we have branched out into new territory by having a non-musician share his top ten. Nobody knows more about the history of Australian music past or present than this gentleman and for a rare treat he shares his top ten “Australian” albums of all time. Jeff is a journalist and writes about music for a living. Every week he writes the column Howzat! for The Music publication and has written books including 50 Years Of Rock In Australia and Ego Is Not A Dirty Word: The Skyhooks Story. He also worked closely with Molly Meldrum for many years before recently releasing the long awaited biography, The Never, Um, Ever Ending Story: Ian Molly Meldrum.
Jeff: When Luke got in touch, I was at home. Of course I was. As Lester Bangs says in Almost Famous, “I’m always home. I’m uncool.”
Luke asked if I could do a list. Who doesn’t love a list? Music nerds are always making lists. We could do a list of our favourite music lists.
I love Australian music, which is not to say I don’t appreciate music from overseas. I could easily do a list of my Top Ten albums from the rest of the world. It would feature Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Lucinda Williams, Weezer, Dixie Chicks, Dan Wilson, Warren Zevon, Prince, The Knack and Tom Petty. But my Top Ten list is all Australian. I love all of these albums. And ten is not enough – apologies to some of my favourite acts, particularly Horsehead, Australian Crawl, Lazy Susan, Colin Hay, The Go-Betweens, Midnight Oil, Skipping Girl Vinegar, Kings Of The Sun, The Angels, Dave Graney, Motor Ace, Missy Higgins, Darren Hayes, Nick Barker, Joe Camilleri, Wagons and Ross Wilson.
STEPHEN CUMMINGS Lovetown (1987)
When The Age polled some critics to come up with the 50 greatest Australian albums of all time, I placed Lovetown at number one, calling it “the sound of Melbourne melancholia”. “You can’t have everything,” Stephen sang, “sometimes you can’t have anything at all.” Stephen wasn’t built for stardom, but when Lovetown was released, he was dubbed “the St Kilda Sinatra”, a fair description I reckon, though Stephen is a better songwriter.
BEN LEE Awake Is The New Sleep (2005)
Every month I have a sparring session with my good friend Neil Rogers on RRR in Melbourne. Neil kindly has me on his excellent show, The Australian Mood, and he even allows me to constantly bang on about the brilliance of Ben Lee. I think Ben is a pop genius; Neil is not so sure. Awake Is The New Sleep is Ben’s masterpiece, a work of remarkable honesty, optimism and beauty. Wide-eyed and dreaming. Awake Is The New Sleep makes me cry and smile. “Yeah, you broke my fucking heart,” Ben sings. “But I still want you.”
PERRY KEYES Johnny Ray’s Downtown (2010)
Neil Rogers and I might not agree on Ben Lee, but we’re part of a unity ticket when it comes to Perry Keyes. I’ve been a cheerleader for Perry since Neil turned me on to his remarkable double album debut, Meter, in 2005. Perry is the Sydney Springsteen, the Paul Kelly that you’ve never heard of. His third album is a cinematic epic, the Redfern version of Born To Run. He documents the life and crimes of the inner city, where “falling backwards is easy” and “some stuff just won’t wash off”. But there’s beauty amid the bleakness. Perry Keyes is a remarkable Australian story. When it comes to Aussie songwriters, he’s as good as it gets.
SKYHOOKS Living In The 70’s (1974)
I did a book with Skyhooks (1994’s Ego Is Not A Dirty Word). They’re difficult buggers, but they taught me a lot. And their debut album still sounds great (props to producer Ross Wilson), with its wonderful nervous energy. Living In The 70’s was the first local blockbuster, the start of the modern music industry in Australia, the album that turned a glorified hobby into an industry, showing that you could have a music career in Australia, that “you could get paid for just bein’ a freak”. As one reviewer said when it was released: “If you can’t get interested and/or excited, you’re either deaf, asleep or dead.”
DIED PRETTY Doughboy Hollow (1991)
Died Pretty were every bit as good as R.E.M. They should have conquered the world. Ron S. Peno is one of the great frontmen. He gets lost in the music. He feels it. Died Pretty’s masterful Doughboy Hollow is, put simply, perfect. And it features one of the greatest nods to another Aussie act: “So here I am, alone with you/ The Sunnyboys, God bless them and God bless you.”
PAUL KELLY AND THE COLOURED GIRLS Gossip (1986)
I was on a Year 12 camp when I heard “Darling It Hurts” for the first time. “Shit,” I thought, with my limited music vocabulary, “that’s a great song.” I’d seen Paul Kelly the previous year, playing songs from the remarkable Post album when he supported Australian Crawl and The Motels. I was struck by the fact that this guy could write some amazing songs. And Gossip was the album that showed the world.
THE FAUVES Lazy Highways (1998)
Don’t get my best mate started on The Fauves. He can list his favourite Coxy songs, his favourite Doctor songs and his favourite Fauves B-sides. When it comes to the best Fauves album, the fans are split between Future Spa and Lazy Highways (I’d also throw 2008’s When Good Times Go Good into the mix). Coxy sings of “no chart action, no radio”, but Lazy Highways is an Aussie classic, filled with nostalgic pop-culture references. And “Wear The Label On The Outside” is a touching ode to friendship: “All right,” Coxy sings, “we’re laughing about it now while we’re flicking each other with towels and joking about our genital size in the shower/ But I’ve got nothing else but love for you.”
DEBORAH CONWAY String of Pearls (1991)
Deborah Conway’s debut solo album is a singer-songwriter masterclass. It’s deeply personal and revealing, filled with wry observations. “All those teenage radio songs about romance that lasts forever,” Deborah reflects. “Well, I found out they got it wrong.” Head straight to the title track and then listen to the rest of the record.
ICECREAM HANDS Sweeter Than The Radio (1999)
If I’m trying to pick up girls, I mention that I’m related to Charles Jenkins. It’s not true, and, sadly, it doesn’t work, which says more about me than Chuck, who is surely the most underrated Aussie songwriter. Jeff Tweedy? Chuck has got him covered. And Icecream Hands bass player, Douglas Lee Robertson, sings like an angel and also knows how to write a nifty tune. I still laugh when I hear “You Could Be Reported”, which reminds me of a relationship I had with a girl who had no interest in football when we started dating. “You know, I found you tuning into the football score,” Chuck sings. “I said, ‘Since when have you been interested in the football score?’ She said, ‘Shut your mouth, I want to hear some more.’”
MELODY POOL Deep Dark Savage Heart (2016)
It’s hard to compare a new album to records I’ve been playing for decades, but Melody Pool is special. This is what Joni Mitchell would sound like if she grew up in Kurri Kurri in NSW. Deep Dark Savage Heart – Melody’s second album – is a window to her soul. “I am pressured to show only light,” she sings in “City Lights”, “to be filled with all that’s good and bright. But I’m a slave to a darkened mind. And who are you to tell me I’ll be fine?”
Jeff’s Howzat column can be found each week on the Living In The Land Of Oz website