Musicology: Best Aussie albums of 2002

TEN years ago, the Aussie music scene was in rude health.

As evidence, Musicology tenders this list of the best Down Under albums of 2002.

And yes, we have included a New Zealander, partly because they were based in Australia for a while and also because we antipodeans need to stick together, right bro?

Highly Evolved - The Vines

THESE Sydney garage-rock revivalists, led by erratic frontman Craig Nicholls, barrelled snotty punk attitude, grunge dynamics and psychedelic beauty together and deservedly (but only momentarily) became the biggest alternative band in the world. Their later work drifted towards two easily defineable categories - screaming riff-rockers and dreamy quieter pop - and there are touches of that here. Highly Evolved, Get Free, Outtathaway! and Ain't No Room are the former, while Autumn Shade, Country Shade and Mary Jane are the latter, but there are more elements of middle ground and pure insane inspiration on this fiery debut. Subtle screams and epic distortion underscore the delicate picking and falsetto-ing on Country Yard, while Factory is in the middle of the spectrum, closer in spirit to Ob-Li-Di, Ob-La-Da (but good). Whether Nicholls is howling and thrashing through the electrifying Get Free or intoning his love of weed (Mary Jane) or the '60s (1969), it's engrossing and fascinating. Part of the attraction is that it seemed like it could tip off the deep-end at any minute, thanks to a loose delivery (vocally and musically), but the key was Nicholls and his Cobain-like ability to mould catchy dazzling melodies onto solid riffs. More than one critic suggested it was "Nirvana meets The Beatles" so what's not to love?

Diorama - Silverchair

AFTER battling anorexia and depression on Neon Ballroom, Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns took a year off after the band's touring commitments were over. Johns became a happy hermit, disappearing into his own world and coming out the other side with a range of songs that upped the spectacle but added a hitherto unseen upbeat attitude (as well as an even greater level of lyrical crypticism from Johns). The Greatest View was a dazzling blend of the Newcastle trio's rock-riffing and melodic pop skills, but Across The Night and Luv Your Life took them sweeping up to new levels of orchestral balladry. They could still chug out a heavy riff (One Way Mule, The Lever) but Silverchair were now painting in technocolour, courtesy of Van Dyke Parks' arrangements bringing Johns' musical ideas to life. Piano was also a major focus in places, particularly on the beautiful closer After All These Years. Diorama gave the band their fourth consecutive #1 on the ARIA album charts, won them five more ARIAs, and boasted four top 30 singles.

New Detention - Grinspoon

The Lismore trio's debut went double platinum, while the follow-up Easy was a critical and commercial disappointment, despite being their most consistent work and a fan favourite. But it was the string-laden ballad Chemical Heart that shoved them into the mainstream in 2002 and the album that followed, New Detention, remains their biggest seller. The band's guitarist, Pat Davern, told Musicology a few years back that the record wouldn't have become their best-seller if not for that single. "It's the Grinspoon classic," he said of New Detention. "Easy is metal and grating but this is nice. Chemical Heart sold the record at the end of the day. That song connected with radio, that's for sure, but I still love this album to be honest. It was a good moment in time. It's a bit more ear candy, but we wanted to do that, we wanted to be a bit more adventurous." The more polished sound did put off some fans more used to the band's gritty post-grunge but it's a solid record that boasted four top 50 singles. Grinspoon wrote 50 songs for New Detention, Davern said - "there were so many songs to choose from - we demoed so much beforehand and I think that's why it was a quality record". Lost Control was a highlight, as was the light-and-shade non-single Make It Happen, while the hillbilly-metal of 1000 Miles was a surprise hit and one of the more peculiar songs in the band's oeuvre.

Polyserena - George

BUILT around the angelic voices of the Noonan siblings - the operatic Katie and Jeff Buckley-esque Tyrone - George were a band that could be jazzy, funky, rocky, poppy, groovy, and even electronic. Their debut album, which landed at #1 on the ARIA charts (they were only the 10th Aussie band to do so with their first record), combines all those elements beautifully. Their technical skills are evident but never get in the way of their hook-laden and dynamically powerful songs. Part of the album's success was the canny move of including songs that had already turned heads as singles or on previous EPs. Sell Out was reworked from their debut EP, the stunning Spawn was their attention-grabbing lead track from the You Can Take What's Mine EP, and Bastard Son was the title track of their third EP. And then there are the four singles - Special Ones, Run, Breathe In Now, Breaking It Slowly - which all went into the top 50 in Australia. All great songs, and yet it was the effortless time signature-switching opener Release which got the most votes in Triple J's Hottest 100 of 2002 (Breaking It Slowly also made it in that year). Special Ones and Run had made it into the countdown the previous year, while Bastard Son and Spawn made the 100 in 2000 - all building the anticipation for the album. Polyserena didn't disappoint - it's a lush masterpiece that combines virtuosic musicianship, an uncanny knack for hooks, and those two beautiful Noonan voices. The only mis-step was that the album didn't included perhaps their best song - the track Polyserena, which instead just learnt its name to the record.

Pacifier - Pacifier (aka Shihad)

THE quality of this album got lost in the kerfuffle around that name change. Born in the close-knit New Zealand metal scene as Shihad in the late '80s, the quartet flourished over three albums, with the lead track (Home Again) off their third propelling them across the Tasman. Record number four - the awesome hard-rocker The General Electric - threatened to push them out of their adopted Australia and into the US, but one thing was standing in their way according to the Americans. In the post-September 11 world, the name Shihad was just too close to the word "jihad" for them. Thus they became Pacifier (after a General Electric single) to, err, pacify US labels and promoters and released a self-titled album. Back in Australia and New Zealand, Pacifier sold almost as well as The General Electric, but their momentum stalled in the face of a backlash and the cries of sell-out. Two years later, having failed to crack the American scene, they reclaimed the name Shihad and tried desperately to put the episode behind them. And this is what people remember about the Pacifier album - what they forget is that it's actually pretty damn good. Opener Comfort Me is a quintessential Shihad (sorry, can't bring myself to keep calling them Pacifier) song, opening on a grinding riff before hitting a stadium-ready chorus. In fact, this album really came to life live, especially mammoth-sounding singles like Run and Bullitproof. The polished hard rock sound is very much of its time, and threatens to dip into Limp Bizkit territory at times, but Pacifier always manages to stay on the right side of rocking.

Honourable mentions: Choose One - 1200 Techniques, hey you. yes you - Ben Lee, Shoot This - Motor Ace, Plastic Skies - Bodyjar, Jebediah - Jebediah, Torch The Moon - The Whitlams, Stealing Chairs - 28 Days, Hello Stranger - Darren Hanlon, Strange Bird - Augie March, Deliverance - You Am I, I'm Already Home - Waikiki, Paging Mr Strike - Machine Gun Fellatio, Barricades & Brickwalls - Kasey Chambers. 

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