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Magazine's 20 best songs poll results

September 18, 2008

WE asked readers to vote for the greatest Australian songs of the past two decades, as part of our 20th anniversary celebrations. Then we asked 20 top musicians and industry players to pick their favourites. The results were surprising, writes Iain Shedden.

Glenn Richards of Augie March called it an “impossible dilemma”. Singer Sarah Blasko said it was difficult for her to choose a favourite anything. Clare Bowditch claimed her shortlist was in the 100s. Yet, in the end, those three, plus Peter Garrett, Missy Higgins and 15 other famous music industry figures did it. They chose their favourite Australian song of the past 20 years.

GALLERY: Music industry figures pick their favourites

  TOP OF THE POPS: 1988-2008
1. Under the Milky Way (1988) – The Church
2. Into Temptation (1988) – Crowded House
3. The Ship Song (1990) – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
4. Berlin Chair (1994) – You Am I
5. Distant Sun (1993) – Crowded House
6. Never Tear Us Apart (1988) – INXS
7. These Days (1999) – Powderfinger
8. Fall at Your Feet (1991) – Crowded House
9. No Aphrodisiac (1997) – The Whitlams
10. One Crowded Hour (2006) – Augie March
11. Blow up the Pokies (1999) – The Whitlams
12. Weather With You (1991) – Crowded House
13. Private Universe (1993) – Crowded House
14. Touch (1988) – Noiseworks
15. The Special Two (2005) – Missy Higgins
16. Better Be Home Soon (1998) – Crowded House
17. Straight Lines (2007) – Silverchair
18. Special (2006) – Gisele Scales
19. Are You Gonna be my Girl? (2003) – Jet
20. Thunderstruck (1990) – ACDC

That was the task we set them and our readers last month in order to help us celebrate 20 years of The Weekend Australian Magazine. We wanted your votes and we got them in the thousands.

It all began on August 8 with “this list is utter crap”, one of the fi rst comments to appear on the Have Your Say section of our online poll to find the best 20 songs since 1988. Leaving aside for a moment that the initial “crap” list of 20 Australian classics was compiled by me, what that carefully considered criticism (thank you, Jas H of Sydney) revealed was the eclectic and subjective nature of choosing the best of anything, not least favourite songs.

That is why we asked you to nominate your own Aussie favourites from the period, so that you and others could vote for them – and nominate you did.

By the time nominations closed on August 29 we had almost 500 songs on the list. These included some from the biggest names in pop such as INXS, Savage Garden and Delta Goodrem, as well as others from the more esoteric end of the spectrum, such as Architecture In Helsinki and the Drones.

Ratcat was in, Rockmelons weren’t. Ian Moss made it. Barnsey didn’t. Some acts polled extremely well with more than one song. Crowded House, for example, managed an outstanding 10 nominations, with six of these making the top 20. (While songwriter Neil Finn is unquestionably a New Zealander, Crowded House began its career in Melbourne with Finn and local musicians Nick Seymour and Paul Hester. The band has been widely acknowledged since then as being from Australia.)

The Whitlams’ Blow Up The Pokies and No Aphrodisiac also made the shortlist and they had six other songs nominated. Paul Kelly was listed an incredible 16 times, a great acknowledgement of a great songwriter, but he failed to make the top flight, no doubt because of that wealth of material. Missy Higgins, Delta Goodrem, Silverchair, Nick Cave and Josh Pyke were among the other multiple nominees.

GALLERY: Classic culture covers from the Magazine 

One song led from the beginning, however, and stretched its lead as the poll progressed. When polling closed on September 5, The Church’s Under The Milky Way had almost double the votes of the second-placed song, Crowded House’s Into Temptation. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ The Ship Song was a close third, with You Am I’s Berlin Chair not far behind.

Crowded House’s other songs in the top 20 were Distant Sun, Private Universe, Fall At Your Feet, Better Be Home Soon and Weather With You. Powderfinger made it with These Days, while INXS, Augie March, You Am I and AC/DC were among the one-song successes.

Under The Milky Way only just scraped into the 20-year inclusion zone. It was released in Australia in 1988 and won the band an ARIA award for best song the following year. Written by singer Steve Kilbey and his then-partner Karin Jansson, Under The Milky Way was The Church’s biggest hit. It featured in the 2001 film Donnie Darko and was performed by The Church along with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the opening ceremony of the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. Twenty years on it remains the centrepiece of their shows.

None of our 20 celebrities picked it as their favourite, but there were plenty of strong views, passionate explanations and eloquent critiques accompanying their choices.

Peter Garrett, for example, writes about Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu’s song Djarimirri being “chock full of soul and melody, unadorned by technological fetishism”. Two of our musicians chose the same song. Former Hunters & Collectors singer Mark Seymour and singer/guitarist Xavier Rudd lauded Yothu Yindi’s Treaty, with Rudd commending its message of hope, language and culture.

Missy Higgins, who made the top 20 with her song The Special Two, opted for a Crowded House song, Four Seasons In One Day, that didn’t make it into the top 20 readers’ list. Most surprising of all, perhaps, former Go Between Robert Forster picked a song by one of Australia’s brightest pop prospects as his favourite of the past 20 years. He describes Gabriella Cilmi’s Sweet About Me as a “great, adventurous pop record”.

Forster’s selection also represents what’s great and compelling about compiling best-of lists. They provide the unexpected alongside the predictable. They stimulate debate, provoke heated argument and inspire people to write unprintable declarations of disbelief about why anyone
in their right mind would want that song as their song.

There’s no such thing as a definitive list of the best songs, from any time period or any genre. The closest we can get is in terms of sales, which only makes them the most successful. The beauty of our top 20 and the picks of our 20 celebrities is that they all came from the heart. Thank you to all of you for sharing.

Iain Shedden is The Weekend Australian’s music writer

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