It’s hardly unusual or surprising that the self-reflective gaze of popular culture is often preoccupied with only the biggest moments of its own making – stars and hits are, after all, the lifeblood of film, television and music.
Without bemoaning too much the ‘popular’ part of the equation, however, it’s fair to say sales figures and audience ratings don’t always tell the whole story, and the ‘culture’ dimension of what we watch and listen to usually needs to be understood through means more subtle than ‘number one with a bullet’.
Offering just such an assessment, a new book titled An Anthology of Australian Albums: Critical Engagements brings together reflections on 15 oft-neglected records, presenting a fresh perspective about which contemporary Australian albums matter and, importantly, why they matter.
University of South Australia Adjunct Professor Jon Stratton was lead editor on the project, and he says the book which features artists as diverse as The Missing Links, Sia, A.B. Original, Dami Im and The Drones – deliberately aims to show a different side to the Australian music story.
“This collection is really unusual in the Australian music tradition, because it doesn’t focus on those albums which are most popular, or even those albums that are in some way considered to be most significant in terms of mainstream attention,” says Prof Stratton. “What it does is focus on some albums from, let’s call them ‘minority groups’, and I’m putting that in scare quotes because I am including women in that group.”
“So, alongside some underappreciated records from white men, this book features a lot of albums by women, and a lot of albums from ethnically diverse artists, many of whom are often left out of mainstream accounts of Australian music. Reflecting that, the book is also written by a diverse collection of authors, many of whom are non-male and non-white.”
According to Prof Stratton, celebrating such diversity is not necessarily an attempt to rebalance the ledger of history, but rather a reflection of growing interest in elements of Australian music beyond the blokeish, white suburban ‘pub rock’ stereotype. “Really, since the early 2000s, the Australian music landscape has been changing, with a much greater recognition and respect for music from non-white, non-male artists,” he says.
“Up until now, not much has been written to reflect that shift and this book responds to that, which is why it is so back loaded with a lot of recent albums, because that is when that diversity really began to show and when interest in it really began to grow,” says Prof Stratton.
Prof Stratton points to a range of factors that have led to the changing face of Australian music this century, including digital disruption of the music industry and the emergence of new career avenues for artists once excluded from the mainstream, such as social media and TV talent shows.
“There has been diversification in the way music is shared and the way people find and enjoy it, and this has given new opportunities to many different artists,” says Prof Stratton. “At the same time, there has also been growing influence from non-white cultures across Australian society in general, and so it makes sense that a similar change is represented in the music being made and enjoyed in this country.”
The diversity of An Anthology of Australian Albums is also reflected in the eclectic range of musical sounds and styles it embraces, from the stark, misanthropic black metal of Tasmania’s Striborg to the widely misunderstood R&B of early-2000s Indigenous duo Shakaya. Published globally by Bloomsbury, An Anthology of Australian Albums hopes to reach both Australian and international readers, aiming to broaden awareness and appreciation of the nation’s music beyond AC/DC, INXS and Kylie Minogue.
“Most people won’t know all these artists, and we really wanted to provide a book that gave them insight into some of the overlooked corners of Australian music,” says Prof Stratton. “We didn’t have preconceptions as far as music styles went – we just wanted to feature non-mainstream albums that have had an important impact, and we really let the authors who examined each album explore them however they saw fit.”
An Anthology of Australian Albums also serves as the precursor to a forthcoming Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand version of the long-running series, Thirty-Three and a Third – which will be edited by Prof Stratton with help from music critic Jon Dale, who will look after the Aotearoa/New Zealand side.
This world-renowned series devotes an entire book each to a single album, providing rich, deep detail about some of the greatest recordings of all time, and Prof Stratton says the Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand additions will highlight the rich diversity in these nations’ music.
“The local Thirty-Three and a Third series will follow the direction set by An Anthology of Australian Albums, shining a light on the less recognised artists and musical influences in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand,” says Prof Stratton.
“It is a series that is really respected internationally, so it’s a great opportunity to introduce readers around the world to some elements of this region’s music they might not be aware of. An Anthology of Australian Albums is the first step in that.”
Image: An Anthology of Australian Albums: Critical Engagements – courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing