cover story Features October 10, 2019

The complete history of the ARIA Awards: By the numbers

The complete history of the ARIA Awards: By the numbers

Today the nominations for the 2019 ARIA Awards were released, and we’ve broken down those numbers elsewhere, parsing the label and gender breakdowns and so what. 

But what good are statistics without historical context? “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it”, said George Santayana, a 19th-century philosopher and poet whose work I first became aware of when Googling that quote just now.

With that in mind, let’s take a look back at the history of the ARIA Awards from 1987 onwards, and break down the major categories, highlight the big winners, the gender makeup, the anomalies, and who should have made the Hall Of Fame already – neatly sidestepping 2008, the year that both Rolf Harris and Dragon were inducted. Only one of them had a song called ‘Are You Old Enough’ and it’s not the one you’d think.

First, some important clarifications:

I will be dealing with the Album Of The Year, Single Of The Year and the Hall Of Fame. The other categories are too weird and contentious to enter into. 

When I refer to ‘bands’, I mean it in the general sense of a group of humans banding together. This means both the likes of Jet, a rock band in the old riffs-and-whiskey sense, and Madison Avenue, which was a collaboration between a DJ, a female vocalist, and an unfortunately placed glass of water. Duos will also be included as bands, aside from one exception which is explained below. 

Interestingly (albeit in the mildest sense of the word), two-piece groups won Album Of The Year three years in a row from 2008-2010, with The Presets, Empire Of The Sun and Angus and Julia Stone taking out the pointy trophy in that span. When it comes to the gender breakdowns below, Angus and Julia’s wins will be split equally between male and female. 

In 1996, Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue won single of the year for ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’. This is a true duet, in the style of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood in the ‘60s, and therefore not counted as either a solo performance, nor as a duo like The Presets. Therefore it will be treated as an anomaly and discounted from the tallies. 

Gotye and Kimbra present a similar wrinkle. This is technically Kimbra ‘featuring’ on a Gotye single, however Kimbra does take a solo verse, and they harmonise nicely, which seems like an old-fashion duet. They also both feature in the video clip. The song is so central to Goyte’s international success, plus he created the entire thing by himself, in a shed on his parents’ property, making it more of a solo work with a guest vocalist. (Someone else played bass, but why bring that up?) 

Finally, Kimbra was the sixth person he asked to do the vocal (I bet Clare Bowditch was kicking herself when she turned it down), so despite her excellent performance, she was basically slotted into an already formed piece of work. So, it counts as a solo work for Gotye for the purposes of this article. 

Now, let’s address Tame Impala, who won album of the year in 2013 and 2015. At a cursory glance, this is a band, but a closer look at the credits reveals otherwise. Aside from keys and co-writes on two songs, Kevin Parker wrote, played and engineered everything you hear on Lonerism, and did absolutely everything, including mixing, on follow-up Currents. Given that both albums involved him holing up alone in various houses for months on end, this should be considered a solo project. Also, the album is named Lonerism not ‘Group Hug’. 

Okay, let’s do this.

Album of the year:

This award was first won in 1987 by John Farnham’s Whispering Jack, which debuted at #1 and reversed Farnham’s flagging fortunes. It seems odd to consider now, but Farnham was so close to career death in 1986 (when this record was released) that his manager Glenn Wheatley had to mortgage his house to fund the album. The gamble worked, with it going a whopping 24x Platinum. It is the highest-selling Australian album (in Australia, not internationally) of all time, and sat at #1 for 25 weeks, a record only broken in 2003 by Delta Goodrem’s Innocent Eyes – another Wheatley charge.

Solo artists have taken out the award on 12 different occasions, with bands winning 19 times. 

Of the 19 bands that have won album of the year, only two were lead by a female vocalist: Killing Heidi, who won in 2000 for Reflector, and Baby Animals in 1992 for their self-titled debut. Angus and Julia Stone also won in 2010 for Down The Way

Powderfinger have won three times, in 1999 (Internationalist), 2001 (Odyssey Number Five) and 2003 (Vulture Street). Bernard Fanning also won in 2006 for Tea and Sympathy. Tame Impala are the only other act to win more than once, in 2013 and 2015, although it should be noted that Julian Hamilton co-wrote four of the songs on the 2007 winner, Silverchair’s Young Modern then won as one half of The Presets in 2008. 

Solo-wise things are a little more even, with eight males and five females taking out the prize. The five females: Sia, Amy Shark, Tina Arena, Missy Higgins and Kasey Chambers are disparate artists, but do fit into the singer-songwriter category. It wasn’t until the ninth year that a female won this award, with Tina Arena’s Don’t Ask selling a massive 10x Platinum, being nominated for ten ARIAs across two years, and staying in the Top 50 for 83 weeks. 

As for the guys, Tame Impala won twice, Flume won in 2016, and the five other males, John Farnham, Ian Moss, Diesel, Bernard Fanning and Gotye, are almost a dead cert. to be the lineup for a winery show in the Hunter Valley in 2021. 

11 of the winners were for debut albums, too, meaning that novelty is often key when it comes to winning this award. It seems weird to consider Bernard Fanning’s album a true debut, given it came after five successful Powderfinger records and millions of sales.

Single of the year:

On nine separate occasions, the winner of Single Of The Year also won Album Of The Year, which isn’t too surprising, given the sweeps we often see at the ARIAs. The last time this occurred was in 2010 when Angus and Julia won both, suggesting the days of complete ARIAs dominance are over. Or sleeping. 

Solo males have won eight separate times, nine if you include Nick Cave (we’ve discussed this!) while solo females have won five different times (six with Kylie’s murder ballad).

Of the 18 groups that have won Single Of The Year, only two are female-led: Madison Avenue, and Absent Friends, who won in 1991 with the bracketed hit ‘(I Don’t Want To Be With) Nobody But You’. Peking Duk’s 2017 winner ‘Stranger’ was sung by a female Swede named Elliphant, but she is disqualified from the count for spelling reasons. 

Absent Friends were actually a supergroup made up of three ex-Models (the band, not the profession), Garry Gary Beers from INXS, Geoffrey Stapleton from GANGgajang, and vocalist Wendy Matthews – who also won in 1993 for her plaintive ‘The Day You Went Away’. 

Speaking of double winners, there have been quite a few in this category. Kylie won in 2002 with ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ and in 1996 with Nick Cave. Powderfinger won in 1999 with ‘The Day You Come’ and in 2001 with their Slinky-core anthem ‘My Happiness’. 

Matt Corby is the only artist to win Single Of The Year twice in a row, in 2012 with ‘Brother’ and with  ‘Resolution’ in 2013. 5 Seconds of Summer won in 2014 with ‘She Looks So Perfect’ and again last year for ‘Youngblood’ – which I actually thought was a Fall Out Boy song until just now. Silverchair won in 1995 for ‘Tomorrow’ and in 2007 with ‘Straight Lines’, neatly book-ending their career with their two most successful singles. 

Finally, props to Peter Blakeley’s ‘Crying In The Chapel’ for winning in 1990, just because it’s a really great tune that is largely forgotten. 

Untangling the Hall Of Fame:

The Hall of Fame was introduced in 1988, a year after the ARIA Awards. AC/DC and Vanda & Young were among those inducted during this first year, which should have led to allegations that Angus, Malcolm, and George’s mum rigged the voting process. It’s not too late to open investigations.

78 inductees have been granted a place in the metaphorical hall so far, and it has been oddly chosen, with sporadic bursts of activity and dry spells. In 2000, they simply didn’t induct anyone. Across 2005, 2006 and 2007, there were 21 inductees, like they were playing catch up. In 2014 both Molly Meldrum and the show Countdown were inducted. The Loved Ones, who were undoubtedly a great band, were included on the strength of a two-year career and one album released the month they split up: a compilation of an EP, a few singles, some new tracks, and a handful of ‘warm up’ covers. 

The weirdest Hall Of Fame entrant was in 1990; alongside Sherbet was a composer named Percy Grainger. Now, you’d be forgiven for not knowing Grainger was, so for those in the dark, he was a composer born in 1882 who largely peaked in the 1910s. He was a society pianist in his teens (playing for rich people), a concert pianist in New York during his 20s, a champion of Nordic compositions, a fierce anti-Semite, and a sado-machochist who displayed his own blood-stained clothing and whips in a museum he opened in Melbourne.

Despite opening a museum dedicated to his own life, he considered his entire career a failure, rejecting a chair at Adelaide Uni by writing “If I were 40 years younger, and not so crushed by defeat in every branch of music I have essayed, I am sure I would have welcomed such a chance.” It’s unclear what he would have thought of his Hall Of Fame inclusion.

Hall Of Fame Oversights: 

By virtue of this category, the list of acts I highlight as having been overlooked will have overlooked some of those who have been overlooked, but here goes: Hush, Chain, Beasts of Bourbon, Wedding Parties Anything, The Black Sorrows, Diesel, Archie Roach, Mondo Rock, Ratcat, The Go-Betweens, Scientists, Sunnyboys, Kate Ceberano, Pseudo Echo, Jon Stevens, Ian Moss, Deborah Conway, Dave Graney, Ted Mulray Gang, Stevie Wright, Jon English, Rick Springfield, Stephen Cummins, Axiom, James Blundell, James Morrison, Don Spencer, Tommy and Phil Emmanuel and motherfucking Peter Combe!

Those are only artists from the ‘70s and ‘80s, too. Don’t get me started on the ‘90s or the very-fertile ‘60s. Or The Delltones, for that matter.

But the BIGGEST Hall Of Fame Oversight: 

Brisbane-born Mike Chapman should be the Hall of Fame, surely. 

He produced four Blondie records, including the 20-million seller Parallel Lines (‘Heart Of Glass’, ‘Hanging On The Telephone’, ‘One Way Or Another’), plus the massively successful album Get The Knack, which makes him responsible for the sound of ‘My Sharona’, which features the best mix of bass, guitar, drums and vocals ever put to tape.

He also wrote all of ‘70s glam-rockers Sweet’s biggest hits (including ‘Ballroom Blitz’) and most of Suzi Quatro’s too; wrote ‘Some Girls’ by Racey, ‘Living Next Door To Alice’ by Smokie, ‘Love Is A Battlefield’ by Pat Benatar, ‘The Best’ by Tina Turner, and even god-damn ‘Mickey’ by Toni Basil. What a pity they don’t understand… 

He also once said the following quote which can be used in his Hall Of Fame video package. “If you’re going to be in the music business, you gotta make hit records. If you can’t make hit records, you should fuck off and go chop meat somewhere.” Amen.

Cleanest ARIA record: 

Gabrielle Cilmi won six from six in 2008, including Single Of The Year for ‘Sweet About You’ then proceeded to completely disappear. ‘Sweet About Me’ is undeniably one of the biggest singles made by an Aussie: being the most-played song on Australian and UK radio in 2008, hitting the top ten in sixteen different countries, and being named Liam Gallagher’s favourite song of 2008, rare props from a man who once told Teenage Fanclub they were the second-best band in the world (behind Oasis, of course), genuinely meaning this as a compliment. 

Cilmi hit the radio during that confusing time when songs that sounded like Ella Fitzgerald were all the rage. By 2010, she was saying things about her new music like, “I want to see what works. I really love Dolly Parton, roots music, Tricky and Enya, so anything could happen” and it all went notably downhill. She’ll always have 2008.

Biggest single year blow out: 

Savage Garden won ten awards from thirteen nominations at the 1997 ARIA Awards, including Album of the Year, Single of the Year, Song Of The Year (which is a different award for some reason), Best Group, and Best Independent Release. That’s right, your boys Darren and Dan were indie legends. 

The 1997 ARIAs are, of course, best remembered as being the ones where the three members of Presidents of the United States of America flew 22 hours to present an award. Also, Crowded House reunited at the ceremony, Paul Kelly was inducted into the Hall of Fame and won Best Male Artist, and John Farnham and Human Nature debuted ‘Everytime You Cry’ live on stage, a romantic ditty in which a man instructs his distraught lover to collect her own tears, for undefined reasons. (This was, of course, a romantic step forward for the band who once boasted of telling literally everybody what the singer and a lover did last night.)

One final thought to leave you with:

Axel Whitehead drunkenly got his dick out during the 2006 awards while presenting a trophy to the Hilltop Hoods, then saw his career completely skyrocket. He was Cleo Bachelor Of The Year in 2009, enjoyed a four-year stint on Home and Away, and starred in U.S. Showtime series Shameless. This isn’t a career suggestion, mind you, but it seemed to have worked a treat for Axel… 

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