As revealed last week, Aussie rock icons Powderfinger are reuniting for one night only on Saturday, coming together to entertain us all in the comfort of our own homes to raise much-needed funds for Beyond Blue and Support Act. The return of the Brissie rockers is set to provide a boost to my happiness and the happiness of fans worldwide during these days of continued uncertainty. After having our collective head up in the clouds for a few days, the people of Music Feeds started to ponder, “what should Powderfinger play on Saturday night?” We then accidentally on purpose tripped and fell down the glorious rabbit hole known as Powderfinger’s back catalogue, and went in search of the 10 most essential Powderfinger tracks that we hope to hear live, come Saturday night.
As a music journalist, choosing 10 essential tracks from a classic Aussie band should be my kind of scene but, it turns out, when the band in question is Powderfinger, it’s harder than you might anticipate. You see, since busting out of Brisbane’s much-vaunted ‘Vulture Street’ scene in the early ’90s, Powderfinger have burned their name across the Australian music landscape, clocking up 5 number 1 albums, 18 ARIA awards, 3 APRA awards, topping the Triple J Hottest 100 twice (from 21 inclusions) and have amassed sales of more than 2.5 million albums. You don’t achieve all of that without writing a LOT of rather decent songs.
After too many hours spent happily lost and running through their back catalogue, the decision on what to include weighed quite heavily on my mind, but with my deadline already gone I finally committed, so without further consideration, here are 10 Essential Powderfinger tracks. Oh, and if your favourite track didn’t make the cut well, that’s just hard luck Dave.
‘Sink Low’ – Parables For Wooden Years (1994)
There’s a lot of great ideas on Powderfinger’s debut, but truthfully, only a select few great songs – and with apologies to the Soundgarden style wig out of ‘Tail’ – ‘Sink Low’ is the best of them. A subtle, stirring, acoustic-driven rock song, ‘Sink Low’ is the sound of Bernard Fanning finding that special unique character in his voice that would go on to define the band’s sound on later albums, as he sings his way through some very early ’90s angst-ridden lines (“It sure is quiet around here/The phone never rings anymore/So I’ll wallow in silence/And nail my soul to the floor”). This is the start of the Powderfinger journey to greatness.
‘Pick You Up’ – Double Allergic (1996)
The first single released off of Powderfinger’s breakthrough second full-length Double Allergic, ‘Pick You Up’ is the sound of Powderfinger hitting their signature sound for the first time. A slow-building, moody rock song with a freaking huge chorus, ‘Pick You Up’ charted at #23 and was nominated for the ARIA award for Song of the Year, and with good reason. Every element in this song sits perfectly alongside the other, with Ian Haug and Darren Middleton’s guitar work, blending with John Collins bass and Jon Coghill’s solid drums to create the perfect sonic backing for Fanning to lay down an iconic vocal track. Crank this and wait for the moment 3 mins in when every member just goes for broke, delivering a powerful crescendo.
‘D.A.F.’, Double Allergic (1996)
Keep that volume knob cranked for this stomper! The second single from Double Allergic, ‘DAF’ is an unapologetic, grunge-tinged, mid-’90s alt-rock anthem, built around some killer fretwork from Haug and Middleton and another stellar vocal performance from Fanning. No list of essential Powderfinger tracks would be complete without this staple of triple j (and now Double J) rock. The first time Fanning hit that “cascading down” refrain is arguably the moment when Aussie rock fans truly got behind Powderfinger. Named after the chord progression the song is built around, this song about “searching for truth” is the moment Powderfinger truthfully arrived.
‘The Day You Come’ – Internationalist (1998)
Politically speaking, 1998 was a precarious time for Australia as the Howard government came under genuine threat from the Kim Beazley-led opposition and in Queensland, Pauline Hanson’s controversial One Nation party reached the peak of its popularity (much to the displeasure of rational-minded people everywhere). It’s perhaps not surprising then that ‘The Day You Come’, the fantastic lead single off of Powderfinger’s smash hit third album Internationalist, focussed on themes of political unrest. An ominous-sounding rocker with a haunting vocal melody and an off-kilter instrumental approach, ‘The Day You Come’ is a powerful display of atmospheric rock that keeps you in a state of anxiety for most of its running time and is home to some of Powderfinger’s best lyrics, which cryptically and poetically describe the rising political tensions in their home state of Queensland. The winner of the 1999 ARIA award for Song of the Year, it placed at #8 in triple j’s Hottest 100 that year and is a monumental moment in the band’s career.
‘Passenger’ – Internationalist (1998)
Any list of classic songs is going to have unlucky omissions, so with all apologies to ‘Already Gone’ and ‘Don’t Wanna be Left Out’, the second and final selection from Internationalist, is ‘Passenger’. Another classic Powderfinger slow-burner, ‘Passenger’ strips back the art-school dynamics of ‘The Day You Come’ in favour of traditional anthemic rock tropes, yet maintains the overbearing sense of anxiousness. One of Fanning’s more brooding vocal performances, ‘Passenger’ pairs some poetic lyrical passages (“Caged/Hold so tight until your knuckles show/Escape/As far away as you could ever know”) with a soaring chorus melody that is met by appropriately thumping instrumentation. An example of Powderfinger mastering the soft/loud dynamic, ‘Passenger’ was a minor commercial hit upon release but has gone on to become a staple of FM radio. A song about wanting to escape the mundanity of the 9-5 life, it’s no surprise this one became a favourite on building sites and in offices around the nation. Climb aboard, we’re leaving now.
‘These Days’, Two Hands OST (1999)/Odyssey Number 5 (2000)
If you want to know why this song made this list, consider this simple fact: despite never being released as an official single, ‘These Days’ claimed the #1 spot in triple j’s Hottest 100 of 1999. That is pretty wild, and yet it’s also entirely understandable. This song rules. Originally released via the Two Hands soundtrack, ‘These Days’ is a superb display of songcraft from Powderfinger and a genuine career highlight. Opening with sparse e-bow and a fragile vocal from Fanning, ‘These Days’ bursts to life with a pure pop-rock chorus, pitch-perfect harmonies and a stadium-sized production job that blends electric and acoustic instrumentation into a swirling soundscape that takes you on a powerful emotive journey. Lyrically and vocally, this is Fanning in career peak form too, with every repeat of the poetic refrains (“It’s coming ’round again/The slowly creeping hand/Of time and its command”) oozing emotion. A song about resilience in the face of great loss and pain, this is a classic Australian song by a classic Australian band.
‘My Kind of Scene’ – Mission: Impossible 2: OST/Odyssey Number Five (2000)
There were few things more “big-league” than being asked to contribute a song to the M:I2 soundtrack in 2000, so when Powderfinger got the call to feature alongside the likes of Metallica, Limp Bizkit, Tori Amos, Chris Cornell, Rob Zombie and term…Uncle Kracker (2000 was a wild time), it was a pretty big opportunity. Enter ‘My Kind of Scene’ (stylized as ‘Not My Kinda Scene’ on the M:I2 tracklisting) a maudlin rock ballad packaged within a cinematic scope, ‘My Kind of Scene’ sees Powderfinger deploy many of the tricks they learned on Internationalist, meshing together the ominous tonal qualities of ‘Passenger’ and the glorious self-loathing introspection of ‘Already Gone’ with some of the pop-rock noise they’d go on to display in ‘My Happiness’. Somewhat unique in the Powderfinger catalogue in that it’s largely a bass, drum and vocal affair in the verses, ‘My Kind of Scene’ is an instantly relatable song about a certain sense of social disconnection, told from the masculine perspective. Truthfully more suited to a moody Aussie drama like Little Fish than a big action blockbuster, My Kind of Scene was written for long drives or long baths on rainy nights, in these moments, it feels essential.
‘My Happiness’ – Odyssey Number Five (2000)
Dear ‘Like a Dog’ and ‘The Metre’ I’m sincerely sorry, you’re both cracking songs, but your fellow single ‘My Happiness’ was and is kinda a big freakin’ deal. The lead single off of Powderfinger #1 ARIA charting, fourth full-length, ‘My Happiness’ saw Powderfinger secure a second consecutive #1 in triple j’s Hottest 100, won them another ARIA award for Song of the Year in 2001, charted at #4 on the ARIA charts and secured Powderfinger as a household name, not just in Australia, but overseas as well with the band even performing it on The Late Show with David Letterman. Suffice it to say, people like this song, and it’s not hard to understand why. An upbeat yet somehow still melancholic commercial rock song that is anchored by a slinky riff, ‘My Happiness’ is pop-rock rock perfection repurposed, meshing superb drumming, enormous production and another trademark soaring Powderfinger chorus with subtle elements of soul and gospel. Nearing 29 million plays on Spotify, its legacy seems to endure. To many ears it’s Powderfinger’s best song, to others (mine included), it’s not, but to all, it is inarguably essential.
‘(Baby I’ve Got You) On My Mind’ – Vulture Street (2003)
When Powderfinger unleashed this blues-rock rager on the world in 2003, it took a lot of people by surprise. The lead single from 2003’s considerably more aggressive fifth full-length Vulture Street, ‘On My Mind’ is the sound of Powderfinger returning to their hard rock origins and revelling in it. At its core this is a simple riff driven rock song, with crunching rhythmic guitars, melodic leads, rolling bass and thunderous drums, conjuring a big ol’ feel good rock ‘n’ roll vibe that Fanning just goes for broke over the top of. There’s nothing fancy going on here, but there doesn’t need to be, from the second that big riff is joined by Fanning’s bluesy swagger, it’s clear you’re in for a hell of a good time. This song rips.
Oh, in case you were wondering, it was also pretty successful, charting at #9 and yeah, as anyone who has ever been near a radio can attest, Triple M LOVE this track.
‘Sunsets’, Vulture Street (2003)
This mid-tempo rock ballad lifted from 2003’s generally more harder rocking Vulture Street, is the third most listened to Powderfinger song on Spotify, which is both somehow surprising and unsurprising at the same time. The spiritual successor to ‘My Happiness’, ‘Sunsets’ is a sunny, rock ‘n’ roll anthem that incorporates elements of gospel and arena rock, to create a blissful, reflective vibe. It’s not as urgent as some of the other tracks on Vulture Street, and not as ambitious or impactful as some of the songs in their back catalogue that didn’t make this list, but the package on offer here works, both as a song, and as a calling card for a lot of people, from Powderfinger fans to radio, to licensing agencies, and beyond. It’s not the most exciting of Powderfinger tracks, but it’s enormous enduring popularity alone qualifies it for inclusion on this list. Goes well with both footy and fishing montages. This song is a chorus, and it’s a good chorus.
Powderfinger will reunite this Saturday, 23rd May at 7pm for a live-streamed performance of all their biggest hits. The performance, dubbed ‘One Night Lonely’ is a fundraiser, with the band accepting donations that will go on to Support Act and Beyond Blue. More details here.