What A Night (In Aussie Music): 5 Thoughts On The ARIA Awards

Josh Martin recaps the key moments from the 2020 ARIA awards.

Keeping up with any kind of news this year can be tough. Even music news is getting stranger and harder to track. With streaming services and their inscrutable algorithms becoming the default tastemakers for many, it can be hard to get any perspective on the endless stream of developments in the music industry in Australia – a place where there is far more PR than music journalists.

I've knocked up a bite-sized rundown of the most important happenings in the Aussie music biz this week – and every week – and why I think they matter.

This week, I'm focussing on Aussie music's night of nights – the ARIA Awards – which went down on Wednesday night in a year like no other. Due to ye olde coronavirus pandemic, there was no red carpet, no drunken buffoonery (at least on camera), and no audience. But despite the stilted pre-records and some confusing decisions, the event struck a chord in a moment of crisis for the industry. Here are my thoughts.

Tame Impala wins biggest, but it was Sampa The Great's Night

The two clear winners of the 2020 ARIA Awards were Tame Impala and Sampa The Great – the WA psych lord went home with five awards, while the Zambian-Australian rapper notched three. But it was Sampa who defined the night, with the impact of her words and music. Her performance of "Final Form" recorded on a rooftop in Botswana was an instant classic – not least for the powerful, but subtle criticism of the award show itself delivered as part of a musical ad-lib. 

"In a country that pretends not to see Black...when we win awards, they toss us on the ad breaks of course...This industry – is it free, for people like me? Diversity, equity – in your ARIA board," Sampa intoned before the song began. The ad break line is a reference to the awards show cutting her acceptance speech for "Final Form" in the Best Hip Hop Release category at the 2019 ceremony from the live broadcast. Her criticism this year didn't stop her from going home with that award again for the second consecutive time, in addition to Best Female Artist and Best Independent Release for her debut album The Return. Sampa used her three acceptance speeches to note the changing demographics of hip-hop in Australia, a space she described as often feeling "isolated and masculine" – now she hopes BIPOC artists can continue to rise: "Now we get to show a side of Australia that was never shown".

Conversely, Tame Impala's five wins – including Best Album and Best Rock Album for The Slow Rush – seemed to bemuse the psych project's mastermind Kevin Parker. None of the awards were more perplexing to Parker than Best Group, considering the record was written and recorded solely by him, and they did not get to tour it as a band due to the coronavirus pandemic. When accepting the award, Parker tried to ask keyboardist-guitarist Jay Watson if he had anything to say – Watson said "nothing, sorry".

Best Rock Album was less unjustified, though anyone who listened to the technicolour beats of The Slow Rush would have difficulty classifying it as rock music in anything other than distant relation. There is absolutely no doubt however that Parker deserved Best Producer and Best Engineer, with the record being the definitive audiophile release of the year. At the press conference at the end of the night, a journalist noted that Parker had also received a flurry of Grammy Nominations in the US that morning – to which the producer-extraordinaire graciously said that the ARIA Awards mean "much much more to me". Thanks for sticking up for us, Kev.

The Helen Reddy tribute was an incredible moment of togetherness

A tribute to the late Helen Reddy from a huge ensemble of female Australian artists was the ARIAs greatest moment of togetherness, in a year of separation. An introduction from former Prime Minister Julia Gillard contrasted the power of Reddy in her youth, following the success of "I Am Woman", and in her elder stateswoman years – speaking at the women's marches in the US in 2017. Then artists began to sing "I Am Woman", line by line – beginning with Jessica Mauboy and continuing with Amy Shark, Marcia Hines, Tones & I, Christine Anu, Montaigne, The McClymonts, Kate Ceberano, Delta Goodrem and more in person. Raising it further was a virtual chorus pitched behind the performers, that included Kate Miller-Heidke, Missy Higgins, Odette and many more. 

One of the biggest stars of the tribute was Tones & I – stripped of the filters that usually coat her voice, Tones' gave a soaring and vulnerable performance. It made many across the Twittersphere yearn to hear more of that kind of singing from the pop star.

Even if it wasn't for the isolating context of this year, the homage would go down as one of the ARIA Awards' greatest moments. 

Archie Roach's induction into the Hall of Fame reminded us of his power 

Archie Roach became just the fourth Indigenous Australian to be inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in a ceremony equal parts emotional and cheeky. Prior to his induction, Roach performed a stunning rearrangement of his 1990 personal tale of the Stolen Generations, "Took The Children Away", through an oxygen tube due to his Chronic Lung Disease. The gravity of the performance was felt in Roach's pitch-perfect, velvety voice – it sounded richer than it ever had, with the song's co-producer Paul Kelly contributing a verse of vocals. 

As the icon was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Kelly couldn't hold back tears, and neither could most viewers. Roach thanked him and others, for supporting him through his 30-year career with a cute gag: "Paul Kelly, I gotta mention Paul. He was a big part. He was there from the beginning. When I mean the beginning, I don't mean from when man first walked on two legs. But I mean from the beginning of my recording career".

Roach also went home with two other awards – Best Adult Contemporary Album and Best Male Artist for last year's Tell Me Why – the latter of which he seemed surprised to receive: "I'm sure any of the other nominees could have won – they didn't make a mistake, did they?". 

In a ceremony that can often feel casual to a fault – thanks to an inability to take ourselves or our achievements seriously in Australia – Roach made us remember that music like his is not just important, but revolutionary. It was an honour just to witness him get the recognition he deserves.

Awkward categories shut Lime Cordiale and The Kid LAROI out

Perhaps the night's biggest surprise was Lime Cordiale's underperformance, going home with just one award from their seven nominations: Breakthrough Artist for 14 Steps to a Better You. The average pundit would have thought that the Northern Beaches duo were a shoo-in for Best Group, and a strong chance for Best Album and Best Pop Release, but the former two went to Tame Impala and the last to Amy Shark for "Everybody Rise". 

The "snubs", although minor, are mainly a fault of some awkward categorising of the music. Lime Cordiale, although they fit some markers of "pop", should have swapped their nomination with Tame Impala, whose album sat inexplicably in Best Rock Release. Competing against actual pop stars – Amy Shark, Troye Sivan, Sia – made things impossible for the jaunty pair.

By the same token, Lime Cordiale winning Breakthrough Artist feels intuitively incorrect, considering their debut album Permanent Vacation was released in 2017. Obviously, their second album this year is the one that brought them their broader success, triple j airplay, etc but other artists nominated had true "breakthrough" moments around their debut albums this year. Miiesha, who received one award from her five nominations for Nyaaringu, and teenage hip-hop wunderkind The Kid LAROI for debut mixtape FUCK LOVE were both nominated, and make far more sense in relation to them "breaking through", and arguably were more impactful artists this year. 

DMA's went home with nothing from their five nominations for THE GLOW, an outcome both predictable and fair. The only award they had a good look in for was Best Rock Album.

The international performances weren't anything to write home about

A headline-grabber prior to the ARIAs this year were livestreamed performances from Billie Eilish, Sia, and Sam Smith, but almost all of them paled in comparison to the lively local acts. For the latter and expatriate Australian, it was her first appearance at the ARIAs in a decade, but she took a relaxed approach to her performance of "Together" – so relaxed in fact, that she was sitting down during the entire thing. Her voice was stronger than it has been in recent performances, but it was an uninspiring event. 

Smith's "Diamonds" live from Abbey Road Studios in London was better, but it looked like a lip-sync, and an unenergetic one at that. It becomes more pointless when you see they played the same track from the same location last week, with livelier vocals and better camera work.

Eilish's "Therefore I Am" was the best of the trio, as only her second performance of her latest single. It was done more traditionally than the music video-recreation of her American Music Awards performance just days prior, with a full band featuring her brother and producer, FINNEAS, on keyboard. The lower stakes of performing for an Australian awards show gave Eilish the freedom to play it like she would on a regular tour – unfortunately, the only official way to rewatch it is via Channel Nine's Video on Demand streaming service due to a unique rights agreement.

Dishonourable Mention: The ARIA Awards cut a full-length "In Memoriam" section

In a mystifying and disrespectful move, the ARIA Awards chose not to air a three minute "In Memoriam" package honouring some of those we have lost from the local music industry this year during the live broadcast. Instead, they chose to briefly acknowledge only the Hall of Famers who had passed, and left the full-length version to YouTube. Among those not mentioned during the broadcast were The Drones drummer and solo artist, Mike Noga, legendary record producer Ron Tudor, DJ Phil K, Richard Lane of The Stems, Peter Starkie of Skyhooks, Dave Thomas of Bored! and Magic Dirt and many more.

I would like an answer as to why honouring the memory of these legends was seen as superfluous material for the live broadcast, when there were minutes of fluffy interviews peppered throughout, padding the two-hour show out.

ARIA Tweet of the Night:

Comedian Scott Dooley spares a thought for another group left out of the 2020 ARIAs.