The Best Powderfinger Songs Of All Time, Ranked

A time machine journey through the many hits of one of Australia's most iconic bands. Strap in.

The unfortunate truth of most livestream performances is that they are an unemotional experience. They flatten what was a visceral, sensory overload – live music – into a two dimensional curiosity, couched in the device we use to work and doomscroll. But Powderfinger’s One Night Only livestream reunion in May felt like a rare exception to the rule – a poignant emulation of the way musical performance can make us feel. There might be no other band in Australia that can do so again.

They’re the band that soundtracks sport stadiums; the band that feels synonymous with Australian rock music itself. In retrospect, there is a tendency to write them off as cheesy, but they haven’t aged as much as most meat and potatoes ‘90s rock has. It’s in large part due to the immense pathos with which frontman Bernard Fanning is able to project – an anthemic whine that elicits a kind of togetherness few others can.

Powderfinger are surprisingly political, despite Fanning’s best efforts to downplay their forays into the arena – a success, since they rarely enter discussions of protest music. "All Of The Dreamers", the lead single from their final album Golden Rule is emblematic of Fanning’s cautious approach to politics – in the press, he obliquely characterised it as articulating “general dissatisfaction with the way democracy can be blindsided by the self-interest that holding on to power can generate" – pithy.

But Indigenous deaths in custody is an issue the band has sung about often, with bile and outrage. Their 2007 song "Black Tears" was explicitly about the death of Cameron Doomadgee, an Aboriginal resident of Palm Island in custody – so much so, that it was claimed as legal prejudice by the lawyers of the accused police officer, Sergeant Chris Hurley. "Like A Dog" in 2000 was a prescient rail against then Prime Minister John Howard’s refusal to apologise for the Stolen Generations.

Now, the surprise announcement of a new Powderfinger album is here – albeit cobbled together from unreleased material. It coincides with the 20th anniversary of the record that catapulted them to incalculable domestic fame, Odyssey Number Five. Perhaps we’ll hear more of the political material they were too cautious to release in their commercial heyday – or a mere dollop of soothing neo-nostalgia. At this juncture, either is welcome.

To mark the occasion, MTV Australia is counting down Powderfinger’s 30 best songs. From their shaky, grunge-emulating beginnings to their national press conference break up, this is the cream of the crop.

30. "Head Up In The Clouds"

Taken from 2007’s ‘Dream Days at the Hotel Existence’

Dream Days at the Hotel Existence is widely considered the worst of Powderfinger albums, committing the cardinal sin of being dull – adult contemporary even. But opener "Head Up In The Clouds" succeeds by tapping the everyday malaise that haunted Odyssey Number Five and pushing it further with layered falsetto, and a more upbeat arrangement.

29. "Love Your Way"

Taken from 2003’s ‘Vulture Street’

One of the better straight-ahead musings from Vulture Street, "Love Your Way" sees brash guitars crash into vivid and lovelorn musings from Fanning. The track is worthy almost entirely because of the way its singer stretches the word “imaginary” into a broad, smart melody.

28. "Celebrity Head"

Taken from 1998’s ‘Internationalist’

Swipes against music critics don’t age well, particularly considering music writing holds little cultural cachet in the streaming age. But Powderfinger often suffered verbose jibes from the last gasp of music criticism in the mid ‘90s, and "Celebrity Head" was their tongue-in-cheek riposte. The jolty two-minute burst features some of Fanning’s wittiest ever writing – “I know I sound trite/ But I get off on things like It's their sophomore album/I don't know what I mean/ But I'm a part of the scene I know a guy from The Melvins”.

27. "Private Man"

Taken from 1998’s ‘Internationalist’

This is a twee character study regaling a fatal fall from fame – “a private man/in a public circumstance”. It’s not clear whether the tune has a target, but it forms an effective indie-pop parable that almost sounds like Belle & Sebastian with an Aussie twang.

26. "Good Day Ray"

Taken from 1998’s ‘Internationalist’

Released as a double A side single with "Don’t Wanna Be Left Out", this song lost out against its more popular companion; but it’s time for a critical reappraisal. "Good Day Ray" is a wacky ode to TV host Ray Martin colliding with slogans of self-love, buoyed by a beat that pounds a single piano note.

25. "Jc"

Taken from 1996’s ‘Double Allergic’

It’s unclear why Powderfinger didn’t capitalise the second initial of Jesus Christ here unless it’s a reference to bassist John Collins, but it’s a decent signpost for how strange it is. Breathlessly finger-picked, "Jc" weaves in fiddle and elements of Afro-Cuban percussion in this ode to a fallen idol-turned-lover. In the years succeeding its release, singing duties have fallen to guitarist Darren Middleton, who has a voice that better suits its melodrama.

24. "Boing Boing"

Taken from 1996’s ‘Double Allergic’

Powderfinger’s early music was dense and riff-heavy, with a snare sound almost as bad as that on Metallica’s St. Anger. They even toured once with hard rock titans Pantera – an experience so bad (filled with bullying from the crowds and the band themselves) the official bio of Powderfinger pens it as a mistake. In their transition to a softer, more melodic band on Double Allergic, they kept a few heavier tunes as a token of their past – "Boing Boing" is far and away the highlight, a tremolo-laden song with nonsense grunge lyrics about a “cardamom powder sneeze” and the “original cyber freak”.

23. "Waiting For The Sun"

Taken from 2000’s ‘Odyssey Number Five’

Atypical for a rock band, much of this record is about yearning for domestic stability. The opening track almost appears to predict the cosmic success Powderfinger was about to attain, with Fanning promising to guide a partner through the “uncertain time” into the comfort of a place by the sun. It’s a sweet, albeit plain, tune with a textbook soaring melody.

22. "Don’t Wanna Be Left Out"

Taken from 1998’s ‘Internationalist’

On Internationalist, Powderfinger balanced a mix of rousing would-be anthems with slick rock freak-outs. "Don’t Wanna Be Left Out" is the most unhinged example of the latter, interpolating surf rock tremolo and Marc Bolan-esque glam. The lyrics babble of millennium concerns about TV, manhood and mental health. An equally batshit music video is worth a watch to see a heavily made-up Fanning.

21. "Hindley Street"

Taken from 1998’s ‘Internationalist’

Despite the immense progress on Double Allergic, it was hard to be convinced of Powderfinger’s sonic maturity until you heard the lush tones of "Hindley Street" opening their third record. The title refers to an Adelaide street which Fanning stayed in on tour, grumbling about his meagre living conditions until he reached an epiphany: life as a musician can be pretty fuckin’ good. He channels the naivety of the good mood into some “na na na”s.

20. "The Day You Come"

Taken from 1998’s ‘Internationalist’

This song was widely reported to be about the rancid opinions of one Pauline Hanson, and the first rise of her One Nation party – the truth is broader, because the talking points contained therein are still used by a depressingly large spread of the xenophobic Australian far right. It retains relevance today as a warning against the dangers of platforming extremist figures in the media: “A single voice complaining...It's hardly worth debating...A media sensation/The damage has been done”.

The message is couched in an ethereal arrangement from Powderfinger, released as a single to counteract the impression left by "Don’t Wanna Be Left Out" that the new album was hard rock. It’s a mature song, and one that showed the deft political restraint Powderfinger had at their peak.

19. "All Of The Dreamers"

Taken from 2009’s ‘Golden Rule’

The thundering lead single from Powderfinger’s final record promised big things for the rest of Golden Rule, but little matched this. Although politically vague, the anger is palpable in the beefy guitars and the snarled titular promise to “sling you up with all of the dreamers”. A career capstone which put a bitter taste in mouths than the straight-to-a-jingle territory of "Burn Your Name".

18. "(The Return Of) The Electric Horseman/Vladamir/SS/Come Away/Track 16"

Taken from 1996’s ‘Double Allergic’

This 18-minute pentaptych epic, featuring over three minutes of silence, is the most ambitious thing Powderfinger ever did, and is worth remembering despite its flaws. The band played the track's first few minutes as "The Return Of The Electric Horseman" live for years afterwards, but the four other ‘tracks’ have been buried. "Vladimir" is quietly anthemic gospel, while "Come Away" and "Track 16" finishes in an angsty mess of spoken word, heavy metal and strings.

17. "Belter"

Taken from 1998’s ‘Internationalist’

Because their later work would go on to be classified with the pejorative of 'soft rock', the unstoppable force of Powderfinger’s rhythm section often goes forgotten. "Belter" is a good reminder. The repetitive guitar-bass thrash that forms the backbone of the song is the kind of organic heaviness the group wish they could have produced in their "harder" days.

16. "The Metre"

Taken from 2000’s ‘Odyssey Number Five’

Orchestral Powderfinger was short lived, with string arrangements only getting a run on a few tracks on their fourth studio album. It’s a shame because the home truths in hits like "The Metre" were elevated to feel universal when given orchestral grandiosity. The moody muted guitar of the verse made it a more unusual choice as a single, but the Kashmir-string-march and sleek production have seen it stand the test of time.

15. "d.a.f"

Taken from 1996’s ‘Double Allergic’

The less sexy single from Double Allergic, named for its chord progression, saw Fanning explore mysticism and the metaphysical search for truth. Though it would be one of the last songs he wrote that belonged to the realm of fiction, it’s delivered earnestly in a vivacious grunge instrumental.

14. "Bless My Soul"

Taken from ‘Fingerprints: The Best of Powderfinger 1994-2000’

Now that streaming services have all but killed the greatest hits collection, a forgotten casualty worth remembering is the tacked on greatest hits promotional single. Much to their chagrin, Powderfinger had to do actual interviews around the release of Fingerprints: The Best of Powderfinger 1994-2000, in which they had to fend off accusations that the retrospective release meant their career was wrapping up. "Bless My Soul", recorded especially for the collection, was an excellent point to the contrary – a vivacious rock belter that features drummer Jon Coghill at the top of his game.

13. "Passenger"

Taken from 1998’s ‘Internationalist’

Powderfinger had ambition in spades on Internationalist, but were still far from superstars at that point. "Passenger" is a great example of the tension between that ambition and the polish that eluded them – despite the big band horns and chorale of “la la la”s heard in the chorus, Coghill sheepishly pointed out years later that the guitar heard in the intro is out of tune. It only adds to the passion in its punchy, conditional titular question.

12. "Sink Low"

Taken from 1994’s ‘Parables For Wooden Ears’

Much of Powderfinger’s 1994 debut album Parables For Wooden Ears sounds like a middle-aged man riffing on a Gibson in a guitar shop. It’s a confused record, where the guys couldn’t work out whether they wanted to be alternative metal, Americana or grunge.

‘Sink Low’ was the album’s lone downbeat success, largely because of its embrace of melody and its reflective lyrical content which would form the basis of much of Powderfinger’s later hits. Americana in Fanning’s hands would soon become a decent candidate for the less-defined 'Australiana', and this song contains the thematic concerns which comprise it: isolation and regret.

11. "Already Gone"

Taken from 1998’s ‘Internationalist’

Despite its inoffensive surface, this song has been through the ringer. The music video for "Already Gone" inexplicably featured bikini-clad women playing totem tennis, which was criticised by some fans for objectifying them – in response, Fanning disowned the clip as “the worst we have ever made”. To make matters worse, it was sullied further as a totem of lame by having it sung on Australian Idol by Shannon Noll.

Nonetheless, it remains a great prototype of the regret anthems that Powderfinger would perfect on Odyssey Number Five. It appeals to a working class sentiment of underappreciation, while its staccato guitar hits were the heartbeat of a festival crowd during their performance at the 1999 Big Day Out.

10. "Thrilloilogy"

Taken from 2000’s ‘Odyssey Number Five’

Of all the songs by Powderfinger, this is their favourite to play live, a claim affirmed by its inclusion in One Night Only this year. The first half of the song is typical of the band – a highway driving, soft rock piece made interesting by syncopated drumming – before an unusual, slinky gospel breakdown is grafted on to the end, with the Wurlitzer keys heard in "These Days" making a return. It makes a decent case for Powderfinger’s potential as a prog rock band.

Curiously, the title refers to a trilogy of “Oi” songs, following "Oipic" from Double Allergic and "Capoicity" from Internationalist. Fanning has never addressed the connection, and the tracks bear little resemblance to each other.

9.  "Black Tears"

Taken from 2007’s ‘Dream Days at the Hotel Existence’

Warning to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Readers – the following blurb contains the names of those that have died.

Thin claims of legal prejudice put a damper on the release of this Powderfinger song, a Kev Carmody-endorsed piece of genuine protest music. Powderfinger hadn’t recorded a song this austere since "Sink Low", and it was appropriate for the subject matter – the continued travesty of Indigenous deaths in custody. Fanning tags Nina Simone’s "Strange Fruit", and says the nation’s heart will corrode as long as these deaths are allowed to continue.

It was the line “An island watch house bed/A black man's lying dead” which prompted a legal complaint from the lawyers of Sergeant Chris Hurley – the man accused of killing Cameron Doomadgee, an Aboriginal resident of Palm Island in custody. It’s telling that something so matter of fact, so brutal in its lucidity in its attempt to communicate the suffering of Indigenous people, could be considered to sway the opinion of a jury.

8.  "Pick You Up"

Taken from 1996’s ‘Double Allergic’

Making his television debut on a 1996 episode of Recovery, Fanning looks nervous. He stands static, playing rhythm guitar – something he rarely did – and stares through Eddie Vedder-esque locks of hair. But in his voice, is a revelation. "Pick You Up" was the song that made Powderfinger a topic of national interest, because of the new melodic vocal control Fanning could project. Despite the positive promises to support a partner through thick and thin, the ragged tone of the song suggests exhaustion. The instrumental was a post-grunge simmer that exploded with verve in tandem with the vocals – an energy that prevents it from feeling dated to this day.

7. "(Baby I’ve Got You) On My Mind"

Taken from 2003’s ‘Vulture Street’

Vulture Street has not aged well. It opted to piggyback off a resurgent global interest in guitar rock in the 2000s, and sat alongside Jet (bad company) in delivering it like a covers band. But this song bangs

A New Age-Rolling Stones-esque riff on soul and gospel, it boasts the kind of balls-out melody that many bands with nothing of substance to say wish they could write. Somebody has hilariously edited the Wikipedia page for this track to baselessly claim that Fanning “implicitly wrote the lyrics as a tribute to former radio and television personality John Burgess”.

6. "Odyssey #5"

Taken from 2000’s ‘Odyssey Number Five’

The title track from their fourth album contains just two couplets – the four most surreal lyrics Fanning would ever write: “Welcome to the new suburban fables/ Dressed up like a tomb inside a cradle/ If you're paying peanuts you get monkeys/ Better save that silly money for junkets”. It hinted at the meaning of the album title with tantalising restraint for a band not known for their subtlety. 

Clinking guitar harmonics, slow motorik drums and shrill vocal harmonies also make it one of Powderfinger’s most unusual instrumentals – at under 2 minutes, it’s an addictive hidden gem.

5. "My Kind Of Scene"

Taken from 2000’s ‘Odyssey Number Five’

It’s odd that two of Powderfinger’s most popular songs were commissioned for films ("These Days" and "My Kind Of Scene") – the simplicity of their lyrics don’t exactly scream “cinematic”. Perhaps it’s that very lack of artifice that got "My Kind Of Scene" in Mission Impossible 2 – hilariously remarketed as "My Kinda Scene" with a flamed single cover, alongside a crowd of nu-metal bands. 

A music video, analogous to the song’s lyrics, sees Fanning drive a Holden Commodore down a dusty road before letting go of the wheel and eventually crashing. An instrumentally sparse anthem for embracing a lack of control, it draws an incredible amount of power from Fanning’s dedication to the melody – as if he were singing it acapella.

4. "These Days"

Taken from 2000’s ‘Odyssey Number Five’

"These Days" is an easy song to mock – it’s the embodiment of a bland kind of regret that feels like a soft hangover from the contrition of grunge. A caricatured image of Powderfinger based on the song, is of course embedded into the Hilltop Hoods’ 2003 megahit "The Nosebleed Section". But the original song is far more subversive than it’s given credit for. 

The lyrics are vague, referring to the agent of regret and sorrow only ever as “it”. It’s both a savvy piece of pop songwriting, and a one-size-fits-all expression of the endless loop of problematic existence. Perhaps it feels especially relevant now in lockdown – that daily routine repeating in perpetuity, with each repetition leaving our lives slipping further and further out of our own hands.

"These Days" also earns the exceptionally rare honour of a non-single topping the Hottest 100 in its year of release. 

3. "Living Type"

Taken from 1996’s ‘Double Allergic’

Much of the listening public wants to view Powderfinger as a love song-factory, something Fanning quickly learnt not to fight for commercial reasons. "Living Type" is the band’s most misunderstood and underrated song on this count. Obsession and the Manson murders calcify into gospel, and then creeping power pop on this song – “There's love on your breath/I'd better not say/About the blood on your hands”. 

2. "Like A Dog"

Taken from 2000’s ‘Odyssey Number Five’

Prime Minister John Howard would win the 1996 election on the essential false promise of conservatism: Australians will be “relaxed and comfortable”. It’s disgust with that empty rhetoric that rattles at the heart of "Like A Dog", Powderfinger’s most potent commercial articulation of their politics. The instrumental dabbles in glam, and uses a megaphone vocal effect to pass down the most didactic elements of the lyrics. It finds a great middle ground between the acoustic anthems, and the hard rock freak-outs of the past.

Fanning sought to voice the sheer frustration felt by Indigenous people, whose plea for an apology for the Stolen Generations, and action following the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, were rejected and disrespected by Howard.

1. "My Happiness"

Taken from 2000’s ‘Odyssey Number Five’

Australia’s most famous song about alienation is one that brings many of us together. Like many pop songs that reach cultural ubiquity, its writer has had to dissociate himself from the song as something he created – a mournful paean to the loneliness of time spent away from home. Critics at the time jumped on the mope, attempting to paint Fanning as what he called "some sort of antipodean Mr Miserable" – a label that didn’t stick, in part because he never wrote a song as sad again.

The melody of "My Happiness" is draped in the influence of gospel and soul, but its the campfire-chorus that lodged it into the annals of pop rock greatness. The watery guitar lead in the verse has a psychedelic quality – in a roundabout way, it almost sounds like a G-Funk synth line. The chorus punches through as the lone moment of light, mirroring the brief glow of returning home.

"My Happiness" was Powderfinger’s coronation. Finally shaking off their hard rock affectations, they beat the quirkiness of their contemporaries in You Am I, Jebediah, and Silverchair with a universality that could not be beaten. Though they wrote better songs, none hit at a single feeling with such forensic accuracy.

Main Image Credit: Powderfinger, Instagram

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