Australia’s national youth station, Triple J, has come in for some criticism lately, with a spate of articles accusing it of homogenising Australian music tastes or excluding too many local acts from the all-important Triple J playlist.
Plenty others have sprung to the station’s defence, but the 2013 Hottest 100 – a major annual Triple J event marking the 100 most popular songs of the last year, as voted by listeners – serves as a timely reminder that the station still provides a great service to most Australians.
The Hottest 100, held every year on Australia Day, is marketed as the world’s biggest music democracy, and, in this case, the truth is actually not too far from the spin.
Listening to the Triple J Hottest 100 countdown, often over a barbecue or at a party with friends, is an Australia Day tradition for many, partly because there’s usually something for everyone in the list.
Tastes change over time, of course, but the Hottest 100 consistently serves up one of the most diverse collections of music styles of any popular music survey in the world – and that’s something of which Australia should be proud.
From little things big things grow
The first Hottest 100 vote was held in 1993, shortly after the youth station moved to the ABC national network. For many young Australians living outside major cities, Triple J was the first radio station they had encountered that wasn’t limited by commercial advertising and top-of-the-pops-style, high rotation play lists.
It coincided with the coming of age of alternative rock signaled by the Billboard chart success of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and the emergence of acts such as Radiohead, Bjork, Spiderbait, Powderfinger, Rage Against the Machine and Regurgitator.
The vote and countdown quickly became music to the ears for a huge early-90s youth audience desperate for alternatives to the pop networks. And, lo, another Australia Day ritual was born.
Surveying the survey scene
Of course there are many music charts. One of the most commercially important is the US-based Billboard Hot 100 weekly chart that is based on a mix of data from sales, airplay and streaming, rather than a voting system.
The Rolling Stone surveys, such as the The 500 Greatest Albums of all Time, are often based on surveying artists and industry. Local community stations sometimes hold their own music votes; 4ZZZ FM in Brisbane has, since 1976, had a Hot 100 vote and an Australia Day countdown.
But the Hottest 100 is one of the only major surveys that includes a heavy dose of alternative music (as opposed to the commercial, Top 40 stuff). Yes, commercial tracks make their way in there but few music surveys can boast the breadth of genres of the Hottest 100. Its sheer size and reach (this year, more than 1.4 million votes were received from well over 100,000 voters) means it is one of the best snapshots of national music tastes, and it does this job at a time of year when many commercial music stations are still in holiday mode.
The huge size of the survey sample and fact that it is not traditionally focused on commercial music means that the list is a good broad taste indicator, often containing wildly diverse music styles.
The Hottest 100 also allows us to track how Australian music tastes change over time.
Last year, Triple J held a vote for the Hottest 100 of the last 20 years. The resulting song list provided a great sonic snapshot of critical generational shifts and changing moments in popular music history, including the groundswell of support for alternative rock acts such as the UK’s Radiohead and The Cranberries, and Australian acts such as Spiderbait, Regurgitator and Silverchair in the 1990s.
Then came electronic acts such as the Chemical Brothers, Fat Boy Slim, The Prodigy and The Avalanches, followed by a returned focus on rap (such as Adelaide hip-hoppers Hilltop Hoods) and the singer songwriter genres (including Australian artists such as Sarah Blasko, Missy Higgins and Angus and Julia Stone). Then came the rise of the music producer and DJ through acts such as Sydneysiders The Presets and Flume; and in 2011, the arrival of dubstep with the likes of US musician Skrillex and UK electronic music producer, James Blake.
The Hottest 100 compilation discs, released every year after the countdown, are a brilliant historical record of a broad cross section of pop and alternative music in any given year.
Throughout all of this there is a healthy dose of local content, with many Australian acts taking the number one spot or making repeat appearances. According to this interactive chart by The Guardian, Brisbane rockers Powderfinger have had more tracks (22) in the Hottest 100 since its inception than any other artist, while Hilltop Hoods outrank US hip hop superstars Jay-Z and Kanye West combined, scoring 12 tracks in the Hottest 100 since the band formed.
But the countdown is not without controversy. In 2010, the ABC accidentally leaked the number one song before the countdown took place (it was Little Lion Man by banjo-wielding UK folksters, Mumford & Sons).
Last year, a group was able to glean enough voting data from social media to create a pre-countdown spoiler list known as the Warmest 100, which accurately predicted the 2012 Hottest 100 number one song and many other songs on the list. Triple J’s response was to change the voting process to try and stop this type of data mining but it didn’t prevent the group from creating another Warmest 100 this year.
Of course, there are always surprises in the list. Why do successful acts and songs sometimes appear further down the list than other, more obscure acts? Why do some songs not appear at all? Why, for example, did U2’s song Vertigo appear on the 2004 list when it wasn’t even played on Triple J that year?
You can’t please everyone
Not everyone will love every song on the Hottest 100 list this year, and expect to hear plenty of complaining from those whose favourite songs or genres were not well-represented. Prepare yourself for a few noisy voices whining that Triple J has sold out, that the top songs are too commercial these days (an argument trotted out when US hip hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis scored the top spot in last year’s Hottest 100 with the song Thrift Shop), or that the vote is somehow rigged.
But democracy means you get a vote. It doesn’t mean always getting what you want and just because they aren’t your favourite songs doesn’t mean they aren’t someone’s favourite songs.
It’s true the Hottest 100 is just a survey of Triple J listeners, rather than a representation of all popular music and all Australians.
That said, it’s still a valuable snapshot of a moment in Australian cultural history and a tradition spanning two decades. I, for one, will be joining the Australia Day masses in trying to guess the number one with a snag and a beer around the barbie, as I did 20 years ago, and I look forward to receiving the compilation discs on Father’s Day.