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Triple J's Hottest 100 of 2015: this is how it feels

There’s the stats and then there’s the texture.
Statistically this is how Triple J’s Hottest 100 compares with last year’s: many more dance grooves, less beards, less folky acoustic guitars, less rock, more electronica, slightly less Australian representation (the ABC claim 54% but I counted 52 Australian artists), and a slightly larger female presence (43 to last year’s 30). The number of acts who are alumni of Triple J’s Unearthed program is the same as last year (18). 
(You can see the full Hottest 100 list here.)
Certain tropes can be identified. There were many tracks with reverberant, expressive, airy female vocals over producer’s beats; Thelma Plum on Golden Features’ No One (92) and Vallis’s Young (27) are examples. Twenty-two song titles had the suffix “featuring …” followed by one or more names — often a female singer performing the hook and a rapper laying out the rhymes. The half-time lope of dubstep (or grooves inspired by it) is still hanging around. A lot of the dance music is restrained and spacious. Local boys, Flight Facilities (85, 83), for example, know how to hold back.
While edgy rock music seems to have lost some currency, the kids have voted for hip hop and R’n’B songs that push boundaries of expression in compelling ways. Kendrick Lamar’s Alright (37) is a wildly creative blend of protest, hip hop, modal jazz and soul, with echoes of the Philly sound (Lamar also came in at 2 with King Kunta). A$AP Rocky’s L$D (64) is strikingly restrained, groovy and melodic. His other track, Everyday (featuring Rod Stewart, Miguel and Mark Ronson) (80) exhibits such incredible commitment and life-force in the performance, grooves and production that it is hard to resist.
In a category all of their own were a small coterie of artists with multiple entries. Courtney Barnett (95, 82, 75, 43) and Tame Impala (61, 34, 5, 4) were the most notable and numerous.
Those are the stats. Let’s push aside such pseudo objectivity. I need to praise what I love, gently brush aside that which leaves me cold and dismiss what I dislike.
There are a number of songs that leap out for me, besides the aforementioned Kendrick Lamar and A$AP. The mighty Alabama Shakes Don’t Wanna Fight (65) makes dance music’s blips and four square kick drum thuds sound pedestrian. Led by the fire-brand singer, Brittany Howard, this music bristles and sizzles with crusty grit and groove. It is a testament to old fashioned singing and playing but it doesn’t sound old fashioned.
There are too many excellent female voices to list them all. Ngaire track, Once, is fresh, restrained and smart. Meg Mac has one of the best songs and voices in the 100 with Never Be (11), an original song in the old soul school style, reconfigured into a gospel banger. Tkay Maidza came in at 66 with M.O.B. She is an Australian rapper, born in Zimbabwe. While aspects of the production don’t jive with me (that annoying intro and the inevitable dubsteppish groove) she is the kind of voice we don’t hear often.
I was absolutely captivated by Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Multi Love (55). Fluid, asymmetrical chord patterns played on strangely distorted pianos and electric sitars sound like Bach on Mars. The rock band format is bent into a new shape; familiar but compellingly, intriguingly odd. It is followed by Working For It by ZHU x Skrillex x THEY (54) which pales by comparison. Despite the virtuosity of the production, this no longer sounds innovative. It is interesting how the shockingly new can become absorbed by the culture very quickly. Multi Love, on the other hand, looks backwards, yet the sensibility at work has produced something unique. Magnolia by Gang of Youths (21), while not a dramatic reimagining of the rock band scenario, is worthy of mention in a field where, Courtney not withstanding, there’s a paucity of decent music by rock bands.
Despite the suppleness of the production, a lot of the EDM left me a little cold. Dance music is for …well … dancing. Maybe I should’ve got out of my chair. Grimes’ Flesh Without Blood (71) for example, is a great sounding track but, in the end, I didn’t know where it was taking me. It feels like a ‘vibe’ in search of a song. Disclosure (10 and 62) make high-end, slick dance-pop with big names as vocalists (Lorde and Sam Smith) but the glossy finish slid right past me. As we move up the list the really clever dance producers know how to yank the dance chain while sculpting out a song. This, I suspect, is why these songs ended up in the top 20. Tracks like Duke Dumont’s Ocean Drive (13) and Marcus Marr and Chet Faker’s The Trouble With Us (6) have groove and the sense of intent that a song lends to beats.
Scattered throughout the 100 is what might be defined as commercial screamcore. These songs were there last year too; the product of an imperfect democracy, like a bad crop of presidential candidates. The chugging guitars and busily clicking bass drums are meant to connote raw, authentic, ‘played’ expression. Instead they have been stripped of character and soullessly gridded and time corrected in a computer. Screamed verses alternate with whiny, auto-tuned, melodic choruses about how awful life’s struggle is. This confected corporate-core rock has no space, feel or feeling and none of the danger that good rock embodies. It is white in the worst possible way; privileged, conservative, packaged angst. It reminds me of Nickleback.
With 2015’s beards-with-feelings in cultural retreat, voters of this year’s Hottest 100 have, generally speaking, been attracted to groove and texture. Many of the tracks in the countdown are sophisticated sonic concoctions. Fine voices are everywhere but they have, in many instances, been processed and mediated by technology. Distortion and retro sounding reverb is a big thing at the moment and the effect is visceral. No where is this sonic tactility more in evidence than in the superb work of Kevin Parker’s Tame Impala. Let It Happen (5) clocks in at nearly 8 minutes and devolves, from a creamy, groovy, dreamy song into an exploration of texture for its own sake. The Rubens close off the 100 at number one. While not as rich or exploratory as Tame Impala’s work, Hoops is a classy, restrained, R’n’B inflected rock song that puts a button on the impression that the voters in the 2016 Hottest 100 are getting off on the feel of sound this year.
Feel me?

9 responses to “Triple J's Hottest 100 of 2015: this is how it feels

  1. Overall I thought the quality was high compared to previous years, (less duds, particularly with the 100 to 51 group) but as I felt for the year in general, there was a lack of really brilliant, timeless music, and so the top 10 was average, to my ears, compared to other years, and didn’t really stand out from any other group of 10 songs in the list.
    I’m with you on ASAP Rocky’s LSD. That is a beautifully crafted piece of music, but may have been hampered by the fact that it arrived very late in the year.
    My daughter loves Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and she is both a musical talent in her own right with a good ear, and I won’t argue with her tastes.
    No surprise that Tame Impala did well, or Courtney Barnett. God she can craft a melody and a lyric. It may not be timeless, but it’s damned clever.
    Rufus, you were right, at number 12, was lower than I expected. There is real quality to their sound.
    I like Rubens generally, and there album was good, but Hoops at number one is a little meh for a ‘best song of the year’.
    Totally ok with everyone disagreeing with my ear though, and I’m twice as old, and more, as the JJJ demographic, so what do I know?

    1. Funny you should say that you are twice as old as the JJJ demographic. You may be twice as old as the people who JJJ is aimed at but in my experience (high school teacher) 90% of what JJJ think is their demographic no longer listen to the radio. None of the kids I teach in the 15-18 age group showed any interest in the hottest 100.

      1. My kids are 16 and 18 Peter. Although the way they consume music is different, JJJ plays a large part in who they are listening to, and also reflects their choices to some extent. Spotify is huge for the kids.
        You must teach very uncool kids :-). No interest in triple j top 100. Meh!

        1. By the way Peter, JJJ’s stated demographic is the 18 – 25 market, so outside your school age group, and I think they are still big there, even if they don’t always listen via the old-timey radio thingy. 🙂

  2. I grew up with JJ & JJJ, but over the past 4-5 years have drifted away from it, so yestrday I decided to have another listen to the youth network. Sadly,I did not know any of the songs or even the artists. What do they say about getting old? Apart from “it sucks,” you know you’re getting old, when just about all modern pop music sounds like nothing but noise. Anyway congratulations to the contestants and the winners, from an old fella. I have one question though, re Tame Impala at #5 and it being quite a long track – it sounded to me like the CD player couldv’e been stuck (rapidly repeating the same notes over and over) for about 30-60 seconds. The presenter didn’t say anything about it, so I assume that is now the new normal for modern music. Good luck to all and you’ve all done very well.

  3. My big concern is that there were only 300,000 voters. Now that JJJ is streamed all over the world and you can vote at any time from anywhere on your phone 300,000 voters seams incredibly niche. Especially when you consider how long you have in which to vote. A cat video on youtube gets 300,000 watches in the first hour.

  4. Thank you Peter for a succinct opinion piece on your thoughts on the make-up of the Hottest 100. You managed to avoid categorizing the diverse collection of people that vote as a whole and you didn’t sneer at their choices. Everybody has an opinion on JJJ and loves to bag it out but I’ll refrain from being one of those people who has slipped well outside the youthful target audience that bemoans the lack of rock chords and abundance of skip-hop and electronica.
    I loved Multi-Love, King Kunta and Young – great to see they made the 100.

  5. Loved this article thanks Peter. Great writing – haven’t heard half the songs but i could almost hear them from your wonderful word pictures. can we have a Pete’s Best Triple J Hotties compilation for folk like me to download?

  6. This is probably my favourite deconstruction on the internet. I love what you said about Alright (Kendrick) and L$D (Rocky), they were two songs I voted for. The former hit me when I first heard it on the album so hard, I actually was stunned by how big the tune was yet how fun the tune was (surprisingly King Kunta has the same things going for it hence it’s ranking). The latter was a more interesting experience. I couldn’t stand anything from the A$AP Mob, but At Long Last A$AP was an incredible record and L$D felt like the emotional centrepiece. Incredible track. I agree with your thoughts on UMO and Alabama Shakes, although I do wish you had talked up Magnolia a bit more. That was my number one and I think you’d love to read the ‘thanks for voting’ post they put up on their facebook page. It hits hard, actually the whole album hits hard.
    I felt the top 5 song wise was predictable (I guessed the songs out of order), but the positioning was surprising. I didn’t think Less I Know would beat Let It Happen (even though I prefer the former) and I had King Kunta and Hoops the other way around. I feel like many hottest 100’s beforehand, this will be one where the No.1 is forgotten and the No.2 praised for years to come(best example of this is 1993).
    It was also good to see Foals crack the top 20. That song is a great mix of their new found aggressiveness, their older art rock influences, and also their pop sensibility.

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