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Triple J’s Hottest 100: Back to the Future?

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If Triple J’s Hottest 100 is anything to go by, pop is ‘having a moment’ in culture writes musician Peter Farnan 

The Hottest 100 has drifted over the years from distorted guitars to ukuleles to rhymes and raps to club bangers, all the while displaying a variety of genres. The clearest trend this year appears to be the pervasive aura of ‘pop’; that is music that leans on catchy choruses, clear verses, sweet melodies and decisive and clearly underlined lyrical conceits.

I put 51 songs in the pop category which exceeded rock (21), electro (21), hip hop (15), dance (16) and R’n’B (16). Many songs fell into more than one category but music hook-y, communicative and catchy music was everywhere. Moreover, those qualities suffused  diverse artists and genres not always associated with pop’s infectious charms.

I heard rappers singing melodies and rock bands with hooks getting to the point. I didn’t hear an acoustic guitar (a traditional signifier of ‘authenticity’) foregrounded until Vance Joy turned up at 54. I counted only two songs with a folky inflexion. This was unthinkable in the Hottest 100 a few years ago.

So many songs sound like they would be at home on ‘mainstream radio’. Does the dichotomy – rebellious, eclectic Triple JJJ versus mainstream FM – still exist? Triple J may not play chart topping pop artists but a lot of the music in the Hottest 100 sounds just like that kind of fare, at least to my much older ears. Triple J would never play Miley Cyrus but when she is featured on a track by Mark Ronson (Nothing Breaks Like a Heart at 80) then the boundaries evaporate. And the song is disco/country with a pure pop heart. (Why is young Miley Cyrus typically not heard on JJJ while much older – and male – Mark Ronson is?).

I lost count of the number of times I heard four chords repeating under an earnestly intoned intro before the groove dropped in.

Many of the devices and tropes of mainstream pop are widely demonstrated in the Hottest 100. It would be tedious to list the number of songs that began with a moody intro (the ‘set up’) which prefigured a ‘drop’ where the groove was infectiously launched. These intros, often with heavily processed vocals (you know, that auto-tuned robot sound – also very ‘pop’), usually deal with Emotions. In the hands of Post Malone there’s a hip hop inflexion (Sunflower at 27, Better Now at 33 and Psycho at 90). I lost count of the number of times I heard four chords repeating under an earnestly intoned intro before the groove dropped in: The End by DMA’s (60), Eastside by Benny Blanco (68), Waiting by Kian (20). If the emotion is downcast a heavy drench of reverb is applied; the vocal affect is ‘Bono on Prozac’. Rüfüs Du Sol exploited the moody intro with, er, vigour: No Place (50), Treat You Better (22)  and Underwater (20).

In several instances the four chord intro is those four chords on which hundreds of mainstream pop songs have been built on over the last 35 years or more; Amy Shark’s I Said Hi (5) and Vance Joy’s We’re Going Home (53) join this list (there are more). The presence of these artists in the 100 indicate how Triple J’s constituency’s sensibilities have drifted. Did the station’s programmers lead listeners there? Both artists started at Triple J and then grew into juggernauts so it’s chicken and egg. 

The heavily processed vocal (not a ‘natural’ sound but one mediated by technology), dominated… not necessarily a bad thing, but it did lend an overall generic quality. The use of modern pop production aesthetics raises the issue of why some songs sounded bland while others did not. Groceries by Mallrat at seven is dead charming. Wafia’s I’m Good is a straight-up catchy pop tune that is alive and bristling with fun and character. Billie Eilish (with three songs) smashed it out of the park with You Should See Me In A Crown, which pulled my favourite trick of being personal and political at the same time. Interestingly, other songs exercising similar production techniques struck me as just inert.

The envelope does not always need to be pushed but if we are going pop, then let’s have killer pop.

Rock has decidedly receded this year. It wasn’t until the thundering intro of DZ Deathray’s Like People (47) that I realised how relatively tame the rock impulse had been up to that point. I loved this band’s approach. Generally rock appearances have pop hooks and melody too. The Skeggs and Hockey Dad are knock-about but not revolutionary. Mercifully there was no slick production smearing their roughhouse charms (I could feel the influence of Courtney Barnett here). Moreover, they have tunes. The Amity Affliction and Bring Me The Horizon (both bands representing a highly processed style of soft-core metal I don’t like) had sweetened their melodies.

Hip hop is less represented than a few years ago. And pop rears its pretty head here too. Songs by Thundamentals and Hilltop Hoods focus less on loping, looped grooves and more on singing and real instruments playing chord changes. Hilltop Hoods Leave Me Lonely almost sounds like Smash Mouth – I didn’t even put a tick in the hip hop column, although its fantastic bass line reflects that band’s roots. Thundamental’s I Miss You has a sensational upright piano intro (rivalling DZ Deathray’s for Best Intro On The Day) before lurching into an infectious groove.

I craved some danger and experimentation. The wayward tendencies of art-pop collective Brockhampton (1999 at 83 and Boogie at 63) were refreshing. Anderson.Paak’s Bubblin’ (85) pushes the envelope but Tints (ft Kendrick Lamar) reminds me of Jamiroquoui; less adventurous, more retro. Baker Boy’s energised Mr La Di Da Di (51) made some of the surrounding tracks sound insipid. Drake was a tonic. In my opinion hip hop has been a principal source of innovation for Western Popular music. I didn’t feel its full effect until Childish Gambino’s This Is America (4) and Travis Scott’s SICKO MODE (3). 

If the Hottest 100 is anything to go by it appears that rebellion and authenticity are not weighed with such earnestness at this time, at least as outward signifiers in music.

In the end it was the smattering of exceptional tracks that illustrated the generic quality of the rest. The envelope does not always need to be pushed but if we are going pop, then let’s have killer pop. Molotov Kira Puru (75) with its Beck-like bass line and Soaked by Bene (58) rise above the pack. King Princess’s Pussy Is God (74) is incendiary sexy/love content in a viral pop wrapper. Angie McMahon (Missing Me 49) and Ruby Field (Dinosaur 9) are refreshingly raw. Ballpark Music (The Perfect Life Does Not Exist 39) are consistently whip smart.

At various times in the past, youth culture has cast itself in rebellious mode, spurning the ‘mainstream’ and cleaving to notions of ‘authenticity’. If the Hottest 100 is anything to go by it appears that rebellion and authenticity are not weighed with such earnestness at this time, at least as outward signifiers in music. This brings the ‘80s to mind: a period of pop effervescence that brought with it an oppressive conformity and intolerance towards experimentation. Behind its kooky-haired pop surface, the ‘80s had a very mean side – and here we are again facing mean, divided times. I trust that we are not drifting into a similar period when innovation is under emphasised. I doubt it, given I see festival lineups where large communal audiences joyously participate in increasingly diverse line ups. Maybe it is pop’s ability to communicate that connects different genres and different audiences. Perhaps the Hottest 100 is the communal pop tonic we need.

Peter Farnan is founding member of Boom Crash Opera. His solo project, Pesky Bones, features Paul Kelly, Deborah Conway, Ali Barter, Tim Rogers, Paul Capsis, Rebecca Barnard and others.

Below: Triple J’s Hottest 100 number one song: Confidence by Ocean Alley (pictured above via Facebook)


100: Happy Sad — Ocean Alley
99: Polygraph Eyes — YUNGBLUD
98: Ghost Town — Kanye West
97: Do I Need You Now? — DMA’s
96: Take It To The Heart — Odette
95: Four Out Of Five — Arctic Monkeys
94: Ivy (Doomsday) — The Amity Affliction
93: You Can Count On Me — Trophy Eyes
92: Everybody But You — Thundamentals
91: Sundress — A$AP Rocky
90: Psycho — Post Malone
89: Dazed and Confused — Ruel
88: Labrador — WAAX
87: Younger — Ruel
86: Dirt Cheap — Lime Cordiale
85: Bubblin’ — Anderson. Paak
84: Cigarettes —Tash Sultana
Tash Sultana came in at number 84. Picture: Claudia Baxter
Tash Sultana came in at number 84. Picture: Claudia BaxterSource:Supplied
83: 1999 WILDFIRE — Brockhampton
82: Hunger — Florence + The Machine
81: Ballroom — Jack River
80: Nothing Breaks Like A Heart {Ft. Miley Cyrus} — Mark Ronson
79: Clumsy Love — Thelma Plum
78: Better Together {Ft. Running Touch} — Hayden James
77: Miracle — CHVRCHES
76: Clarity — Polish Club
75: Molotov — Kira Puru
74: Pussy Is God — King Princess
73: Sweet Release — Hockey Dad
72: What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out {triple j Like A Version 2018} — Nothing But Thieves
71: Smogged Out — Skegss
70: UFO {Ft. Allday} — Mallrat
69: Cheetah Tongue — The Wombats
68: Eastside {Ft. Halsey/Khalid} — benny blanco
67: Tints {Ft. Kendrick Lamar} — Anderson .Paak
66: Need You {Ft. NÏKA} — Flight Facilities
65: Scream Whole — Methyl Ethel
64: Mistake — Middle Kids
63: BOOGIE — Brockhampton
62: Killing My Time — G Flip
61: I Wanna Be Everybody — Hockey Dad
60: The End — DMA’S
Brit pop revivalists DMA’s have made a mark on this year’s countdown.
Brit pop revivalists DMA’s have made a mark on this year’s countdown.Source:Supplied
59: Give Me My Name Back — Meg Mac
58: Soaked — Bene
57: Martini —The Presets
56: Without Me — Halsey
55: Wasted — Peking Duk
54: Saturday Sun — Vance Joy
53: We’re Going Home — Vance Joy
52: Better — Khalid
51: Mr La Di Da Di — Baker Boy
50: No Place —RÜFÜS DU SOL
49: Missing Me —Angie McMahon
48: When I Dream —San Cisco
47: Like People — DZ Deathrays
46: you should see me in a crown — Billie Eilish
45: MANTRA — Bring Me The Horizon
44: Clark Griswold {Ft. Adrian Eagle} — Hilltop Hoods
43: God’s Plan – Drake
42: Laps Around The Sun – Ziggy Alberts
41: In The Air – DMA’S
40: Nice For What – Drake
39: The Perfect Life Does Not Exist – Ball Park Music
38: About You – G Flip
37: Love Me Now – Ziggy Alberts
36: All Loved Up – Amy Shark
35: Ladders – Mac Miller
34: 1950 – King Princess
33: Better Now – Post Malone
32: God Forgot – The Rubens
31: Church – Alison Wonderland
30: Sometimes – Cub Sport
29: Fire – Peking Duk
28: All The Stars – Kendrick Lamar.
27: Sunflower – Post Malone & Swae Lee
26: All The Pretty Girls – Vera Blue
25: I Miss You – Thundamentals
24: Leave Me Lonely – Hilltop Hoods
23: Treat You Better – RÜFÜS DU SOL
22: Underwater – RÜFÜS DU SOL
21: Never Ever (ft. Sarah) – The Rubens
20: Waiting – KIAN
19: Peach – Broods
18: Join The Club – Hockey Dad
17: Lovely (with Khalid) – Billie Eilish
16: Baby Come Back (triple j Like A Version 2018) – Ocean Alley
15: Just Friends – Hayden James
14: I’m Good – Wafia
13: Praise The Lord (Da Shine) (ft. Skepta) – A$AP Rocky
12: Turn – The Wombats
11: Up In The Clouds – Skegss
10: Knees – Ocean Alley
9: Dinosaurs – Ruby Fields
8: When the party’s over – Billie Eilish
7: Groceries – Mallrat
6: Be Alright – Dean Lewis
5: I Said Hi – Amy Shark
4: This Is America – Childish Gambino
3: SICKO MODE – Travis Scott
2: Losing It – FISHER
1: Confidence – Ocean Alley

4 responses to “Triple J’s Hottest 100: Back to the Future?

  1. I am convinced that the JJJ list is partly the result of JJJ programming. Do they play newish and edgy bands like Melbourne’s New War & the fairly popular, original and radical Death Grips? Maybe I am wrong? Last I heard the JJJ announcers were saccharine safe, that’s for sure

  2. JJJ’s charter is to serve the ‘Youth’. Does it lead or reflect the culture? To your ears (and mine) the station sometimes sounds bland and lacking an edge. At the same time Conservative Culture War warriors were up in arms when the station changed the day they did the Hottest 100. They accused the station of a proactive progressive agenda – hardly a safe and saccharine approach . To my mind changing the date was entirely appropriate and an accurate reflection of the culture. I think the real change at JJJ goes back to the mighty coup back in the ’90s when the old guard were swept out. Prior to that the station had more of a community station vibe (for want of a better term). And maybe community stations (the mighty 3RRR down here in Melbourne for example) are the venue for the kind of bands you mention. As a music producer and an educator I notice that ‘getting on JJJ’ has become an enormous goal for most young artists making their way. It’s become the new mainstream for young acts making their way in the world.

  3. Thanks again Peter for another insightful and informative music oriented review. Although I agree with you (as do many of my [and Im sure your] similarly vintaged friends) that this years Hottest 100 had a “pervasive aura (some of my mates would prefer to describe it as a “stench”) of ‘pop'” I think its a good sign. To me its almost like the calm before the storm and JJJ is the weather forecaster. Look what came from the 80’s – that period you reflect on as bringing with “… with it an oppressive conformity and intolerance towards experimentation”. It spawned the revolution of e-Dance, Synth-Pop, New Wave, Thrash Metal, Hip Hop / Rap and (need I say it?) – Grunge, and all that evolved into the music of the 90’s and 00’s. Lets hope that this similar doldrum in music’s development as an artform has and / or is inspiring a new cadre of musical revolutionaries who spur us on towards ever broader musical horizons in the 20’s (saying that is all the more inspiring considering the revolutionary musical period the previous century’s “20’s” were!). Lets not forget as well that a poll a few years back by Music Choice found the 80s to be the most favored tune decade of the last 50 years! Keep up the good work Peter and I look forward to more of your musical review “musings”.

  4. “Does the dichotomy – rebellious, eclectic Triple JJJ versus mainstream FM – still exist?”

    Not neceesarily, and maybe. What tends to exist is the dichotomy between songs that were written and performed 20, 30, 40 years ago and songs that were written last week. JJJ is presenting new music produced by real people that haven’t been filtered by record companies. They produce their own sounds the way they want to play them. That is refreshing.

    I agree with your general summation, the mix is eclectic rather than safe though, in my mind. It is so much a reflection of what young and very young musicians are putting it out there these days (save for Mark Ronson, but he is incredibly eclectic in what he produces). I thought their song owed royalty credits to First Aid Kit myself, but that’s just me.

    What you may have missed though, which my wife first commented on and I agree, is the lyrical content, the emotional bravery particularly given that so many of the artists are teens or early 20’s. These kids are feeling the heat of a mucked up world and expressing their response to it, not just silly love songs, as John Lennon may have noted.

    For me there weren’t the usual highlight songs, but Ocean Alley plays back to dark sounds and lyrics through the medium of fairly generic R and B sounds (or did you put them in the pop grouping?)

    And I still marvel at the wonder of Angie McMahon, who could be a throwback to Joni Mitchell, she is potentially that good. And there is Tash Sultana, Billie Eilish, Rudy Field, such wonderful young female artists.

    Rufus du Sol are just producing some brilliant sounds, although less heard here perhaps because they are being feted around the world. Same goes for the marvellous Hill Top Hoods who combine playful sounds, great melodies and hooks and lots of words. what’s not to like. Perhaps no particular song had that special something, but quality was all over the countdown.

    New music is what JJJ are playing, and I’m not convinced that there is some great arbiter in there pulling all the strings (Richard Kingsmill – surely to old to do that anyway) and more reflecting what is being put back to them from the punters. Musical democracy in action, something that didn’t really exist before.

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