Musicology: Six things learnt from triple j's Hottest 100 of the last 20 years

TO paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy isn't perfect but it's the best system we've got.

It was a line worth keeping in mind while listening to triple j's Hottest 100 of the past 20 years, which was played last weekend to celebrate two decades of the youth broadcaster's annual poll of the nation's favourite tracks for the year.

Inevitably, the dissection, disdain, and disbelief began from the moment the national radio station spun The Beastie Boys' Intergalactic at #100 (actually it started when Lana Del Rey's Video Games was named at #99).

In case you missed it, the top five were Oasis' Wonderwall, The White Stripes' Seven Nation Army, Jeff Buckley's Last Goodbye, Hilltop Hoods' The Nosebleed Section, and The Verve's Bitter Sweet Symphony (head to www.abc.net.au/triplej for the full list).

Naturally, not everyone agrees, but it's hard to argue with the vote of 940,000 Australians. As one astute Tweeter sardonically wrote; "The Hottest 100 was crap because it didn't exactly match my personal preferences... except those songs that did."

But aside from educating us on how many people still love Oasis' Wonderwall, there was much to learn from the 20 Years countdown.

#1 ain't no guarantee

OF the 20 songs that have been crowned #1 in the Hottest 100 over the years, 15 appeared on the 20 Years list. The five that missed out were Dennis Leary's Asshole (1993), The Offspring's Pretty Fly for a White Guy (1998), Alex Lloyd's Amazing (2001), Bernard Fanning's Wish You Well (2005), and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' Thrift Shop (2012). This shows us three things - novelty songs don't have staying power, Bernard Fanning's solo work is still overshadowed by his Powderfinger work, and nobody cares about Alex Lloyd anymore. But what about the number twos? The top spot in a Hottest 100 is usually a sign of greatness, but second place is no slouch either. Of the 20 #2s, only 12 made the cut at the weekend. Radiohead's Creep was ineligible (it was released before the January 1, 1993 cut off), so the seven #2s we no longer care for are Killing Heidi's Weir, U2's Beautiful Day, Missy Higgins' Scar, Ben Lee's Catch My Disease, Eskimo Joe's Black Fingernails, Red Wine, Art Vs Science's Parlez Vous Francais, and Little Red's Rock It. The reason some of these missed the cut is self-evident (Killing Heidi?), but the fellas from Eskimo Joe might be wondering where it all went wrong.

We don't like you anymore

NATURALLY, these aren't the only songs we don't like anymore. Last weekend's countdown proved that four years is a long time in music. Back in 2009, triple j did a Hottest 100 Of All Time and you would have been forgiven for thinking that an eligible song on that list would have been a walk-up start on the 20 Years list. This was not the case. Apparently the songs that we don't care so much for four years on are Radiohead's Fake Plastic Trees, Jeff Buckley's Lover, You Should Have Come Over and Grace, Tool's Forty Six & 2, Johnny Cash's Hurt, The Shins' New Slang, Green Day's Good Riddance, and Smashing Pumpkins' Today. A more ignominious statistic comes to light when you peruse a list of the best performing artists in the history of the Hottest 100. The list, which is at hottest100.org, collates the 20 annual countdowns, awarding 100 points for #1 and one point for #100 etc, making for a great snapshot of the most popular bands over two decades on triple j. But when compared to the 20 Years countdown, it also proves to be a great snapshot of the bands who seem to have fallen out of favour. Notable absentees from the weekend's countdown were Garbage (#16 on the best performers list), Green Day (#23), Machine Gun Fellatio (#28), Missy Higgins (#29), U2 (#31) and Weezer (#33).

Here comes the sexist debate again...

THE 2009 Hottest 100 Of All Time sparked an uproar due to its distinct lack of vaginas. Only two female vocalists were heard in that year's list (both on Massive Attack tracks) and only six bands featuring women appeared. This all led to accusations that triple j, their listeners and, indeed, the whole of Australia was sexist and mysognist. The 20 Years countdown featured eight tracks with female vocalists and a further seven bands featured women. Once again, social media and a few blogs declared again that everyone was sexist. Meanwhile, no one has been counting how many black, Asian or indigenous people are on the list. Which brings me to the point that accusations of sexism when people are talking about their favourite songs is a bit ridiculous. You can't really help what songs you like - they often relate to a time and a place - and while there may be some biological, psychological, and environmental factors at play, it's usually a subconscious process. Does anyone ever listen to a song and think 'I don't like that 'cos it's got a chick singing'?" Surely not - you like a song because you like it. When I voted, I thought of my favourite 20 songs, not 10 male songs and 10 female songs. That's what everyone did. The Hottest 100 Of The Past 20 Years is supposed to be what it says on the box - a list of the best songs from the past two decades, not some evenly weighted example of gender balance and political correctness. It's unfortunate there aren't more women represented on the list, but it's also a shame there weren't more Weezer songs. And there's nothing anyone can do about either of those things.

...and the whingers

BACK to that introductory paraphrasing of Churchill: democracy isn't perfect, but it's the best we've got. So if someone can find a better way to compile a list like triple j does and that actually represents the taste of a certain demographic of Australia, bring it on. Complaining about the Hottest 100 is a bit like complaining about the phenomena of pineapple on pizzas - it might not be to your tastes, but lots of people obviously like it, so it's a thing and it exists and get over it. While some of the results were slightly surprising, all of them were totally understandable. As mentioned earlier, the whining really kicked off when the divisive Lana "Is She Fake Or Is She Real?" Del Rey landed at #99 with her downer ballad Video Games. But such a result is understandable - teenage girls make up a large proportion of triple j's audience and Video Games was the song that spoke to a lot of them in 2011 (I'm sure there are some guys who voted it for it, but I haven't met any of them). And it's a hell of a lot better than a lot of the stuff teenage girls listen to. The biggest whinges were reserved for Wonderwall at #1, a song that has crossed over from being the Britpop singalong of the alternative nation to a played-to-death ubiquitous pub cover in the 18 years since its release. And you may not like it, but it does seem now like an obvious #1 - having played this song in a cover band in pubs for the last nine years, I can vouch for the unbridled enthusiastic response this track solicits from a crowd every time.

The peculiarities

THE thing that really fascinates me about the Hottest 100 Of The Past 20 Years is the strange journeys certain songs have taken over the years. A prime example is Foo Fighters' Everlong. Despite being the second single from their 1997 album The Colour & The Shape and reaching #45 on the ARIA charts, Everlong failed to appear in the Hottest 100 of that year. Over the years, the song became a live favourite and began to be regarded as Foo Fighters' best tune. In 2006, an acoustic version made it to #61 on the Hottest 100, and three years later it was voted to #9 in the Hottest 100 Of All Time. On the weekend, it reached #6. Amazing to think it didn't rate a mention in the year of its release. Similarly, Jeff Buckley's cover of Hallelujah was not among the singer's two entries on the 1995 Hottest 100 list, but over the years it has risen in stature (thanks in no small part to the song becoming a standard on reality TV music contests, which helped it seep into the consciousness of a new generation). In the '98 All Time list it was still ignored, but by 2009 its stakes had risen dramatically, landing at #3. The fuss around the song seems to have calmed down - on the weekend it reached #36, despite being one of the bookies' favourites. Other songs that made the 20 Years list but missed out on making the Hottest 100 upon release? Bloc Party's Banquet, Daft Punk's Around The World, The Kook's Naive, and The Temper Trap's Sweet Disposition. But the biggest peculiarity has to be Blur's Song 2. A song that runs for two minutes and two seconds, features two choruses, two verses and two bridges, it made it to #2 in 1997. On the weekend it was voted in at #22. Why triple j didn't call Richie Benaud to announce that one, I'll never know.

The '90s ruled

FORTY-NINE songs on the list came from the eligible years of the '90s ('93-'99). The rest were from between 2000 and 2012. The best years were 1997 (14 entries), 1994 (nine entries), and 1995 and 2001 (seven entries). This all goes to prove what I've been telling people younger than me for a long time - the '90s ruled and music was better then. Take that, you whippersnappers.

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