Why Triple J's Hottest 100 is still relevant

OPINION

Triple J's annual Hottest 100 countdown takes place tomorrow, against a now familiar backdrop of controversy. Three years ago the winner, Mumford & Sons's Little Lion Man, was leaked. This week, a Brisbane marketer and smart-alec statistician released what he believes will be an accurate top 10 on his site, warmest100.com.au.

He tracked 35,000 actual Hottest 100 votes re-posted to Twitter and Facebook, a sample he says is large enough to accurately predict the top 10 – prompting betting agencies to suspend bets on the countdown.

Then there's website jplay.com.au which released a list of the station's most-played songs in 2012, which was quickly dubbed "the real hottest 100". The official Hottest 100 is determined by listener votes on the Triple J website.

If warmest100.com.au is right in its prediction that at two songs currently flying high in the ARIA singles charts will top Triple J's list, you can expect to hear an enduring complaint: that the Hottest 100 has somehow "sold out" and is nowhere near as cool as it once was.

The reality though, I'd argue, is quite the opposite. Songs that Triple J listeners love best tend to be destined for mainstream success - so if anything the Hottest 100 has more credibility than ever, impressive when you consider the percentage of Australian songs remains so high (around 40 per cent in the 2012 countdown).

Much to the chagrin of purists (and obscurists) the "best" alternative songs, sometimes outgrow their underground beginnings and cross over to the mainstream charts. Last January's No.1, Gotye's Somebody That I Used to Know, went on to storm the charts globally. Triple J claims to have played the song before any other radio station in the world – and had been playing the artist formerly known as Wally De Backer for a decade. A popular No 3 in 2012 was Brother, by Australian Idol runner-up Matt Corby. The EP it came off, Into the Flame, went platinum five times and peaked at No.3 in the album charts. Corby was also nominated for three ARIAs and won song of the year, for Brother.

Brother didn't succeed as a single in its own right, but this is where the Hottest 100 serves a more noble purpose than the blunt instrument of units shifted in singles charts: to ensure great songs get the recognition they deserve when the commercial stations don't drive them up the charts. The classic example was Augie March's sublime but introspective One Crowded Hour which topped the Hottest 100 in 2007.

It only reached No 29 in the singles charts but many consider it one of the finest songs penned by an Australian. That was predicted by Triple J and its listeners.

What really makes the sellout argument so silly is that to most of the mainstream Australian radio audience, Triple J is an also-ran station playing music it can't recognise. In Sydney 2Day FM gets more than twice as listeners Monday-to-Friday as Triple J, while in Melbourne FoxFM nearly doubles Triple J.

What Triple J does that its bigger rivals cannot hope to emulate is create a huge one-off national radio event, where groups of people across the country and overseas gather to listen to the radio together. This year, more than 180,000 registered and voted over 1.5 million times.

More than 4000 "listening parties" were registered with Triple J. When you think about it, this is the opposite of the very personal way we consume radio today and has more in common with families hunkering by the wireless in the 1930s to hear Bradman bat.

The Hottest 100 has become an Australian institution, with a mammoth total audience for the countdown "in the millions", according to a station spokesman. He said it's impossible to verify because total audience figures are not collected (they are based on mainland capitals, but Triple J reaches much more widely: 98 per cent of Australia), but he added that Triple J was confident this was correct.

On these numbers, perhaps the climax to the Hottest 100, the reveal of the No.1, should be seen the essential moment in the Australian music calendar. Even if Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' Thrift Shop claims the top spot tomorrow, as widely predicted, its confirmation still carries enormous weight.

The Hottest 100 is certainly not without flaws. While voters can choose any songs in theory (as long as they were released the previous year), they tend to stick to what they've heard played a lot by the station, or what is on a long-list off its website. Then there's the station's playlist in general - tailored to suit its younger demographic, and some would argue musical fashions: hence, heavier dance tracks (Skrillex, Bloody Beetroots) are expected to do well, while every third band these days still seems to be folk indie.

Triple J has proudly championed Aussie hip-hop for years - even when it stopped sounding Australian. Partly because of that demographic you won't find some very good songs that didn't make Triple J playlist; Guy Sebastian and Lupe Fiasco's Battle Scars didn't make the long-list - even though Fiasco's Around My Way did.

Bruce Springsteen's bruising return to form, Wrecking Ball, wasn't played by Triple J so you won't see the Boss in the Hottest 100 – even though he deserves to be there.

But the Hottest 100 is like nothing else in Australia and possibly anywhere – and should be celebrated for what it achieves, not where it disappoints. By committing to a marathon eight-hour countdown – not just the top 10 - Triple J respects the choices of its audience, and they respond, apparently in their millions. Maybe it is, as the station's marketing material reads, "the world's biggest musical democracy".

Triple J begin their Hottest 100 countdown tomorrow from 9am in WA, 11am in Queensland and midday in NSW, the ACT, Victoria and Tasmania.

Peter Vincent's top 10 picks (in alphabetical order)

Feels Like We Only Go Backwards, Tame Impala

Gold on the Ceiling, The Black Keys

Little Talks, Of Monsters And Men

Lost, Frank Ocean

My Gun

Promises

Same Love, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (feat. Mary Lambert)

Surrender, Ball Park Music

This Fire, Birds of Tokyo

Thrift Shop

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