It’s that time of the year again when Australia hosts the world’s largest online music poll. The publicly-funded radio station Triple J is known as the nation’s left-leaning, youth-centred, commercial-free station for cool tunes, with the main genres ranging around indie rock, folk, trip-hop and basically anything not too hard or poppy. But more importantly:
- It’s the only FM station that has reception on long road trips across this huge country, and
- It hosts an immensely popular music poll: The Hottest 100.
Votes for the top 100 songs are cast by a million-plus listeners over the Aussie summer, culminating in a six-hour broadcast of the results that has almost been an integral part of the Australian Day celebrations of January 26 (until now). I wish I had enough time and/or coolness to be able to say I have my finger on the pulse of modern music every year. Secretly, I would have loved to be a music critic. I love almost every genre, I’m addicted to the world of musical trends, and I’m bombastic enough to create meaningless words that wouldn’t seem out of place in a copy of Rolling Stone. The sad reality is that I have no objective talent, either for music appreciation or performance.
But it’s still fun to pretend.
This year I ended up with a more ‘boppy’ selection than I anticipated. There are strong beats across almost all of my picks, even those that don’t technically sit in a dance genre. Call it a symptom of a mid-life crisis, if you will. There’s also been a focus on new talents (again, accidentally), though there are a couple of familiar names. Before we get into it, here are a couple of honourable mentions.
Honourable mention #1: Arcade Fire – “Everything Now”
I’ve always been a big fan of Arcade Fire. Their songs came at just the right part of my tertiary formative years, and Neon Bible was in some ways an album that personified my college days. It’s been a decade since one of their songs has really resonated with me, however, so I was pleasantly surprised on first listen to Everything Now. The number is characterised by powerful lyrics and emotive riffs that are carefully balanced with a celebratory tone – a textbook example of the works that captured my attention in the 2000’s.
Honourable mention #2: Lorde – “Homemade Dynamite”
In 2012, a sixteen-year old New Zealand girl released an album that rose to number two in the Australian rankings. Her lyrics are infectious, and I would be surprised if she didn’t score at least three picks in the final 100; Sober was a strong inclusion in my final 10. Lorde’s one of the few modern pop artists whose lyrics stand alone; I dare you to try reading the lyrics without sound of most of the regular radio repeats. Normally they’re embarrassing; hers border on poetry.
Honourable mention #3: Yaegi – “Raingurl”
The first time I heard this doof-doof underground electro hit, I broke out into a huge grin. The beat and lyrics combine into what is almost a comical ghetto-meets-Berlin-warehouse sound. I had never heard of the artist but the voice and lyrics convinced me I was listening to an African-American street rapper. It turns out Yaegi is a small Korean girl with a dorky ponytail and thick glasses, whose songs are often punctuated with verses in Korean (like this one). Surprise! The beat is completely infectious and the unpretentious film clip only adds to the enjoyment. It’ll put you in a good mood, for sure. Slight language warning.
As fine as these three hits are, however, this year the competition for the final 10 was tough. Here are my final votes.
10: Lorde – “Sober”
What I particularly like about Lorde is that her songs are so appealing to a young audience, and yet the lyrics are mature with powerfully positive messages. Her signature hit Royals is a good example: Top of the pop charts, although her money-isn’t-everything story stands in stark contrast to the lyrics of her billboard peers. Sober fits nicely into this mould, both within the verses and in its entirely as a song.
9: The Wombats – “Lemon to a Knife Fight”
In many ways I wish that I didn’t like The Wombats, whose songs straddle that fine line between cheesy pop and infectious entertainment. With a title like Lemon to a Knife Fight, you can probably guess what I mean. Still, just like with their smash hit Joy Division, I can’t help but bob to the song, no matter how many times I hear it. You win again, Wombats.
8: The xx – “On Hold”
On Hold is one of the few slow, non-dance picks in my list this year. But the UK indie-pop duo is a regular on my playlist, and Loud Places earned my top pick for 2015. On Hold‘s lyrics are deep and telling, with an addictive chorus and a nice build-up throughout the song.
But enough about the music; truth be told, The xx was always going to make my list for last year after lead vocalist Romy tweeted me twice in five minutes, making my week. To build momentum for the Countdown, Triple J’s comedic summer hosts Sally and Erica run a ‘Hottest One-Pundred’ challenge whereby listeners were invited to tweet a pun about songs or artists from 2016. Naturally, I couldn’t resist…
— David Smerdon (@dsmerdon) December 18, 2017
In my excitement over my obviously hilarious witticism, I may have forgotten that the Queensland beer “XXXX” may not be particularly well-known in the UK – which explains Romy’s first reaction:
— romy xx (@onlyhijazi) December 18, 2017
Not quite the reaction I was hoping for from one of my biggest musical idols of the last decade. Fortunately, my heart was allowed to restart five minutes later:
omg I just understood this hahahahaha
— romy xx (@onlyhijazi) December 18, 2017
Order having been restored, I feel absolved enough to include On Hold in at number 8.
7: Tash Sultana – “Mystik”
Tash Sultana is a one-woman band from Melbourne. Having played guitar since she was 3 (!) and made her living busking in Melbourne, Sultana won the prestigious J Award for Triple J’s Unearthed Artist of the Year in 2016. But what really brought her international attention was when she uploaded a YouTube video of herself recording her own song Jungle in her bedroom (complete with relative occasionally walking past her in the background, and a random dog running around the floor). Ten million views later, the song came third in last year’s Hottest 100 countdown and firmly placed her on the Australian music map. Mystik is unlikely to rival that breakout success, but it keeps true to the same musical build-up via her loops machine, as evidenced in another one of her live bedroom recordings (see below). Look out for her in the future.
By the way, for an incredible close-your-eyes, late-night-couch, get-the-tea-darling experience, check out the amazing video of her ‘Hypnotic Live Set’ for Rolling Stone:
6: Willow Beats – “Special”
The first time I heard Special on the radio, I was hooked. The Melbourne electronic duo was discovered through Triple J’s fantastic ‘Unearthed’ programme, which helps promote talented young musicians around Australia. It even has its own station, to which I occasionally listen if I’m in the mood for new sounds. And Willow Beat certainly has one, describing the music as “being inspired by creeks and rivers, crisp mornings and Tim Burton.” I couldn’t have said it better.
5: PNAU – “Go Bang”
Every year, a couple of my picks (as well as the final countdown results) overlap with the mainstream billboard charts. Not many, mind you, but always a couple. Lorde’s Sober is one that has received extensive airtime on commercial radio, and PNAU is another.
A common word in the vernacular of modern pop is “Banger”, noun, meaning “A song that is incredibly tight or just unbelievably awesome” (at least according to the ever-reliable Urban Dictionary).
A decade ago, PNAU broke the pop charts with the intolerably annoying electronic hit Wild Strawberries, so it’s some wonder that I’ve even given the Sydney-based dance trio a second chance. But the years have been good to PNAU, and Go Bang is just smooth enough to make it an acceptable cross-over ‘banger’. The music video is also quite mesmerising, featuring a hugely colourful environment mixed with LCD body suits and suitably mystical choreography. The theme is continued in PNAU’s other big hit from the year, Chameleon, which is also a very nice song.
4: Angie McMahon – “Slow Mover”
Slow Mover lives up to its name as definitely the slowest number of my picks. The indie singer-songwriter from Melbourne is another gem out of Triple J’s Unearthed, and this is her debut track.
2017 was the first year I attended a singer-songwriter concert, as that’s normally not my go-to for live music entertainment. But Wallis Bird’s intimate yet hugely energetic performance in a small Brisbane venue taught me not to be so presumptuous. With powerful vocals and hugely emotive lyrics, Slow Mover is everything a good singer-songwriter should have – and if this is any indication, we can expect to hear a lot more from McMahon in the future.
3: Mansionair – “Astronaut (Something About Your Love)”
I’d never heard of Mansionair before last year. I didn’t even know the lead singer is male. But Astronaut has those strong, repetitive trip-hop beats that so endear me to the genre. Not everyone agrees with my classification; Triple J refers to the Sydney band as “pillowy, vocal-fronted electronica”. In any case, the lyrics of this number, together with the soulful, whispery voice of Jack Froggart, definitely falls into the philosophical but ambiguous ‘trip’ classification in my sober opinion. As Froggart explains it, “I love that stream-of-conscious style of songwriting – as though you’re sitting in the back of a party on a couch and you’re just in your own head, overthinking everything.”
2: CamelPhat & Elderbrook – “Cola”
Cola is perhaps the big outlier of my final list. Bordering on deep house, it was pegged as one of the biggest dance anthems of the summer of 2017. This is usually enough to put me off, let alone the reliance on synthesisers and rather hollow lyrics (“she does this, she does that…” etc) – and, frankly, ‘CamelPhat’ is just a ridiculous name. But at the end of the day, each song’s impact is a subjective experience, and Cola gives me goosebumps. I don’t know why, but I can’t deny it. My one act of rebellion is kicking it down from my number one. Which goes to….
1: Portugal. The Man – “Feel It Still”
…another ridiculous name. Seriously, what is that full stop doing in there?!
Portugal. The Man is an Oregon-based rock band that has been around for about 15 years or so, though I only just discovered this – none of their previous songs even made it onto my radar. But with 100 million views on YouTube for their new official video, I guess that’s all going to change.
I recommend watching the video for your first listen. The indie-hipster beat is aptly personified in the costumes and filmography, with echos of The Avener‘s 2014 hit Fade Out Lines in both sound and vision. Fittingly, that was my top pick for the year; this year, the full-stop band takes prime place.
I have a feeling that most of my picks will eventually make it into the top 100, though I don’t rate correlation with the nation’s musical pulse as any great achievement in itself. Feel It Still has a good chance at the final top-10, but it certainly won’t finish first. That honour almost certainly belongs to Kendrick Lamar’s HUMBLE, an obnoxiously ear-violating cacophony of misogynistic filth that, with half a billion views on YouTube, will inspire the next generation towards greatness. Yeh, it didn’t make my list.