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 ShakesDon’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 withM.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.