Australia Day: How listening to the 'Hottest 100' songs on the radio has united a nation for 30 years

With the national holiday increasingly controversial, Aussies everywhere come together to listen to some music

Australia, Australia Day, Triple J, ABC

The logo for this year's list [ABC]

For nearly three decades many Australians have celebrated the country’s national holiday on January 26th by gathering around the radio. Australia Day, a day designed to celebrate the anniversary of 1788 arrival of the first fleet of British ships sailing into Port Jackson and the raising of the British flag, is also known by indigenous groups as Invasion Day, a controversial reminder of the plundering of aborigines by white settlers. No wonder then, that the thing that seems to unite the country is the hottest 100 songs of the previous year.

Since 1988, Triple J, a national radio channel under the ABC umbrella, has run its poll asking members of the public to vote for their favourite songs of the year. In the two weeks leading up to January 26th, the votes come in from all over the world, in what is now referred to as “the world’s greatest music democracy,” in a country where democracy has often been a scarce resource.

But like The Rose of Tralee or The Late Late Toy Show, Triple J’s Hottest 100 has become appointment listening, with Australians all over the continental-sized country gathering around radios and speakers, drinking beers and lighting up the barbecue, to take in the annual tradition.

The broadcast was the brainchild of a producer, Lawrie Zion, who came up with the idea of polling Aussies on their favourite songs of all time back in 1988. Listeners were asked to send in their top 10 on the back of an envelope, though in true blue style, votes arrive on paintings, sculptures, and hand-rolled cannabis cigarettes. That first year, Joy Division’s Love will Tear us Apart came out on top, a feat it repeated the following year, then in second place in the third. That’s when Triple J rejigged the rules, so now only songs released and played on the station in the previous 12 months are eligible − which meant Taylor Swift's Shake It Off was left out in the cold. Haters gonna hate, mate.

This Australia Day, Aussie band The Rubens topped the poll of more than 2m votes with their song Hoops, in a list that has been described as providing “few surprises and absolutely no controversy.” After all, as the Sydney Morning Herald’s music writer Bernard Zuel writes, listening to the countdown is an entirely family affair, with Aussies tuning in “with their parents and grandparents, everyone enjoying the friendly rock of The Rubens and the bubblegum hooks of Major Lazer almost as much as ‘the kids’.”

Of course, not every Australian was listening; a Victoria radio station made a point of playing its list of the top 100 indigenous songs, while The Presets, an electro duo that has previously featured on the Triple J countdown, took to Facebook to talk out against the “tragic anniversary” of the day. Nor did it go unnoticed that no female solo artist broke into the top 10, nor has ever topped the poll in its history – Australian feminists will have to be content that the ‘Australian of the Year’ is an army general whose vow to bring equality into the armed forces made him a national hero.

But much like the history of Australia, the Hottest 100 is still young and has time to change and adapt. And maybe spending a day in the sunshine listening to music your community has chosen is a way of doing that. After all, as The Rubens sing, "Blood stains won't make it matter, got good things, got you."

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