Like any hugely popular public-voted countdown, the outcome of the Hottest 100 is always a lightning rod for discussion and disagreement.
The biggest controversy in Hottest 100 voting history was the barring of Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Up’ from the 2014 countdown. The song’s exclusion gave rise to a number of op-eds either accusing triple j management of elitism or doubling down on said elitism.
But it’s not just high profile omissions that get people talking—to this day, people around the country continue to debate the worthiness of Hottest 100 victors from years gone by. Ahead of the Hottest 100 of 2021, which takes place in January 2022, we’ve decided to join the fray.
Here are five songs (subtitled “Nah”) that wouldn’t stand a chance of winning the Hottest 100 if the vote was held over again. Plus, in an effort to avoid appearing curmudgeonly, we’ve selected five of the most durable and just plain excellent winners in Hottest 100 history (subtitled “Yeah”).
The songs that did and didn’t deserve to go to #1 on the Hottest 100
YEAH: The Cranberries – ‘Zombie’ (1994)
The quality of Dolores O’Riordan’s songwriting has never been in doubt. ‘Zombie’, the Irish band’s most high-profile song, comes straight from the heart. But the unsullied urgency of ‘Zombie’ 25+ years after its release is not something you would’ve put money on back in 1994.
For one thing, ‘Zombie’ is about contemporaneous events—specifically, the deaths of two children in an IRA bombing of the English town of Warrington, and more broadly, the multi-decade conflict between Northern Irish loyalists and Irish republicans, which we know as The Troubles.
‘Zombie’ is also clothed in the stylistic hallmarks of the time. It’s a distortion-soaked and grunge-adjacent alt rock song. But the Limerick band’s most popular single remains as vital and as popular as ever, making it a uniquely deserving Hottest 100 winner.
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NAH: Jet – ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl?’ (2003)
The bloke from Jet doesn’t even like this song. On a recent episode of The Plug with Neil Griffiths, Nic Cester, Jet’s lead singer and principal mop-top, spoke of how trapped he felt following the iPod ad-level of success of ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl?’ “We’d become famous for one specific style of music which was never what I was about personally,” Cester said.
Did Jet really have the potential for artistic greatness, only to have it poisoned by commercial pigeonholing? Perhaps we’ll never know (though, have you heard Shine On?), but ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl?’ sounds like a total anachronism 18 years later.
It’s a serviceable throwback that would’ve sounded fine coming through the speakers as you tried on a pair of acid wash jeans at General Pants Co., but the Iggy Pop-meets-White Stripes patchwork is hardly song of the year potential.
YEAH: Franz Ferdinand – ‘Take Me Out’ (2004)
The indie rock and post-punk boom of the early to mid-’00s was big on attitude and nice haircuts, but not longevity. Franz Ferdinand are a notable exception and the Glaswegian band’s tearaway single, ‘Take Me Out’, remains one of our best hopes for achieving global harmony.
Led by Alex Kapranos, Franz Ferdinand have continued to make excellent records, but in terms of sheer virality, they’ve never topped ‘Take Me Out’. ‘Take Me Out’ has it all: tempo changes, guitar and vocal hooks aplenty, and one heck of a stomping breakdown that can synchronise the bodies of several thousand gakked festival punters.
NAH: Bernard Fanning – ‘Wish You Well’ (2005)
Bernard Fanning has won more Hottest 100s than anyone else: two with Powderfinger (1999, 2000) and one with his debut solo single, ‘Wish You Well’. At 22 total entries, Powderfinger are the most decorated act in Hottest 100 history, which raises the question, could it be that groupthink played a role in sending ‘Wish You Well’ to no. 1 in 2005?
‘Wish You Well’ is not trash, but neither is it Fanning’s finest hour. It sounds like a song born of writers’ block, sprouted on a day when the ideas weren’t flowing, but Bernie decided to push through anyway. The finished product sounds like it was spruced up to meet the demands of Fanning’s publishing company; i.e. suitable for TV advertisements.
YEAH: Muse – ‘Knights of Cydonia’ (2007)
Muse are ridiculous; this is taken as read. But there are times when you wonder whether the UK trio recognise how over-the-top and melodramatic their sci-fi prog-pop can sound to listeners. On the other hand, there are times when it just doesn’t matter, such as on ‘Knights Of Cydonia’, which perfectly captures Muse at their entertaining best.
It’s all there: the hard rock dynamism, the conceptual grandiosity and the party-starting bombast. ‘Knights of Cydonia’ is essentially a theme tune for a Spaghetti Western space opera, loaded with heavy riffs and a chant-along vocal climax, the lyrics of which look hollow on the page, but feel damn good to sing.
NAH: Kings of Leon – ‘Sex On Fire’ (2008)
The lyrics to ‘Sex On Fire’ seem to drip with lust and desire, but Kings of Leon’s conversion from Southern Strokes to U2 for the Two and a Half Men crowd fails to evoke stimulation of any kind.
The reason for the Followill clan’s Hottest 100 victory seems obvious: ‘Sex On Fire’ simply couldn’t be avoided in 2008. But it’s hardly a work of artistic substance, and nor is it a fun pop cultural artefact. Removed from context, ‘Sex On Fire’ is stale as dehydrated meal worm and clinical as a medical centre questionnaire.
Here’s a better candidate for top spot in 2008: Flight of the Conchords’ ‘Business Time’ (which came it at #19). Not only is it tangibly sexy, but listening to it in 2021 won’t provoke a narcoleptic episode—the same cannot be said for ‘Sex On Fire’.
YEAH: Gotye feat. Kimbra – ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ (2011)
Melbourne songwriter and producer Gotye’s collaboration with Aotearoa vocalist Kimbra has gone on to achieve global ubiquity, taking residence on commercial radio playlists around the world. This sort of success is hard to recover from. For instance, Kimbra still has “I’m that girl from the gotye song” in her Instagram bio, while Wally De Backer hasn’t made another Gotye record since.
It also makes it difficult for us to hear the song without the baggage of its omnipresence. But try, if you can, to return to the winter of 2011, when ‘Somebody I Used to Know’ was released to minimal fanfare. All we were thinking about back then, hearing it on Tom & Alex or Drive with Lindsay “The Doctor” McDougall, was what a belting song it is.
Remember the tingles the first time you heard De Backer channel Peter Gabriel to go high in the first chorus? The chills when Kimbra’s vocal came in for the second verse? The awe you felt when the pair started trading lines and melodies later in the song?
NAH: Mumford & Sons – ‘Little Lion Man’ (2009)
I can still remember the disappointment I felt when, after days of hyping up their hot new signing, Brisbane label Dew Process premiered the video for ‘Little Lion Man’. Was this a joke? A parody of the all-too-earnest nu-folk movement?
Apparently, not—‘Little Lion Man’ went bezerk around the world and Mr. Mumford and friends soon joined Kings of Leon in the manila folder of contemporary artists your Boomer or Gen X dad might like.
I don’t mean to insult those who like the song, but ‘Little Lion Man’ irks me at every turn, from the Christian righteousness to the focus group-approved use of the word “fuck”, to the sound of posh English lads playing with banjos like they’re the keys to their dad’s Aston Martin.
YEAH: Billie Eilish – ‘Bad Guy’ (2019)
You might be thinking, why are there so few women in this list? Do they not qualify for reappraisal, too? Well, the simple answer is that after The Cranberries win in 1994, the next female-fronted song to win the Hottest 100 was Angus & Julia Stone’s ‘Big Jet Plane’ in 2010.
It wasn’t until Billie Eilish’s win in 2019 that a female-identifying solo artist claimed top spot. ‘Bad Guy’ is not just historic for that reason—it’s also the most recent example of a Hottest 100 classic, the kind of song that would win no matter what year it came out.
It’s got an early-evening groove, an easily memorable synth hook, a bit of lyrical goofiness and an irresistible vocal performance. Bravo, Billie.
NAH: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (feat. Wanz) – ‘Thrift Shop’ (2012)
Richard Kingsmill, triple j’s long-time music director, was so keen on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ debut album, The Heist, that you’d have thought the Seattle hip hop duo were on par with genre greats like Eric B. & Rakim and Gang Starr. But alas, they weren’t even on the same planet.
It’s tempting to deride ‘Thrift Shop’ as a novelty song. But if that’s a case, why are we letting Denis Leary’s ‘Asshole’ (#1 in 1993) off the hook? Truth is, novelty songs aren’t destined for failure. Most of the jokes in ‘Asshole’ continue to stick the landing nearly 30 years later. But Macklemore’s tongue-in-cheek try-hard gangster shtick is cringe city.
He didn’t even have faith in his own jokes. The lyric, “Probably shoulda washed this, smells like R. Kelly’s sheets,” is supplemented with the word “piss,” which tells you all you need to know about how “fucking awesome” this song is.