These last few years have seen the loss of many things. As COVID has turned the screws, we’ve seen countless businesses and venues bite the dust, while many of us have said goodbye to our regular ways of living. But if there’s one thing that many of us would’ve thought would survive, it’s the annual Hottest 100 CD released by triple j.
On Friday, The Music confirmed via a statement from triple j/the ABC that this year would be the first in almost three decades that a Hottest 100 compilation album hasn’t been released on a physical format.
“Yes, we’ve bid a fond farewell to the Hottest 100 CD,” the spokesperson explained. “Instead, you can listen back to the Hottest 100 via triple j playlists on streaming services and keep an eye out for other physical releases in the future.”
For a little bit of backstory, it was in 1989 that the first Hottest 100 countdown took place. Designed as a way for listeners to vote on their favourite song of all-time, the first two years featured Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” in the top spot, before Nirvana stormed the poll in early 1992 with their barnstorming single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
Realising that with such little variety in the top end of the poll, most countdowns would be relatively samey in the years to come, the station took a year off, and in late 1993, unveiled a new countdown. This new countdown would see triple j listeners voting for their favourite song from the previous calendar year, and in early 1994, Denis Leary took out the first annual Hottest 100 countdown with his track, “Asshole”.
Later that same year, triple j took advantage of their so-far successful run of compilation albums and released a selection of the tracks from that year’s countdown on a double-CD set. Though never featuring the full 100 songs (or the top songs in order), the compilation sparked an annual series that would see a handful of memorable songs from that year’s countdown collected onto a double-CD set, and would ultimately soundtrack the year for many Hottest 100 fans.
In the years that followed, the countdowns proved so popular that numerous editions of the annual series were certified Gold by ARIA, would top the charts, and would see many listeners refusing to buy the individual albums or singles that would chart in the Hottest 100 in favour of the annual compilation.
Of course, as the times changed, so too did the method in which these compilations were released. While the first annual compilation was released in October of 1994, so too was it accompanied by a double-cassette release for its first seven years. Abandoning this idea after the release of the seventh compilation in 2000, triple j adopted the DVD (or, ‘JVD’) format in 2002, pairing the albums with a visual collection until its last volume in 2013.
Likewise, it wasn’t just the annual countdowns that would receive physical releases, either. Special-edition countdowns in 2009, 2011, and 2013 (for the Hottest 100 of All Time, the Hottest 100 Australian Albums of All Time, and Twenty Years of The Hottest 100, respectively), all received the multi-disc treatment. Meanwhile, 1999 saw a special ‘Hot Box’ box set for listeners to collect, while 2002 brought with it the ‘Hottest Box’, which featured nine CDs of tracks from the countdowns first nine years.
Oddly, the only two countdowns to have not received physical releases since 1994 were the 1998 All Time countdown, and 2020’s Hottest 100 of The Decade. However, the absence of the latter seemed as though it should’ve told us all what was coming.
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In January of this year, Billboard reported that CD sales had risen for the first time since 2004. Sure, the rise may have only been a meagre 1.1%, but given the domination of formats such as vinyl or streaming, it’s important to celebrate even the smallest wins for the humble CD.
Later that month, Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield wrote an impassioned piece on the notion of the “CD revival”, championing the format that many have long since derided (even since its first foray into the industry).
“Compact discs were never about romance — they were about function. They just worked,” Sheffield wrote. “They were less glamorous than vinyl, less cool, less tactile, less sexy, less magical. They didn’t have the aura that we fans crave.
“You didn’t necessarily get sentimental over your CDs, the way you fetishised your scratchy old vinyl, hearing your life story etched into the nicks and crackles. Your copy of Spice World or Life After Death sounded the same as everyone else’s.”
However, for many fans of triple j’s Hottest 100, many listeners did indeed get sentimental over their CDs. Though I’d gladly admit to being somewhat biased in my love of the Hottest 100 and its accompanying compilations (it’s worth noting I’ve run a Hottest 100 website for years and own approximately 70+ different variants of the 33 Hottest 100 releases), it’s easy to find people who will champion the Hottest 100 compilations.
Though these days much of the criticism has changed from how neither the triple j or the Hottest 100 are the same as what they used to be, even a cursory glance onto Facebook pages such as Sound as Ever will bring up people commenting on how impactful an album such as triple j’s Hottest 100 of 1996 was. After all, that was the first year in which an Aussie band topped the poll, pushing their profile directly above big-name artists such as Tool, Ben Folds Five, the Butthole Surfers, and The Prodigy.
These same people might end their stories of how much they loved these compilations with somewhat comical footnotes, explaining that their beloved CD compilation was either stolen by a close friend, melted on the dashboard of their car, or found years down the line, scratched to hell. But the sentiment remains, and the memory of what it meant to them at that particular point in time – the way the music connected with and soundtracked their lives – will last forever.
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But of course, while we might indeed be caught up in the nostalgia of these compilation CDs and what it means for music fans – be they veteran or formative – we’re aware that times change. In much the same way that we may not ever quite see another Hottest 100 of All Time countdown like we did in the early days, it’s clear that the musical landscape in which the Hottest 100 exists has changed completely.
Back when the Hottest 100 compilations CDs were released on an annual basis, so too were CDs the dominant force within the music scene. But considering we’ve only now seen the first growth in CD sales since 2004, it’s a wonder it’s taken this long for the compilation to die.
In fact, recent years have actually seen a substantial downtrend in the amount of CDs released by triple j. Though released on a yearly basis since 2005, last year was the first in 16 years that we didn’t receive a new Like a Version compilation. Given the popularity of the series on streaming services and YouTube, it’s hardly any wonder. Likewise, the House Party series was the only other series that still continued with some form of regularity, but even then, a new volume hasn’t appeared since Volume Six in 2017.
Similarly, no new Live at The Wireless releases have arrived since an archival package in 2010, nor have any live releases seen a physical format since 2015’s Beat the Drum. triple j’s Unearthed series used to be a frequent staple of the station, though their annual releases haven’t arrived since 2000, with the last physical release being a special one-off CD handed out in 2011 at the launch parties of the Unearthed radio station.
In all of the above cases though, there have been easier and more cost effective ways to achieve the same effect that listeners have been after. Why bother with releasing compilation CDs for the Like a Version series when the same tracklist can be delivered via a YouTube or Spotify playlist, or by pressing some highlights onto special edition vinyl? And why worry about collecting some of the best Unearthed tracks when it’s far easier to go to the triple j Unearthed website and sample them there?
This of course is without even mentioning the hassle of licensing. A topic likely unfamiliar with most consumers, licensing tracks for compilations is an often tedious and expensive task. Not only do artists have to agree to having their tracks featured on the compilation album, but the cost has to be non-prohibitive to ensure that the final product still remains affordable to the consumer.
In 1998, Korn (who reached #5 with “Got the Life”) were even quoted in compilation’s liner notes, saying that they don’t usually license songs for comps, but given their fondness for triple j listeners, they’d release a special remix of the track on the album instead.
In 2009, Richard Kingsmill was quoted as saying during that both Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (which reached #1) and John Lennon’s “Imagine” (#11) would be featured on the upcoming compilation album. However, it was later revealed that both Courtney Love and Yoko Ono (the copyright holders for Nirvana and John Lennon, respectively) would only allow their tracks to feature if they were the opening track.
Given Nirvana’s placing in the countdown, “Imagine” was ultimately left off to appease the situation, highlighting how much of a headache the licensing process can be when it comes to curating these compilations.
Could the licensing question also answer why it was that Queens of The Stone Age’s “Feel Good Hit of The Summer” managed to appear on the 2000 CD compilation despite never making it into the Hottest 100 for that year? Possibly, but it’s much more likely that it’s simply an example of the sort of esoterica that made these Hottest 100 compilations so beloved in the first place.
So what does the future look like for the Hottest 100 compilation? Well, while triple j do urge us to “keep an eye out for other physical releases in the future”, they’ve not indicated just what that might be. Most likely, it could be a vinyl release (like their 2020 Like a Version Record Store Day singles) that relates to a notable song in the countdown (say, The Wiggles’ chart-topping effort). Or it may not even be related to the Hottest 100 itself. It remains to be seen.
But what is clear is that the Hottest 100 compilation album as we know it is now dead and gone. Though many purists, or veteran listeners, may view this as ‘evidence’ of another point of decline in the history of the Hottest 100, it’s clear that the station is simply moving with the times, whether we may like it or not.
After all, what’s easier and more effective? Heading down to your local JB Hi-Fi, grabbing a double-CD with around 40 songs, and then playing it when you’re in the vicinity of a CD player? Or having access to the vast majority of the full countdown at any moment thanks to streaming services such as Spotify? Logically, it’s the latter, but many of us will forever cling to the idea that the former is the best.
However you look at it, the Hottest 100 will continue on for a long time still, and even though the annual compilation album may now be a thing of the past, it’ll forever remain as an iconic piece of Australian music history.