With four of the top five songs down, there weren’t a lot of surprises to be had this past Monday, when Australian radio station Triple J neared the close of its Hottest 100 year-end countdown. The final-five run had been led off by two consecutive songs from local heroes Tame Impala‘s internationally successful Currents album, “Let It Happen” and “The Less I Know, the Better.” Then at No. 3, “Lean On,” the Major Lazer and DJ Snake pop smash that was popular enough to become the most-streamed song in Spotify’s history. And at No. 2 was “King Kunta,” highlight from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, easily the year’s most universally acclaimed album. So far, so predictable for the fan-voted list.
Finally, at No. 1, the song that took down all of these critical favorites and mass-appeal monsters: the Rubens’ “Hoops.”
Huh? As an American radio tourist listening to Triple J for the first time since last year’s countdown — which occurs every Australia Day, and has become enough of a national pastime that its results even attract a large betting audience — I’d never even heard of the Rubens, much less figured them for a force strong enough to edge out Kendrick Lamar and Tame Impala. Cursory research revealed “Hoops” to have been a hit in Australia, the band’s home country, but not a massive one, peaking at No. 25 on the ARIA Charts. And the song — a solid, catchy sub-three-minute rock song, built around a gently pounding beat and a looping, insistent refrain — was hardly the kind of behemoth whose greatness radiates with self-evidence. It felt like pretty big swerve for the top of the list.
Then again, maybe not. “The Rubens are a big band for Triple J listeners,” explains Triple J content director Ollie Wards over email. “They’ve had a huge year since releasing their second record, [2015’s Hoops], so I’m not surprised the title track got voted for so much. They’ve toured the country this year and got a great reputation for playing live, including an epic set at Splendour in the Grass.” It’s also not totally without precedent in the countdown’s history: The band’s 2012 single “My Gun” also cracked that year’s top ten, though only at No. 10.
Nonetheless, the Rubens themselves were as surprised as anyone. “I think I’ve only sort of really come to terms with it now, a few days [later],” relates Sam Margin, the band’s frontman, over the phone. “We weren’t obviously expecting to win. Originally I think we were hoping for a top ten. We ended up closer in some predictions, and we seemed to be up in the top five… but I definitely wasn’t thinking about number one.” (In case that quote should be misinterpreted as post-victory faux-humility, the quintet’s decidedly unguarded reaction upon learning of the triumph was filmed for posterity.)
Magrin has a theory as to why his song might have been able to eclipse some of the more established acts on the list: vote-splitting. Where Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit and Tame Impala’s Currents each notched four songs on the countdown — including the two top-fivers for Tame — the Rubens became just the second act since 1996 to top the countdown with their only entry. (The other: Augie March’s “One Crowded Hour” in 2006.) “I’m a massive fan of Tame Impala,” admits Magrin. “If I’m honest, I think if Tame Impala just had one song people could choose from, they would have won. I think everyone liked a different song of theirs.”
The Rubens’ victory hasn’t been without its controversy. A Sydney Morning Herald article disparaged the countdown as “safe,” and dismissively referred to the Rubens as “friendly rock” you could listen to with your parents and grandparents. Meanwhile, in an op-ed for the Guardian, Steve Kilbey — frontman for Australian classic alternative heroes the Church — panned the song for lacking “oomph or grunt or even twist,” concluding, “why this song is No 1 eludes me. Triple J listeners have gone a bit soft, I guess.”
“I don’t know, it just sounds like old men not really getting something and being frustrated,” Magrin offers in response to Kilbey’s criticism. “I understand that [mentality], I understand that music’s changed.” He also cites that in addition to being derisive towards the Rubens, Kilbey was put off by most of the rest of the top ten, even Kendrick Lamar, calling it “‘unoriginal, a normal hip-hop song’ — which is an idiotic thing to say… that sort of discredited, in my opinion, everything that he was saying.”
Speaking of Kendrick: The band had to curtail the celebrating the night of their victory, because they had to be back at Triple J early the next morning to pay tribute to the Hottest 100’s silver medalist, via a mashup cover of Lamar’s “King Kunta” with Adele’s “Hello,” for the station’s “Like a Version” cover series. Lest the homage be received as a gauche, Macklemore-like apology to the defeated rapper, Magrin sets the record straight: “We chose to do that mashup cover before we thought we were gonna be maybe in the top ten… we tried to make it pretty clear when we were on the show, like, ‘Oops, we didn’t mean to do this.’” (He says the band are indeed huge fans of Kendrick’s.)
Now, it’s on to America for the Rubens, where they are gearing Hoops for a March release. Recent Hottest 100 winners like Gotye and Vance Joy were able to use their Triple J wins as a springboard to worldwide success — will the Rubens be able to follow that path? “I reckon when people hear about them overseas they’ll love them,” predicts Wards. “And then who knows?”
For his part, Magrin is certainly hoping this will bring his band to the next level. “I think it’s a huge thing, and I know that people do care overseas, and that does mean something to [industry] people overseas,” Magrin says. “Which is really good, because we needed another thing to sort of… we needed a story. Because we do really want to spend a lot of time in the States and the U.K. And I think this is the kind of story, winning, and the fact that the winners the last two years before were Vance and Chet Faker… I’m just really excited.”