Every year across Australia, Triple J’s Hottest 100 inspires countless rowdy celebrations, passionate debates, and social media firestorms flaming the inevitably controversial winner.
Its fellow countdown – run by ABC Classic – usually does not.
As its name implies, the Classic 100 is typically a more subdued affair. Unlike its boozy, bombastic cousin, the ABC’s classical music station broadcasts the top 100 over multiple days. And since its inception in 2001, the annual countdown has been themed around certain genres or forms, asking listeners to vote for their favorite operas, symphonies and, one year, French compositions.
This year, though, the Classic 100 might sound a little different. It might sound… younger.
This year’s theme is Music for the Screen, encapsulating everything from film and television to games. In a countdown traditionally rife with the multisyllabic maestros of music history, it’s less Beethoven than Babe; less Rachmaninoff than Ratchet & Clank.
“Screen music has been such a growing part of ABC Classic over the years,” says Dan Golding, who presents the station’s Screen Sounds show. “Even 10 years ago, when the Music in the Movies countdown was done, it was a bit radical that a classical music station might choose to focus on film. Today it’s shifted from ‘edgy’ to ‘how can you not’. I think it reinforces to a younger audience, perhaps of my generation and below – I’m 35 – that they’re welcome on a classical music radio station.”
Though official stats are yet to be released, early bellwethers for the Classic 100, which will take place over two days this weekend, could point to an anomalously high turnout. An Instagram announcement co-signed by Triple J – complete with clips from Star Wars, Studio Ghibli, and the lucrative video game franchise Halo – became ABC Classic’s most interacted post of all time.
“One of my friends said, ‘I finally feel seen as a listener’,” says Meena Shamaly, host of ABC Classic’s Game Show, which is dedicated to video game music. “That really let me know this countdown is speaking to more people, and – for lack of a better word – legitimizing the art form [of] screen music.”
Top 100 predictions
The fervour towards this year’s countdown, in part, derives from screen music’s sheer accessibility: think of Kate Bush’s unexpected renaissance via Stranger Things, or Bridgerton’s string quartet re-imaginings of everyone from Robyn to Nirvana – which are, granted, sometimes cringe-inducing , though their outsized impact on classical music streaming is undeniable.
This could mean the heavy hitters will probably dominate the highest ranks. The 2013 Music in the Movies countdown included John Williams’s score for Star Wars, which is lodged within the brains of every “kid in the 70s, 90s and the early 2000s,” says Golding. Other high scorers that will most likely reappear include Vangelis’ stirring piano tinkles on Chariots of Fire, Howard Shores’s Arcadian vision for The Lord of the Rings, and Ennio Morricone’s virtuosic western soundtracks.
This year’s list will include TV scores for the first time. “Great themes date back to the 60s, [but] the idea of creating a soundtrack as a detailed, artistic thing that responds to what’s happening on screen is a lot more recent, simply because TV budgets haven’t been that big until recently,” says Golding. Expect favorites from the last decade like The Crown, Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones – Golding’s predictions – all the way up to “more recent shows like The Mandalorian”.
Will games win out?
Perhaps the biggest unpredictability in this countdown is the placement of video game scores – a field which Shamaly sees less like a rupture than a continuation of the classical lineage. “Video game music is a device for telling stories the same way that music for opera was telling stories,” he says. “The same way that early Gregorian chant was telling stories.”
The inclusion of game music may not sit well with all ABC Classic listeners – but Shamaly has his answer for detractors at the ready. “And what I’ll say is: Stravinsky. At the premiere of [1913 ballet] The Rites of Spring, there were riots because people couldn’t fathom this music,” he says. “If you’re willing to accept Stravinsky, who was rejected in his day, then are you the person who enjoyed Stravinsky the first time round? Or are you the person that rioted?”
There’s also a certain intimacy to game soundtracks, maybe even more so than film and TV scores. “It’s domestic, it lives in our homes,” Golding says. “When people are listening to the Super Mario soundtrack, they’re remembering sitting – maybe by themselves, or with a sibling – in front of the TV.”
Super Mario is among Shamaly’s forecasts, as is The Legend of Zelda – already a popular relaxation soundtrack on YouTube – and Halo’s sinister battle chant. He’s personally holding out hope for Assassin’s Creed, “a series that has gone to every culture on Earth – you’re hearing things from the Middle East, Renaissance Italy, revolutionary America.”
He also hopes that listeners will celebrate Hottest 100 style – or close enough. “Maybe some of our … listeners might be at least having a drink on the porch with the radio on,” he says. “In a time where you can listen to podcasts or Spotify, the fact that there’s something on the radio that actually speaks to you on a classical station, which many might write off as irrelevant to their current lives – that’s brilliant.”