It's Late In The Evening
Ed Sheeran wants to be Christmas Number One.
Even if he hadn't effectively come out and said so, that much would surely have been a given. Since the start of December a quite masterful and carefully planned out campaign has been put into effect, the star appearing on TV in just the right places for maximum effect (X Factor two weeks ago, Strictly Final this week) - and that's before we get onto the multi-versions of the single Perfect.
As more than one casual observer has noted, just as he and his label gamed matters earlier in the year when he released two brand new tracks simultaneously and locked down the top of the charts for weeks on end, so too they are about to game the seasonal singles market and ensure he is top of the pile for Christmas.
Perversely this week has actually been his quietest so far, although that clearly hardly matters. The combined sales of both Perfect and Perfect Duet ensure that the single retains its place at Number One on the Official UK Singles chart for a second week, commanding a lead of over 24,000 sales ahead of his nearest competition.
Whilst the detailed figures are naturally under wraps, it is all too apparent that the bulk of these are for the Beyonce-featuring Perfect Duet. The new version has over the past two weeks rather cut streams of the original off at the knees, with many streamers opting for one rather than the other. Combined though the two are unstoppable and Perfect (in all its many forms) is both the Number One streamed and purchased track of the week.
Is Ed nailed on for Christmas Number One next week? On balance you'd have to think so, especially now that there is a third high profile version of the track available, Perfect Symphony which comes complete with an orchestral backing and a co-vocal from Andrea Bocelli. However nothing in life is certain and whilst there is a part of me which will be pleased to see a single this good top the charts for Christmas, you’d love there to be some kind of race involved.
We All Buy Albums At Christmas
Ed Sheeran is also ahead in the race to top the Official UK Albums chart for Christmas as in the wake of the singles chart success of Perfect its parent collection Divide creeps back to the top of the charts. Now 41 weeks old, the album has now been Number One for 18 weeks, this being its first since a three week run in the middle of August. This is also Divide's sixth time at Number One, an event we've been anticipating since that chart run in the summer. It means it matches the record for most spells at Number One by a male solo album, first set by Sam Smith's In The Lonely Hour back in 2015. The girls' record is seven different visits to the top of the charts, also jointly held by two albums - Adele's 21 and Emeli Sande's Our Version Of Events.
It's A Holi-Holiday
The biggest challenge to Ed, at least based on this week's chart, seems almost certain to be one or the other of the larger than you imagine body of festive classics, streams of which were once more catapulted into the stratosphere last weekend and remained strong ever since. The net result is that many of these veteran hits, most of which have made annual trips to the singles chart ever since their digital sales became properly eligible in 2007, this week land their highest chart positions of the modern era.
Leading the way, almost needless to say, is Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas Is You. Once more the second most streamed track of the week, it ascends almost majestically to a corresponding Number 2 on the full singles chart, for the first time matching the chart peak it scaled upon first release way back in 1994. The almost hypnotic appeal of the song and just why time and time again it is the most in-demand festive hit (itself a nostalgic throwback even when first recorded) has been the subject of much puzzled analysis on these pages and in podcasts over the years. Only ever of passing interest in the years following its release, the song seemed to catch fire with the public following its use in the 2003 movie "Love, Actually". This could so easily have been to the benefit of the then 11-year-old Olivia Olsen who sings the song in the film and indeed her version has always been available for purchase since the start of the digital era. But no, it is Mariah's original to which the public turn in large numbers and this year it seems more so than ever.
I'd embed the original video here, but that's surely just as overplayed as the song. Besides, a few years ago Mariah performed a new version for American television which is just as appealing in so many different ways, and in our house, it simply isn't Christmas until we've seen it.
A Cheap Lousy What Now
Since 2007 the yang to Mariah's yin in the Christmas charts has been 1987 hit Fairytale Of New York by The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl which on many occasions has gazumped the American star to end up the highest charting of the year. Whilst that hit is indeed powering its way up the charts, up to Number 7 this week in what is also it's best chart run since it too peaked at Number 2 upon first release, the honour for the second biggest Christmas classic of the moment goes to a record which pre-dated it by three years.
Last Christmas by Wham! never used to be one of the contenders, and indeed in 2010, it didn't even make the Top 40 at all. The death of George Michael on Christmas Day last year has however propelled the festive favourite back into the minds of the public like never before and this week the single rises to Number 3, this now also its highest chart placing since it first spent five weeks lodged at Number 2 at the end of 1984. There's one of these rather pointless social media campaigns surrounding Last Christmas this year, urging people to focus in on it and ruin its status as the biggest selling single never to actually top the charts. Quite what that is supposed to prove or achieve I'm not sure, but if enough people have paid attention to the call it could well end up one of the most-purchased Christmas songs of the week. Even if it is one that surely everyone owns already.
I've Never Eaten Pumpkin Pie
Just about everywhere you look there are Christmas favourites reaching brand new peaks for their era. Perhaps most extraordinary of all (and explained by its high level in the most popular Spotify Christmas playlist) is the 42-15 jump for Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee. 55 years old this year, the song has never before been a Top 40 hit in the download era and this is now its best chart placing since it peaked at Number 6 when first released in 1962. Contemporary airplay for this version of the song has increased in recent years. Previously it was rather better represented on the radio by the 1987 Comic Relief rendition by Mel (Smith) and Kim (Wilde) only for stations to tie themselves in knots over a sideways reference in the song to the 1969 Number One Two Little Boys which some radio groups seem to find problematic as if the world is going to cave in with even the most sideways of Rolf Harris references. Switching attention back to the original seems to have solved this problem nicely, hence the new-found love for Brenda Lee. It is not as if the Comic Relief song isn't on Spotify too. Just not on any of the most popular playlists it seems.
I could spend all day discussing Christmas songs so we have to be a little bit selective here. Also charting higher than it ever has before is Step Into Christmas by Elton John which rockets (man) up to Number 19. Originally released in 1973, it was for years a little-regarded Number 24 chart hit. Elton himself has commented in the past that its use to pad out the tracklisting of the original Now That's What I Call Christmas album in 1984 led to its 'rediscovery' and a new-found appreciation of the throwaway novelty as a genuine festive classic.
So why are Christmas records swamping the charts in a manner they never quite managed at the height of the download era? I have a theory that it is all down to the steady uptake in subscriptions to streaming services such as Spotify, and one that has for now remained largely under the radar. Streaming consumers are by and large divided into two groups - the contemporary pop fans are the most highly visible, the ones who solely consume the new and current releases and whose tastes shape the singles chart for most of the year. But they are actually just a small subset of the customer base of these services. The rest are catalogue streamers, the ones consuming the long tail of music and shaping playlists to their own tastes. We don't notice them as they are fragmented across countless genres and narrow personal tastes, their listening habits never quite having the numbers needed to bend the charts to their will.
But at Christmas, our tastes change and everyone comes together to appreciate the same thing. That's effectively what we are seeing now. It isn't that the contemporary hits are being played any less - quite the reverse in fact. But the "everyone else" part of the customer base of Spotify et al have for now abandoned their usual habits and are playing Mariah, Elton, Brenda and all the others in unison. The result is the singles chart we see here this week - 17 of the Top 40 are Christmas themed songs, with 11 more populating the rest of the Top 100. Of these 28, the only one that can be regarded as a contemporary hit is Sia's Santa's Coming For Us, a brand new track taken from her Everyday Is Christmas album and which sits at Number 65 on the singles chart this week.
Bring Back The New
So what of the contemporary pop hits this week? Ones which have largely been reduced to an irrelevance for now and are likely to remain so for the next couple of weeks at least. Well, most notable is the 2-6 drop for Rak-Su's Dimelo which suggests that their immediate post-X Factor success last week was indeed a bit of a one-off. Vague notions that they might actually be able to build on that and be contenders for Christmas Number One seem a little wide of the mark. It is unlucky for NF as well, as Let You Down performs well enough to rise to Number 11 and would be Top 10 with some ease in a Christmas-free world.
It is hard to judge any of the other new hits of the moment, the downward movements of all entirely due to the displacement caused by the surge of Christmas hits rather than actual falls in popularity. That's not to say there isn't room for upward mobility in the case of some. Barking by grime star Ramz becomes a Top 40 hit for the very first time with a 41-27 jump, the single suddenly taking off as a stream whilst its sales remain sluggish.
There's also a fascinating disconnect between the apparent appeal and chart position of Pink's Beautiful Trauma. One of the most-purchased hits of the week, with a Number 5 placing on the sales chart, a combination of slow to get started streams (it is at 93 on that particular chart) plus naturally the sheer overwhelming glut of festive records means the hit in waiting rests for now at Number 31, a two-place drop from the chart position it scaled last week.
Whilst we are speaking of hits in waiting, the highest new entry of any kind is Never Be The Same, the new teaser release from Camila Cabello which charts at Number 46. It is the instant grat single from her debut album Camila which seems set to be the first big smash of the new year when it is released in January.
In stat-watch, there is yet another new streaming record as online plays of tracks (which for consistency's sake are counted on the original 100:1 ratio rather than the adjusted ones used by the main singles chart) now account for 93% of the singles market. But that's not just down to the surge in interest caused by the Christmas songs. I've spent the whole year predicting that paid-for sales would drop below 1 million a week by the end of this year. With two sales weeks to go in 2017, it has finally happened. Just 991,000 singles were actually purchased last week. That's a full 35% below the total for this week last year. Apple is reported to be sunsetting the iTunes store in 2019. At this rate, there won't be anyone left by then to notice it has gone.
So that is it, the phoney war is over. Next week is the Christmas chart, the one for which casual interest always seems to be at its peak even if, more so than ever this year, it bears little resemblance to those you read about on these pages at any other time of year. Ed, Mariah or something else unexpected and out of left-field? See you next week for the details, or keep an eye on masterton.co.uk for the annual live blog of sales developments as the week unfolds.