With little to look forward to other than a Christmas chart-topper from the one X Factor finalist that couldn't actually hold a tune properly, the chart this week ran the risk of being little more than an anticlimax. Instead, we have something quite extraordinary and which was expected by absolutely nobody.
First a short lesson in consumer economics. A major factor in the astounding sales levels that music, and CD singles, in particular, were achieving around ten years ago was the presence of industry product on the shelves of major supermarkets. Having been persuaded that there was a ready market for them, the likes of Asda and Tesco were only too happy to devote shelf space to the latest music releases, and they were rewarded with healthy sales - buoyed of course by the presence at the time of kid-friendly acts such as the Spice Girls and Steps. The CD single was a mass-market, mainstream consumer product and arranged in such a way that it was an impulse buy, something cheap to grab hold of when it happened to catch your eye.
It is no coincidence that the near overnight drop-off in music sales happened to coincide with a change in policy by the big shopping chains who decided that the shelf space set aside for music would be more profitably deployed elsewhere, the CD single in particular something that was no longer worth stocking. Ever since the record industry has been flailing around dealing with the demise of their biggest marketing tool as a mass market product and waiting for the digital download to somehow take its place.
So under normal circumstances, the one-off release of a new Katie Melua single would not have been all that significant, despite the novelty of having her vocals expertly spliced with those of the late Eva Cassidy to create a dream duet that would otherwise never have been possible. However, this was no ordinary single release. Instead, the charity single (all proceeds to the Red Cross) was signed as an exclusive release through Tesco stores. Shops such as HMV and Zavvi and even iTunes and Napster were shut out of the loop completely. The only way to purchase What A Wonderful World was to either go to your local Tesco (where it was arranged prominently in racks the moment you stepped through the door) or purchase it via the Tesco Direct website. What might ordinarily have been the kind of restriction that would have limited sales of the single instead became the most inspired marketing decision of the year, the track outselling the competition to become the most unexpected out of the blue Number One single for, well, decades.
Marketing aside the record is, of course, a chart triumph for both women. Prior to today Katie Melua's highest chart placing was the Number 5 peak of Nine Million Bicycles from October 1995. Her last single If You Were A Sailboat could only reach Number 23 and it would not have been unfair to regard her as an album artist. For Eva Cassidy, it is an even greater triumph. A complete unknown when she died in 1996 at the tragically young age of 33, the singer with the heartbreakingly pure voice became a musical phenomenon in 2001 when thanks to Radio 2 airplay a collection of her recordings topped the UK charts. Until today she has never had a Top 40 single, her only chart entries being You Take My Breath Away which made Number 54 in 2003 and most famously the track which brought her to popular attention, a version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow which danced in and out of the singles chart during 2001, never climbing higher than Number 42.
The new version of What A Wonderful World is masterfully produced, the new vocals from Katie Melua blended neatly with those of Eva Cassidy to create a record that is as spellbinding and compelling as the concept would suggest. It is the second version of the song to top the UK charts, Louis Armstrong's version hitting the top in 1968. By a strange coincidence, the last version of the song to chart was that by Cliff Richard who released it in a medley with Somewhere Over The Rainbow, the single reaching Number 11 in December 2001.
Eva Cassidy is now the 13th act to have a posthumous Number One single, the first to be added to the list since Notorious BIG hit the top in early 2006. No other singer has had a larger gap between physical death and chart triumph, Cassidy having passed away on November 2nd 1996, a full 11 years and one month ago. Elvis Presley was last on top of the charts on February 5th 2005, almost 18 years after his death but he had previously had a posthumous Number One hit just weeks after he died.
All of this has of course blown the Christmas chart race wide open. Whilst, of course, it is still more or less a foregone conclusion that When You Believe by Leon The Tuneless will be at Number One next week (the CD single hitting the shops from Wednesday) it is now anyone's guess as to what will occupy the runners-up slot behind him. Whilst logic would suggest that Eva and Katie won't be able to sustain their sales in the face of other opposition, logic also suggested that restricting their record to just one chain of stores would not give them enough sales to top the chart, and look where that got us.
The big new sales winner of the week is Soulja Boy Tell'Em who leaps 10-3 with the long-awaited physical release of Crank That (Soulja Boy). Hard on his heels though is Mariah Carey whose 1994 single All I Want For Christmas Is You consolidates its status as the nation's favourite seasonal track and rises 8-4, effectively in a prime position to occupy the runners-up slot it had exactly 13 years ago.
Meanwhile, the march of the Christmas favourites continues. Fairytale Of New York does indeed make it three years in a row in the Top 10 with a 12-8 rise. Last Christmas from Wham is at Number, I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday at Number 16, the highest the single has placed since its original 1973 release. Andy Williams' It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year moves 25-21 following a physical release and he is swiftly followed by seasonal favourites from Slade (23), Shakin' Stevens (24) and Band Aid (27). At Number 35 Chris Rea's Driving Home For Christmas becomes a Top 40 hit for the first time ever whilst Happy Xmas (War Is Over) arrives at Number 40, its first chart appearance since 2003. I could go on, suffice it to say that you can pick pretty much any track at random from one of the "Now That's The Best Number One Christmas Hits Collection Ever" albums and stand a good chance of finding it somewhere in the Top 75.
Of the more modern-day recording stars, Michael Buble is one of the biggest winners of the week. His recent UK concerts, plus a high profile mentoring role on X Factor has sent sales of his recent single Lost soaring. Released in late November, the track could only make Number 51 first time around and had dropped out of the Top 75, resting at Number 79 last week. Now it surges back up the rankings and re-enters the chart at Number 19 to give the crooner his biggest UK hit ever. Meanwhile, his signature tune Home also charges back onto the chart to rest at Number 45, its highest chart placing ever. Westlife's cover version is still hanging around of course, down at Number 17 this week.
New at Number 20 is a track that in early December was a potential contender for a Top 3 place at Christmas. Life's A Treat is the theme tune to the animated children's series Shaun The Sheep and big things were expected of its single release. To be fair it wasn't such a long shot, given the way children's TV has produced December chart-toppers from the likes of Bob The Builder and the Teletubbies in the past. However, this was of course in the days when pester-power could inspire singles purchases in supermarkets and those days are long gone. Never mind the fact that Lazy Town had a Top 5 hit one year ago, Shaun The Sheep has been reduced to little more than a chart also-ran.
At the very least our fleecy friend has performed better than some other physical releases this week. Amy MacDonald creeps to Number 28 with This Is The Life, the Stereophonics to a mere Number 32 with My Friends whilst even unremitting tabloid coverage of her continuing meltdown fails to help Amy Winehouse to more than Number 46 with Love Is A Losing Game. Meanwhile, one new year release is making waves already. Rihanna's next single Don't Stop The Music doesn't reach the shops until February but makes its Top 40 debut this week at Number 37.