Paying attention to the exact release date of a single never used to be an issue. If it appeared on the chart then, (with a few notable exceptions), you knew it was released, available in the shops and being snapped up by hoards of willing purchasers. Last year of course that changed and part of the art of predicting the behaviour of the singles chart became working out whether a single had appeared due to online sales alone or whether it was due to a coordinated release which saw the single appear in all formats on the same day. Now we have a situation where any number of permutations are possible with singles appearing on the chart sometimes weeks away from physical release - assuming they have a physical equivalent at all.
With the steady growth of the download market looking set to accelerate the decline of the CD single to the point where it becomes a niche collector's item, it could well be that we come full circle and the date of a single hitting the shops ceases to matter. I'm looking forward to that day, as at the very least it means one less thing to get wrong.
A case in point is the Number One single this week as on its second week on the chart, Grace Kelly by Mika rises two places to become the first brand new Number One of 2007. In doing so it becomes only the second single ever to top the chart without selling a physical copy, but whereas Crazy last year did so with the physical release just seven days away, you will search the shops in vain yet again for a copy of Mika's single which will not be available on CD until January 29th. Just three weeks into the new chart era we have a record that is set to shine new light on the ability of the online stores to shape the music market. Grace Kelly is a towering, sparkling pop record which radio loves to bits, and if you want a copy of your own then for the moment you have very little choice but to fire up an online store and burn your own CD. When you think about it, that is quite a magical thought.
To throw Mika's achievement into even sharper relief, note too that the Number 2 single is one that is readily available on CD and yet despite this temporary format advantage it narrowly failed to overtake his sales. Unlucky runner up is Just Jack who can still be blown away at having a Number 2 hit single with his chart debut Starz In Their Eyes. It is the same story for The View who get a rather more visible boost by the CD and 7 inch release of Same Jeans which this week accelerates 11-3 to further establish the single as the biggest hit of their career, launching them into the Top 10 for the first time ever. With Leona Lewis seeing her sales take a turn for the worst, it clears the way for the Top 3 to represent much of what is fresh and exciting about new music in 2007 which is surely cause for cheer.
I eat my words still further. Far from having peaked last week, the Ordinary Boys soar 22-7 with I Luv U to land themselves with a fourth consecutive Top 10 single. Beating the peak of October 2006 release Lonely At The Top, the rather soppy single is now the third biggest of their career.
The Top 40's biggest gainer of the week is Jamie T whose third single Calm Down Dearest made a rather understated debut at Number 40 last week but which now makes a massive 31 place climb to land him with his first ever Top 10 single. Perhaps more accessible and dare I say it melodious than previous hits Sheila and If You Got The Money (which in sympathy makes a Top 75 reappearance at Number 71 this week), this is almost certainly the single that will catapult the young Londoner into the mainstream - just in time for the release of his debut album too.
The highest new entry of the week arrives at Number 11 in the form of one of the more intriguing mash ups of recent months. Exceeder by Mason first hit the clubs in the summer of 2006. An intense, insistent electro track, it was one of the few club smashes which surprised nobody by failing to become a crossover hit single. It was just too dark, too weird, too intense to ever go mainstream. What was needed was to blend the track with something else, and what better than an underrated single from a lady whose own style wasn't a million miles away from that of Mason. Concetta "Princess Superstar" Kirschner was hitherto a one hit wonder, her only brush with fame coming thanks to novelty track Bad Babysitter which climbed to Number 11 here back in 2003. In spite of this her output has been fairly prolific, 2005's My Machine being her fifth long player release. Contained within it was the single Perfect which may not have set the world on fire back then, but which now finds itself dusted down and given a whole new backing. So it is that Perfect (Exceeder) now credited to Mason vs Princess Superstar enters the chart, turning the biggest underground club hit of last summer into a mainstream track and rescuing the once feted New York rapper from career obscurity. Still only available digitally, the single soars from Number 78 last week to land comfortably just outside the Top 10. Expect it to climb still further seven days hence.
Although Akon's last single 'Smack That' is still selling strongly, dipping 8-12 this week, the follow-up is already here. Not officially on the release schedules until February, I Wanna Love You appeared on the chart the moment it was able and has since moved 56-35-16 where it rests this week. A collaboration between Akon and Snoop Dogg (whose version became official after original collaborator Piles brought some rather unpleasant publicity upon himself), the track features on the respective albums of both men. Whilst all the attention this week will be on Mika and the fact that he has topped the charts a fortnight ahead of his CD release, the continuing success of I Wanna Love You will be the more interesting to watch. Could this be the first ever single to climb the charts and peak even before it is actually due to be released?
Mind you from this point on it gets even stranger still. With the singles chart opened up to all tracks, whether current release or back catalogue, it was almost inevitable that campaigns would spring up to encourage mass downloads of particular tracks to parachute them into the Top 40. The first of these to reach fruition is that orchestrated by Radio One breakfast host Chris Moyles to resurrect the chart career of actress Billie Piper. So it is that Honey To The Bee, the title track from her 1998 album and a Number 3 hit in April 1999 makes a rather startling return to the chart, landing at Number 17 thanks to a mass purchase which saw it hit the Top 5 of the iTunes chart during the week.
Now before everyone starts running around proclaiming the end of civilisation as we know it, some perspective is needed here. For a start, there is nothing new about such grassroots campaigns to cause singles chart shocks - just think back to 2002 and the "birthday present" from his fans that gave John Otway a Number 9 hit with Bunsen Burner. It was more or less inevitable that people would attempt the same stunt with random tracks from the download catalogue but you can more or less guarantee that the novelty of doing so will quickly wear off. At the end of the day, what is more satisfying, buying a single because you like it and want to listen to it, or buying some naff oldie on command like a sheep because a fat DJ has told you to do so? A quick glance around the internet shows that there are currently a plethora of schemes being cooked up by message boards to propel certain hits into the chart virtually all of which are destined for varying levels of failure. For the moment though, fun moments such as the late flowering of Honey To The Bee are good for a few headlines and will cause moments of puzzlement for readers of chart books 20 years down the line. Whilst personally I'd prefer such shock chart entries to be by new groups or artists who will have something more to contribute after the hype has died down, let's face it if such campaigns result in people creating accounts with online stores, legally buying music and increasing the size of the singles market - is that really such a bad thing? [This would grow to be a constant theme and bug bear of mine over the next few years. And it still holds true. If you really want to gatecrash the democratically-inclined singles chart with a random entry, why not with a new act who will actually benefit from the exposure rather than a random oldie for the lols?]
Perhaps of more interest are the golden oldies that this week pepper the lower end of the singles chart thanks to their newsworthyness. I Want You Back from the Jackson 5 sits pretty at Number 53 thanks to the presence of Jermaine Jackson in Celebrity Big Brother. Meanwhile the hype around the release of the latest Rocky movie has resulted in two veteran soundtrack singles also making an appearance, Eye Of The Tiger by Survivor hitting Number 51 almost 24 years since it first topped the charts and Bill Conti's theme to the original two films Gonna Fly Now appearing at Number 75. An American Number One in 1977, until now the track has never been a UK hit single.
Back to the upper reaches and new at Number 20 is Kingdom Of Doom, the second single to be released from The Good The Bad And The Queen, the latest supergroup formed by Damon Albarn. First single Herculean had an inevitably brief chart life thanks to being released and deleted on the same day and it peaked at Number 22 in November last year. Such stunts are now consigned to history and Kingdom Of Doom lands in the Top 20 a week in advance of the release of their self-titled album. As one of the first "big" new album releases of the year, it will be interesting to see what effect this will have on the singles chart as of course theoretically all its individual tracks will be free to register a chart placing. Bear in mind of course that this will only apply to sales of single tracks that are cherry picked from online stores. Digital sales of the full album (which will constitute the vast majority of sales) will count for the albums chart alone.
Two more singles make their debuts in the Top 30 this week. At Number 27 are the Guillemots with Annie Let's Not Wait. Their third single, it falls short of the Number 23 peak of their debut Made Up Love Song #43 despite appearing on all formats. Perhaps more astonishing (and maybe surpassing the Akon single in terms of lead time) is the single that lands at Number 29 - How To Save A Life by US rock band The Fray. Already a Top 3 hit stateside thanks to its use on TV shows such as Greys Anatomy and Scrubs, the single appears in the Top 30 here as its digital sales grow pace. As if to prove what I said at the start about release dates becoming less and less relevant, its parent album (first released two years ago and available in full online) is set for a CD reissue at the end of the month but the single How To Save A Life isn't "officially" due for release until March 26th!
Forget the new release lists then. Just about everything newsworthy on the chart this week, from Mika to Billie to The Fray is evidence of the brave new digital world. We buy what we want when we want. Trust me, the music industry hasn't even started to come to terms with this.