I Won't Back Down
The dominant story in British pop music this week was all about the impending chart return of two British male singers, both from very different backgrounds and dare I say it varying levels of popular appeal, but both with a chart pedigree behind them which makes watching what they achieve next a fascinating exercise.
The biggest of the two is a man whose impending return received very little in the way of advance hype, but who as it turned out barely needed any promotion at all to ensure his single became a massive chart success. Sam Smith first came to popular attention almost five years ago, receiving a chart soft landing with a guest singer role on Disclosure's Number 11 hit Latch. He followed that up with a starring role on the smash Naughty Boy hit La La La, a track which landed him his first of what would turn out to be an extended string of Number One hits. Those two singles were to be his final brush with dance music. His debut album In The Lonely Hour was a straightforward showcase of his near-immaculate voice. Blessed with a soulful falsetto which invites comparison with Al Green, Sam Smith slowly wound his way into popular consciousness with enduring hits such as Lay Me Down, Money On My Mind and the chart-dominating (and lawyer-exciting) smash Stay With Me. His album loitered near the top of the charts for months, along the way becoming the first artist album in history to have six spells at Number One and the final flourish of a quite extraordinary three years came in October 2015 when he was invited to sing James Bond them The Writing's On The Wall, that single gifting the film franchise its first ever Number One single after 40 years of waiting.
So let's all be honest here. He was in need of no advance hype at all. A brand new Sam Smith track was all but guaranteed a rapturous audience. The unveiling of Too Good At Goodbyes saw it leap immediately to the top of both the lives sales and indeed live streaming tables (although the single ends up the second most-played track this week with New Rules just edging it in the final tallies), opening up a commanding lead over the rest of the market it was never going to relinquish. The result is an astounding sixth Number One single for the British star, technically his second in a row given his last release was the aforementioned Bond theme. That is enough to bring him level with Rihanna in the "most Number One singles this decade" race with whom he now shares second place. The present leader? Tinie Tempah who has notched up seven since 2011.
Hence the question on the lips of many music fans was not so much "will he top the charts" but "will he do so with a sale that exceeds that of Taylor Swift?" Well, not quite. A reported 4.4m streams in total, along with 33,000 downloads gives him a total chart sale of 61,685 or thereabouts. Look What You Made Me Do, by contrast, topped the charts in its first week with 65,415 chart sales and indeed was purchased 35,000 times in total. Superstar returns both may well have been, but their numbers are in truth no more spectacular than any other recent hits, and thanks to the more impressive numbers managed by Ed Sheeran earlier in the year, some way short of the average.
Is Too Good At Goodbyes another potential classic to rank with his previous hits? On that score, I suspect the jury is still out. It suffers from the same issues as most Sam Smith tracks - it is entirely lacking in sensation and drama and in truth is more than a little dull. But then again, so was much of his other material. Three months or more of hearing them on the radio day in day out and they somehow managed to burrow into your soul and speak to you on an entirely different level. Don't rule out this one doing the same. There's a curious magic about him after all, and at the time of writing, we are still awaiting an official video.
Build Your Happiness - Every Day
British star II is a man who by contrast was gifted a week's worth of hype in the build-up to the release of his new single, the video given an exclusive lunchtime screening by MTV the day before release, following which his bevvy of social media devotees went to work bigging it up at every turn. The man in question is ZAYN, the former One Direction star now in the fortunate position of being able to transcend his previous pop life and forge his own bold direction.
Yes, the rest of the globe-straddling boy band are in the process of being presented to us as solo stars, but nobody is under any illusion that this is a momentary distraction from the big picture. Their label wants at least one more One Direction album out of them and will do all they can to get it, leaving the likes of Harry, Louis, Niall and the other one still shackled by their links to the mother ship. ZAYN, on the other hand, is under no such strictures, free to craft (or be crafted) his own image and unburdened by reminders of his past. The gawky teenager who once auditioned unsuccessfully as a solo singer on X Factor has now transformed himself into a style icon, gracing the cover of as many fashion magazines as he does entertainment ones. Along with his supermodel girlfriend, he's a social media smash with the Zigi brand in itself a force to be reckoned with online. As far as his celebrity is concerned he is well on his way to A-list status. Someone you'd hate to be competing with for another person's affections.
So with that background, what he did next musically was always going to be fascinating. And it is here where there is actually the most work to be done. Opening his solo account in 2016 with Number One hit Pillowtalk was a good start, but his debut album Mind Of Mine only spawned one further chart hit proper, the less well-received Number 30 single Like I Would. Respectability returned to his British chart account with the Taylor Swift duet I Don't Wanna Live Forever taken from the 50 Shades: Darker movie soundtrack and which peaked at Number 5 during an extensive chart run at the start of the year. Inject some true superstar power, and the sky is the limit it seems.
So it is not insignificant that ZAYN's big chart return comes complete with some heavyweight assistance. Dusk Till Dawn is a suitably epic and grandly realised single, an intense love song which sees Zayn's often delicate R&B vocals complemented neatly by no less a star than Sia. Her fingerprints are all over this single (she reportedly fleshed out his original ideas during the songwriting process) and this is every bit the veteran Australian star's record as it is his as she gives it the full lip-wobbling Titanium delivery. But that's to its benefit. This is, dare I say it, far and away the best Zayn Malik-featured track to date.
At one stage the most talked-about release of the week, Dusk Till Dawn suffered slightly from Sam Smith stealing focus but still makes an impressively strong debut at Number 5, matching at a stroke both the peak of I Don't Wanna Live Forever and indeed Sia's last Top 40 hit The Greatest which peaked almost exactly a year ago. This single has a soundtrack connection too, featuring heavily in the trailer for the new Idris Elba film "Mountain Between Us" and indeed its video has a suitably cinematic feel as well with Malik getting to spread his acting chops in a clip which stands up to repeated watching.
Would I have preferred this to have been the biggest new hit of the week rather than Mr Smith? Yes possibly, but whereas Sam Smith has to maintain a lead in the face of competition, Dusk Till Dawn gets room to grow a little and both I and the amassed legions of what they term the Zquad from here to Switzerland are in agreement in very much hoping it will.
Not Sitting There
With a major new entry from a star who quit an X Factor-created band in order to press on for better things, it is entirely appropriate that the other new Top 10 arrival is by Zayn's identical American female counterpart. Erstwhile Fifth Harmony singer Camila Cabello lands her biggest solo chart hit to date as Havana rises a place to chart at Number 10, completing at least for the moment what has been a pleasant slow-burn for the track which first charted as one of a pair of low-key promotional singles.
Calls May Be Recorded
The fastest chart mover of the week is the single which rockets 41-16 this week. Whilst 1-800-273-8255 may seem a rather random title for a hit single, it is, in fact, the telephone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The track is the work of American rapper Logic and is taken from his third studio album Everybody. It is inspired by the thoughts provoked by fans telling him that his music had saved their lives in the past and a musing on how he actually could help to do so. Vocal assistance is provided by Alessia Cara and relative newcomer Khalid who is in the unusual position of featuring on two simultaneous current hits, featuring too on Marshmello's Silence which sits at Number 34 this week.
Also making pleasingly good progress is Lonely Together from Avicii. Although initially overlooked in favour of its twin single Without You which made the Top 40 first, the Rita Ora-sung track is slowly but surely picking up sales and streaming attention. After first breaching the Top 40 a fortnight ago it rockets up to Number 21 this week with the kind of momentum that suggests it could go further.
All Good Pieces Come To Those Who Wait
In theory, the past couple of weeks should also have played host to the grand return of another former reality star Kelly Clarkson. Yet her first Top 40 hit single in two years isn't her current release Love So Soft (which languishes at Number 81 this week) but instead a single which peaked even lower when first released here but which now finds an unexpected second wind. Piece By Piece was the title track of Kelly Clarkson's seventh studio album, the final one of her original RCA deal and which was released in 2015. In America it was a huge success, becoming her first Hot 100 Top 10 hit since 2012, but in Britain, it was all but ignored and crashed out at Number 95 in March 2016.
Then came last week's X Factor audition show, one which featured a show-stealing rendition of the song by contestant Rebecca Grace. It prompted a demand for the track which saw it lodge itself in the iTunes Top 10 for much of the week. This means that for the second week running we have an unexpected addition to the Top 10 most-purchased hits of the week, one which with an almost total lack of streams finds itself languishing much lower down the main chart. Number 6 in old school terms, Piece By Piece by Kelly Clarkson at least performs better than it did first time around and charts at Number 27, her first Top 40 hit since the Ben Haenow duet Second Hand Heart reached Number 21 in October 2015. Intriguingly most of the sales of the track were not of the original album cut but for the hastily released "Idol Version", a live recording taken from her appearance on the grand finale of the final Fox series of Idol last year which her label swiftly made arrangements to release when she brought the house down with her intensely emotional reading of the song - just as Rebecca Grace did on British TV last week.
Gratuitous And Senseless
Over on what's left of the album market the main headline is the arrival of Sleep Well Beast by The National at the very top, giving the group their first ever Number One album and in the process making us wait for Ed Sheeran to match Sam Smith's record and return to the top for a sixth time with Divide. My attention, however, is caught by the surprisingly enthusiastically received Hippopotamus from veteran electro-pop act Sparks which with their 23rd studio album manage to land their second highest charting release of all time. Now into their fifth decade of making music, the Mael brothers every so often emerge with a gem which threatens to take them properly mainstream again. I've a particular soft spot for their 1995 offering Gratuitous Sax And Senseless Violins but I've enough online friends who are Sparks devotees who have spent most of the week singing the praises of Hippopotamus. Its chart placing seems to have justified that praise.
Finish With Some Stat Porn
I'll leave you this week with a check on the numbers and the slow heat death of the paid-for market, streams once more accounting for over 90% of the 12.7m singles sales tracked this week. The number of actual purchases continues to hover just over the million mark - 1,164,000 this week. That's a full 25% less on the figure of 12 months ago. The purchased music market is melting away faster than a bar of Swiss chocolate. We don't own, we consume.