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Time For Stuff To Happen
January in pop music can go one of two ways.
We've had years where the first few weeks have been utterly barren, the music industry having discovered at the turn of the millennium that taking the start of January off has little impact long-term and allows some otherwise overlooked end of the year hits time to breathe. On the flip side there have been years where it is like the 1990s once again, and everyone takes advantage of the possibility that their rivals are looking the other way to hit the market with exciting new product.
We've had two weeks of Scenario 1, but I think now we are well and truly into Scenario 2 with the Official UK Singles chart this week invaded by brand new singles from some very big names indeed. This then is the moment when 2019 properly kicks into gear.
For the moment, this hasn't affected the very top end of the chart. Locked firmly in place as she continues to dominate the streaming markets, Ava Max spends a fourth week at Number One with Sweet But Psycho. Having appeared to stall last week, the single accelerates and increases its chart sale once more to end up just short of its all-time peak. It all means that for ten of the last eleven weeks a female soloist has topped the charts, the most extensive spell of mostly female domination since late 2007 when The Sugababes, Leona Lewis and Eva Cassidy/Katie Melua meant 12 consecutive weeks passed without a single male vocal being heard at Number One. As if to celebrate, the Official Charts Company finally tracked her down to hand over her award as well.
There's another female just behind, even if she has her male producer along for the ride. Mark Ronson and Miley Cyrus continue to edge their way upwards, Nothing Breaks Like A Heart now reaching a brand new peak of Number 2. That's enough to make the single Ronson's biggest hit since Uptown Funk topped the chart in January 2015. Miley herself hasn't been this high since October 2014 when she appeared on will.i.am's Feelin' Myself which also peaked at Number 2.
He Really Isn't The Only One
Something tells me however that in fairly short order both pre-Christmas hits are set to be eclipsed by the first of the new intake. In one of those cute moments of synchronisation, the two biggest new singles of the week are from a pair of men whose last triumph was in tandem with each other - Sam Smith and Calvin Harris. The question on everyone's lips as we went into the week: just which of them would come out on top.
It is the former who has bragging rights for now. I'd idly wondered if Sam Smith was going to enjoy a Christmas hit of a very different kind, thanks to his song Fire On Fire which featured on the recent new TV adaptation of "Watership Down". Sadly that didn't come to pass, owing to the track itself not being made available until after the holiday and the mini-series itself being a rather embarrassing misfire, reducing any impact the song might have had. Fire On Fire still made the charts but has thus far failed to progress beyond Number 63.
Instead Sam Smith storms the singles chart on his own terms, bringing us what is surely the first instant classic of the new year. Dancing With A Stranger is nothing less than a magnificent pop record, his own eternally immaculate vocals meshed not only with a glorious club groove but also the inspired choice of Normani as a duet partner. The two singers entwine just as their respective characters in the song dance around each other in a tantalising flirtation. The track's only flaw seems to be that it ends far too soon, coming to a halt before three minutes has elapsed. The highest new entry of the week at Number 3, it is far and away the biggest hit of Normani Hamilton's solo career to date (she reached Number 12 alongside Khalid on Love Lies last year) and her biggest chart single since she reached Number 2 as a member of Fifth Harmony in 2016 with Work From Home. Sam Smith enjoys his tenth Top 10 hit single and it appears that the only thing that will prevent him from turning Dancing With A Stranger into an incredible eighth Number One hit is the sheer strength of the competition around him.
Only A Giant After All
Not least of these is the man with whom he enjoyed his seventh chart-topper. Snapping at the heels all week but eventually having to settle for an entry two places below is Giant, the brand new single from Calvin Harris. Although the Scotsman takes the lead credit, as usual, Giant is just as much a vehicle for its singer - the returning Rag'n'Bone Man. The one-man gospel choir lends his powerful voice to another uplifting and inspirational track whose appeal has been so widespread it appears to be in near constant rotation on Radio Two as well as more youth-skewed pop stations. You do have to marvel at Calvin Harris' ability to reinvent himself at every turn, every smash hit he has put his name to over the past two or three years has come from an entirely different musical direction to its predecessor. Indeed Giant, with its (admittedly synthesised) strident horns could almost be taken from the Mark Ronson production handbook. Second to the Sam Smith hit it may well be, but Giant still smashes its way onto the chart in some considerable style with a Number 7 placing, handing Rag'n'Bone Man what is only his second ever Top 10 hit single, two years on from the Number 2 success of his debut hit Human.
Technically They Both Speak The Same Language
So that's two Top 10 new entries. A third would be spoiling us, right? Well, gorge away because here comes French DJ and producer Gesaffelstein, the alias of 31-year-old Mike Levy. The producer released his first album back in 2013 but only truly came to international prominence when he collaborated on a handful of the tracks on Kanye West's Yeezus album. His first ever commercial smash hit is Lost In The Fire and benefits from some superstar heavy lifting thanks to a vocal track from no less a figure than The Weeknd. In a week of amazing new pop records it runs the risk of being merely "yet another", but it takes just 30 seconds to realise why this has been one of the most in-demand tracks of the winter and deservedly a smash hit single. The track storms the Top 10 at Number 9, Gesaffelstein's first ever hit single and The Weeknd's seventh Top 10 hit, his first since Call Out My Name reached Number 7 in April last year.
Just to illustrate how much more competitive the market is following the post-Christmas lull. Both George Ezra's Hold My Girl and Freya Ridings' Lost Without You register slight sales increases this week but make 8-12 and 9-16 tumbles respectively.
So I Say A Little Prayer
Amongst the many successes (and some notorious failures) of Louis Walsh's career as manager and impresario, one name stands out above them all. Westlife. The Irish boy band took the charts at both parts of the British Isles by the scruff of the neck when they burst onto the scene in 1999 and simply refused to let go for almost a decade. Their speciality was the power ballad, their run of hits almost entirely based on variations on a single theme - tender lyrics, an uplifting chorus all smothered in flawless production values. Able to straddle the line between appealing to both mums and daughters the group notched up a record-mangling run of hits. Every one of their first seven singles smashed straight to the top of the charts, with a further seven more following in short order during the course of the 2000s. They even survived a change in personnel unscathed, the departure of Brian McFadden proving that the tactic of having no clearly defined lead singer meant few even noticed his absence.
All good things have to come to an end, and the by then four-piece finally called it a day in 2011, bowing out with a farewell single Lighthouse which to widespread amusement gave them the smallest official hit of their career, the Gary Barlow-penned track stalling at Number 32, as if to indicate that their time had indeed past. But the opposite of "split" is "reunion", and having teased the prospect with some newly-created social media accounts, the chart veterans announced in October that they would be returning not just for a 20th-anniversary tour also with some brand new material. It is that brand new material which this week hands them their first Top 10 hit single in over eight years.
Hello My Love actually came out more than a week ago, hitting the online stores on Thursday last week rather than Friday and indeed selling enough copies to be third most-purchased track of the week, even if that still wasn't enough for it to reach the Top 100. Now with a full week of both sales and streams to its name the single smashes into the charts at what at first glance might seem a disappointing Number 13, especially given it spent most of the midweek updates lingering in the Top 10. It remains strong on sales (the second most-purchased track of the week) but naturally doesn't quite have the same appeal to the streaming market, placing at a mere Number 90 on that chart.
When speaking of a return, Westlife stressed they weren't set to become what they called a "nostalgia" act, but wanted to be as relevant as they were before. To that end Hello My Love is a world away from the epic ballads of the past, but instead a stomping Ed Sheeran and Steve Mac composition which has apparently been kicking around for three years and which stylistically bears a strong resemblance to the former's Castle On The Hill. It would be far too easy to sneer and dismiss this as a desperate attempt by a group who's heyday was almost 20 years ago to prove they can still be relevant, but the truth is that in the hands of anyone else Hello My Love would be hailed as a quite awesome pop record. There's no reason why it shouldn't still be, just because it happens to be performed by Westlife.
Top 20 it is then - just - the 26th of their long and storied career. A 15th Number One hit? That, I suspect is beyond even them for the moment. At least this one has a proper video already.
After that blizzard of new entries things calm down just a little, although there is another impressive climb for NSG's Options which jumps 25-14. I say "impressive" as urban tracks of this nature have a tendency to be one-week wonders - witness the 6-11 tumble for Headie One's 18HUNNA this week. Options, however, appears to have a life beyond its initial fan-led appeal and seems well on its way to establishing itself as a longer-term chart hit. Now I've said that, watch it vanish from sight in short order. The commentator's curse.
Geniuses In Their Own Bottle
At Number 25 there is the quite glorious sight of the first ever major chart single for indie-rock darlings Catfish and The Bottlemen. The Welsh group originally formed way back in 2007 but only made it as far as releasing studio albums five years ago - charting with The Balcony in 2014 and The Ride in 2016, the latter reaching the very top of the charts upon release. That was all the more impressive given that they had never managed a hit record of any note, landing just three Top 100 hit singles, the biggest of which was 7 which failed to live up to the expectations of its title and peaked at a mere Number 81. But this time around something is different. Longshot, the first single from an anticipated new album, came out last week and seemed to be following its predecessors into minor chart oblivion, hitting Number 79 first week out. But standing on its head the notion that good old fashioned rock singles just don't gain streaming traction, this one has. A strong performance online propels Van McCann and chums all the way to Number 25. Cross your fingers that this holds its place on the playlists it has reached. Winding the musical clock back ten years it may be, but this is a British "guys with guitars" group landing themselves the kind of hit record that may well inspire others to follow in their footsteps. For the sake of variety in the way the charts sound, this is something to be cheered from the rafters.
We also need to talk about the strange case of Lewis Capaldi who in the space of a fortnight has enjoyed two Top 40 hit singles. Last week he reached the charts for the very first time when his autumn release Grace finally made good on its promise and stuck its head above water at Number 33. But that wasn't actually part of the label's plans, they had already started work on promoting its follow-up. Somehow they managed to divert enough attention away from the older hit to give Someone You Loved the room to breathe, and so Capaldi's second hit single instantly hurdles the first, rocketing to Number 29 to take over as the Scotsman's biggest hit to date. This one has also been a long time coming, having been released online back in November and having initially enjoyed the support of both Scott Mills and Jo Wiley on Radios 1 and 2 respectively. Hit singles these days just don't seem to conform to promotional expectations. Two months after people on the radio were assuring us how good it was, the public is finally starting to catch up.
Two other new Top 40 arrivals are worth keeping an eye on, Flipp Dinero's Leave Me Alone moves to Number 36, and Khalid's Saturday Nights starts to make waves at Number 38, both seemingly with potential to grow further in the coming weeks.
Nope, Still There
Over on the Official UK Albums chart, most of the talk is on the surge in popularity this week's Brit Awards nominations have handed to some of the honoured albums. And yes, George Ezra, Jess Glynne and Dua Lipa all enjoy sales jumps and chart leaps where they have room to do so. But still, nothing can compete with The Greatest Showman which once more outsells its nearest rival (Ezra) by a margin of 2:1 to spend its 27th week in total at the top of the charts. So it's now one short of Sgt Pepper's total as the sixth longest-running Number One album of all time. Showman is still one of no less than four musical soundtrack albums in the Top 10, joined by Mamma Mia : Here We Go Again, Bohemian Rhapsody (even though that's really just a collection of Queen songs) and A Star Is Born. In theory it could be joined by a fifth, the Mary Poppins Returns soundtrack which is also selling strongly, but due to the random and often slightly opaque chart rules this isn't classed as a "cast recording" but merely a collection of soundtrack songs and so is relegated to the compilations chart where it enjoys a second week at Number 4.
The lack of any new material plunges the albums market into a further steep decline. The chart computers tracked the sales of just 606,000 units last week. According to Music Week, that's the lowest weekly total since accurate records began in 1994.
So that was this week. Busy wasn't it? Brace yourselves, there is more to come. Ariana has a brand new song out as well - a 'proper' single this time. And she's gunning for the top of the charts once more.