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Rivers Of Gold

Over the years this odd chart, bridging the gap between Christmas and New Year, has taken on many different forms. For years it wasn't even compiled at all, the difficulties of gathering reliable data in an era when shops sent their returns by post meant making a singles chart simply wasn't a viable exercise. Then (from the early 80s onwards) when it was compiled, it always marked the sales nadir of the year, covering a period when many shops weren't even open and those who were out shopping had things other than pop records on their minds. The arrival of the digital download era flipped that notion on its head. The holiday week turned into the biggest sales bonanza of the year as everyone raced to cash in gift cards and populate their coveted new Christmas present iPods with their favourite music.

The streaming age has now broken things completely. This is the point where the long tail collapses. Rather than millions of catalogue tracks being streamed a few times each, we end up with a few tracks being streamed in their untold millions as the world and his dog does nothing but listen to Christmas music. The net effect is that "normal" hits are unable to compete. Crowded out and swamped by the consumption (mostly passively via playlists) of holiday favourites.

This year the calendar has been particularly unkind and the chart this week nearly covers sales and streams which took place between 20th and 26th December. Christmas week itself. The most singularly absurd chart of the year this time around takes on new levels of utterly barmy.

Yet there are still amazing stories to tell, and indeed that which we all expected to happen has not taken place. Seemingly against all odds, we do not have a golden oldie at the top of the Official UK Singles chart. Sitting proudly at Number One is Ellie Goulding and her version of the old Joni Mitchell track River. On the face of it that seems almost impossible. As has been well documented Ellie's track is platform exclusive, available exclusively for purchase or streaming from Amazon. An Apple, Google or Spotify adherent? Sorry, no Ellie for you. The only non-Bezos controlled platform it could be consumed on was YouTube from where the bulk of its logged video streams have also originated. Yet despite this apparent handicap the single still enjoyed streams numbering in the millions. Enough to help it clock up a chart sale of over 78,000 and to obliterate the competition.

There are good reasons to question the circumstances by which many of those streams came about. Precious few will have been elective or by specific choice. River was simply a prominent part of just about every "Christmas songs" playlist curated by Amazon themselves, a default choice for everyone muttering "Alexa, play Christmas songs" as they basted the turkey and cursed the sprouts. People have been spoon-fed a contemporary hit single like no other before it, and the result of that has been to propel it almost by accident to the top of the charts. If the voices of those clamouring for the charts to discriminate between "lean in" and "lean back" streams - ie those which the user has actively chosen to hear rather than simply being served up in a playlist - grow ever louder in the new year, then River will be held up as a shining example of why that needs to happen.

But Number One she is. River is Ellie Goulding's third chart-topping hit, following on from Burn in 2013 and Love Me Like You Do in 2015. Coming as it does at the end of a year in which this column has bemoaned the way her singles have struggled for notice and have underachieved in relation to their obvious quality, to see the British star restored to what some would see as her deserved place at the top of the charts is still a joy to behold. The song's writer Joni Mitchell is a one-hit-wonder as far as performing goes, her only hit single of any kind being the celebrated Big Yellow Taxi which reached Number 11 in the summer of 1970. River is however the second of her songs to be taken to the top of the charts by other performers. A few weeks after Big Yellow Taxi was a hit she also saw her song Woodstock top the charts in a version performed by Matthews' Southern Comfort.

Santa Won't You Please

The success of River came as even more of a surprise to those (myself included) who had come to terms with the probability that the charts this week would be nothing more than a coronation for the song that year in year out proves to be the most popular of all the festive classics. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with a new video and some new physical material, All I Want For Christmas Is You by has spent the past fortnight at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in America and was expected to take advantage of the calendar to duplicate the feat here. But that hasn't happened. For the second year running the Mariah Carey classic is pipped at the post and spends the new year at Number 2, duplicating its original chart position from its initial 1994 release.

This is solely due to British chart rules which state that singles over three years old must remain permanently on ACR status. For every play that Ellie Goulding enjoyed, Mariah (and others behind her) had to manage two just to keep pace. Despite the outrage you may see from the puritans online, this week demonstrates the rule working precisely as intended. Permanent ACR may have done little to stem the tidal wave of older hits dominating the charts at Christmas, but it has ensured that a strong and popular contemporary hit single has been allowed to emerge from the mess. We don't need a singles chart to tell us that people like listening to All I Want For Christmas Is You at Christmas time, that's a fact which is pretty self-evident. This week we have one which tells us that Ellie Goulding has the most popular current hit, and that is why she rightly is Number One and not an overplayed hulk of mawk from a generation ago.

The craziest bit is that All I Want For Christmas Is You wasn't even the most-streamed single of the week. That honour goes to its perennial partner in crime Last Christmas by George Michael and Wham!, which this year celebrates an anniversary of its own. 35 years on from its first release, a year when it became stranded behind the original Band Aid single and became the biggest-selling Number 2 in chart history, Last Christmas this year breaks the all-time streaming record. The song was played a massive 17.1m times last week, edging its way past the 16.9m achieved by Ariana Grande with 7 Rings back in January 2019. For all that it is still only Number 3, simply because Mariah Carey had the edge over it in paid sales, enough as it turned out to notch up a slightly higher overall chart sale and relegating George and Andrew to Number 3.

If ever either of these songs was going to climb to the top it was going to be in 2019. Next time around, even assuming the chart rules still entitle them to appear, the calendar is less kind and will make it even more of a challenge. The festive charts for 2020 will cover 18-24 and 25-31 December respectively. Breaking peak Christmas song listening day away from the rest of the week. And yes, that does mean we will find out next year's Christmas Number One on Christmas Day itself.

Make A Wish

As for the rest of the chart, it is a case of picking the bones out of a tsunami of festive classics. Stormzy's Own It is the only non-seasonal hit managing to hold its own, dipping just a few places to Number 5 and surely in pole position to move to the top once everything returns to normal next week.

The power of Amazon has also propelled John Legend's take on Happy Christmas (War Is Over) into the Top 10 with a 34-9 leap. That's his biggest chart hit since he topped the chart alongside Sam Smith on Lay Me Down in March 2015. John Lennon's original version languishes at Number 28.

Sia's Santa's Coming For Us reaches a brand new peak of Number 17, a chart position it may struggle to ever climb again. Released in 2017 that track is not subject to permanent ACR at the moment, but will be stuck there next time around.

Nice Weather For Reindeer

Every Christmas there is at least one classic which surfaces and makes the chart in a manner it has never done before, so this time around we should pay tribute to Sleigh Ride by The Ronettes. Taken from Phil Spector's famous Christmas album (first released in 1963), the track has been a hardy airplay perennial ever since but has never itself been a proper hit single. From its first Top 100 appearance in 2013, it has made strides ever since, and this year surges to Number 34 to make the Top 40 for the first time ever. It is the first appearance by the legendary girl group since they reached Number 35 with Do I Love You in October 1964.

If Only 

I normally eschew "fantasy charts" but this is the one time of year we can be forgiven for it. Applying a filter which removes all ACR-ed festive singles, the "contemporary" Top 10 would actually look like this:

1: River - Ellie Goulding
2: Own It - Stormzy/Ed Sheera/Burna Boy
3: Happy Christmas (War Is Over) - John Legend
4: Before You Go - Lewis Capaldi
5: Don't Start Now - Dua Lipa
6: Roxanne - Arizona Zervas
7: Santa's Coming For Us - Sia
8: Dance Monkey - Tones & I
9: Everything I Wanted - Billie Eilish
10: Adore You - Harry Styles

So fair play, we only have to go down as far as Number 26 on the real chart to find our ten contemporary hits.

1979 Repeat

In all the fuss over singles nobody has paid much attention to the albums market, so let us note for the record that Rod Stewart spends a third week at Number One with You're In My Heart, confirming his status as the most popular act during the final gift-buying rush of the year.

Oh yes, and what of last week's Number One I Love Sausage Rolls? Inevitably Ladbaby's popularity had a rather dramatic half-life and so the Christmas Number One dips all the way down to Number 57. That's far further than his first hit fell, We Built This City only dropping to Number 21 a year ago. It isn't quite the biggest fall from Number One ever, that particular "honour" going to the Baddiel/Skinner/Lightning Seeds track Three Lions which dropped 1-97 in July 2018. Ladbaby does at least set the record of the biggest fall from the top within the published Top 75. So he has that at least to tell the kids when they grow up.

[Addendum]

This particular post has attracted an overwhelming amount of attention, mainly centred around a curiosity as to just how the situation at the top of the charts came about. Thanks to the diligent research of people on music forums with some industry contacts, the exact numbers for the Top 3 are now circulating. So, in an attempt to shed some light on the situation, here is how it broke down:

Ellie Goulding had 77,795 audio streaming units. These were derived from 7,629,118 premium audio streams and 902,255 ad-funded streams. She also had 133,106 video streams to add a further 245 chart sales. Her song was available for download, but precious few people did. She sold just 153 copies. To give a final total of 78,193 chart sales.

Mariah Carey had 69,978 audio streaming units. These were derived from 13,706,535 premium audio streams and 1,734,635 ad-funded streams. She enjoyed (in theory) 714,076 video plays to add a further 645 chart sales. She was downloaded 3,153 times and also sold 300 physical copies. Total chart sale 74,076.

Wham! had 68,413 audio streaming units. These were derived from 13,442,568 premium audio streams and 1,440,190 ad-funded streams. Their video was played 2,249,051 times to add a further 2,067 chart sales. The song was downloaded 2,426 times and sold 266 physical copies (these entirely the remaining inventory of the 7-inch special edition which sold 4,859 copies the week before). The total chart sale was 73,172.

There's a small footnote to Mariah Carey's total, as much attention has been drawn to the mysterious appearance of a version of All I Want For Christmas Is You credited to "Jukebox Heaven" at Number 13 in the video streaming chart. That smells of "database error" but it is prominent enough for people to wonder if these streams should not actually have been credited to the Mariah Carey single. However, Number 14 on the video streaming chart is equivalent to about 840,000 plays which at best would only add another 800 chart sales to her total. Nowhere near enough either to close the gap to Number One, nor to match the overall record-breaking streaming total of Last Christmas.


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