I have this theory, one which I have expanded upon in detail in another place, that Christmas is the best time of the year to be a music fan. Whether subconsciously or by design, artists and their management always ensure that their best product is "in the marketplace" in time for the festive season and the sales rush that results. Pick any seasonal chart from years gone by and you will find more than your fair share of accepted classics.
So how will history judge the product of Christmas 2006? Well, they will certainly be recording the predictability of the Christmas Number One. Once again any fun that used to exist in betting just which record would top the pile come Christmas Day has been sucked out by the mighty X Factor juggernaut. Just as in 2005 when winner Shayne Ward swept the competition away, so it turns out that TV talent show winner Leona Lewis charges to Number One with her debut single A Moment Like This. Following her triumph on the TV show last weekend, a great deal of hyperbole was flying around over just how many sales she was doing, with speculation that over a million copies of her single would be shifted in the run up to the big day.
In the event it was a little over half that, the single having sold 571,000 copies, still a phenomenally impressive total in a year when 40,000 has been enough to guarantee a chart-topper. Much will be made of the fact that Leona has sold rather less than Shayne Ward did a year ago, That's My Goal doing three-quarters of a million, but it must be pointed out that Leona's single did not arrive in the shops until Wednesday and her early week totals were dependent entirely on downloads [so no different to last year then, in fairness]. I could rant for hours at the almost criminal stupidity of the music industry allowing a flash in the pan talent show contestant [yes, that's literally what I called her] to overshadow the sales and material of the artists on whom they depend for the rest of the year, but I did it all last year and very little has changed.
So let's draw out some interesting positives from the Christmas Number One. This is actually the second time that the song A Moment Like This has launched the career of the winner of a TV talent contest. The emotional ballad was the track chosen for the winner of the very first series of American Idol - a certain Kelly Clarkson who similarly turned the US chart on its head by selling thousands of CD singles in a market that had been almost entirely album focused for well over a decade. Her version was never released over here, making this the first time the song has been a hit in this country.
A Moment Like This is also notable for being yet another chart-topping production for Steve "Mac" McCutcheon. If I've counted correctly this will be his 17th in all, a quite amazing total accumulated in just seven years thanks to his work with Boyzone, Westlife, Ronan Keating, Gareth Gates and oh yes, X Factor and Pop Idol winners like Michelle McManus, Steve Brookstein and now Leona Lewis. Although the single is his first chart-topping production in over a year he is still charging up the list of all-time successful producers faster than anyone else on it. The record for most Number One hits is currently held by George Martin who notched up 28 Number Ones between 1960 and 1997.
So what of the record that but for X Factor may well have been the seasonal chart-topper. Perhaps to the surprise of many that would have been Take That who may have seen the four week chart-topping run of Patience come to an end but instead can console themselves with the fact that the single still sold an impressive 50,000 copies last week, the highest total since the 62,000 it shifted in its first week on physical release. A generation ago Take That were involved in a rather more closely fought battle for top honours at Christmas. Back in 1993, their single Babe was pretty much odds on to top the chart at Christmas but instead was pipped at the post by Mr Blobby in what was at the time a major, major shock.
Take That's success comes at the expense of two other big name acts who had released new singles in time for the Christmas chart. The winners of that particular dual are McFly whose single Sorry's Not Good Enough didn't even make the Top 75 on downloads last week but whose physical sales are enough to make it a Number 3 hit. That is a marked improvement on the performance of their December hit from last year Ultraviolet which wound up at Number 9 to become their smallest hit to date. If Sorry's Not Good Enough fails to improve on this position next week McFly will have managed the odd feat of following up two consecutive Number One hits with a single that peaked at Number 3, not once, not twice but three times since their career began.
Runners up in the battle of the semi-plastic pop stars are the group who four years ago were exactly where Leona Lewis is now. Christmas 2002 saw Girls Aloud become Christmas Number One with Sound Of The Underground, released after the viewing audience voted them together in the grand finale of Pop Stars - The Rivals. It all seems so long ago. Having now nicely transcended their reality TV origins, the girls are on a Greatest Hits collection of course and swiftly follow up October's Something Kinda Oooh with their version of famous old track I Think We're Alone Now. Originally written and recorded by Tommy James and the Shondells who had a Top 5 hit with the track in America in 1967. The song is perhaps best known to a more modern audience thanks to the version by teen pop star Tiffany who topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in 1987 and 1988. It is clearly that version from which Girls Aloud take their inspiration, and proving that you cannot keep a great song down it duly becomes their 14th Top 10 hit on the trot, the first time in two years to boot that they have had back to back Top 5 hits. Indeed the only thing that strikes you about the chart record of Girls Aloud is their lack of Number One hits - just two in all, the last of those coming well over two years ago.
The Christmas chart this year has more than its fair share of Christmassy songs, but the biggest is not only one of the oldest but one which actually nobody was expecting to be there at all. The presence of The Pogues and Fairytale Of New York at Number 6 this week, proves that you should never assume anything, especially when the small print of the chart rules gives the OCC the discretion to override the rules about the removal of singles. Given that this is the penultimate chart to be compiled under the old rules, it seemed rather petty to remove a Top 10 single from the chart just because its physical release was exactly 52 weeks ago. Hence the single is allowed to remain, ensuring that for the fourth time it is a hit for Christmas and the third time it has been a Top 10 single. Aside from the still strongly selling Mariah Carey (who doesn't have any kind of dispensation for her download-only classic to chart), the other golden oldie in the listings is Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody which slides 23-21, just shy of becoming a Top 20 hit for the third time.
The only other significant new arrival on the festive chart is Razorlight's Before I Fall To Pieces which limps to Number 17 on combined sales. Whilst we could explain this away by suggesting that the single like so many others before it has just been lost in the Christmas rush, it is also worth noting that it is by no means their smallest hit single ever, although Vice and Rip It Up were released in 2004 before their career went stratospheric.
One could also argue that Razorlight are yet another victim of the most curious phenomenon of 2006 - the curse of the Number One single. Many big name acts who have managed a chart-topper this year have released follow-ups only to see them die on their backsides. Just take a look: Chico (Number 24 with his follow-up), Orson (11), Gnarls Barkley (10), Sandi Thom (22), Shakira (34), Scissor Sisters (19), and now Razorlight. That isn't to say other acts haven't had a little more consistency, Madonna, JT, Beyonce and Nelly Furtado have done very nicely thank you but it is incredibly telling that in the whole of 2006 just one act topped the singles chart twice. I just can't bring myself to name them right now.
So that's the Christmas chart and in truth, I'm glad we didn't get to hype it up so much this year. Next week will kind of be the end of an era, the last singles chart compiled using the old methodology. If last year is anything of an indication, it should actually be enormous fun. Every single brand new mp3 player unwrapped on Christmas morning will be loaded with newly purchased songs over the next few days, and this will quite likely turn the singles market on its head, if only for one week. Happy Christmas all, see you on new years eve.