Ed Gets It All To Himself - Literally
It was in an interview with the BBC to promote the release of his third album Divide back in the spring that Ed Sheeran began to speak in glowing terms about one song on the collection in particular. Noting that everyone regarded Thinking Out Loud as his personal peak to that date, he suggested he had one on the new album which was even better. Or if nothing else it was a Thinking Out Loud-calibre song on which he had sole writing credit (folk singer Amy Wadge co-wrote its predecessor). And that was actually quite important to him.
Even if he hadn't told everyone which song he was referring to it was more or less obvious the moment Divide came out. Perfect was the song, a lilting waltz with a typically Sheeran-esque lyric which wandered around the houses for several lines before finally getting to the point but which could not fail to melt even the hardest heart.
The public agreed, making Perfect one of the most popular tracks on Divide. It hit Number 4 during that infamous week in March which followed the release of the album and in truth has hardly been off the radio since. It was a matter of when, not if, the song would become a proper single.
That moment arrived back in the autumn. Having been disqualified from the singles chart since the introduction of the 3-songs-max rule in July it returned for the week of September 21st just outside the Top 75 when sales of Galway Girl dipped below it. A fortnight later its steadily increasing sales qualified it for a return to the Standard Chart Ratio, rocketing Perfect back into the Top 40 for the first time since mid-May.
Since then we've tracked its upward progress week by week, most intrigue up until now being whether the song would match that original Number 4 peak from March, something which seemed unlikely when it stalled at Number 6 for three solid weeks. Last week it finally did, a performance on X Factor being the nudge Perfect needed to reach a brand new peak of Number 3. But it had been a long journey to get there and clearly, some more magic was needed to get this now veteran chart single any further up the charts.
The rest you almost certainly know already. After dropping the bombshell that he was going to "do a Despacito" with the song and add a guest star, it was revealed at the end of last week that his duet partner would be no less a star than Beyonce Knowles herself.
Interest in the new version - retitled Perfect Duet to distinguish it - was intense. It was clear this was no mere remix or vocal track splice. The two had entered the studio together and re-recorded the song from scratch. It is a new production as well, not quite as lavish as the album version, losing the strings but adding a choral backing which gives the whole song dare I say it a more festive vibe. Perfect Duet is a very different beast to the original but re-imagined as a male-female duet rather than one man's ode to his heart it works a treat.
It means after five weeks of Havana we finally have a brand new Number One as the extra sales and streams gifted to Perfect rockets it to the top of the charts, its total chart sale of almost 90,000 copies split more or less 50/50 between purchases and listens. And working on the basis (as we have been) that the single which replaced Camila Cabello at the top was more or less destined to still be there come the end of the month it is hard not to believe that we finally know the identity of this year's Christmas Number One. The bookmakers agree, having made Ed the new odds-on favourite since the end of last week, although the arrival of the Beyonce version threw some of them into confusion, leading the Betfair Exchange to void the entire market midweek and restart anew - much to the chagrin of those who had backed Ed Sheeran at tasty odds some weeks before the event.
If Only It Were That Simple
Now for the fun part, because the way the new version of Perfect, sorry Perfect Duet has been folded into the Official UK Singles chart will have raised more than a few eyebrows. You will note that it isn't a new entry, a song going straight into Number One. As per the standard chart rules sales of both the solo and Beyonce versions are combined, meaning the single officially climbs two places to top the charts this week. This should be merely a worthwhile reminder that you can actually have as many different versions of a song as you wish, all counting for the same chart position, but for some reason the application of this here appears to have raised some hackles.
The most obvious precedent is the 2015 Comic Relief single, Sam Smith's remake of his own Lay Me Down with a new vocal from John Legend and which topped the charts in March that year. Here the duet was judged to be an entirely separate entity from Smith's own original which duly appeared on the charts in its own right - the charitable nature of the collaboration and its specific status as a one-off 'special' meriting the separate chart run. None of those apply to Perfect Duet, its sales and streams combining with those of the original in much the same way that both original and Bieber-adding remixes of Despacito combined to count for its own chart position back in the summer.
One further debate which raged at the start of the week (and indeed which caused much of the confusion on the betting markets referenced above) was to whether Beyonce would receive a chart credit for her presence on what is now the top-selling version of the track. Again, there is a recent precedent here. Despactio began its chart life credited to Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee alone, Justin Bieber's contribution to its ultimate success only formally acknowledged in the week the single finally began its lengthy run at Number One. The Official UK Singles chart will generally only credit the artist as listed on the 'primary' version of the track, or if not advised otherwise the first one to chart. This can be changed mid-run, as with Despacito, but this has to be at the formal request of the label. It is my understanding that the Official Charts Company would have been more than happy to change the chart credit to "Ed Sheeran featuring/and Beyonce" but Ed's label Warners elected for this not to happen. Their view is that there are four versions of the song in circulation - the album cut, two remixes by Mike Perry and Robin Schulz and the Beyonce duet. But at the end of the day, it is Ed's show and that is the way it should remain. You will notice that Billboard, who make their own rules. have made the change already and the new American charts this week will inevitably list the Ed/Beyonce combination at the top of the Hot 100.
Alas in Britain poor Beyonce is officially denied her first Number One hit in eight years, at least outside of footnotes in the reference books of the future. Instead, it is Ed Sheeran's fourth, following Sing and Thinking Out Loud in 2014 and Shape Of You earlier this year. The single tops the chart in what is its 28th (non-consecutive) week as a Top 75 hit single. No other track in chart history has spent as long on the printed chart before reaching Number One, the previous record holder being the aforementioned Thinking Out Loud which reached the top of the charts after a continuous 19-week climb.
Perfect's only challenge now is to remain at Number One for another fortnight and grant the man of the year the honour of having the Christmas Number One. Based on the lead it has this week, it will take something spectacular to shift it. But then spectacular is what Christmas is all about.
Could anyone have imagined a world where the winner's single from the latest series of X Factor wasn't the biggest deal of the week? Ten years ago it was legitimate to moan at the effective procession it had turned Christmas week into, each series champion releasing their debut single and marching straight to the top of the charts more or less by default. The series commanded an audience who were essentially programmed to snap up the release of their hero's crowning glory in what were quite literally the hundreds of thousands.
Yet of late this hasn't been the case. The series has started to look tired, losing its lustre somewhat and audience ratings have sagged accordingly. Plus the arrival of the streaming era and the resultant downgrading of the paid-for market on which the show for so long leaned has meant the inbuilt advantage of the series has all but evaporated. The one immovable scheduling of the series has shifted too. No longer does it always climax two Saturday's before Christmas to time the release for the Christmas chart. This meant neither 2011 winners Little Mix nor 2012 victor James Arthur had the Christmas Number One, and indeed no X Factor winner has seen their coronation single top the charts at all since Ben Haenow with Something I Need in December 2014.
Yet it nearly happened this year. One of many attempts to freshen up the talent show this year was a relaxation of the rules regarding original material, allowing performers a freer hand at singing their own compositions. This was all to the benefit of four-piece R&B group Rak-Su whose gimmick from the auditions onwards was to be poor at cover versions but nail it with their own material. The studio recordings of their weekly performances although chart ineligible by request would frequently lodge themselves at the top of the live iTunes charts following each weekly contest. When they emerged as champions of the 2017 series at the weekend it was hardly a shock to the system.
Yet there was one final twist. Having noted the declining interest in the rush-released winner's singles, the producers this year changed things up. The show victors would get to release their debut single in collaboration with the superstar guest performer who joined them onstage at the final.
Hence the 2017 X Factor champions had an advantage that the likes of Louisa Johnson and Matt Terry have lacked in recent years. Rak-Su make their major label debut (they'd already self-released material before even auditioning) two weeks before Christmas, with a song of their own composition and with the apparently heavyweight presence of no less a figure than Wyclef Jean on guest vocals. I say "apparently" as the Fugees star hasn't had a major hit single for 11 years, but let's gloss over that detail for a moment.
It all came together to make Dimelo one of the more essential X Factor records for some time. A fun, party hit with the requisite Latino vibe even if Wyclef's contributions appear to be little more than callbacks to his aforementioned smash hit of 11 years ago, the Number One single Hips Don't Lie. Despite the inbuilt disadvantage of only being available for a little over four days of the chart week, Dimelo ratcheted up a huge paid-for sale and more than its fair share of streams too to end up as the Number 2 single of the week.
In a sense they can curse their timing, because in a world where Ed Sheeran hadn't dug out Beyonce's phone number Rak-Su would indeed have ended up the first X Factor winners to top the charts in three years, although Rak-Su ended up with a chart sale merely half that of the unstoppable Sheeran, the vast majority of which were purchases. Their total of 45,200 sales is actually the second lowest first-week sale of any X Factor winners single in history - just below the 45,800 enjoyed by Matt Terry a year ago but still a significant improvement on the 39,100 enjoyed by Louisa Johnson in 2015. What happens next will be interesting to watch. On the one hand, this could be nothing more than a one week wonder, a front-loaded sale as a result of weeks of built-up tension amongst the much-diminished audience for the series. On the other hand the first ever all-male group to win the competition (and one who arrived pre-formed rather than being thrown together by the producers Little Mix- and One Direction-style) may just be the first act unearthed by X Factor in a long time with the ability to carve out stardom of their own. Chart position regardless, they have just got themselves off to a cracking start.
It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Advent. Not Christmas. At All.
A couple of weeks ago if you'd asked me what the prospects were for something very unexpected - a golden oldie holiday classic - contending for Christmas Number One at the end of the month I would have told you it was a near impossibility. That was based on the fact that sales of the seasonal favourites have more or less reached saturation point and that whilst there is no doubt these holiday favourites become inordinately popular online as the big day itself approaches, their streaming peak would be reached after the Christmas chart was compiled. Forget it then, I told people, Mariah et al won't be anywhere near the top of the charts until maybe just before Christmas Day itself.
Then last weekend something extraordinary happened. The live Spotify charts for Saturday 1st and Sunday 2nd December were, to put it bluntly, scary. Seasonal classics dominated. Mariah Carey's evergreen All I Want For Christmas Is You was the most played song of the day, barging even the mighty juggernaut that was Ed Sheeran out of the way completely. Lower down the list the pattern was repeated. It was almost as if festive songs were the only thing anyone was playing online - three weeks before Christmas Day itself.
After some digging I tracked this down to one Spotify playlist in particular - "Christmas Is Coming" which was the first playlist presented to you when you clicked the "Seasons Greetings" tile in the "Genres And Moods" section. The strange cultural creep which sees even families regard the onset of advent as "the start of Christmas" and throw up decorations and lights appeared to have influenced everyone's listening habits too. Pop music was out. Christmas hits were in.
After the weekend things calmed down a little - almost as if the Spotify selections were the soundtrack to tree decorating and everyone moved on when they returned to work on Monday. Yet the damage had been done to the chart numbers, and with many of the old favourites remaining strong online they swamp the charts this week in a manner which is utterly unprecedented for early December.
It means already there are three vintage classics in the Top 10. The aforementioned All I Want For Christmas Is You flies 22-6 (and is already the second most streamed track in the nation), Last Christmas by Wham! jumps 29-6 and Fairytale Of New York moves 55-10. Mariah's hit has already matched the peak it scaled last year, Last Christmas is higher in the charts than it has ever been since the dawn of the digital era and The Pogues' hit is a Top 10 single for the first time in ten years (and 30 years to the week that it climbed this high for the very first time).
All told there are 24 different Christmas singles in the Top 100. The vast majority are 20-30 year old hits, even more in some cases. But there are also some slightly more contemporary offerings too. The aforementioned Spotify playlist featured the hitherto unheralded Santa Tell Me by Ariana Grande in a prominent slot, resulting in a Number 60 chart entry for the track, six places higher than its peak on its only other chart run in the last week of 2014. The last big 'new' Christmas hit of any note, One More Sleep by Leona Lewis (Number 3 in December 2013), is also back, charting at Number 75 with the likes of Justin Bieber, Sia and Coldplay representing modern day acts with what may well wind up as chart perennials of their own.
More about all this next week, for the Christmas songs will only start to bunch further up the chart. Meanwhile, because inevitably her hardcore fans will insist on flagging it up anyway, keep an eye out for Kylie Minogue's Santa Baby which is the lowest charting of all the holiday songs at Number 98. First a chart hit in 2007, it last year made the Top 75 for the first time ever when it crept to Number 72. Can it actually manage to go higher this year? Just about every one of the others seems guaranteed to.
Yeah You Know Her
The unexpected arrival of a bunch of catalogue hits kinds of puts the mockers on anything resembling strong progress for modern hits, but that's not to say there isn't room for some new arrivals. Heading in the right direction with a climb to Number 28 is Decline from Raye, the second chart hit and first major smash as a lead artist from the lady who was hitherto known as the voice of both Jonas Blue's By Your Side and Jax Jones' You Don't Know Me. Decline makes extensive use of interpolations of Always On Time, a Number 6 hit for Ja Rule and Ashanti in February 2002.
Also new is Pink who fully deserves to see the title track from her Beautiful Trauma album become a hit, the track duly soaring 54-29 as one of the hits hoping to just survive Christmas and emerge as a smash come the new year.
Right at the very bottom end of the Top 40, there's an entertaining sandwich of current and former One Directioners who all line up side by side. Liam Payne's misfiring Bedroom Floor slips to Number 37, out-charting for the first time ZAYN's Dusk Till Dawn which is relegated onto ACR this week and so tumbles 14-38. Bringing up the rear is Louis Tomlinson with brand new single Miss You, this his first entirely solo single following his two Top 10 hits alongside Steve Aoki on Just Hold On and Bebe Rexha/Digital Farm Animals on Back To You.
Writing On The Wall
There's barely a chance to pay any attention to the albums chart this week, save to note that we live in a world where brand new U2 albums can only reach Number 5 (the fate of Songs Of Experience this week) and that for the third week running the spectacular new Number One album of seven days earlier takes a dramatic tumble, this time Noel Gallagher's Who Built The Moon collapsing 1-10. It is no longer possible to bet on the identity of the Christmas Number One album thanks to a rather notorious sting by employees of one label a few years ago, but your money might be safe on Sam Smith, The Thrill Of It All climbing back to Number One this week after three weeks patiently waiting for Taylor, Paloma and Noel to have their goes with the trainset.