The Most Wonderful Time
Remember how I left things last week? Wondering if the Christmas Number One battle would end up involving something unexpected and out of left-field. It turns out this is just what happened.
That said, as much as we all like to hype up the final Official UK Singles chart before Christmas as a "race" to Number One, all too frequently the market turns it into a procession. This is also precisely what happened this year. With a sense of inevitability, Perfect by Ed Sheeran spends a third week at Number One and is duly crowned the Christmas Number One for 2017.
Ed began the week by playing the final card in what has been a carefully planned campaign, a third high profile version of the song to accompany both the album cut original and the Beyonce-starring Perfect Duet which helped lift the track to the top of the charts a fortnight ago. New to the party this time was Perfect Symphony which re-imagined the ballad as a lush, orchestral epic and which stirred into the mix the distinctive tones of Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli. The impact of the new rendition was a significant boost to sales of the single, Perfect Symphony far and away the most-purchased version of the track although Perfect Duet remained a clsoe second in popularity. Curiously this wasn't the case where streams were concerned. On the likes of Spotify, the new version was the least-regarded of the trio and there is little evidence that the availability of multiple versions of the track necessarily gave Perfect the kind of boost it was looking for. People identified their favourite version and stuck with that, mostly to the exclusion of all the others.
The Christmas chart and the resultant upswing in mainstream media attention bring to the table many casual observers, people to whom the apparently "unfair" bundling together of sales and streams of all the variations of Perfect causes some brows to furrow. To be clear, there's nothing illegal or market distorting about this, simply a consequence of the way the singles chart is constructed.
The "unlimited versions" rule is mainly a technical one. Consumers can theoretically access particular songs or recordings from a range of entry points. A song might be listed as a single, an album track, part of a greatest hits collection or even featured on a compilation album. It simply isn't possible for the singles chart to try to distinguish or discriminate between all of these so it makes no attempt to try. Perfect is by no means the only song to exist in a range of different versions - club hits are after all frequently reworked during their sales life into new remixes or extended dubs. They too all have their sales combined for single chart positions.
We've seen this happen already this year. Summertime smash Despacito by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee actually existed in two concurrently selling and streamed versions: both the original Spanish-language recording and the newer Spanglish remix which added vocals from Justin Bieber. Although it was the latter which enjoyed the lions' share of sales and streams, the original contributed as well and it was the figures clocked up by both which helped the song spend an extended period at Number One on the UK charts. Attempting to gatecrash the Christmas market by encouraging takeup of alternate versions is by no means a new idea of Ed Sheeran's either. Back in 2011 self-styled "chartjacker" Alex Day released literally tens of different takes on his song Forever Yours in time for Christmas week and mobilised his large social media following to buy as many as possible, rocketing the limited edition track to Number 4 on the Christmas chart last year. Ed Sheeran's strategic releasing looks rather tame in comparison.
Let's put it another way: the alternative would have been to separate them all out with the result being the Top 20 featuring three simultaneous versions of the same song all by the same artist. And that would quite correctly be hailed as ludicrous.
Just as was Beyonce's fate a fortnight ago, Bocelli's contribution to the success of the single goes unacknowledged and Perfect remains credited to Ed Sheeran solo. It would otherwise have been the Italian's biggest British chart success ever, eclipsing the Number 2 peak of Time To Say Goodbye (Con Te Partiro) on which he performed alongside Sarah Brightman in May 1997.
Lose Yourself In The Mistletoe Moment
The twist in this tale involves the record which sits at Number 2 this week, for as it turns out Ed Sheeran's greatest competition for Christmas Number One actually came from himself. The Number One album this week is what has turned out to be the final superstar release of the year, Revival from Eminem - his ninth studio album - outpacing Sheeran's Divide to become the rap star's eighth Number One album in a row (his ninth if you count the Eight Mile soundtrack on which he was the most featured performer but which was still relegated to the compilations chart). Eight consecutive album chart-toppers equals the record held by the unlikely bedfellows of Abba and Led Zeppelin. The package sold a phenomenal 132,000 copies last week, more than any other album released this year with the exception of - what else - Divide by Ed Sheeran.
As you might expect tracks from the album were in huge demand as individual tracks, but much of the focus was not as was expected on the already-released Walk On Water but instead previously unreleased track River. The reason for this? It is a duet between Eminem and a certain Ed Sheeran, the latter taking the opportunity to perform alongside a man whom he has often cited as a formative musical influence.
From the moment of release, River installed itself both at the top of the live sales tables and Spotify's daily streaming charts. It is far and away the most streamed track of the week - not even the cumulative numbers of all the versions of Perfect are able to overhaul it on that chart. But sales-wise it just was not able to compete with the Sheeran/Beyonce/Bocelli triumvirate. As entertaining as it would have been to see the Eminem single become a totally unexpected Christmas Number One (and to have royally shafted the bookmakers who had announced that a pre-match bet on Ed Sheeran represented any single he happened to perform on) the great upset was not to be.
That doesn't stop this being anything less than a triumph. River is Eminem's second Top 10 hit in recent weeks (Walk On Water made Number 7) but his biggest chart hit in just over four years - Number One single The Monster with Rihanna in tow his last visit to the Top 3 in November 2013. Having begun the year occupying Numbers 1 and 2 on the Official UK Singles chart, Ed Sheeran ends it in a similar manner and in the process becomes the first act to feature on the first and second biggest selling singles of the holiday week since 1984 when George Michael performed on both Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas and the Wham! holiday classic Last Christmas.
The Revival album would have seen most of its tracks pepper the Top 100 this week, but for the rule which restricts such scattergun hits to 3. Eminem's other hits this week are In Your Head which lands at Number 19 and a revived Walk On Water which rockets 54-21.
There's A Monkey On Your Back
Speaking of Last Christmas, the 33-year-old song manages to rise above the pile to become the highest charting of the multitude of festive singles which have inevitably ended up dominating the Christmas chart as it seems they are likely to do for the foreseeable future. The Wham! favourite rests at Number 3 this week and even outpaces Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas Is You, not so much because it was streamed more but because its paid-for sales went through the roof. This is all thanks to this year's token vocal social media campaign, flying the flag for the idea that Last Christmas should make it to Number One to commemorate the first anniversary of George Michael's passing on Christmas Day last year.
I've been on the record many times disparaging these mass-purchase click bomb games, the very idea of attempting to artificially inflate the sales and thus the chart position of a particular track surely undermining the whole significance of reaching a particular chart place in the first place. The advent of the streaming era and the sheer impossibility of obtaining the numbers involved to make a significant difference has contrived to render such games rather pointless of late (just ask those poor souls who agitated all week for AC/DC's For Those About To Rock to top the charts only to see it flop at Number 90) but a campaign around a single which was charting already and was going to be a major hit no matter what did kind of have half their work already done for them. Even if all it seemed to achieve was to keep the single at the same position it had reached organically a week before.
Oft-cited as one of the nation's favourite Christmas classics, Last Christmas has actually often flattered to deceive since the dawn of the digital era. It reached Number 14 in 2007, the first year its online sales became eligible for the charts again but followed that in subsequent years with annual peaks of 26, 34, 53, 26, 34, 36 and 35. It has only been the streaming era which has given it new life, lifting the track to recent peaks of 18 in 2015, 7 in 2016 and now this Number 3 in 2017 - one place shy of its original Number 2 peak in the year it was first recorded.
Last Christmas is frequently cited as famously being the biggest selling single to never top the charts, and indeed it was notably the first Number 2 single ever to be officially cited as a million seller. In pure sales terms this is a crown it retains to this day, but under the revised "millionaires club" listing created by the Official Charts Company earlier in the summer to acknowledge the contribution of digital streams Last Christmas is only the second-biggest runner-up, its official total (before this holiday) of 2.071m combined sales and streams a short distance behind the 2.156m enjoyed by John Legend's All Of Me. Although I have a feeling the next update of that list will inevitably see the positions reversed.
The Christmas Top 5 is completed by Mariah Carey (inevitably) at Number 4 and I guess we should have some sympathy for Rita Ora for whom in an alternate universe this could well have been her year. Viewed as a genuine contender for Christmas Number One early in December she paid the price for never quite being able to overhaul Camila Cabello and ascend to the top of the charts from where she may have been difficult to shift. Rita's single Anywhere spends Christmas at a mere Number 5, much to the chagrin of one friend who advised friends and colleagues to lump on her when she was 25-1. She would have helped pay for my summer holiday next year dammit.
Mind you this was a very odd betting race overall. Betfair voided the exchange market two weeks ago and never reinstated it, whilst most bookmakers spent this week with Adele as the second favourite with a record that didn't exist and the biggest alternative contender Eminem not priced up at all, simply because they'd decided that he counted as an "Ed Sheeran" record.
Bring Out The Olds
In all 16 of this week's Top 40 singles are Christmas-themed songs, with Elton John's Step Into Christmas notably climbing one further place to ensure this is the best year ever for the originally largely overlooked 1973 recording.
The presence on the chart of some rather startlingly veteran Christmas hits has had a beneficial effect on the career longevity of some famous chart veterans. The presence of Bing Crosby with White Christmas at Number 41 means he can boast a chart career as long as it is physically possible to have, having been present in the first NME chart back in November 1952 with The Isle Of Innisfree, a full 65 years and 1 month ago. Andy Williams comes in a close second, his recording of The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year at Number 37 this week the latest entry in a chart career which dates back to Butterfly charting in April 1957 - 60 years and 8 months ago. The female artist with the longest span of UK hits is also on the chart this week, Brenda Lee's Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree this week at Number 14 with her first hit Sweet Nothin's first charting in March 1960 to give her a chart span of 57 years and 9 months.
So that's it for another Christmas although not quite for 2017 with one more chart to go this year, and one which will take into account sales and streams on 22nd, 23rd, 24th and even 25th December and which will actually see some of the Christmas songs reach brand new peaks beyond even what they managed this week. For now, to all Chart Watch readers old and new, a very happy Christmas and I'll see you on the other side of the turkey.