Why 2001? Well for a start it is the last remaining year of the last 25 or so from which I’ve yet to select a vintage chart show to write about. This seems as good a moment as any to plug that hole. However, it is also the case that this year was actually a particularly memorable one in popular music. Every music fan feels the winds of change blowing through their tastes as they get older, reaching the point when pop ceases to be something that talks to them directly and is more for the benefit of other people. I would never wish to submit that everything that has arrived since is utterly without merit, but for me 2001 was the last truly “great” year in my life as a pop fan. When the charts were rammed with classics – some well remembered, some forgotten – and the memories are those of perpetual sunshine.
As luck would have it, a springtime Top 40 is a great place to test this theory. Make no mistake we are in for a belter for this is a singles chart which is nothing less than superb.
As ever, this recap is done with particular reference to the tape of the Radio One Top 40 show from this week which you can presume is playing in the background throughout. Specifically, the show broadcast on March 4th 2001. Imperial phase Mark Goodier is the host and the production of the show is so tightly focused on the Top 40 chart that with little more than a brief recap of last week and a quick montage of potential new entries we launch straight into the brand new chart. For those who wish to experience the tracks in real-time (kind of) there is a Spotify playlist of as many of these tracks as physically possible.
For a brief period at the start of the 21st century, American singer Anastacia Newkirk could lay claim to being one of the biggest selling artists on the planet. Blessed with striking looks and a rich, powerful voice which was six parts Taylor Dayne to four parts Tina Turner she hit commercial paydirt with her debut album Not That Kind which was rammed with the kind of pop hits (most of them self-penned) which radio programmers and most importantly their audiences found hard to resist. For all their ubiquity, her singles weren’t the biggest of chart hits in this country but somehow they all seem instantly and comfortingly familiar from the moment their first bars ring out. Now that is quality pop music. Debut hit I’m Outta Love had gone Top 10 in the summer of 2000 and this title track from the album was her second chart hit, making what could be considered a rather understated Number 11 in early February 2001. She bumped along with more mid-table hits before making a triumphant return from breast cancer surgery in 2004 with the Top 3 hit Left Outside Alone only to see her British chart prospects fade away once more. Still incredibly popular in mainland Europe, the only country in the developed world immune to her charms is her native land where she has just one Top 30 album to her name (her last two remaining unreleased there) and bereft of major chart singles.
The eighth Westlife single of their career and a track which was released with immaculate timing to ensure it would not only become their 8th Number One single in a row but also land them the Christmas Number One for the second year running. Except things did not quite work out that way as the moment we had been predicting for a while came to pass – a Westlife single failed to top the charts. Instead in a notable moment of pure poetry, fate dictated that they would be outsold by a TV actor putting a voice to a lump of plasticine as Bob The Builder swept all before him to claim the crown – this despite frantic promotional activity by the group and as many favours as they could manage called in to ensure their perfect chart record was not to be spoiled. In the end though this stands proud as the first true chart failure of their career, although a Number 2 hit at Christmas and a three-month chart run after that is hardly something to sneer at. Notwithstanding the rather curious way all their singles flew to Number One with limp sales after never meeting any substantial competition along the way, the worst thing you could say about all their early work was that they were essentially the same lavish ballad reworked in different ways each time. Westlife only really had one song, but as I was at pains to point out, it was at the very least a good song until the point we all got tired of hearing it.
For every pop act which hits the dizzy heights of stardom, there are generally three more who fell by the wayside and are all but forgotten by musical history. For the lucky few there are at least some minor chart entries with which they have made their mark on posterity. Five-piece girl group Girls@Play were the creations of Mike Stock and Matt Aitken and with a series of individual fashion gimmicks and what was hoped were an appealing set of songs they were launched on an unsuspecting public in early 2001 after a series of low-level support slots for the likes of Steps the previous winter. Their debut single Airhead (which I actually think was rather underrated even then – it is a long way from being as offensively bad as it could have been) was released in mid-February and stumbled to a slightly disappointing Number 18, causing a pause for a rethink until later that autumn. When their second single, a cover of the old Mel and Kim track Respectable bombed out at Number 29 in October inevitably the entire project was canned before they had even got as far as scheduling an album.
The last remaining legacy of Girls@Play is the fact that amongst their number was Rita “Roxy Mitchell” Simons, although a quick search for the remaining four members shows that most have continued in showbusiness in one form or another. Vicky Dowdall currently runs music management company VDM Music, Lynsey Shaw lives in Los Angeles hosting burlesque nights and continuing to pursue her singing career and Shelley Nash refocused on her classic training and works as a wedding singer in the London area. Only Lisa-Jayne White appears to have dropped off the radar performing-wise. Not a bad strike rate all things considered.
Fresh from collecting an Outstanding Contribution gong at the 2001 Brits, U2 continued their back to basis renaissance with the second single from the All That You Can’t Leave Behind album. A mellow gospel-tinged ballad which called back to Bono’s sense of loss after learning of the death of Michael Hutchence, it was a worthy addition to the canon of most memorable U2 singles. Such was their newly renewed commercial power at this point, the track managed to sidestep the usual “second release from a band whose fans already have the album anyway” and the single shot to Number 2 upon release in early February 2001. Granted it was still a rather in and out chart performance (this Number 37 was a dead cat bounce up from 40 on its fifth week on the Top 40), but can you really argue that this wasn’t a worthy contender as one of their highest-charting hits ever?
The man who had the honour of becoming the first-ever Portuguese star to top the charts was producer Rui Da Silva. A winsome blend of trance and deep house, the track Touch Me was crafted around a sample from Spandau Ballet’s Chant No.1, something which caused a minor legal scuffle just before the single came out when it was discovered that no clearance had been obtained for this borrowing. Released as part of the usual batch of new year hopefuls, the single stood out as the best of the post-Christmas crumbs and bagged itself a week at the top of the charts in early January. Singer Cassandra Fox was more than just the hired help, writing the lyrics herself and subsequently finding herself on top of the charts. Deciding that dance music wasn’t her thing really she subsequently set out on her own yet met with rather limited success.
If you believe in musical evolution, then The Spooks are technically the missing link between the Fugees and the Black Eyed Peas, for a brief period threatening to take the music style of the former to exciting new levels. The hip-hop and soul collective were based out of Philadelphia and after a shaky start hit commercial paydirt with the evocative and incredibly well crafted Things I’ve Seen, the second single taken from their debut album S.I.O.S.O.S. and one which featured on the soundtrack of the Laurence Fishburne film Once In The Life. The track made a comfortable Number 6 upon release in January 2001 and was swiftly followed by the Number 15 hit Karma Hotel although the album itself only made a minor sales impact. After their second album was largely ignored and following the death of founder member Water Water in a car crash around the same time, Spooks quietly disbanded.
Whilst his career now effectively spans three decades (with a chart-topping single in each), this single was at the time a welcome comeback for R&B star Usher who had made a huge impact with his debut hit album (although it was actually his second to be released) My Way and chart-topping single You Make Me Wanna. The three-year wait for a follow-up was entirely down to his burgeoning acting career as Hollywood (and TV soap operas) came calling. Returning to the recording studio he appeared to have picked up where he left off when Pop Ya Collar shot to Number 2 in the UK. In America however the single underperformed, and after an early version of the album was leaked online it was swiftly retooled with some brand new tracks added. 8701 was finally released later that summer and became the first of Usher’s three Number One albums. Little did we know he was still only just getting started.
Sometimes the biggest hits aren’t the most obvious. The Safri Duo were percussionists Uffe Savery and Morten Friis who had been recording classically-themed albums in their native country for much of the 1990s. Having been informed they could make a killing by making club tracks they created The Bongo Song which received a rapturous reception when issued to club DJs in early 2000. Upon commercial release the frantic instrumental track became an inevitable Europe-wide smash and needless to say formed part of the soundtrack to just about every major event over the course of the next 12 months, from the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games onwards. A British release for the track came rather late in the day but that did little to stop it racing to a Number 6 peak in early February. Despite further releases over the course of the next decade, they remain one hit wonders as far as the UK is concerned.
The second UK hit for rapper Nelly, following up Country Grammar which had made Number 7 late in 2000 and helped the album of the same name into the Top 20 upon its release. With many of Nelly’s later singles going on to bigger and better things (he would have two Number One hits to his name before the decade was out) his early work is oddly reduced to little more than a footnote, tracks like EI all but forgotten. Or maybe that is just me caring as little for it now as I did back then.
We finish this batch of ten singles with the track which returned Fragma to the charts under their own steam after they had a surprised but no less welcome Number One in spring 2000 with pioneering mash-up single Toca’s Miracle. Clearly the success of that track persuaded the German producers that a powerful female vocal over their trance noodlings means commercial paydirt, hence the recruitment of British model Maria Rubia for the vocals on this Top 3 hit which neatly coincided with the release of Fragma’s one and only hit album Toca which reached Number 19 in late January. Rubia made a brief attempt at a solo career of her own later in 2001, limping to Number 40 with Say It before vanishing from sight altogether.