Christmas is upon us once more (what do you mean you hadn’t noticed) and so it seems only appropriate to continue the noble tradition here on these pages of reducing a Christmas Top 40 chart from years gone by to a miserable base currency of statistics, half baked memories and ill-advised opinion.
Your treat for the next four days is the gradual unveiling of the Christmas Top 40 for 1999, as revealed on Radio One on December 19th of that year. I’ve never plucked a tape from ‘99 out of the pile before, partly because it is very hard to nail down exactly where the essence of that year in music is to be found. Sales wise it represented one of the all-time high points of the CD single era with singles at the top of the charts and indeed those below selling in quantities which even today would be judged spectacular. Yet for all that the year as a whole remained largely unmemorable, with the charts spawning a below-average number of all-time classics.
Christmastime however had an extra frisson to it as this marked the turn of the millennium and indeed to be the song which ushered in the 2000s at the top of the charts was if anything as important a prize as the Christmas Number One itself. As we shall see from the 40 songs to cover, there was a genuine air of fin du siecle about much of the music on offer. It was an arbitrary date on the calendar, but for everyone involved it was also the end of an era and they wanted to be part of the party for the new one.
So let’s get one with it. All songs link to Spotify where available with a full playlist coming for all of these Top 40 hits on Christmas Eve. Your Top 40 host for this era is, as ever, Mark Goodier and the first ten singles on the final Christmas chart of the 90s sound something like this:
References to the Mickey Mouse Club pass way over the heads of anyone outside America, but it is hard to escape the fact that the final two years or so of the 1990s revival of the famous (in America anyway) children’s song and dance revue proved to be a breeding ground for some of the biggest pop stars of the turn of the century. Performing alongside future NSync stars Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez were both Britney Spears and the blonde bombshell who would ultimately be cast as her great musical rival – Christina Aguilera. Genie In A Bottle was her debut release as a grown-up pop star, a track that is now an acknowledged classic of its era but which even at the time was a genuine globe-straddling phenomenon. A smash US hit in the summer of 1999, its UK release was held back until the autumn but such was the demand for the track that high street stores stocked their shelves with high price import copies, forcing her label to watch with barely suppressed rage as the single spent a month or so wandering around the Top 75, climbing at one point as high as Number 50. Once formally released the single was an immediate Number One hit, spending a fortnight at the top of the charts as the first of what are to date four chart-topping hits for the singer. Thirteen years on and thanks at times to some Madonna-esque switches of image and musical direction, Christina Aguilera is still having hits and still maintains a sizeable musical profile. Good then to have a brief reminder of just how it all began.
Oh dear. If ever there was a worldwide talking point ripe for exploitation in music it was the turn the millennium. The long-anticipated approach of 2000 (funny how most people stopped referring to it as “The Year 2000” in the first few weeks of January) served as the perfect excuse for just about every pop record which had made even the most fleeting reference to the changing of the calendar to be reheated and served back up in the hope of grabbing a slice of the zeitgeist. One near-miss was a new remix of the Deborah Harry single I Want That Man from 1989 thanks to the line “here comes the 21st century” in the lyrics (a tantalising bait for the really dull people who insisted the new century wasn’t going to arrive for another year and so stayed at home or in bed on 31/12/99) which failed to trouble the Top 40.
To imply that Europe’s 1986 globe-buggering Number One hit single had anything other than the most tenuous link to the changing of the calendar was possibly a step too far but it was almost certainly with half an eye on ensuring that club and mobile DJs charging exorbitant rates across the land had something appropriate to spin in the minutes before midnight that the Euro-rock classic was turned inside out and re-released for the occasion. Very much a product of its age, and grasping with enthusiasm the more commercial end of the heavy metal stick, the resurrection of The Final Countdown therefore came in the form of an utterly horrid dance reworking, the product of Believe producer Brian Rawling, turning the song into four minutes of stink the place out Eurodisco cheese that even the Vengaboys may have turned their noses up at. Bizarrely the new mix had the blessing of lead singer Joey Tempest himself who came out of hiding and promoted the single - presumably spotting a chance to top up his pension plan - although the rest of the band were slightly less complimentary. Europe’s first chart single of any kind in seven and a half years, the single flickered briefly over the holiday period, peaking a fortnight after this chart at Number 36 but thankfully never to be spoken of again.
Maybe not one of her best-remembered or most loved singles, this Diane Warren ballad was the final full stop on Whitney’s promotion of her 1998 album My Love Is Your Love which had been her first full studio release for eight years and which proved that despite the passage of time she could still hang with the coolest kids on the R&B block. Theoretically the combination of Houston, Warren and veteran MOR producer David Foster should have been charts gold but as the fourth chart single from a year-old album it made the charts more by default than anything else. A Number 19 hit in early December, as this chart placing suggests it was heading for a rapid exit to the bargain bins although it survived the new year shakeout to maintain a place in the Top 40 until well into January.
Some technology can be dangerous in the wrong hands. The ability for studio wizardry to summon long-deceased stars back from the dead and graft their vocals onto new works and allow modern-day acts to duet with them has produced some highs and a few lows along the way, as well as ensuring Tupac Shakur’s post-murder career has been longer than the one he had when alive. Just because you can doesn’t always mean that you should – but on the other hand there is often no reason not to try. Because sometimes the results can be pure magic.
One of the more warmly received posthumous remix projects was the Bob Marley album Chant Down Babylon which dragged the work of the late reggae star gently and respectfully into the world of urban hip hop. Viewed as the chance to turn the legend into the mainstream black music superstar he always aspired to be in life, the album grafted new beats onto some of his lesser known recordings and invited the superstars of the day to make their own contribution. Turn Your Lights Down Low had originally appeared on Marley’s 1977 album Exodus but became a worldwide hit 22 years later thanks to this rather touching remake which saw Lauryn Hill (at the time the partner of Rohan Marley and thus in effect Bob’s daughter-in-law) blend her voice effortlessly with Marley’s to make the kind of dream duet which proved that even an idea which sounds bad on paper can actually produce musical gold. A Number 15 hit at the start of December 1999, Turn Your Lights Down Low was actually just one of a string of Marley singles which charted around the period, thanks largely to the work of Funkstar Deluxe who were dragging him into clubland and into the Top 20 twice in the space of four months.
In an interview back in the 1980s Pete Waterman gave a brief masterclass on songwriting. When writing a pop song, he said, you keep it simple and focus on one topic alone. If it is a song about a girl whose eyes are blue then that should be your focus, just tell the audience how blue they are. If you diverge into what colour the wallpaper is or whether she votes Labour or not you’ve lost them.
Presumably this is advice Italian trio Eiffel 65 took to heart when composing their Europe-wide smash hit Blue, a track which took them to the top of just about every chart on the continent and indeed here in the UK at the tail end of the summer of 1999. The story of a man whose blueness pervades just about every aspect of his life, the track was one of those instant floor fillers which only come along once in a blue (sorry) moon and which still sounds as fresh and exciting today as it did a generation ago.
Indeed the track was so exciting that just like the Aguilera song before it, consumers and retailers simply refused to wait for its planned late September release and so a full month earlier a batch of imported singles began selling like hot cakes – to such an extent that Blue (Da Ba Dee) was one of a number of singles around the time to make a small piece of chart history as the first singles in decades to make the Top 40 on import sales alone when it charted at Number 39 on the chart of September 11th 1999, a full fortnight before its formal release. The chart that week was so clogged up with imports that it was almost a preview of things to come with future Number One hits from not only Eiffel 65 but also the Vengaboys and Christina Aguilera all floating around the lower end of the listings. As ever, the early sales window appeared to do the track no harm and Eiffel 65 were finally rewarded with a three week run a Number One and a slow burn out to ensure they were still on the Christmas chart 14 weeks later. Blue… closed the year on 956,000 sales, to rank as the second-biggest seller of 1999 and indeed since then has sold enough to count as a genuine million-seller. Not quite the one hit wonders they are generally branded, Eiffel 65’s follow-up single Move Your Body made Number 3 in February 2000.
Back in the spring in a review of a 2001 chart, we stumbled across the single which rescued Atomic Kitten from oblivion and gave them a proper smash hit after a year of waiting. Appropriate then that this chart countdown means we fall over their first, the record which first introduced us to the Mark I version of Natasha, Liz and of course Kerry. The brainchild of OMD man Andy McCluskey, as the name suggested Atomic Kitten’s music was intended to be a disco-fuelled preppy pop act and their rather glorious first single fizzed with enough energy to become an instant pop classic. Except that it wasn’t, instead a none too shabby but still rather briefly popular Number 10 hit released boldly at the start of December in the hope of surfing the Christmas party wave. Over the next year they would place two more singles in the Top 10 and have one more Top 20 hit but history records that the first version of their album was a flop and it would take an unexpected change of personnel and a shift in musical direction to turn Atomic Kitten into the pop force they would eventually become.
Before the dodgy boyfriends, the dire TV shows, the cheeky Vimtos and the whining about invasions of privacy whilst at the same time colluding with photographers to be pictured in bikinis on free holidays there was simply little Charlotte Church, discovered by the ITV series Big Big Talent Show at the tender age of just 11 and propelled to fame and fortune by her debut album Voice Of An Angel. In December 1999 she was still a mere strip of a girl at 13 years old but already onto her second album, a self-titled work which had been released in early November. Her first-ever foray into the pop charts came thanks to this Trevor Horn produced track, one which was still rooted in classical music but which put her at the centre of a whirling, uplifting and thunderous choral backing. ‘Just Wave Hello’ formed the soundtrack to a special millennium-themed advertising campaign for Ford and the resulting exposure helped it into the Top 40 as her one and only hit single as a child soprano. More hits would follow six years down the line, but only after a switch to pop and a few added curves. If I remember correctly she spent the run up to the new year touting (successfully) for free tickets to the Manic Street Preachers concert which would usher in the new year at the newly built Millennium Stadium. It's a long way from there to Question Time.
33: Daniel O’Donnell – A Christmas Kiss
The legendary and enormously wealthy Irish crooner was admittedly more interested in selling soft-focus albums of crooning to blue-rinse old ladies than having hit singles, but that did not stop him from making the occasional foray into the singles chart and very often with tracks which probably deserved a fairer hearing than they got, given who was singing them. 11 years into his career, the prolific singer was promoting a Greatest Hits collection for Christmas 1999 and promoted it with this jaunty affair which had given him yet another Top 20 hit when it was released at the start of December. More pop-oriented than some of his past material, A Christmas Kiss owed more than a little to the sound of the Shakin’ Stevens holiday staple Merry Christmas Everyone which had been the festive chart-topper 14 years earlier. Musical homage or not, A Christmas Kiss had the indignity of being the lowest charting festive-themed single on the Top 40 this week, one which was surely exacerbated by the knowledge of who was the highest. But that treat is yet to come. It is just my luck that the naffest hit so far is the only one not in the Spotify catalogue isn’t it?
Back in 1999, I speculated that the existence of Greatest Hits III as credited to “Queen+” was the manifestation of the “Anita wants a new kitchen” syndrome. Having spent the eight years since the death of their lead singer doing all they could to fan the flames of their career the band were sufficiently proud of this to gather together all the odds and sods of everything they had put their name to since 1991 and fling it out as a continuation of their “Greatest” Hits. To augment the tracklisting May and Taylor turned their attention to the 1981 classic Under Pressure, reworking the backing track (“the RAH mix”) to give the old song what I guess they presumed to be a new lease of life. Fortunately the end result wasn’t actually all that offensive and indeed for all the world sounded just like a brand new Queen record would have done had it been made at the turn of the millennium rather than opportunistically thrown together back in 1981 when Bowie and Queen discovered they had booked neighbouring studios one day. One opportunity the re-release did present was the chance to cut a proper video for the track, for despite topping the charts 18 years earlier the closest thing it had to a promotional clip was a collection of library clips of collapsing buildings, put together for the benefit of Top Of The Pops with 48 hours notice. For 1999 we were treated to a rather clever fraud with old concert footage of Freddie Mercury morphed alongside clips of Bowie singing the track at the 1992 Wembley Stadium tribute concert to create the live performance of the track that the two artists famously never achieved while he was alive. Under Pressure 99 peaked at Number 14 upon release, slumping to this chart position a week later.
Having duetted with Space a year earlier on the well-received and astonishingly clever Ballad Of Tom Jones, Catatonia singer Cerys Matthews was an obvious choice of collaborator for one of the tracks on Jones’ own album of duets Reload which had been released in October 1999 to widespread acclaim and had already produced a Top 10 hit in the shape of Burning Down The House on which he was accompanied by The Cardigans. Despite thus being red hot as a performer once more, this seasonally-themed single was actually something of a misfire. A faithful retread of the pop standard originally written by Frank Loesser in 1944 and which won him an Oscar for Best Original Song when featured in the 1948 movie Neptune’s Daughter, Tom and Cerys’ rendition was surprisingly the first version ever to make the British charts but in spite of the festive angle airplay was rather limited and it crashed in at Number 17 a week before Christmas before slumping to just outside the Top 30 in the holiday week itself. History has actually been rather kinder to the single and as one of the few contemporary recordings to sit comfortably alongside the usual library of 70s and 80s festive perennials it picks up its fair share of airplay in the month leading up to the holiday although it has never returned to the singles chart since its initial run. Reload would go on to give Tom Jones plenty more hits in 2000, including the enduring classic Sex Bomb whilst Cerys would see her group dissolve and be reduced to sacrificing her dignity on I’m A Celebrity almost a decade later.
So that’s your first ten singles from ‘99 out of the way and not a single singing turd amongst them. That will change, believe me.