In the outside world at the end of December 1999, the nation geared up for the launch of the much-hyped Millennium Dome in Greenwich in London as workers raced to finish the new tube line extension on time. The third round draw for the FA Cup took place, controversially without Manchester United who had ducked out of the competition to instead play in the inaugural World Club Championship in Brazil (“lucky losers” Darlington took their place in the draw and were given a second shot at glory). In sadder news ‘Q’ actor Desmond Llewellyn was killed in a car crash, just weeks after the release of the last Bond film “The World Is Not Enough”. Meanwhile, in newspaper adverts, PC World were offering a Christmas bargain of a PC with a 433Mhz Intel Celeron Processor, 6MB of RAM, a 64 GB hard drive, 6xDVD Drive, 15-inch monitor, sound card, modem and Windows 98 installed for £599 including VAT. An utter bargain. Meanwhile, fancy a new mobile phone for Christmas?
While you count the pennies we’ll continue – here is the Christmas Top 20 of 1999:
A strange characteristic of the singles charts of this particular era – lots of acts being unafraid to release genuinely double-sided singles. Releases with two tracks of equal quality, both with videos and a willingness to sit back and watch for whichever one becomes the most popular. A dying art in the new digital era, but back in the day of the CD single a viable promotional tool. We’ve already had the Martine McCutheon and Lolly singles following this pattern and now here is the third.
We meet Robbie Williams almost exactly midway through his imperial phase when just about everything he did turned to sales gold. Christmas 1999 saw him at the tail end of the year-long promotional campaign for his second solo album I’ve Been Expecting You, one which began in September 1998 with the get in before anyone else does Millennium and climaxed with a double-sided single which would give him his second solo Number One hit. She’s The One was a cover version, a song written by Karl Wallinger and which had originally appeared on their 1997 album Egyptology and which in the hands of Williams was turned into such a signature track it is actually hard to imagine it ever being performed by somebody else. Feeling perhaps that as the album’s fourth single release it might need a bit of a leg-up it was coupled with the new track It’s Only Us which had been recorded as the official theme to the FIFA 2000 game on the Sony Playstation and which had featured in TV commercials for the title around the time of release. Truth be told though the second track was pretty much ignored, it was all about the heart-tugging She’s The One and its tongue in cheek figure skating video. The single charged to Number One in November 1999 and stuck around long enough to give Robbie a presence in the Christmas Top 20.
19: Various Artists – It’s Only Rock N’ Roll
Back in 1997 two producers at the BBC came up with the idea of recording an ensemble single, recording a dizzying array of stars each singing one line of a classic song and then splicing them all together. The result was Perfect Day, an acclaimed version of the Lou Reed song which topped the chart in November 1997 and raised thousands of pounds for the BBC’s Children In Need Appeal, to this day standing proud of something of a classic of its era.
Figuring that the concept was good for another try, in 1999 legendary producer Arthur Baker was charged with repeating the experiment, the idea this time being to film him for a fly on the wall documentary about the making of the track. As a result Baker spent most of the year chasing artists as diverse as Jamiroquai, Status Quo, The Spice Girls, Natalie Imbruglia, The Corrs and of course Mick Jagger, persuading them to give up a brief moment of their time to sing a few lines from the old Rolling Stones hit It’s Only Rock N’ Roll which first hit Number 10 for the Rolling Stones in 1974. For some odd reason it didn’t quite work as well as Perfect Day. Maybe it was the choice of song, maybe it was the rather limited timescale Baker was given to actually throw it all together (Perfect Day was the culmination of two years of hard work after all). Either way this time the result was something of a mess rather less than the sum of its parts and the single (all proceeds to charity naturally) which was expected to be challenging for the Christmas Number One slot ended up at a rather disappointing Number 19 in its first week on release. 13 years down the line it stands as a mild curiosity and a fun bit of history and at the very least the only chance you will ever get to hear James Brown harmonising with the Spice Girls. Not on Spotify naturally, but the video still exists online, my grateful thanks to the person who uploaded it within the last month. Keep your ears open for the cleverest moment - the synthesiser line from The Who's Baba O'Reilly buried deep in the mix.
History records that it was in the summer of 2000 that the two-step garage craze took a huge stranglehold on British pop music but naturally the genre had existed for some time before that – it was in the summer of 1999 that Sweet Like Chocolate topped the charts after all. We will stumble across a rather more famous example further down this countdown, but taking pride of place in the Christmas Top 10 were Luck & Neat aka Joel Samuels and Michael Rose who landed the first of what would become three straight Top 10 hits with this new entry timed neatly for the Christmas chart. With A Little Bit Of Luck is the classic example of a single which survived the holiday maelstrom to become a substantial new year hit, the track clinging on to a place in the Top 20 for five straight weeks before eventually ascending to a Number 9 peak in late January during the course of which it spent a full month inside the Top 10 – all this in an era when the straight in and straight out again chart performance was pretty much par for the course.
Another “idea” track, this time the creation of Derby based DJ Rob Webster who did little more than lift the swirling instrumental introduction from Papa Don’t Preach by Madonna and looped it around and around to create what has to be said is an inspired and insistently catchy club track. The string riff had been used on television for much of the year as an advertising jingle for Vauxhall cars, suggesting that this was where the idea for turning it into a dance single had originated. Full marks for innovation if less for originality then, and the single had stormed to Number 7 a week earlier, slumping ten places to rest at this position for the Christmas chart – although it spent the next month hovering around the Top 20 indicating that this was far from a flash in the pan novelty hit.
“I was lying in the grass of Sunday morning of last week. Indulging in my self-defeat.” Pop music. Sometimes it is good. Sometimes it is awful. And sometimes it is responsible for moments which come quite close to perfection.
The curiously named Len were what Wikipedia insists are an indie-rock band from Toronto, made up at the core of brother and sister duo Marc and Sharon Costanzo. Having languished in international obscurity for over five years, they finally hit international paydirt with a track from their third album You Can’t Stop The Bum Rush, one which had its genesis in a random session many years earlier and which famously was nearly lost on cassette thrown under a bed and forgotten. The idea was to create their own version of Don’t You Want Me, a song which told a story from both a male and female perspective with each singer taking it in turn to perform on a verse. Thus with a story to tell, the song was constructed around a sampled piano figure from the old disco hit More More More.
You can have an idea. You can have the music to set it to. Sometimes (like with, for example, the charity single above) when the two come together it just doesn’t work. Something is lacking. Steal My Sunshine was the exact opposite – a moment of pure magic that they may well have lucked into but for all that deserved all the attention it attracted. Impossibly cheery (despite the dark tale the song told) and incredibly hard to dislike, the single became a worldwide hit at the tail end of 1999, performing suitably well in the UK too by making Number 8 just before Christmas, dropping down to spend the holiday in the middle of the Top 20 before rallying once more to climb back to Number 9 for a fortnight in mid-January. Look up the track on Wikipedia and you will see reviews quoted which brand the track as one of the greatest moments of its era. I'm not entirely sure it is that good and it dates more and more as time goes by, but for four minutes of pure breeziness and genuine fun Steal My Sunshine fits the bill perfectly.
Len are sadly saddled with the tag of being one-hit wonders as nothing else from either their current album nor indeed any of their subsequent ones quite captured the imagination in the way Steal My Sunshine did. Britain was one of the few countries prepared to give them a second go and follow-up single Cryptik Souls Crew crept to Number 28 in summer of 2000 although you will be hard-pressed to find many people who can immediately call it to mind.
Success had been a long time coming for the Ohio-born Macy Gray, with early demo tapes leading at first to nothing more than singing dates at LA jazz cafes. A record deal with Atlantic Records in the mid-90s was stymied when her A&R man was canned by the company and by the end of the decade all she had to show for her hard work was a cameo appearance on one of the very earliest Black Eyed Peas tracks. All that changed in 1999 with the release of her debut album On How Life Is and in particular its single I Try which catapulted her to overnight worldwide stardom. What was unique about her was her voice, warm and mellow but with a raspy timbre to it which many pointed out made her sound just like a muted trumpet. Paired with the right material her sound was absolute perfection. I Try wasn’t actually the first single release from the album, that honour had gone to Do Something which had crept to Number 51 in this country earlier in the summer but it was with the release of the album’s second single that she became properly famous. Released in late September, the single was a true stayer, entering at Number 10 but not peaking at Number 6 until its eighth week on the charts. At Christmas it was still in the Top 20 and the single was distinctive enough to feature on most of the year-end “best of” lists which were being compiled at the time. Truth be told this was Macy Gray’s one and only smash hit single, for although she had plenty of other Top 40 hits over the next four years her core market was that of the album buyers with her 2001 follow-up giving her an instant chart-topper without spawning much in the way of big chart hits. The tail end of 1999 however was her moment, and this single stands proudly as testament to the time when it seemed she was about to conquer the entire world.
When I first started the research for this chart, I genuinely had no recollection of this single having been a Number One hit, but it most certainly was – spending seven days at the summit in mid-November. Wamdue Project was one of a number of aliases for American producer Chris Brann. He’d actually first made the track in 1997, reportedly as a more chilled out piece than its hit version became. The transformation from lost white-label into globe-straddling smash came thanks to a spruced up house remix by Roy Malone which led to the track spreading from the clubs of the summer to the charts of the autumn. It’s UK success (coming after it charted early thanks to import copies) was just a small part of what are reported to be over two million sales worldwide. No tale of Wamdue Project would be complete without the footnote of recalling how despite being American, the act made it onto the “Best British Newcomer” shortlist for the 2000 Brit Awards before the error was fortunately spotted in time.
I have said many times before that if you want to truly appreciate the genius of R Kelly it is necessary to overlook the macho posturing, the slightly dubious sexual rumours and attendant court cases and the entertaining nonsense of the now seven-year-old Trapped In The Closet saga and focus instead on his track record as a balladeer, for some of the most genuinely moving and exquisitely crafted soul records of our age have come from the man from Chicago. Kelly’s album R was already a year old by this point and had already spawned one Number One hit ballad in the shape of I Believe I Can Fly which had preceded into the charts by a year, yet for the holiday period there was still room for the single release of one of his lesser-known musical masterpieces. I regard the utterly gorgeous If I Could Turn Back The Hands Of Time as R Kelly’s attempt to rewrite Unchained Melody with the new song borrowing much from the old in terms of atmosphere, pace and phrasing although plenty of others have noted pointedly that it bears a marked similarity to the Tyrone Davies track Turn Back The Hands Of Time as well as Otis Redding’s For Your Precious Love. Derivative or not, the single was still a worthwhile hit, making Number 2 in early November 1999 and only denied the Number One position by Westlife’s Flying Without Wings making it surely one of the most heartfelt Top 2 combinations of all time.
With Ronan Keating’s star in the ascendancy (helped not a little by a solo turn hosting the MTV Music Awards earlier than year, plus the ‘oi discovered Westlife’ spin that was put on the launch of the new act) it was not unreasonable to ask questions as to the future of the Boyzone project. All concerned insisted that they were by no means breaking up but five years after their debut and with just about every mountain in the music business having been scaled they had little else left to prove. Their promotional schedule for 2000 and beyond was empty for the first time in a long time and with a Greatest Hits album By Request in the shops it was quickly becoming apparent that Christmas single Everyday I Love You would be for the moment their farewell offering. Released head to head with a notorious single by Mr C Richard (we’ll come to that in due course), the track led the charge midweek but faltered badly to enter at what for them was a comparatively lowly Number 3, their first single to miss the Top 2 first week out in three and a half years. History now records that it was indeed their farewell offering, the next Boyzone release not coming until their 2008 comeback, by which time Ronan Keating had indeed established himself as the first big pop idol of the new millennium.
Think the dance music formula of brief verse/cheesy chorus/annoying instrumental breakdown is a modern phenomenon? Think again. Riding the trace wave to marry the sound up with a sure-fire pop formula, Dutch producers Alice Deejay hit paydirt in the summer of 1999 with the single Better Off Alone which reached Number 2 here (selling over half a million copies in the process) and was a rather more surprising Top 30 hit in America at around the same time. With an album prepped for a spring 2000 release, the collective unleashed this follow-up hit on the world at the end of the year and it made a similarly respectable Number 4 on these shores in early December. Alice Deejay hits of varying size continued until 2001 after which they went their separate ways. There are only so many blissed-out keyboard instrumental breaks you can take in one lifetime anyway, regardless of whether your album is called Who Needs Guitars Anyway?
Time flies… Christmas is almost upon us which means just one day left before the big Top 10 reveal. Brace yourselves for the ten biggest sellers of Christmas, and crucially the last Number One hit of the 20th century. No, I don’t care what you say. It was. It was.