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Blows Off Cobwebs

I think it is time to put the band back together.

When I was invited to take over as the author of the chart analysis column in Music Week in March 2020 it was an offer I would have been foolish to refuse, and it was an enormous thrill to be featured in the pages of what was at the time a prestigious weekly publication.

But it was also very hard work, producing two pieces to a very tight deadline each week meant life had to revolve around delivering the copy at that time without exception. And changing life circumstances meant this was actually becoming much harder to arrange.

The nature of the format and the need to include so much that was expected meant that the columns were, to me, becoming sterile. Boring. Lacking in the enthusiasm for pop music and the charts which has always been the driver of what I write here. I would genuinely send off the copy each week and spend Friday evenings cringing at how poor it all was. Part of the motivation for starting the weekly newsletter (which will continue - signup link below) was to have room to comment in a way I couldn't in a formal setting.

Factor in as well that Music Week effectively folded at the end of last year, replaced by a glossy monthly magazine which retained the brand but which had little if any connection with the historic industry bible it once was. The weekly charts continued to be issued, but simply in a digital pack sent to subscribers. My work was no longer printed, but largely confined to a paywalled website which itself had seen no investment for over a decade.

So I decided some time ago that if I was going to write for a disappointing website it might as well be my own. And my involvement in another upcoming project actually means there was a potential conflict of interest looming. So welcome to another new era. From slowly sinking ship to sturdy rowboat. Chart Watch UK returns to these pages. And oh my word what a week to pick to do this.

Titans Clashed

The prospect of the first-ever true head to head battle between the two British superstars of the age did not disappoint. The inevitable streaming boost handed to all of his current hit singles from the release of Ed Sheeran's brand new album Equals, facing off against the still-powerful force that is Adele's Easy On Me.

In what will raise more than a few eyebrows Adele emerged the winner from what was at times a nailbitingly tight race (just 19 copies or so separated the top two singles by the time of the final midweek update on Wednesday) although her margin of victory was in the end more than comfortable. It means Easy On Me spends a third week at No.1, matching, for now, the chart run of her last No.1 single Hello from back in 2015. Much was made of the way the planned release of a physical version of the single was moved up to this week in order to try to give her an advantage over the Sheeran juggernaut. Yet although this was certainly a factor (she sold 1,549 physical singles all told), a look at the official streaming chart tells its own story. Easy On Me was streamed more times than any individual Ed Sheeran song last week. She is still No.1 for that reason alone with a total chart sale of 78,628.

Inevitably the next three singles on the chart are all Ed Sheeran tracks. Leading the charge is former No.1 Shivers which rebounds back to No.2 after a fortnight languishing a place below. When it became clear this was still the one track from the album with the most streaming grunt behind it a concerted effort was launched to try to nudge it over the line and endure Sheeran landed a chart double. More CD singles were issued, new remixes were added to streaming services. But it was all to no avail and the track ended up more than 300,000 sales adrift. The singles chart headlines will be not so much that Adele is No.1 but that her male rival is not.

In third place comes Bad Habits, handed an ACR reset (otherwise it would have looked a bit silly) and thus rocketing six places from the berth it occupied last week. Bringing up the rear is the week's highest new entry. Sheeran's label indicated that the alarmingly Weeknd-alike Overpass Graffiti was the next track from the album they were focusing on and this indeed was the one single which led the race in the initial sales flashes. But it too faded alarmingly. It is easily Ed Sheeran's 32nd Top 10 single but for now, nothing more.

But What Of The Others

What indeed. We call the British charts regulation which restricts acts to three concurrent hits the "Ed Sheeran rule", specifically brought in after his 2017 exploits when he wound up occupying almost the entire Top 10 in the week of the release of his Divide album of that year. Fast forward to 2019 and when No.6 Collaborations Project landed in the market Ed ended up with songs at 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 15, 18, 22, 24, 26, 29, 32 and 35 on the main streaming charts, suggesting he would have clogged up the upper end of the charts in a similar fashion.

This week? We have Ed Sheeran hits at 2, 3, 5, 13, 17, 21, 24, 28, 30, 31 and 35. The only three of his tracks in the Top 10 most-streamed singles are the three that make it into the Top 10 for real. All his other starred-out and thus ineligible hits land much lower down than before. The problem is that the streaming market has grown dramatically since 2017, and even 2019. Ed Sheeran's immediate appeal hasn't.

Equals What?

Equals is of course the biggest album of the week, far and away from the rest of the market and indeed even by Wednesday it was confirmed it was going to end up with the biggest weekly sale of the year. The final tally for the album was 139,107 to make it the fastest-selling album since, well, his last "proper" studio album, the aforementioned Divide which moved a rather more impressive (even for the time) 671,542 back in March 2017.

Ed's last album was No.6 Collaborations Project which opened with 125,031 in 2019. Now that isn't considered a "proper" studio album, filled as it was with some rather heavy going duets, but it is very telling that the first week numbers for Equals are not too far adrift from its immediate predecessor. And this ties in with the lukewarm reception for some of its singles. Ed Sheeran remains a very big deal, but even taking into account a dramatically shrunken market he's not the chart-knackering behemoth of old.

Then again, it took Bad Habits a week or so to move into streaming top gear. Equals is going to be a chart fixture for some time. This is still a marathon not a sprint. But with ABBA to come next week and Adele to follow shortly after we have some other big name superstar releases against which we get to do a direct comparison.

Before we leave the albums chart, note the presence of two 90s legends below. Richard Ashcroft with Acoustic Hymns Vol.1 at No.2 and a 25th anniversary re-release of the Spice Girls' debut album Spice which at No.5. The album was available in some eye-wateringly expensive vinyl pressings (which are rumoured to have not quite shifted in the numbers expected) along with some standard packaging. It is back in the Top 75 of the album chart for the first time since - perhaps surprisingly - 1998, this its highest chart position since August 1997.

You Mean Other People Made Music Too?

Under the headling of "yes, other people did release new music this week" the second-highest new entry comes from D-Block Europe with what is their fifth chart entry of the year although only the second to reach the Top 40. Landing at No.18, No Competition is their biggest hit since Ferrari Horses lifted itself to No.14 back in the spring. Just below at No.20 there's a debut for Coming For You by Switchotr featuring A1 & J1, but proper attention for that one can wait until it proves it is more than a one week wonder.

Mabel released what was for me one of the best singles of the summer in the shape of Let Them Know but despite some hefty pushing it was never able to progress beyond No.19. So there are perhaps better things in store for her as she becomes the latest collaborator of the astoundingly consistent Joel Corry. I Wish is No.23 first week out and frankly it would be very foolish not to assume it is Top 10 bound before too long.

A Love That's Right

I've never made any secret of being a huge Clean Bandit fan, the group for the longest time the most creative innovators in British pop music. To witness them during their imperial phase in 2017/8 and enjoying three No.1 singles from the What Is Love? album was an utter joy. But we later found out that this was effectively Grace and Jack's breakup album, songs drawn from the emotions of the end of their long-term relationship. So their return for the first time since has been rather curiously erratic. Tick Tock was OK, but it took a heck of a long time to be propelled to its eventual Top 10 peak. Then came Higher which became their first true flop in years, peaking at No.66 despite every trick in the book being thrown at it to lift it er, higher.

So to watch the progress of their current hit Drive has been absorbing. It creaked into life back in the summer at No.71, was encouragingly Top 40 within a fortnight but then spent two months limping around the lower end of that band. Once more the group are resolutely not giving up on it and the track has been blessed with new video clips, acoustic versions, listen-along parties on Twitter and this week even a brand new remix adding in new vocals. This is all helping to keep the single alive, but it still refuses to take off in quite the manner they expect and has moved 28-27-26 in the past few weeks. Bear in mind that there's now only a short window before all the mid-table records are swept away by the tsunami of Christmas hits. For all the hard work this still might be as good as it gets.

Something Strange

It was Halloween at the start of the week, a time when there is normally a flurry of interest in that narrow genre of hits that might be termed "ghostly" themed. Yet the first post-weekend midweeks showed a rather startlingly high level of success for many of these classics, ACR be damned. They all seemed to directly correspond to the contents of an Amazon party playlist that had been compiled for the occasion, a prime (if you will pardon the pun) illustration of the way people just casually asking for music on smart speakers can have a dramatic effect on the singles market.

Naturally with the moment having passed at the weekend they all faded in the week, but they had still done enough business to sneak to some surprisingly high places on the final singles chart. Ghostbusters by Ray Parker Jnr is No.38, making the Top 40 for the first time since its initial 1984 chart run. Thriller by Michael Jackson is No.40, its highest chart showing since 2017. Finally Monster Mash by Bobby Boris Pickett (and a curiously uncredited Crypt-Kickers) is No.41 in its best showing of the digital era. There was great interest shown in the midweek Top 20 placing for the original Richard O'Brien and Patricia Quinn recording of The Time Warp (as heard in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) which would have meant the first time any of the songs from the original soundtrack of the movie had charted. In the end it was stuck at No.78, still a first but a far cry from being what we'd call a proper hit single.

Did I mention Christmas is coming? Brace yourselves, we've only got a few weeks left for the charts to resemble normality.

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