Does the Christmas number one single still matter?
It’s a question that hinges around whether the charts themselves, at any time of year, still matter anymore. The UK public’s avid attention to the Hit Parade has long since waned. I rarely know what is number one in the charts most weeks and my music world and listening can happily remain oblivious to it, much of the time.
The charts, and what was number one, used to be a source of excitement because the charts reflected the taste and buying power of the public. Top of the Pops captured the essence of this weekly contest and distilled it into a short, informative show of what was current and popular in the music world. There was excitement just waiting see what was going to be included each week. Consider what was in the charts in the show’s heyday, the 1970s, when disco and punk duelled side by side. Enjoyment was often as much about the derision of popular taste as celebration of it.
And Christmas, in particular, was a great time to be top of the charts. For artists, it mattered hugely, not least because of the profile and kudos from having a number one single but also because the volume of sales increased dramatically at this time of year. Christmas singles would often be the best selling single of the year as they would mobilise people who might not ordinarily buy singles to jingle their coins and buy some music for themselves or a loved one.
In the 70s, we saw some huge Christmas songs make their way into the world, from the likes of Slade and Wizzard, while the 80s saw the rise of charity singles after Band Aid successfully tapped into the goodwill spirit of the season. More recently, TV pop contests have consistently provided fodder for Christmas releases; pop svengalis confidently lean back in their chairs at this time of year, assured of maximum exposure and easy sales. Since 2007, ITV’s X Factor has dominated the top two of the Christmas single charts and would have taken five consecutive Christmas number ones in the noughties were it not for a backlash that saw Rage Against The Machine’s "Killing in the Name" surge to the summit for Christmas 2009, 16 years after its initial release.
We generally associate Christmas number ones with feel-good party songs and novelty songs. It seems crazy that the saccharine "There's No-One Quite Like Grandma" pipped John Lennon's "Starting Over" to the 1980 Christmas post. However, look back at Christmas number ones of years past and there are songs that shatter this perception and a few we may have forgotten about over the years. Look at the number two singles as well and we can see something of an ongoing battle of tastes. In 2008, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” occupied the number one and two spots thanks to Alexandra Burke’s robust new cover version (once again, fresh from the X Factor) and the public’s (re)discovery of Jeff Buckley’s sparse 1994 effort. (We give you the full list of Christmas hits and near misses further down the page).
So this month, our staff playlist is made up of some of the British Council Music team’s favourite Christmas chart toppers and the songs that just missed out.
– Joel Mills
Here's our playlist! Find out who chose them and why below.
Nizlopi – JCB Song – Christmas 2005 No.2
It’s a bittersweet song for me as, back when I was an A&R guy, I had desperately tried to sign this record, only to be gazumped by a huge offer from a rival major company at the death. When that happens, you really hope that the song sinks without a trace but this went onto to be a massive hit and also reached number one the week after Christmas. I don’t think I listened to the radio that Christmas at all, as every time I heard it felt like a kick in the teeth. Now I’ve calmed down, it was reassuring that it became a huge hit.
Michael Andrews featuring Gary Jules – Mad World – Christmas 2003 No.1
A brilliantly random hit record. Gary was the music supervisor on the film Donnie Darko and had tried to licence the Tears For Fears original of this song for the film. As it was an indie film he couldn’t afford to pay for the master recording so, instead, Gary got on the piano and recorded it himself. Capturing the melancholic mood of the country at the time and on the back of the film being a huge smash, it snowballed in sales to reach number one. I worked for the publisher of Mad World at the time. I soon learnt that working for a company with records in the chart at this time of year equated to the budget for the Christmas party being pretty special. I really miss those days.
The Human League – Don’t You Want Me – Christmas 1981 No.1
I chose this because it reminds me of the desperate cry from last year’s Christmas present, now carelessly shoved under the bed.
Pink Floyd – Another Brick in the Wall pt 2 – Christmas 1985 No.1
I didn’t expect to find this song in the Number 1 Christmas charts, but it’s a great tune and has a children’s choir in it which is inherently festive ... and it also chimes with World Voice, although not in terms of our pedagogy!
Petula Clark – Downtown – Christmas 1964 No.2
This is perhaps the first love song as an ode to urban life and the city - the excitement of going out into town with all its hopes and dispelling of loneliness. ‘Listen to the music of the traffic of the city, linger on the sidewalk where the neon lights are pretty'. Only Richard Hawley emulated this sentiment of the city’s potential with "Coles Corner": ‘I’m going downtown where there’s music. I’m going where voices fill the air. Maybe there’s someone waiting for me.’
Sunshine Superman – Donovan – Christmas 1966 No.2
Optimistic and determined love at its finest: 'any trick in the book'
Vanilla Ice – Ice Ice Baby – Christmas 1990 No.2
Vanilla Ice was viewed as a bit naff, white man rap, but this single was the first hip hop song apparently to make it into the US Billboard charts, irking many rappers who saw themselves as the real deal and authentic. However, this song has more weight than the naysayers would have you believe and it has stood the test of time. Its Queen / David Bowie "Under Pressure" sample is irresistible.
The Beatles – We Can Work It Out – Christmas 1965 No.1
This was released as a double A-side with "Day Tripper". In fact, it’s the first ever double A-side single. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of "Day Tripper", but "We Can Work It Out", with its balance of McCartney’s uplifiting verse melody and Lennon’s more downbeat rejoinders is the sound of great songwriters reaching the peak of their powers. Love the harmonium as well.
Bill Haley & His Comets – Rock Around the Clock – Christmas 1955 No.2
I remember the Jive Bunny version when I was growing up. I didn’t like that at all. I now realise of course that the song dates back to the 50s. So I’ll trot out the old cliché here about how amazing it is that a song like this could ever be considered edgy when it sounds pretty benign to us now and full of wholesome energy (if that doesn’t make it sound too much like a breakfast cereal). However, a closer listen reveals a song that sounds raw and up close in a way that is unlike very little in the present day. It’s wrong to say "Rock Around the Clock" was the start of rock and roll, but it is certainly a significant landmark on the way.
Band Aid – Do They Know It’s Christmas? – Christmas 1984 No.1
It’s two days after Christmas, 1984. I charged into WHSmith with my £1 record token Christmas present, fully intent on buying “Do They Know It’s Christmas”. Turns out my younger sister has similar plans. I’m bigger than her though, so this shouldn’t be a problem. Hang on though, what’s this? I was momentarily distracted by a shiny display copy of the new Beano annual. A quick thumb through the pages before I headed to the record counter, plenty of time … But wait a minute. Younger sister is walking away from the record counter, happily clutching a copy of said record. What’s going on? Never mind, I’ll still get my own copy. ‘No’ says mum. ‘Pardon?’ I say. ‘Don’t buy the same record your sister bought, you can share hers and buy something different’. ‘But I wanted the Band Aid song’ I plead. ‘It was my idea’. ‘No, chose something else and that’s final’, comes her reply. So that’s it. A momentary lapse to catch up on Dennis the Menace has cost me my record of choice. And what am I left with? Paul McCartney and the Frog Chorus by the looks of it.
Mike Flowers Pops – Wonderwall – Christmas 1995 No.2
I’m partial to the odd lounge record and I thought this was a fantastic cover. Mike Flowers Pops turned Oasis’ dreary original completely on its head by adding a big dose of humour and fun, and sold more copies in the process. The overall sound for this record was achieved by complete accident. Film composer Adrian Johnston, the other half of Mike Flowers Pops, was walking through the studio just after the big band had finished recording the music for the song. He could hear the big band recording playing back but it sounded different. On closer inspection, he realised it was actually playing back through the musicians headphones which hadn’t yet been unplugged. He liked this ‘headphones’ sound so much (Beyer DT100s if you’re interested), that he had the engineer position a microphone next to the headphones and re-record the whole track as it was played through them. This new recording was then added to the final mix to give it that bass-light, slightly tiny and crackly 1960s feel.
Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody – Christmas 1975 No.1
If you’re not belting out Bohemian Rhapsody at the top of voice at some point on NYE something’s gone wrong, badly wrong. Whilst I’m no Queen fanatic, this is a true classic, a miniature pop symphony that has more than survived the test of time. All hail Freddie, you were a one off!
Rage Against The Machine – Killing in the Name – Christmas 2009 No.1
There’s so much nostalgia for me in the music I listened to as a kid, as questionable as some of it was. There's no getting away from it, the ages of 11-13, when I was first getting into music, were majorly formative years in my life – my first glimpses of independence, my first political comprehensions, my first moshpits! Amidst all this, "Killing in the Name" was THE teenage anthem of defiance - loud, hook-laden, insurmountably energetic and a “f**k you” to the establishment (or to our parents as was probably more accurate at that age). When the campaign to make KITNO Christmas number one was first mooted as an antidote to the X-Factor hit machine and the bewilderingly pallid single “The Climb” by winner Joe McElderry, pop Svengali Simon Cowell scoffed at the campaign as “stupid” and “cynical”… but he underestimated both people power and the song’s brilliance as a lasting emblem of defiance. Not only did it go on to sell half a million copies that week to beat McElderry to number 1, it produced one of the best egg on face moments in recent musical history. Bravo!
Mr Blobby – Mr Blobby – Christmas 1993 No.1
I’ve chosen this as my favourite as it’s the perfect ironic antidote to Christmas #1s!
Take That – Babe – Chrstimas 1993 No.2
1993 was a special year, the year that my secret passion for Take That blossomed ... Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!
UK Christmas No.1s and 2s
1. Al Martino – Here in My Heart
2. Jo Stafford – You Belong to Me
1. Frankie Laine – Answer Me
2. David Whitfield – Answer Me
1. Winifred Atwell – Let’s Have Another Party
2. David Whitfield – Santo Natale
1. Dickie Valentine – Christmas Alphabet
2. Bill Haley & His Comets – Rock Around the Clock
1. Johhny Ray – Just Walkin’ in the Rain
2. Guy Mitchell – Singing the Blues
1. Harry Belefonte – Mary Boy’s Child
2. Johnny Otis and His Orchestra (with Marie Adams) – Ma He's Making Eyes at Me
1. Conway Twitty – It’s Only Make Believe
2. Lord Rockingham's XI – Hoots Mon
1. Emile Ford and The Checkmates – What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?
2. Adam Faith – What Do You Want?
1. Cliff Richard and the Shadows – I Love You
2. Elvis Presley – It's Now or Never
1. Danny Williams – Moon River
2. Frankie Vaughan – Tower of Strength
1. Elvis Presley – Return to Sender
2. Cliff Richard and the Shadows – The Next Time/Bachelor Boy
1. The Beatles – I Want to Hold Your Hand
2. The Beatles – She Loves You
1. The Beatles – I Feel Fine
2. Petula Clark – Downtown
1. The Beatles – Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out
2. Cliff Richard – Wind Me Up
1. Tom Jones – Green, Green Grass of Home
2. Donovan – Sunshine Superman
1. The Beatles – Hello, Goodbye
2. The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour
1. Scaffold – Lily the Pink
2. The Foundations – Build Me Up Buttercup
1. Rolf Harris – Two Little Boys
2. Kenny Rogers and the First Edition – Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town
1. Dave Edmunds – I Hear You Knockin'
2. McGuinness Flint – When I'm Dead and Gone
1. Benny Hill – Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)
2. T Rex – Jeepster
1. Little Jimmy Osmond – Long Haired Lover from Liverpool
2. Chuck Berry – My Ding-a-Ling
1. Slade – Merry Xmas Everybody
2. Gary Glitter – I Love You Love Me
1. Mud – Lonely This Christmas
2. Bachman Turner Overdrive – You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet
1. Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody
2. Greg Lake – I Believe in Father Christmas
1. Johnny Mathis – When a Child Is Born (Soleado)
2. Showaddywaddy – Under the Moon of Love
1. Wings – Mull of Kintyre/Girls' School
2. Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band – The Floral Dance
1. Boney M – Mary's Boy Child
2. The Village People – YMCA
1. Pink Floyd – Another Brick in the Wall
2. Abba – I Have a Dream
1. St Winifred's School Choir – There's No One Quite Like Grandma
2. John Lennon – (Just Like) Starting Over
1. The Human League – Don't You Want Me
2. Cliff Richard – Daddy's Home
1. Renée and Renato – Save Your Love
2. Shakin' Stevens – Blue Christmas (EP)
1. The Flying Pickets – Only You
2. Slade – My Oh My
1. Band Aid – Do They Know It's Christmas?
2. Wham! – Last Christmas/Everything She Wants
1. Shakin' Stevens – Merry Christmas Everyone
2. Whitney Houston – Saving All My Love for You
1. Jackie Wilson – Reet Petite
2. The Housemartins – Caravan of Love
1. The Pet Shop Boys – Always on My Mind
2. The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl – Fairytale of New York
1 Cliff Richard – Mistletoe and Wine
2 Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan – Especially for You
1. Band Aid II – Do They Know It's Christmas?
2. Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers – Let's Party
1. Cliff Richard – Saviour's Day
2. Vanilla Ice – Ice Ice Baby
1. Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody/These Are the Days of Our Lives
2. Diana Ross – When You Tell Me That You Love Me
1. Whitney Houston – I Will Always Love You
2. Michael Jackson – Heal the World
1. Mr Blobby – Mr Blobby
2. Take That – Babe
1. East 17 – Stay Another Day
2. Mariah Carey – All I Want for Christmas Is You
1. Michael Jackson – Earth Song
2. Mike Flowers Pops – Wonderwall
1. Spice Girls – 2 Become 1
2. Dunblane – Knockin' on Heaven's Door/Throw These Guns Away
1. Spice Girls – Too Much
2. Teletubbies – Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh!
1. Spice Girls – Goodbye
2. Chef (Isaac Hayes) – Chocolate Salty Balls
1. Westlife – I Have a Dream/Seasons in the Sun
2. Cliff Richard – The Millennium Prayer
1. Bob the Builder – Can We Fix It?
2. Westlife – What Makes a Man
1. Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman – Somethin' Stupid
2. Gordon Haskell – How Wonderful You Are
1. Girls Aloud – Sound of the Underground
2. One True Voice – Sacred Trust/After You're Gone
1. Michael Andrews featuring Gary Jules – Mad World
2. The Darkness – Christmas Time (Don't Let the Bells End)
1. Band Aid 20 – Do They Know It's Christmas?
2. Ronan Keating and Yusuf Islam – Father and Son
1. Shayne Ward – That's My Goal
2. Nizlopi – JCB Song
1. Leona Lewis – A Moment Like This
2. Take That – Patience
1. Leon Jackson – When You Believe
2. Eva Cassidy and Katie Melua – What a Wonderful World
1. Alexandra Burke – Hallelujah
2. Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah
1. Rage Against the Machine – Killing in the Name
2. Joe McElderry – The Climb
1. Matt Cardle – When We Collide
2. Rhianna featuring Drake – What’s My Name?
1. Military Wives with Gareth Malone – Wherever You Are
2. Little Mix – Cannonball
1. The Justice Collective – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother
2. James Arthur – Impossible
1. Sam Bailey – Skyscraper
2. Pharrell Williams – Happy
1. Ben Haenow – Something I Need
2. Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars – Uptown Funk