How the internet became the Christmas Number One kingmaker

Opinion: Christmas Number One 2016

Clean Bandit / Youtube

From novelty to charity and everything in between: David Pollock sizes up the rise of the Christmas Number One

The Christmas number one was never a big deal. Often the most memorable and/or sleighbell-infused entry (like Slade's 'Merry Xmas Everybody' in 1973, Boney M's 'Mary's Boy Child' in 1978 or Shakin' Stevens' 'Merry Christmas Everyone' in 1985) was still laden with novelty and heavy-duty popular appeal. Most years it wasn't even a seasonal issue – the Beatles earned four in the 1960s, the Spice Girls had three in succession in the 1990s, while Benny Hill and, er, Rolf Harris are also on the official Christmas number 1 list, and none of them bore a whiff of Santa or the Nativity. And let's not start on Mr Blobby and Bob the Builder.

Yet the low-level Christmas soundtrack infusing the air of any shop you step into from the end of November on – provided you still do any of your Christmas shopping in person – offers an overview of mainstream pop music through the decades which is, by turns comforting, cloying, varied and reassuringly formulaic. Very few of these songs went to number one, but from 1942's 'White Christmas' on, the collective canon creates a buzz of bittersweet end-of-year reflection. The recently-deceased Greg Lake's 'I Believe in Father Christmas' also bears an extra poignancy this year.

Whether the 'joys' of 2016 actually demand any reflecting on is another issue, but it's a situation which is unlikely to occur through the medium of this year's Christmas chart. The last Christmas number one – the last Christmas song, in fact – which is recognised in that seasonal canon is 1994's 'Stay Another Day' by East 17, although Band Aid returned with a retooled version of their song in 2004 and we always thought The Darkness' silly but dedicated 2003 number two 'Christmas Time (Don't Let the Bells End)' would have some longevity. Cowell changed it all, though. Of course he did.

In the ten years between 2005 and 2014, seven of the UK's Christmas number one singles were by the winners of that year's series of X Factor – we doubt they'll mind us describing these songs as safe, bland, predictable and almost entirely unmemorable, because that's much of their USP – and one was a reaction to that trend; 2009's 'Killing in the Name' by Rage Against the Machine, its Facebook-propelled ascent a grassroots protest against X Factor through the medium of 'fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!'

It's intriguing to note the shift in Christmas number one influencers over time, from radio and television towards the end of the 20th century, to relentless television campaigns at the turn of this century (2011's Gareth Malone-orchestrated Military Wives was a more benign example than X Factor), to less predictable viral online campaigns in very recent times, often to make a political point. 'Killing in the Name' was an early outlier here, while the Hillsborough-campaigning Justice Collective (2012) and the NHS-supporting Gareth Malone alumni Lewisham & Greenwich NHS Choir (2015) were more recent examples.

This year's novelty offering 'JC4PM 4 ME' by Robb Johnson and The Corbynistas looks unlikely to come close (fortunately), as does the entirely deserving charity tribute single 'You Can't Always Get What You Want' by Friends of Jo Cox, including Ricky Wilson, KT Tunstall and David Gray. Also missing are expected versions of songs by the wealth of artists we've lost in 2016; any one of the multiple versions of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah', for example, or perhaps Prince's '1999' or David Bowie's 'Life On Mars'. All would take the temperature of the year accurately in one way or another.

The only tribute track which looks likely to even come close is the Inspiral Carpets' 'Saturn 5', which is being pushed in tribute to the band's late drummer Craig Gill, and it's because those leading the campaign have a militarily precise handle on how to get a song in the charts. Essentially, there was for a long time a sense of put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is declaration about the Christmas chart battle, no matter how confected and aimed at raking in money. This decade's seismic change wasn't Simon Cowell, however, but the inclusion of streaming numbers in the charts since 2014, and one well-intentioned purchase of the Jo Cox single can't compete with hordes of teenagers streaming Little Mix, Rag N Bone Man, or this year's frontrunner 'Rockabye' by Clean Bandit.

As saccharine and predictable as these tracks are, the irony is that one of them will doubtless be the first 'natural' Christmas number one - without some form of special campaign behind it – since Gary Jules' 'Mad World' in 2003. Yet the Christmas singles market was never pure, and this week the Official Chart Company announced that 150 streams, rather than the previous 100, would now equal a single sale, presumably to try and inject some of the charts' old sense of excitement and competition (there have been, they pointed out, 11 number ones in 2016, whereas there were 26 in 2015 and 42 in 2014).

If anything, then, 2016 appears to have taught the music industry one lesson it also taught the rest of the world; that nobody knows how the internet really works and we still have a lot of learning to do. If the traditional Christmas song is a temporary victim of these changes, then we'll have to make our own fun on a local and personal level – which is why we thoroughly recommend buying this album for starters, for all the brand new sleighbell action you need over Christmas.

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