What used to be a genuinely interesting contest over who would grab the prestigious mantle of Xmas #1 has long since descended into a dull one horse race dominated by the X-Factor’s build up over the weeks approaching the festive season leaving little doubt that the winner of that musical popularity contest will also walk away with the top slot in the Xmas charts. And if we’re being completely honest, even before reality telly took over the battle for the festive charts there was little in the way of interesting competition for the top slot, inevitably another notch on the chart bedpost of teenypop acts like Westlife or the Spice Girls or some ghastly toddler-friendly novelty record like Bob the Builder.
2003 stands out as the only year any of this would change, with the reality TV franchise cobbling together a weak cover of John Lennon’s ‘War is over’ only to finish third to a gripping face-off between two half-decent bids for the treasured festive top seller. The winner of the duel was the Donnie Darko-inspired remake of Tears for Fears’ ‘Mad World’ (more on that later) but the more vigorously festive of the two records was undoubtedly The Darkness’ barnstorming glam rock masterpiece ‘Christmas Time – Don’t let the bells end’. Reaching the end of 2003 on a massive high after a string of successful singles and a breakthrough debut album, the boys had made their name in the business of loud retro rock anthems and schoolboy humour, a style they would arguably showcase to greatest effect on their Xmas effort, a stadium-sized rock show closer packed with Finbarr Saunders style puns (‘Don’t let the bells end….just let them ring in peace’). It seized on the inherent silliness of the British Xmas experience and drew on the past classics of the 1970s where glam rock heavyweights duked it out for the top slot, giving a new generation another festive classic to indulge in bouts of drunken air guitar to at the office party for years to come.
Coining a Xmas classic is often confirmation of your ascension to pop royalty, yet for The Darkness conquering the festive charts would be the turning point in their career as the public began to get tired of the whole joke metal thing – they bagged one more hit from the first record before embarking on their troubled second album which, although not actually all that bad, met with critical savagery upon release and fell some way short of replicating the success of their debut. Nevertheless, Xmas compilations still honour their biggest moment and they can rest easy in the knowledge that Justin Hawkins’ rehab bills and hair transplants will surely be covered for years to come with royalties from this festive favourite.
29. My Chemical Romance - Welcome to the Black Parade (#1 October 2006)
Certain #1 hits surprise audiences, presenting us with proof that sometimes the most unlikely songs tap into the public mindset and become best-sellers. Others are so obviously written to become chart-toppers that it would seem a monumental under-achievement to even see them come in at number two, and ‘Welcome to the Black Parade’ belongs firmly in this category. A pompous, overblown broadway-style set piece created to usher in their third album, the single took the band from Kerrang-approved Goth Rock middleweights right to the top of the pop charts and made them into one of the biggest acts in mainstream rock for a while, turned singer Gerard Way into a genuine celebrity and pissed off most heavy metal fans so much that they became hate figures for the scene they were supposed to represent.
Crossing over from scene success to genuine mainstream fame takes a number of things, namely an accessible radio hit that draws in new audiences amongst kids who’ve never heard your music before whilst retaining enough of your original appeal to not alienate your more longstanding admirers. It also helps if you have a nice MTV friendly video and a look that chimes in with movements in pop culture – MCR had risen to prominence as standard goth rockers coated in eyeliner and black hair dye, but they revamped their image slightly in the run-up to their third album and presented their new look to the crowds at Reading 2006. The crowd turned on them violently, pelting them with bottles and slagging their poppier new direction, but behind the scenes they had put together a commercial package that would make it all worthwhile – ‘Welcome to the Black Parade’ landed at the end of festival season and shot straight to the top slot. Just as The Offspring’s ‘Pretty Fly for a White Guy’ had thrust its creators into the mainstream after years of singles chart invisibility with a sanitized version of the music that made them famous and made pop punk a lucrative sales device, ‘Black Parade’ marked the point where the whole Hot Topic Emo Vampire thing became officially mainstream and therefore not cool anymore unless you were about 12. The press started freaking out that teenagers were now being drawn into some kind of sinister vampire suicide cult and suddenly you couldn’t sell anything to teenage girls unless it featured black hair, fake blood and cartoon goth imagery. The band soldiered on regardless and, if I’m being totally honest, actually managed to knock out a few decent singles in their new Broadway Emo style – punk purists sneered at them, but for my money MCR are easier to deal with as a massive mainstream rock spectacle than they were as just another vaguely ambitious goth rock troupe prior to the single’s success. At least when you’ve had a #1 single you don’t have to justify whether your new direction is working or not. Let the bottle throwers do their thing, MCR proved their point with this record and walked away as winners.
28. So Solid Crew - 21 Seconds (#1 August 2001)
Eek ! Scary gun-toting cockney oiks top the singles charts! Head for the hills tabloid journalists and prepare your fear-mongering articles about how it’s no longer safe to leave the house! These days almost a decade later, the whole UK Garage thing looks a little ridiculous and most of its leading lights have long since faded into obscurity but it’s worth remembering how big and threatening it all was back in 2001 when bad boy posturing, copycat American gangster rap and 2-step breaks ruled the airwaves.
‘Grime’ as a musical concept had an air of the ridiculous about it, but back in the early noughties there wasn’t much else going on in dance music to write home about and it was genuinely quite exciting to have something distinctly British dominating radio at the time – and where the music journalists left off, the tabloid press eagerly picked up the baton and spewed forth endless column inches panicking about the nefarious influence was having on the country’s youth. OK, So Solid were perhaps not the best role models for kiddie Britain – the posturing in their videos was not just a front and the distinctly unpleasant activities of many of the members soon stole the limelight from their music – but up against the distinctly inoffensive likes of Craig David, Artful Dodger and that excruciating ‘Do you really like it?’ record, ’21 Seconds’ stands out as the strongest single of the movement. Based around the principle that none of the featured rappers would get more than the title’s time slot to leave their mark on the track, it sounded like the equivalent of eight twokkers trying to chat up the same girl in a loud nightclub – none of them were particularly skilled lyricists and most of the content consisted of wholesale pilfering from the likes of infinitely superior Yank rap acts like the Wu Tang Clan. Yet for all its faults, the single was a memorable moment in chart history and one of the few examples of an original idea translating into massive chart success.
The Crew didn’t stay at the top of pop’s pecking order for long, due to various reasons including the fact that they never seemed to be able to decide how many people were in the band and the obvious drawback that those who were designated members seemed to spend more time in jail than onstage. Nearly ten years down the line, ’21 Seconds’ sounds as daft today as 2 Unlimited did at the end of the 90s but we should remember them for the force in pop they briefly were back in 2001 – the British record industry was thrown off balance for a short while in the face of this lot, and it’s good to shake the lazy buggers up once in a while.
27. The Gossip – Standing in the way of control (#7 April 2007)
The media was maybe getting hungry for another style icon in the mid-noughties – the airwaves and magazine pages were full of skinny little indie boys twanging guitars and penning odes to their mundane everyday existence. It was probably time for a sea-change, and what better way than to pluck the physical embodiment of the polar opposite to malnourished male indie adolescence and thrust it straight onto magazine covers?
Another NME staple, fronted by the lady voted ‘coolest person in rock 2007’ by scribes of the aforementioned indie rag/lifestyle guide, The Gossip made their presence felt via this particularly head-turning rock’n’soul moment in late 2006 – the track rose slowly to prominence, making a gradual ascent towards the top ten the way records used to back in the good old days before peaking at #7 in early 2007. Tapping into the nightclub friendly disco indie popular at the time, the band stood out for a number of reasons but the most obvious one was that their vocalist was HUGE – Beth Ditto, a product of trailer trash America looking like the lovechild of Roseanne Barr and Pavarotti, got people’s attention straight away with her larger-than-life stage persona and devastating vocals. However, it wasn’t just a gimmick – let’s not forget that one of the inherent advantages of being stacked like a sumo wrestler is that you can pump out vocals that the skinny girls can only dream of matching – Aretha Franklin, Jocelyne Brown, The Weathergirls, fat chicks have always had a place in pop as they’re the only ones whose physique allows them to spill drinks at the back bar with their voices. Ditto’s trademark yowl backed with the track’s pummeling indie disco production made it an instant dancefloor classic and a gateway to the charts for the group – though it outstripped their other singles by a long way, The Gossip are in no danger of fading off the back of one successful single as their more recent output and bitchslap brutal live show have proven.
Media sleazebags may have made a great deal about how awfully progressive they were being by promoting Beth as a style icon despite her noteworthy girth, but it all would have been totally token if she didn’t have the tunes to back it up with – and thankfully, she did! No Rik Waller this one! And if the by-product was that magazines decided to ditch the boney bitches for a while in favour of ladycurves then so much the better – The Gossip became your girlfriend’s favourite band overnight because she could bust one out on the dancefloor to their music and then go home and feel comparatively slim looking at the CD cover. Everyone’s a winner!
26. The Killers - Mr Brightside (#9 September 2004)
Indie has historically been the refuge of those cast out from the mainstream due to their reluctance to compromise artistically in favour of musical sincerity and sticking to their vision. This is all very well if you’re a bunch of Wakefield holier-than-thou types like The Cribs (don’t get me wrong, they did some good singles too but none of them made this list) but when you’re a mormon cabaret act from Las Vegas it doesn’t really cut it spending years doing the upstairs at the pub circuit when your music is tailor made for gargantuan stadium venues and moments of indie disco ephiphany where entire dancefloors bellow your lyrics out at the top of their voices, eyes shut and fists raised like participants in some religious cult with snakebite spilled down their T-shirts.
That The Killers were aiming for the stars from the very beginning is hardly surprising. That they succeeded in reaching them is what’s impressive – even the indie luminaries of the early 2000s (Strokes, White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand) pitched their product at the NME set of punters, and though their records sold in massive quantities they still failed to bring in the sort of not-too-bothered-with-music types who were buying Lightning Seeds albums in the 90s. This is where the Vegas boys, and ‘Mr Brightside’ in particular, came in – despite the fact that their keyboard-propelled Hollywood indie seemed rooted in a land far, far away and lacked the kitchen-sink realism that virtually everyone in British indie was trying to cram into their material, The Killers were the sort of immense proposition that became accessible to pretty much everybody whether or not they were Match of the Day slobs or pretentious indie hipsters. ‘Mr Brightside’ was their breakthrough success and took over the mantle from James’ ‘Laid’ as the kind of record that could ignite indie club dancefloors despite being more of a mainstream chart hit than anything else. Impressively, it was far from the only solid gold pop hit on their debut album ‘Hot Fuss’ – they bagged another two massive hits and even managed to lodge album track ‘All these things that I’ve done’ into public consciousness (it even returned to the charts this year as a charity ensemble effort, surely proof that they’ve entered pop royalty).
‘Mr Brightside’ isn’t the band’s only great moment – like many entries on this list, it was simply the first of their singles to cross over into the mainstream and many others since then have done the same. As the decade closes they remain one of the nation’s best-loved groups, still able to rope in serious indie audiences and Tesco music section plebs whilst their music stays just the right side of pompous and ridiculous. If we ever get a ‘Life on Mars’ style TV series set back in the noughties several decades down the line, you can bet that one of their songs will be playing in the background whilst proto-mulleted youngsters lounge around playing Sudoku on their I-phones. The soundtrack to an era? Probably.
25. Michael Andrews & Gary Jules - Mad World (#1 December 2003)
Pop music is at its most satisfying when something truly unique and unexpected rises to the top of the charts just because it strikes a chord with the public. Nobody would have bet on a minimalist rehash of Tears for Fears’ 80s classic ‘Mad World’ becoming a massive success over the festive period in 2003, and for that matter I don’t think most people expected Donnie Darko, the film whose soundtrack provided the track to make much of an impact either. Just goes to show that we need to sit back and let nature take its course sometimes, letting film and music make their waves with the general public without interfering too much with them and surveying the results afterwards.
Culled from the same Xmas chart campaign as The Darkness’ marvelous ‘Christmas Time (Don’t let the bells end’), ‘Mad World’ actually pipped the glam rockers to the top slot and romped home to massive sales in the lucrative festive singles market. It seemed an odd choice for Xmas #1, a bit of a morose number for what is usually a fairly jaunty time of year – however, take Xmas out of the season and you’re left with the bleak mid-winter, a period where folks like to curl up in the warmth and chill out to something peaceful. The unlikely 80s cover tapped into that mindset perfectly – one of the reasons 80s chart hits have been such popular choices for cover versions since their first spell in the top 40 is that a lot of the originals were so marked by the production of the time that a modern rehash can turn them into totally different tunes – the new version of ‘Mad World’ stripped the track back to its bare bones and brought out a hitherto unseen element of sensitivity and reflection at the heart of the song, putting this at the fore over a stirring piano backing to pretty powerful effect. The subject matter of madness at the heart of society chimed in with the film’s own theme, one that many audiences completely misunderstood when they saw it – and I’m glad they did, it’s nice to have to dig for meaning a little rather than to be slapped round the face with ‘message movies’ just to make sure you weren’t asleep during the key moments. The mates who watched the film with me spent most of it cackling at the giant bunny rabbit and thought the whole thing was a waste of time but it struck a chord with me and has stood up to repeated viewings – ‘Mad World’ works for the same reasons, it’s not an obvious choice for a festive hit but it stands out as one of the only truly memorable Xmas hits of the decade and one that it would have been hard to predict even weeks before it landed. Try imagining that when you’re watching X-Factor’s blanket TV coverage in mid-November and see how exciting the whole thing feels in comparison.
24. The View - Same Jeans (#3 January 2007)
If I were compiling this list based purely on personal preference and filling it with the tracks that crop up on my I-Pod most frequently, this would be top by several country miles. Not exactly the most original indie anthem from the fertile post-Arctic Monkeys period of 2006/07, ‘Same Jeans’ was derided by purists for nicking the chord structure from Cornershop’s ‘Brimful of Asha’ – whether it did or not is irrelevant of course, a good riff is a good riff, it’s what you wrap it in that determines whether or not the song is going to be a hit. Which ‘Same Jeans’ was, shooting to #3 in early 2007 to complete a trilogy of fantastic singles from the young Dundonians and paving the way for their debut album ‘Hats off to the buskers’ to top the charts a couple of weeks later.
Performers over the course of the decade have made a lot of their supposed origins, laying on exaggerated versions of their own actions to lend their music a gritty, real quality and provide a sense of location to what could otherwise be empty, vapid sentiment. The View may have let their distinctly Scottish twang seep into their music but there was nothing forced about it – their debut album focused almost exclusively on stuff that happened on the Dundee estate in which they grew up, yet there was none of the kitchen-sink melodrama you’d expect from such subject matter, rather a glorious collection of pop songs and nuggets of everyday life for the boys. ‘Same Jeans’ picks a snapshot of personal philosophy amidst all that, extolling the glories of being an essentially scruffy bugger and staying true to yourself, saluting buskers for their tenacity in the face of grim reality and generally reveling in the moment at hand. It was as life-affirming as it was deceptively simple, all topped off with a ‘Paradise City’ style wig-out tagged on the end to pump up concert audiences to a state of delirium. And, as I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog, it remains the only top three hit ever to feature the word ‘c*nt’ (listen to the second chorus – that’s Scotland for you). Despite flinging out what to my mind was a brilliant second album earlier this year with several potential smash hits on it, the band have faded from view (no pun intended) since their meteoric rise with this single but I wouldn’t bet on them staying away from the charts for too long. In the meantime, this slice of Caledonian rag-tag indie rock remains one of the most ‘barry’ moments of the noughties.
23. Lily Allen - Smile (#1 July 2006)
The decade would have been considerably duller without Lily, a fine example of British womanhood who showed the world why our females are so great – she’s a good laugh, she likes to party and she doesn’t take any crap from people. Another star to seemingly emerge from nowhere with a smash hit single, ‘Smile’ launched her into the charts in 2006 where she has managed to stay since then without losing the cheeky appeal that made her stand out from the pack in the first place.
Having spent most of her childhood getting kicked out of public schools for drinking and smoking, the singles charts seemed to be a natural outlet for Lily’s bratty persona and ‘Smile’ gave her the perfect vehicle to take her there. A four minute paen a dead relationship where her estranged lover seeks to reconcile with her, she takes great pleasure in rebuffing his miserable arse and rubbing his nose in it – such subject matter in the mouth of an American R’n’B diva would have seemed unnecessarily bitchy, but Lily managed to make the whole thing quite endearing and it brought her cheeky personality into the limelight for the first time. Future releases have only built on this, even making a minor celebrity out of her younger brother Alfie thanks to her ode to him staying in his bedroom all day smoking dope and wanking. Her brash, colourful debut ‘Alright Still’ featured an impressive roster of similar jabs at life around her, backed up by an online blog on which she seemed to take potshots at virtually everybody – her most popular target remains Girls Aloud’s Cheryl Cole, darling of the media but an obvious hate figure for a generation of young women for whom she’s just too bloody pretty. I quite like Cheryl Cole and there’s even a Girls Aloud tune in this countdown, but I’m still glad that ladies from both ends of the spectrum get to co-exist in pop music – Lily, at least when she first arrived on the market, broke the mould from what was expected from female performers and surprised many by becoming a sex symbol despite being obnoxious, lairy and not exactly skeletal. She’s lost a bit of podge since then (boo!) but she’s retained the status of the sort of bird you could go for a pint with and still take home at the end of the night. Good girlfriend material overall, although as more than one person has pointed out you’d have to be careful if you ever dated here – one false move and you’d find yourself the subject matter of a song on her next album where she goes into great detail about how crap you were in bed. Maybe best leave her to songwriting then, and ‘Smile’ remains the finest slice of gobby chart bothering of the last few years. Without Lily, the charts would be a much more boring place.
22. Sean Paul - Like Glue (#3 July 2003)
Reggae is one of the few chart trends that never truly goes out of fashion, it just comes around again and again. Roughly once every ten years to be exact : Bob Marley’s first ascent into the European charts dates back to the early 70s, the wave of Jamaican influenced British Ska laid waste to the UK charts in the early 80s with The Specials, Bad Manners et al and back in 1993 you couldn’t move for Shaggy, Shabba Ranks and co at the upper end of the charts. Back in 2003, it was the turn of a Jamaican former water polo player to pick up the baton and stamp his mark all over the global pop music scene.
You literally couldn’t escape Sean Paul when his commercial breakthrough album ‘Dutty Rock’ landed in 2002 – it gave him four massive hits in his own right and also provided him with lucrative guest vocal slots with Beyoncé and Blu Cantrell, clocking up half a dozen global smashes in barely twelve months. As with most Jamaican musicians, it’s the delivery that does it and Paul’s pop-ragga intonation struck a chord with worldwide audiences to the point where it seemed he could read out the contents of his tax return in thick Jamaican brogue and it would probably go top ten. ‘Like Glue’ is the third of his hits from 2003, landing in the middle of summer to provide the soundtrack of many a bump’n’grind dancefloor session and bringing in outside audiences to an extent not seen since Shabba’s infamous ‘Mr Loverman’ and Reel 2 Real’s equally inescapable ‘I like to move it’ ten years previously. Even if you didn’t like ragga, it was hard not to have a bit of hip wiggle to this one.
The success of ‘Dutty Rock’ and its faultless run of singles was always going to be tough to repeat, although he did have a decent go with 2005’s ‘The Trinity’ which provided the infectious ‘We be burnin’ and US Chart Topper ‘Temperature’, but by then his status as the man to turn your song into a hit had been usurped by the likes of Timbaland and Kanye West. As talented as those two are, they haven’t given us anything that can plaster a silly grin over you face like Sean Paul’s chart-friendly Jamaican pop, and ‘Like Glue’ remains one of those tracks you can whack on at a party and get everyone winding and grinding in unison.
There’s a key moment at the end of one of my favourite films of the decade, ‘There Will Be Blood’, where Daniel Day Lewis’ terrying incarnation Daniel Plainview turns on his nemesis Eli Sunday and works himself up into a fit of murderous rage as he details how he has already drained his rival’s oilfields. The metaphorical use of the milkshake has never been quite so powerful – that is, not since Kelis rolled it out for her signature tune in 2004 and sent booties across the globe into a state of uncontrolled shakyness, leaving carnage in its wake and providing us with one of the most infectious records of the decade.
‘Milkshake’ is one of those annoying records that I had to include on this list despite not really being able to describe why I like it so much. It’s just fucking cool. I don’t even know what exactly she is referring to as her ‘milkshake’ (although I have my suspicions that it might be quite rude) but it sounds really quite alluring and in any case she is quite insistent on the fact that her milkshake is infinitely better than mine ever could be, so much so that a full explanation on why this is would be the subject of a fee-bearing service. The nerve of this lady! Anyway, using a fast food pun with such panache deserves no small amount of credit – imagine a male R’n’B artist like R.Kelly attempting acts of seduction with his ‘Flame-Grilled Whopper’ and the results would certainly not be the same. Having already established herself as a force in pop with the cathartic masterpiece ‘Caught out there’ (you know, the one where she yells ‘I hate you so much right now! AAAARRGH!’ over a funky beat) and her groovetastic collaboration with the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard on ‘Got your money’, ‘Milkshake’ heralded an unstoppable run of three top three hits in 2004 and made her into one of pop’s biggest treasures. Like Jamelia’s utterly fanastic ‘Superstar’, which I nearly included on this list but elected to leave out in place of Sigur Ros at the last minute for the sake of diversity, ‘Milkshake’ is one of those instances in pop where the ingredients just seem to gel perfectly – R’n’B as a genre can be a bit hit and miss, but those rare moments where you chuck the right combination of elements into the mixer and whisk yourself up a classic single are satisfying in a way other styles cannot match. This was one of them, and should be treasured as such. And for the record I would gladly take up the opportunity to partake in some milkshake with Kelis, or indeed any other beverage of her choosing. No please Ma’am, put your wallet away, it’s my treat. Shall I call us a taxi?