Top of the pops: has the battle for Christmas No 1 lost its festive cheer?

This year, the Christmas number 1 gong looks like it will be taken out by another decidedly unfestive offering. So are the glory days of Yuletide tunes over? Rob Garratt investigates

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 08:  Mariah Carey performs at the Mariah Carey Second Annual "All I Want For Christmas Is You" Concert at Beacon Theatre on December 8, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)
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Sound the sleigh bells and raise the red and white alert – the health of a much-loved pop music tradition is in critical condition.

Since as long as industry number crunchers have kept score, there was one time of the year when clocking a No 1 record meant more than any other. Hitting the top spot of the weekly singles chart the Sunday before December 25 was once the most coveted musical accomplishment of the calendar. Weeks of lively media speculation played out as divergent artists battled it out for the fabled "Christmas No 1" – a tradition pursued with particular vigour in the United Kingdom.

But it was also widely replicated in pop-making territories across the globe. The magic was often in a David and Goliath battle – between a major label star or reality TV offspring and an underdog or charity cause. Hype would build steadily before the prize-fighters released their wares, on the Monday before the Sunday, waiting anxiously as cashiers clocked the week-end sales.

However, this grand holiday tradition appears to be in a sorry state of health as, much like the singles charts in general in the streaming age, the Christmas chart carries increasingly little heft: In 2018, the favourite to be declared top of the pops come Sunday is Ariana Grande's Thank U, Next – a track released some seven weeks ago in early November, with nothing festive about it at all.

The birth of a tradition

The Christmas No 1s that have endured deepest are inevitably those flaunting a festive theme – many holiday staples came ready-made with all the classic cliches of children's choirs, sleigh bells and blind, bland optimism. Even East 17's 1994 UK festive chart topper Stay Another Day had bells added at the Nth hour – despite being about a family suicide – perhaps the clincher that saw it keep Mariah Carey's more enduring All I Want for Christmas is You at bay.

The UK's famous festive battleground was first laid out in 1952 – the year the singles chart was established – but it was three years later that it welcomed the first truly festive No 1, with Dickie Valentine's cover of Christmas Alphabet, recorded a year earlier by The McGuire Sisters.

It was not a watershed moment: Despite being the era of early American standards such as Bobby Helms' Jingle Bell Rock and Brenda Lee's Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, back in Blighty, the 1950s hosted just one more overtly Christmassy No 1 – Harry Belafonte's Mary's Boy Child. Meanwhile moving into the 1960s, The Beatles managed to score four festive top spots in five years without a single sleigh bell to be heard.

A similar anti-Christmas run would bookend the holiday song’s heyday in the late 1990s, when the Spice Girls clocked consecutively un-Christmassy No 1s from 1996 to 1998. In the decades between, the holiday genre experienced its undisputed golden era.


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The classic canon

While it might be difficult for any discerning music fan to admit that festive music had a prime, it is undeniable that the bulk of tunes played on high streets and at end-of-year office parties hail from a particular period. And it’s equally noteworthy that this canon of festive favourites is rarely renewed, with the same soundtrack of 1970s and 1980s holiday standards pulled out annually for as long as anyone cares to remember.

Arguably we have Slade to blame, who laid the tracks with perennial party-starter Merry Xmas Everybody (how modern that "Xmas" must have felt 45 years ago). This lucrative smash – which has surely kept lead singer Noddy Holder fed and watered ever since – topped the festive chart in 1973, inspiring a gold rush with Mud's Lonely This Christmas landing at No 1 52 weeks later. Soon after came Johnny Mathis' When a Child is Born (Soleado) in 1976, Wings' grating Mull of Kintyre a year later and Boney M's Mary's Boy Child – Oh My Lord in 1978 – a hat-trick of consecutive UK festive No 1s.

Cheese for good

Even the proudest musical snob can't argue with the tradition of holiday chart-toppers mixing festive cheer with kind-hearted altruistic spirit. Leading the way was Band Aid blockbuster Do They Know It's Christmas? Spearheaded by Bob Geldof, and co-written by Midge Ure, 1984's holiday No 1 brought together guest turns from contemporary stars including U2, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Bananarama, Status Quo, Culture Club and Wham! to create the bestselling Christmas song ever – shifting 3.8 million copies and raising more than Dh88 million to fight famine in Ethiopia.

In recent years, the UK has welcomed heart-warming fundraising Christmas No 1s including the Military Wives' Wherever You Are in 2011, followed a year later by The Justice Collective's He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother, fundraising for the various charities associated with the Hillsborough tragedy, and 2015's health service bid A Bridge over You by the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir.

Meanwhile, Do They Know It's Christmas? was reprised in 1989 as Band Aid II, featuring Kylie Minogue, Chris Rea and Wet Wet Wet, and again in 2004 as Band Aid 20, starring an eclectic cast including Bono (again), Chris Martin, Dido, Busted, Dizzee Rascal and members of Radiohead. Both bids topped the charts.

A final 2014 version, entitled Band Aid 30 and raising funds for West Africa’s Ebola crisis, featured Ed Sheeran, Rita Ora, Olly Murs, Sam Smith, One Direction and, er, Bono and Chris Martin. Yet despite this combined star wattage, following its traditional anniversary release in late November, the festive favourite failed to go the distance this time around, leaving the Christmas top spot open to a very different beast – reality TV. An era was already over.

Reality TV rebellion

The festive No 1 suffered a profound identity crisis in the dark years of 2005-2009, when the UK's Christmas top spot was dominated by alumni of blockbuster reality TV show The X Factor performing distinctly un-festive material: Shayne Ward's That's My Goal was followed by Leona Lewis's A Moment Like This, Leon Jackson's When You Believe and Alexandra Burke's Hallelujah.

It's a sign of how deeply the British public value – or should that be valued? – their treasured holiday pastime that this was enough to kick-start a fan-led protest. In a single week in December 2009 more than 500,000 punters paid to download Rage Against the Machine's 1992 profanity strewn protest anthem Killing in the Name, for the sole purpose of denying The X Factor a fifth consecutive top spot.

An attempt to repeat the trick a year later by encouraging protestors to purchase a new "rendition" of experimental composer John Cage's completely silent piece 4'33" – dubbed "Cage Against the Machine" – faltered at number 21 in the charts, leaving the trail open for Matt Cardle to restore The X Factor's supremacy. Since then Simon Cowell's monolith has produced two more festive chart-toppers, Sam Bailey and Ben Haenow in 2013-2014, bookended by the charity campaigns described above.

A frosty reception

Yet in 2018, it feels unlikely anyone would ever again be bothered to mount such a protest. The greatest challengers to Grande's likely conquest are YouTuber LadBaby releasing a cover of Starship's We Built This City. Other un-festive contenders include United States breakthrough act Ava Max's Sweet But Psycho and – you guessed it – The X Factor winner Dalton Harris, dusting off a tired cover of Frankie Goes To Hollywood's The Power Of Love. Nothing remotely festive or charitable stands a chance.

Coupled with the terminal apathy that today greets the singles chart in general – an infection contracted with the demise of CD singles, and declared terminal in 2014 with the inclusion of streaming stats on weekly chart calculations – it seems the noble festive No 1 may be another holiday tradition that’s frosted over for good.