There are two kinds of people when it comes to Christmas music.
The first switches off the radio the second they hear Michael Buble, can’t understand the fascination with Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas is You’, and is quick to voice their distaste when anyone mentions their love for the jolliest time of the year. The second person has been counting down the days until it’s socially acceptable to dive into every Christmas playlist on Spotify, even though they’ve been secretly listening the whole year round.
But in recent years, a third type of person has emerged with a new response to the festive season: the UK residents obsessed with predicting the Christmas number one.
For those who aren’t aware, the song that takes out number one on the UK Singles Chart on December 25 is a huge deal in Britain. To give an Australian context, it’s sort of the UK equivalent of triple j’s Hottest 100. Bets are made on who will come out on top, media outlets speculate over who the winner will be, and the results are always hotly debated.
Yet like most cultural phenomenons, the UK Christmas number one can be traced back to humble beginnings. The first artist to take the crown was Al Martino (who you may recognise for his part in The Godfather as Johnny Fontane) in 1952 with his track ‘Here in my Heart’. The real competition, however, didn’t heat up until just over twenty years later, when releasing festive tunes in an effort to take out the Christmas number one became the latest and greatest marketing ploy.
Slade and Wizzard led the way in 1973 with a Christmas single each: ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ and ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’, respectively. Slade’s track soon rose to sit atop the charts on December 25. From that point on, the chart position became the most prestigious of the year and the competition for first place only grew.
More often than not, the tracks that rise to the top of the UK Singles Chart at just the right moment are charity singles—three different versions of Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ have claimed the top spot—or even novelty songs, like Benny Hill’s ‘Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)’ in 1971 through to Bob the Builder’s ‘Can We Fix It?’ in 2000. But in 2002, a new contender arrived to shake up the competition: reality TV singing programs.
In what is, frankly, a pretty genius marketing move, the winners of reality TV singing competitions were soon releasing their first single in the lead-up to Christmas—just in time to claim the time-honoured Christmas number one. It was a bold move that paid off, with X Factor winners holding seven Christmas chart toppers to date. Of course, not everyone was especially fond of this growing trend, a feeling that culminated in what is now known as ‘Rage Against X Factor’.
Perhaps the most widely talked about year of the competition for the UK Christmas number one is 2009. After years of distaste with reality TV winners taking out the top spot, fans decided to launch an online campaign to knock 2009 X Factor winner Joe McElderry off the winning podium before he could reach it.
Taking to social media, a campaign to elevate a different song to the top of the charts began. The catch? The song chosen was Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’, which was released in 1992 and is the antithesis to the uplifting pop of McElderry’s single. Yet the powers of social media prevailed as against all odds, ‘Killing in the Name’ sold 500,000 units in a week to be crowned the 2009 UK Christmas number one — 17 years after its initial release.
The competitors for this year’s crown are already being ranked by bookmakers, media outlets and fans alike. At the time of writing, Dan Smith is narrowly in the lead with his cover of REO Speedwagon’s ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’. The song featured in this year’s John Lewis advertisement, another Christmas tradition that defines the UK’s festive season. Following Smith is Chris Kamara, former English footballer and current Sky Sports presenter, whose Christmas album is making its way up the charts.
Other artists in with a shot at glory include Adele (pending her long-awaited album release), Robbie Williams (with his very first Christmas album), and of course, whoever wins this year’s season of X Factor.
But of all the contenders for 2019, the song that is perhaps most worthy to win for nostalgia alone is Wham!’s 1984 hit, ‘Last Christmas’. In 2017, a group of dedicated fans launched a social media campaign a la Rage Against X Factor in an effort to honour the late George Michael, narrowly missing out on the top spot which was claimed by Ed Sheeran.
The campaign continued last year but was foiled once again, this time by YouTuber/dad blogger LadBaby, whose novelty cover of Starship’s ‘We Built This City’ (also known as ‘The Sausage Roll Song’) reached number one with all proceeds donated to foodbank charity The Trussell Trust.
Given the release of a feature film of the same name, it’s safe to say ‘Last Christmas’ has a better chance than ever to be crowned champion. But with the countdown to Christmas getting shorter every day, it’s anyone’s guess who will come out on top.
At the end of the day, the important thing to remember is this: if Benny Hill can do it, anyone can.
Need some Christmas gift ideas for the musicians in your life? We’ve got you covered.