At this time of year, there are lots of questions in the air – what will Santa be bringing me? Which members of the family will you see? Is it going to snow? And, if you’re a music fan, what will be the Christmas number one? Being on top of the charts at Christmas has long been a coveted position, in part because of a peak in record sales – but what sort of songs actually make it? How do you actually produce a Christmas number one hit?
The official UK Singles Chart began in 1952, which technically makes the first Christmas number one ‘Here in my Heart’ by Al Martino. However, it wasn’t really a serious competition until 1973 when Slade and Wizzard released intentionally festive songs (‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ and ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ respectively) in deliberate attempts to reach the number one spot. Slade won that year’s competition, but both songs have since become festive staples.
Gearing your song towards Christmas isn’t always a safe bet, as only ten Christmas songs have ever been number one
Gearing your song towards Christmas isn’t always a safe bet, as only ten Christmas songs have ever been number one (seven of which feature the word ‘Christmas’ in the title). However, since the turn of the millennium, there have been more Christmas songs in the charts as a whole. This is linked to songs being available on download (since 2004) and streaming (2014), meaning people can cherry-pick the songs they want, and a larger official chart creating more room for Christmas music (it’s risen from 18 songs in 1952 to 100 nowadays).
If you were being cynical, you’d suggest that the best way to reach the number one spot nowadays is being on reality TV. It began in 2002, when Popstars: The Rivals’ Girls Aloud took the top spot with ‘Sound of the Underground’; winners of The X Factor have also been number one on seven occasions since 2005. People began to wise up – in 2007, bookies were taking bets on what would be Christmas number two because The X Factor’s dominance was assumed, and Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’ was pushed to the top of the charts in 2009 following a protest Facebook campaign.
Performing for a good cause is an approach that has been proven to work, with half of the Christmas number ones this decade linked to charity
How can you get a Christmas number one? Looking at the charts is suggestive – The Beatles and the Spice Girls are the only artists to have had number ones three years in a row, so you’re covered if you’re part of either of those groups. Likewise, if Band Aid is ever to re-record ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, that’s essentially a dead cert – it’s been number one three times. Of course, you could go the other way and be a complete novelty act – Mr Blobby and Bob the Builder both succeeded, and this year’s victor looks to be a guy singing about sausage rolls. That act, LadBaby, is singing to raise money for charity – performing for a good cause is an approach that has been proven to work, with half of the Christmas number ones this decade linked to charity.
Could we bring a bit of science into the equation? Spotify’s algorithms have ranked all the songs in their database by metrics like loudness, energy and happiness (based solely on musical sound rather than lyrics) and, using that data we can see that the typical Christmas song has become much happier and louder in recent decades. Festive music also overwhelming favours a major key, which gives them a brighter sound than a minor key. Spotify has found that the most common keys for all of its music are A major, C major and G major – keys especially popular for Christmas music (with Christmas songs nearly three times as likely as any other song to be in A major).
There’s no perfect formula to reaching the Christmas number one slot, with the list of victors some of the most eclectic musical acts you’ll ever see (where else would you find The Beatles, Queen, a school choir and Bob the Builder?). Perhaps one of the highlights is that there’s still an unpredictability to reaching the slot that makes it all the more enjoyable when we see who is finally crowned? Or maybe it’s just the safest bet when choosing a CD for that difficult relative? Either way, here’s to the magic of the Christmas number one – I’m already looking forward to seeing what takes the top spot next year!