Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Top Ten UK #1 Singles of the Last Ten Years

This is the second of the two list articles to celebrate No Ripcord's tenth birthday...

When No Ripcord first launched in April 1999, sitting at the top of the pile in the singles chart was the début release by Westlife, Swear It Again. Well, here we are ten years later, No Ripcord is thriving and Westlife... well, unfortunately they’re still going too, and the talentless Irish chancers have in fact had 14 UK #1 singles to date. We all know that the singles charts aren’t what they used to be (especially since the demise of Top of the Pops) and that the best songs never make it to the summit. However, over the past decade, there have been enough diamonds in the rough to ensure that the charts are worth checking out of a Sunday evening. So, here are the best ten:

10. Michael Andrews feat. Gary Jules: Mad World (2003)

Haunting, ethereal, sparse; a song like this would barely get in the charts these days, let alone make it to number one. Taken from the soundtrack to the film Donnie Darko, this song was a complete word-of-mouth hit. It took the much-coveted Christmas Number One title in 2003 following various campaigns in the media. It also represented a sea change for the UK charts, as this was the last Christmas Number One not affiliated with a charity or television talent show. This was the last occurrence of when being at the head of the charts over the festive season still held some prestige. Since this hit, both Andrews and Jules have faded back into obscurity, with neither making it into the UK charts since.

9. Eminem feat. Dido: Stan (2000)

If we can conveniently forget the fact that this song lead directly to Dido’s brand of aural wallpaper being an enormous success, we can begin to appreciate this track. An obsessive fan who kills himself and his girlfriend in a car crash is not a typical subject for a hit single but then again, Eminem was never your typical pop star. His latter efforts may have simply been either cartoon hip-hop-lite or angry, bitter diatribes, but Stan is his masterpiece. A genuinely harrowing tale that was never intrusive, insensitive or sought to gain humour inappropriately from its dark subject matter, it’s a story more than a song and remains far and away his best work. It was deposed from top slot on the charts by Bob the Builder with Can We Fix It? It didn’t seem right, really.

8. Beyoncé: Crazy In Love (2003)

This isn’t really a song, it’s more of a riff – that riff. The pounding drums are the perfect foil for the brass hook that makes Crazy In Love so memorable. The riff in question isn’t even original; it’s taken from Are You My Woman (Tell Me So) by The Chi-Lites. Whoever spotted that and came up with the idea is a genius. It’s easy to forget that before this song, Beyoncé wasn’t quite the all-conquering star she is today and her first single (Work It Out) had under-performed. This transformed her and it’s easy to see why. We don’t care about the lyrics, the melody, the sentiment, hell, even Jay-Z’s rap is fairly lacklustre in comparison. You just need the “oh-oh oh-oh” part before each verse and the riff... that riff.

7. Robyn with Kleerup: With Every Heartbeat (2007)

Robyn was actually around making records in the 1990s, and she was rubbish. That may seem a tad harsh, but her songs were anodyne, ‘nothing’ songs that left your head as soon as they’d entered your ear. For those of us with long memories (and a slightly unhealthy interest in pop music), it was a surprise to have her back a couple of years ago. The real surprise though, was that she was capable of a shimmering pop classic such as this. It has electronic bleeps and exudes a certain cool that only the Scandinavians seem to be able to pull off. It appears restrained, but repeated listens reveal the yearning behind each word. With Every Heartbeat may have not been a worldwide smash, but it showed that the UK record-buying public do occasionally know what they’re doing.

6. The Streets:
Dry Your Eyes (2004)

Before the release of Dry Your Eyes, Mike Skinner was just a Brummie chronicling the life of a geezer. The release of his second album, A Grand Don’t Come For Free, had garnered much critical acclaim but the masses remained resistant to his charms and he seemed destined to remain that bloke who talked over music. This all changed over the summer of 2004 – after England were dumped out of the European Football Championships, Dry Your Eyes played over the closing credits and gave football fans a soundtrack to their anguish. (For those of you reading outside the UK, this really happens. Twenty stone men with tattoos on their neck break down and weep when England lose at football). A poignant lament to a lost love, what really makes this track is the keen observation of the minutiae and the sense of loss and despair. It proved to be the tipping point for The Streets, as Skinner has struggled to repeat the success of his defining moment, but it could be worse... c’mon, dry your eyes, mate.

5. Gnarls Barkley: Crazy (2006)

Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo made chart history with Crazy, their début release and the biggest selling song of 2006 in the UK. It became the first single to reach the top of the charts on downloads alone and still remained number one even after having been physically deleted. However, such feats are no guarantee of quality, as the successes of singles by Bryan Adams and Wet Wet Wet prove. Luckily, Gnarls Barkley had produced a cracker. Cee-Lo had been a moderately successful solo artist and Danger Mouse was producer du jour but still, no-one could have predicted this. Built around a sample of Last Man Standing by Gian Franco and Gian Piero Reverberi, Crazy is everything a good pop song should be: direct, energetic, catchy and not too long. Simultaneously haunting and invigorating, Crazy was pretty much universally adored and like several others in this list, the authors have been victims of their own success, with Gnarls Barkley struggling to repeat the sales or levels of critical acclaim since.

4. Girls Aloud: The Promise (2008)

At the risk of alienating the entire readership of No Ripcord, this song fully deserves it place on the list. Girls Aloud have proved since their inception that their songs are a cut above other girl groups (who wrote the songs themselves is a moot point) and this is the best of the lot. Now, unless you grew up in a hippie household where your parents played Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica over Sunday lunch, the chances are the first music you loved as a child was what is known as manufactured pop. However much your tastes change and develop, there’s always a part of your brain susceptible to the pull of this sort of music. Admittedly, it’s normally more prevalent with the influence of alcohol, but there should be no shame in holding your hands up and proclaiming you like this song. And really, what’s not to like? There’s shimmering harmonies, shades of 60s girl-groups, touches of Spector and a chorus that sounds like the theme tune to Blankety Blank. Go on, treat yourself.

3. Dizzee Rascal featuring Calvin Harris and Chrome: Dance Wiv Me (2008)

It would appear that despite the flagging singles industry, last year was a pretty good one for chart-toppers. Like The Streets, Dizzee had always been more popular with the critics than the public, and had struggled to convert his Mercury win (for début Boy in Da Corner) into actual sales. This is his finest moment so far though, effortlessly providing a perfect mix of grime and laid-back dance that it’s hard to resist. Maybe Dizzee’s gritty rhymes about urban life were too unpalatable for the music-buying public at large, but on Dance Wiv Me, it’s fun-time Dizzee as he just focuses on having a good time. Trying to chat up a girl in front of her boyfriend has never seemed so attractive or enjoyable.

2. Manic Street Preachers: The Masses Against the Classes (2000)

Hey, remember when MSP were angry and overtly-political? Well, poster-boy of that era, Richey Edwards, may have disappeared in 1995 but The Masses Against the Classes proved that MSP still had the edge that made 1994’s The Holy Bible so brutal and compelling. The whole story behind the song is trademark Manics: no promotion and deletion of the single on the day of release, yet it was the first #1 single of the new millennium. As for the track itself, it starts with a quotation by Noam Chomsky and ends with one from Camus. It’s abrasive punk rock, it’s thrilling, it’s exciting and it reminds you of the sheer power and influence that popular music can have. In retrospect, this may have been simply a token gesture, as MSP have never released anything like this as a single since, and have slowly transformed into a fairly sedate AOR band. But these three and a half minutes are a clear indicator of how important the Manic Street Preachers have been over the last twenty years.

1. Arctic Monkeys: I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor (2005)

A cursory glance at the singles chart will tell you that – with a few notable exceptions – pop music is a young person’s game. Artists can never quite recapture that moment when they burst onto the scene, and that “shock of the new” is none more clear than on this single. Regardless of your age, this song can instantly transport you back to being 16 and full of hormones and let’s face it, regardless of your age, your memory will tell you that the best pop music was made when you were in your teens. This song is dripping with yearning and lust and beneath it all hides the promise of something more sinister. There hadn’t been regional accents in successful pop for a while, but Alex Turner’s rich Sheffield brogue changed all that. The sub-3 minutes of pop heaven is best described by the 21st Century’s most exciting lyricist himself: “There ain’t no love, no Montagues or Capulets/Just banging tunes and DJ sets and/Dirty dancefloors and dreams of naughtiness.” That is all that’s good about pop music encapsulated in just a few simple lines – will a number one single ever be as good as this again?

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