Commenter Nixon, on another thread, asked this: “we’re now past the 40-year mark, long enough for trends to emerge… do you think that the list of UK number ones, taken as a weird at-a-glance sweep of British music history, very broadly accurately reflects that history?“. I gave a long reply, and writing it, it struck me that my answer was fairly central to the Popular project and that the question deserved more exposure than being Comment #44 on an Outhere Brothers thread was likely to give it. So here we are, slightly edited from its original form.

Number Ones? They mean nothing to me...

Number Ones? They mean nothing to me…

This is sort of the central question Popular wanted to answer – it reflects *a* history, but which one? I don’t think “accurately reflects that history” is meaningful though – there isn’t an accurate pop history to reflect, there’s a sense of ‘what happened’ and ‘what mattered’ which is a mix of personal memories, received wisdom, critical takes and commercial realities, which themselves may not be realities given the distortions of sales data methodologies.

When pop history is written – literally written, in books or articles or lists, the version of pop history that is PLAYED is different again – it’s usually written by the critical winners, not the commercial ones. So if the question is – how well do Number Ones map onto that? – the answer varies. If you look at it by genre, then for some things – Merseybeat, glam, new wave, the house music revolution, 00s R&B – it does very well. For others – metal, punk, Britpop, progressive rock, hip-hop up to a point – it seems to do quite poorly.

Looked at as a more material history: of technology, format changes, sales channels, etc. – the Number One lists work better but have disastrous gaps because methodologies and definitions can’t or won’t always keep pace with realities.

Looked at as a history of British cultural interests – the chart as a seismograph of wider trends – they are an interesting if incomplete fossil record: Robson And Jerome is a case in point.

And they’re best understood as half a picture – adding the LP charts makes things much fuller.

You can definitely see broad trends. The overall history of the No.1 spot – I worked this out with graphs once and should again – is broadly speaking a history of increasing diversity: the more you go on, the fewer white men (with guitars or otherwise) you tend to see. (There’s some evidence in the US that increasing digitalisation of music may be reversing this a bit – not sure that’s true of the UK). Depressingly, it seems to me that this process runs parallel to decreased critical respect for the charts and number ones, accusations of irrelevance, the rise of the dread adjective “manufactured” etc. (Having raised this spectre I really do need to do the statistical work, so expect more on this another time).

Another trend that comes out – relevant to Britpop, which sparked this whole discussion – is that, since the early 80s, “indie” music in its fuzzy wide cultural sense has rarely if ever sold well enough on singles to dominate the charts. Britpop is its high watermark – I think it’s fair to say that some bands and singles were unlucky not to reach number one, but that’s also how pop works and it does seem it couldn’t quite mobilise the buyers. Before and after that, indie music has been an important part of pop but, from a singles sales perspective, not THAT important.

Obviously this doesn’t match up to the attention paid to it critically and culturally – it’s easy to buy into a version of the mid-90s where Britpop DOMINATES the charts and the music scene, despite plenty of opposition to that idea at the time and since. There’s also – as the relatively massive excitement on Twitter over a silly poll suggests – a lot of warm feeling towards the idea of Britpop as a movement and a moment. Other styles have enjoyed far more dominant periods in the chart but haven’t been lavished with attention by the music press, let alone the mainstream news.

In other words I think in this instance the number ones list gets Britpop right representationally, though the actual selections leave a bit to be desired. And the number ones list is a vastly imperfect version of history, but anyone dismissing it as irrelevant is still revealing their own biases as much as the charts’.