Dec 19

Popular Crystal Ball 2019: You can say I’m hatin’ if you want to

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As is the annual tradition, a look over the year’s number ones, from best to worst. After a couple of years where this was an exercise in barely managed apathy, there are songs here I actually love. Save a chart, ride a cowboy! Behind the scenes, the machinery required to shape “the chart” is creaking badly, though.

LIL NAS X ft BILLY RAY CYRUS – “Old Town Road”: I marginally prefer the unremixed version – Cyrus’ verse is delightful and turns “Old Town Road” into more of a ‘song’, but the original is as mysterious and perfect a world in two minutes as anything in pop since “Outdoor Miner”. I listened to both mixes every day for weeks.

ARIANA GRANDE – “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored”: As soon as I saw this song on thank u, next, I figured I would either loathe it or it would be my favourite thing on the record, depending on whether it lived up to that gloriously amoral title. It does – playful rather than mean, delighted by its own wicked impulses, and with one of Grande’s most instant choruses.

STORMZY – “Vossi Bop”: More than anything else, what I want from Number 1s is that I can hear something new in them. “Vossi Bop” delivers with one of the starkest beats on a No.1 ever – its muffled, musical-box menace perfectly fitting Stormzy’s sleepy-lidded notes from a life changed for good.

ED SHEERAN ft KHALID – “Beautiful People”: Sheeran’s collaborative project is a chance for him to stretch his genre legs, as well as burnish his long-forgotten cred. While it doesn’t make me love the guy, it’s a welcome shift. He’s not half bad on this R&B slow-burner, though he’s also not half as good as Khalid, whose melancholy minute by itself makes this Ed’s best Number 1.

SHAWN MENDES AND CAMILLA CABELLO – “Senorita”: Mendes enlists the “Havana” hitmaker to make a record which… isn’t a cigar’s length away from that song, only a bit more summery and sleepy. Has enough sultriness to it that it just about gets away with its basic lack of ideas.

ED SHEERAN AND JUSTIN BIEBER – “I Don’t Care”: You will always find him in the kitchen at parties. Unfortunately, he’s the one with the acoustic guitar. I like the sentiments here a lot more than the drab execution.

ELLIE GOULDING – “River”: Perhaps more interesting from a wonkish perspective than a musical one – it’s the first Amazon-exclusive Number One, a declaration of intent in the soon-come “Streaming Wars” which are going to bore the fuck out of everyone for the next few years. Spotify users will just have to content themselves with the Joni Mitchell version, I guess, something this subscriber, at least, can probably live with. It’s a hell of a song, as you knew: Goulding is content to stay in its shadow.

ARIANA GRANDE – “7 Rings”: The materialism I can take or leave – though it makes Ariana Grande sound like she’s buying her friends, which can’t be the idea. The Sound Of Music borrowing, though – oooof. Hard to do well, not done well here.

ED SHEERAN ft STORMZY – “Take Me Back To London”: The music weeklies used to run interviews sometimes where two huge stars would interview each other about being famous. (It’s tougher than you think, is the general idea). Here’s one of them, except it’s a record. Sheeran gets to prove a point about his rap credentials (he’s bearable at it); Stormzy gets to cement his A-lister status; what we get out of it isn’t so clear. Both men had better No.1s this year individually, about much the same things.

LEWIS CAPALDI – “Someone You Loved”: With big Ed going urban there’s a gap in the market for strained balladeers, and Lewis Capaldi has filled it. It’s shorter than you think it’s going to be! That’s all the kindness I can show it, really.

TONES AND I – “Dance Monkey”: The jaunty catchiness of the hook, balanced against the hellish irritation of the baby-talk vocals and the slightness of the song. Number one for a masochistic ten weeks – I suspect the mechanisms of it all would depress me horribly.

LADBABY – “I Love Sausage Rolls”: I looked kindly on this guy last year, but I was wrong. Do you know how many songs have rock’n’roll in the title? Really quite a lot.


  1. 1
    CriticSez on 31 Dec 2019 #

    The worst year ever, no question. Even 2011 with Cher (the bunnied one; a big fat zero for that) was (marginally) better.

    Ed and Khalid, Lewis and Ellie were 5s. 7 Rings and OTR (original) were each lumped with a 1.

  2. 2
    hardtogethits on 1 Jan 2020 #

    When we used to say bad pop was formulaic, we used to mean something different from this. Algorithms ahoy!

    By titles alone, it’s like when you’ve been playing a sports sim for 25 virtual years and forenames and surnames have been paired implausibly because unique, high-profile characters are being recycled. With pop, there’s so much more to go at, on account of Nicknames ft TLA etc.

    Maybe Elvis Costello started it.

  3. 3
    Tommy Mack on 1 Jan 2020 #

    I think it’s Ed Sheeran’s galaxy of star collaborators that irks me most. I mean, before Ed there was David Gray and before him there was Phil Collins and before him there was Cliff Richard. But Cliff didn’t have Miles, Aretha and Iggy queueing up to duet with him. It’s that, more than just the phenomenal success of his dreary workmanlike music that feels like the end of pop history. It’s just a numbers game, no concern for the quality or fit of the pairing, just get the biggest names together to max out those streams.

  4. 4
    Chelovek na lune on 1 Jan 2020 #

    Dreadful selection this year, all round.

    Apart from “Break Up WIth Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored”, the only other one I’d give time to (not warranting a mention here) was the hangover from 2018, Ava Max’s “Sweet But Psycho”.

    Maybe I am just too much of a grumpy middle-aged git now, but my assertion remains that the charts are still too broken. Maybe even more so than when you got through a new number one every week.

  5. 5
    Lee Saunders on 1 Jan 2020 #

    Another year where I’ve been living under a prematurely greying rock. I like Old Town Road and Vossi Bop, don’t knowingly know the others except LadBaby (an apt no. 1 to mark 30 years since Let’s Party) and Capaldi (as with many Ed songs I can never remember how it goes unless its on, which is just as well).

  6. 6
    Weej on 1 Jan 2020 #

    Quite a good selection, and I know everyone on it, so maybe 40 isn’t so old after all. Only real shocker is Lewis Capaldi, the Tesco Value Ed Sheeran, Ladbaby is bad too but I can easily escape it. Still not bored of Old Town Road, so it must be a classic.

  7. 7
    cryptopian on 1 Jan 2020 #

    Overall, feels like Billboard got the better deal over the number 1 selection. Sure, they also had to put up with Lewis Capaldi, but Billie Eilish, upbeat Post Malone and Lizzo both taking the top spot and OTR’s record breaking 19 weeks made it feel like a changing of the guard was finally happening.

  8. 8
    daveworkman on 2 Jan 2020 #

    I was whistling the melody for Old Town Road in the kitchen yesterday and my housemate asked if I was whistling Dean Friedman’s Lucky Stars which is either an indictment of my whistling or his musical tastes.

  9. 9
    James BC on 3 Jan 2020 #

    People are being a bit hard on this. I’m not a fan of Tom’s top two (in particular Ariana’s voice is wasted on all this tuneless rnb wafting) but there’s plenty to enjoy considering the small number of songs represented.

    Lewis Capaldi is nothing like Ed Sheeran – his voice is better and he’s a much more melodic songwriter.

    Tones & I is obviously a bit novelty, but still memorable, catchy and a worthy number 1.

    And Sheeran is Sheeran, but Beautiful People is actually really, really good. The only downside is the nagging suspicion it’s basically a Sheeranized version of Mike Posner’s ‘I Took A Pill In Ibiza’, but still, great song.

  10. 10
    Shiny Dave on 8 Jan 2020 #

    Agreed that Beautiful People is a major high water mark for Ed, if only for one of the best synth hooks of a decade not short on contenders for that crown.

    “Someone You Loved” apparently got written in an absurdly short time, which is somehow incredibly unsurprising. Between it, “Old Town Road,” and “Dance Monkey,” this was one heck of a year for devastating simplicity at the top. Which feels a little on the nose for the year that ended with devastating simplicity winning an electoral near-landslide (a connection that ties into Tom’s picture for this being a Google Maps image from Stoke-on-Trent!) – although I have a lot more time for any of those songs than I do for the architects of said election.

    (On which note, I have a feeling “Vossi Bop” is going to age very strangely – it might be as strong a pointer to the 2020s as the early Gaga bunnies were to the 2010s, it might be a total one-off in terms of that sound on Popular, but either way it feels like the long-term abiding memory of it is going to be one line in the first verse.)

    As #7 points out, this list is horribly incomplete with no Lizzo or Billie Eilish.

  11. 11
    Stephen Emmett on 9 May 2020 #

    The sample in Old Town Road, BTW, is actually Nine Inch Nails’ instrumental track “34 Ghosts IV”. Worth a fine selection of Number Ones…

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