- Jesus to a Child – George Michael – 1 week, January 14th to January 20th
Hard to believe that after Wham disbanded, but George Michael never had a number one in the UK as a solo artist – all his previous trips to the top had been duets. That all changed this year as he bought out his third album Older, arguably his strongest record in his career with a good mixture of strong up-tempo tracks and ballads. Leading the way was Jesus to a Child, which competes strongly with Father Figure as the best of his best ballads. The song starts out with haunting yet beautiful keyboard chords reminiscent to the intro of Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits, before the soft and slow melody enters with acoustic guitar backing and a flute. These help to create a serene and beautiful atmosphere in Jesus to a Child which is accentuated when Michael enters. The seductive nature of his voice from his other big hits is absent in this song, replaced with soft high vocals – this could verge on being simpering but Michael pulls it off very well, managing to evoke a warm and calming spirit in his tones that makes Jesus to a Child emotional in a heartwarming kind of way, which compliments the almost bittersweet sounding lyrics. Though the song is near seven minutes in length it doesn’t feel that long and doesn’t wear out its welcome. As such, Jesus to a Child shows the true maturation process of George Michael; he’s completely shed his image as a pretty boy from his Wham! days and has proven just how strong a vocalist and songwriter he is.
- Spaceman – Babylon Zoo – 5 weeks, January 21st to February 24th
With Spaceman being the sixth song used in one of their adverts to reach the top spot, Levi’s Jeans had drawn level with Rod Stewart and Slade for the amount of number ones in the UK, proof again of the sterling success of the brand and its use of advertising. More importantly it managed to become the fastest selling single since Can’t Buy Me Love by The Beatles, selling nearly 420,000 copies in its first week. I imagine that the vast majority of those sales were achieved by the song’s introduction, the part used in the Levi’s advert; pulsating keyboards and pounding drum machines align to create a dark haunting atmosphere before the sped up vocals singing the song’s refrain burst in. This truly feels intergalactic and planetary and creates the foundations for an exciting, pounding dance song…
…and then the song itself begins. From here on out, the melody clunks along with a low pitched drone; though the drum machines are solid and some distorted guitars provide a nice edge to the song, it ends up making Spaceman feel slow and turgid, especially compared to the epic intro. Not helping are the vocals from Jas Mann, who appears to be going from grandiose and epic but falls flat; in the verse he sounds on the verge of falling asleep and in the chorus he seems strained as he tries to go for the big notes, to the point where a lot of the distortion of the song attempts to cover him up at times. Additionally his cry of “INTERGALACTIC CHRIST” in the second chorus sounds like he’s incredibly bored with the song, making it even harder to bear. The lyrics meanwhile seem to be going for serious and scary, railing against media control and getting angry (albeit in a monotonous manner) at homophobia and “the images of fascist folks”, but it falls flat as they come across as jumbled and end up sound like the ramblings of some high school student who’s trying to prove himself as being dark and edgy. The high pitched intro comes back in again for the last 30 seconds of the song but it’s too little too late (and on the album version of Spaceman not only is the song longer but the intro doesn’t return at all, making it even more of a chore to listen to). Ultimately this is an incredibly frustrating song to listen to as you can see immediately the glimpses of brilliance that Mann clearly had with created a fun and intense sounding dance number at the beginning but he just threw it all away for the main part of the song which is turgid and overserious. Beam this one up.
- Don’t Look Back in Anger – Oasis – 1 week, February 25th to March 2nd
Noel Gallagher had only sung on Oasis B-sides up to this point in time; many of the band’s finest numbers including Talk Tonight, Half the World Away and The Masterplan had his vocals on them whilst he had sung the chorus on Acquiesce. But at last the band’s songwriter and lead guitarist stepped up to the limelight with (What’s the Story) Morning Glory’s fourth single Don’t Look Back in Anger. Intriguingly though Noel had initially stated to Liam that he wanted to sing Wonderwall, the group’s biggest selling song, whilst Liam would sing Don’t Look Back in Anger. Thank God Liam wanted Wonderwall because Noel manages to prove himself here with this anthem and shows how he’s comfortably the better singer of the Gallagher brothers.
Right from the get go Don’t Look Back in Anger lays its cards on the table; it’s going to be a big singalong anthem with a grand rousing nature. We can see this right away from the massive piano intro that sounds suspiciously like a bigger and bolder version of the melody to Imagine by John Lennon (unsurprising given Noel’s love of The Beatles). As the guitars and drums crash in, it gives the song a warm and uplifting quality and make Don’t Look Back in Anger that much more of an anthem. Noel shows himself off well as a vocalist; he’s far smoother and tuneful than the rough around the edges style of Liam and it works well with the optimistic stylings of the song as it makes him feel as though he’s commanding a presence with his vocals. This is especially apparent with the chorus as he blares the lyrics with great aplomb, daring everybody in the pub or football stadium to sing it back to him. The lyrics are a little silly in their frequently ambiguous nature (who the hell is Sally? Is she Sally Cinnamon from the song of the same name by The Stone Roses) and there’s a very odd drum fill before the final chorus that sounds as though drummer Alan White dropped his kit down the stairs, but ultimately Don’t Look Back in Anger works delightfully in its ambitions as a massive crowd-pleasing singalong. Grandiose, swirling and quite beautiful in many places, it truly shows how strong Noel is behind the mic and how great he is at crafting a big enjoyable rock ballad.
- How Deep Is Your Love – Take That – 3 weeks, March 3rd to March 23rd
Although they toured for their Nobody Else album following the departure of Robbie Williams, Take That decided that enough was enough and announced their split early on in the year, much to the distress of their fans. There was so much distress about their dissolution that a suicide hotline was set up as a result. Before they dissolved the group dropped a greatest hits album, containing all their singles and one brand new track, a cover of the Bee Gees classic How Deep Is Your Love, intended as their farewell single.
Unfortunately as a final release How Deep Is Your Love is a bit of a dour conclusion for the group. It’s more stripped down than the original rendition, relying more on acoustic guitars and quiet drum machines and though it’s competent enough it’s not exactly amazing. Same things apply with Barlow’s vocals – he does OK for the most part (aside from when the parts where he attempts to imitate the highest parts of Barry’s falsetto) but he just doesn’t leave much of an impression on this song. Ultimately this adds up to a song that almost just seems like a mediocre karaoke rendition of the classic number; it’s not terrible by any means, it’s just horribly uninspired and feels like a damp squib for Take That to go out on, serving as probably their weakest single of their original run. Never Forget would have been a far more effective conclusion than this.
- Firestarter – The Prodigy – 3 weeks, March 24th to April 13th
The Prodigy weren’t exactly unknown by 1996 – they’d already had four top five hits and a number one album, Music for the Jilted Generation, under their belt by this time. But it was truly with Firestarter where Liam Howlett’s dance group from Essex became absolute sensations. Bolstered by controversy from moral guardians who saw the lyrics of the song as promoting violence and the music video as being sheer nightmare fuel for children, the song quickly became the anthem for The Prodigy, and for damn good reason. Right away Firestarter hits you with aggression, thanks mainly to the awesome riff – sampled from the song S.O.S. by alternative rock group The Breeders, the distorted guitar riff delivers a sense of dread and menace – it makes you think that this group actually is dangerous and scary. The combination of the guitars and pounding drum machines build up a delectably dark raver of a song. The songs dark qualities only get accentuated as singer Keith Flint enters the song – roaring into the lyrics with his thick Essex accent he makes you believe that he really will go around burning things and he is a massive asset to the song’s frightful and tense nature. Never relenting in its aggressiveness and upbeat sense of danger all throughout its near five minute runtime, Firestarter shows why when it comes to dance groups The Prodigy are the best of the best – it’s a song that feels like a mix between a club rave anthem and a heavy metal throwdown and sends shivers down the spine from just how well constructed it is.
- Return of the Mack – Mark Morrison – 2 weeks, April 14th to April 27th
Straight out of the mean streets of Leicester (via the slightly meaner streets of Hanover), Mark Morrison came out swinging early in his career leading up to this breakthrough hit, and though he soiled his reputation with many a criminal act later (including attempting to smuggle firearms aboard a plane and armed robbery) he still holds up as a strong and soulful hip-hop artist as Return of the Mack gloriously proves. First up the song’s melody is gleefully smooth; sampled from the song Genius of Love by Tom Tom Club the melody gives the song a warm and joyful atmosphere that combined with the solid beat adds up to a strong stomper of a number. Morrison meanwhile only contributes to the smooth atmosphere of the song – his vocals have more to do with soul then it does hip-hop and he pulls off the gleefully boastful nature of Return of the Mack with a side of seductiveness – he makes it clear that he’s coming back to get the ladies after his heart was broken and he’s not gonna let anything stand in the way of his goal. It’s this combination of the soulful vocal delivery and the rough edges of the lyrics that help to make Return of the Mack a winner and it demonstrates Morrison’s skills nicely.
And it’s a great song to listen to while cruising around in Saints Row: The Third. So there’s that too.
- Fastlove – George Michael – 3 weeks, April 28th to May 18th
Jesus to a Child was a strong song for George Michael but it has little on his next single. The most danceable and upbeat track on the Older album, Fastlove is a song that can fill the floor in an instance and is one of the most seductive numbers that Michael had done to this point. Another song that relies upon samples – this time it relies upon Forget Me Nots by Patrice Rushen – the song hits you right from the outset with a strong vocal performance from Michael (“Gotta get up to get down” works as an excellent hook to the song) and a smooth and funky melody, as the keyboards and bass coexist together in a glorious harmony (the keyboard whistles in the intro are particularly awesome), accentuated by the appearance of a saxophone in the intro of the song, which reappears throughout the song after the chorus. Michael is clearly having fun with Fastlove as he delivers the lyrics about the fun of having one night stands with a deeply seductive quality to his voice; he’s got a twinkle in his tones that makes it clear that he would be brilliant as a lover even if it was just for the night. His work on the closing verse is especially strong as he soars to some fine high notes without sounding strained in the slightest and he compliments the backing vocalists incredibly well, whilst the closing calls of “Gotta get up to get down” and the slightly sinister turn that the music takes at the end all contribute to the atmosphere of the one night stand ending. This helps to push Fastlove over the edge to rank in at least the top five numbers that Michael wrote in his lifetime, proving that the man was brilliant with creating beautiful and seductive upbeat numbers that could get the feet moving and the pulses racing.
- Oooh Aah… Just a Little Bit – Gina G – 1 week, May 19th to May 25th
It’s been quite a while since we got to talk about Eurovision. Although this song by Australian singer Gina G only managed to come eighth for Britain in the 1996 competition it still managed to be one of the biggest smash hits that Eurovision has created – it was the first Eurovision number 1 since A Little Peace by Nicole (and as of this moment it’s the last song from the competition to strike the top spot) and was stunningly rather successful in the USA, getting up to number 12 on the Billboard charts and even got nominated for a Grammy – strong stuff given Eurovision songs historically haven’t performed well over there. And it’s not too surprising to see why as Oooh Aah… Just a Little Bit is a pretty fun, albeit ridiculously cheesy, Eurodance number. The synthesiser intro sounds a little bit cheap and is shockingly loud, attempting to do its best to drown out the drums and bass. But when Gina G enters that’s all forgotten as the fun nature of the song comes in – she’s not an amazing singer by any means but she does well in selling the sexual nature of the lyrics and giving it a light-hearted charm, exemplified in the very silly chorus. As such it’s clear throughout the whole song that Oooh Aah… Just a Little Bit is insanely cheesy and is weighed down by a terrible sounding keyboard but it manages to work rather well thanks to Gina’s enthusiastic vocals and the sheer amount of fun it exudes.
- Three Lions – Baddiel & Skinner & The Lightning Seeds – 1 week, May 26th to June 1st/1 week, June 30th to July 6th
There’s something to be said about the fact that the biggest football song in the UK is a song extolling about how crap England is at football. Written as the official theme song for the UEFA Euro 1996 competition that England played host to (going out in the semi-finals against old rivals Germany), the collaboration between Britpop group The Lightning Seeds and hosts of TV show Fantasy Football League, comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, tells not a tale of unconditional football glory for England but instead is more gloomy and reflective upon the consistent failures of the nation – this can be spotted right away from the use of negative commentary from figures like Jimmy Hill and Alan Hansen. This, combined with the rousing “It’s coming home” refrain, gives Three Lions a gleeful underdog spirit to it. The working class charm of the vocals for Baddiel, Skinner and Lightning Seeds frontman Gary Broudie contribute to the great atmosphere of Three Lions; they know that England are in a bad shape and have been disappointing ever since their glorious World Cup victory in 1966, but have the potential to do good again from their past record. See their namecheck of famous footballers of the past for proof of this (“But I still see that tackle by Moore, and when Lineker scored, Bobby belting the ball, and Nobby dancing”). Despite the gloomy nature of the verses, the chorus (“Thirty years of hurt, never stopped me dreaming”) and the end of the song give hope – commentary comes back after the second verse, though this time positive about England’s achievements, and the last line before the chorus, “I know it was then but it could be again”, cements the epic spirit of Three Lions – it’s a song that takes its time to appreciate the shortcomings of England but still retaining that hope that they could succeed again. And the work of Badiel, Skinner and The Lightning Seeds all do well to give the song a wonderfully uplifting feel to it, with a strong upbeat tune and suitably underdog vocal performances.
- Killing Me Softly – Fugees – 4 weeks, June 2nd to June 29th/1 week, July 7th to July 13th, biggest selling single of the year
Their first album Blunted on Reality didn’t do well when it was released in 1994, so it must have been surprising to see The Score, the second and final studio album by New Jersey based hip-hop trio The Fugees, soar so high when it was released, going six times platinum in America and five times platinum in the UK. A good chunk of the success of the record can be placed down to the second single from the album, a cover of the song originally performed by Roberta Flack. It’s a strong cover version, mainly thanks to the work of Lauryn Hill; the intro in particular demonstrates her vocal abilities well as she sings the chorus soulfully over a quiet organ line. The production adds to this effective intro with different vocals overlaying each other. The song does encounter a strange turn when the hip hop beat enters and fellow Fugees Pras Michel and Wyclef Jean enter and begin conversing over the beat, which feels a little awkward and out of place. Thankfully that takes a back seat to hear more of Hill’s vocals; though they are a little sparse over just the drum machine (a bass guitar is added over the chorus) she does continue to deliver her rendition of the song very well and gives the whole number a dark and haunting feel to it. This all adds up to Killing Me Softly being a strong number by The Fugees, though it’s easily Hill who steals the show on this number – Pras and Wyclef do feel extraneous and the song would have been improved even more if Hill was the sole vocalist. But either way, it’s still great.
Oh, and incidentally this song was the number 1 song in the UK on the day that yours truly was born (specifically June 14th, so there’s no excuse for not sending me a present). There are definitely worse songs I could have been born under. Speaking of which…
- Forever Love – Gary Barlow – 1 week, July 14th to July 20th
Hard to believe it now thanks to his massive solo career but Robbie Williams originally wasn’t the bigger breakout star from Take That. He did respectably well – a cover of Freedom ’90 by George Michael managed to get him to number 2 in August – but it wasn’t until his smash single Angels was released in December of 1997 that he became the biggest pop star in Britain. Instead it was Gary Barlow, the frontman, the songwriter, the main vocalist, who had the initial bigger success. His first two singles went to the top spot and his first album Open Road was also a number one. And then the backlash began, his second album flopped and he became a joke by the end of the millennium – it wouldn’t be until the mid-2000s that he rose again in respectability…
And from the quality of Forever Love you can hear exactly why he became such a mockery and why Robbie became the bigger star from Take That. This is an utter chore of a song to get through, a number so leaden it makes How Deep Is Your Love sound like Relight My Fire. It’s a brazen effort for Gary to show how mature he was and it falls unbelievably flat. The music is incredibly dull despite trying to make an effort to be grandiose and epic (the orchestral intro is the most telling sign of this), relying on a tired piano melody that just kind of goes through the motions. The entrance of drums can’t fix this either as they just plod along. Gary meanwhile proved himself to be a solid singer in Take That but here he’s rubbish – he tries to make an effort to be a grand and serious singer but he sounds ridiculously out of his depth, straining to get all the higher notes and having many bum notes fall into the song – the end of the song where he goes into an awful falsetto is perhaps the nadir of his entire musical career. The lyrics are fluffy love song fare that are incredibly generic but come off across as laughably bad thanks to how overly serious Barlow tries to treat them. And naturally a song this leaden has a serious length problem – at over four and a half minutes this is a real bum number especially since it does absolutely nothing of excitement in that time, and there’s a bit where you think the song will end but it just keeps on going (and leads right into the aforementioned dreadful falsetto). Forever Love is overall a terrible start to a solo career for Barlow and signposts immediately his downfall and being overtaken by Robbie Williams. It stands as being a strong contender for the dullest number one that the charts has ever seen, a song so lethargic that you’ll forget any of what goes on in it not just after the song’s done but whilst you’re listening to the song itself. Sorry Gary – maybe what your song needed was a little bit of girl power…
- Wannabe – Spice Girls – 7 weeks, July 21st to September 7th
It’s strange to think – right out of nowhere a group of five girls, put together thanks to an advertisement in a magazine, blasted right onto the charts and became arguably the biggest and most recognisable British group since The Beatles. That isn’t an exaggeration – here you had five individuals who everybody knew the names of and had catchy nicknames courtesy of Top of the Pops Magazine, received a glut of merchandising and sponsorship deals and helped to make girl power a household term, whilst also contributing massively to the Cool Britannia vibe that Britpop had played a huge part of and arguably getting teen pop back onto the circuit in a market dominated by more rock and R&B leaning artists. Of all the massive musical sensations of the 1990s there was arguably none quite as insanely massive as that of the Spice Girls.
Wannabe gets the girls swinging right out of the gate, acting as the introduction to Scary, Sporty, Posh, Ginger and Baby and showing just what they were going to bring – a blast of fun and uplifting pop music with bags of personality and charisma. We hear this right away as Mel B and Geri blast away with the “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want” verse, which scores a ten out of ten for pure infectiousness and runs over a melody that’s catchy, up-tempo and incredibly well produced. Lyrically too it shows off the ethos of the group – it’s mates before dates and you gotta be with the rest of the band if you wanna be their lover, giving off a strong rousing vibe with themes of friendship. Vocally this isn’t the most impressive number that the girls have done, mainly down to the fact that it relies upon the girls following up on each other with their lines (Victoria being the exception not having a line to herself) instead of going for slightly longer solos that would be the norm in their future singles – additionally, superior vocalists Mel C and Emma take more of a backseat compared to Geri and Mel B. Having said that though all of the girls do a good job with their parts and show off their vocal skills pretty well. The weakest part of the song is the goofy rap breakdown following the second chorus – Mel B and Geri both just about make it through but rapping is clearly not their forte, with the silly lyrics not helping their case. This doesn’t detract from how brilliant Wannabe is, especially as a debut single – it’s a fun and fairly empowering pure blast of pop energy that makes you take note of these five ladies and demonstrates their sheer undeniable star qualities exceptionally well. In short – this song will make you really really really wanna zig-a-zig-ah.
- Flava – Peter Andre – 1 week, September 8th to September 14th
Oh God, how did we allow this to happen? Years before he re-emerged as a C-list superstar thanks to his tabloid friendly marriage to Katie Price and an appearance on I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, Australian popstar Peter Andre managed to rack up two appearances atop of the UK singles chart, defiant of the fact that he had absolutely no talent or charisma whatsoever. Flava is a clear demonstration of his complete lack of skills – the song is designed to be an upbeat and fun club dance number and yet it has all the fun of being the only sober peson in a nightclub. Right away Andre hits you with his awful simpering voice, which is particularly terrible here as he tries to have an aura of excitement with this song but fails majorly because his helium induced voice makes the whole thing just damn irritating – he therefore completely fails to sell the whole “club dance party” vibe that the lyrics try to sell. The music meanwhile is cheap sounding synthesised crap that trudges along getting drowned by Andre’s crap vocals and a rap breakdown by Cee feels very strange and out of place. Cee is fine enough and gets the rap done but he just rings false in a song as bad as this as his appearance seems like another blatant effort by Andre to show off some sort of street cred – maybe try again when you start to not sing like your testicles are being clamped, Peter. Ultimately this shows just why Andre was a joke even before he became tabloid fodder; he tries to sell Flava as being an epic club number but falls hilariously short because of his atrocious vocals and his inability to sound anywhere close to cool. Robson and Jerome are more down with the kids then he is.
- Ready or Not – Fugees – 2 weeks, September 15th to September 28th
The Fugees were on the edge of disbanding all together when they were recording Ready or Not – it had gotten to the point where Lauryn Hill couldn’t bear to be in the same recording studio as the other two. But that worked in the favour for Ready or Not as it manages to capture the dark situation of the band’s uncertain future and creates a gloomy and haunting yet utterly gripping hip-hop song. Taking inspiration from the song Ready or Not Here I Come by The Delfonics and also sampling Boadicea by Enya, the song begins with its sparse and haunting atmosphere with the keyboards creating a dark vibe and Hill delivering a resigned yet still strong performance with the chorus – this gets the song off to a strong start, and made better by the entrance of Wyclef Jean’s rapping in the first verse. He also a tired and worn out atmosphere to his vocals which work in the favour of the song as his tone combines with the song’s contemplative lyrics to create a soulful and thoughtful tune. Hill herself goes for a rap on the second verse and does really well with her confidence as she tears through the bragging lyrics with great aplomb and compares nicely to the more world-weary delivery of the chorus. Finally there’s Pras Michel in the last verse, whose rap is the shortest and the weakest of the trio, but he still does a solid job. This adds up to Ready or Not being a beautifully dark number, a clear demonstration of the skills of all three Fugees in writing and rapping – they dissolved not long after the release of this song but they sure left behind a strong legacy given the small amount of music they released.
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Deep Blue Something – 1 week, September 29th to October 5th
One of the most notable one hit wonders of the 1990s, Texan rock group Deep Blue Something found themselves with a juggernaut of a song thanks to an Audrey Hepburn film (whether or not they’d have had more or less success with its original title Roman Holiday is up for debate) and then absolutely failed to do anything of any worth ever again – one other song had minor success on the UK charts (Josey, which peaked at 27) and the group just drifted away in the turn of the millennium. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is their sole legacy and it’s not a particularly brilliant one.
Musically it’s not too bad – it’s pretty standard alternative rock fare, with light jangling guitars in the verses and a slightly heavier bent in the chorus. Lead singer Todd Pipes isn’t awful by any means – he’s certainly not brilliant and his drawl may irritate some but he gets the job done decently enough. Where Breakfast at Tiffany’s falls down is with the lyrics, which are some of the most ridiculously banal I’ve seen in a 90s rock song, especially when it comes to the chorus – they’re about a man about to break up with his girlfriend as the two have absolutely nothing in common – and then he remembers they just happen to like the titular Audrey Hepburn film and they’ll stay together solely because of that! Gag me. I’m pretty sure even the most bitter of enemies have a few movies that they both enjoy – maybe they both like the same James Bond films or something. These lyrics only serve to make the narrator look pathetic, a man who can’t appreciate that he’s not right for his girl and can’t move past it (which he practically admits in the lyrics in the verses). There are plenty of other fish in the sea that are more compatible for you, just stop whinging about the past, grow some balls and move on. These drag down a fairly average rock song into the hilariously banal and the alternative character interpretation of the song’s narrator are far more interesting than the lyrics actually thrown up in the song itself.
- Setting Sun – The Chemical Brothers – 1 week, October 6th to October 12th
As with their contemporaries The Prodigy, the duo of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons had seen some success prior to 1996 – their debut album Exit Planet Dust had gotten to number 9 on the album charts the year prior. But like The Prodigy 1996 was really the year where the Chemical Brothers became true household names, thanks to a track that can join the contenders of the hardest sounding songs to top the UK singles charts. As with Firestarter Setting Sun relies heavily on a distorted guitar loop (in this case it’s a riff not too dissimilar to Tomorrow Never Knows by The Beatles) that gives this dance song a bit of a hard rock vibe and pairs up well with the pounding drums to make an epic and heavy tune. Notably though Setting Sun doesn’t have scary screamed vocals – instead we’ve got Noel Gallagher on the microphone, who delivers a strong performance that goes along well with the thumping beat and the hypnotic and almost psychedelic guitar loop. Using lyrics from a rejected Oasis song Comin’ on Strong as the backbone of the song, Noel also succeeds in creates darkly trippy lyrics that goes alongside the out there feel of the song and delivering great vocals. Though the song is five and a half minutes it manages to be a gripper for all that time, keeping you entertained by its pounding rhythms and awesome riffs throughout, although the outro which relies upon squeaking keyboards is a little odd. Setting Sun really demonstrates the skills of Rowlands and Simons in creating an entertaining and thrilling dance song and shows how Gallagher could adapt well to a genre of music he’d never been into before. As such, Setting Sun is one of the finest tracks created by all three of these individuals.
- Words – Boyzone – 1 week, October 13th to October 19th
One thing that will become abundantly clear if you delve into the history of the charts is this – pop music from Ireland in the mid to late 90s was absolutely horrendous. For prove of that statement I present to you Exhibit A: Boyzone. They’re a group who has their cynicism written all over them; manager Louis Walsh explicitly created them to be an Irish Take That (using said phrase in audition adverts for the group), showing their nature as a follow-the-leader group incredibly blatantly. And their cynicism is accentuated by the way they were marketed; whilst Take That, East 17 and other boybands of the era had their eyes set firmly upon teenage girls and young women, Boyzone seemed to skew older, targeting mums and aunties. As a sales tactic this was incredibly smart – teenage girls are an important demographic for boybands but they don’t have the greatest financial control, so targeting your music at those who have a more abundant supply of cash was a savvy and lucrative idea. The problem is that as a result Boyzone’s musical output ended up being little more than drivel made to pander to housewives that relied far too much on an overabundance of sappy ballads (for reference, I flicked through Boyzone’s greatest hits collection By Request and out of 19 tracks on the album there’s a grand total of 3 up-tempo numbers – 3 more could charitably be described as mid-tempo but that still leaves a ridiculous proportion of their singles being ballads) and many toothless covers. And speaking of toothless covers, we come to their first number one in the UK following five top five singles from debut album Said and Done (which itself had two naff covers). Words was the lead single of their second album A Different Beat… and it’s not a convincing argument to buy the new LP.
Words is by no means my favourite song by the Bee Gees – I’m personally much more of a fan of disco era Bee Gees then I am of their baroque pop period in the late 60s and early 70s – but it’s still a pretty warm pop song and succeeds thanks to a good vocal performance from Barry and has a nice swirling orchestral arrangement. All of these qualities are gone from Boyzone’s cover as it effectively descends into being a cheap karaoke version of the original – right from the get go you hear a cheap piano and a squeaky high synthesised violin chord that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Robson and Jerome number. None of the boys in Boyzone have any real charisma or excitement to their voices and just feel as though they’re going through the motions with their cover. The song tries for epic at times with the pounding drums but again comes across as feeble as nothing on this rendition of Words has any sort of soul to it, just chugging along like a feeble old steam train desperately trying to get to the next station. The easiest song to compare this to would be Take That’s cover of How Deep Is Your Love, another Bee Gees hit that got resurrected by a boy band and was incredibly bland in comparison to its source material. The difference between the two however is important; How Deep Is Your Love was merely a track put onto a greatest hits compilation that was made once the band was coming to an end, Words was intended to be the big lead single off their second album. These just show the ambitions and excitement of Boyzone to be absolutely nil in comparison to Take That and provides the first real damning case against pop music from Ireland in the mid to late 90s.
- Say You’ll Be There – Spice Girls – 2 weeks, October 20th to November 2nd
Although the Spice Girls wanted, and got, Wannabe as their debut single, their record label Virgin Records and their manager Simon Fuller wanted this song to be the lead-off song to get the girls into the public sphere, believing it was a ‘cooler’ track to introduce the girls. Though Wannabe probably works better as a way of introducing the group, it’s not too hard to see why executives wanted Say You’ll Be There to be the lead single. It’s another upbeat and exciting track by the quintet and it shows off many of the features that would be staples of future Spice Girls singles. The song has more of an R&B feel to it, clearly meant to be an exciting dance number and it succeeds admirably with its ambitions, being sultry and funky throughout with the thudding bassline and the catchy keyboard melody. Lyrically it’s another uplifting number, one about the need to be true and honest in relationships and it’s sold effectively. Of course, the girls themselves do wonders in making the song work with their vocal performances – whilst in Wannabe the vocal performances were a little more restricted to the whole call and response thing, in Say You’ll Be There all of them get some good substantial bits to show off their talents and they work well together with their distinctly different vocal patterns – the softer and more innocent Emma contrasts nicely with the bolder and raspier Mel B, for instance. And even if the song doesn’t work to its fullest as a club tune – the harmonica solo is a little out of place and the return of the rap elements from Wannabe is rather unwelcome and mercifully brief – it does do something far more important; it establishes Sporty Spice Mel C as the group’s MVP. Her vocals soar as she sings as a counterpart over the final chorus and proves her mettle at reaching the highest of notes amongst the girls. This final chorus burst of power by Sporty would be a staple of future Spice Girls singles and are all the better for it as she’s comfortably the strongest singer of the quintet. All of this combines to make Say You’ll Be There even stronger than Wannabe and shows that the Spice Girls were no fluke – girl power was here to stay.
- What Becomes of the Brokenhearted/Saturday Night at the Movies/You’ll Never Walk Alone – Robson and Jerome – 2 weeks, November 3rd to November 16th
Good news. Robson and Jerome’s reign of terror on the UK charts were coming to an end. Their second album Take Two did get to number 1 but the duo decided that enough was enough, turning down £3 million from Simon Cowell to record another album (a figure that surprisingly makes sense – as crap as they were they were still a massive money spinner, with Take Two going 4 times platinum in Britain). The bad news is that they not only got to the top of the singles charts for a third time with another set of uninspired and cheaply produced covers but they somehow managed to reach the position with a triple A-side. A TRIPLE A-SIDE! I technically should be thanking them as it means they would have gotten all their singles out of the way more quickly and we wouldn’t have to put up with potentially another number one single from them again. But still – what seriously merited three of these bland and predictable covers to be merged together on one single?
Do I even need to tell you about these songs? Do I even need to listen to these songs? We all know what there is to these numbers; they’re all slow and lifeless karaoke versions of old standards for the baby boomers to recognise, sung by two men who have no life in their voices to the point where the song tries to cover for their lack of ability by drowning them out with the backing music, which itself is awful and cheap sounding drivel that sounds like it was processed entirely through a computer, and they all add up as a cynical money spinning ploy for Simon Cowell. In under one hundred words I have described every single song by Robson and Jerome in a nutshell, just showing the purely dreadful nature of their musical output. I am glad that they finally decided to not do any more music after this – but couldn’t that decision have happened after they had three number ones and sold seven million albums?
- Breathe – The Prodigy – 2 weeks, November 17th to November 30th
Injecting a much needed shot of adrenaline into the charts after two weeks of Robson and Jerome, The Prodigy return to the top spot in glorious fashion after blazing into the position with Firestarter. Breathe is just as good, if not even better, than that song, being another sheer blast of dance energy that has heavy metal vibes on it at times due to the absolute heaviness of the chorus and its distorted guitars. The song also has a surprisingly Western sounding to it – the main guitar line has a certain drawling quality to it that makes it sound as though it could underscore a Wild West action flick, whilst the sparse guitar strums following the second score give a gritty and eerie vibe to the piece. It may just be me who sees the Wild West nature of Breathe but it’s still undeniably badass in every single way – notably the part following the third chorus where the thumping bass covers up the faint sounds of the guitar strums is chilling in just how awesome it is. Keith Flint, who became a breakout star following Firestarter, is back on the mic in this song and though he sounds a little less batshit demented then he did on that song he still gives an effectively dark and somewhat frightening performance on the chorus. Overall, Breathe is one hell of a dance tune, one that creates a wonderfully ominous and exciting atmosphere and demonstrates the sheer skills of Liam Howlett in creating a thrilling dance track that never runs out of steam.
- I Feel You – Peter Andre – 1 week, December 1st to December 7th
Come on now, Britain. One song by Peter Andre at number one was bad enough but this is just taking the piss. A second scarcely three months later. Just… no. I Feel You is his attempt to do a love ballad, one that’s meant to give him a sexy vibe, sort of like an R. Kelly kind of song. But Andre’s song for the ladies is laughable thanks to his awful vocals – he sounds even more like he caught his balls in a clamp and can’t get them off than he was in Flava, leading to his dreadfully annoying high pitched tones, which sound particularly nasal in this number. Whenever he goes for any sort of emotion other than bored he sounds as though he’s passing a kidney stone. That vocal performance fits the nature of I Feel You though, a song that is ludicrously banal and dull; the melody is utterly forgettable, sounding like a Poundland version of Bump ‘n’ Grind by R. Kelly and it plods along slowly for an agonising five minutes without any sort of excitement to it, whilst the lyrics are incredibly generic love song fare that have no flare to them at all. Ultimately this may not be the absolute dullest number one of the year but it’s sure down there, with Andre demonstrating no charisma at all and the song plodding along through its bloated length with no surprises whatsoever.
- A Different Beat – Boyzone – 1 week, December 8th to December 14th
I don’t think I’ve seen a concept for a song as ludicrous as this. Boyzone, the poster boys for generic pop music that housewives would buy in their droves, attempting to act as social preachers, making comments on events like The Troubles in Ireland and throwing in an anti-war message. Whoever thought that this would work in any sort of way clearly had their heads unbelievably deep in the sands. This is a woeful idea from its conception and the result is that A Different Beat is absolutely laughable, the most ridiculously out of place idea for a boyband since Hangin’ Tough by New Kids on the Block and perhaps the most misguided attempt to be socially conscious since Belfast Child by Simple Minds.
Right away you have the intro featuring low pitched gunfire and African chants which could work as a means to signal a song by a better and more serious minded band (like if it led the way for a dark heavy metal song for instance) but come across as utterly ridiculous when it features on a song by a group as bland and cookie cutter as Boyzone. This is especially apparent as A Different Beat segues awkwardly from that into the main portion of the song, which is a very sappy dirge of a number with a non-descript keyboard and drum machine of a melody which ends up standing out much less than the first thirty seconds of the song. Not even the addition of pan pipes manage to give any form of interest to this utterly bland sounding tune. The boys also all sound very out of their depth with tackling this subject matter. Stephen Gately tries to go for an emotional centre with his singing in the verses but instead comes across as awkward, unsure of himself, perhaps knowing that he’s not the right person to be singing about these sort of things as he works his way clumsily through the lyrics about trying to stop war. Ronan Keating’s bit on the bridge is also weak, whilst the middle eight feels like a real strain for him as he attempts to overwhelm the listener with emotion. Furthermore the chorus where the boys all band together to do an African chant of their own is ludicrous – none of them have the power to make something like this work and they come across as sounding like they’re singing in a school play. This all shows the sheer folly of a group like Boyzone attempting to be socially conscious as it’s clear that they’re incredibly out of their depth trying to deliver anti-war messages to their housewife target demographic. I will give them the most begrudging of respect for at least trying to do something else other than by the numbers love ballads but A Different Beat is perhaps the worst way a group like Boyzone could have attempted to branch out their musical output.
- Throw These Guns Away/Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door – Dunblane – 1 week, December 15th to December 21st
There are a number of factors that place the double A-side of Throw These Guns Away and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (an appropriate choice of cover seeing as the original contains lyrics such as “Lord put these guns into the ground, I can’t shoot them anymore”) away from other charity singles intended to raise money as a result of disasters. First of all the timing of the single came way after the Dunblane massacre – the horrifying incident where a complete waste of oxygen entered a primary school and shot sixteen kids and a teacher before taking his own life occurred back in March, whilst this single didn’t come out until Christmastime. Other singles, like Let It Be and Ferry Cross the Mersey, were released rather quickly after their respective tragedies, which makes the Dunblane tribute that much more of an anomaly. Secondly it doesn’t act as a posturing vehicle for stars trying to make a point of how charitable they were – there’s no Scottish superstars like Jim Kerr, Marti Pellow or Shirley Manson infesting the vocals of the song. Instead we have local musician Ted Christopher performing the lead vocals (and he’s not too bad, doing a decent rendition of the Bob Dylan number) and a choir of children, many of them being families of Dunblane victims, providing backing vocals, whilst Mark Knopfler (who had worked with Bob Dylan in the past on Infidels) plays guitar on the song. This gives the songs a more intimate and personal feel to the track rather than having it as a grotesque spectacle of stars trying to prove how sweet and tender they are – this can be seen right down to the fact that the song is attributed to just Dunblane, a sign that there was a desire to give the town something to be proud of.
But most importantly is the fact that this charity single is much more explicitly political and clear with its aims. Whereas other charity songs responding to disaster basically had the aim of raising money to help out more generalised causes, Dunblane is more upfront – to get the government to ban handguns. We can see this sentiment running all the way through Throw These Guns Away as well as through both the choice of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and the lyrics in its extra verse (which stands as the only time that Dylan has allowed official lyrical changes to his original songs) which directly reference the kids who died in Dunblane and the need to stop using guns. The issue with this is that it makes this charity single unbearably heavy handed, to the point where it feels like the musical equivalent of an NSPCC advert. The single is a clear method of trying to get people to agree with the need for social change and by using these lyrics that reference the young kids murdered at Dunblane and expressing their desire to “let the children play”, not to mention having kids themselves sing on back up, it comes across as a particularly emotionally manipulative manner of recruiting people to their cause. Regardless of what you think about gun laws (or any other political message for that matter), using kids is generally the clearest method used by politicians and social campaigners to try and appeal to your emotions, and it’s not any different here.
And it worked – not only did this song get to number one but a few months later John Major introduced bans for the majority of handguns in Britain. By the end of the year the few varieties of handgun that he hadn’t banned were done so under Tony Blair. So this record was ultimately a success in its aims. I can’t begrudge giving the people of Dunblane, who had suffered through so much, a little bit of happiness and a tribute to their fallen kids. And at least the record had more of a sincerity to it than other gawdy celebrity driven charity songs. But ultimately Throw Those Guns Away and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door come across as pretty obvious attempts to act as the musical equivalent to an anti-gun public information film with its clear emotional argument that it presents as a case against handguns, and neither the music nor vocals are strong enough to move past that fact. I totally understand how this got to number 1 but I have absolutely no desire to listen to this again.
- 2 Become 1 – Spice Girls – 3 weeks, December 22nd to January 11th 1997
After two upbeat dance oriented singles the Spice Girls decided to get slower for their first of three consecutive Christmas number ones and they manage to be as effective with 2 Become 1 as they were with Wannabe and Say You’ll Be There. The whole song radiates warmth, which makes it suitable for its Christmas release, right from the slow violins of the intros to the sultry performances that each girl gives. Mel C and Mel B, who both kick off the song, manage to give the song a glowing feeling with their quiet and subtle performances on the first verse, which sets the mood for the inviting mood of 2 Become 1. But the star on this song, as is so often the case on the ballads, is Baby Spice Emma Bunton, who has an almost cheeky smirk to her pre-chorus lines such as “Come a little bit closer, baby, get it on, get it on, because tonight is the night where 2 become 1” as she invites you closer to get intimate with her – after you put on a condom, of course (the most innocent Spice Girl telling you to wear protection is highly appropriate). Yeah, this is a song about sex and though it may seem a little unsubtle in places it doesn’t dominate the beautiful and serene nature of the song. The warmth of the song also shows through on a brief yet still lovely acoustic guitar solo, but it comes through best on the chorus – the higher pitched combination of Emma and Geri contrasting with the lower and more sultry duo of Mel C and Victoria works wonderfully, whilst Mel B delivers arguably her strongest performance on a Spice Girls single as she invites you to “set your spirit free, it’s the only way to be”. 2 Become 1 therefore shows the sheer effectiveness of the Spice Girls in creating not just fun up-tempo pop songs but slow and charming love ballads without missing a beat.
FINAL THOUGHTS – What a year. After a year in the boring wasteland and another one that was still floundering around a bit the charts roared back this year and sent a multitude of absolute classics to the top spot. Obviously not everything was brilliant this year; we had to put up with a significant number of very poor ballads from uncharismatic idol singers, as well the entry of a group that helped to spell doom for the pop scene of an entire country during the mid to late 90s. But when this year got good it got fucking awesome, to the point where there was literally about six or seven really strong contenders for the title of best number one of the year. Seriously, how could you be upset with a year that saw three insanely heavy and badass dance songs get to the top, alongside some cool hip-hop, enjoyable Britpop, the return of a pop icon and the introduction of one of the most enjoyable groups of the decade? I can’t be. And so it’s a pleasure for me to say that the year in which I was born had, for the most part, a really enjoyable soundtrack to it.
- BEST SONG – Breathe
- WORST SONG – Forever Love
Hey guys, I hope you enjoyed this countdown - I know I had a really great time writing it. I should also point out that this is my longest countdown yet and I assure you things will only get longer. As usual, if you want to see more from me, give my Facebook page a like (https://www.facebook.com/CineCynic1996/?ref=aymt_homepage_panel) and maybe you can throw me a few pennies on Patreon if you really liked my stuff (https://www.patreon.com/CineCynic1996). As for 1997 - I said I was going to upload it on the 4th but something came up so I'm gonna upload the first part (yes, the first part - 97 got so long in spite of the fact that it had the same amount of number ones as 96 that I had to split it into two - you'll thank me for it, I'm sure) on November 11th, with part 2 following the next day. See you then!