2006 was both the year the single died and the year the humble song came back to life again, writes Kevin Courtney
POP pickers had long been prepared for the demise of the traditional single. Sales of CD singles have been on a steady decline since the start of the new millennium, while seven-inch vinyl discs have reached rarity status. Many mistakenly believed, that once the format died, the songs would die with it. But, like a butterfly shedding its caterpillar skin, the music took flight, freed from its circular five-inch cage and unfettered by the chart rules to which single releases must conform, such as a maximum of three different tracks, and restrictions on free gifts, posters, stickers or anything else that might persuade fans to shell out up to €6 per copy.
In April, Gnarls Barkley's Crazy became the first song to top the charts on download sales alone. But instead of dropping out of the hit parade as quickly as it came in, as singles have been wont to do, Crazy stayed in pole position for nine weeks. This was partly due to the publicity generated by the song's online feat, which ensured continued sales when physical copies came out the next week. Really, though, the real reason for the song's success is that, unlike Bryan Adams's Everything I Do (I Do It For You), Crazy was as cool a slice of souljacking hip-hop as you could hope to hear this side of Sherwood Forest, and deservedly became the biggest tune of 2006.
In the wake of Crazy's success, pop fans subscribed in droves to such music download sites as iTunes and the now-legit Napster, and began loading up their MP3 players with the hottest new tunes. The countdown had begun.
In anticipation of the end, the BBC axed Top of the Pops; it aired the final programme on July 30th and even wheeled out musty old ex-presenter Jimmy Savile to preside over the wake. Dave Lee Travis, the DJ once known as "the Hairy Cornflake", explained the show's demise thus: "If you look at your average kid who might be interested in Top of the Pops, they'll have their iPod in one hand, a mobile phone in the other, they'll be playing a computer with their feet and have a Wi-Fi aerial sticking on the top of their head."
In the democracy of downloading, punters voted with their thumbs, and suddenly everybody had a shot at having a hit record. Sandi Thom (or Sandi Thom's PR people, depending on who you believe) exploited the new platform, performing a concert in her apartment and broadcasting it online, and was rewarded for her (or her PR people's) ingenuity with a No 1 hit, I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair).
Much more credible was Lily Allen, daughter of comedian Keith Allen, whose MySpace page boasts 90,000 friends and whose ska-lite chart-topper, Smile, became the sunny summer soundtrack for London hipsters. Corinne Bailey Rae's gentle, jazzy Put Your Records On also seduced, but Amy Winehouse's Rehab pushed you roughly on the floor and had its wicked way with you.
Those who feared the information superhighway would soon go down the middle of the road route needn't have worried: there was room in the parade for various indie and alternative bands, and established popsters such as Beyoncé, Pink and Girls Aloud had to share chart space with grubby indie acts such as The Automatic, Kooks, Fratellis and Dirty Pretty Things.
With download sales now counting as chart placings, singles no longer entered the charts at No 1 and then dropped out, but made a more measured climb to the top. It felt just like the 1970s all over again, right down to the look and sound of the new indie bands. You had Kooks coming on like Bowie circa 1972, Raconteurs rocking like Led Zeppelin, and Wolfmother doing their best Uriah Heep impression; and tonight, Matthew, Fratellis ARE Mungo Jerry.
Then there were the so-called new ravers, who mixed punk-rock guitars with Prodigy-type ambulance sirens and woo-woo'd their way into the hearts of pop fans. The T.Rex of them all was The Automatic's Monster (more pop than new rave, but still glowing) and chasing behind them like a gaggle of angry geese were Klaxons, New Young Pony Club, CSS and Shitdisco. Noisy and exuberant, these were the perfect singles bands - you couldn't stick that infernal squalling for the duration of an entire album.
On the home front, we were treated to a storm of good bands who knew their way around a chorus. In particular, The Blizzards, Director and The Immediate displayed sharp pop-rock instincts. A few bloated bands still clung to the earnest, overwrought Coldplay/Radiohead formula, but these guys aimed straight for the tune, and hit the bullseye every time.
The cross-legged brigade, long seen as a purely Irish anomaly, finally began to cross over. Irish singer-songwriter Fionn Regan making waves in the UK and the already established Damien Rice charting with 9 Crimes, even though its folk-you chorus is unlikely to be aired on daytime radio or teatime TV.
Razorlight made their bid for stadium glory with the turgid FM anthem America, whose only redeeming quality was that it sounded a bit like Cyndi Laupers's Time After Time. Meanwhile, real stadium rockers U2 teamed up with Green Day at Abbey Road to record a cover of The Skids' The Saints Are Coming, reminding us that they, too, used to be punk rockers with flowers in their hair. Westlife proved that not even an invasion of indieheads can prevent them from getting to No 1 yet again, but woeful ballad The Rose makes the boybands of the past seem almost exciting by comparison.
Re-enter Take That with comeback single Patience, which at the time of writing is still at the top of the charts. It's a good tune, too, but let's pray that its success doesn't prompt Boyzone to reform. Now that really would spell the death of the song.
TOP TEN SINGLES - Kevin Courtney
1. Monster - The Automatic
2. Rehab - Amy Winehouse
3. Steady, as She Goes - Raconteurs
4. Crazy - Gnarls Barkley
5. Smile - Lily Allen
6. She Moves in Her Own Way - Kooks
7. Put Your Records On - Corinne Bailey Rae
8. The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song - Flaming Lips
9. Young Folks - Peter, Björn and John
10. Let's Make Love (And Listen to Death From Above) - CSS