The single - The end of an era

This week's No 1 isn't available on CD. What's a man supposed to buy a teenager for his birthday now, asks Jonathan Gibbs
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The Independent Culture

For me, at any rate, it's the end of an era. My good friend Neil's son Harrison has just turned 13 and, as every year since his birth, I set out to buy him the number one single on the UK music charts.

As traditions go, this one's beginnings were random, to say the least. Neil was the first of my friends to turn parent, so when Harrison was born, back in 1996, I had no idea what to buy him as a "welcome to the world" present. But then, walking past a record store, I had a brainwave. The number one that week was the Spice Girls' debut, "Wannabe", and it seemed like an amusing and apposite gift, the pop-cultural equivalent of a newspaper from the day of your birth.

It was only later, with Harrison's first birthday looming, that I decided to turn the one-off into a tradition. Every year, on his birthday, the number one single. That year, as it happened, The Verve were top of the pops, with their dirge-like "The Drugs Don't Work" – the perfect counterpoint to cheesy girl power.

So it went on down the years, via such classic summer hits as Lou Vega's "Mambo No 5", Justin Timberlake's "SexyBack" and Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl". You can't say I wasn't giving the lad an education. And to a certain extent, it's worked. I'm glad to say Harrison's with me on The Verve ("drags on a bit... boring," he says) and "Dare" by Gorillaz ("Makes me relaxed and cool... the words don't mean anything"), though I'm afraid we part ways over "Mambo No 5" ("This song changed my life completely.") Well, he was only three.

Yes, all was well, until now.

Number one this week is "Run This Town" by Jay-Z, featuring Rihanna and Kanye West and – sorry, Harrison – you can't buy it as a CD single. Of course, it isn't the first download-only song to make number one (that was "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley, back in April 2006), but it certainly brought me up short.

It's not the perishability of the medium that gets to me, but of the more general formats – the way that songs are stuck together, and consumed. What we appear to be seeing at the moment is the slow dissolution of the idea of the pop single (with an A-side and a B-side), and of the pop album, just as the EP has dissolved before them. Which sounds like fuddy-duddyness, until you realise how long those ways of packaging songs have been around – far longer than most of the physical media we have listened to them on.

When it comes to the upheaval the industry is currently undergoing, it's pop that loses out. Classical music, after all, has been poorly served by vinyl, cassette and CD – with digital distribution, the work itself, however long or short, can be sold as a distinct entity, not split up over discs or sides, or bundled together with other random bits and pieces. Electronic music, remixes and mash-ups all love digital.

But when I think back to buying my first records, when I was around Harrison's age now – cycling into town on a particular day, to buy a particular piece of 7in vinyl – I am reminded of what pop music meant, and how that meaning was bound up in the form it took. "The first single you ever bought" is, for at least two generations, a defining memory. "The first song you ever downloaded" just won't stick.

In fact, the very idea of the charts seems like an anachronism. The charts are above all a historical means of organising music. Today, all music is everywhere at once, much of it accessible at the click of a mouse. I thought I was giving Harrison a unique time capsule, an evolving soundtrack to his childhood, but I didn't realise how quickly it would become obsolete. He still has the CDs, stacked away in a box in a cupboard – just as my vinyl is stored in the attic – but he listens to the songs he likes on his iPod. For the moment, if he wants to play his CD of "Mambo No 5", he can do so, but there will come a time in his life – and it will be sooner than he or I expects – when he can't.

Those songs, then, for the record? "Wannabe" by the Spice Girls; "The Drugs Don't Work", The Verve; "Bootie Call", All Saints; "Mambo No 5", Lou Vega; "Take On Me", A1; "Too Close", Blue; "The Tide is High", Atomic Kitten; "Where is the Love", Black Eyed Peas; "My Place", Nelly; "Dare", Gorillaz; "SexyBack", Justin Timberlake; "Beautiful Girls", Sean Kingston; "I Kissed a Girl", Katy Perry. Particularly bad music in the middle, isn't it?