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The soundtrack to Christmas is changing – here’s a compilation of reasons why

Perfect for every stressed Christmas shopper. Ollyy/Shutterstock

The festive season music charts are some of the most competitive of the year, and so Christmas is all about singles. This was especially the case in 2014, which saw the X-Factor’s Ben Haenow trump Band Aid 30 to win that crown of glory (and cash cow), the Official Christmas Number 1.

But the festive season is also the time of that classic stocking filler: the Christmas compilation. The perfect gift for the person you don’t really know. A vanilla gesture of sorts.

So here’s a rundown of some of the compilations you might find in your Christmas stocking this year. If you get one, perhaps it’s something to treasure. Because it doesn’t look like this is a tradition set to continue.

Greatest hits

Career retrospectives from the likes of David Bowie and The Who are purposefully released in the latter stages of the year to make for perfect stocking fillers.

Such compilations are perfect for those unfamiliar with their works. No true fan would want to pay for all the songs they already own packaged up with a shiny new album cover, so that’s why they come out now. Other people buy them as gifts for those fans, thinking they’ve really sussed it. The same goes for live comedy DVDs.

Older generations still prefer hard copies of music. Younger music fans, however, the “digital natives”, know that such music compilations are increasingly redundant in the era of the digital download (legal or otherwise).

But such releases have retained their place in the canon of major artists. They’re inexpensive to produce. Aside from the odd new song or remix, there is little or no studio time involved. The songs have already been written and recorded. And in an era that is typified by nostalgia, with a resurgence in vinyl, for instance, there is also widespread interest in the back catalogues of older artists. So for now, they’re safe.

Official movie soundtracks

Film soundtracks have always been a sure gift, both highlighting some sense of musical nouse along with a conversation starter about your favourite film of the year. But sadly this particularly superior brand of compilation looks less likely than normal to lie under your Christmas tree.

This is because the slump in the sales of movie soundtracks has been greater than that of albums more generally. Why this is the case remains open to speculation, but it may simply be a consequence of reduced cinema attendance.

Importantly, many soundtracks have often acted as a sampler of particular genres, as with the popular alternative 90’s soundtracks for The Crow, Spawn and The Matrix, for example. They acted as a mixtape of sorts. Some films such as Clerks or Singles were even effectively sold on the basis of their soundtracks.

But with the ability to download single songs nowadays the appeal of such packages is, well, less appealing (though don’t forget the incredibly popular soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy earlier this year).

Movie soundtracks are adapting to the new listening trends dictated by the digital world. They have become more eclectic, mirroring the new listening styles of consumers. People are more and more likely to listen to a variety of genres, due to the freedom of digital music.

So films still promote music very effectively, but this is far more likely to be a single track rather than an album. Think of Pharrell Williams’ phenomenally successful single “Happy”, which was written for the film Despicable Me 2.

There’s also a recent trend for popular musicians to act as composers for films. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, for example, wrote the score for There Will Be Blood, and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor for Gone Girl. Bringing these artists on board means bringing with them their legions of fans dead-set on completing their collections by snapping up their soundtrack work. So perhaps this isn’t the end of the line for this particular kind of album.

End-of-the-year rundowns

But it is hits of the year compilations that are probably the most likely candidates for stockings. Innocuous, yet assuming a relative lack of musical knowledge in the receiver.

Recently the 89th entry in the enduring Now That’s What I Call Music series became the fastest selling album of 2014. This comes as something of a surprise given the general shift to streaming, but the Now series has always been popular. It’s an inexpensive way to access a wide range of songs. Such compilations act as “authoritative” playlists, providing an entry-level means to listen to songs by a variety of artists.

Despite this recent upturn I’m unsure how long this can go on. Free playlists on music sharing platforms provide a much easier and cheaper alternative.

And accordingly, I will be sticking to my own hand-picked playlists on my music subscription service of choice, and hoping that no-one will think so little of me to buy me either of the above three kinds of compilation. I don’t care for “authoritative” compilations of anything. Not when I can pick and choose as I please and take control over what I listen to.

So if you’re listening, Santa, there’s no need to bring me, at least, any stocking fillers this year.

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