The days when easy listening provoked contempt in Britain are long gone. The smooth tones of Michael Bublé and Rod Stewart brought unashamed festive spirit to millions this Christmas, helping the genre become the third most popular last year.
Artists including Emeli Sandé, Adele, Ed Sheeran and One Direction meant it was a golden year for pop music, with the genre accounting for more than a third of all albums sold in 2012, according to the Official Charts Company.
Yet, with 7.6 per cent of the market, easy listening albums overtook R’n’B music, driven by the current king of the genre, Bublé.
The Canadian crooner’s Christmas album was the most popular easy listening album last year. Another strong performer was Rod Stewart, also with a seasonal album called Merry Christmas Baby. Alfie Boe’s Storyteller and the Military Wives Choir also sold well.
R’n’B tumbled from taking a tenth of the market in 2011 to 7.2 per cent last year, even boosted by Rihanna’s best-seller Unapologetic.
Martin Talbot, managing director of the Official Charts Company, said easy listening had become an increasingly important genre.
The best-selling easy listening artists of the past decade – from Bublé to British singers Susan Boyle and Katie Melua – “are household names, who fit on a range of daytime TV and mainstream TV shows, without being big contemporary pop stars”.
Their mainstream appeal is helped by albums that are “stocked everywhere from supermarkets and mail order services through to specialist music retailers,” he said. “Easy listening – the new rock ‘n’ roll? Maybe.”
Easy listening is made, the cliché goes, to be heard but not listened to. It can trace its origins to the 1920s, but fully emerged three decades later. The genre expanded at the same time, and perhaps in response to the rise of youth oriented rock ‘n’ roll.
The term was coined in 1965 by journalist Claude Hall of Billboard magazine in the US. A pirate station in 1966 called Britain Radio pioneered the format in the UK. Jeff Smith, head of music for BBC Radio 2 and BBC 6 Music, said: “Where Radio 1 was influenced by Radio Caroline’s pop. Radio 2 came out of Britain Radio.” He continued: “These days, easy listening is less easy to define. The way we treat it on Radio 2 is to say: ‘Is it timeless, is it melodic, is it a piece of music that will still sound fresh in a few years?’ The concept of easy may have been replaced by accessible.”