20 Hottest Hits
It seems appropriate at this time of year when we fetishise all things syrupy and sentimental to focus on a band with a reputation for sounding as warm, sweet and unctuous as their name: Hot Chocolate. Possibly one of the least critically acclaimed bands in history, the London-based outfit had the unusual honour of scoring at least one hit on the UK singles chart every year between 1970 and 1984, and they soaked up their influences from whatever was popular throughout that era.
Famous for their hook-laden, lush-harmony-accentuated disco-era hits, they're much-loved in a Wan Chai bar sort of way, largely thanks to the number of times their songs - and in particular You Sexy Thing - have been used in films.
Pop-tastic their music might have been, but it drew elements from disco, funk, soul and reggae - in fact, the band were arguably defined first and foremost not by a particular musical style but by alarmingly moustachioed singer-songwriter Errol Brown. He looms large as a charismatic but odd, slightly sinister presence, given to attempting vocal pyrotechnics that frequently are less passionately dramatic than alarmingly reminiscent of a man in need of urgent medical attention.
There's not much point thinking of Hot Chocolate in terms of albums - this is a proper pop singles band, and a greatest-hits album such as 20 Hottest Hits is the only meaningful way to get a sense of what they were about. You might expect even listening to a highlights compilation to get a bit much, and indeed, at times it can feel like eating 20 desserts in a row (particularly when they're inedible monstrosities such as 1972's You'll Always Be a Friend, 1975's A Child's Prayer and 1978's I'll Put You Together Again).
But Hot Chocolate are also capable of throwing in a few surprises. Exhibit A is 1977's interestingly titled Put Your Love In Me, with its curiously mournful tone, mystery-thriller soundtrack aspirations and bizarre yelping interludes from Brown. The pre-disco era also produced some impressive curios - the Womack/Mayfield-flecked Rumours (1974) contains some startling dynamics, manic wah-wah interludes and Brown again throwing the obligatory vocal wobbler. Likewise Brother Louie (1973), which sets an over-earnest anti-intolerance lament to a slice of lissome funk, while Mindless Boogie (1979) improbably sounds like a collaboration between David Byrne and Grace Jones. I Believe (In Love) (1971) would be pure saccharine pop but for the mildly eccentric late-60s arrangement, and the same year also coughed up the boogie-woogie soft rock of You Could Have Been a Lady. And Hot Chocolate's first hit, as far back as 1969 was, of all things, a reggae cover of Give Peace a Chance.
Even the hits for which they're best known, such as 1976's Don't Stop It Now, with its You Sexy Thing-like string stabs, can be surprisingly uplifting, while Emma (1974) is an intense, involving and rather downbeat love song. And Everyone's a Winner (1978) remains a rather remarkably groovy slow grind, based around just about the hookiest hook in Hookland.
The big surprise of 20 Hottest Hits, then, is that it's not quite as sugary as you'd expect. Listen to it and you come out at the end slightly shell-shocked, thinking that you might like to listen to some bits of it again. Honestly: cast aside your prejudices and you'll find that Hot Chocolate are actually a proper band, with a bizarre little niche of their own - and pop music would be a lot poorer without them.