In 2020, the NOW series has thrown up a cover of a Broadway showtune sung by a centenarian and a TV personality’s song about carbohydrate. Released in the middle of a four-week ‘circuit break’, NOW 107 will soundtrack any school runs, Christmas shopping dashes and year-end broadcasts.
In a year without summer blockbusters, pub crawls, birthday banquets in restaurant function rooms, crowds to witness Liverpool’s record-breaking run at Anfield and no clear resolution to whether or not black lives matter (they do), what music was being pushed to people?
‘Wet Wet Wet’ was what radio listeners heard on a number one song from 2020 by the two exciting stars of US rap who aren’t called Lizzo. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion say all sorts of filth involving genitalia and liquid secretion thereof on a song which launched a thousand thinkpieces. The Telegraph went for ‘Pornography or Feminist Triumph’ and LA Times quotes Megan’s song Savage by calling it a ‘savage, nasty, sex-positive triumph’. Set to a sample from Frank Ski’s Whores In This House, Cardi calls herself a ‘certified freak, seven days a week’ while Megan implores her man to ‘pay my tuition just to kiss me’. Sex still sells.
In autumn 2020 Little Mix were trying to find their replacement girl band and the final show of their Search on BBC One was timed to coincide with the release of sixth album Confetti. It’s fine but what was less good was Jesy having to take a break for unspecified medical conditions. As well as their bouncy non-summer holiday hit Holiday, Sweet Melody – written with MNEK and Tayla Parx and featuring the line ‘he would cheat over syncopated beats’ – rose to the top three where it was stuck behind Positions by Ariana Grande.
That track, with a pizzicato riff and a drum loop, was accompanied by a video where Ariana played a president of a cabinet full of ethnically diverse people, inserting herself into the chatter about whether Donald Trump would be defeated at the ballot box (reader: he was). It sounds like a record executive yelled at some songwriters to come up with the most contemporary production and something about being in the kitchen or bedroom. Feminism sells.
So do bangers and bops, with which NOW 107 is frontloaded: Take You Dancing (Jason Derulo, very much on brand), Rain On Me (the phenomenal blockbuster duet between Ariana and Lady Gaga) and Tick Tock, which brought together three record company cash cows (with apologies to their talent): Clean Bandit, Mabel and 24kGoldn. Levitating means that Dua Lipa and DaBaby, who appears on a remix of the track, two-time on the compilation, as Dua’s track Hallucinate is here too.
Watford-based personality KSI goes one better: Really Love is produced by Digital Farm Animals and features the man who was ‘born to do it’, Craig David; Lighter is a euphoric dance-pop song in the modern vein by Nathan Dawe on which KSI takes a verse; and he also appears on Loose with S1mba, who was born in Zimbabwe and follows up Rover with another Afrobeats hit which namechecks the G-Funk song Gin & Juice. Later on in the compilation Wes Nelson, from Love Island, mumbles his way through See Nobody, which borrows Hardy Caprio who goes ‘skrrt’ over some bragging about ‘cash fam’ and Batman and Santan (the rapper Dave). The one redeeming feature is the chorus, which is irresistible. Melodicism sells.
Faceless dance acts were still popular on radio even though their music couldn’t be heard in clubs. Sigala two-time on NOW 107. They borrow the stylophone riff of Time To Pretend by MGMT and use James Arthur for Lasting Lover (it all rhymes!!). They also appear with Becky Hill on Heaven on my Mind.
Looking For Me was designed to be a song for lairy lads or ladies to approach someone in da club with the line, ‘Heard you been looking for me…’ Well done to Paul Woolford and Kareen Lomax and Diplo. German DJ Topic and Swedish singer A7S follow their uber-successful smash Breaking Me with Why Do You Lie To Me, with a helping hand from Lil Baby. It seems Europop has a new king.
Over in the UK Calvin Harris uses The Weeknd on the slinky Over Now and Rudimental borrow Anne-Marie and Tion Wayne for Come Over, which brings back the two-step sound brought into the mainstream in 2000 by Artful Dodger.
In pop, you should not fix an unbroken gasket. Kygo updates What’s Love Got To Do With It by using the same formula he used on Higher Love. AJ Tracey repeats his Ladbroke Grove trick almost entirely, naming West Ten after a London postcode and drafting in Mabel to sing a fun chorus after which he shouts his catchphrase: ‘Live and direct!!’. MEDUZA keep on scoring hits, this time with the song Paradise, with vocals from the Irish version of Ed Sheeran, Dermot Kennedy (although Ed Sheeran is the English version of Damien Rice). Dermot’s big hit Giants also features on NOW 107 with its line ‘it’s all in the science’ proving very apt.
Marshmello (who is a bloke called Christopher from Philadelphia) uses Demi Lovato, who has been very open about her mental health issues and fluid sexuality in recent years, on the anthemic OK Not To Be OK. Sam Smith, the gender-fluid popstar, released their (sic) delayed third album which included Diamonds, a death metal jam which bemoans the treatment of Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Of course it isn’t: it’s a heartbreak ballad with a funky chorus to throw me off the scent.
Other songs which did well on Radio 2 during the latter half of 2020 are Magic by Kylie Minogue (Disco Kylie is BACK!) and Too Many Nights, a grown-up clubbers’ song credited to 220 KID and JC Stewart. Three swarthy blokes are brought together on Elita: Gary Barlow, Michael Buble and Sebastian Yatra (Colombian, 25m Instagram followers) are all the same product, all hot sexy guys from different continents with lovely voices. Elita is what happens when Gary Barlow tries to write Latin pop. It sounds like a marketing meeting.
Interestingly, ‘country star’ Keith Urban had a Top 40 hit, albeit at number 40, with P!nk. The pop song One Too Many (which sounds like a marketing meeting) has Keith drinking the day away while P!nk has to put up with it. Kenny Chesney had a hit duet with P!nk a few years ago, so both artists know what they are doing (it involves school fees for their kids).
The BBC are on hand for the final track of Disc One, a tune comprising four notes by Paul Harvey arranged for the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra by Daniel Whibley. A dementia sufferer, Paul is still able to connect with music and after his son Nick gave him the notes – F, A, D and B – he was able to improvise a tune on a piano. What a good idea to put some instrumental classical music on a NOW.
Disc Two begins, naturally, with some of the most successful tracks of lockdown year, both on TikTok and on radio: Rockstar by DaBaby and Roddy Ricch, which is very straightforward but danceable; Lemonade, the pileup which is credited to (deep breath) Internet Money & Gunna ft. Don Toliver and NAV; and the Transatlantic TikTok hit Mood by 24kGoldn and Iann Dior. All three successfully marry melody, harmony and lyric, which the best rap music does. Popsmoke, the Brooklyn rapper who was shot dead at the age of 20 in February 2020, spent two months high up the chart with What You Know Bout Love, which came from his posthumous chart-topping album.
Cheekily, the compilers place you broke me first (in lower case) just before Billie Eilish’s hit my future (in lower case) to make the point that Tate McRae has wholesale nicked Billie’s act, even down to the vocal inflections and lower-case songtitles.
Conan Gray is signed to Republic Records, who are throwing money at making Heather a hit. Over a simple chord progression on an acoustic guitar, Conan sings very breathily about ‘a sweater’ and is joined by a mass of Conans doing harmonies. He is the third party, unable to inveigle his way into Heather’s life. As well as TikTokkers, Elton John is a massive fan, and he likes that Heather is a song which has music and lyrics by C. Gray, which makes him an outlier on the Top 40.
Heather is placed next to Wonder by Shawn Mendes, who releases a new album of the same name just in time for Christmas. It is being showcased with a Bieber duet called Monster and this masterful ballad written with, among others, Kid Harpoon who helped Harry Styles create his last album. Shawn has a better voice than Harry, though, and the song is all about self-fulfilment and love. The production is wonderful too.
Ashnikko is a blue-haired singer-songwriter whose swear-laden track Daisy gained traction in late 2020. After the first chorus she cackles with laughter and admits that she is ‘no Cinderella but she likes the shoes’. Excitingly, before lockdown forced her back to the States, she was based in London. I expect we’ll hear more of her and, given that Doja Cat is sliding into irrelevance, I think 2021 will be the year of Ashnikko who already has 1.6m TikTok fans.
With Katy Perry settling down with kids, husband and TV money, there is a vacancy for an outrageous popstar. Ava Max, Halsey and Dua Lipa seem too safe, while Cardi and Megan and Lizzo are global superstars who can play the game and keep black and white fans happy (I call this the Whitney Houston Line). Mabel will move into that bracket soon.
RAYE is not outrageous but she lets her music do the talking. She rather stands in Dua Lipa’s shadow but is probably more talented and criminally underrated. Her song Natalie Don’t promotes her nine-track album Euphoric Sad Songs, which rounds up her singles from the last year including big hit Secrets. The song nods to Nothing Compares 2 U with its sparse synth and I’m wild about a syncopated and interesting vocal. The production is wicked here too.
RAYE’s old friend from NOW 96, Jax Jones, has Au/Ra on his track I Miss You, which landed on the Radio 1 Playlist. The lyric is brilliant, as Au/Ra seems to miss her old flame wherever she goes: ‘I open my eyes and I breathe…I’m closing my eyes, trying to sleep.’ The descending chords in the chorus are a good touch and it’s yet another winner from Jax Jones.
There is so little rock’n’roll on NOW compilations these days that it’s pleasant to hear boys with guitars. Machine Gun Kelly & blackbear offer My Ex’s Best Friend, which is loud and melodic and keeps the flame of pop-punk alive. Fun fact: Travis Barker from Blink-182 co-wrote and produced the track, but because rock music is not the music of America’s youth the chaps have to bend towards current sounds, which means a light trap beat underneath all the shouting. Interesting, though, but not a patch on WAP.