In 1998, I turned ten, watched Super Sunday Premiership football every weekend and started learning Latin, taking the first steps on the Sacred Road that would lead to a Classics degree and untold riches (to be confirmed).
Pop music was moving towards an era completely dominated by teenpop and r’n’b, the synthesis of which was found in Never Ever by All Saints, another Disc 1 track 1 that demands to be selected for this playlist. Fun fact: Cameron McVey, Mr Neneh Cherry, produced it to perfection.
My initial choice was You’re Still the One by Shania Twain, from an album called Come On Over which was produced by her husband Mutt Lange whom we have met before. (Fun fact: the album sold over ten million copies but never made number one in the overall album chart!) In 1998, country music was something I knew about – Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, some bloke called Garth – but Shania dominated the genre with her monster album that spoke to ladies around the world. Incredibly she would release 12 singles to various formats, and You’re Still the One was the Adult Contemporary number one for two whole months. She moved away from country, having started off singing about cowboy boots and quickly progressed (as we will see) to something else (Brad Pitt and Elvis, as you know).
Leann Rimes, however, was country through and through, despite having an 11-week Adult Contemporary number one with How Do I Live, a song that must have bought its writer Diane Warren a lot of houses. Adult contemporary music, according to Billboard incorporates ‘popular soft rock/ adult pop songs’; an article listing the top 50 AC acts pictured Celine Dion, Lionel Richie and Elton John, and that is a pretty good summation of the genre.
Yet if country music is emotion distilled in song, country and AC are only one short dial away. On June 16 2018, Perfect by Ed Sheeran was number one, while the country number one Meant To Be by Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line had risen to a peak of four on AC. One was sent to country radio, the other is an adult pop song. What’s the difference? Twang? Gingerness?
Music is music is music, and NOW compilations do not care for genre (though there has been very little heavy metal or hard rap in the 15 years of NOW so far). On NOW 39 we have a lot of AC music: Torn by Natalie Imbruglia, Kiss the Rain by Billie Myers (‘Hellooo! Can you hear me?’), High by Lighthouse Family, a pointless cover of Baby Can I Hold You by Boyzone (at least its writer Tracy Chapman could buy a fast car with the royalties, thanks to Louis Walsh’s suggestion of the latest vapid cover) and a better cover of Here’s Where the Story Ends, a song by The Sundays which was taken back into the charts by Tin Tin Out.
I will give praise to the song Amnesia by Chumbawumba, which includes the smart lyric ‘Do you suffer from longterm memory loss? I can’t remember’, while Pulp took a rude song called This is Hardcore onto NOW 39 (‘and that goes in there’ was Jarvis’s Guide to Sexual Intercourse). Texas were Insane, Hanson were Weird and Radiohead sang of ‘no alarms and no surprises’ in a song which had glockenspiel on it.
The Verve used four chords in their song Lucky Man, which may be their best and most anthemic song thanks to incredible strings, which was produced by the mighty Youth, former bassist in the band Killing Joke and a producer of some repute. That was his production on All You Good Good People. Some of the best strings in pop music come on Lou Reed’s version of Perfect Day. In 1997, the BBC used the track as a charity single which doubled as a method to promote their music coverage and the licence fee, which was up for renewal through the Royal Charter in 1997.
The song, I feel, is a fantasy NOW compilation in one song: Heather Small, David Bowie, Tom Jones, Bono, Suzanne Vega, Elton John, Boyzone, Emmylou Harris, Tammy Wynette, Shane MacGowan (‘it’s such FUN!’ he sang, having nothing of the sort), Dr John, Gabrielle, the saxophonist and broadcaster Courtney Pine – not much jazz on NOW compilations, either… – and Lou Reed himself intoning the final line.
That song, for Various Artists (who had several hit EPs dating back to 1956 according to the discography!), went straight to number one. It was the second single of the year to have its profits go to charity – proceeds from the sales of Candle in the Wind went to the Diana Memorial Fund – but the other number ones made a lot of money for Aqua (Barbie Girl), Cornershop (Brimful of Asha, remixed by Norman Cook a key higher than on the album version) and RUN D.M.C. Jason Nevins reworked their old song It’s Like That and the video had beboys breakdancing. It was a humungous six-week number one in 1998.
Catalogue is plentiful here: Wildchild remix Renegade Master for a new superclub era; Louise pointlessly covers Let’s Go Round Again by Scottish funksters Average White Band; All Seeing I bring a groovy modern beat to the groovy sixties sounds of Sonny Bono’s The Beat Goes On; Lutricia McNeal sang a version of a seventies song called Ain’t That Just the Way which went to number one in Sweden, which is funny because for some reason the original, by Barbi Benton, was a number one hit there, the Zlatan of pop hits.
Girl group Vanilla produced one of the most annoying songs of the decade with No Way No Way, which lifted its hook from Mah Na Mah Na. In a 2014 piece about novelty songs, Peter Robinson wrote in the Guardian: ‘Girl Power was at its peak; they [Vanilla] reasoned that Wannabe had itself been gimmicky.’ True, but not Muppets-sampling gimmicky.
Indeed, the next paragraph of the piece mentioned ‘the line-dancing cash-in atrocity’ 5, 6, 7, 8 by Steps, a quintet put together by (he’s back!!) Pete Waterman. NOW 39 places Steps’ debut single immediately after Barbie Girl, which is now 21 years old. Dance-pop was a dominant force on radio and in clubs, and the Spice Girls were no longer guaranteed a number one: Stop was stopped, despite its Motown pastiche, by Run DMC. A NOW 39 listener could choose to skank instead to Prince Buster’s first UK hit in 30 years, Whine & Grine.
Music coming from American acts included Together Again by Janet Jackson, an arch theme for Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies by Sheryl Crow and another soppy love song aimed at eleven-year-olds from Backstreet Boys who sang, ‘My love is all I have to give/ Without you I don’t think I could live’.
Cerys Matthews is on twice, once with her band Catatonia (Mulder and Scully) and once under her name in a duet with Space on The Ballad of Tom Jones, where the Welsh crooner stops a couple ‘from killing each other’. Robbie Williams kicks off Disc 2 with the song he kicks off his live shows with, Let Me Entertain You, a blast of endorphins that references the now defunct Yellow Pages (to rhyme with ‘rock of ages’).
Kids in clubs who had outgrown Robbie were dancing to the irresistible Found a Cure by Ultra Nate (which seems to be influenced by both Fleetwood Mac and Cream), the humungous Let Me Show You by Camisra (which sounds like music to work out to), Treat Infamy by Rest Assured, Planet Love by DJ Quicksilver (the third and final top 20 for the act on the great Positiva dance label) and La Primavera by Sash! Goldie returns with Believe, from a double-album called Saturnz Return which included a 71-minute suite called Mother. Warren G also took inspiration from classical music, enlisting a soprano from Norway named Sissel as he rapped over a version of Prince Igor by Borodin for one of his seven top 20 hits.
It took until 1998 but rap and opera were together at last…