Style met substance in Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis’s big smash hit that ensured they never had to work again. It can be argued that people wanted a distraction from America mourning 2600 people who perished in the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington DC; it can be argued that this sleek piece of pop would have been a smash in 1996, 2006 or 2016.
There is something magical when a pop song comes together: all the la-la-las are in the right place (we hear them before we hear the first ‘verse’); the vocal is delivered in a purr; there are hardly any words, which have to be sung over several beats (‘set meee freeeeee-eeee’); the verse becomes the chorus which becomes the intro, or is that the chorus? I also loved the BRIT Awards performance when Kylie married the song with New Order’s hit Blue Monday. I actually prefer that version, which was a B-side to a future single from the album Fever, probably her best. As it is, NOW 50 kicks off with the original so I have no hesitation in making it the playlist entry.
Following Kylie’s big hit were four pieces of catalogue: Westlife (aha!!) with Uptown Girl, a cover that does something unmentionable to the classic Billy Joel pastiche, for unknown reasons; ‘the top holiday tune of 2001’ (according to the inlay booklet) DJ Otzi with Hey Baby, a cover of the 1962 hit for Bruce Channel; Mambo No. 5 by Bob the Builder for unknown reasons; and Steps with Chain Reaction, written for Diana Ross by The Bee Gees and brought back for unknown reasons.
The dominance of black music is seen in Disc 1: Wyclef Jean has emerged from the Fugees and has a massive hit with Perfect Gentleman, and City High do the same with What Would You Do, a story with a raw lyric about childhood struggles produced by Wyclef with the hook ‘for me this is what I call life, mmm’. On Disc 2, Mary J Blige sings of a Family Affair on an enormous hit that was all over Heart 106.2 at the time.
Black acts were now starting to pilfer from white acts. Stevie Nicks’s The Edge of Seventeen was the basis of the irresistible Bootylicious by Destiny’s Child, a ‘terrific two’ thanks to Atomic Kitten’s pointless cover of Eternal Flame, and Eve borrowed Gwen Stefani to sing the hook on Let Me Blow Ya Mind, produced by Alicia Keys’ future husband Swizz Beats. Eminem has his first appearance on a NOW as part of the Dirty Dozen, or D12, with a watered-down version of their track Purple Pills, which became Purple Hills on the radio. It was stuck at two behind Robbie Williams.
The BBC’s ‘urban music’ station 1Xtra was launched in August 2001 to give a boost to black music but it only served for several years to ghettoise it. 21 Seconds by So Solid Crew hit the top in the week that tracks featuring the rappers Missy Elliot & Ludacris and MOP & Busta Rhymes entered the top ten. This may have had something to do with illegal peer-to-peer downloading decimating physical sales while people still bought rap CDs, or it may have meant that in late 2001 more people were listening to rap and hiphop on channels like 1Xtra. 21 Seconds had sections rapped by ten different MCs including Romeo, Lisa Maffia and future actor Ashley Walters. So Solid Crew had a total of 20 members who brought the sound of hard garage played on pirate radio stations in council houses (which begat the UK grime scene) to the charts as they took a set number of bars. I still love the last line of Romeo’s 21 seconds: ‘Romeo done’. I hope the 20-year cycle brings that catchphrase back.
Stargate helped Mis-Teeq have a radio-friendly garage-pop hit with One Night Stand, while Pete Devereux, whom we met as part of Artful Dodger, brought two-step to Liberty, the act formed by the contestants on ITV’s Popstars who didn’t make it into Hear’Say. Peter Cunnah did find work again, composing the chilling Things That Go Bump in the Night by Allstars, which sits on NOW 50 next to Scream If You Wanna Go Faster, a great song sung terribly by Geri Halliwell, which includes the lyric: ‘“Have a nice day” as Americans say’.
Disc 1 again acknowledges the snot-rock movement (some call it pop-punk), here including Wheatus’ cover of A Little Respect by Erasure that proves nobody can do Erasure like Erasure and the trio of Heaven is a Halfpipe (OPM), Fat Lip (Sum 41) and Smooth Criminal by Alien Ant Farm, which was both fun and supports Fraser McAlpine’s ‘Swiss army knife’ theory of fitting old sounds into new holes. It also, as its writer, gives Michael Jackson an appearance on the NOW series during the period he re-emerged with a so-so and overlong album called Invincible. He wasn’t.
Club hits crossed over to the top ten and take their place on NOW 50. Rapture by Iio was addictive, as was Starlight by Supermen Lovers, which had an amazing video. Superstylin’ gave Groove Armada another hit song, while Flawless (‘absolutely flawless’) by The Ones would eventually be sampled by George Michael. Jean-Jacques Smoothie was a pseudonym of Steve Robson, who enlisted Mirwais to help him on 2 People, a mellow tune that I loved at the time.
For some reason N-Trance hit big over summer 2001 with their old anthem Set You Free and it was reissued for an audience who were too young to dance to it first time around. The most interesting piece of catalogue is Lighthouse Family, who combine the Nina Simone song I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free and One by U2. The vocals of Tunde Baiyewu had enchanted many over the previous five years, but the era of Lighthouse Family ended as quickly as it had begun. Their mashup was part of a trend which emerged in the early 2000s that experts like Freelance Hellraiser would turn into an art form; indeed the song Can’t Get Blue Monday Out of My Head was a Kylie-approved mashup.
Jennifer Lopez appears on a NOW for the first time with her flamenco-flavoured song Ain’t It Funny, which she co-wrote. Gabrielle offers the unwieldly titled Don’t Need the Sun to Shine (To Make Me Smile) and Sophie Ellis-Bextor offers the discotastic Take Me Home. Nelly Furtado has a second hit with Turn Off The Light which ought to have been even bigger than it was; she remains a fascinating star of pop music who would have some enormous hits in the middle of the 2000s with the help of Timbaland. Still recording, she put out The Ride in 2017 on her own label which she worked on with quirky producer John Congleton, who has worked with St Vincent and Blondie among many others.
Louise sings Stuck in the Middle With You by Stealers Wheel for unknown reasons, and apes the famous Reservoir Dogs ear-chopping scene in the video, and Emma Bunton’s vocals are hardly there on a bland song called Take My Breath Away which was written with Steve Mac and Wayne Hector. The pair also gave Kate Winslet (that Kate Winslet) a song called What If, which came from a Christmas film that she starred in.
Meanwhile, were it not for Kylie, Britney Spears would have a case for playlist inclusion with her song I’m a Slave 4 U. Her third album saw a departure from the Max Martin sound (Max became a father in 2001 which may have had something to do with it) and the first wide exposure to the Neptunes sound, full of percussive shuffles and innovative melodies that mixed urban and contemporary pop. The same sort of thing came on Baby Come On Over (‘tonight we can make it alright’, which is woeful songwriting) by Samantha Mumba, which is a stylistic mess and has aged terribly. Return to Gotta Tell You immediately; do not pass Baby Come On Over.
Pharrell’s future collaborators Daft Punk had one of the albums of the year with Discovery and followed One More Time with another top five song Digital Love, whose video was influenced by Japanese animation. Another great video, involving a food fight, came from Travis, with the first single from their third album The Invisible Band. I saw the band in 2016 and bellowed along to Sing, which mentions the title of the song ten times in its chorus to hammer home the point. I wonder why singles from album three are on NOW compilations, whereas the likes of Writing to Reach You, Driftwood and the one about rain are absent.
Proving that music consumers had a sense of humour and had seen many teen comedies about getting stoned such as Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Afroman went all the way to number one with Because I Got High, which was on the soundtrack and is a stupid, fun song that probably numbed the pain of watching aeroplanes crash into skyscrapers.