NOW 57: Britney Spears – Toxic

As far as possible with this playlist I try not to duplicate acts. There is more than enough pop to go around. In 2004, there is no doubt what the top song in the world was, and it came from the same mouth that sung the biggest song of 1999.

One of my least favourite genres of music is ‘Well This Could Be Anyone’, where A Female Singer sings a great song and sells the hell out of it. This was particularly prominent in the early 2010s, where acts included Nicole Scherzinger, Cheryl Cole and even Tulisa from N-Dubz. Today, with Ariana and Demi and Selena and Hayley and Jessie J, the voice is secondary to the song. Any BRIT School graduate can take the lead vocal and sing it at one of her concerts; Clean Bandit and Rudimental have used the likes of Emeli Sande, Zara Larsson and Jess Glynne on some of their big hits.

Because Toxic is sung by Britney Spears, it is the latest chapter in her story. In The Zone, from the end of 2003, is the fourth episode in the colourful narrative of Britney. The first two albums were Swedish pop, while her third saw her embrace the sound of The Neptunes. Album four was led by a duet with Madonna; the song Me Against the Music was kept off number one by Crashed the Wedding by Busted, which in turn knocked Slow by Kylie off the top. (Again, I am not a nerd in logging the charts if 15 years later they can help me avoid looking up what stopped what from getting to number one.)

The brilliance of Toxic is in the contemporary nature of the sound, with its Bollywood strings and purred vocal. As ever, the little girl has grown up to have some control of her sexuality and is ‘addicted to you’. The best moment of the song comes in the final chorus, where the first line of it (‘taste of your lips I’m on a ride’) stands in isolation before the music comes back in. Like the music of The Neptunes, it is both minimal and maximal, gaining an effect from pulling back in the verses; just like a Max Martin song, there is a B Hook at the very end (‘intoxicate me now’). It is just a very satisfying pop song, and I hope a worthy entrant into the playlist.

Were it not for Toxic it would be Leave Right Now. Eg White wrote a tender ballad that Will Young sung; the melody is flawless and the mood is sombre: ‘Why make it strong to break it once again?’ he sings of his heart, which doesn’t want to ‘fall any deeper’ for someone else. Will, who has suffered from panic attacks throughout his career, must make that a sort of theme song. Fun fact: Ozzy and Kelly Osborne knocked him off with a version of Ozzy’s song Changes, which earns them a place on NOW 57.

The Osbornes were TV’s new favourite family, with all the dogs and the swearing. Ozzy, who helped invent British heavy metal back in 1969 with his band Black Sabbath, had a top music manager as a wife, who probably knew how best to secure the family fortune. Sharon Osborne, whose dad Don Arden was a take-no-prisoners manager himself, is a proto-Kris Jenner who would later become a judge on one of those TV talent shows.

The other big TV show of late 2003 was I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. Suitably, the producers looked to Peter Andre Land to find some folk willing to eat critters in the Australian jungle for public entertainment. After having a hit with Insania, a song that he debuted in the jungle, Peter’s old hit Mysterious Girl became his third number one eight years after its release, which I completely forgot about. It says a lot about pop music in 2004 that a song released in 1996 could top the UK charts; thank goodness for Toxic, which toppled Peter Andre who has never returned to Peter Andre Land since. Look up his escapades online, as I do not want to bore you with his marriage to Katie Price, his career as a TV personality and his many children and stepchildren.

In 2003, Fame Academy returned and helped Alistair Griffin have a hit with the fun tune Bring It On and Alex Parks, who won the series, released the sweet top three hit Maybe That’s What It Takes. Over on ITV, Pop Idol brought the world another star, Michelle McManus, who is playing the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe with a show about her life and career, which has taken in pop, weight loss videos and TV hosting up in Scotland. Her winner’s song All This Time closes NOW 57, following Ronan Keating’s version of the Kenny Rogers country ballad She Believes (In Me). Why change a winning formula?

Despite Pet Shop Boys scoring a number ten hit with Miracles – the book tells me it’s their 33rd top 20 hit – they are nowhere to be seen on NOW 57. Ditto Westlife with a pointless cover of Mandy where they stand up for the key change, a Victoria Beckham single called This Groove and the lead single from Patience, the 2004 release from George Michael. Amazing was unlike anything else in the charts, like every George Michael release, and it peaked at five the week Britney was Toxic at the top. The track Britney kept as a ‘terrific two’? Cha Cha Slide by DJ Caspar, yet another song that is more a dance routine than a piece of art, which is track 11 on Disc 1.

In January 2004, I noted that the number of singles sold was the lowest ever. Nobody was buying singles in great numbers thanks to file sharing, so the hits were much smaller. NOW 57 is nonetheless full of top hits from the era. The Neptunes strike again, this time with Kelis and her song about bringing ‘the boys to the yard’, Milkshake. Kelis is a two-timer within the first six tracks, as she is the guest vocalist on Not In Love by Enrique Iglesias, a funk-driven pop song that quotes I’m Not in Love by 10cc.

In early 2004 I actually did something I seldom did: I went out and bought Take Me Out by Franz Ferdinand to try to get it to number one. I loved, and still love, the song and was impressed that an indie band from Glasgow could crash-land at three in the charts. I was not bothered about Shut Up by The Black Eyed Peas (hooray), Dude by Beenie Man featuring Ms Thing or Give It Away by Deepest Blue, also on NOW 57.

Indie-minded guitar-rock had a champion in the two channels MTV2 and VH2, with the former having a show called Gonzo hosted by a New Zealand-born presenter called Zane Lowe, who also presented the 7pm slot on BBC Radio 1. Every Monday, my friend Elliot and I would log into the chatroom, greeting regulars (‘regs’), moderators (‘mods’) and new users (‘noobs’) and talking about alternative music. There was also a Fresh Meat feature where users of the room could select the best track of three brand new ones: I first heard the likes of Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party and Editors this way.

Zane is now the musical director of Apple Music out in California, where he works with the former Radio 1 Playlist Editor George Ergatoudis, who helped promote top rock sounds in the daytime, where the playlist operated, in 2004. I expect Radio 1 also playlisted So Confused, one of five top 20 hits from the Canadian-born son of Indian parents Raghav, who studied at Liverpool’s Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA), whose patron remains Sir Paul McCartney.

I remember I Miss You by Blink 182 being played a lot, with the bass hook and the famous vocal change pointed out by the comic Whitmer Thomas (‘Where are youuuuuuu!’). I was also still flicking on Virgin Radio, the audio version of VH2 or MTV2, and hearing wall-to-wall Snow Patrol and Keane. Marking the rise of guitar-led music in the charts, Run and Somewhere Only We Know are, respectively, correctly present on NOW 57’s second disc. So is Who’s David, a number one by Busted that I never liked, and Stacy’s Mom, one of the dumbest and fantastic pop songs ever to chart, by Fountains of Wayne. It’s about a guy who wants to see a girl because he likes her mum who has ‘got it going on’. The key change from E to G (a rare minor third lift) is exquisite, and I have recorded the song as part of my 100 Songs from 100 NOWs project.

There is an awful lot of catalogue to make up for the paucity of original material. The biggest song is a mashup, which takes With or Without You by U2 and adds the vocal line from the verse of How Will I Know by Whitney Houston. Credited as LMC vs U2, Take Me to the Clouds Above took its tenor from euphoric tracks of the early 1990s. Also in catalogue was Somebody to Love, the Jefferson Airplane song remixed by Boogie Pimps that was another big radio hit and brought the voice of Grace Slick back to millions of ears.

The weirdest single of the year, which I never really liked because I was 16 and was into stuff like Stacy’s Mom, was a disco-influenced cover of Comfortably Numb, the Pink Floyd classic, by a New York band called Scissor Sisters. I remember turning the TV off when they performed the song on Channel 4’s morning slot T4. 14 years on, I realise it is a magnificent song, and smart use of catalogue, thanks to Jake Shears’s falsetto. Their self-titled album would dominate British music as each single was better than the last.

Joss Stone, a teenager from Devon, took Fell in Love with a Girl by The White Stripes, slowed it down, added some jazzy backing and had a hit with the song as Fell In Love with a Boy. Jamie Cullum cemented his status as ‘jazz hobbit’ unafraid to mix pop and jazz by turning Frontin’ by Pharrell Williams into a piano ballad. Cleverly, the compilers of NOW 57 place She Wants to Move, the rocky track by N.E.R.D., just before it; that song is sung by Pharrell, as the band are essentially The Neptunes granted licence to do whatever they want because of their hit-making prowess. I’m Lovin’ It by Justin Timberlake was essentially an advertising campaign for McDonalds rather than a song, but was another hit for them both while Justin rode the Justified wave. Incidentally, the N.E.R.D. album Fly or Die features both Good Charlotte and Lenny Kravitz; thanks to the guitars on it, it is one of my favourite albums of the era.

In pop, Blue couldn’t Breathe Easy on a soppy ballad straight from the Westlife school, while a new group in the Blue mould put together by Simon from Blue called VS sang Love You Like Mad, which has an impressive chorus that I am not surprised was produced by Stargate. One of VS’s members was Marvin Humes, who will reappear in about 20 essays’ time as part of JLS. Also riding high in the charts were FYA (‘for your attention’), who signed to Def Jam but were dropped before they could release their debut album. Brutal. They are included on NOW 57 with Must Be Love, which features a great vocal from Smujji. Looking back I wish they would have worked (though I admit never hearing this song at all, which must have been heavily rotated on 1Xtra); it would have been great to have more r’n’b in the charts in 2004.

Emma Bunton had a big hit with the smooth I’ll Be There, never heard today, while two bits of catalogue gave Girls Aloud (Jump, the Pointer Sisters song) and Atomic Kitten (Ladies Night, where Kool & the Gang got an artist credit) hits. Jamelia’s radio smash Thank You was one of those self-empowerment anthems that made a lot of money, while Kylie’s Red Blooded Woman was another classic from Karen Poole that still sounds terrific. Diane Warren’s song Too Lost in You was a hit for Sugababes, helped by its appearance in Love Actually, a perennial favourite on US television every December.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor returned with I Won’t Change You, yet another gorgeous song from the brains’ trust of her and Gregg Alexander. I think Sophie took over the mantle of reliable pop specialist from Texas. Also present on radio was Katie Melua, who was promoted by DJ Terry Wogan with a song written by Mike Batt, forever known as the guy who gave the world songs by The Wombles (ask someone over the age of 50). The Closest Thing to Crazy has a languid melody. Just to prove who was buying music in 2004, the album chart when she hit number one with her album Call Off the Search included Englebert Humperdinck, Harry Connick Jr, Lionel Richie and Daniel O’Donnell. Norah Jones followed up Come Away With Me with the gorgeous Feels Like Home, and I used to wake up to the sounds of Sunrise, which follows Katie Melua on NOW 57. Jaaaaaaaazz.

Trance, or the poppier end of it, is represented at the end of Disc 1 by Special D (Come With Me) and Ultrabeat (Feelin’ Fine), while Ferry Corsten’s Rock Your Body Rock and Motorcycle’s As The Rush Comes are more club than radio. Once again, however, the compilers have successfully chronicled what the charts were doing in early 2004.

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