The track of the era leaps out in my logbook. The week that Peter Andre hit number one with Mysterious Girl, the track at number six had been in the charts for sixteen weeks. Hey Ya by Outkast is a four-chord marvel that namechecks Polaroid pictures and Lucy Liu. The video has several Andre 3000s, taking its lead from Coming Up by Paul McCartney. However, I already put in one Outkast song, Ms Jackson, which is lyrically more impressive but no less musically ace.
Culturally, thanks to the Youtube clip with the ‘Numa Numa Guy’, Dragostea Din Tei is an important song, especially because O-Zone sung in Romanian, a language in which no song before or since has provided a top three hit. The week it charted, it was joined by two songs themed around England’s appearance in the 2004 European Championships, both of which have been forgotten, though points if you remember Born in England by Twisted X and Come On England by The 4-4-2, which took Come On Eileen and ruined it.
The track I’ve chosen for the playlist is a nostalgic track by an act who should be sung about more loudly. Coming out of Hammersmith, West London, but now based in Los Angeles, Estelle sung about growing up in the 1980s in a ‘four-bedroom house’ as the child of a Senegalese mum and a dad from Grenada in the Caribbean. I loved the strings hook, the story about being a kid and the vocal delivery; Estelle will return soon to a NOW compilation with (an) American boy.
Here is how much of a nerd I was. In summer 2004, after I sat eight GCSEs, I remember listening to the charts while camping in a field somewhere in Britain – I cannot remember if it was North Yorkshire or down in the New Forest near Southampton. I can vividly recall listening to Radio 1 on the coach journey to where I was about to take an expedition as part of the Silver Award of the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. The journey was soundtracked by American Idiot by Green Day (not on a NOW) and In the Shadows by The Rasmus, which is on NOW 58 and seems to be an attempt to prove that Finland had more rock acts than Lordi, who won Eurovision in 2003. I cannot remember how the UK did that year. Maybe it’ll come to me…
The other song that seemed to turn up on the hour, every hour, was the huge number one that was announced on that Sunday evening: Lola’s Theme by Shapeshifters. A silky vocal about being a ‘different person’ was a perfect match for a hell of a riff. The summer after my GCSEs saw me learning what a playlist was: I was appalled to find so much repetition in the schedules of Radio 1, because that is how music was programmed and how songs could be pushed up the charts through airplay. On Radio 2, Kristian Leontiou had a song called Story of My Life that was on heavy rotation and made the compilation. I’ll talk more about Radio 2 and its role in my life in the next essay.
Acts returning to NOW 58 who were also on NOW 57 include Franz Ferdinand (Matinee), VS (Call You Sexy), Kelis (Trick Me), The Black Eyed Peas (Hey Mama), N.E.R.D. (Maybe), Blue (Bubblin’), Busted (Air Hostess, not a good song but a ‘terrific two’), Keane (Everybody’s Changing), Kylie Minogue (Chocolate), Scissor Sisters (the mighty Laura) and Jamelia, whose song See It In a Boy’s Eyes has uncredited vocals from Chris Martin of Coldplay, who were busy working on their third album X + Y. In the Middle was a Xenomania-written hit for Sugababes, while Girls Aloud continue their run of songs with The Show, which nobody sees ‘until my heart says so’.
This song, the first original song released from their second album, is the best example of the Xenomania method: an introduction that outlines the main hook, a second intro which isn’t a verse or chorus but is almost Hook B, then the verse which tumbles into the chorus, then the repetition of the intro hook with the lyric ‘get in the queue’ over the top of it, then a recap of the chorus (twice!!) then the magical Hook B. It must have been so fun for the Xenomania team to come up with hooks, then clump them together, then hear them on the radio sung by great singers offering a great product. History will look back on the era 2003 to 2006 as The Xenomania Era.
Acts returning to a NOW series after some time away include Christina Milian, whose Dip It Low sounds a lot like 2004 and would have also sounded great coming from Beyonce. Anastacia had a massive radio hit with Left Outside Alone – I find her voice an acquired taste but she can definitely sing – and Rachel Stevens was given Some Girls (‘always get what they wanna wanna’) by Richard X. As if unfrozen from 2001, Gabrielle was back with Stay the Same, which brought Biff Stannard back into the hit parade.
Was the world crying out for Fatman Scoop? He gave it to the world anyway with a song called It Takes Scoop, which took inspiration from It Takes Two, the famous beboy track by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, and also sampled White Lines (Don’t Do It). The song does make me feel better listening to it, and if I wanted a human alarm clock when Brian Blessed was unavailable, I’d call on Fatman Scoop and Crooklyn Clan (CROOKLYN CLAAAAN!).
Beverley Knight returns with Come As You Are, an enormous song that ought to have done better than it did; it was another hit for Guy Chambers. Robbie Williams, meanwhile, had already put out three albums in the 2000s during what pop critic Chris Molanphy would call his ‘Imperial Phase’ where anything he did was a massive hit. It helped that he aped Oasis by playing Knebworth, and the only way from there was down. Nonetheless, his three albums (Sing When You’re Winning, Swing When You’re Winning and Escaplogy) all sold well, as did his 2004 Greatest Hits, out just in time for Christmas.
Remember Flawless by The Ones? George Michael liked it so much he nicked it, sang something about going to the city over the top and is back on a NOW in 2004. I preferred Freeek!, an incredible tune and one of six singles released from the album Patience, which became George’s last collection of original material and, shocking to remember, the only one between Older in 1996 and his death in 2016. George’s own Imperial Phase had been the end of the 1980s, when he had a hit album without doing any interviews; the likes of Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, Beyonce and Elton John, all of whom hardly feature on NOW compilations, also had them. In 2018, arguably, Drake is in the middle of one, and dropped a surprise release in June 2018. Kanye West’s, however, has ended.
In fact Kanye is on NOW 58 with Through The Wire, which is a smart use of catalogue, using his trick of speeding up an old record, in this case Through The Fire by Chaka Khan, and rapping over the top of it. After having his mouth wired shut after a car crash, his album The College Dropout introduced the wider world to rap’s worst-kept secret. Kanye produced the Jay-Z album The Blueprint as well as his single 03 Bonnie & Clyde and the mighty Slow Jamz for Twista. He was about to accuse the President of not caring about African-American citizens after Hurricane Katrina, which only served to boost his career, which entered the Imperial Phase some time around 2008 when he crashed the MTV Awards stage to big up Beyonce.
In other urban news, Joe returned with a track called Ride Wit U, Nina Sky produced a summer jam with Move Ya Body, while Raghav was back with 2 Play on It Can’t Be Right. Jay Sean’s track Eyes on You sounds very 2004 too, a sort of British Asian version of Enrique Iglesias. Ireland’s version of Enrique, Ronan Keating, duetted with LeAnn Rimes on the song Last Thing on my Mind, a song he co-wrote which was soaked with strings and foreshadowed the pop-country sound that Lady Antebellum would promote in the early 2010s. Liz McClarnon of Atomic Kitten is now working in the country sphere, and she co-wrote Someone Like Me, which closes both NOW 58 and the chart career of the band, whose five-year run of hits ended. They reformed in 2012 as part of the TV show The Big Reunion.
Missing from any NOW to this point are The Strokes and The Libertines, the two notable rock bands who were pushed heavily by New Musical Express, or NME. The blokes from instrumental rock band Mogwai told Sylvia Patterson, as she recalls in her memoir, that the NME had turned into an indie rock version of Heat magazine, the celeb-dominated weekly that foreshadowed Mail Online and gutter journalism. The public weren’t to know about phone-hacking for a while, but the years of 2003 and 2005 are not brilliant in terms of recent British history.
Jade Goody, a nice lady from Essex, became the first of many ordinary folk celebrated for her idiocy; the TV show The Only Way is Essex is still on in 2018, which says as much about its viewers and advertisers as it does about Joey Essex and Gemma Collins. As if to prove my point, the Girls from FHM, essentially a pornographic magazine masquerading as a lifestyle guide, had a top ten hit with Do You Think I’m Sexy. It appeared one place below Come As You Are.
There was more. Faked photos from an Iraqi prison camp led to the resignation of the editor of the Mirror newspaper, whose name utterly escapes me but he supports Arsenal. The fake dossier claiming Saddam Hussein could launch nuclear weapons inside 45 minutes led to the resignation of the Director-General of the BBC and of the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary Alastair Campbell. Worst(!) of all, the UK scored zero points in Eurovision 2003 as Jemini sang off-key. Ah, now I remember…
All this is to say that pop music in 2004 needed personalities as much as musicians. Johnny Borrell was a loudmouth who fronted Razorlight and their first big hit Golden Touch is present on NOW 58. I remember a wonderful acoustic version of the song performed for the BBC at Glastonbury, which stopped me in my tracks and remains one of my favourite live performances of any song. Another one also came courtesy of the BBC: Neighbourhood #3, also known as Power Out, was a song by Arcade Fire which they played on Later… With Jools Holland. It still moves me, thanks to Win Butler’s vocal and the symphonic nature of the track. Other fans prefer Wake Up, which has a case of being one of pop music’s influential songs (the chorus just goes ‘woah’); NOW compilers missed a trick by leaving them off NOW 58, though I am sure they considered them.
If all else fails, pop music manufactures a controversy. Eamon released a kiss-off song with the F-word in the title, subtitled I Don’t Want You Back, and had a number one song for four weeks, holding off the likes of Eminem’s pals D12 (My Band), Maroon 5 (This Love), Morrissey (Irish Blood, English Heart, one of his best singles), The Streets (Fit But You Know It, which sounds a lot like 2004) and Natasha Bedingfield (Single, which someone I lived under played incessantly…maybe I should have knocked to stop her being single). None of those are on NOW 58, but Eamon is; naturally, so is F.U.R.B. (the ‘RB’ stands for ‘right back’) by Frankee, the ‘answer song’. I love answer songs and I encourage you to look up Girl in a Country Song by Maddie & Tae, the response to Boys Round Here by Blake Shelton.
The smartest use of catalogue, and I’m surprised this is missing, was I Don’t Wanna Know by Mario Winans. He sampled The Celts by Enya, no stranger to the NOW series. The song was a two-week number one before a Britney Spears ballad called Everytime hit the top. It was her answer song, of sorts, to Cry Me A River, which Britney co-wrote. Her own Imperial Phase would self-destruct alarmingly, in the flashbulb lights of the world’s press, in 2007.