It was about the money, money, money. Up to Spring 2011, NOW had issued a total of 12 non-numbered compilations, including NOW…Love in 1994, NOW… No. 1s in 2006 and NOW 25 Years in 2008. They put out NOW 80s in 2007, NOW 90s in 2009 and NOW 00s in 2010.
In 2011 they issued four compilations for weddings, Disney, Classical and R’n’B. In 2012, eight followed: Love, Running, Britain (to coincide with the Golden Jubilee and the 2012 Olympics), Reggae, another No. 1s, Chill, another Disney and Musicals. In 2017, the number had increased to 16. Why? Money. Why also? Streaming.
I can’t remember when I first paid for Spotify but I put up with adverts as a free user for several months. Do you remember the one about the summerhouse? To stop it, I paid £4.99 a month for unlimited music (except the catalogues of AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Radiohead) and still have the subscription today. NOW are in competition with streaming services; music has never been more cheap, or more cheapened.
On Disc 1 of NOW 78 there are only four names which are new to a NOW: three are Alexis Jordan (the dull Happiness), UK girlband The Parade (Louder, a top ten hit I utterly missed) and Matt Cardle with his X Factor winner’s song When We Collide, a cover of Many of Horror by Biffy Clyro. I wonder if Simon Neil had a say in what Simon Cowell picked for the bearded, hat-wearing vanquisher of boyband One Direction – the cheque may have helped. Mon the Biff’s accountant.
The fourth name is Jessica Cornish, a songwriter who moves to the front of the operation with the awful Do It Like a Dude. This song would not be released today for fear of appropriation. Proving how dominant she was at the start of 2011, Jessie J two-times with the song that went forward to the NOW playlist I am compiling in honour of the release of NOW 100 on July 20 2018.
The studio version of four-chord marvel Price Tag is good, but her acoustic Later… With Jools Holland performance showed a fine voice, and I was invested in her career (which has had ups and downs) from that point. In 2018 she won a TV talent show in China. Jessie J’s fellow BRIT School almuna, Adele from Tottenham, released 21 in January 2011, with the ace first single Rolling In The Deep, which was a seven-week US number one. I remember hearing Rumour Has It, written with Ryan Tedder, and thinking it was going to be an enormous hit, while Set Fire to the Rain also had potential. Nobody expected the album’s final track to win awards and help Adele become a squillionaire. More on that in the next essay.
Old friends include Bruno Mars with Grenade, in which he seems to be with a girl who doesn’t reciprocate his love, Ke$ha with her US number one We R Who We R (produced immaculately by Dr Luke and Benny Blanco and co-written by the great Jacob ‘J Kash’ Kasher), Rihanna with the formidable S&M (an Ester Dean melody) from her fifth album Loud on which she sings ‘chains and whips excite me’ – the first book in the Fifty Shades of Grey series was first published in summer 2011 – and David Guetta, whose song Who’s That Chick is sung by Rihanna. I never liked it. Enrique Iglesias brings in Ludacris on Tonight (I’m Lovin’ You), which is horrific.
Take That are back to a fivepiece with The Flood. Stuart Price (The Killers, Pet Shop Boys, Madonna) helped craft a stunning song on which Gary and Robbie share vocals. The album Progress, and the Wembley Stadium show, were brilliant. Elsewhere in UK-based pop, The Wanted (the dull Gold Forever), JLS and Tinie Tempah (Eyes Wide Shut), Olly Murs (the bouncy Thinking Of Me) and Taio Cruz & Travie McCoy, with Higher, which sounds like 2011, all appear. Taio two-times in a duet with McFly on a fun pop song called Shine a Light, one of Tom Fletcher’s best. Taio returned at the end of 2017 with a song called Row The Body. Will an album follow to push him back into the spotlight or will he also have to provide a fillip to his career on a TV talent show abroad?
Chris Brown somehow still has a career, and two-times on NOW 78 with Yeah 3x, which is almost as awful as hitting Rihanna in 2009, and Champion, the song by Chipmunk where his rap verges on the side of Eminem. Chris was arrested the day before I wrote this essay, which seems to show that something is wrong in his head.
The year’s big US number one came from a new name, Wiz Khalifa, with a song I nicknamed Black and Decker after the vacuum cleaner but is actually called Black and Yellow. Adeel Amini seriously argued for this to be a playlist entry, because it foreshadows the pop-rap era, but I never liked it. NOW 78 also sees the first appearance of Aubrey Graham from Canada, who records as Drake and who has dominated the second half of the 2010s by stealth. I cannot hear What’s My Name without hearing Patrick Kielty’s gag about why Rihanna was asking her nana what her name was. Patrick, a goalkeeper in the UNICEF Soccer Aid games organised by Robbie Williams every two years at Old Trafford in Manchester, is powerless to stop RiRi’s hat-trick of appearances here.
Another act staging a return in 2018 is Avril Lavigne. She released the stunning What The Hell in 2011, which sounds very Korean-pop and is produced by Shellback and Max Martin. I keep banging on about Max (subject of my musical which includes several of his 22 US number one hits) but haven’t dwelt on Shellback, real name Karl Johan Schuster, who is only 33. As a teenager he would send demo tapes to Max, and the pair eventually collaborated on the songs So What, DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love and If You Seek Amy by Britney Spears. Shellback wrote three songs on her Femme Fatale album, but not Hold It Against Me, which also sounds like 2011 and is best enjoyed in the club. That song is another Messi and Ronaldo collaboration, aka Max and Dr Luke, with melodic imput from Bonnie McKee, who also wrote Dynamite with Taio Cruz and six hits for Katy Perry and never has to work again.
John Lewis cemented its status as National Treasure with their 2010 advert featuring a version of Elton John’s Your Sung purred by Ellie Goulding, who two-times on NOW 78 as she sings the hook on Tinie Tempah’s Wonderman. Noah and the Whale popped up on BBC and commercial radio with the quirky L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N., a blast of positivity and glee that still sounds great.
The Black Eyed Peas release a song called The Time (Dirty Bit) which is awful even though the sample of I’ve Had the Time of My Life is smart; Will.je.suis would star on the UK version of The Voice in 2011 while Nicole Scherzinger would yell ‘SCHERMAZING!’ on ITV’s The X Factor. She proved she could really sing on a version of The Phantom of the Opera, so why she was pratting around on dance-pop songs like the RedOne-produced Poison? We already had one Gaga, why did we need two?! Scherzy was dating racing driver Lewis Hamilton at the time, a British success story who lives in Monaco and appeared on the cover of the British version of GQ Magazine in August 2018.
Far better dance numbers include Hello by Martin Solveig, who calls on electropop duo Dragonette for a song that must have soundtracked every episode (I imagine) of those boring ‘scripted reality’ shows set in Essex, Chelsea or on Geordie Shore. Lights On by Katy B and Ms Dynamite still sounds great while another song that paired a new act with an older one was Who Dat Girl by Flo Rida and Akon, which you can tell in three seconds is another Dr Luke and Benny Blanco song, but which you will be surprised to learn was written by The Smeezingtons, making them two-timers. Like a G6 by Far East Movement also got tushes shaking in early 2011.
We also had one Kanye West and one Katy Perry, who duet on E.T., which was a five-week US number one that replaced Born This Way. Pink is F—ing Perfect, in a song that does self-empowerment in a more understated way than Born This Way, while Cee-Lo Green enlists Wiz Khalifa on the passable Bright Lights Bigger City, which is not Forget You.
The Sound of 2011 longlist included: Anna Calvi, an avant-garde pop performer; James Blake, whose production work won him a Mercury Prize for Album of the Year 2013; The Vaccines, who made digga-digga rock music; Warpaint, who took the 90s indie aesthetic and ran with it; Yuck, led by the brilliant Daniel Blumberg who wrote songs for Cajun Dance Party as a teenager (he is now a solo act under his own name and has released the album Minus); and Wretch 32 (three-two), an English rapper who appears on NOW 78 with Traktor, which includes the chanted ‘hey!’ sound which would soon be all over the radio. Jessie J won the prize and had a huge 2011.
Well done if you remember Like U Like, a song that paired Aggro Santos and Kimberley from Girls Aloud. Aggro was a Brazilian-born rapper who attended the BRIT School. To boost his career he appeared on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in 2010, along with Lembit Opik, Linford Christie, Britt Ekland, Dom Joly, Jenny Éclair, Shaun Ryder and the eventual winner, Stacey Solomon. In 2013 he was acquitted of rape, but his career has not recovered.
Devlin, another UK rapper, is on the compilation with Runaway, a duet with Yasmin; his album was called Bud, Sweat and Beers, which is a good title I might steal for a song. Another male-female duet follows on Let It Rain from Tinchy Stryder, who enlisted US singer Melanie Fiona. Tinchy went into the jungle in 2014 after pulling out of a 2012 edition of Celebrity Big Brother. If you’ve had a hit, it seemed, you were a celebrity. If you were Will Smith’s daughter Willow, with the execrable Whip My Hair, you could have a hit while being a celebrity.
The songs that close Disc 1 and Disc 2 show British music at its most eclectic. Geraldine (aka Peter Kay) and Susan Boyle appeared in a video for Comic Relief 2011 on a duet of I Know Him So Well, the song written by the blokes from ABBA from the musical Chess, originally sung by Elaine Page and Barbara Dickson. The final song on NOW 78 is Blind Faith, another song that was all over TV and radio in 2011 by Chase & Status, a song that more or less convinced Simon Cowell that The X Factor needed to turn every popular song of the previous 50 years into one composed of synth stabs, processed drums, a bloke singing something and a euphoric female vocal. It would also become the judges’ walk-on music, which must have bought houses for both Chase and Status, aka Saul and Will, who can walk around and go to the shops unmolested in a way that Susan Boyle and Peter Kay cannot. Such is pop anonymity.