By rights, this should be a Calvin Harris playlist induction. He is on NOW 80 three times: the huge number one We Found Love (‘in a hopeless place’) with Rihanna; his own track Feel So Close; and with BURNS and Tinchy Stryder on Off The Record. Each pilots his style of non-subtle club music which made him a millionaire several times over; not bad for a bloke from Dumfries called Adam, who is the object of the Little Big Town song Better Man written by his ex-girlfriend whom we will meet again shortly. Clue: she is a ‘nightmare dressed like a daydream’.
Equally, 2011 was the Year of the Guetta, and here’ David with Usher on the mighty Without You, following on from his NOW 79 appearance with the dumb Where Them Girls At. Coming out of Spain was Sak Noel with Loca People, the dance tune that included a lady saying ‘viva’ to various things and has an irritating hook after the drop. I hated it then, and I hate it now.
The King of Saturday Night Tele was untouchable in 2011, plotting the rise of five hot young guys – and Matt Cardle, who won The X Factor and has just released more new music – right in front of our very eyes. One Direction played their first live show at the Watford Colosseum as part of The X Factor’s 2011 tour, headlined by Matt Cardle. By the end of the year, the quintet were enormous popstars and Matt Cardle was still a bloke in a hat.
Morgan Spurlock, who ate McDonalds for a month for his book Super Size Me, directed the film This Is Us about the five lads (Ringo, Keith, Duncan, Aston and Jedward aka Liam, Harry, Zayn, Louis and Niall) which was released at the high point of their success. Clips of their show at the 16,000-capacity O2 Arena in London Gardens are intercut with the band’s individual origin stories. Wolverhampton, Bradford, Doncaster, Holmes Chapel in Cheshire and Mullingar in Ireland produced five of the most popular musicians in the second decade of this century, but why were they popular?
I think it was that they were blank canvases, like Backstreet and *NSYNC and Britney, the latest pop holograms to be the object of people’s affection, like having a loyalty card to a supermarket. Most of the music was junk and I chose not to induct any 1D into the playlist, with apologies to Carl Falk, Rami Yacoub and Savan Kotecha, who wrote their first single, a US number one. What Makes You Beautiful is a fantastic confection written by the three Swedes: the chorus is blindingly simple, containing only three notes, which even the youngest child could sing, while the verses banged on percussively about girls who were ‘shy’. This is chemically engineered pop that knew its market, the natural endpoint of late-nineties teenpop crossed with Justin Bieber haircuts. It could not fail.
The boys’ first auditions are shown in This Is Us. Louis slaughters Hey There Delilah, Zayn wonders what would have happened if he stayed in bed and Liam sports a Bieberish haircut singing Cry Me a River by Michael Buble, having returned as a 16-year-old after being too young at 14 on a previous audition. The five of them are shown in a lineup for the first time learning that they were in a group together, having auditioned as solo males, and hung out at Harry’s dad’s house. They look astonishingly young back in 2010; add all their ages and they barely reach 90. Rebecca Ferguson received more votes in the Final, leaving 1D in third place. She has had hits but not to the level of One Direction, who need never work again thanks to all the merchandise sales such as lunchboxes. Louis is filmed going into Toys R Us observing his face next to Spiderman; he seems bewildered, as any kid from Doncaster thrust into the spotlight would be.
The band’s parents share that feeling, with added regret that their teenagers are on a ten-month world tour, one which could nonetheless help Zayn buy his family a house. In New York the band meet Marty Scorsese and Chris Rock; in Japan hundreds of girls meet them at the airport. Simon Cowell, knowing he had laid a golden egg, is as astonished as the lads in the hysteria created by the quintet: ‘The fans made it their mission that One Direction will become the biggest fans in the world. These girls are crazy about One Direction!’
A neuroscientist pops up to explain the role of dopamine. Zayn says on camera that he is ‘in a cool boyband’ (he would be the first to leave) while Louis admits that the band didn’t want to be a traditional boyband with the usual choreographed steps. Every time I saw a clip of them live, they just seemed to be running about with hands in the air yelling. It helped them sell millions of albums around the world and become the pop phenomenon of this decade not called Adele, Ed or Barack.
Aside from One Direction, music in late 2011 which found its way onto NOW 80 came from old friends from The X Factor stable: JLS emote the ballad Take a Chance on Me and Olly Murs releases the super Heart Skips A Beat with two kids called Rizzle Kicks, who two-time with the similarly quirky Down With the Trumpets. Also present is (Peter Dickson voice ready…) Cher Lloyd with the song With Ur Love, featuring co-writer Mike Posner and containing the Swedish triumvirate of Max Martin and Savan Kotecha (also co-writing the song) and Shellback, who produced it. A forgotten song, it nonetheless shows off what Swedish pop sounds like: hook followed by hook followed by hook, followed by a chorus full of hooks.
2007 winner Leona Lewis sings Collide, a track produced by Tim Bergling aka Avicii (more on whom in the next essay), while 2010 winner Matt Cardle launches his solo career (still active to diminishing returns) with Run For Your Life, written by Gary Barlow. It’s an attempt to recreate the vibe of free jazz act Ornette Coleman crossed with the psych-jazz of Sun Ra…Nope, it’s a Barlow ballad-by-numbers.
Gaz was a judge on the contest in 2011, when Simon took a year off to count his money. Will Young, the man who said ‘Simon, I don’t think you can call that “average”’ way back in 2001, is still having hits in 2011, albeit targeted at the mature Radio 2 market. I liked Jealousy with his falsetto fluttering, though it does sound as if he is singing about Chelsea, who were no longer managed by the Simon Cowell of football, Jose Mourinho.
As well as popping up on Saturday nights at primetime, Gary was credited as the ‘Executive Producer’ on the official Children In Need single 2011, where Teardrop by Massive Attack was turned into a Simon Cowell song by Labrinth. Guest vocalists included Labrinth himself, Tulisa (Gary’s fellow X Factor judge), Ed Sheeran, Ms Dynamite, Mz Bratt, Rizzle Kicks, Tinchy Stryder and Wretch 32. Wretch is placed on NOW 80 just before Teardrop, which is credited to The Collective, with his song Don’t Go, featuring writer Josh Kumra singing the chorus. I like the lyric ‘puppy love, give the dog a bone’ and Wretch (real name Jermaine Sinclair) seems like a nice chap.
I was pushing for Earthquake by Labrinth (who thus, like Calvin Harris, three-times) and Tinie Tempah to be included in the playlist. The song namechecks Simon Cowell, to whose label Labrinth was signed, and it was used brilliantly in the West End play Posh when it was sung by upper-class vandals; the film adaptation starred a young Olly Alexander, whom we will also meet later. Since hearing Tinie’s music again I am keen on the way he comes into a song with a big ‘YAAAAH!’ Perhaps I will enter rooms with the same sound, instead of shouting DJ Khaled, Mr Worldwide or Jason Derulo. The last of these acts appears on NOW 80 with the understated It Girl.
Ed from Suffolk is on with You Need Me, I Don’t Need You, on which he beatboxes, proclaims ‘I didn’t go to BRIT school’ and sings how he is ‘up-and-coming like I’m [something] in an elevator’. The genius of Ed on songs like these is taking influence from urban-inflected pop and doing it on an acoustic guitar; at the same time, indie acts like Frank Turner were doing the same with punk and metal. Also on the track Ed namechecks Gabriella Cilmi and Damien Rice, his musical hero, whose song Cannonball was (thanks inlay booklet) used as an X Factor audition piece by John Adams. When he didn’t make it to the live finals, John told the Metro newspaper that: ‘I think one of the things I may be missing is the story…It’s quite a cruel show really, once you’re out it’s a train ticket and out the back door.’ I know people who are familiar with the machinations of the show, and I could not possibly comment on John’s words…
Along with Cannonball, NOW 80 has two other pieces of rock catalogue. Not one but two X Factor contestants sung Iris by Goo Goo Dolls, the biggest song the year it was released in America but never a hit because it was only released to radio to promote their album. The 2000 hit song for The Calling, Wherever You Will Go, was slowed down to a pace that enabled it to sell teabags and was a hit for Charlene Soraia. TV, still watched by millions of people, could produce hits as people clicked DOWNLOAD on their smartphones to own the songs from the ads.
Bruno Mars had another wedding song, Marry You, while Ester Dean and the unsung country music songwriter Brett James helped create Mr Know It All, the latest hit for Kelly Clarkson, who was still singing what she was told to sing. The Wanted sing Lightning, written by Wayne Hector, Steve Mac and new name Ed Drewett in a track that must have been rejected by One Direction and their management committee (Simon Cowell). Stargate two-time with Party All Night (Sleep All Day) for Sean Kingston and Got 2 Luv U by Sean Paul ft Alexis Jordan, proving their versatility and knowledge of pop: the former is a functional, hands-in-the-air track for da club, the latter a smoother, well sung love song.
I loved the first Maverick Sabre album Lonely Are The Brave, whose opening track I Need was chosen to launch the man called Michael Stafford. Also in British music, All Fired Up by The Saturdays is the first production credit for MNEK (pronounced ‘Emenike’, which is his surname) and is, hallelujah, another hit for the Xenomania team. James Morrison (I Won’t Let You Go) and Example (Stay Awake) both return, while Pixie Lott has a big enough following to help her watered-down EDM hit All About Tonight top the UK charts. Ditto Dappy with No Regrets, which helped break a record which had lasted since 1963 of consecutive UK number ones by British acts. Thanks inlay booklet!
Rihanna’s Cheers (Drink To That) is credited to nine writers, as it cleverly samples the ‘yeah, yeah’ from I’m With You by Avril Lavigne. Jessie J’s next hit was Who’s Laughing Now, another Talay Riley co-write; it only has seven writers, and is forgettable even with its self-empowering nineties-girlband feel. Emeli Sande is laying the groundwork for a titanic 2012 with two appearances on NOW 80. Read All About It nicks the ‘rap from a bloke, hook from a lady’ style of Empire State of Mind and showcases the verbosity of Professor Green (his song Need You Tonight, with a hook sung by Ed Drewett and which sampled Need You Tonight by INXS, was never on a NOW), while Emeli’s enormous first solo single Heaven is a Naughty Boy production and sounds timeless.
Stuck as a ‘terrific two’ in the UK behind Adele from Tottenham – whose song Set Fire to the Rain kicks off Disc 2 and was co-written with Fraser T Smith, which I didn’t know – Maroon 5 prove they will do anything the record company tell them as they take Moves Like Jagger to the top of the US charts, featuring some bars from Christina Aguilera. The pair were judges on the original version of The Voice, though Maroon 5 did far better than Christina out of it; Kelly Clarkson would follow suit, a shrewd choice that cemented her National Treasure status.
There is no way, though, that a song co-produced by Shellback and Benny Blanco, with a whistling hook, could fail, and I think the two-chord Moves Like Jagger has become Maroon 5’s signature song. Today their music sounds like wallpaper and is purely functional, but it has bought each member of the band a house. Adam two-times on NOW 80 singing the hook on Stereo Hearts by Gym Class Heroes, whose singer Travie McCoy has rejoined his old friends from the days when they were sampling Supertramp and the global financial industry hadn’t been bailed out.
Lady Gaga’s song The Edge of Glory is almost self-parodic, and I nicknamed it The Precipice of Success or The Veneer of Victory. My friend Daniel is a part-time rocker who has a great song about Stephanie (not Lady Gaga), and has covered Video Games by Lana Del Rey, which Adeel strongarmed me into including on the NOW playlist of 100 songs, one from each compilation. I still don’t like it, as it doesn’t go anywhere, but many millions bought into the idea of Lana, a singer called Lizzy Grant who obviously studied both Gaga and Katy Perry and cultivated an aesthetic that made her cool and different. Justin Parker helped create the mood of Video Games.
Dan had the following to say: ‘I never liked the song either, just reckoned it needed a bit more zap about it. Also [it would be] novel and different to cover.’ I think Dan did it better than the original, and you can judge for yourself here.
Finally (in both senses of the word) Westlife put out a second Greatest Hits, which was not called Stand Up for the Key Change, just in time for Christmas 2011. Gary Barlow gave them the Tuareg desert blues song Lighthouse – nope, it’s a Barlow ballad-by-numbers. 12 years was pretty good going for a male vocal harmony group; heck, The Beatles were only together for eight.
A quick note also to Christina Perri: never call a song Jar of Hearts, especially when the key lyric in the chorus is: ‘Who do you think you are?’