The music video to Thinking Out Loud by Ed Sheeran has been viewed on his official Youtube channel, as of July 2018, 2.3bn times: 2,300,000,000 times, one for every person in Britain watching it 33 times each.
When I first heard the song I tweeted its co-writer Amy Wadge and said: ‘You’ve written the Song of the Year.’ My ears were working and the song won many awards, topping the charts all over the world including, impressively, the USA, as Ed from Suffolk began his true Imperial Phase which has lasted right up to the release of NOW 100 in July 2018. He is now engaged, is planning a softer fourth album and is in the middle of his second tour of the world’s stadiums. Ed Sheeran is 27 years old.
The music video to Uptown Funk, credited to Mark Ronson and featuring Bruno Mars, has been viewed on Mark’s official Youtube channel, as of July 2018, 3.1bn times: 3,100,000,000 times, one for every person in Britain watching it 44 times each. [Update: as of April 2022, it’s up to 4.5bn times: 4,500,000,000 times.]
Peter from Hawaii aka Bruno Mars is 32 and plays London’s Hyde Park in July 2018. As I write, there are still tickets available, which would be a mystery but for the fact that they cost £86 each in a very crowded market for outdoor events. Bruno is one of the most electric live performers on the planet, as befits someone who, like his hero Michael Jackson, has been performing since he could first walk.
The Saturday Night Live performance of Uptown Funk, track one on DISC 1 of NOW 90, which might as well have been advertised as ‘Those two massive songs and some others’, is extraordinary. It was one of the best TV performances I’ve ever seen and one that I think made me exclaim ‘WOW!’ when it ended, when I put it on again.
Chris Molanphy, fast becoming my favourite pop writer (with apologies to Alexis Petridis, Ben Thompson, Charles Shaar Murray, David Hepworth, David Quantick, Laura Snapes, Fraser McAlpine and Bob Stanley) notes of Bruno Mars that he straddled both trends in the current decade: ‘The music of the decade’s first half could broadly be described as soaring dance-pop, heavy on female hit-makers: Think Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift.
‘And the back half of the ’10s, in which we’re now mired, is largely street rap and bro-pop, its winners much more male: Drake, Justin Bieber, the Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar, the Chainsmokers.’
Mr Hernandez was ‘right on trend with soaring ballads and fluttery pop’, including his vocal turn on Nothin’ On You then four top hits which all hit the top: playlist choice Just the Way You Are, Grenade, Locked Out of Heaven and When I Was Your Man.
To Chris (and you can read the essay in full here), Uptown Funk was ‘a preening blast of male peacocking’, which is rather off-brand but chimed with the times, making him a modern-day Mariah Carey, Beyonce or Rihanna. Mark Ronson, meanwhile, slaved on the guitar part for months, only content when Nile Rodgers gave it his blessing. As 2014 became 2015, everyone was dancing to Uptown Funk; it was number one in 16 countries, including for 14 weeks in America and seven non-consecutive weeks in the UK.
Before it started its run it had to knock Max, Shellback and Taylor off the top. The trio had consecutive number ones from the 1989 album: Shake It Off was replaced by Blank Space, two irresistible concoctions that rank among the best of Max Martin’s 22 number one US hits. From January 17 to April 24, Americans were Uptown Funking more than grooving to any other tune, streaming the song in their millions. I maintain that Runaway Baby is Bruno’s funkiest number but Uptown Funk, the Crazy In Love of the 2010s, was more successful. He need never work again and seems like the ultimate professional who lives for his job.
The Sound of poll was by now a fixture of the ‘end of year’ music coverage, which like Christmas begins earlier each passing year. The Sound of 2015 were Years & Years, led by gay singer-songwriter Olly Alexander, who first appeared on the charts in 2014 and took the UK number one with the ebullient King. Like Florence, who returns to a NOW with the ever-melodramatic What Kind Of Man, I find Olly’s vocals an acquired taste, but as an openly gay artist in a world where there are only three or four LGBTQ performers, as MNEK told a magazine during Gay Pride Week 2018, he is one of the more important acts in British pop music. ‘A star is born’ is how The Times greeted his Roundhouse show in July 2018, proving what the critics knew back in 2014.
The fashion in recent years from the three major labels – after EMI went bust, Warner, Universal and Sony are the remaining three – has been to warm up the public for a new voice by having them appear on a dance tune: Sam Smith (Latch), Jess Glynne (My Love), Emeli Sande (Diamond Rings), Becky Hill (Afterglow), Ella Eyre (Waiting All Night) and Olly himself, on Sunlight by The Magician, all share this trait. I suppose it is ‘preparation for market’, a way of seeing if the public take to the voice before they take to the art. It also means a less risk-averse environment and, in some cases, bland artists.
I don’t think James Bay, who finished second in the Sound of 2015 poll and won a 2015 BRIT Award for Critic’s Choice (another award made up to promote new talent before they proved their talent), is as bland as people make out. He has a soulful voice, groomed on the open mic circuit, and his new album is alright. Three reviewers all wanted to hear the real James Bay, reckoning his follow-up was decided on by committee. They all have a point. Hold Back the River, his debut single, was a slow burner, but I really got into it; Iain Archer, who wrote Chasing Cars with Snow Patrol, worked his magic and I recorded my version of it as part of the 100 Songs on 100 NOWs project which you can find along with 12 podcasts on www.soundcloud.com/jonny_brick.
Some songs on Disc 1 of NOW 90 seemed to appeal to a mature, ‘Radio 2’ audience; were the compilers realising the people who bought the CD were mums at the supermarket wanting something for the school run? If data was driving hit singles, it could also drive the songs on the compilations, another sign that culture was, at the fat end of the long tail, a case of giving people what they wanted.
In the ‘music for mums’ category, Take That were now down to three members: Jason Orange, the only member to question his accountant about where his money was going, left the group, leaving Howard, Mark and Gary to soldier on and fund their tax bill. These Days was passable and dominated Radio 2 at the end of 2014. On Radio 1 I loved Doing It, from Charli XCX’s superb album Sucker, featured Rita Ora; it was one of my favourite songs of the year, and was produced by Ariel Rechtshaid, who worked on HAIM’s 2014 album Days Are Gone. They had been the Sound of 2014 and starred at festivals throughout the year, with Este pulling shapes with her mouth as she played the bass.
In early 2015, when it wasn’t Ed from Suffolk or Mark from North London (who grew up in New York), it was Maroon 5 with one of the better efforts, the saccharine Sugar (the video sees the band playing as surprise guests at three weddings). That song is another from Mike Posner, Dr Luke and the mighty J Kash. It was a ‘terrific two’, a victim of the hegemony of Uptown Funk.
Sam Smith two-times with Like I Can and Lay Me Down, Ella Eyre sings on Gravity, a DJ Fresh track, while Jess Glynne uses the C major arpeggio to form the verse melody of Hold My Hand, another number one, which was also on an advert and was co-written with Jack from Clean Bandit and a producer named Jin Jin, who has written at least five of the finest songs of the decade: Real Love (Clean Bandit ft Jess Glynne), Right Here (Jess Glynne), You Don’t Know Me (Jax Jones ft Raye), Lullaby (Sigala ft Faloma Faith) and Not Letting Go (Tinie Tempad ft Jess Glynne). More people should know the name Janee Bennett aka Jin Jin. Fact fact: her dad is former footballer Gary Bennett, who played for Sunderland for ten years.
One Direction, meanwhile, are fascinated by bhangra and other Indian music…Nope, they are still banging on about love and stuff on Night Changes, another song with a video shot by GoPro cameras. It comes their fourth album Four, on which Where Do Broken Hearts Go was my favourite; the album had a lot of filler. Olly Murs duetted with Demi Lovato on Up, a song which had a fun, bouncy chorus but was let down by the middle eight which included 30 ‘yeah’s.
You will remember, reader, Ben Haenow…You know, who won the 2014 iteration of The X Factor. He is on NOW 90 with Something I Need, a cover of a OneRepublic song written by Ryan Tedder and Benny Blanco. Ella Henderson had her third hit with Yours, which she co-wrote, and a full decade after her first number one Kelly Clarkson took Heartbeat Song into the charts, another irresistible piece of pop with a heck of a chorus.
Here is a list of producers who are still raking it in during the EDM revolution and who appear on NOW 90: Calvin Harris appears twice with Pray to God (featuring vocals by the aforementioned HAIM, on their first appearance on a NOW) and with Outside, which has Ellie Goulding on vocals; David Guetta two-times with What I Did For Love (with Emeli Sande, whose delivery is the most syncopated since Diamond Rings) and Dangerous (with Sam Martin, who sounds just like John Martin); Alesso brings in Tove Lo on Heroes (We Could Be); Oliver Heldens releases a well-constructed song called Last All Night (Koala); and Avicii’s latest hit is The Nights, which has a Mumford beat and includes advice from a father to a son (I really hate that motif!!).
DJ Snake (whom we’ll meet again soon) co-produces the above average Promesses with Tchami, who is the lead artist on a track featuring Kaleem Taylor. I also liked I Loved You by Blonde, which was all over Radio 1 thanks to Melissa Steel’s vocals. Wretch 32 continued an impressive career with 6 Words, a song which deserved to do better and can be compared to Stormzy’s more tender tracks; the unsigned rapper finished third on The Sound of 2015 poll.
I admire that the Gorgon City song Go All Night, co-written by Kiesza, has the featured vocalist Jennifer Hudson and reaches for the Chicago house sound that filled clubs in 1990, which by 2015 was 25 years before.
MNEK co-writes Say Something for Karen Harding but has no credit on the track. Repeating the trick on Changing – pairing a UK vocalist with a euphoric, urgent track – Sigma return with Higher, featuring Labrinth and another co-write for Wayne Hector, while Lab sings an almighty pop song called Jealous. In 2018, I attended a songwriters round with Natalie Hemby, a renowned country songwriter, who admitted that she had written Jealous with Josh Kear, a man who need never work again having written Need You Now with Lady Antebellum. I had previously thought that Jealous was a little light and fluffy, but when Natalie performed it I was very struck by the structure, lyric and power of the song: the rain and wind get to touch his former friend but Lab is no longer allowed to. Even the mic placement is brilliantly chosen, with Labrinth right next to the mid as he laments his lost love, sounding like John Legend singing an Adele song. Jealous deserved consideration as a playlist entry were it not for Mark from North London and Peter from Hawaii.
G.D.F.R. (aka Goin Down For Real) was a song with a stupid but hooky riff by Flo Rida, featuring Sage the Gemini. Far better is When the Beat Drops Out by Marlon Roudette, stepbrother of Mabel, stepson of Neneh Cherry and son of Cameron McVey, as well as the guy from Big City Life by Mattafix. The song features some tropical instrumentation, and it was written by Jamie Hartman, the same chap who wrote All Time Love for Will Young.
John Newman and Bonnie McKee help keep Cheryl’s career going by writing I Don’t Care. In the category ‘r’n’b singers move with the times to keep their career going’, Usher teams up with Juicy J on the light I Don’t Mind, a track written by seven writers including J Kash and Dr Luke; Chris Brown (am I boring you by telling you he punched Rihanna in the face?) enlists Tyga on Ayo, which is annoying but catchy; Ne-Yo pops up with Coming With You, another Stargate co-write.
There are some smart samples on NOW 90, using catalogue to brilliant effect. Alex Adair took the line ‘make me feel better, so let’s stay together’ from the middle of Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing by Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell, put a dance beat under it and reinvented it as Make Me Feel Better, a UK number one song with a lightly tropical feel.
Tough Love sample Freek’n You by male vocal harmony group Jodeci and add a wobbly beat with a tropical feel, while Philip George brings Stevie Wonder onto a NOW with Wish You Were Mine, which speeds up My Cherie Amour and adds a beat underneath it. I started calling this sort of music ‘Chris Stark music’ after the Radio 1 DJ from Pinner who acted as a ‘sidekick’ to Scott Mills. A kid my age, a fellow Watford fan, broadcasting to an audience of under-30s, Chris was famous for giving Watford shirts to Hollywood actresses like Jennifer Aniston and Mila Kunis. He is now engaged to be married, which means his ushers, Chango The Beast and Sir Dosser, will dress up. Scott Mills will surely be best man, and the pair do seem like genuine friends.
Meghan Trainor returns with another three-chord marvel, Lips are Movin’ (WITH NO G!!), while Sia re-records a song she had originally placed on the soundtrack to The Hunger Games. The video to the new version of Elastic Heart, which sounded like the future of pop, stars actor Shia Lebouef. Elsewhere, Fergie stops counting her money and puts out LA Love (La La).
In great news for fans of Tom Fletcher, 2014 saw a collaboration between McFly and the keener two members of Busted (Matt and James), which led to Air Guitar, which is on NOW 90, and a full album credited to…McBusted. Rixton’s Wait On Me is perfectly fine but took many hands to cook up: Stargate, Benny Blanco and Wayne Hector are among seven writers who include the host of the songwriting podcast And The Writer Is, Ross Golan.
Ross is able to walk down a street unmolested and answer the question: ‘Oh yeah, what have you written?’ with the following list of songs: Marilyn Monroe for Nicki Minaj; Take You for Justin Bieber; Compass for Lady Antebellum; If I Could Fly for One Direction; Halfway Right for Linkin Park; Wake Up for The Vamps; When I Find Love Again for James Blunt; the quirky You Gotta Not for Little Mix; Hold Up for Demi Lovato; Barbies for Pink; You Are Fire for Latin pop artist Prince Royce; three songs by Lucas Graham and two songs by Maroon 5; and the big two Top 40 number ones, Same Old Love by Selena Gomez and My House by Flo Rida.
And the writer is…Ross Golan.