The inlay booklet to NOW 91, a collection of songs that were huge in the post-Uptown Funk world of summer 2015, contains a double-page computer-generated picture of a series of water slides. Music has always had a social function, be it to soundtrack chattering networkers in a salon in Georgian England, get people through picking cotton in the Deep South or have something to nod along to while taking drugs in the rock era. In 2015, pop music was like a sunhat; you put it on and went outside to play.
There are several big sunhats, or tunes, from summer 2015 here. I recall that Kanye West headlined Glastonbury with his massive ego, England’s Ladies football team lost in the last minute of their World Cup Semi-Final to Japan and I celebrated Watford’s promotion to the Premier League. Otherwise I spent it watching Netflix with Amanda in our four-room flat in South Wimbledon. She wrote chapters of her book and earned no money, I read chapters of books and earned money. It was stressful to deal with a lettings agent rather than a landlord, and I vowed never to rent a property through a lying, deceitful agent who assured me the landlord was in the country and didn’t alert me that workmen would be present for a year building an extension to the law firm we lived above. (I could have chosen to live somewhere else, so on my head be it.) The head of this agency, which was named after a famous South-West London postcode, once accidentally sent me a lewd picture and has been fined for trying to trash another agent’s reputation. All I wanted was a place to live; instead I barely existed and, without warning, my old friend moved back in to stop me enjoying life. There was only room for two in the flat; three was a crowd.
As I continued to write my football book, I listened to lots of music, especially the Radio 1 playlist, which in summer 2015 included tracks written by James Bay (Let It Go), Hozier (Someone New) and J Kash. The funniest pop song of summer 2015 was by LunchMoney Lewis with Bills, co-written by Ross Golan’s great friend Jacob ‘J Kash’ Kasher. The poor chap is hungry but has to ‘work, work, work every day’ to pay all his bills and ‘make sure everybody eats’. The chorus is driven by an infectious piano hook while LunchMoney sold the song and made it his own. I’d put him through to Boot Camp.
J Kash also helped Carly Rae Jepsen follow up Call Me Maybe. He is partly responsible for the electrifying I Really Like You, beloved by my friend Iain Richards. I tasked Iain to help me pick the final ten playlist songs for the NOW playlist. At this point I will thank Fraser McAlpine, Chris Imlach, Polly Holton and Adeel Amini, as well as Iain, for giving up their time to help me in my silly project. You can hear our discussions at soundcloud.com/jonny_brick.
Our playlist choice was from Little Mix, the girlband of the era, stepping into the vacuum created by the departures of Girls Aloud and The Saturdays. Black Magic was the first single from their third album Get Weird; a three-week UK number one, it is 99% Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (I’m not complaining). It is a superb confection written by four writers including Camille Purcell and Ed Drewett, who were essentially staff songwriters for whomever Simon Cowell wanted to make money off. Aston Merrygold from JLS had gone it alone, but Get Stupid is just that.
Iain was only 17 when these songs emerged in summer 2015 but he was a huge pop fan. He also advocated See You Again by Wiz Khalifa, with a hook written and sung by the young music college graduate Charlie Puth. I noted Ross Golan’s successes in the last essay and Ross had Charlie on a great episode of his And The Writer Is… podcast; Charlie sent the song’s demo off to the record label thinking someone like Justin Bieber would record over his part. In the end, they kept it in and See You Again, a song from the seventh Fast & The Furious movie which was released after the death of its star Paul Walker, took over the world after Uptown Funk. It stayed at the top of the US Hot 100 for six weeks before being displaced for a week by Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar – thanks to the release of the video of Bad Blood, featuring Taylor’s ‘squad’ of women – then reigning at the top for six more weeks. Thus it topped the charts for 12 weeks and became the American version of the Robbie Williams song Angels.
Then came six weeks (interrupted by Max Martin and his friend Abel Tesfaye, more on whom next time) of Cheerleader, remixed by Felix Jaehn and sung brilliantly by Jamaican singer OMI. The song had been number one in the UK in May and June, and eventually toppled Wiz and Charlie in late July. Was reggae back?!
Max Martin wrote Love Me Like You Do by Ellie Goulding, from the movie Fifty Shades of Grey, and Tove Lo two-times having also written that song and Talking Body, her own hit and another Popjustice pop classic that deserved to be even bigger than it was. It was produced by Shellback, who spent 2015 counting all the Taylor Swift money. No track from 1989 appeared on a NOW, but then it sold 10 million copies so everyone owned Shake It Off, Blank Space and Bad Blood. Jason Derulo had a four-week UK number one with the brill pop song Want to Want Me.
Better than all of those tracks was a song by Major Lazer & DJ Snake featuring Mo. Lean On was the streamed more often than any song in 2015 (Taylor Swift kept her music off Spotify and sold 10 million albums…) because it was so infectious. The inlay booklet says the trio, made up of Diplo, Jillionaire and Walshy Fire, took ‘the best elements of EDM, dancehall, hiphop and pop’; they would have more hits but none as ‘earth-shaking’, to me, as Lean On, which I have never not loved. It is one of the decade’s finest pop songs.
I recorded my version of another, Shut Up And Dance, by Walk the Moon. I first heard it on America’s Greatest Hits, the Radio 2 show presented by Paul Gambaccini, as the number one in the rock charts, though it’s a pop song with guitars. Rock, as I have written, is now as heritage a genre as romantic classical music.
When it sailed in at the top of the UK charts, Black Magic had deposed a dance track called House Every Weekend by David Zowie, which is present on NOW 91 along with fellow number one Not Letting Go, a summer smash sung by Tinie Tempah on the verses and Jess Glynne singing a great hook. Michael Jackson’s brother Jermaine is credited since the track samples There’s a Better Way. It became Tinie’s sixth UK number one and the fourth for Jess.
In summer 2015 the ‘stadium busker’ Ed Sheeran headlined Wembley Stadium, supported by OneRepublic. He was the first solo performer to headline there since Elton John 40 years before him; Elton went on to declare his bisexuality, which ended his Imperial Phase, while Ed had a bit too much fun and took the whole of 2016 off. Nobody has heard from him since (!). He appears on NOW 91 in a duet with Rudimental on his song Bloodstream, written with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol (whose depression derailed his career) and Johnny McDaid. On Disc 2 is the other act supporting Ed at Wembley, Northern Irish cult hero Foy Vance who sings on the Rudimental track Never Let You Go. I had been introduced to him by Matt Livingstone, from Foy’s hometown of Bangor, back in 2007 at the Fresh Air music team. Foy is staunchly independent and, in a just world, would sell as many records as Ed. His great third album The Wild Swan was released on Ed’s Gingerbread Man imprint.
Returning to a NOW are Years & Years (the Greg Kurstin co-write Shine), John Newman (the Greg Kurstin co-write Come and Get It, on which he sounds like he’s found a donut on the vocalisation before the chorus comes in), Meghan Trainor (Motown pastiche Dear Future Husband) and Florence + The Machine (Ship to Wreck, where she sounds shipwrecked).
Jessie J delivers a song co-written by Sia and Sam Smith called Flashlight from one of the summer’s big movies, Pitch Perfect 2, a movie about a cappella contests and directed by Elizabeth Banks, who it must be noted is a woman. One of the stars of the Barden Bellas, the group who sang their version of the song during the movie, was Ester Dean, who watched her co-star Hailee Steinfeld have the pop career she (scandalously) has not yet had. What will it take to make Ester Dean a star?!
Iggy Azalea continued her career with Trouble, co-written by Judith Hill, herself a session vocalist who would have sung with Michael Jackson at his London shows in 2009. Iggy’s career would be stymied by accusations of cultural appropriation that seem both stupid and unfounded; Jennifer Hudson, who became a judge on The Voice UK, adds her soul to Iggy’s rap. Rita Ora appears with Poison, which is written by a young lady called Julia Michaels with Kate Nash (that Kate Nash!): ‘I could have beer for breakfast, my sanity for lunch’ is a heck of an opening line on a song that explodes on the title line and introduced the world to Julia’s songwriting. Maybe she can help make Ester Dean a star…
Nolan Lambroza, whose stage name is Sir Nolan, was the third writer on Poison and also wrote and produced Jealous for Nick Jonas, breaking away from his brothers. The chorus is one of the best of the year, while the production is contemporary and forward-thinking. He is an interviewee on And The Writer Is…; now I know what he has produced I can listen to the interview, which I skipped at the time, foolishly!
Nick’s fellow heartthrob Justin Bieber is moving into the Imperial Phase of his own career by warbling over cutting-edge EDM tracks. Where Are U Now is credited to Skrillex & Diplo and features elephantine woodwind. Stargate write Worth It, the latest hit for Fifth Harmony (featuring Kid Ink), while the girls’ fellow teenager Martin Garrix enlists Usher on Don’t Look Down, co-written by busbee, who was spending 2015 writing songs with young country music starlet Maren Morris over in Nashville, which had its own serial drama on US TV which I used to watch with Amanda. There are three centres of pop music in the USA: New York, as it always was; Los Angeles, as it always was; and Nashville, Tennessee.
Originally a county hit for Easton Corbin, Are You With Me was remixed by Lost Frequencies and became a UK number one. The song was co-written by Shane McAnally, whose name is misspelt as ‘McAnnaly’ in the booklet. Shane wrote with Maren’s fellow Texan sweetheart Kacey Musgraves on songs like Follow Your Arrow, one of the decade’s greatest pop songs and never on a NOW. Shane is openly gay and has written for the likes of Old Dominion, Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban; Kacey, who headlines Wembley Arena in October 2018 as part of her European tour, is being positioned as an act who can hook pop fans to country sounds. Expect to hear her song High Horse on NOW 101, if the stars align.
Catalogue also makes an appearance on Somebody, a radio-friendly ‘terrific two’ sung by Natalie La Rose which featured Jeremih interpreting the Whitney Houston song I Wanna Dance With Somebody. Jeremih two-times as a guest on the Krept & Konan song Freak of the Week, credited to 12 writers because it samples Who Am I (Sim Simma) from The Roots, whose UK chart career consists of two top 40 hits including The Seed (2.0), the track that introduced me to the power of Tariq ‘Black Thought’ Trotter’s lyrics and Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson, the modern-day Funky Drummer. Lethal Bizzle, meanwhile, takes a break from selling merchandise with the word ‘dench’ on it with his song Fester Skank, featuring producer Distortion.
Simon Aldred had written People Help The People, a hit for Birdy when she covered it, and the openly gay Simon writes and sings Waiting For Love, a brilliant hit for Avicii co-written by the two-timing Martin Garrix. Galantis have a big hit with Runaway (U & I), a club smash, Pep & Rash fill clubs with Rumours and Ane Brun adds a lyric to the Dr Kucho! & Gregor Salto instrumental Can’t Stop Playing (Makes Me High), remixed by Oliver Heldens.
Five More Hours was written by Julian Bunetta and John Ryan with Chris Brown (you know my feelings on him by now) that was credited to Deorro x Chris Brown since it was a remix of the Deorro instrumental Five Hours. Show Me Love, meanwhile, was more catalogue: a slowed-down version of the Robin S anthem by Sam Feldt (featuring Kimberley Anne).
Blonde recruit Alex Newell to bring his almighty voice to All Cried Out, and the latest Clean Bandit hit is Stronger, also featuring Alex (uncredited, scandalously). He appeared in the TV show Glee as someone to rival the voice of Amber Riley, who was clearly to be the breakout star of the show with her equally mighty pipes.
Pipes of a different kind are used by Kygo, who have summer 2015’s two omnipresent hits which are both on NOW 91. Firestone is the one that included the lyric ‘We light up the wooorld! sung by Conrad Sewell while Stole The Show has Parson James lamenting a lost love. Both songs are classed as ‘tropical house’ thanks to the choice of instrument used on the melodic hook of the song, which is more memorable than whatever the vocalist is warbling on about.
Fun fact: Michael Harwood, whom I mentioned as former member of Ultra who went to my old school, co-wrote Stole The Show, which was recorded at his Tileyard Studio complex in Kings Cross, London. The inlay booklet notes that Kygo appeared in the Radio 1 Live Lounge, which has replaced Top of the Pops as the BBC’s top place for popstars to promote their latest tunes. BBC 1Xtra launch the careers of rap stars with their Fire in the Booth segment; Drake brought fire to the booth on July 14 2018.
The new trend sweeping through EDM would be the pileup, or ‘orgy’ as I call it. David Guetta doesn’t just get Afrojack onto Hey Mama but also brings in Nicki Minaj and Bebe Rexha on the irritating but infectious tune which I never liked. I don’t know why Verdine White, bassist of Earth Wind & Fire, needed to team up with Flo Rida and Robin Thicke on I Don’t Like It, I Love It, another track that took the Get Lucky/ Uptown Funk formula of funky guitar and rapping, but I am sure Verdine’s accountant was happy.