The credits listing the writers of the songs on NOW 92 are not printed in the booklet, breaking a tradition that stretched back to 1983, even if they had been printed in a tiny font for several editions. Instead there was adverts for Now That’s What I Call Sing and for four NOW compilations (Christmas, Party Anthems, Disney AGAIN and 80s AGAIN). There was also a contest to win a 40-inch-screen TV, which obviously seemed more valuable to promote in the booklet than give props to the writers of some of 2015’s most brilliant pop songs. The link that sends a listener to the credits is now broken. The penpics, happily, remained to give a short summary of who sang which song.
Even an alien can tell that Max Martin’s fingerprints are all over some of the tracks on NOW 92, released in time for Christmas 2015. You will know if you have read these essays at length that Max Martin is the Lionel Messi of popular music. He has had 22 US number one hits, 18 sung by female voices. The four sung by blokes are It’s Gonna Be Me (*NSYNC), One More Night (Maroon 5) and his most recent pair, Can’t Stop the Feeling (Justin Timberlake) and Can’t Feel My Face by Abel Tesfaye aka The Weeknd.
Formerly a purveyor of slow ballads, The Weeknd had his first commercial splash with Earned It, from the Fifty Shades of Grey movie (never on a NOW). Can’t Feel My Face was an addiction song that was heavily rotated on the radio as I kept editing books and realised my relationship was dead.
The song begins with the vocal at the top of the mix, with just atmospheric synths behind it; the chorus comes in with just the drum shuffle and hooky bassline, the vocal double tracked before the drums cut out for a bar of a cappella delivery and the verse then repeated with a lyrical variation over the drums. Then the synths return for the recap of the bridge (‘she told me don’t worry…’) before the chorus. The Max Martin-patented Hook B appears during the third chorus immediately after the second, giving the chorus lyric a new melody, which is followed by four bars of vocalisation and synths, then comes the bridge, with a few extra beats tacked on, and the chorus a couple of times. It ends with a ‘hey’ and then the listener, addicted, puts the song on again. Max has another number one hit and all is right with the world of pop.
The Weeknd begins a successful few years as one of the dominant voices of pop, but Max Martin would only add one more US number one to his tally. Shaad D’Souze wrote a piece on Vice magazine’s Noisey music service asking whether Max had lost his touch, since no song of his topped the charts in 2017. Yet he had music on hit albums by his three main collaborators: Pink, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. Composer Owen Pallett likened Max’s melodies to those of ‘an architect’s pencil’.
As the author of the piece notes, some of 2017’s biggest hits were ‘all lyrics’ like Bodak Yellow by Cardi B. When Max tries this, as he does with Taylor Swift, it is ‘a facsimile of icy, unemotional trap’. In an era of streaming, lyrics are more vital than ever, even more than a hooky melody. In the melodic era, before streaming, Max was Messi; in the new era, the likes of Drake are the new breed. The conclusion is that Max is out of vogue but ‘trends in pop are cyclical’ and there is every chance Max can have his third golden era.
Aside from Can’t Feel My Face, Max and his mate Savan Kotecha make three other appearances on NOW 92. They co-write the perky On My Mind by Ellie Goulding, the gorgeous Cool For the Summer by Demi Lovato and the beyond funky Focus by Ariana Grande, which borrows from her song Problem and features Jamie Foxx yelling ‘focus on me’ in the chorus; all three artists get co-writing credits on their hits, as Abel Tesfaye did on his. This was another summer where Max Martin’s sound dominated Top 40 radio (as it is called in the US) or Radio 1.
Taio Cruz is one of seven writers on Kiss Me by Olly Murs, which takes the vibe of Can’t Feel My Face, removes the references to addiction and asks a girl to ‘kiss me like you mean it’. Dr Luke is one of five writers on the execrable Locked Away by Rock City, recording as R City, a song on which Adam Levine lowers himself to featured vocalist. Ross Golan is one of four writers of Wake Up by The Vamps, while it took seven people including Julia Michaels and ‘Sir’ Nolan Lambroza to create the sultry Good For You for (and with) Selena Gomez, which featured popular rapper A$AP Rocky. Being 27, I had no idea who A$AP Rocky was.
I knew of Fetty Wap when I heard the awful Trap Queen (a song about drugs that was driven by a trap beat), while I knew of Silento after hearing the even worse Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae), another song that was more dance routine than pop song. I preferred Glitterball (Sigma featuring Ella Henderson) and WSTRN (In2), while Ed Sheeran two-timed on Rudimental’s great Lay It All On Me as well as his own Photograph, complete with a lyric about ‘ripped jeans’.
Little Mix (Love Me Like You, another Camille Purcell tune) and One Direction (UK number one Drag Me Down, their worst single) also appear on NOW 92 representing Cowellpop, as do 5 Seconds of Summer with the pop-punk She’s Kinda Hot, written by the Madden brothers from Good Charlotte. Charlie Puth has a hit under his own name with Meghan Trainor popping up on the second verse of Marvin Gaye on which he quotes four Marvin songs including Got To Give It Up, the song which was proven to have inspired Blurred Lines enough to give Marvin’s estate a lot of money.
Straight covers of catalogue come from Grace, featuring rapper G-Easy, on an interpretation of You Don’t Own Me (a hit in the 1960s for Lesley Gore) and from Aurora, the latest beneficiary of a sync on a John Lewis Christmas advert. This time, Noel Gallagher’s song Half The World Away, an Oasis B-Side which was the theme to the TV show The Royle Family, was chosen to get tills ringing over Christmas 2015.
Fully five songs take an old piece of catalogue and twist it into new shapes: Sigala take ABC by The Jackson Five and turn it into a number one hit called Easy Love; Philip George and Anton Powers take Be Alone No More by Another Level, put a dance beat underneath it and title it Alone No More; Joe Stone borrows This Is How We Do It, puts a dance beat underneath it and title it The Party; Diplo and Sleepy Tom take Don’t Walk Away by Jade, put a dance beat underneath it and title it Be Right There, while Felix Jaehn enlisted Jasmine Thompson on a dance-pop cover of Ain’t Nobody (Loves Me Better) by Rufus & Chaka Khan, a song which has recently been ruined by an advert for a travel agent. Chunky by Format B samples Function at the Junction by Shorty Long and sounds great in a room playing house music at a club.
The man whose music dominated NOW 81 to 90, as Max Martin has dominated two ‘decades’ of NOWs, was also all over the radio again. Calvin Harris enlisted Disciples on How Deep Is Your Love, where Calvin himself pops up warbling through a vocoder. The song is followed by Runnin’ (Lose It All) – WITH NO G! – by Naughty Boy. The female vocalist on the track is Beyonce, back on a NOW again and now a mother to Blue Ivy. Arrow Benjamin’s contributions are as essential to the track (he sings verse two) as the former Destiny’s Child member; the inlay booklet alerts purchasers of NOW 92 to the fact that Shahid aka Naughty Boy won Deal Or No Deal, which was still a fixture on Channel 4 in 2015 but had outstayed its welcome.
While X Factor 2014 winner Ben Haenow was duetting with Kelly Clarkson on Second Hand Heart (which sounds like a Simon Cowell version of pop in 2015, complete with tropical house beats, atmospheric vocals and on-the-beat drums), Stormzy was building a name for himself with songs like Know Me From while Skepta was preparing his album Konnichiwa, which would win the 2016 Mercury Prize for Album of the Year. The real anthem of 2015 was his song Shutdown, which is nowhere near NOW 92. Skepta’s brother Jamie, recording as JME, teamed up with Youtube video gamer KSI, from Watford, on Keep Up, co-written by rapper Sway and JME. Naughty Boy is not the only Watford-based act on the compilation. Where was Elton John to complete the hat-trick?!
It may seem innocent but this grime sound, pioneered by Stormzy and Skepta, was the true sound of British music. All it needed was a pretty face; Skepta was from the ‘ends’ of Tottenham and had an air of menace, and that is without going into the problems posed by large gatherings of black youths to listen to grime, which (to be facile about it) was very tough to do because of the gangs who were all into the same music. A new book on the grime scene, Inner City Pressure by writer Dan Hancox, is out now.
Pianist-chanteur Benjamin Clementine won the 2015 prize, beating Ghostpoet, Aphex Twin, Slaves, C Duncan, Eska, Roison Murphy (formerly of Moloko), Gaz Coombes (formerly of Supergrass), Jamie xx, SOAK, Wolf Alice and Florence + The Machine. An act could remain independent and have a successful career, supported by the likes of BBC 6Music and labels like XL, Domino, 4AD and Song by Toad records, the label run out of Edinburgh by my friend Matthew Young who celebrates ten years of pratting about with a run of gigs in 2018. None of his acts have ever been on a NOW…yet.
Massive tunes that powered me through the working day as I listened to Radio 1 included Here For You (more of the same from Kygo, with added Ella Henderson on vocals), Turn the Music Louder (Rumble) by KDA featuring Tinie Tempah & Katy B, Peanut Butter Jelly by Galantis, Talk To Me by Nick Brewer ft. Bibi Bourelly (which had shades of Craig David) and Intoxicated by Martin Solveig & GTA, perfect ‘Chris Stark music’ for bouncing about to in a club while being intoxicated.
The most outstanding tune of the era was Never Forget You which paired the production of MNEK and a new vocalist from Sweden named Zara Larsson. More on her shortly. Wretch 32’s song Alright With Me featured PRGRSHN and, despite being written by Emeli Sande, featured a hook sung by Anne-Marie. More on her shortly. Pia Mia was another young vocalist, reminding me of Lumidee with her hardly there voice on Do It Again featuring Tyga and some chap who once hit Rihanna. No more on Chris Brown shortly.
Plenty will follow on Justin Bieber, who turned 21 in 2015 and announced himself to an adult audience with three number ones from his album Purpose. I was clamouring for Justin to make some music befitting of his undoubted talent; he is an amazing drummer and co-wrote every track on Purpose. What Do You Mean became his first UK number one, topping the charts on three occasions for a total of five weeks. Easy Love by Sigala first deposed then was deposed by it. The same fate befell Sam Smith with his Bond theme.
Bond themes come around every three years or so; the next one is due in 2019, and I would favour a female voice, perhaps Shirley Bassey once more. After interesting themes by Madonna, Chris Cornell and, strangely, a collaboration between Jack White and Alicia Keys, Bond went for a ballad with the excellent Skyfall by Adele (not in any NOW in 2012 or 2013). Radiohead submitted their Bond theme for Spectre, which was rejected, and was given away for free as a download at the end of 2015. Sam Smith sang the theme proper, using the familiar chords and warbling on about risking it all; his falsetto was gorgeous but I never liked Writing’s On The Wall. Sam two-times with Omen, reunited with Disclosure who also had a good 2015 but not quite ‘Bond theme and squillion-selling album’ good.
Among the other 46 songs packed into NOW 92 are ballads from Years & Years (Eyes Shut), Birdy (Wings, very tender) and Jamie Lawson, who rose from absolutely nowhere as an Ed from Suffolk-approved artist to have a number one with his open mic smash Wasn’t Expecting That, a proper song with a twist at the end that captured hearts. Like Foy Vance’s album, Jamie’s music came out on Gingerbread Man, a label run by his former open mic circuit chum.
Another self-empowerment ballad made it all the way to number one in the US: Fight Song by Rachel Platten compared a girl to ‘a small boat on the ocean sending big waves into motion’. Along with Roar by Katy Perry, it is perfect for a montage of women playing sport, coding computers or being terrific.
Another terrific woman reintroduced herself in late 2015 with one word: hello. Adele from Tottenham returned with her third album 25, which was the biggest selling album in both 2015 and 2016. She was not on a NOW but everyone owned the album anyway. Adele, like Bruce Springsteen and Madonna, was too big for a NOW.