NOW 93 was released in spring 2016. It contains only 44 songs, two fewer than NOW 92. Straight outta Christiania, a commune in Denmark, Lukas Graham’s chubby face toured the world with 7 Years, which was successful enough to make track 1 of Disc 1 of NOW 93 and was a favourite of kids aged seven and of their parents, who heard the melancholy in the song. I dock it points for containing my least favourite motif: ‘Mama told me…’ I will never write a ‘mummy/daddy/grandma told me’ song, but I will write songs that look back on being a child, which was a simpler, happier time.
Justin Bieber has two number ones on the compilation: Sorry, written with Julia Michaels, and Love Yourself, written with Ed Sheeran and more or less a duet because Ed’s vocals are still on the track. Love Yourself (originally F— Yourself) replaced Sorry at the top of the US Hot 100, which had brought Adele’s dominance to an end. Work, by Rihanna featuring Aubrey from Canada, started a nine-week run of its own just as I launched a Popular Song podcast from Blastocyst.org.uk. I never liked Work (where was the melody?!) but it had the right amount of Drake on it and he can sing. In a contest between the Biebs and Drake, I pick Max Martin’s latest hit.
Biebs gave his blessing to A Bridge Over You – a version of Paul Simon’s contemporary hymn Bridge Over Troubled Water – upon learning that staff from Lewisham and Greenwich hospitals had come together to save the status of two South London hospitals which were scheduled, but for their intervention, to be amalgamated, causing headaches for regular users. The song was the 2015 Christmas number one.
David Bowie, who could probably afford private treatment, appears on NOW 93 for wretched reasons, but the song “Heroes” remains one of his most durable songs and probably the most popular ever to be on a NOW. It had soundtracked the entrance of British athletes at the London 2012 Olympics and was produced by Brian Eno, who saved David’s career when drugs threatened to kill him in his late twenties back in the post-Ziggy days of 1977. Cancer struck David Bowie down at 69, following the release of an album whose cover was a black star. History will declare Bowie as someone who followed his muse; like Kate Bush or Bjork, he was a visual artist also working in sound whose work travelled around the world. His son Duncan Jones has gone into the movie business and has to answer questions about his late father in every interview; such are the perils of being descended from a popstar. My dad was in the suit business, so I am fine in that regard!
In January 2016 I had broken up with Amanda, who returned to the USA. I was working on A Modern Guide to Modern Football, my big book on Watford FC and football as a whole. I also combined forces with two even bigger Watford fans on a podcast venture which has kept me sane over the last two years. The Ronny & Ramage podcast began in February 2016. I had bumped into Paul ‘Bodie’ Tucker at an event in 2015 and in early 2016 he revealed he wanted to present a podcast about Watford FC and football with his brother Gary. I said we should do one at once and we are still going, with a loyal online audience who appreciate an independent view on their beloved Watford, who survived the first season back in the top division in 2015/6 and even played an FA Cup Semi-Final at Wembley Stadium (four visits, only one win). Send us a message on Twitter @Ronnyandramage and catch up with two years’ worth of pods at soundcloud.com/ronnyandramage.
Also back in the top division (of pop) was Craig David. (You will miss these segues…Only eight essays left.) At the time he was actually resident of a hotel at Heathrow because he whizzed around the world DJing. In 2016 the time was right to return to the charts with songs like When the Bassline Drops, which also introduced Big Narstie to many people. Since 2016, the chubby rapper has become a light-entertainment star with his own Channel 4 show which also promoted his album. The first guest on the show was Ed from Suffolk, who is godfather to Big Narstie’s daughter.
Returning acts on NOW 93 include Jess Glynne (Take Me Home), Charlie Puth (One Call Away), James Bay (If You Ever Want To Be in Love), Ellie Goulding (Army), Shawn Mendes (solo this time, with Stitches), Major Lazer (the bouncy Light It Up, featuring Nyla and Fuse ODG) and Olly Murs, with Stevie Knows. Fun fact: when I was a contestant on Popmaster on BBC Radio 2 in February 2018, I did not know he sang the song which was on the Radio 2 Playlist at the time. I still got my ‘One Year Out’ T-shirt.
Olly was now six years into a career which shows no signs of slowing down. I have written at length about archetypes and called Robbie Williams a sort of Ringo Starr figure; Olly Murs is one step removed from that, a version of a version of an archetype. Jason Derulo is one of many singer to plunder the toybox of Michael Jackson but sing and dance brilliantly; he appears on his own Get Ugly (with a ‘diddly’-tastic post-chorus) and as a guest on Secret Love Song by Little Mix. The Weeknd, one of many self-absorbed popstars in the pre-‘woke’ era, is also a version of a version, half-drawling and half-singing his way through The Hills, a song I admired rather than loved.
Rapper G-Eazy gets Bebe Rexha to sing a fantastic hook on Me, Myself and I, which is a song that encapsulates the three obsessions of young people at the time before political activism became a trend when some Republican got into the White House and Britain’s old people outvoted the young people in a big debate on the island’s future, to put it insanely reductively. Pop is ‘small-p’ political, rather than about Politics, but the trend will continue in the next decade as people try to shape the world they live in and hector dissenters about what they ought to think. It’s rather Orwellian…
The one-word dance acts Sigma (Coming Home, with Rita Ora), Sigala (the brilliant Sweet Lovin, WITH NO G and vocals by Bryn Christopher) and Kygo (Stay, featuring Maty Noyes) are all present on NOW 93, as are The Chainsmokers, who have stopped taking a #SELFIE and team up with ROZES on a song called Roses. Robin Schulz was also all over Radio 1 with Sugar, featuring the vocals of Francesco Yates, while AlunaGeorge draft in Popcaan on I’m In Control. Silento tries to prolong his 15 minutes of fame – now 15 seconds in the era of Youtube – by singing on the Dawin song Dessert.
Zayn Malik, as Zayn, suffers so badly from stage fright that he is often unable to perform. He is a super vocalist, as shown on his debut single Pillowtalk, which was the first debut single by a British artist to enter the Billboard Hot 100 at number one. His old friends put out the last single with History, a fun acoustic song that has a great chorus; One Direction would go on hiatus, without officially splitting up, in summer 2016.
Showing no signs of stopping are Coldplay, whose A Head Full of Dreams album included Hymn for the Weekend. The song continues Beyonce’s run of guest appearances as she blethers on about being ‘drunk and high’ (not with a young baby she won’t be, but I think it’s a metaphor). The song is produced by both Stargate and Avicii; it didn’t fail. Avicii is namechecked on In Ibiza (as per the radio edit of the song I Took a Pill in Ibiza), which brings Mike Posner back into the hit parade on a bittersweet song which is actually about the perils of club culture.
Perhaps Mike knew that excess would kill Avicii, and that life was better in writers room than on big stages. I wonder if he can buy a house thanks to the billion (1,000,000,000) streams of the song (fun fact: he can’t, because of punitive royalty rates!). He tweeted that a ‘new album is on the way’ back in March 2018.
The Sound of 2016 longlisted Dua Lipa, J Hus and Mabel (more on all of them shortly) but it was Jack Garratt, a bedroom musician from Hertfordshire, who topped the list. I loved his song The Love You’re Given and millions more went wild for his sounds, such as Worry, which mixed beats and sweet vocals and is on NOW 93. Second was Alessia Cara, whose song Here is also there, blethering over the familiar loop from Isaac Hayes which was also sampled by Portishead on Glory Box. The lyric, following Lorde and others, took a jaded view at teen parties; was this a marketing angle or a universal truth?
Other catalogue on NOW 93 included more songs that put dance beats under old sets of lyrics: Jonas Blue did it with Fast Car, with the vocals of Dakota, and 99 Souls took The Boy is Mine by Brandy & Monica, took out Monica and replaced them with Destiny’s Child. The result, The Girl Is Mine, was a club banger. Alan Walker was another Scandinavian bloke with a laptop; I never liked his song Faded but millions more did.
I liked two songs on the compilation more than the rest. Both can be classed as rock but are actually just pop with guitars. Elle King is the daughter of actor Rob ‘You can DO IT!’ Schneider (I have just discovered the line is from the movie The Water Boy!) and I loved her Ex’s & Oh’s, another song I first heard on America’s Greatest Hits before it swept across to the UK, where Elle found her ‘better lover’. Her album Love Stuff was great and she is still working on the follow-up.
The 1975 have readied albums three and four, following the international success of (breath) I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It. My ears were working when I messaged Mike Crossey, the producer of The Sound, the album’s second single, telling him it was Song of the Year. It remains a bouncy, frantic song which mentions the word ‘epicurean’. It peaked at 15 in the UK, which makes me want to borrow Mark Radcliffe’s words about it being impossible that there were 14 better songs that week. The public had failed to make a great song a ‘hit’ but then what was a hit if people weren’t buying music? I will try to answer this question in a later essay.
Another rock number one first heard on Paul Gambaccini’s show was by twentyone pilots, from Columbus, Ohio. It was so rare to see a song written by one person and Tyler Joseph wrote every note of Stressed Out, one of the big singles from blurryface, himself. Mike Elizondo has the great feat of producing both this song and many of Eminem’s finest, such as The Real Slim Shady; he can also walk unmolested down a street, something Tyler may not be able to do after a few years touring the world. In July 2018 he and twentyonepilots announced new music. Trench will emerge in October 2018.
Two-timing on NOW 93 with her own Lush Life and singing the hook on Girls Like by Tinie Tempah is super Swede Zara Larsson. I love Lush Life, one of my songs of 2016, because it bounced into life and had several hooks. Another dance-pop song that did so well that it won an Ivor Novello Award was All My Friends by Snakehips; the song featured young singer Tinashe and an independent rapper from Chicago named Chancellor aka Chance the Rapper. Chance released free mixtapes early in his career, donates large sums of money to social projects and refuses all major-label advances. I would say he is an archetype and I will follow his career with interest.
In case you are wondering if David Guetta wrote anything on NOW 93, he did: Bang My Head features both Sia and Fetty Wap, two acts I don’t believe would have met were it not for David Guetta. In case you are wondering if Max Martin wrote anything on NOW 93, he did: Selena Gomez wrote Hands To Myself with Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels, a song that gets better with age.
In case you are wondering if any stars of the 2014 X Factor have anything on NOW 93, they do: Fleur East sings Sax, which is 100% Uptown Funk. The 2015 Contest was won by Louisa Johnson, which I momentarily forgot.