I don’t know when the ‘pileup’ method of pop began to become commonplace, but in many ways it is a trend from the current digital era. Why include one act when you can have three, or even more? I call it ‘orgy pop’, although you may call it Pileup Pop.
Clean Bandit were known for drafting in guest vocalists such as Alex Newell and Jess Glynne, so the next step is to bring in two. Sean Paul and Anne-Marie take roles on the song for single mothers, Rockabye, and Iain Richards and I agreed that this should be the song that represented NOW 95 on the NOW playlist, which chooses one song from each NOW that is musically, lyrically, culturally and personally the ‘best’. Pick your own 100 yourself!!
Arguments for NOW playlist songs could be made for a host of songs from the latter half of 2016. James Arthur had been dropped for not selling records and insulting gay people on social media; nobody, not least Simon Cowell who discovered him, could have predicted a second act featuring the smash hit Say You Won’t Let Go, a four-chord marvel about fidelity. Little Mix launched their fourth album with the brilliant Shout Out to My Ex; the most controversial thing that had happened to them, besides Perrie breaking off her engagement with Zayn Malik, was when in one of their many (many!) interviews Jesy spoke in a Jamaican patois and set users of Twitter abuzz.
Only 12 songs topped the UK charts in 2016, thanks to streaming lending power to the fat end of the tail. Lukas Graham was a five-weeker, Mike Posner was there for four, James Arthur and Little Mix each at the top for three. Rockabye was the 2016 Christmas number one, proving that streaming had killed the Christmas number one as well…or had it?
Aubrey from Canada aka Drizzy aka Champagne Papi aka Drake had the hit of summer 2016 with One Dance, a song people would not stop streaming despite it having very little by way of melody; it was 99% bajon beat, stayed on top of the UK charts for 15 weeks and was a nine-week US number one before being knocked off the top by Sia and her Cheap Thrills (see NOW 94). The year’s longest-running US number one, with 12 weeks (it only managed four in the UK), was the infinitesimally dull Closer by The Chainsmokers featuring Halsey, which banged on about ‘never getting older’ in a song that sounded like Instagram set to music.
Ending Drake’s summer-long hegemony – even the charts made summer of 2016 a bust – Justin Bieber managed his second UK number one of 2016 after Love Yourself with Cold Water, a five-week chart-topper as part of a Major Lazer song where Mo had her second number one. Bieber did not slow down, two-timing on NOW 95 with his sixth big hit inside a year with another guest vocal appearance on DJ Snake’s Let Me Love You.
For those tallying up, the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir started the year at the top, then came Love Yourself, Stitches and Pillowtalk. There had been 25 songs at number one in 2015; as of July 12 2018 there have already been 10 chart-toppers, two coming from Aubrey from Canada. Something had to change, but it would not do so until a ginger bloke from Suffolk forced the hands of those who totted up the charts.
Also returning to a NOW are big stars of recent years. Emeli Sande got married and had a divorce in between albums one and two, and Hurts is the apt comeback song. Calvin Harris returns with My Way, a track with no guest stars and welcoming back his voice to his own music; he had become the richest DJ of them all and need never work again. He’d even hung out a lot with Taylor Swift, who spent 2016 taking a breather after a busy 2015 touring 1989. Lady Gaga, meanwhile, unveiled new album Joanne with Perfect Illusion, which is a neat summation, musically and as a title, of her career.
Like Ed Sheeran, who spent 2016 taking a ‘gap year’ from social media, I have an on-off relationship with sites like Twitter. Like human society, it thrives on gossip and bullying; in 2016, Stephen Fry quit the platform saying it had changed but popped up in July 2018 to praise the England team after their performance at the 2018 World Cup. In 2016 of course, a country with fewer than 400,000 people beat England in the European Championships; I ended the game laughing at our ineptitude. The summer of leaving the EU had got even worse: first Drake mumbling at the top, now Wayne Rooney reduced to park soccer player rather than the best English player of his generation…
The stories of Polish people being told to ‘go back home’ were unsavoury, as were my living arrangements. Why I decided to pay £670 a month to move in with a couple who were unsuited to each other, whose quirks grew tiresome after a while and whom I eventually did anything to avoid speaking to (was I spending time with my evil friend?) is easily explained: £670 a month to live in London is a bargain. I was desperately unhappy, spending days looking for jobs and waiting for work to come in. I even helped lug leaflets around when ‘on trial’ for a day at a shop down the road. I was paid £40 in cash, then not told that I had not been taken on until I chased up; they wanted someone more foreign. Brexit in reverse but I cannot blame them for hiring someone else.
I ended up seeing the same faces day after day in the library I lived next to, palming off suggestions from family to become a journalist or teacher. I was listening to a lot of country music and reading books, but I wasn’t earning much money, which was a problem. By this stage, I was barely speaking to my housemates and felt worse than ever. I had been duped, without real malice, by the guy I wanted to give my all for, though I have huge respect for anyone who can launch a business targeted at fans of Watford FC. In the meantime I had finished my own football book and wanted to promote it but had no energy to; I didn’t want to go out because I’d only spend money I didn’t have, and I didn’t want to stay in because it meant talking to my flatmates or listening to their stupid arguments.
Fortunately I met a lawyer whose name I won’t share. She was brilliant to me and we hung out; it turned out she was spending Christmas a mile away from me, so I met her parents on Christmas Eve (earlier than planned) and she met my family on Christmas Day. We saw in the New Year together in her London flat with her sister and her puppeteer fiancé, then ended the relationship three weeks later when it became untenable. I saw La La Land the day before I turned 29 and vowed that I would stop messing around.
Six weeks later I met another girl, but more on her later.
To music, and Christmas 2016 saw the deaths of Leonard Cohen and George Michael, who had both been on a NOW in some capacity. Donald J Trump won the US Presidential Elections and proceeded to undo eight years of work by the Democrats; what a stupid political system, but at least it gave us great satire in the shape of Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers and Saturday Night Live.
Meanwhile my dad had met a 35-year-old French woman and was about to move to New York City himself to live and work, fed up of the bachelor life in Berkshire with his boat, house and Mini. He craved the concrete jungle where dreams are made, where big lights would inspire him and where his girlfriend ran a vegan clothing business. That is, clothing sourced by sustainable means, not clothes for people who didn’t eat animals with a face.
Aside from the six number ones from the latter half of 2016, there are some top pop songs on NOW 95. I have recently got into Zedd in a big way, and Starving (credited to Hailee Steinfeld & Grey ft. Zedd) is a really great pop song that I have recorded as part of the 100 Songs from 100 NOWs series. It sits on Disc 1 alongside tracks by blokes: Olly Murs (You Don’t Know Love), Maroon 5 (Don’t Wanna Know, still doing whatever the record label tells them to), Charlie Puth (Dangerously), JP Cooper (September Song) and Shawn Mendes (Mercy, his best song yet).
Michael Buble returns with I Believe In You, another unabashed pop song (with a key change!) written by a total of nine people. His 2016 album Nobody But Me featured songs written by Brian Wilson (God Only Knows, the finest piece of popular music ever written), Ross Golan and the pairing of Harry Styles (still no solo album…) and Meghan Trainor. Mr Buble cancelled his 2017 tour to be with his son, who was diagnosed with cancer, but wowed the crowds in London in July 2018 with a super set which included Feeling Good, Haven’t Met You Yet, Sway, Crazy Love, Home, Everything and, of course, Cry Me a River, which has suffered death by X Factor.
Representing the ladies are Ellie Goulding (Still Falling For You, rotten), Louisa Johnson with So Good (which was), Zara Larsson (Ain’t My Fault, more Swedish pop) and Dua Lipa with the passable Blow Your Mind (Mwah). I preferred earlier single New Love. Fifth Harmony sung That’s My Girl, a song which provided the soundtrack to Team USA’s 2016 Olympic success.
Two new names which may well be around for some time pop up on NOW 95. Anne-Marie released Alarm, her first single as a lead artist, with the hook ‘there goes the alarm’. Her album would not come out until 2018, an enormous lead-up which copied the Clean Bandit approach: why bother with an album if people want tracks for their own playlists? Heloise Letitier could be one of her generation’s most vital performers; recording as Christine and the Queens, because she fell in with the drag queens in London, the now gender-fluid Christine re-recorded her French songs into English and hit big with Tilted in 2016, which was popular enough to make it onto NOW 95. It’s another song that sounded like nothing else on Radio 1 and was a rare song to leap from the leftfield playlist of 6Music to the Top 40 sounds of the UK’s state-run pop station.
Ariana Grande, whose career may last a while yet, is uncharacteristically crude on Side To Side, a filthy song more befitting the featured artist, Nicki Minaj. Nonetheless, it is another hit for Savan Kotecha and Max Martin, who had passed 60 US top 10 hits by the end of 2016. Craig David sung competently on All We Needed, the 2016 Children In Need single, but he was more comfortable on the Sigala track Ain’t Giving Up. Sigma employ Birdy on Find Me, while Martin Garrix drafts in Bebe Rexha on In the Name of Love.
Sia, meanwhile, made The Greatest, on which Kendrick Lamar appeared, thus gracing a NOW compilation for the first time. Kendrick’s incendiary rapping had made him one of the most epochal performers; his album To Pimp a Butterfly showcased the thoughts of a deep-thinking artist unafraid to be political. Alright remains one of the most important songs of the decade and was taken up by the protest group who had to point out, in a time of supposed racial equality, that Black Lives Matter. Offaiah also represented black lives on NOW 95 with Trouble, with grime not yet taking over the compilations; instead, Charli XCX brought her quirky pop song After the Afterparty to NOW 95, featuring rapper Lil Yachty.
To really irritate DJs, Mo two-times with her own excellent Final Song while M.O, a British girlband whose name is an acronym for Modus Operandi, had the equally fab Who Do You Think Of, their first UK top 20 at the fourth attempt and credited to eight writers including (remember him?) Ferdy Unger-Hamilton. His brother Gus’s band Alt-J had won the 2012 Mercury Prize and had gone onto an impressive career mostly catered to by BBC 6Music.
Iain Richards wanted to argue for Sexual by Neiked featuring Dyo as a playlist pick, a song that was never my favourite because of the falsetto chorus; it was nonetheless nominated for an Ivor Novello Award in 2017 as Best Contemporary Song.
Catalogue comes from two inspiration sources: Mark Morrison inspires The Mack by Nevada, where Mark is credited along with Fetty Wap as the 20-year cycle returns; Bob Marley is evergreen, inspiring a LVNDSCAPE & Boiler remix of Is This Love. Other dance tracks come from Cash Cash & Digital Farm Animals (Millionaire, featuring old NOW staple Nelly), Matoma & Becky Hill (False Alarm, another stunning vocal from Becky), Wilkinson featuring Karen Harding (Sweet Lies) and the awesome Galantis & Hook n Sling with Love on Me, which was always fab that year on Radio 1, brightening up my pathetic existence.
Two One Direction lads appear on NOW 95: Zayn sings on Cruel by Snakehips and Niall Horan closes Disc 2 with an acoustic guitar in his hand and melancholy in his voice. This Town sounds a lot like Ed from Suffolk, who was plotting his return for the start of 2017.
Meanwhile I was sitting waiting for work to come in, hoping like so many other people, many who supported the Democrats or those wishing for Britain to remain in the UK or those who pledged musical allegiance to David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen or George Michael, that 2017 would be better than 2016.