NOW 100 – The People’s Choice

The final curtain on this project but not the final NOW, NOW 100 is released on July 20 2018. It enters a world in which people have the option to not own the music they enjoy but to instead subscribe to a streaming service. Because of this, artists are having to go to the courts to get the money they deserve for having their work enjoyed by billions.

The big challenge of the next few years is fair compensation from Youtube, Apple Music and Spotify for songwriters in an era where nobody buys music if they can access millions of songs for free. As a songwriter myself, I will be supporting my peers and hope that ‘your songs’ can literally be your songs.

Stuart Maconie let the Radio 2 listeners choose the final entry into his People’s Songs playlist. Shrewdly we picked Merry Xmas Everybody by Slade (never on a NOW!). In the same spirit, you can take your pick from the 23 tracks from 2018 which are on NOW 100. Just 23?! Are they streamlining?

As well as announcing a CD release of the original Now That’s What I Call Music, it was revealed that NOW 100 would include songs from the decades; not just as in 1980s and 2000s, but as in NOW 1-10, NOW 41-50 and NOW 81-90. That is a great way of thinking about pop music, as the average pop act has a shelf life of three to four years, or ten NOWs.

A piece in the Observer ran in June 2018 a month before NOW 100 came out on July 20. Tom Lamont watches how the tracks for NOW 99 are selected, at the hallowed Abbey Road Studios.

‘[Jenny] Fisher brings her bag of memory sticks and printouts of a spreadsheet that lists about 65 songs for possible inclusion,’ Tom notes as ‘the cull’ starts when engineer Alex shows up to upload music to the computer. Meanwhile Steve Pritchard and Peter Duckworth wait to see that week’s chart positions, which could decide a track’s fate. As with the best mixtapes, the tracks flow from one to the other, then the jigsaw continues (‘Taylor to Bruno!…The Craig David features Bastille. We haven’t done Kylie yet.’)

It seems like an editorial conference on The Times to decide which stories have two pages and which have one, except it’s more frothy. Peter Duckworth opines on the popularity of the NOW series. ‘It’s the car,’ he correctly says. ‘The last bastion of the CD…Plus the CDs are “gift-y”. At Easter, when people don’t want to give more chocolates, they give a NOW.’

Speaking to Billboard, which celebrated the 100th edition with a piece of its own, Peter said that longevity makes NOW ‘cross-generational in its appeal. So mums and dads who had received NOW as a kid and felt nostalgic for it could then buy the album for their own kids and give their children the gift that they had loved when they were young.’

Peter even compares NOW’s effect to that of Star Wars, where parents took their kids to see the characters they had loved when they were kids. I would thus make Chris Brown and R Kelly the Darth Vaders of NOW. Robbie Williams and Kylie Mingoue are Luke and Leia; Ed Sheeran is Chewy.

I had no idea that NOW’s Christmas edition is one of the ten best-selling albums in chart history. Only six albums are ahead of it, which shows the pulling power of Jesus and Slade in equal measure. Christmas 2017 saw good sales for the first NOW Country released in the UK, which includes the likes of John Denver, Glen Campbell, Dolly Parton, Lady Antebellum and Shania Twain.

Radio 2 (naturally) broadcast a celebration of Now That’s What I Call Music as part of a show about compilations. The 1970s gave consumers the chance to buy soundalike compilations, with the songs recorded almost X Factor-style by session singers and musicians. The current team of compilers combine science and art with an objective view of what a hit is, responding to the taste of the audience who stream and download in their millions. What’s more, they are a trusted brand. ‘Even in the age of streams, people need a curator. It’s a vast forest of songs out there,’ says Peter.

Do we, as fans and consumers who can listen to a New Music Friday playlist every week to refresh the sounds and tastes in pop, need NOW? Peter Paphides, the music critic, says that NOW ‘provides some direction’ to people trying to ‘find their way in the jungle of streaming’. Mark from Westlife think the compilers do a great job picking the tracks (less so when the early Westlife tracks weren’t on them) but ‘you can’t replace A&R-ing. At some point someone has to have good taste in music.’

The songs that were chosen for Disc 2 of NOW 100 summarise pop music neatly. From the first ten NOWs come Red Red Wine by UB40 and Against All Odds (Take a Look At Me Now) by Phil Collins, perhaps as an acknowledgement that two Virgin acts were omnipresent on the early NOWs. The compilers then skip to the 1990s quarter of Wet Wet Wet (Love is All Around), Spice Girls (Wannabe), Oasis (Wonderwall) and Robbie Williams (She’s Madonna…nope, it’s Angels), who have all sold millions of albums and remain part of British culture today.

NOW 100’s second disc lays out songs by the key sonic architects of the pop era. Mutt Lange is there thanks to Livin’ on a Prayer by Bon Jovi, and Max Martin is represented by Baby One More Time and I Kissed a Girl (two-timing even on the Best of NOW!). Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars appear with Uptown Funk, Timbaland is there with Cry Me A River by Justin Timberlake, and Wyclef Jean and Shakira prove the indomitability and timelessness of the Colombian’s truthful hips.

Ed Sheeran two-times with Sing, co-written with Pharrell, and Love Yourself, his song for Justin Bieber. The compilers could not ignore the power of the beige, with You’re Beautiful, Rule The World and Viva La Vida representing James Blunt, Gary Barlow (via Take That) and Chris Martin (via Coldplay). Survivor, the Destiny’s Child song, and Can’t Get You Out of My Head represent the titanic mononymnical pair of Beyonce and Kylie.

Xenomania pop up, not with any of Girls Aloud’s classics but with Believe by Cher, 20 years old in 2018 and still sounding like the future. It is also brilliant that the compilers also saw fit to include my playlist entry for NOW 46, Reach by S Club 7, written by Dave Arch Orchestra whose arrangements of classic tunes have been delighting millions on Strictly Come Dancing in the last 15 years.

Six weeks before the compilation was released on July 20 2018, which brought my silly project to a close, nowmusic.com ran a vote to see what the general public thought were the top tracks ever committed to NOW. A series of songs from each decade – 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s – were picked by the team over there and fans could vote on individual tracks of the decade and overall Best Song Ever. You could also pick your favourite NOW; mine was NOW 25.

Elsewhere the King and Queen of NOW were selected, as was the best band. Respectively I voted George Michael, Kylie Minogue and Spice Girls, acts who had hits in at least two, sometimes three or, in Kylie’s case, four decades. The best song of each decade according to me (end of debate.) went to Wake Me Up Before You Go Go (1980s), Baby One More Time (1990s, praise be to Max), Crazy in Love (2000s) and Someone Like You (2010s). Uptown Funk, Happy and Black Magic are all worthy winners for the 2010s and for the overall Best Song Ever, but let’s see whose fans can game the system.

For best collaboration, I lingered on Rather Be but went for George & Elton for Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me: ‘Ladies and gentlemen Mr ELTON JOHN!!’ swung it. The guys from the suburbs who took on the world are inspirations to me as I draw this Now That’s What I Call NOW project to a close today, with the final podcasts and the final slew of songs recorded for the project.

But what of Disc 1, representing summer 2018? In the podcast series I spoke about eight or nine NOWs at a time, with the final podcast separated into two: Iain Richards helped me pick tunes from NOW 91 to NOW 99 to advance to the playlist but, since we were recording in May, we predicted songs which would make the cut for NOW 100.

We got most of them, including the three number one hits One Kiss, by Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa (note the ampersand, denoting a duet rather than a ‘feature’), I’ll Be There by Jess Glynne and Shotgun by George Ezra. I think this is a country song and I am pleased to see two country acts on NOW 100, as expected. Maren Morris sings the mighty The Middle, another collaboration between producer Zedd and ‘trackmeisters’ Grey, while Florida Georgia Line are listed as being featured on Meant To Be by Bebe Rexha, which sounds like a duet to me.

Two pioneers of the ‘feature’ are present, along with Adam from Dumfries. David Guetta and Sia team up again on Flames, which was nowhere near as epochal as Titanium, while Clean Bandit enlist Demi Lovato on Solo and cut up her vocal in one of the choruses of the decade to rival their others. It is incredible that the band have not followed up their debut album yet, despite issuing a total of six songs (five of them massive hits) since the New Eyes cycle ended.

Max Martin and Ed Sheeran are here too, represented respectively by the lower-case no tears left to cry by Ariana Grande (about the Manchester bombings in 2017) and 2002 by Anne-Marie. Perfect is omitted, probably because enough people own the song and its parent album Divide. Also missing is anything by Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the people’s cellist who played at the Royal Wedding. Maybe NOW 101 will have some classical pieces on it.

Post Malone is the latest white guy to take the sounds of black music and become a millionaire: Better Now makes its way onto NOW 100, proving the compilers have their finger on the pulse. Years & Years teamed up with Greg Kurstin for their second album, whose second single If You’re Over Me went into the top ten. It is no coincidence that the album came out the week of London Pride; Olly Alexander is an openly gay frontman who may be the most important singer-songwriter of the era not to be from Tottenham or Suffolk. Shawn Mendes is so well respected that he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 People of the Year; he appears on NOW 100 with In My Blood.

Scott Mills, the new presenter of the Official Chart Show on Radio 1 after deputising for decades, announced that Youngblood by 5 Seconds of Summer was one of his songs of 2018 so far. Scott’s show often accompanies an old reference with the sound ‘WHOOOOO?’, which is never not amusing.

Elsewhere, Jonas Blue enlists Jack & Jack on Rise, the newly single Liam Payne duets (it’s an ampersand) with J Balvin on Familiar and Khalid and Normani do the same on Love Lies. Cheat Codes (whom I just looked up are three American DJs) draft in Little Mix on Only You, giving Simon Cowell a presence on NOW 100. M-22, another new name to me, is a dance duo comprising a Brit and a German (it’s like the Christmas truce!!) who bring in Medina, a successful singer from Denmark, on First Time.

The trend for piling up artists (I call it ‘orgy pop’ but nobody else will) is present: Bad Vibe, by M.O., Lotto Boyzz & Mr Eazi; Jackie Chan, by Tiesto & Dzeko featuring Preme & Post Malone, who thus two-times; and Ring Ring, by Jax Jones & Mabel feat Rich The Kid. Why is Mabel an ampersand and Rich the Kid a ‘featuring’? My friend Henry told me that the difference between an ‘and’ and a ‘featuring’ is in the essentiality of how they contribute to the track; if they are in the room when the song is written, it’s an ‘and’.

Hence the top ten hit Answerphone by (note the credits) Banx & Ranx & Ella Eyre featuring Yxng Bane, which must be the most ‘x’s in any pop song credits aside from the late XXXTentacion, whose music is too full of swear words for a NOW. Avicii is also missing from NOW 100 despite his death earlier in the year.

In a perfect bridge of then and now, four girls performing as MU4 sing the old Supremes song You Can’t Hurry Love which, in its version by Phil Collins (not Sir Phil, oddly) was track one on side one (not Disc 1) of Now That’s What I Call Music, the first volume. Helpfully the song is listed as GMB Competition Winners, which must have meant Good Morning Britain shut up the former editor of The Mirror up for long enough to allow singers to entertain the nation. The judging panel included Kimberley from Girls Aloud, A&R chap Mac Fox and X Factor icons Reggie & Bollie.

Part of the prize was to record the song at Abbey Road and have it featured on the album with ‘up to three nights in a three-star London hotel’ and £5,000 split between the performers with no other royalties ‘for the avoidance of doubt’. They also got a free copy of NOW 100. It is no surprise whatsoever that MU4 are current students at the BRIT School, which since 1992 has trained kids in the art of being a recording or performing artist. BRIT School old boys and girls to have appeared on a NOW include Katy B, Karis from Stooshe, Dane Bowers, Ella Eyre, Imogen Heap, Jessie J, The Kooks, Leona Lewis, Katie Melua, Joel Pott from Athlete, Raye, Rizzle Kicks, Kate Nash, Noisettes and the two chanteuses of pop of this century, Adele and Amy Winehouse. But not Ed Sheeran.

I have really enjoyed sifting through hundreds of tracks for this project, some of which have been lost to the ages, others rediscovered by my 30-year-old ears. I have a new appreciation for British soul and nineties dance (but NOT Cotton Eye Joe by Rednex).

I hope that one of my own songs will make it onto a NOW of the future. Here’s to the next 100 compilations and to the good health of Now That’s What I Call Music!!

Hear 12 podcasts and 100 Songs from 100 NOWs at soundcloud.com/jonny_brick

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