The NOW series did not wither at 100, and continued to collect the best music for another four or five months just in time for Christmas 2018. By the end of the year I had moved into a flat, had found a raft of freelance and shift employment and was waiting with the millions of other Brits for our great nation to leave the European Union. As I write, the government are voting to influence how best to compromise so everyone is happy (nobody is happy).
Music brooks no compromise: it’s a product that has to appeal to as many people as possible, which is why Ed from Suffolk is one of the men raking it in at the moment. Ed does not appear as an artist on NOW 101, but a song he wrote is Track One on Disc One. The gossip was that Little Mix didn’t want Woman Like Me to lead off the campaign for LM5, their fifth album (the Spice Girls only managed three!). Its reggae feel works on any radio station the world over, the language is direct and there’s even a reference to ‘my mama’, which is still a terrible trope. Nicki Minaj pops up sounding neutered on a guest verse designed to keep her in the public eye, while Little Mix take her edgy sound and water it down for preteens, with added squawk midway through the chorus.
Benjamin Levin, who has also made a lot of money recently, appears under his stagename benny blanco (all lower case) in a trio with Khalid and Halsey with his/their worldwide smash Eastside (‘in the city where the sun don’t set’). It takes the bajon beat and wraps it in immaculate production; the song is okay but Ben knows how to make a record. Halsey two-times with a slow-burner of a song called Without Me. She performed both of the songs as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live, which I enjoyed.
Not only does Khalid appear three times, he follows himself on Disc Two. Better is followed by Ocean, the latter as a guest vocalist on a track produced by Martin Garrix.
Elsewhere it’s orgies all over the place. Stay Flee Get Lizzy call upon Fredo, Young T and Bugsey on Ay Caramba, which shows that UK grime can also do pile-ups to incite singalongs at house parties. When I heard No Brainer by DJ Khaled and friends (Justin Bieber, Chance the Rapper and Quavo), I came up with the genre of ‘orgy-pop’, which some have called ‘pile-ups’. This is obviously a ruse by record companies to increase awareness of certain acts by cross-pollination, the same way Youtube influencers collaborate on videos to drive eyeballs to their own channels. Is this what happened in the 1960s? Did Mick Jagger pop up on a Beatles track, or Lulu duet with Dusty Springfield? Major labels have fewer acts and less product to push, which explains the orgies. I’ll stop saying orgies.
The big pile-up can also be just an expansion of an act: track ten on Disc One is Electricity, which I will always associate with child Irish dancers taking their bows after the medal ceremony at the Watford Colosseum. Dua Lipa sounds great as she sings about love having ‘no ceiling’ to the backing of Silk City, who are the duo Diplo & Mark Ronson. Oddly, the pair are listed as featured artists even though they are Silk City, which is surely a tautology, like Wham ft. George Michael, as Careless Whisper was listed at the time.
Dua Lipa two-times with the Radio 2 playlisted If Only, a piano-led duet with tenor Andrea Bocelli that closes Disc One, while Diplo three-times. Ellie Goulding and Swae Lee are the voices chosen to sing the melodies of Close To Me, while Diplo guests on the irresistible Thunderclouds, credited to LSD ft. Sia, Diplo and Labrinth. The song was used to help someone sell tablet computers; I forget who.
Other faceless producers returns to NOW 101: Clean Bandit offer Baby with Marina and the Diamonds (as she is still called in the tracklisting, though her new album will be as Marina) and Luis Fonsi; Zedd produces another fine song in Lost In Japan, with vocals by Shawn Mendes; David ‘Pierre’ Guetta gets Anne-Marie in for the 2018-sounding Don’t Leave Me Alone, whose melody was written by Sarah Aarons, who wrote Zedd’s The Middle.
Jonas Blue two-times on consecutive tracks, the first with Back & Forth, billed as MK X Jonas Blue X Becky Hill (who deserves to be a bigger star), and next with Polaroid. Here he has help from Liam off of One Direction and Lennon Stella, who played Maddie in the TV show Nashville and is now using her long legs to try to have a Taylor Swift-type pop career (she’s a better vocalist than Taylor). Sigala trump both producers by enlisting, for some reason (see above), Ella Eyre AND Meghan Trainor AND French Montana: Just Got Paid has Meghan singing ‘gimme that money, money’ and it’s a song that is perfect for payday. It is functional and very little more, and is 99% Nile Rodgers.
Mr Montana gets Drake to help out on No Stylist, which is a melody attached to the ubiquitous trap beat (the one with the processed hi-hat) while Travis Scott does the same on SICKO MODE (all capitals). Oddly, Drake has no credit on the track in spite of Travis not entering it until a minute in. It’s like a James Patterson novel where the co-author has written most of it but Patterson’s name is still on it. Here, Drake fans know Aubrey from Canada is on it; looking at the Youtube entry, Aubrey Graham is listed along with (and I won’t name them all) TWENTY-NINE other writers, including Notorious BIG, whose track Gimme the Loot is sampled. I hope Travis negotiated a good contract to see money from SICKO MODE.
The big hits of the last half of 2018 include Promises, by Adam from Dumfries and Sam Smith (‘tonight!’); Hold My Girl by George Ezra, who played two dates at the O2 Arena in March (the song’s co-writer is his long-time guru Joel Pott, who was in the band Athlete); Be Alright by Dean Lewis, another hot guy emoting in musical form; the alluring Nevermind by Dennis Lloyd; and the party-starting Fine Girl by ZieZie.
The ‘it girl’ of 2018 was Cardi B. After contributing to a remix of Finesse by Peter from Hawaii (Bruno Mars), she pops up with a few bars on Girls Like You, a four-chord marvel from Maroon 5 who are doing exactly what they are told, but this time melodically and with a positive message for women. The band performed the song at the 2019 Super Bowl after Rihanna declined the offer to entertain the world at half-time. The music video, starring women as diverse as Jennifer Lopez and Sarah Silverman, was made for Youtube clicks, and the band succeeded with a US number one.
I Like It takes the old Latin hit of the same name and adds a beat to it, over which Cardi B, Bad Bunny and J Balvin join forces. It was a US number one too. Taki Taki, another example of music industry executives trying to hit every marketplace at once, is credited to DJ Snake ft. Selena Gomez, Ozuna and Cardi B. Ozuna is enormous in Latin America. Selena appears on track 21 of Disc 2 with her own song Back To You, another song which has been made to capture the trend that Zedd started off: vocal-heavy choruses, a quirky post-chorus instrumental bit and a woman singing about love and stuff.
The surprise hit of the season, which was enormous in the States, was Happier, where an ampersand joins Marshmello & Bastille. Culture is pushing the mental health trend (about fifty years too late) so we have songs that advise the listener to ‘be happier…see you smile’. The bounce of the track is addictive and Dan Smith adds a terrific vocal. Steve Mac, who co-wrote Woman Like Me and Shape Of You with Ed Sheeran, is the third writer on the track.
On Disc Two, the UK number one Funky Friday by Dave and Fredo yet again took the grime movement to the top of the charts, something not even Stormzy has done. Dave didn’t even include the song on his album Psychodrama, so confident is the Streatham-born rapper.
Elsewhere in music that landed on Radio 1’s playlist in the autumn of 2018, 079ME by B Young and Body by Loud Luxury ft. brando (lower case) seemed to be played every hour. In My Mind by Dynoro & Gigi D’Agostino is a well-produced earworm. Best Life by Hardy Caprio ft. One Acen took the popular phrase ‘Living my best life’ and turned it into a hit before anyone else could, and Au/Ra and CamelPhat impressed me with Panic Room, which I first heard on a bus going to Hay-on-Wye and was pleased it had a wide audience.
It seems that it is Cheryl Tweedy’s turn to be the object of tabloid fun. She spent the first weeks of 2019 on BBC television as one of the captains (or judges) on the Greatest Dancer show. Love Made Me Do It was written by Cheryl with former Girl Aloud Nicola Roberts; Kylie Minogue and Natasha Bedingfield are also listed among its writing team. The song is forgettable fluff in which she says both the F word and the S word, and was her return to music after a few years raising her child Bear, whom she had with Liam Payne, her former partner. The Cheryl soap opera continues, as Heat Magazine reported on March 26 that the pair had ‘big plans for Bear’s second birthday party’. Was this how it was in the 1960s? Did magazines make a fuss about Julian Lennon’s birthday, or care about Carole King’s children?
As I write this paragraph I have just discovered that Britain will soon have a new Prime Minister. Brexit dominated the news in the final months of 2018, as did the American President and his cabal of advisors and friends. Amongst all this Ariana Grande continued her ‘imperial period’ (copyright: Chris Molanphy of Slate.com) with a release of her album Sweetener. G-D is a Woman was a song I never much cared for (breathin is far better) but it sounds like one she needed to put out; her BBC special was fine, but I’d have liked more ‘bops’, as she calls them.
Jess Glynne has become the most successful solo UK singer based on number ones. Many of these have her singing a chorus (Not Letting Go) or a looped line (My Love). All I Am is in the same key as Hold My Hand and is sung in a similar register, with some hooky parts and a killer chorus (‘I’m breaking my silence!’) that make it sound excellent in the car.
Other women on NOW 101 include Rita Ora, who seemed to be on tele all the time performing her solo comeback song Let Me Love You, which promoted her long-awaited second album Phoenix, and Sigrid. The Norwegian popstar contributes the title track of her debut LP Sucker Punch; the moment where the track drops out before the final chorus is magical. Mabel had another urban-inflected pop smash with One Shot.
We get to track 13 on Disc 1 before we meet a traditional rock band in Maroon 5. Panic! At the Disco is now pretty much lead vocalist Brendon Urie, and his/their song High Hopes did brilliantly well thanks to having a brilliant bridge, beginning ‘mama said’ and with a diminished chord on the word ‘complicated’, starting with the triumphant chorus and sticking the middle eight (‘stay up on that rise!’) next to the second verse. We’re still looking for the next Freddie Mercury, whose legacy was celebrated in the last quarter of 2018 with the PR piece Bohemian Rhapsody.
Odd, really, that there is nothing from that film’s soundtrack considering Queen’s long history with the NOW series. Instead we have a song that wasn’t good enough for Mamma Mia’s first movie, sung by four thesps on a jolly. When I Kissed the Teacher comes near the beginning of the second Mamma Mia movie, which stars Cher, whose album of ABBA covers is not represented (scandalously!!) on NOW 101. Nor is there anything from The Greatest Showman. Yet.
The eye-catching listing on Disc One is Pray For Me, by The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar, with the former sounding like Michael Jackson and the latter sounding like one of the most original voices of his era. Black Panther was one of the films of 2018 (didn’t see it, but should soon), and Kendrick was entrusted with the soundtrack, making it a phenomenon that tied up music, movies and internet culture: Wakanda and the characters in it dotted social media for months afterwards.
The 1975, led by Matty Healy, returned with TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME, which had a video much better than its title, while Take That delivered some new product in advance of their Odyssey Best Of celebrating 30 years of the band. Out of Our Heads was a ragtime-pop jam that had Gary singing in the top of his register and the other two (Howard and Mark) providing backing vocals. The band play stadium gigs in 2019 with Rick Astley; former member Robbie spent autumn 2018 on Saturday night TV debasing his legacy. He’ll always have Angels instead; maybe someone should make The Robbie Williams Story, starring Olly Murs in the title role.
Failing that, Rami Malek would do.