In the 1960s, before The Beatles released self-penned pop songs and sold them to the public by waggling their moptopped heads, official soundtracks to Hollywood films were the big-sellers at record shops. The Sound of Music OST kept on selling for years after its release; fans of the movie purchased a recording of the soundtrack so they could sing of female deers around the house and carry them with them in their hearts when out and about listening to the sounds of the sixties.
Then came rock music as a cultural force. OSTs did kick back in the late 1970s thanks to The Bee Gees and songs from Grease then, in the 1980s, pop songs would be tacked on as the ‘theme’ from a certain film. They could also be added as an afterthought to play over the closing credits: Everything I Do (I Do It For You) by Bryan Adams and My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion are two monolithic pop songs from movies, both about the clash of rich and poor, funnily enough.
As 2018 turned into 2019, a movie about a man who grew rich through his circus enchanted millions of people. The Greatest Showman is going to be Hugh Jackman’s magnum opus, the one between the commas in his obituary: ‘Hugh Jackman, the actor who starred as P.T. Barnum in the musical film The Greatest Showman, died…’ I saw the film in London a few weeks after it came out and thought it was fine. It was Disney product which was a vehicle for both Zac Efron and Zendaya, positioning them as the (rewritten) stars of their era.
The Greatest Showman is also a timely film in that its cast of freak-show curiosities are fighting for representation, just as transgender folk and women are being heard in a post-masculine world. Unfortunately, there are not one but two love stories getting in the way of this part of the plot, and I stopped caring about both love stories long before the film’s all too sudden final reel. I actually went ‘KA-CHING!’ on seeing This Is Me, the film’s big song written by Pasek & Paul and sung by Keala Settle, which I had been impressed with on the soundtrack.
At long last, This Is Me finds its way onto a NOW album a full 17 months after it was first heard. The mix of NOW 100’s reduction in current hits and the success of the official soundtrack, which was by far the biggest album of 2018, meant that the compilers of NOWs 99, 100 and 101 reckoned there was too much Greatest Showman in everyone’s car. NOW 102 relents and features three songs from the show: This Is Me is obviously there with its lyrics about self-empowerment (‘I won’t let them break me down to dust…for we are glorious’) and lots of woahs; from the re-recorded soundtrack album the song Rewrite the Stars is given new oxygen by James Arthur and Anne-Marie; and the opening song of the soundtrack, The Greatest Show, was performed by Huge Action himself at the 2019 BRIT Awards. The song closes Disc 2…Except it doesn’t close Disc 2.
What follows are six tracks from NOW 2, introducing young fans of pop music to Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (‘mummy, what does “when you wanna come” mean?’), Wouldn’t It Be Good by Nik Kershaw (odd chord progression in the verse), one-hit wonder Break My Stride by Matthew Wilder (majestic key changes), enrapturing Girls Just Want To Have Fun by Cyndi Lauper, Culture Club’s It’s a Miracle (Boy George and the band are still going) and Hold Me Now by an act who would score low on Pointless in the round ‘Performers at Wembley Stadium at Live Aid’, Thompson Twins.
NOW is a heritage brand, appealing to people who still buy CDs but who are adept at finding new tunes on streaming services. The point of NOW is to collect the best songs that capture a musical ‘season’. Early 2019, the ‘season’ captured by NOW 102, was dominated by the glory of A Star is Born. Sensibly the compilers have no qualms over including the mighty two-week number one hit Shallow, the duet between Lady Gaga’s Ally and Bradley Cooper’s Jackson in a film I thought was too long but made its point well. Lady Gaga will move into the phase of her career where she plays Vegas, writes modern standards and breathes new life into her old tunes. I always preferred her cabaret version of Poker Face, played solo on piano, and that is the Gaga I would love to see in concert.
Katy Perry, meanwhile, is the latest female voice on a Zedd track: the video for 365, inspired by the Spike Jonze film Her, is much better than the track. Katy takes a break from filming American Idol, where she is a judge, and staying active in gossip columns after becoming engaged to Orlando Bloom. I wish she’d make another I Kissed a Girl, and her recent hit Chained to the Rhythm came close.
Shallow was co-written by Mark Ronson, who returns with a new album in 2019 after his success with Silk City in 2018. Late Night Feelings will include Nothing Breaks Like a Heart, a fine pop song with vocals from Miley Cyrus, who is inspired by her godmother Dolly Parton’s song Jolene. Miley has stopped pratting about with wrecking balls and foam fingers and is set to dominate the culture for a decade, settled in domestic bliss with a movie star for a husband and in no great need of money. She need never work again.
There is a high quotient of men on NOW 102, both hip and heritage (ie, formerly hip). With Ed Sheeran settling into married bliss and building swimming pools with all his money, other men have stepped into the gap due to the absence of Ed product in the charts. George Ezra chose Pretty Shining People as single number four from the Staying at Tamara’s album, which was the biggest-selling album not to be attached to a Disney movie in 2018. The Times gave George five stars for his O2 Arena show, virtually saying he’s a nice bloke with an interesting voice. Tom Walker’s solo written Just You and I is a piece of fluff that climbed slowly up the charts when it was re-released in advance of his debut album. The aforementioned James Arthur offers Empty Space, while Raging Binman (aka Rag’n’Bone Man aka Rory from Brighton) wails over Calvin Harris’ Giant.
The heritage category makes NOW 102 an interesting purchase. Bryan Adams finds his way onto the compilation thanks to a co-write with Ed Sheeran called Shine A Light, the title of his fourteenth studio album; the Groover from Vancouver now lives in Hammersmith, has a young child at home and is a professional photographer. Westlife offer Hello My Love, written by Ed Sheeran, from their final ever album. Michael Buble enlists Charlie Puth, a sort of American Ed Sheeran, to help write the smooth Love You Anymore, from what could be his final ever album (his Carpool Karaoke, screened on Channel 4 to launch the album, was excellent). Hozier returns after several years counting the Take Me To Church money with Almost (Sweet Music), which has nothing to do with Ed Sheeran, and 74-year-old Rod Stewart offers Look In Her Eyes. He is not, however, as Sir Rod. The song was omnipresent on Radio 2 at the end of 2018, and includes the word ‘voguishly’ in its second line. (Why is Ed not Sir Ed yet, for services to British music?)
Take That put out Everlasting, another offering from their Odyssey collection, with a lead vocal from Mark Owen, a Barlow-by-numbers melody and a lyric about being ‘stars when we’re dancing’. Truly, Gaz is the Andrew Lloyd-Webber of pop, cranking out the same sort of thing for those who like it and who will pay good money to see the song performed at a Take That gig where they’ll be dancing.
I don’t need to tell you who wrote Thursday by Jess Glynne; if you imagine Ed from Suffolk singing it, you are correct to assume his fingerprints. Even when he’s not in the charts, he’s affecting the sound of pop music, like the Bee Gees did when they wrote songs for Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross. Lost Without You by Freya Ridings, however, is an outlier: a solo write by the act, released at the end of 2017 (the Year of Sheeran) which affected more and more people as the months elapsed with its first line ‘standing on the platform, watching you go’. The sentiment is so simple and the soft piano accompaniment perfect. The song became a top 10 hit in October 2018 and with any luck there will be more of that sort of thing on Freya’s debut album. Unlike Ed Sheeran, she did go to the BRIT School.
Congratulations are due to Jack Savoretti, real name Giovanni. His ballad Candlelight received a lot of love from Radio 2 and propelled his sixth album Singing to Strangers (good title) to the top of the UK album chart. The song has real strings on it and his voice is excellent; he grew up in London and Switzerland but his heart is in Genoa. He plays Wembley Arena in May 2019, whose next performers as I write this are Busted.
The big smash hit of the first quarter of 2019 came from nowhere. The Jonas Brothers were like One Direction but better, with a run of albums that came out every summer between 2006 to 2009. They were Disney stars of stage and screen, and music was just product to them, albeit ones they mostly wrote, to their credit as musicians. Two early hits of theirs were covers of songs by Busted, including Year 3000, where they did not sing about ‘triple-breasted women’ because they were teenage children. In 2019, the Jonasim (using the Jewish plural) reconvened and brought out Sucker, written with Ryan Tedder and driven by a syncopated beat. It went straight to number one in the US, helped by a big-budget music video and a Carpool Karaoke chat with James Corden.
A segment initially turned down by TV networks has now become a show in its own right, with folk driving around and singing songs in a car with the human form of an Excited gif, High Wycombe’s favourite son. P!nk was another act who was driven by James, and the announcement of her Wembley Stadium dates in 2019 bemused me until she was announced as the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BRIT Awards. Her catalogue is one of the most impressive this century, and she seems to be respected in the industry. Walk Me Home is her latest hit, written with old pal Nate Ruess from fun and with Scott Harris, who wrote Don’t Let Me Down for The Chainsmokers and is Shawn Mendes’ big songwriting buddy.
As of the end of March, this year there have been four songs which have topped the UK chart. There is no place on NOW 102 for the song which started the year as a rollover number one from last year: We Built This City (‘on sausage roll’), by the Internet parent LadBaby, of whom I hadn’t heard until the campaign to get the song to the top. Instead we get three of the other four: Sweet But Psycho by Ava Max (Amanda Koci to her tax authority) is 99% Lady Gaga and topped the charts all January.
The second number one takes a song from The Sound of Music, in a lovely piece of symmetry given the opening paragraph of this essay. Ariana Grande’s song about buying 7 rings for her friends takes the melody of My Favorite Things (Will Ferrell does the best version of the song as Robert Goulet) and then breaks into a trap beat. Disc 2 houses the 2018 number one and title track of her 2019 album thank u, next, where she is so ‘f—ing grateful for my ex’, Pete Davidson, who is getting funnier every episode of Saturday Night Live.
Ariana’s imperial period (copyright: Chris Molanphy, writer of Slate.com’s Why Is This Song Number One? and presenter of the Hit Parade podcast) continues; Ariana is playing songs on her world tour which are drawn from both her recent albums. Miley, the Jonasim, Ariana: all were American kids TV stars in an era before LadBaby and Youtube. (Ariana was on Nickelodeon, not Disney.)
Social media has made a star of the holder of another number one in 2019, which is present and correct on NOW 102. Someone You Loved is an overly emotional song by Bathgate-born Lewis Capaldi, whose sense of humour is clear on Instagram and Twitter. Grace was his first big smash and is also chosen for the compilation, thanks to its huge chorus. Mabel was unlucky to be stuck behind Someone You Loved as the grime-pop of Don’t Call Me Up rose up the charts in spring 2019.
Kicking off Disc 2 is a song tacked on to the end of a Hollywood blockbuster, in this case Swan Song from the film Alita: Battle Angel, an odd-looking futuristic film helmed by James Cameron (Titanic, Terminator, Avatar). Dua Lipa co-wrote Swan Song with the great Justin Tranter (Sorry for Justin Bieber, Centuries for Fall Out Boy) and it’s a great record with a great title. Zara Larsson offers Ruin My Life, which only got to number 76 in the US Hot 100 (she can do better), while Sigrid released the euphoric Don’t Feel Like Crying, which is her fourth big smash in a row.
In March 2019 Sam Smith came out as non-binary. They (as one must use as a pronoun) team up with Normani, formerly in Fifth Harmony with Camila Cabello, on Dancing with a Stranger, a woozy pop song written by the superteam of Sam and Normani along with Jimmy Napes (Sam’s longtime collaborator) and Stargate.
There is only one orgy on NOW 102, perhaps because of the presence of The Greatest Showman. Goodbye is credited to (breathe in) Jason Derulo x David Guetta ft. Nicki Minaj and Willy William. Elsewhere Marshmello enlists hip New York-based Glaswegians CHVRCHES on Here With Me and Jax Jones has help from Olly Alexander and Years & Years on the bouncy Play.
Little Mix offer Think About Us, with Ty Dolla $ign popping up. The song is so far removed from Wings, the girls’ first proper single, and it remains to be seen what effect splitting from their management group, Modest, will have. They are also The Spice Girls’ managers; expect them on NOW 103 after a summer of stadium fun. Cardi B is the main artist, with Bruno Mars finessing the chorus, on the alluring Please Me, though I wonder how she will survive the recent admission that she robbed men while working as an adult entertainer.
Meanwhile, Charli XCX and Troye Sivan go back to 1999, complete with Michael Jackson impressions. The big entertainment news story of the first months of 2019 has been Leaving Neverland, the expose of two children who were bewitched by Wacko Jacko and are finally telling their side of the story. One of the morals is that unchecked power can lead to criminality, but also no chord progression ever did anything awful to children.