Dance Monkey would be the people’s choice, but I’m not The People.
In fact, the people’s choice was Colin Thackery, an octogenarian Chelsea Pensioner who was the winner of the 2019 run of Britain’s Got Talent. His immaculate version of the sappy, soppy Wind Beneath My Wings in memory of his late wife was great television, a Susan Boyle moment that led to an album deal just in time for Christmas. From One Direction to Colin Thackery, Simon Cowell has been responsible for some top moments in pop culture but, sadly, his era may have passed.
The end of the 2010s saw, predictably, a series of lists by music critics reminding people of the great recorded sounds of the previous ten years. There was plenty of music by women, gay or black artists, as the overcorrection of popular music began to accelerate. Significant lists were topped by Kendrick Lamar (Stereogum), Arctic Monkeys (NME, Lorde coming in second) and Kanye West (Rolling Stone, with Beyonce in the silver medal position). Incidentally, all three list-toppers are connected to California, either through being born, having recorded or being a resident there, though Kanye is on a different planet a lot of the time. He ended the decade as Musical Director of a gospel choir. Arctic Monkeys released a concept album with Alex Turner in the guise of a lounge singer, while Kendrick pushes the boundaries of hiphop and live performance. As the author of Alright, the anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement, he is if anything this generation’s Marvin Gaye or James Brown, a figure beyond music.
The big cultural hits of the decade were narrative television shows (Game Of Thrones, House of Cards) and Hollywood comic book adaptations like The Avengers. Politics went more right-wing while social media gave people the illusion of social democracy where opinion was currency. It also siloed people into tribes: we speak of ‘gay Twitter’, ‘black Twitter’ and ‘football Twitter’. Commentators like Katie Hopkins proved you could make money through commanding the air, even polluting it with toxic viewpoints. The likes of Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey and Louis CK saw their creative stock fall because of their private lives, and Michael Jackson and R Kelly ended the decade as pariahs.
To be a musical treasure in 2020, you must have millions of social media followers and ‘speak to’ (in the oleaginous phrase) hot-button issues like representation and diversity. This was, of course, before the Corona Era, which prompted the postponement of NOW 105 (due on April 3 2020). Sam Smith may prove to be more famous for coming out as gender fluid – Sam prefers the ‘they/them’ pronoun’ – than his/their increasingly derivative music, of which How Do You Sleep? is the latest.
NOW 104 was released in time for Christmas 2019, and collected the big hits of the last few months of the decade. The biggest of the lot was introduced to me on Twitter when someone said that Dance Monkey was number one in Australia and was going to take over the world: with four chords, a high-pitched voice and a ‘dance for me’ chorus primed for the era of TikTok, it did. Can Tones & I have another big smash or (as is likely) join Gotye and, to an extent, Hozier as one of the decade’s one-hit wonders?
The other big number one songs of the era featured Michael from South London. Take Me Back To London is a duet between Ed Sheeran and Stormzy (Michael Omari Jr), two acts who have performed on the Pyramid Stage – “headline slot” – at “Glasto”. A track from Ed’s collaborations album, it is a very contemporary song about the lives of world-renowned performers in jet planes (before the Corona Era) who just want to go home. Ed Sheeran has a pub in London, while Stormzy is the brightest light in the city’s urban music scene. It is only a matter of time until he breaks America.
Stormzy two-times on NOW 104 with the second hit from his second album Heavy Is The Head, which takes its title from the lyric in Crown. He the chorus as if intoning a hymn, before namechecking Jesus, Boris bikes, the Cambridge University scholarships in his name (“not anti-white, it’s pro-black”) and his rainfall-laden 2018 BRIT Awards performance (“I’m still soaked”). “I guess a little bit of heaven has to come with the hell” are his words of comfort for black Britons who are “on the cover of Elle”. Stormzy is a very important act and, like his mate Ed from Suffolk, has the business acumen to run his own career and dominate pop culture.
Stormzy has also kicked open the door for other British urban acts. AJ Tracey (“live and direct”) had a massive hit with Ladbroke Grove, named after an area in West London; it’s a significant song as it breaks him to a big audience but it’s quite a lightweight song and doesn’t say very much. Aitch, from Manchester and born in December 1999, appears twice: once with his own hit Taste (Make It Shake) and on Strike a Pose (“you’re kinda cute, you know”) with Young T and Bugsey. Fredo, who along with Dave beat Stormzy to the top spot when Funky Friday became the first purely grime track to get to number one – is on NOW 104 with So High, as a featured act with fellow MC Mist. (So Solid Crew and Roll Deep may lay claim to be the first overall.)
In America, of course, they have their own style of urban music: trap. Bbno$, pronounced ‘Baby No Money’, and Y2K duet on Lalala, which was top of the Viral 50 chart on Spotify nine months after it was first released. Over a trap beat they spout nonsense and it’s a fun piece of pop music while being entirely disposable. Yet the song warranted a Rolling Stone feature in which the pair talked about how to “spam people the same s— over and over again” through viral marketing, as well as how the song became popular on TikTok, which brings the school playground to the telephone screen. Strangely, it only reached number 55 in the USA and number 32 in the UK, but a hit today isn’t the same as a hit in the era of NOW 4 (more of which later).
Black artists dominate the trap scene but (of course) the biggest stars are the half-white Drake and the fully-white Post Malone. The latter has followed Aubrey From Canada into the pop sphere, with earworms like Circles (“run away, run away”) dominate streaming playlists and the radio. Incredibly, and maybe for the first time, an artist has a song with his name as the title performed by another artist (unlike Doop by Doop, which takes its title from the band themselves): Sam Feldt and RAN!’s song (“we party like”) Post Malone continues the DJ + Nondescript Female Vocalist tradition, as well as the current tropes of the bouncy post-chorus and the lyrical theme of partying nonstop, “never, ever, ever going home”. This was in the pre-Corona Era, before governments ordered people to stay home on pain of fines or illness.
There are plenty of DJ + Woman songs on NOW 104: Becky Hill sings on I Could Get Used To This, with Weiss on production, and it’s Bebe Rexha who is roped in to sing the Jax Jones-produced Harder (“you know I need that [sound effect + melodic line]”). Sigala return with We Got Love, calling up Ella Henderson, while Ritual has Rita Ora singing with TWO DJs, Tiesto and Jonas Blue, at times sounding like Korean Pop (“come on, come on” recalls the “ooh-wah” bit of Boy With Luv by BTS). Tiesto two-times with Mabel on God is a Dancer, on which the daughter of Neneh Cherry is sculpted into A.N. Other popstar: one moment she sounds like Ariana, now like Selena, now like Cher (the song is saturated with auto-tune) and not in any way like the singer from Finders Keepers. A shame, but that’s business, folks.
Also falling under this DJ + Woman category is a song from the latest release which updates old club music for the new era. Paloma Faith sings the Artful Dodger track Moving Too Fast from 2000 under the direction of DJ Spoony, who follows Pete Tong as brand ambassador for garage music, rather than house music, which has strings thrust upon it. The album Garage Classical brings back some of my favourite smashes from the turn of the millennium: Flowers, Body Groove, Crazy Love, Sweet Like Chocolate, Fill Me In, 21 Seconds and Gotta Get Thru This. Is it time for a Daniel Bedingfield comeback?! If so, the 20-year cycle strikes again.
Going back even further into the past, to Yazoo’s synth-pop, are Riton and Oliver Heldens who turn Don’t Go into Turn Me On. Woman singer Vula goes on about wanting a medical remedy from her “doctor love” in the pre-Corona Era. The music video features face masks and dancing nurses, and came out mere weeks before the Coronavirus struck Wuhan, China. Going back even even further are Haim, who offer the jazzy Summer Girl (from an album called Women In Music Part III) which has the feel of Walk On The Wild Side. In the modern era, the song which provides ‘the feel’ must be given songwriting credit (under the Blurred Lines precedent) and thus the late Lou Reed’s estate will see proceeds from the song. Lou Reed was famously not a nice man but he still influences rock music 50 years on from his heyday.
In the guise of Thomas Wesley, DJ Diplo collaborated with acts including Cam, Morgan Wallen and Jonas Brothers on dance tracks in 2019. The Jonases sing Lonely over a looped electric guitar line and snare rimshots, which give way to a parping post-chorus and some “hey”s. I still maintain Nick Jonas will be an important songwriter in the coming decade, not least because he was given an award by the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2016. (Ed Sheeran and Halsey have won the same award in recent years.)
The first rock tracks of any description on NOW 104, those with electric guitar as a lead instrument, come on Disc Two. Outnumbered is by Dermot Kennedy, the Irish Ed Sheeran, while Better Half Of Me is by Tom Walker, Ed Sheeran in a beanie hat. Sam Fender, the Ed Sheeran of the North-East but with more of a political conscience (the Kendrick Lamar of the North-East??) offers Will We Talk?, a very modern rock song that belies comparisons with Bruce Springsteen (the Boss of the Toon?).
Someone described Lewis Capaldi as the child of Kevin Bridges and Adele, and his very first single Bruises (“it’s your love I’m lost in…There must be something in the water”) finally takes its place on a NOW, with its sparse piano line and Lewis’s keening vocal. It was first released in March 2017; three years later, a possible subject of the song won the winter series of Love Island, more on which shortly.
Meanwhile Maroon 5 are still doing whatever the record company tells them to do: on Memories, a number 2 hit in America in which Adam Levine burbles on about the past, they repurpose Pachelbel’s Canon with the help of hip producers Monsters & Strangerz (Slow Hands, Work From Home) and top topline (melody) writers Jon Bellion and J Kash.
Malcolm Gladwell does not get a credit on 10,000 Hours, the collaboration between Scooter Braun’s clients Justin Bieber and Dan + Shay, whom I nickname Plant Pot + Shay because Dan brings very little to the table…Alright, he writes and produces a lot but you can’t hear him as much as Shay. And he looks attractive, like a tousle-haired Bieber. The song is about how much the three of them love their wives (“if that’s what it takes to learn that sweet heart of yours”) and could foreshadow a new, mature, middle-of-the-road Bieber, even though his 2020 album Changes is so current it’ll be out of date by August.
Two dance anthems of autumn/winter 2019/20 took off through use in other media. Ride It was an update of Jay Sean’s smash by a DJ called Regard, aka Dardan Aliu from Kosovo, putting the tiny new country on the map for happier reasons. People danced to the 20-second snippet on TikTok and the song became a club and radio hit. What’s Dardan’s next trick?
Joel Corry is a fitness trainer who was previously on Geordie Shore. TV show Love Island used Sorry, which is sung by the uncredited Hayley May (did she sign away her rights?), during the summer run and it thus became a hit. It is the perfect track for the show as contestants are forever apologising and mouthing platitudes. The track is notable for having the music drop down to just vocals and a beat for the chorus (“there’s no need to live if I can’t be with you”). Love Island was a guilty pleasure for many, but the suicides of two former contestants, as well as the death of presenter Caroline Flack, may mean it is mothballed in the post-Corona Era.
A-List Ladies are present and correct on NOW 104. Two former members of Fifth Harmony are next to one another: Camila Cabello with Liar, which thanks to its Dembow beat sounds like much of global pop in the last few years; and Normani with Motivation, which is made for My Gym Playlists. Lizzo’s 2016 song Good As Hell (“I do my hair toss, check my nails”) got a big push in 2019 and became a radio smash, while Lana Del Rey’s chart-topping album named after Norman Rockwell yielded the single Doin’ Time, which opens with a quote from the Gershwins’ banger Summertime.
Miley Cyrus wants to Slide Away (“I’m not who I used to be”) on a woozy track written with hip and cool Finnish popstar Alma. Expect Miley to dominate pop music in the post-Corona, along with Ariana Grande (who appears with a clean version of boyfriend, a duet with rap duo Social House) and Billie Eilish, who offers the similarly lower-case all the good girls go to hell from her GRAMMY Album of the Year. The number of singers and performers they will inspire will be incalculable.
The most fascinatingly performer on NOW 104 is the inspiration to the likes of Ariana and Camila. Now in her fifties, Celine Dion was one of fourteen children in Quebec who married her manager and has become one of the world’s most beloved vocal performers. Like Elvis and Sinatra, Celine is an interpreter, not a writer; she played Las Vegas in her thirties and has released 27 albums in English or French. Courage was her first in the former since 2013, on which Sia gave her the excellent title track Love Me Back To Life. Celine enlists Sia and David (real name Pierre!) Guetta for Lying Down, a self-empowerment anthem (“I can’t hear you when you speak your poison, bitter words can’t hurt me now”) that sums up her place in culture.
Lying Down is, of course, a piano-and-strings-led ballad, and follows Westlife’s song Dynamite, which in a departure for them is a fast-paced K-Pop track where Nicky does a rap. Not this time: Ed Sheeran wrote the song, which is all about ‘sleeping in on a Sunday morning’, love and stuff, with a chorus full of colours (“purple and green and red”). Both songs sound like the artists who wrote them: Shane is doing Ed and Celine is doing Sia. I think both writers are modern equivalents of the artists for whom they compose, with Ed writing soppy ballads that a boyband would have sung 20 years ago and Sia doing vocal gymnastics like her heart will go on and on. Music is repeating itself, or at least it is when you recognise the past in the present.
So what is genuinely new? The abovementioned British urban music and American trap that appeals to the kids with their smartphone jukeboxes. Two rappers are put together on Disc One: Lil Tecca’s Ran$om cycles a trap beat over which lazy-eyed Tecca sings for just under 2 minutes 30 seconds about what he “got”: Fendi, Chanel, Prada and quotes Drake (“started from the bottom”); on Panini (“don’t you be a meanie”), Lil Nas X bangs on for just under two minutes about having fans and women and being “number one on streaming”. It will sound old by the end of 2020, but sounded fresh when it came out.
Also new is Afrobeats, or Afro-fusion, spearheaded by Burna Boy, who guests on Be Honest by the underrated Jorja Smith. He pops up halfway through with a soulful croon. Fun fact: his grandpa Benson was manager of Fela Kuta, the pioneer of Afrobeat.
NOW 104 tacks on five tracks from NOW 4 because there’s space left over on the CD. The Style Council (Shout To The Top), UB40 (If It Happens Again) and Level 42 (Hot Water) all pop up, while Together In Electric Dreams struts in and proves that Giorgio Moroder is one of popular music’s great geniuses. He didn’t sing, so recruited acts like Donna Summer and, here, Phil Oakey from The Human League, to warble over the top of his sexy synth-pop. No Moroder, no Daft Punk, Guetta and the rest. Michael Jackson appears on Rockwell’s Somebody’s Watching Me (“And I have no privacy”), as a comment on the era of data harvesting and the like, 30 years ahead of its time.
And so we turn to the NOW Playlist entrant. Whitney Houston spent the start of 2020 on tour from beyond the grave. Eight years after she died, Kygo puts a fresh spin on Higher Love, which she covered in her Imperial Phase for a Japanese edition of her album I’m Your Baby Tonight. Love is a successful piece of product, for both remixer and performer. Her vocals are pushed forward in the verse and chorus, while horns and synths act as framework; the breakdown is addictive, chopping up syllables and creating a dancefloor-filling climax.
The future of pop music is using the brands of the past – Whitney, Madonna, Elvis – and refreshing them for a contemporary audience. ABBA had a musical, and now a live theatrical show while you eat dinner (at least you could pre-Corona), but I wonder if we’ll get a new version of My Heart Will Go On or Flying Without Wings, whether we want them or not. Will Burna Boy or Aitch be involved, and which dance producer will be tasked with updating it?