May 8 2020 sees the 75th anniversary of VE Day, commemorating the end of hostilities in the Second World War. The British people will enjoy a day off, such as they can during a time of pandemic. The first Monday of May is a working day, furlough permitting.
Plans for the Bank Holiday Friday are listed on VEDay75.org, though Pageantmaster Bruno Peek has sorrowfully had to postpone the event to August, which will coincide with VJ Day. Thus will the street parties, rugby tours, memorial visits and ‘Nation’s Toast’ occur after the Corona Era subsides. Hey, we survived six years of conflict; we can survive this unprecedented pandemic.
May 8 2020 was announced as the rearranged release date of NOW 105. There is no room for tracks from NOW 5. Among the 46 tracks which soundtracked the Coronovirus lockdown, the obvious candidates lead off the two-disc set. Blinding Lights by The Weeknd (which sounds like 1983) and a horrible song by Justin Bieber and Quavo called Intentions all make it among the first five songs of Disc 1. Yummy, which is even more horrible, follows on Disc 2, as Bieber’s first album in four years plopped onto the world.
TikTok continues to influence the charts in 2020: Doja Cat’s earworm Say So, Supalonely by BENEE from New Zealand (featuring Gus Dapperton), Roses by Saint Jhn – a number one hit! – and Roxanne by Arizona Zervas were all fodder for tweens and teens. Chris Molanphy wrote an article for Slate.com arguing that TikTok views could boost the success of a song in the traditional chart by driving listeners towards streaming the song, perhaps to rehearse dance steps to. Thus did Blinding Lights topple The Box by Roddy Ricch at the top of the US Hot 100.
With One Direction rumoured to be celebrating their tenth birthday (perhaps with a TV special or a new song), two former members feature on NOW 105. The great Harry Styles pushed his second album with a shiny single called Adore You, while Louis Tomlinson’s debut album included MOR ballad Walls. Though not as badly received as Liam Payne’s debut album, Louis’ record got more marks for effort than attainment; even he must know that Harry will have lasting durability and play huge venues in ten years’ time. Adore You, by the way, also sounds like 1983.
In other reality show success story news, Little Mix broke away from Simon Cowell and continued their odyssey with Break Up Song, which sounds like 2020. Becky Hill, who came to prominence on the first series of The Voice UK in 2012, keeps racking up the hits. She has now had eight of them: number seven was Lose Control, where Meduza repeat the Piece of Your Heart trick, while number eight is the soaring and anthemic kiss-off Better Off Without You, with the annoyingly named Shift K3Y producing. She has writing credits on both, so she’s not just taking the vocalist’s fee.
Then comes Lady Gaga, storming back with the Max Martin-assisted confection Stupid Love, which is 99% ‘YASS QUEEN’. Billie Eilish returns, fresh from taking home many GRAMMY Awards and singing the theme to the new Bond movie, with everything i wanted, a song originally written about feeling hopeless but deemed too depressing in its initial form by her brother/producer Finneas.
The two big men of UK music – ‘Teddy and Big Mike’ aka Ed Sheeran and Stormzy – keep racking up the hits too. Ed from Suffolk brings in Camila Cabello and Cardi B on his panpipe-FX-laden slinkathon South of the Border (he loves ‘her hips’ this time), while Stormzy has his third number one with Own It, where Burna Boy and Ed pop up too. The video to the song – which starts with the chorus, as befits a song by someone who has done his pop homework – has Stormzy holding an umbrella on a roof while singing song is about how he’s gonna ‘be right by ya’. It isn’t about very much at all.
2020 was meant to be The Year of the Stormzy as he pushed his way into the American marketplace; who knows how greatly the Corona Era has disrupted it. UK urban music will still dominate the Top 40, thanks to Aitch and AJ Tracey. They pair up on Rain, a song driven by a looped piano line and a trap beat, produced by Tay Keith, who brought us such bangers as Sicko Mode, Nonstop and Look Alive, three enormous rap hits from the 2010s. The lyrics of Rain namecheck McFlurry, Bugs Bunny, fellow British rapper Dave and footballers N’Golo Kante and Virgil van Dijk. It’s very British and very 2020.
Other British acts include Lewis Capaldi (Before You Go, a ballad), Sam Smith (To Die For, so-so) and Tom Grennan (This Is The Place, with its ‘you-you-you’ hook). It is no surprise that Sam Fischer, Australian-born but now based in the US, opened for Lewis; his song This City, first released in 2018, is Sheeran-by-Numbers but sung by a graduate of the Berklee School of Music. His voice is ten times better than Lewis’; fans of Ryan Tedder will like Sam, who deserves a spot on NOW 105.
For the Radio 2 crowd, we’ve got James Blunt and Ward Thomas, representing UK country, on the track Halfway, and Liam Gallagher’s song Once. The music video features Eric Cantona addressing his butler as ‘our kid’ (it’s Liam!!) while Eric lip-synchs the song in a bathrobe. It’s addressed to Liam’s brother Noel and rhymes ‘clean the pool’ with ‘send the kids to school’, with a mighty ‘SHEE-INE!’ in the first line of the chorus. Liam specialises in delivering meaningless lines with gusto, much like Cantona. Somehow, he has become a national treasure just by continuing to be Liam Gallagher for 30 years. Q Magazine’s May 2020 edition was splashed, again, with a celebration of the album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, now celebrating its silver jubilee but still reaching kids of 2020 as a fresh, classic album. (It’s an average album, but captured a moment in white rock culture.)
Ireland is represented by two songs. The Script are on NOW 105 with Run Through Walls from their nine-track album Sunsets & Full Moons, which was number one in the UK and in their home country of Ireland. Dermot Kennedy had an atmospheric hit called Power Over Me, for people who were giving Lewis Capaldi and Ed Sheeran a bit of a rest on their morning commute.
John Legend’s song Conversations in the Dark was performed on TV on Valentine’s Day, suitably for a lyric about, mostly, pillow talk. It’s as sickly sweet and sentimental as All Of Me: ‘In my eyes you are perfect as you are’ is John Legend-By-Numbers. It’s practically a Hallmark card set to music, but there’s a market for that and John is raking it in. Not as much as his wife, but their kids will never be poor.
Britain is finding it hard to produce a viable female popstar. Mabel, daughter of Neneh Cherry, is on with Boyfriend, a ‘this could be anybody’ bit of pop which, like Anne-Marie’s Birthday, is made for singing along to on TikTok. Is this what pop music is in 2020, bending to fit the medium? Absolutely. That’s the business: follow the money and the audience.
Dua Lipa, meanwhile, had a number one album with Future Nostalgic, after it leaked before its official release date. Its rush-release was especially useful when all fans could do was eat, sleep and make TikTok videos. Physical and Don’t Start Now, both on NOW 105, are pop gems: the former steals the title of one of the biggest Hot 100 songs of all time (which tied in with the keep-fit craze of the early 1980s), while the latter packs in musical, lyrical and production hooks that make it the best song of 2020 so far.
Perhaps Celeste, BBC’s Sound of 2020, will break through and join Dua Lipa and Mabel on a very sparse top table of pop. Stop This Flame was primed to soundtrack athletics montages (‘keep on, keep on going’) but will have to wait a year to do so.
The American version of hot pop star, in both senses of ‘hot’, is Selena Gomez. In April 2020, the former TV star had 173m followers on Instagram and was plugging her album Rare, her first in five years. It included the two hits Lose You To Love Me and the title track, both on NOW 105. The former is slinky and cool, the latter is sad and melancholic and was written with Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter. It’s modern pop music in two songs. Selena is still only 27. Fellow child stars Jonas Brothers return with new music, the poppy What A Man Gotta Do, which doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Rita Ora, like Rihanna, seems more interested in anything but music, with an acting role lined up in 2020. In the video to How To Be Lonely, a gift from Lewis Capaldi that failed to make the Top 40, she writhes on top of eggs at a time when supermarkets were running out of them. Tactless. Far better is Time Machine by Alicia Keys, with her first new music for four years; it’s a shuffling song where she hits some very high notes. We have to wait 90 seconds for the chorus, which seems like an eternity today. She is 39 and is more ‘adult contemporary’ than ‘pop’, and is thus an elder stateswoman of American pop and soul. At 39. Pop music, eh?
Back in the UK Ella Henderson (This Is Real, with Jax Jones), Paloma Faith (Mistakes, with Jonas Blu) and Jem Cooke (Rabbit Hole, with CamelPhat) continue the popular ‘Producer + Woman’ genre of music that found favour on Radio 1’s daytime playlist in 2020. Tweaking the formula by adding a man are Disclosure, who draft in Khalid to warble through Know Your Worth.
Other dance anthems of early 2020 are Lonely by Joel Corry – Disc 1 Track 2! – and Pump It Up by Endor, which is music for idiots to jump around to. MK and Sonny Rodera draft in Raphaella on the song One Night and Jax Jones two-times (and throws in a great ‘whatcha-whatcha-gon-do’) on Tequila, on which RAYE sings with passion and finesse of taking it ‘to the dancefloor’ and spending money at the bar. All three songs sound like the club in 2020, and it’s nice to hear RAYE team up with Jax Jones after the long-ago success of You Don’t Know Me, still one of the finest pop songs of recent years that introduced Jax Jones into the world. Would many people have recognised him on the BBC’s Top of the Pops Christmas special? Recognisability: whatcha-whatcha-gon-do?
Only five duos or bands are on the entire compilation: Little Mix, Ward Thomas, Jonas Brothers, The Script and The 1975. The last of these bands offer the indie love song Me & You Together Song, with a guitar-led hook and a baggy drum loop that distils 90s guitar music for an audience who missed the 90s and are now catching up on this weird series beloved by Mum and Dad called Friends. Through lack of competition, Matt Healy and co are the Band of the Moment; bands are in such short supply that, removing the trio of brothers and the twin sisters of Ward Thomas, there are only three non-sibling groups on the whole compilation.
This is incredible but not surprising. In fact, I just went to look up NOW 31, on which Oasis appear with their number one smash Some Might Say, and discovered that three bands – Wet Wet Wet, Pulp and Supergrass – comprise three of the first four tracks. In the Coronavirus era, where live venues cannot open and in any case may be forced to close, the rock band may be an endangered species if you can’t even be in the same room to rehearse. This is small beer compared to the impact of the global pandemic, but do we really want a whole Top 40 full of solo MCs, female singers and Ed Sheeran clones? Music industry: whatcha-whatcha-gon-do? (In the indie sphere, of course, there are tons of great bands.)
How about the track that I feel represents the era musically, lyrically and culturally? It’s for the FeedNHS cause, apt because its singer will host the next series of Great British Bake-Off, whenever the tent can be erected and everyone can take solace in baked goods. FeedNHS is an initiative to take food prepared by canteens and restaurants and divert it to hospital staff.
Originally sung on cult BBC TV show Shooting Stars – in the days before Facebook. Twitter, TikTok and iPhones – Matt Lucas posted a video on social media in which he imagined a baked potato advising people who were locked down in isolation to ‘wash your hands, stay indoors…Only visit grocery stores’, with Matt chiming in: ‘Thank you, Baked Potato!’
‘If I can connect with kids,’ he told the BBC, ‘maybe the kids can tell their parents.’ They did, as within two days 3m people viewed the updated version, which is a minute in length and perfect for virality. Matt helped push the song with duets with family favourites like Rick Astley, Ronan Keating, Gary Barlow (as part of his Crooner Sessions), Mylenne Klass and Brian May.
Matt had been on a NOW previously, with a charity cover of I’m Gonna Be along with Peter Kay’s character Brian Potter. Peter himself added to the efforts to cheer up Britain by releasing an audio version of his Car Share sitcom over Easter and fronting the Comedy Shuffle on Friday nights on BBC1. He ‘regretfully postponed’ a series of his Dance For Life shows in aid of Cancer Research UK.
In the 1940s, it was Vera Lynn, who turned 103 in March 2020, who lifted morale. Today it’s a bloke from Bolton and another from Edgware, proving that comedians are ‘essential’ workers in the Corona Era.