NOW 106 may as well be called Now That’s What I Call Lockdown. Here are the songs which soundtracked the Corona Era, the months when people retreated to their bedrooms and scrolled through TikTok feeds instead of shouting in open fields or big arenas.
Spring 2020 was an odd period in music history. In the UK, people were told to rally around a 99-year-old former RAF captain who was walking 100 lengths of his garden to raise funds for the NHS. In the absence of PPE, track-and-trace systems and any leadership from the government, the country cheered on Captain Tom Moore, who eventually raised an astonishing sum of money for the NHS. As of July 10 2020 he had raised £32.8m from 1.5m donors via his JustGiving page (Tom’s Walk). CaptainTom.org will give you full information on his efforts.
Michael Ball, host of the Radio 2 Sunday Brunch show, got on board with a choir in tow. He and Captain Tom recorded a chart-topping version of the Carousel banger and Liverpool FC anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone. At 99, Tom became the oldest man to have a single top the UK charts; weeks later, Dame Vera Lynn passed away at 103. Her funeral took place on the 80th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Britain. Captain Tom, meanwhile, was knighted and is tipped to front the Christmas advert season. His feelgood story sums up Britain in 2020: giving, but almost as a way to distract from the paucity of leadership.
Enough politics, let’s put on some music. Track one on Disc One is Jawsh 685’s song Savage Love, a TikTok viral video which added Jason ‘Jason Derulo!’ Derulo to the track and shot to number one in July 2020. TikTok also brought a hit for Natalie Taylor, whose song Surrender came out back in 2015 but started to soundtrack emotional videos of TikTok users. Everyone was now a music supervisor.
TikTok also helped Death Bed (Coffee For My Head) become a huge hit for Powful, featuring the sweet vocals of Beabadoobee, who is on the Dirty Hit label set up to promote the music of The 1975. If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know) could be classed as rock music as the guitar is the lead instrument and there’s a huge backbeat. The song was one of seven singles released in the year leading up to Notes on a Conditional Form. A young people’s band led by a charismatic old-school frontman, The 1975 frustrate as many as they delight.
Yungblud’s song Weird! is in the vein of The 1975, with hyperactive vocals and synth parts underpinning a huge chorus about love and stuff. To prove how skewed the charts are, Doncaster-born Yungblud was yet to have a Top 40 hit in the UK when Weird! featured on NOW 106. It also landed on the Radio 1 A List. So popular is Yungblud that in March 2021 he will play a week-long residency at the Kentish Town Forum (capacity: 2300).
Niko B’s viral hit Who’s That What’s That was the follow-up to Mary Berry, about growing up in Milton Keynes. It’s the equivalent of hipster East London ironic cool music from the 2000s and landed on the Radio 1 B List alongside songs by Kanye West, Charlie Puth and Tom Walker. Tom’s song is Wait For You, which is a safe song about love and stuff.
Just like Sam Fischer, Rhys Lewis enjoyed being next in the Sheeran-Capaldi-Walker collection of sensitive, boring blokes. Born in Oxford, Rhys is handsome but also tuneful. Two years after the initial release of his song No Right To Love You, it got a push to radio. I saw his album advertised in London with the words ‘Alexa, play Rhys Lewis’.
Several world-class popstars are on NOW 106: The Weeknd has the sax-assisted Max Martin co-write In Your Eyes; Sam Smith and Demi Lovato duet on the passable I’m Ready; Ellie Goulding promotes another album of dull dance-pop with the single Power; and trio Haim’s understated song Don’t Wanna (‘give up on you’) can also be found on their chart-topping album.
Sean Paul returns with a duet with Tove Lo, Calling On Me, a jittery bit of pop where Tove does a Rihanna impression and Sean Paul is Sean Paul. Celebrating 20 years in the business, according to the Official Charts Company Sean has now scored 26 Top 40 hits. If you count his appearance on the Live Lounge Allstars cover of Times Like These (not on NOW 105 or NOW 106), plus the Sean Paul-assisted remix of Hair by Little Mix, it’s 28. As of NOW 106’s release, Calling On Me has not charted.
As the due date for her baby with Orlando Bloom approached, Katy Perry added to her collection of hits with Daisies, written with the Monsters & Strangerz production team who have worked with Lauv, Dua Lipa, Camila Cabello and Maroon 5. Katy debuted the song live on American Idol, a show which you’d be forgiven for mistaking is about Katy and Luke Bryan, who are both gearing up for album cycles in 2020. Daisies became her 28th Top 40 hit in the UK when it reached number 37. Between 2008 and 2013, her golden era, Katy had 13 top 10s; since her chart-topper Feels in 2017 no song of hers has reached the UK Top 10. She is a heritage brand already.
The two biggest British pop stars of present on tracks two and three on Disc One. Watermelon Sugar became a sleeper hit for Harry Styles, helped by watermelon emojis, a fun video and Harry’s infectious delivery. Dua Lipa’s third big single from her number one album Future Nostalgia, Break My Heart, is a smashing tune that must have helped many kitchen discos in the Corona Era. The song borrows heavily from Need You Tonight by INXS.
The ‘make old music new’ trend is alive in 2020. Sweet Female Attitude’s terrific two-step-pop anthem Flowers is 20 years old and thus perfect for Nathan Dawe to rework. Jaykae delivers the vocals excellently. Pour The Milk takes an item found in a fridge and sets it to music; not only that, it recasts the line from Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega and is essentially a remix of the song by Robbie Doherty and Keees (with three Es).
Surf Mesa and Emilee’s ily (i love you baby) goes back even further into the musical past, borrowing from Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, making the song perfect for lovey-dovey montages. It’s background music but that seems to sell these days, plus it’s cheap to recycle old melodies. You can see that the music industry would be keen to foster this repackaging of old music instead of developing new ones.
Whatever next: Dame Vera Lynn being remixed by Joel Corry? Joel drafts in MNEK for his third hit in a row; Heart & Head again showcases MNEK’s excellent vocal talent, while Joel knows how to produce a catchy pop-dance floorfiller. The video is quite strange too, which helps drive an audience towards the song. Stealthily, Joel Corry is moving into Jonas Blue and Kygo territory. Indeed, Kygo only gets a ‘could do better’ for the dull Lose Somebody, where Ryan Tedder and OneRepublic prattle on about love and stuff.
Breaking Me by Topic and A7S was one of the big ‘club tunes’ of spring 2020 thanks to its addictive chorus. Ditto Secrets, where Regard follows up his summer smash Ride It with a song that used RAYE effectively. Midnight (The Hanging Tree) is credited to HOSH with 1979 ft Jalja. It features in the audio book for the prequel of The Hunger Games, which makes sense as the song is a remix of a track which featured in the famous movie franchise.
PS1’s song Fake Friends is a boring bit of poppy dance music about love featuring the vocals of Alex Hosking. The video is an ironic look at Generation Instagram and is better than the song. 220 KID and Gracey had a Top 10 smash with Don’t Need Love, which uses the Regard-style manipulation of a vocal line as a post-chorus hook. The rise and rise of the song was a thrill for Gracey who grew happier each week that she appeared on the Radio 1 Chart Show. For all the talk of streaming numbers, being an official Top 10 star is thrilling for any popstar.
Other dance music usual suspects are on NOW 106. Jonas Blue offers Naked, a funky song full of fingersnaps and helped by the falsetto of Max Schneider aka MAX. Many moons ago Disclosure helped launch Sam Smith’s career by bringing his vocals to their song Latch. Eko Roosevelt has been making music in Cameroon since the 1970s and the dance duo turn his song Tondoho Mba into a contemporary disco groove. Credit to them for giving Eko credit.
Aside from Tondo, perhaps the most interesting song on NOW 106 is by JP Saxe. If The World Was Ending crept up the charts as people grew increasingly sardonic about lockdown (which is not to diminish its effects on the vulnerable). Featuring JP’s gf Julia Michaels, the tender piano ballad was released way back in October 2019 and peaked at 14 during the lockdown period, where songs tended to hang around near the top of the charts for weeks.
They included Rover by S1mba and DTG, a lovely slice of Afrobeats, and Dinner Guest, by the terrible twosome of UK contemporary grime, AJ Tracy and Mostack. Stormzy pops up with the line ‘came offline I’ve been chillin’ in mountains’ on I Dunno, a song released on Atlantic Records by Tion Wayne and Dutchavelli, brother of rapper Stefflon Don. I like how the song namechecks former Manchester United defender Patrick Evra.
Columbia Records, meanwhile, spent 2020 pushing StaySolidRocky’s song Party Girl, which is an even less melodic version of what Drake and the other poppy rappers are doing. Over on Interscope, teenage rapper Lathan Echols aka Lil Mosey offered Blueberry Faygo. Set to a smooth sped-up sample of My My My by Johnny Gill (a 90s r’n’b slow jam), the lyric is a bit of nonsense about ‘two big .40s and a big ass Draco’. TikTok again took the song to new heights, turning it into a Transatlantic Top 10 hit. Babyface and Daryl Simmons earn royalties from the track, so they are happy too.
Black music was big business during lockdown, helped by the instant nature of social and performance media. We may see more political anthems later in 2020 but DaBaby’s song Rockstar – not on NOW 106 despite being number one for most of June – was helped back to the top by an additional verse about police brutality. If pop music can use its platform for social issues, which are very much ‘in’ at the moment, we could see a golden age.
In the meantime Doja Cat follows up Say So with nifty earworm Like That, featuring rapper Gucci Mane. Her breasts are practically on show in the video; Gucci keeps his top on. THE SCOTTS, Travis Scott and Kid Cudi, combine on the song THE SCOTTS (all in capitals), which sounds like contemporary rap music (ie Drake). Both songs, by the way, come in at less than three minutes, perfect for Generation ADHD.
Back to Britain, now. In a break from his boxing career, KSI released Dissimulation, a rap album which was led by the song Houdini, which featured Swarmz and Tion Wayne. It’s a very contemporary sound and the chorus (‘oh la laa’) is hummable. In a break from her podcasting career and being a Jewish mum (the best kind of mum), Jessie Ware released an album in the middle of lockdown. What’s Your Pleasure reached the top three in the UK, led by dancefloor banger Save A Kiss, which is a joyous presence deep on Disc Two of NOW 106.
In a break from his breakfast radio DJing career, Ronan Keating delighted mums everywhere with Little Thing Called Love, a poppy bit of fluff whose video was shot in the middle of a forest with fan-sourced videos popping up in frames around him. He has come a long way from the twiglet-haired days in Boyzone. The song promoted his solo career Best Of, which includes duets with Shania Twain, Robbie Williams and Emeli Sande.
For the dads, but not exclusively for men, Paul Weller brought out an album called On Sunset. When it went to number one, the statistic was that only Lennon and McCartney can match his feat of topping the UK album charts in five decades in a row. Like his mate Noel Gallagher, Weller has been moving away from guitar rock in recent years and Village is evidence of that. This is music that someone over the age of 60 should be making, with some real strings and a lyric about ‘heaven in my sights’.
NOW 106 will be a guide to pop music in a time when pop festivals could not take place, and when even Eurovision was cancelled. Absent from NOW 106 but hopefully lined up for NOW 107 is Think About Things, the unofficial winner of Eurovision 2020. Dadi Freyr may have to wait to bring the Contest to Iceland but he has sold out big venues in 2021.
That is, if Coronavirus retreats for the winter.