I would love to say a TikTok trend started by Scottish musician Nathan Evans, which led to the major-label release of his take on the sea shanty Wellerman, is the most culturally significant song on this spring compilation.
Instead, it’s the nine-week number one that was only denied a tenth week because of Standard Chart Ratios, which are too nerdy even for this column.
Firstly, note the lower case songtitle, just like Billie Eilish does. Secondly, hear the vocal, which has the same quavering lilt that Billie Eilish’s voice does. Thirdly, hear the quiet yet loud production, like Billie Eilish’s songs have. Then acknowledge that Olivia Rodrigo is a global megastar before she turns 18. Like Billie Eilish became. The one difference is that Olivia is on Geffen and Billie is on Republic.
Olivia had the top song in the world in early 2021, where death was higher than the first peaks and Donald Trump was back to being a failed businessman and ex-NBC TV host. As the UK relaxed its lockdown by baby steps, so as not to screw up for a third time, even Saturday Night Live were swaying to the track in one of the best skits of the 2020/21 season. It was the week where Rege-Jean Page, the breakout star of Netflix show Bridgerton, hosted and the male cast members were playing pool in a bar.
Rege-Jean put on Olivia’s song on the jukebox. ‘Sounds lie it’s just some teenage girl singing in her room to the piano’, said Pete Davidson’s character, while others analyse the song like cultural critics – ‘this is giving me Billie Eilish vibes…but the verses are starting to say Taylor’. They also reference to the Disney stars who inspired the lyrics (including Sabrina Carpenter, whose far inferior ‘answer song’ Skin, released on Island Records, is also on NOW 108).
‘Pain can be creatively generative’ is the takeaway, as the chaps sing into their pool cues or lock arms to sing the middle eight (‘red lights, stop signs’). It’s a ballad for sad teenage girls, and has been listened to by millions of them, although the point of the SNL skit is that men in their thirties can enjoy the song as well and use it as catharsis for their own breakups.
Ultimately, it’s a ballad in the tradition of Adele and Taylor Swift which didn’t sound like anything else on the radio (apart from Billie Eilish, whose so-so Therefore I Am makes the compilation) and seems to suggest the birth of a star who, like Ariana Grande or Miley Cyrus, has brand recognition from her TV work. She’s just the first to find fame in this new era.
Talking of Miley, she adopted a classic rock sound for her album Plastic Hearts, produced by a guy called Watt, who won a production GRAMMY Award and is only 30. The lead single Midnight Sky was so influenced by the Stevie Nicks song Edge of Seventeen that they duetted on a mashup. Harry Styles took on a similar sound with Golden, a track from the album Fine Line that coronavirus meant could not be promoted. Harry is becoming the popstar of the era without really trying.
Miley and Dua Lipa duet, much to the delight of record executives, on their song Prisoner, which I always sing ‘Physical!’ over. Ariana Grande, meanwhile, alludes to a sex position with the slow jam 34+35, which is a very contemporary song and one of many in recent year which references coffee. Cardi B and Doja Cat, who are offering a very similar product, return with Up and Streets respectively, which are nowhere near as good as WAP and Say So but keep their name in the pop game.
Dua Lipa got round the restrictions on live music with a spangly live show funded by her record label, which seemed to recoup the cost. Extending the life of the Future Nostalgia album with extra tracks, she tacked on the B-side-sounding We’re Good (written by the super hit-making pair of Emily Warren and Scott Harris) which makes it to NOW 108 along with her appearance on the Kylie Minogue song Real Groove. That song is listed as the Studio 2054 Remix and takes its name from the title of Dua’s show.
Kylie launched her Disco album with a similar gig to Dua’s, while Sophie Ellis-Bextor would shush her kids while she entertained social media users with her own ‘Kitchen Disco’. Her top-notch cover of Alcazar’s Crying At The Discotheque, which samples the CHIC production Spacer by Sheila and B Devotion, makes the compilation too. In fact, like Kylie, Sophie re-recorded her songs with an orchestra, so expect her to go full disco with her next album. It is 20 years since Murder on the Dancefloor!
In hard times, people want to dance their cares away and thus Steps step up with the gay disco stomp of To The Beat Of My Heart, which has forgettable verses but a chorus which is 100 percent Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Soundtracking Russell T Davies’ AIDS-era drama starring Olly Alexander, Olly’s band Years & Years cover It’s A Sin, proving that catalogue can reintroduce itself to a new audience. Olly has become a solo artist for his next project, which is something Adam Levine has probably wanted to do for ten years. Without looking, name one other Maroon 5 member.
Meanwhile, on the topic of old music, catalogue is all over NOW 108, reminding me of the glory days of the mid-1990s compilations. Such tracks are ripe for plunder in 2021. Ava Max steals the hook of Around The World by ATC on My Head & My Heart, and Rudimental and RAYE borrow the ‘la-la’ from Iio’s song Rapture on Regardless, which is 100 percent Dua Lipa even down to the title (or is Dua Lipa 100 percent RAYE?)
Riton do the same with Push The Feeling On by The Nightcrawlers, adding Mufasa and Hypeman for good measure, on the re-edit of the song Friday. No lads were able to bellow the hook – ‘It’s Friday then it’s Saturday Sunday WHAT!’ – in a licensed venue because nightclubs have been shut for a year. Maybe student bubbles have made this song the lockdown anthem. As catalogue eats itself, ATB reworks his own number one 9PM (Til I Come) as Your Love, teaming up with the folks who brought us Breaking Me, Topic & A7S.
In another triumph for catalogue, Becky Hill’s cover of Alphaville’s Forever Young is the sort of trick John Lewis would pull. Instead, the tune puts the idea into people’s heads that eating a Big Mac at McDonalds was the true meaning of a pandemic Christmas. In a time of an obesity epidemic, fast food was considered fair game. Brexit Britain QED.
The Superbowl, won by superstar quarterback Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, included a performance from The Weeknd, who spent many months in the upper echelons of various charts with Blinding Lights. Max Martin was in the room for Save Your Tears, a very contemporary pop song with a strong structure, melody and production that helped promote something rather throwback: The Weeknd’s Greatest Hits. Max turned 50 a few weeks before the release of NOW 108; at 50 years of age Paul McCartney was finally launching the first of his jaunts playing the hits of The Beatles to a global audience. Paul and his mate John Lennon are Max’s only competition when it comes to Billboard Hot 100 hits.
Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber whine about being a monster on the track Monster. It’ll make their record labels some money but nobody will remember it – or much of either of their new albums – at the end of the year. Jason Derulo (who is five years older than Justin Bieber) and, proving my point from earlier, Adam Levine team up on Lifestyle, which was playlisted on Radio 2. Nobody will remember it at the end of the year.
Derulo two-times with the same formula as Savage Love on a song called Love Not War (The Tampa Beat), where the role of Jawsh 685 is played by Nuka. Nuka may well be another moniker of Jawsh 685 and nobody except the collecting society will care. James Hype and HARLEE bring us Afraid (‘I’m afraid of myself’) which, like its musical twin Head & Heart, was co-written by former The Music frontman Rob Harvey. James Hype may well be another moniker of Joel Corry and nobody except the collecting society will care.
Dance-pop by anonymous unit-shifts pepper NOW 108: Shane Codd from Dublin had a top 10 smash with the irresistible Get Out My Head; Navos is a chap called Ross Harrington who gets an uncredited singer to offer vocals on Believe Me; Digital Farm Animals make the track on top of which Anne-Marie and KSI blether for Don’t Play; Nathan Dawe, whose remix of Wellerman helped take a sea shanty to the upper reaches of the charts, had songwriting help from MNEK on the track No Time For Tears, a ‘you go girl!!!’ jam on which Little Mix sing about a breakup not being a ‘pity party’.
Tiesto, the 52-year-old Dutch version of the 53-year-old Frenchman David Guetta, went top 5 in the UK with The Business, a song which cries out for a busy dancefloor. Over in Spain, HVME (pronounced ‘Hume’ like the philosopher) is making a name for himself with the portentous tune Goosebumps, originally by Travis Scott who has since added new vocals to the track. House music has eaten trap and this will probably start a trend.
At least Clean Bandit distinguish themselves by performing with a cellist, Grace Chatto. Higher was written with Dan Smith from Bastille whom you would ordinarily expect to turn up. Perhaps he’ll add it to the Bastille set at Latitude 2021, should it go ahead. What philanthropy to give newcomer iann dior, coming off his appearance on Mood, another hit with a Clean Bandit by Numbers tune. The brand is strong, however, and it’s another winner.
Old blokes on NOW 108 include Liam Gallagher, whose Christmas offering All You’re Dreaming Of makes the end of Disc One, and The Killers, who may well return to headlining stadiums as they play five recent songs and the evergreen hits. My Own Soul’s Warning, the opening track of their 2020 album Imploding The Mirage, is one of the former. Like all their songs, it is 100 percent Bruce Springsteen (though sadly nothing from Bruce’s album Letter To You is on NOW 108).
UK band Glass Animals offer the quirky Heat Waves, which became an enormous hit, while number one album act YUNGBLUD (aka Dom from Doncaster) teams up with manchild Machine Gun Kelly on the teenager-in-the-moshpit song acting like that (all lower case). It was produced by Travis Barker off of Blink-182, who is now going out with a Kardashian sister. Also on NOW 108 is a young Post Malone wannabe called The Kid LAROI with the execrable Without You. It’s horrible, but then again I’m not pubescent and I keep my room tidy.
P!nk’s daughter Willow Sage Hart (‘Yer only nine!!’ as Louis Walsh would say) provides harmonies and a couple of solo lines on the fluffy acoustic love song Cover Me in Sunshine, written by Wrecking Ball songwriter Mozella and Berklee graduate Amy Allen. In recent years Amy has delivered smashes for Halsey (Without Me), Harry Styles (Adore You) and Selena Gomez (Back To You) and appeared on Ross Golan’s And The Writer Is… podcast. She also has a cut on Justin Bieber’s album Justice and co-wrote Lifestyle, which you might remember from earlier on in this article.
Like P!nk, Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga are A-Listers who are both in the legacy artist category; that is, they can sell out arenas but people go to see them for the hits of yesteryear, not for the Adult Contemporary tunes which prolong their career. Jenny from the Block sings the instantly forgettable In The Morning, which was debuted on ABC television in the US on New Year’s Eve. Gaga’s song 911 (‘my biggest enemy is me’) is from her Chromatica album; as well as being 100 percent Ru Paul’s Drag Race, it was accompanied by a five-minute short film viewed 56m times on her Youtube channel. NOW’s compilers are to be commended for putting both acts on a compilation alongside the pop stars of 2021. J-Lo’s first hit was in the last millennium!
Perhaps the desirable ‘time-poor mum’ audience for Radio 2, effectively the audience for country radio in the US, will approve of this. Passenger’s moment in the sun began and ended with Let Her Go, but he has an impressive catalogue and in 2021 offered Sword From The Stone. It went straight onto the Radio 2 playlist because it is 100 percent Radio 2 playlist, complete with gorgeous up-and-down melody and adult-contemporary production. The NOW 108 version is listed as the Gingerbread Mix because Ed Sheeran produced it. Ed, now a father, just can’t stop working.
Lana Del Rey remains popular thanks to sparse songs like Let Me Love You Like A Woman (‘let me hold you like a baby’), written with and produced by Jack Antonoff, who is close to completing the set of strong female singers (Dixie Chicks, Lorde, Taylor Swift and so on). Ditto the gender-fluid Sam Smith, with a song written with four A-Listers: Post Malone producer Louis Bell, Ali Tamposi, Andrew Watt and Ryan Tedder. Like Olivia Rodrigo’s song, Kids Again a ballad about lost love sung to a boy. It is the final track on Love Goes, an album that was unfortunate to come out right in the middle of a global pandemic where people had other things to contend with than listening to the new Sam Smith album. It will get its due.
James Arthur continues his renaissance, despite awful homophobia for which he has apologised. A song from his 2016 comeback album, Train Wreck, was revived over TikTok and shot back into the UK charts. He sings too many notes per word and I prefer other emotive blokes. But there’s an emotive bloke for everyone.
The TiKTok trend of dancing to an irritating song continues with Calling My Phone, where Lil Tjay and 6LACK (pronounced ‘black’, not ‘six-lack’) mumble over a beat before a pitch-shifted vocal comes in singing about how ‘I can’t get you off my mind’. Otherwise there is shockingly little ‘melodic rap’ (as the GRAMMY category calls this sort of music), possibly because drivers license is dominating TikTok and the Christmas rush meant a lot of airtime for A Little Love. This is the original composition written for the John Lewis campaign by the BBC Sound of 2020 winner Celeste. Her album Not Your Muse finally came into the world at the start of 2021. Will it get lost in the mess?
On the topic of long-playing records: as you would expect in a time when the song (or TikTok tune) is on top, the album chart is a mess. Fans of cult acts like Mogwai and Architects can see an album hit number one then sink back down the Top 40, or slip out of it entirely. In fact, the biggest selling album of 2020 was a repackaged version of 2021 Latitude headliner Lewis Capaldi’s debut album. He will surely follow it up by the time the year ends, at which point he may well have Adele for company.
In 2020, Queen, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, ABBA and Bob Marley also had ‘top 20 albums’ and, four years after its release, Ed Sheeran’s album Divide is ‘selling’ well thanks to stream-equivalent sales. In the same way that NOW CDs were banished to the compilation chart, surely we need to send heritage acts to their own chart and promote an ‘indie record shop’-type current chart which focuses on releases in the past 12 months or touring cycle.
Or invent some Standard Chart Ratios for legacy songs and artists.