England’s football team beat Germany in a tournament for the first time in 55 years. Sir Andy Murray forgot about his recent injury troubles and won a five-setter on Centre Court. Manxman Mark Cavendish won a stage of the Tour de France. British athletes prepared for the delayed Tokyo Olympics.
A sporting summer helped assuage the disappointment of red lists, PCR tests and the inability of politicians to be decent but, to paraphrase the Gogglebox narration, we heard LOADS of GREAT MUSIC. Much of the music would have been plotted during the pandemic, with release schedules and promotion timelines unable to be supplemented by live music. On NOW 109, there are 48 (forty-eight!!) tracks.
The big UK music genre that the kids love is drill, a music formed in Chicago which spread to the UK via smartphones in tower blocks and on streets where kids rap over hard beats. It’s like grime but more menacing. ArrDee does it on Oliver Twist, A1 & J1 do it on Latest Trends (‘Clap for the NHS’) and Central Cee does it on Commitment Issues. It sounds like punk music, scaring off adults and made to be heard on headphones on a nightbus. Also significant is the delivery, which emphasises the singer’s local area, be it Shepherd’s Bush for Central Cee or Brighton for ArrDee.
Russ Millions and Tion Wayne scored a UK number one with Body, which is driven by the hook ‘English girl named Fiona, African girl Abiola’ (at least in the clean version). When it comes to the most musically, culturally and lyrically relevant of NOW 109, Body is the clear winner. The fact that it’s not aimed at 33-year-old men like me only makes it more zeitgeisty.
The breakout star of 2021, Olivia Rodrigo, topped the UK charts for five weeks with good 4 u, a kiss-off which sounds like Avril Lavigne, and had a two-chord top five hit with déjà vu, where she sings high up in her range. Unsurprisingly, Mimi Webb was launched as a clone, though Good Without has a strong melody. It’s great to hear melody back in the top ten.
With Save Your Tears, The Weeknd and Ariana Grande tried to get Max Martin another number one and fell just short. Talking of Max, whoever saw Coldplay working with him, on the suitably anthemic Higher Power (‘got me singing every second, dancing every hour’)?
Justin Bieber’s ‘political’ album Justice drew scorn for segueing a Martin Luther King speech into Peaches, which featured the r’n’b vocals of both Daniel Caesar and Giveon. Lil Nas X uses his given forename for his big number one smash MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name); his Saturday Night Live poledance-assisted performance was so hot that he split his costume.
As you would expect, the big record labels keep the Dance Act + Vocalist formula that saves them a lot of hassle. The public don’t care if the music is by Joel, Nathan, Jonas, Calvin or David; they just want something to bop along to in the car. Marshmello (whose real name is Christopher) brings The Jonas Brothers in for Leave Before You Love Me, which sounds an awful lot like The Weeknd; Jonas Blue is a student of Swedish pop and his club-ready Hear Me Say features terrific vocals by Swedish singer Leon; Calvin Harris returns with By Your Side, three minutes of blah featuring the voice of Tom Grennan; Nathan Dawe brings in Anne-Marie and (interestingly) MoStack on Way Too Long, with a bouncy melody co-written by MNEK, one of the best in the ‘top-line’ business.
Meanwhile, Regard’s track You has both Troye Sivan and Tate McRae, which sounds very contemporary but blends into the background of whichever clothes shop you might browse in, except for the bit which sounds like the first line of The Middle by Zedd (lawyers assemble). Joel Corry has his fourth smash in four years with Bed (‘I got a bed but I’d rather be in yours tonight’), which features RAYE and David Guetta. Raye has written some big hits but still, to her public irritation, has not been allowed to put an album out by her label Polydor.
Galantis and David Guetta drag in Little Mix for Heartbreak Anthem (‘hello, it’s me, your ex’) which with 14 (fourteen) writers wins the prize for the most hands in a formulaic dance-pop track (2012 edition) while, like Guetta, the trio two-time with freedom jam Confetti (‘all eyes on me’). Kamille and MNEK are found in the credits of the title track of their sixth album, while rapper Saweetie (whose given name is Diamonte Harper) is on hand for a remix which I imagine is to help push the song to an international audience. Little Mix do seem to love the kiss-off, after Shout Out to My Ex and No Time For Tears brought them success.
Dance music is also represented by the piano house throwback of Summer 91 (Looking Back) by Noizu. It won’t remind teenage listeners of Go by Moby (‘Yeaaah’) and, thanks to its spoken line about memories, The Orb’s Little Fluffy Clouds, but older listeners can enjoy the allusions. Tom Zanetti once had an affair with Katie Price, which I Didn’t Know, to quote the title of his ploddy dance-pop hit.
The other formula is Big Act + Big Act duet. KSI, Yungblud & Polo G all have Patience (which needed 12 writers) which is another one for the H&M store playlist; Anne-Marie and Niall Horan sing the happy-sad breakup song Our Song (‘on the radio’); and Rag’n’Bone Man and P!nk want to get Anywhere Away From Here in a torch-ballad sort of way. Ella Henderson and Tom Grennan harmonise Let’s Go Home Together, an anodyne song whose best line is the opener: ‘I’d never have given you a second look, but I like the way you don’t give a…damn’.
Unsurprisingly Rag’n’Bone Man and Tom Grennan two-time on NOW 109 with the supercharged All You Ever Wanted and the hooky shoutalong Little Bit of Love respectively. So does KSI, a schoolfriend of Roman Kemp who grew up in Watford who is turning into the Craig David of the modern era; his song Holiday is a feelgood three-chord summer jam that will sound great by the pool.
P!nk two-times too, with an interesting new track from her live film written with the incredibly hot Broadway songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. All I Know So Far contains all the ingredients from their Greatest Showman compositions and proves that pop and musical theatre might not be far apart in the next decade, especially given the prevalence of teen-targeted musicals like Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and Dear Evan Hansen (music by Pasek & Paul) coming to streaming services the autumn.
The big radio hit of 2021 in the US was Leave The Door Open, a collaboration between Bruno Mars and Anderson.Paak released under the name Silk Sonic. It sounds like every Philly soul song released in 1973 and is obviously a sex jam. The compilers put Jessie Ware’s similarly spectral Remember Where You Are just after it, an immaculate production that may well win some big awards. Doja Cat’s ‘concept album’ didn’t impress me but the single Kiss Me More, with SZA on the hook, is extraordinary and one of the best songs on the compilation.
TikTok once again drives some hits. Polo G’s Rapstar had a Drake-type delivery and a ukulele sample that drove the kids wild and the song to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. AURORA is an underrated act whose song Runaway came back in a big way thanks to a ‘filter trend’ (don’t ask me) and is evidence again of recurrent songs coming back into fashion. The song is one of the select few to have been profiled by the Song Exploder podcast. It has had an incredible journey to over 500m streams: the songwriter said it was about the benefits of sharing one’s inner pain while ‘listening to the ocean’, a very contemporary phenomenon. Written in 2007, the song helped secure her a record deal; it was recorded as a piano demo in 2013, and AURORA wanted the ‘coldness’ of Norway to be heard in the song and its production. She advises us to hear ‘trolls in the mountains’ and airborne flight in parts of the song, which in its finished form is basically AURORA’s voice and some Bjorkish drum patterns. (I would love to see young people reappraise the music of Bjork, who is one of the geniuses of popular music in the last 40 years.)
The Majestic remix of Boney M’s tribute to Rasputin returns to public consciousness after four decades, again thanks to TikTok. Astronaut in the Ocean, by the Greek-Australian rapper/singer Masked Wolf, was a global hit thanks to a dance trend on TikTok. It sounds like 2021, digital cymbals and monotone vocals make it come across like Drake and Lil Nas X teaming up, and I like the line ‘I believe in G-O-D, don’t believe in T-H-O-T’ (aka ‘that hottie over there’).
As for new artists, away from TikTok, Griff was heralded as the Rising Star at the BRIT Awards: half-Jamaican and half-Chinese her image is striking and so was her song Black Hole (‘where my heart used to be’). Delivered with a slight quiver, the sound is contemporary and the melody strong. She is immediately followed on Disc One by Billie Eilish (the moody Your Power) and Sigrid, with her song Mirror (‘I love who I see looking at me’), which has a delicious descending bridge. Don’t forget Celeste, whose rollout in 2020 was kyboshed by the pandemic; Tonight Tonight was the impact track to promote her album Not Your Muse, which she still hasn’t been able to tour. If Stop This Flame doesn’t end up soundtracking Olympics montages, I will eat my swimming cap.
James Arthur and Becky Hill will keep making music to satisfy their label investment, regardless of whether anyone can remember tracks like Medicine (James) and Last Time (Becky) a year after they have been released. Becky, by the way, is on Polydor, so I hope she has words of solidarity for her label mate Raye. Years & Years are on Polydor too and got Starstruck in a disco manner. Their vocalist Olly Alexander spent summer 2021 in negotiations to be the next Doctor Who following his remarkable performance in the TV series It’s A Sin. Smartly, Olly and Elton John took on that Pet Shop Boys song of that title, which itself was played on TV as part of the BRIT Awards.
For mature listeners, the man born Giovanni (but goes by Jack) Savoretti turned up the funk on his Europia album which was launched with Who’s Hurting Who. Even without the credit you can tell Nile Rodgers helped write it. London Grammar returned with an album of modern rock, led by single How Does It Feel, while Royal Blood did the same with the pulverising Typhoons.
Astonishingly, Eurovision 2021 was won by Italian act Måneskin, who had two top ten hits in the aftermath of the show including the kickdrum-driven top ten hit I Wanna Be Your Slave, which ends Disc Two. Next year in Torino!!