Do we need 49 tracks on a NOW compilation?
With streaming and even vinyl having displaced CD sales, NOW decide to make the 110th edition the biggest yet. Even without Adele, whose album 30 hit physical and digital shelves the same day NOW 110 was released – November 19, International Men’s Day – and even without anything from ABBA’s Voyage LP, the compilation is still full of big hitters.
Easy On Me, an Adele song for Adele fans, ruled the radio at the end of 2021, a time when music venues were praying for a decent winter and when the UK Top 10 was almost entirely British for the whole month. This is an odd state of affairs, perhaps borne out of a smaller budget for international promotion, but it’s only a good thing for UK music as a whole.
Among those Top 10 tunes was Bad Habits by Ed Sheeran, the ten-week number one which opens NOW 110. ‘My bad habits lead to you, ooh-ooh ooh-ooh’ mixes an irresistible melody and Ed’s documented problems with the high life (‘Ed: My Drink Hell’ in tabloidspeak). His 2022/23 tour will include a live band for the first time and will be a hot ticket across the world in a time when UK acts are finding it harder to tour abroad due to Brexit paperwork.
As if trying to protect their profit margins in a year without live music, the big labels have reached back to Heritage Acts. Elton John, who DJs on Apple Music and used to work in a record shop, made some calls to his friends and put together The Lockdown Sessions in lieu of his farewell tour. For the first time since Tupac sampled Indian Sunset on his number one Ghetto Gospel, Elton was at the top of the singles chart with Cold Heart. It helped that he’d roped in Dua Lipa to sing some of the chorus of Rocket Man and Australian duo PNAU to weave Sacrifice and elements of two other songs into a new creature. It points to the future of pop, resurrecting copyrights and putting new twists on them.
Indeed, on If You Really Love Me we have an old chorus inserted into a new tune: David Guetta and MistaJam work on the production and recruit John Newman to purr the lyrics of How Will I Know and turn it into a new song. MistaJam was a Radio 1 DJ who is now a commercial radio DJ; I wonder if his BBC contract forbade him from doing this sort of thing. There’s also a quirky sample of a mid-period Nelly Furtado tune on Talk About, a tune from Rain Radio and Irish DJ Craig Gorman.
Who is more glam than Elton? Diana Ross! The title track of her album Thank You is at the end of Disc One and promotes her delayed live shows which will include the Glastonbury Legends slot, which not even Elton has played (although the rumour mill has been working overtime this year). Meanwhile, less glam but still boasting multiplatinum album sales, Sting and Rod Stewart (combined age 146!) both offer new music in the form of If It’s Love and One More Time respectively, which build upon their million-selling catalogues and introduce more new stuff to their greatest hits sets.
The announcement of the death of photographer Mick Rock the week of NOW 110’s release brought to a close the life of the man who ‘shot the seventies’, with Queen album covers and David Bowie concert stills among his portfolio. Rock music, which captured the imagination of young people as far back as 1956, is now coming up to 70 years old. Like pop, it can still be twisted into innovative forms using amplified melodies and hard beats.
Sam Fender hit the top 10 with Seventeen Going Under, a tune that recalls Sam’s upbringing in North Shields near Newcastle. Maneskin’s version of Beggin’ by The Four Seasons gained traction across the world and kept the Eurovision winners in conversation for their full fifteen minutes of fame. Coldplay, whose 20-year career has seen them join U2 as the hottest ticket in any city they stop by, call upon both Max Martin and BTS on My Universe, a song with a marvellous chorus (‘You! You are! My universe!’) and a solo for each member of the Korean boyband. Talking of Max, his latest muse The Weeknd continues his hit streak with the invasively catchy Take My Breath.
Elsewhere on NOW 110, all the usual faces turn up to add to their catalogue of poppy dance tunes that kickstart a party, in a way which becomes a version of Dem Bones, such is the way one act is connected to another. David Guetta also brings us the poppy Remember, with a neat vocal from Becky Hill who wraps her tongue around lyrics like ‘occasionally I lose composure’.
Becky also appears on the number 11 smash My Heart Goes (La Di Da) with Topic (which is his real surname), who also appears with Clean Bandit and Wes Nelson on the forgettable Drive. Far better is the debut from German newcomer Jonasu who had a smash with Black Magic (‘you work your voodoo on me’) that is perfect for Love Island montages.
Joel Corry and Jax Jones deliver Out Out, a song about partying which namechecks Uber and features vocals from Charli XCX and Saweetie. Harlee was the uncredited vocalist on Lonely by Joel Corry and she gets the credit she deserves on Lonely, a tune produced by St Helens native Navos. The song’s chorus includes the line ‘we can learn to love ourselves’, which is very current.
For some reason Rita Ora still has a career, even as she now lives in Australia, and Sigala pull her in on You For Me, co-written by AG Cook from the PC Music collective and Charli XCX. Along with MNEK, I think Charli is one of the big top-line melodists of pop music today. She’ll get her due even if she doesn’t get the mainstream acclaim.
Conversely, two tracks offer dancefloor patrons the chance to dance their cares away. Nathan Dawe offers Goodbye (‘you don’t know a thing about love’) along with T Matthias, while on Riton’s song I Don’t Want You RAYE fires off a rapid kiss-off; ‘you only see me in my IG pictures’ is a good line.
The true sound of Britain is drill, the latest incarnation of folk talking over a beat. Superstars include Digga D from Ladbroke Grove and ArrDee from Brighton, who team up on Wasted, as well as Central Cee from Shepherd’s Bush, who had a hit with Obsessed With You. Another big top ten hit was Love Nwantiti (ah ah ah), an addictive piece of Afrobeats from CKay, a Nigerian who is signed to Warner South Africa.
As seems customary on modern NOW sets, Steps and Kylie Minogue offer escapist disco-pop in the form of Take Me For A Ride and A Second To Midnight (where Kylie pulls in Years & Years), while Sigrid prepares for the arrival of her second album with fist-pumper Burning Bridges. Little Mix celebrate ten years since their X Factor win with a packed greatest hits set with new songs No and Kiss Me (Uh Oh), which both adorn NOW 110; the latter brings in both Anne-Marie and the Lumidee classic Never Leave You (Uh Oh). Ex-Mixer Jesy Nelson launches her solo career with Boyz (with a Z), featuring a Puff Daddy sample and a Nicki Minaj guest vocal. All sorts of beef and cultural criticism ensued, which isn’t the ideal way for Jesy (who talked of suicide attempts and depression) to stay in the conversation.
In the Pretty Princess category, we’ve got Mabel – Let Them Know, co-written by SG Lewis, MNEK and RAYE and featuring a namecheck for Khaleesi from Game of Thrones – Billie Eilish (the caterwauling Happier Than Ever), Olivia Rodrigo (the morose Traitor) and Mimi Webb (Dumb Love, with a killer chorus). Tones & I proves that she isn’t a one-hit wonder by bringing in a choir on the euphoric Fly Away.
In the Hot Guy category, Shawn Mendes’ latest hit is the anaemic Summer of Love, produced by the Puerto Rican DJ Tainy. Dermot Kennedy (Better Days), Tom Grennan (Don’t Break The Heart) and Rag’n’Bone Man (heartstring-tugger Alone) all continue their careers with more emotive vocals and processed beats, while Columbia Records newcomer Clinton Kane, of Filipino descent, begins his own with I Guess I’m In Love. It’s a stately self-composed piano ballad about love and stuff with the vulnerability of the modern man (‘I’m a mess’). Hey, if it sells, they’ll sell it to us.
Although he hasn’t had a hit since 2018, Liam Payne offers the perky song Sunshine (‘what really matters is the journey that we’re on’) from the movie Ron’s Gone Wrong. The vocals are processed in parts, and it could be anyone. Sam Smith and Summer Walker, meanwhile, team up for a version of You Will Be Found, the showstopper from Dear Evan Hansen which came to cinemas after a successful few years on the stage.
The hottest young thing is The Kid LAROI, who is being marketed as an Australian Bieber and thus it’s perfect casting that the pair combine on huge hit STAY, which is basically Blinding Lights by The Weeknd with a bit of emo. Far better is the insistent That’s What I Want by Lil Nas X, who produces his best chorus and delivery, even as the radio edit removes some offending F-words. His 2022/23 tour will also astound.
Over in the US, Lil Nas is accompanying Doja Cat and Ed Sheeran on the Jingle Bell Ball tour in December. Doja appears on NOW 110 with the trap banger Need To Know, hot on the heels of fellow females Lizzo and Cardi B with a dull track called Rumors that serves to reintroduce Lizzo to market. After the belated success of Truth Hurts and Good As Hell, it is her first entirely new music since 2018. Millions of dollars will be pumped into her new album and tour, and we’ll know about it.
Bruno Mars is at the stage of his career, post-Uptown Funk, where he can do anything because he doesn’t need to do anything. His collaboration with Anderson .Paak as Silk Sonic sees them reach back to the Philly Soul of 1974. Skate is an immaculate, fully realised production and it’s no wonder that they have the blessing of Bootsy Collins, James Brown’s bassist, who appears on the album the track comes from.
Westlife are booked into Wembley Stadium in August 2022 to promote their twelfth album (!) and might play newer tunes like Starlight, written with Tom Grennan – yes, there’s a key change – even as they know people are there for You Raise Me Up and Flying Without Wings. The Script face the same problem, even as new songs like I Want It All will pepper their greatest hits setlist. Even The Wanted are back together after a benefit gig for their member Tom. Rule The World, which shares the euphoria of Glad You Came, promotes their own Greatest Hits called, brilliantly, Most Wanted.
With JLS touring again as well, the boyband era is not going the way of rock any time soon.