NOW 112: Kalush Orchestra – Stefania

Music doesn’t matter as much as safety does. In the Hierarchy of Needs, I would put music as a Need rather than a Want, but when it comes to food, shelter and a right to enfranchisement, for most people, life can continue without it. In the modern world of symbols and statues and flags, music can cross borders and languages and make the world a better place for three minutes. Remember the little Ukrainian girl who sang Let It Go and hammered home the point that war, to quote Boy George, is stupid.

Such is the role of Eurovision, which was won by a folk-rap act from Ukraine who weren’t even the original entrants for the 2022 iteration, held in Turin. Sam Ryder, helped by his label BMG and writers including Ed Sheeran’s friend Amy Wadge, did brilliantly to come in second with SPACE MAN (all caps), a proper pop song brilliantly sung and staged on the night. A win for Ukraine, however, was never in doubt. Had Russia not invaded, perhaps they would have come in the top ten, but the public vote pushed Kalush Orchestra into the lead at the last.

NOW 112 was released in summer 2022 at a time when UK politics was fractured too. A combination of former bankers and career politicians were gunning for the leadership of the ruling party while inflation soared and petrol hit £2 per litre (back in the days of 2000, it was around £1/litre). Paul McCartney headlined Glastonbury, the Rolling Stones and Elton John played stadiums or parks and Kate Bush ran up to number one with a song from 1985 brought back by a TV series which sold the idea of the 1980s around the world.

There is no place for Kate on the compilation, which packs in 48 tunes including those two Eurovision entrants, plus 2021 winner Maneskin’s odd tune Supermodel, written with Max Martin and 100% Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana. They are booked into the O2 Arena as part of their European tour in 2023, which I hope they can fill.  

New names on the compilation include Cian Ducrot, whose heartbreak ballad All For You fills in the gap before Lewis Capaldi returns with new music, and Benson Boone. Having appeared on American Idol, he was spotted by the bloke from Imagine Dragons. In The Stars is produced by Jason Evigan, a big player in the LA pop scene. Benson has a superb voice which will serve him well as his label tries to turn him into the next global superstar targeted at people born after the year 2000 who scroll through TikTok all day when they aren’t watching Netflix. They may well be fans of Hearstopper, a drama whose soundtrack includes Colours of You by Baby Queen.

These days, half the acts are placed on a NOW tracklist and then the songtitle is added when it comes out. Thus we have the usual perfunctory appearances from Steps (Hard 2 Forget, which is 100% yaas queen), Sigala (Stay The Night, with vocals from Talia Mar) and James Arthur, who lends his voice to the Lost Frequencies track Questions, which was written by Dan from Bastille and sounds like James is singing over the demo.

Mabel, Jax Jones & Galantis ALL contribute to Good Luck, which has a top line written by both Camille Purcell and MNEK for maximum hit potential. Mabel’s second album is a priority Q3 release, as is the Sigrid album How To Let Go, which features the anthemic Bad Life (‘it’s just a bad day, not a bad life’) with, of all people, British rockers Bring Me The Horizon. Elsewhere, we get Diplo & Miguel asking Don’t Forget My Love, and Camila Cabello offering what most people think Latin music sounds like on Bam Bam. Bad Bunny, the real Latin superstar of the era, is absent.

Another Q3 release is the second volume of Calvin Harris’s series Funk Wav Bounces. Once again, he has recruited plenty of talent: Halsey, Offset, Busta Rhymes and, on Potion, both Dua Lipa and rapper Young Thug. Five years on from the success of volume one, volume two will soundtrack plenty of pool parties this summer and beyond.

Like Calvin, David (Pierre!) Guetta is ageing gracefully, an elder statesman of commercial dance music. He unites both Becky Hill AND Ella Henderson on Crazy What Love Can Do, another slice of dance-pop with a nagging hook that is basically Head and Heart redux. The tunes share a writer in Rob Harvey. Ella also appears on her hit 21 Reasons, where the lead artist is Nathan Dawe, while Becky exercises her larynx on Run, produced by Galantis. Dance Bloke + Female Singer still equals hit.

The Big Movie Theme kicks off Disc Two. Lady Gaga must have recorded Hold My Hand, a song of companionship, in 2019 when Top Gun: Maverick was being made. After two years in the can, Tom Cruise finally got to do his own stunts while a ballad played on the radio to implore people to see him do it. It’s very 1998.

In order to free up space on NOW 112, there are no Harry Styles songs, probably due to the same metric that kept Adele tracks off several compilations: everyone owns them already. Instead we get The Joker & The Queen by Ed Sheeran and Something To Someone by his Irish equivalent Dermot Kennedy. There is also When You’re Gone by Shawn Mendes, a song with beige in every aspect.

Far more exciting is Maybe You’re The Problem by Ava Max, which is VERY CLOSE INDEED to As It Was by Harry Styles, and Big Energy by Latto, a massive American hit that was co-opted by Mariah Carey, who had herself co-opted Tom Tom Club’s Genius of Love. We’re now so far into pop music as a cultural entity that acts are sampling the samplers.

We’re also getting a new trend of Women Singing The Hook, as three songs demonstrate. Jack Harlow takes Fergie’s Glamorous and turns it into a Drake pastiche called First Class. Aitch borrows Ashanti on Baby and Tion Wayne enlists La Roux on IFTK, which samples In For The Kill. The woman adds the hooky bit while a bloke raps nonsense over the top. Is this the future of pop music, or just an easy way to make money? Nicking from Lambada, Tion two-times on Night Away (Dance) by A1 x J1, which at least does something new with the sample.

Interestingly, a straight cover gets a place on Disc One. Miley Cyrus’s take on Madonna’s Like A Prayer leaps out of the Attention show that she released on disc in spring 2022. She also covers songs by Fleetwood Mac, Pixies, Blondie, Prince (via Sinead O’Connor) and her godmum Dolly Parton. No longer trying to have hits, Miley is a proper Artist now. I wonder if Harry Styles is modelling his career on hers.

Paolo Nutini, who is still known as a quirky popstar from the James Blunt era, has also turned into an Artist. Through The Echoes comes from his first album in eight years, which topped the UK charts. Album acts with perfunctory singles on NOW 112 include Florence + The Machine (My Love, written with Dave Bayley from Glass Animals), Sam Smith (Love Me More, a smooth Stargate production) and Sam Fender, who is Getting Started. Tom Grennan’s song Remind Me has mighty production to match his vocal delivery, while Chase & Status, today an album act, offer Mixed Emotions.

It is weird to see Take That members turn 50. Gary Barlow is taking a one-man show across the UK in 2022, while at a mere 48 Robbie Williams is putting out yet another greatest hits set (incredibly, his third), this one a series of reworkings with the famous Metropole Orkest. He tours in the autumn. Mark Owen, who turned 50 a year after Gaz did, is targeting his music at a Radio 2 audience who want to hear their teen idols grow into lovely middle-aged men. Knowingly, Mark launched his new album with You Only Want Me (‘for my good looks’), another song in the key of bland.

Liam Gallagher, 50 in September and needing a new hip, sang of Better Days on his third solo album which he promoted by going back to Knebworth. George Ezra, born in summer 1993 when Take That were dancing on the beach in the video to Pray and Oasis were feeling Supersonic, takes prime position on the compilation with a song he performed for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations. Green Green Grass has a buoyant major-key feel but a chorus, edited for the show, which told people to ‘throw a party on the day that I die’.

Take That had broken up for the first time by the time Cat Burns, Mimi Webb and Lauren Spencer-Smith came into the world. Go, Goodbye (a piano ballad written with the great Ross Golan) and Flowers are their respective offerings on NOW 112. Cat’s single was the little engine that could, kept off the top by Harry Styles but charting at number two. The song that overtook Kate Bush was a twist on I Can’t Stop (Turning You On) by Silk, sped up then slowed down then sped up again by two blokes from Glasgow who will forever be the Afraid To Feel guys even if LF SYSTEM do happen to repeat their trick.

Youth music is here in the form of BMW by Bad Boy Chiller Crew, Cooped Up by Post Malone & Roddy Ricch and Thousand Miles by The Kid LAROI (with two megaproducers, Louis Bell and Andrew Watt, involved). Justin Bieber was in the news in 2022 for cancelling a tour due to a health issue, but he still had a hit called Honest with Don Toliver, which comprises a boring beat with some chuntering over the top of it.

For no reason at all (I can guess, but I’ll hold judgement), N-Dubz come back with the autotune-tastic Charmer. On a more solemn tack, The Wanted mark the passing of their member Tom Parker with Gold Forever, written by A-List trio Claude Kelly, Steve Mac and Wayne Hector. It hit number 74 in the charts but that’s not the point. The song is an I’ll Be Missing You for 2022 which will have consoled his family, bandmates and fans. Tom died of cancer at the end of March at the age of 33. He was six months younger than me.

Music doesn’t matter but it can really give catharsis and make you think about life and stuff.

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