Another 50 tracks from the end of 2022 and the first four months of 2023 show us the pulse of pop.
Disc One Track One comes from Lewis Capaldi. In April 2023, he brought out a Netflix documentary directed by the guys who gave us Bros: After The Screaming Stops and the story of Harry Potter with no mention of JK Rowling. Ed Sheeran helped Lewis write Pointless, a song which sounds exactly what Ed Sheeran writing a Lewis Capaldi ballad sounds like, including the fun zeugma of the opening line ‘I bring her coffee in the morning, she brings me inner piece’. Or is it ‘brings me in a piece’ of toast?
Three songs by blokes on Now 114 are right in the Sheeran/Capaldi tenor. Cian Ducrot’s song I’ll Be Waiting sounds like Love Island in musical form, the Kid LAROI’s Love Again is a sad acoustic ballad written with super producers Cirkut and Omer Fedi, and Dean Lewis’ How Do I Say Goodbye is about his dad, whose terminal cancer diagnosis forms the emotional core of the song and the music video, where it is revealed Dean’s dad had a stem cell transplant that saved his life. A number 23 UK hit, Dean played the Camden Roundhouse as part of a world tour.
Someone praised P!nk as an artist whose career started in the CD era, ran through the download era and is still active in the streaming age. Her so-so album Trustfall was produced with Greg Kurstin and included the fluffy lead single Never Gonna Not Dance Again, written with Max Martin. Adam Lambert took the P!nk song Whataya Want From Me into the top ten in America – it features in the musical & Juliet – and has spent the last few years touring the world with Queen in his role of the new Freddie Mercury. Lambert’s impressive album of covers called High Drama included his version of Billie Eilish’s song Getting Older. In the promo video, he ‘gets older’ with the help of prosthetics.
Raye had a number one with Escapism, a very strange track which sounded like nothing else she or anyone else had done. The narrative surrounding Raye’s single Escapism concerned Polydor Records dropping her at her public protestations in June 2021: ‘I’ve done everything they asked me. I switched genres. I worked 7 days a week…I’m done being a polite popstar. I want to make my album now…I have waited 7 years for this day and I am still waiting.’
The album My 21st Century Blues came out in early 2023 and featured Escapism, a very strange track which sounded like nothing else she or anyone else had done. It feels like a suite. It was propelled to number one via fan goodwill and is the track that makes my Now That’s What I Call Now playlist which picks the song that best captures its moment.
In February, Raye performed the song on US television for The Late Show, starting at the piano and backed by the show’s horn section. Rapper 070 Shake, a New Jersey rapper signed to Def Jam’s GOOD imprint, joined her, as she does on the studio recording. Escapism peaked at 22 on the Hot 100, which is tremendously impressive for an independent artist.
SZA’s modern r’n’b has been compared to Sade (she’s not even close) thanks to her huge hit Kill Bill, whose hook ‘I might kill my ex’ had to be edited for radio. PinkPantheress was stuck behind Miley Cyrus’ Flowers (not on NOW 114) with her hyperpop song Boy’s a Liar, which is high up the Disc One tracklisting. Ditto Made You Look by Meghan Trainor, an ugly song which mentions brand names (Gucci, Versace, Louis Vuitton) and then boasts ‘even with nothing on, I made you look!’ Does she want expensive things or not?!
A strange trend in 2023 was the ‘bringback’, when an old song somehow came back into fashion. Die For You was the sixth single from Starboy, an album by The Weekend, and Ariana Grande’s voice was added to turn it into a hit all over again. It was in the top five at the same time as Sure Thing, a track by Miguel which was the second single from his debut album in 2010. It topped the R&B/Hiphop charts back then and was a top 40 hit in the States, but for some reason it leapt back into prominence. It may well have been engineered by his record label, which has now waited six years for a follow-up to Miguel’s fourth album. The music sync team of the Netflix hit Wednesday knew exactly what they were doing when they used Bloody Mary, a track from the Lady Gaga album Born This Way, for a dance sequence on the show. The song duly appears at the end of Disc One.
Even more strange was Creepin’, a track which reused I Don’t Wanna Know and brought together Metro Boomin, The Weeknd and 21 Savage. Grandmaster Flash’s seminal The Message is the basis for Players, a top 10 hit by 070 Shake’s fellow Jersey rapper Coi Leray that was big on TikTok thanks to its ‘girls is players too’ hook. Wouldn’t you believe it, she is a ‘nepo baby’ whose dad Ray Benzino owned rap magazine The Source and is a star of Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta.
Years & Years, meanwhile, faithfully covered the Crystal Waters dance anthem 100% Pure Love which was synced to Target’s Christmas 2022 ad campaign. Ella Henderson’s latest vocal appearance is on React, a dancefloor filler produced by Switch Disco which borrows from the late Robert Miles’ anthem Children. Central Cee must have given Passenger a nice cheque to use the hook of Let Her Go for his own song Let Go (‘I rarely get this in depth!’). We are, after all, running out of songs.
Lizzo, who headlined the O2 Arena as part of a European tour, is quite correctly on Disc One with the title track of her album Special. She has ascended to A List status in recent years, joining a major-label contingent including Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey. The lady born Lizzie Grant continues her run of solo non-hits with the opulent title track of her ninth(!!) album Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, which includes the line ‘f— me to death’ that was scrubbed from the radio. It is strange that her own songs barely dent the Top 40 but collaborations like her Taylor Swift duet Snow on the Beach (not on a Now) do. Perhaps she considers herself more of an albums act anyhow, although it was bad form of her to complain about her initial placement on the Glastonbury poster. Equally bad was that she said she had turned them down three times.
Another performer due to play the O2 in 2023 is Sam Smith, whose disco-divaesque I’m Not Here To Make Friends was accompanied by a video that showcased Sam’s fun new direction and brought Calvin Harris and Jessie Reyes to the party. The Jonas Brothers, meanwhile, lined up a gig at the Royal Albert Hall to promote their 2023 album (called The Album). It features the bouncy two-minute vignette Wings, which was written by 10 people including The Monsters and Strangerz, who have helped make Lewis Capaldi’s sound.
Younger talent on Now 114 include Caity Baser, whose song Pretty Boys is basically a TikTok Kate Nash, and Mae Stephens, whose great pop song If We Ever Broke Up caught the attention of scrollers at the end of 2022, perhaps because it sounds like three Dua Lipa songs squished together. D4vd is a chap called David Burke who turned 18 a few weeks before Now 114 was released. His tremolo-heavy track Here with Me gave him a top 40 hit, thanks to Interscope Records signing him.
Venbee x Goddard’s equally radio-friendly drum’n’bass track Messy In Heaven leapt up the charts after the Christmas hits had dropped out of the Top 40. The original version opens with the line ‘I heard Jesus did cocaine on a night out’, which you cannot say on the BBC, so the edited version went for ‘I heard my mate lost his mind on a night out’. Oh Baby is a hyperactive dancefloor filler by Nathan Dawe and Bru-C, which features Nottingham rapper Bshp and Issey Cross. Her name became a running gag on Greg James’ Radio 1 Breakfast Show: ‘Issey Cross [is he cross]?! He’s fuming!!’
Sub Focus aka Luton-born Nicolaas Douwma took his own drum’n’bass to Wembley Arena in March, where the setlist featured Ready To Fly, which sits on Disc Two of Now 114 and will be on his album Evolve. Skrillex put out two albums in two days in February, one of which included Rumble, a typically dance-y track which is credited to him, rapper Flowdan and the man who finished second behind FLO in the BBC’s Sound of 2023 poll: Fred Again.
Then there’s the host of blokes: Niall Horan with Heaven, the perky first track from his album The Show; Tom Grennan, two-timing with his song Here and a duet with Joel Corry called Lionheart (Fearless), whose title seems to indicate a compromise and whose melody rips off at least ten other tracks; and Calum Scott, who brings his voice to Jax Jones’ recent by-numbers chart hit Whistle, which employs a whistling hook.
There is, as always, a strong contingent of black performers, many left to Disc Two. Stormzy and Debbie offer the introspective Firebabe, on which both acts sing. They performed it as part of a BBC performance at Abbey Road to help promote Stormzy’s third album This Is What I Mean; the song is on Disc One because Stormzy is an important figure in British life, never mind music.
Elsewhere, self-proclaimed ‘Afrorave’ star Rema is there with his hooky hit Calm Down, which benefitted from an appearance from the World’s Most Followed Person on Instagram Selena Gomez. Libianca appeared on The Voice in 2021 and in the UK top ten in 2023 with People, a hypnotic slice of Afrobeats which uses words like ‘paranoia’ and asks people to ‘check on’ others and ‘really know’ them.
KSI’s Wikipedia page lists him as Youtuber and boxer who also owns an energy drink, vodka brand and restaurant chain called Sides. In his spare time he puts out music on Atlantic Records; the hooky Voices featured in an Amazon documentary that he also had time to work on. Sweat that brand, JJ!! That song featured Oliver Tree, who was the lead artist in the shockingly popular Miss You, which was co-credited to producer Robin Schulz. Tiesto’s top 10 hit 10:35 was co-written with LA pop writers Scott Harris, Amy Allen and Ryan Tedder, and vocals are provided by Tate McRae.
McRae is one of many post-Eilish singers, four more of whom are present in the Now 114 tracklisting. Lizzy McAlpine offers Ceilings, a top ten hit which sounds like a three-minute number from a teen movie (and a lot like Driver’s Licence) that has the line ‘it’s not real and you don’t exist’. beabadoobee has Glue Song, which sounds like a two-minute number from the same teen movie that has the line ‘I’ve never known someone like you’.
Mimi Webb ignores plenty of Red Flags on a tune produced by Cirkut, and Sabrina Carpenter sings Nonsense, which ends with her bursting into laughter, which is relatable. Island Records are looking after her and they’ll certainly make a return on their investment, which started by pairing her with Julian Bunetta, best known for his work with One Direction, on Nonsense. John Ryan, another member of the 1D team, is also a key figure in shaping Sabrina’s sound as she leaves the familiar Disney setting and embarks on a portfolio career mixing acting and singing. Having already gone out with Ariana Grande, I think she’s a cert to open for Miley Cyrus (who, again, is not on Now 114 despite having a nine-week number one).
As ever, bringing up the rear at the end of Disc Two, we get a smorgasbord of elder statesmen with songs that were playlisted on Radio 2. Simply Red offer Better With You, which sounds like Rod Stewart at his most anodyne; Noel Gallagher and his High Flying Birds have Easy Now, which sounds like solo tracks by at least three Beatles and includes a typical bit of doggerel – ‘your destination comes without a fare’; Ellie Goulding, one of the many independently wealthy popstars locked into a recording contract, offers Like A Saviour as a teaser from her fifth album Higher Than Heaven (fun fact: the song was written with Tom Mann, who was part of the boyband Stereo Kicks in the 2014 edition of The X Factor).
Shania Twain’s song Giddy Up! was a Radio 2 Record of the Week which will slot nicely into her arena set in September alongside all the songs people pay lots of money to hear. Jessie Ware was A-Listed on Radio 2 with Pearls, a catchy yet chromatic melody which previews her fifth album That! Feels Good! That melody was written with super melodist Sarah Hudson (cousin of Kate) who wrote Levitating and Physical with Dua Lipa.
The Rock Band is represented too on Now 114. Paramore are Running Out of Time, which has one of the compilation’s best choruses, while CHVRCHES, who were nominated as Best Band in the World at the 2022 NME Awards (losing to Fontaines DC) offer Over with its meme-friendly hook ‘wake me up when it’s over!’. They wrote it with Oscar Holter, a Swede who was one of the masterminds behind Blinding Lights and has helped to sculpt the sound of The Weeknd.
Maybe Raye will put in a call to him, although I don’t think she needs him!