NOW 110: Elton John & Dua Lipa – Cold Heart (PNAU remix)

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.

NOW 109: Russ Millions & Tion Wayne – Body

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!!

Now 108: Olivia Rodrigo – drivers license

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.

NOW 107: Cardi B ft. Megan Thee Stallion – WAP

In 2020, the NOW series has thrown up a cover of a Broadway showtune sung by a centenarian and a TV personality’s song about carbohydrate. Released in the middle of a four-week ‘circuit break’, NOW 107 will soundtrack any school runs, Christmas shopping dashes and year-end broadcasts.

In a year without summer blockbusters, pub crawls, birthday banquets in restaurant function rooms, crowds to witness Liverpool’s record-breaking run at Anfield and no clear resolution to whether or not black lives matter (they do), what music was being pushed to people?

‘Wet Wet Wet’ was what radio listeners heard on a number one song from 2020 by the two exciting stars of US rap who aren’t called Lizzo. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion say all sorts of filth involving genitalia and liquid secretion thereof on a song which launched a thousand thinkpieces. The Telegraph went for ‘Pornography or Feminist Triumph’ and LA Times quotes Megan’s song Savage by calling it a ‘savage, nasty, sex-positive triumph’. Set to a sample from Frank Ski’s Whores In This House, Cardi calls herself a ‘certified freak, seven days a week’ while Megan implores her man to ‘pay my tuition just to kiss me’. Sex still sells.

In autumn 2020 Little Mix were trying to find their replacement girl band and the final show of their Search on BBC One was timed to coincide with the release of sixth album Confetti. It’s fine but what was less good was Jesy having to take a break for unspecified medical conditions. As well as their bouncy non-summer holiday hit Holiday, Sweet Melody – written with MNEK and Tayla Parx and featuring the line ‘he would cheat over syncopated beats’ – rose to the top three where it was stuck behind Positions by Ariana Grande.

That track, with a pizzicato riff and a drum loop, was accompanied by a video where Ariana played a president of a cabinet full of ethnically diverse people, inserting herself into the chatter about whether Donald Trump would be defeated at the ballot box (reader: he was). It sounds like a record executive yelled at some songwriters to come up with the most contemporary production and something about being in the kitchen or bedroom. Feminism sells.

So do bangers and bops, with which NOW 107 is frontloaded: Take You Dancing (Jason Derulo, very much on brand), Rain On Me (the phenomenal blockbuster duet between Ariana and Lady Gaga) and Tick Tock, which brought together three record company cash cows (with apologies to their talent): Clean Bandit, Mabel and 24kGoldn. Levitating means that Dua Lipa and DaBaby, who appears on a remix of the track, two-time on the compilation, as Dua’s track Hallucinate is here too.

Watford-based personality KSI goes one better: Really Love is produced by Digital Farm Animals and features the man who was ‘born to do it’, Craig David; Lighter is a euphoric dance-pop song in the modern vein by Nathan Dawe on which KSI takes a verse; and he also appears on Loose with S1mba, who was born in Zimbabwe and follows up Rover with another Afrobeats hit which namechecks the G-Funk song Gin & Juice. Later on in the compilation Wes Nelson, from Love Island, mumbles his way through See Nobody, which borrows Hardy Caprio who goes ‘skrrt’ over some bragging about ‘cash fam’ and Batman and Santan (the rapper Dave). The one redeeming feature is the chorus, which is irresistible. Melodicism sells.

Faceless dance acts were still popular on radio even though their music couldn’t be heard in clubs. Sigala two-time on NOW 107. They borrow the stylophone riff of Time To Pretend by MGMT and use James Arthur for Lasting Lover (it all rhymes!!). They also appear with Becky Hill on Heaven on my Mind.

Looking For Me was designed to be a song for lairy lads or ladies to approach someone in da club with the line, ‘Heard you been looking for me…’ Well done to Paul Woolford and Kareen Lomax and Diplo. German DJ Topic and Swedish singer A7S follow their uber-successful smash Breaking Me with Why Do You Lie To Me, with a helping hand from Lil Baby. It seems Europop has a new king.

Over in the UK Calvin Harris uses The Weeknd on the slinky Over Now and Rudimental borrow Anne-Marie and Tion Wayne for Come Over, which brings back the two-step sound brought into the mainstream in 2000 by Artful Dodger.

In pop, you should not fix an unbroken gasket. Kygo updates What’s Love Got To Do With It by using the same formula he used on Higher Love. AJ Tracey repeats his Ladbroke Grove trick almost entirely, naming West Ten after a London postcode and drafting in Mabel to sing a fun chorus after which he shouts his catchphrase: ‘Live and direct!!’. MEDUZA keep on scoring hits, this time with the song Paradise, with vocals from the Irish version of Ed Sheeran, Dermot Kennedy (although Ed Sheeran is the English version of Damien Rice). Dermot’s big hit Giants also features on NOW 107 with its line ‘it’s all in the science’ proving very apt.

Marshmello (who is a bloke called Christopher from Philadelphia) uses Demi Lovato, who has been very open about her mental health issues and fluid sexuality in recent years, on the anthemic OK Not To Be OK. Sam Smith, the gender-fluid popstar, released their (sic) delayed third album which included Diamonds, a death metal jam which bemoans the treatment of Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Of course it isn’t: it’s a heartbreak ballad with a funky chorus to throw me off the scent.

Other songs which did well on Radio 2 during the latter half of 2020 are Magic by Kylie Minogue (Disco Kylie is BACK!) and Too Many Nights, a grown-up clubbers’ song credited to 220 KID and JC Stewart. Three swarthy blokes are brought together on Elita: Gary Barlow, Michael Buble and Sebastian Yatra (Colombian, 25m Instagram followers) are all the same product, all hot sexy guys from different continents with lovely voices. Elita is what happens when Gary Barlow tries to write Latin pop. It sounds like a marketing meeting.

Interestingly, ‘country star’ Keith Urban had a Top 40 hit, albeit at number 40, with P!nk. The pop song One Too Many (which sounds like a marketing meeting) has Keith drinking the day away while P!nk has to put up with it. Kenny Chesney had a hit duet with P!nk a few years ago, so both artists know what they are doing (it involves school fees for their kids).

The BBC are on hand for the final track of Disc One, a tune comprising four notes by Paul Harvey arranged for the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra by Daniel Whibley. A dementia sufferer, Paul is still able to connect with music and after his son Nick gave him the notes – F, A, D and B – he was able to improvise a tune on a piano. What a good idea to put some instrumental classical music on a NOW.

Disc Two begins, naturally, with some of the most successful tracks of lockdown year, both on TikTok and on radio: Rockstar by DaBaby and Roddy Ricch, which is very straightforward but danceable; Lemonade, the pileup which is credited to (deep breath) Internet Money & Gunna ft. Don Toliver and NAV; and the Transatlantic TikTok hit Mood by 24kGoldn and Iann Dior. All three successfully marry melody, harmony and lyric, which the best rap music does. Popsmoke, the Brooklyn rapper who was shot dead at the age of 20 in February 2020, spent two months high up the chart with What You Know Bout Love, which came from his posthumous chart-topping album.

Cheekily, the compilers place you broke me first (in lower case) just before Billie Eilish’s hit my future (in lower case) to make the point that Tate McRae has wholesale nicked Billie’s act, even down to the vocal inflections and lower-case songtitles.

Conan Gray is signed to Republic Records, who are throwing money at making Heather a hit. Over a simple chord progression on an acoustic guitar, Conan sings very breathily about ‘a sweater’ and  is joined by a mass of Conans doing harmonies. He is the third party, unable to inveigle his way into Heather’s life. As well as TikTokkers, Elton John is a massive fan, and he likes that Heather is a song which has music and lyrics by C. Gray, which makes him an outlier on the Top 40.

Heather is placed next to Wonder by Shawn Mendes, who releases a new album of the same name just in time for Christmas. It is being showcased with a Bieber duet called Monster and this masterful ballad written with, among others, Kid Harpoon who helped Harry Styles create his last album. Shawn has a better voice than Harry, though, and the song is all about self-fulfilment and love. The production is wonderful too.

Ashnikko is a blue-haired singer-songwriter whose swear-laden track Daisy gained traction in late 2020. After the first chorus she cackles with laughter and admits that she is ‘no Cinderella but she likes the shoes’. Excitingly, before lockdown forced her back to the States, she was based in London. I expect we’ll hear more of her and, given that Doja Cat is sliding into irrelevance, I think 2021 will be the year of Ashnikko who already has 1.6m TikTok fans.

With Katy Perry settling down with kids, husband and TV money, there is a vacancy for an outrageous popstar. Ava Max, Halsey and Dua Lipa seem too safe, while Cardi and Megan and Lizzo are global superstars who can play the game and keep black and white fans happy (I call this the Whitney Houston Line). Mabel will move into that bracket soon.

RAYE is not outrageous but she lets her music do the talking. She rather stands in Dua Lipa’s shadow but is probably more talented and criminally underrated. Her song Natalie Don’t promotes her nine-track album Euphoric Sad Songs, which rounds up her singles from the last year including big hit Secrets. The song nods to Nothing Compares 2 U with its sparse synth and I’m wild about a syncopated and interesting vocal. The production is wicked here too.

RAYE’s old friend from NOW 96, Jax Jones, has Au/Ra on his track I Miss You, which landed on the Radio 1 Playlist. The lyric is brilliant, as Au/Ra seems to miss her old flame wherever she goes: ‘I open my eyes and I breathe…I’m closing my eyes, trying to sleep.’ The descending chords in the chorus are a good touch and it’s yet another winner from Jax Jones.

There is so little rock’n’roll on NOW compilations these days that it’s pleasant to hear boys with guitars. Machine Gun Kelly & blackbear offer My Ex’s Best Friend, which is loud and melodic and keeps the flame of pop-punk alive. Fun fact: Travis Barker from Blink-182 co-wrote and produced the track, but because rock music is not the music of America’s youth the chaps have to bend towards current sounds, which means a light trap beat underneath all the shouting. Interesting, though, but not a patch on WAP.

NOW 106: Michael Ball, Captain Sir Tom Moore & The NHS Voices of Care Choir – You’ll Never Walk Alone

NOW 106 may as well be called Now That’s What I Call Lockdown. Here are the songs which soundtracked the Corona Era, the months when people retreated to their bedrooms and scrolled through TikTok feeds instead of shouting in open fields or big arenas.

Spring 2020 was an odd period in music history. In the UK, people were told to rally around a 99-year-old former RAF captain who was walking 100 lengths of his garden to raise funds for the NHS. In the absence of PPE, track-and-trace systems and any leadership from the government, the country cheered on Captain Tom Moore, who eventually raised an astonishing sum of money for the NHS. As of July 10 2020 he had raised £32.8m from 1.5m donors via his JustGiving page (Tom’s Walk). will give you full information on his efforts.

Michael Ball, host of the Radio 2 Sunday Brunch show, got on board with a choir in tow. He and Captain Tom recorded a chart-topping version of the Carousel banger and Liverpool FC anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone. At 99, Tom became the oldest man to have a single top the UK charts; weeks later, Dame Vera Lynn passed away at 103. Her funeral took place on the 80th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Britain. Captain Tom, meanwhile, was knighted and is tipped to front the Christmas advert season. His feelgood story sums up Britain in 2020: giving, but almost as a way to distract from the paucity of leadership.

Enough politics, let’s put on some music. Track one on Disc One is Jawsh 685’s song Savage Love, a TikTok viral video which added Jason ‘Jason Derulo!’ Derulo to the track and shot to number one in July 2020. TikTok also brought a hit for Natalie Taylor, whose song Surrender came out back in 2015 but started to soundtrack emotional videos of TikTok users. Everyone was now a music supervisor.

TikTok also helped Death Bed (Coffee For My Head) become a huge hit for Powful, featuring the sweet vocals of Beabadoobee, who is on the Dirty Hit label set up to promote the music of The 1975. If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know) could be classed as rock music as the guitar is the lead instrument and there’s a huge backbeat. The song was one of seven singles released in the year leading up to Notes on a Conditional Form. A young people’s band led by a charismatic old-school frontman, The 1975 frustrate as many as they delight.

Yungblud’s song Weird! is in the vein of The 1975, with hyperactive vocals and synth parts underpinning a huge chorus about love and stuff. To prove how skewed the charts are, Doncaster-born Yungblud was yet to have a Top 40 hit in the UK when Weird! featured on NOW 106. It also landed on the Radio 1 A List. So popular is Yungblud that in March 2021 he will play a week-long residency at the Kentish Town Forum (capacity: 2300).

Niko B’s viral hit Who’s That What’s That was the follow-up to Mary Berry, about growing up in Milton Keynes. It’s the equivalent of hipster East London ironic cool music from the 2000s and landed on the Radio 1 B List alongside songs by Kanye West, Charlie Puth and Tom Walker. Tom’s song is Wait For You, which is a safe song about love and stuff.

Just like Sam Fischer, Rhys Lewis enjoyed being next in the Sheeran-Capaldi-Walker collection of sensitive, boring blokes. Born in Oxford, Rhys is handsome but also tuneful. Two years after the initial release of his song No Right To Love You, it got a push to radio. I saw his album advertised in London with the words ‘Alexa, play Rhys Lewis’.

Several world-class popstars are on NOW 106: The Weeknd has the sax-assisted Max Martin co-write In Your Eyes; Sam Smith and Demi Lovato duet on the passable I’m Ready; Ellie Goulding promotes another album of dull dance-pop with the single Power; and trio Haim’s understated song Don’t Wanna (‘give up on you’) can also be found on their chart-topping album.

Sean Paul returns with a duet with Tove Lo, Calling On Me, a jittery bit of pop where Tove does a Rihanna impression and Sean Paul is Sean Paul. Celebrating 20 years in the business, according to the Official Charts Company Sean has now scored 26 Top 40 hits. If you count his appearance on the Live Lounge Allstars cover of Times Like These (not on NOW 105 or NOW 106), plus the Sean Paul-assisted remix of Hair by Little Mix, it’s 28. As of NOW 106’s release, Calling On Me has not charted.

As the due date for her baby with Orlando Bloom approached, Katy Perry added to her collection of hits with Daisies, written with the Monsters & Strangerz production team who have worked with Lauv, Dua Lipa, Camila Cabello and Maroon 5. Katy debuted the song live on American Idol, a show which you’d be forgiven for mistaking is about Katy and Luke Bryan, who are both gearing up for album cycles in 2020. Daisies became her 28th Top 40 hit in the UK when it reached number 37. Between 2008 and 2013, her golden era, Katy had 13 top 10s; since her chart-topper Feels in 2017 no song of hers has reached the UK Top 10. She is a heritage brand already.

The two biggest British pop stars of present on tracks two and three on Disc One. Watermelon Sugar became a sleeper hit for Harry Styles, helped by watermelon emojis, a fun video and Harry’s infectious delivery. Dua Lipa’s third big single from her number one album Future Nostalgia, Break My Heart, is a smashing tune that must have helped many kitchen discos in the Corona Era. The song borrows heavily from Need You Tonight by INXS.

The ‘make old music new’ trend is alive in 2020. Sweet Female Attitude’s terrific two-step-pop anthem Flowers is 20 years old and thus perfect for Nathan Dawe to rework. Jaykae delivers the vocals excellently. Pour The Milk takes an item found in a fridge and sets it to music; not only that, it recasts the line from Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega and is essentially a remix of the song by Robbie Doherty and Keees (with three Es).

Surf Mesa and Emilee’s ily (i love you baby) goes back even further into the musical past, borrowing from Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, making the song perfect for lovey-dovey montages. It’s background music but that seems to sell these days, plus it’s cheap to recycle old melodies. You can see that the music industry would be keen to foster this repackaging of old music instead of developing new ones.

Whatever next: Dame Vera Lynn being remixed by Joel Corry? Joel drafts in MNEK for his third hit in a row; Heart & Head again showcases MNEK’s excellent vocal talent, while Joel knows how to produce a catchy pop-dance floorfiller. The video is quite strange too, which helps drive an audience towards the song. Stealthily, Joel Corry is moving into Jonas Blue and Kygo territory. Indeed, Kygo only gets a ‘could do better’ for the dull Lose Somebody, where Ryan Tedder and OneRepublic prattle on about love and stuff.

Breaking Me by Topic and A7S was one of the big ‘club tunes’ of spring 2020 thanks to its addictive chorus. Ditto Secrets, where Regard follows up his summer smash Ride It with a song that used RAYE effectively. Midnight (The Hanging Tree) is credited to HOSH with 1979 ft Jalja. It features in the audio book for the prequel of The Hunger Games, which makes sense as the song is a remix of a track which featured in the famous movie franchise.

PS1’s song Fake Friends is a boring bit of poppy dance music about love featuring the vocals of Alex Hosking. The video is an ironic look at Generation Instagram and is better than the song. 220 KID and Gracey had a Top 10 smash with Don’t Need Love, which uses the Regard-style manipulation of a vocal line as a post-chorus hook. The rise and rise of the song was a thrill for Gracey who grew happier each week that she appeared on the Radio 1 Chart Show. For all the talk of streaming numbers, being an official Top 10 star is thrilling for any popstar.

Other dance music usual suspects are on NOW 106. Jonas Blue offers Naked, a funky song full of fingersnaps and helped by the falsetto of Max Schneider aka MAX. Many moons ago Disclosure helped launch Sam Smith’s career by bringing his vocals to their song Latch. Eko Roosevelt has been making music in Cameroon since the 1970s and the dance duo turn his song Tondoho Mba into a contemporary disco groove. Credit to them for giving Eko credit.

Aside from Tondo, perhaps the most interesting song on NOW 106 is by JP Saxe. If The World Was Ending crept up the charts as people grew increasingly sardonic about lockdown (which is not to diminish its effects on the vulnerable). Featuring JP’s gf Julia Michaels, the tender piano ballad was released way back in October 2019 and peaked at 14 during the lockdown period, where songs tended to hang around near the top of the charts for weeks.

They included Rover by S1mba and DTG, a lovely slice of Afrobeats, and Dinner Guest, by the terrible twosome of UK contemporary grime, AJ Tracy and Mostack. Stormzy pops up with the line ‘came offline I’ve been chillin’ in mountains’ on I Dunno, a song released on Atlantic Records by Tion Wayne and Dutchavelli, brother of rapper Stefflon Don. I like how the song namechecks former Manchester United defender Patrick Evra.

Columbia Records, meanwhile, spent 2020 pushing StaySolidRocky’s song Party Girl, which is an even less melodic version of what Drake and the other poppy rappers are doing. Over on Interscope, teenage rapper Lathan Echols aka Lil Mosey offered Blueberry Faygo. Set to a smooth sped-up sample of My My My by Johnny Gill (a 90s r’n’b slow jam), the lyric is a bit of nonsense about ‘two big .40s and a big ass Draco’. TikTok again took the song to new heights, turning it into a Transatlantic Top 10 hit. Babyface and Daryl Simmons earn royalties from the track, so they are happy too.

Black music was big business during lockdown, helped by the instant nature of social and performance media. We may see more political anthems later in 2020 but DaBaby’s song Rockstar – not on NOW 106 despite being number one for most of June – was helped back to the top by an additional verse about police brutality. If pop music can use its platform for social issues, which are very much ‘in’ at the moment, we could see a golden age.

In the meantime Doja Cat follows up Say So with nifty earworm Like That, featuring rapper Gucci Mane. Her breasts are practically on show in the video; Gucci keeps his top on. THE SCOTTS, Travis Scott and Kid Cudi, combine on the song THE SCOTTS (all in capitals), which sounds like contemporary rap music (ie Drake). Both songs, by the way, come in at less than three minutes, perfect for Generation ADHD.

Back to Britain, now. In a break from his boxing career, KSI released Dissimulation, a rap album which was led by the song Houdini, which featured Swarmz and Tion Wayne. It’s a very contemporary sound and the chorus (‘oh la laa’) is hummable. In a break from her podcasting career and being a Jewish mum (the best kind of mum), Jessie Ware released an album in the middle of lockdown. What’s Your Pleasure reached the top three in the UK, led by dancefloor banger Save A Kiss, which is a joyous presence deep on Disc Two of NOW 106.

In a break from his breakfast radio DJing career, Ronan Keating delighted mums everywhere with Little Thing Called Love, a poppy bit of fluff whose video was shot in the middle of a forest with fan-sourced videos popping up in frames around him. He has come a long way from the twiglet-haired days in Boyzone. The song promoted his solo career Best Of, which includes duets with Shania Twain, Robbie Williams and Emeli Sande.

For the dads, but not exclusively for men, Paul Weller brought out an album called On Sunset. When it went to number one, the statistic was that only Lennon and McCartney can match his feat of topping the UK album charts in five decades in a row. Like his mate Noel Gallagher, Weller has been moving away from guitar rock in recent years and Village is evidence of that. This is music that someone over the age of 60 should be making, with some real strings and a lyric about ‘heaven in my sights’.

NOW 106 will be a guide to pop music in a time when pop festivals could not take place, and when even Eurovision was cancelled. Absent from NOW 106 but hopefully lined up for NOW 107 is Think About Things, the unofficial winner of Eurovision 2020. Dadi Freyr may have to wait to bring the Contest to Iceland but he has sold out big venues in 2021.

That is, if Coronavirus retreats for the winter.

NOW 105: Matt Lucas – The Baked Potato Song

May 8 2020 sees the 75th anniversary of VE Day, commemorating the end of hostilities in the Second World War. The British people will enjoy a day off, such as they can during a time of pandemic. The first Monday of May is a working day, furlough permitting.

Plans for the Bank Holiday Friday are listed on, though Pageantmaster Bruno Peek has sorrowfully had to postpone the event to August, which will coincide with VJ Day. Thus will the street parties, rugby tours, memorial visits and ‘Nation’s Toast’ occur after the Corona Era subsides. Hey, we survived six years of conflict; we can survive this unprecedented pandemic.

May 8 2020 was announced as the rearranged release date of NOW 105. There is no room for tracks from NOW 5. Among the 46 tracks which soundtracked the Coronovirus lockdown, the obvious candidates lead off the two-disc set. Blinding Lights by The Weeknd (which sounds like 1983) and a horrible song by Justin Bieber and Quavo called Intentions all make it among the first five songs of Disc 1. Yummy, which is even more horrible, follows on Disc 2, as Bieber’s first album in four years plopped onto the world.

TikTok continues to influence the charts in 2020: Doja Cat’s earworm Say So, Supalonely by BENEE from New Zealand (featuring Gus Dapperton), Roses by Saint Jhn – a number one hit! – and Roxanne by Arizona Zervas were all fodder for tweens and teens. Chris Molanphy wrote an article for arguing that TikTok views could boost the success of a song in the traditional chart by driving listeners towards streaming the song, perhaps to rehearse dance steps to. Thus did Blinding Lights topple The Box by Roddy Ricch at the top of the US Hot 100.

With One Direction rumoured to be celebrating their tenth birthday (perhaps with a TV special or a new song), two former members feature on NOW 105. The great Harry Styles pushed his second album with a shiny single called Adore You, while Louis Tomlinson’s debut album included MOR ballad Walls. Though not as badly received as Liam Payne’s debut album, Louis’ record got more marks for effort than attainment; even he must know that Harry will have lasting durability and play huge venues in ten years’ time. Adore You, by the way, also sounds like 1983.

In other reality show success story news, Little Mix broke away from Simon Cowell and continued their odyssey with Break Up Song, which sounds like 2020. Becky Hill, who came to prominence on the first series of The Voice UK in 2012, keeps racking up the hits. She has now had eight of them: number seven was Lose Control, where Meduza repeat the Piece of Your Heart trick, while number eight is the soaring and anthemic kiss-off Better Off Without You, with the annoyingly named Shift K3Y producing. She has writing credits on both, so she’s not just taking the vocalist’s fee.

Then comes Lady Gaga, storming back with the Max Martin-assisted confection Stupid Love, which is 99% ‘YASS QUEEN’. Billie Eilish returns, fresh from taking home many GRAMMY Awards and singing the theme to the new Bond movie, with everything i wanted, a song originally written about feeling hopeless but deemed too depressing in its initial form by her brother/producer Finneas.

The two big men of UK music – ‘Teddy and Big Mike’ aka Ed Sheeran and Stormzy – keep racking up the hits too. Ed from Suffolk brings in Camila Cabello and Cardi B on his panpipe-FX-laden slinkathon South of the Border (he loves ‘her hips’ this time), while Stormzy has his third number one with Own It, where Burna Boy and Ed pop up too. The video to the song – which starts with the chorus, as befits a song by someone who has done his pop homework – has Stormzy holding an umbrella on a roof while singing song is about how he’s gonna ‘be right by ya’. It isn’t about very much at all.

2020 was meant to be The Year of the Stormzy as he pushed his way into the American marketplace; who knows how greatly the Corona Era has disrupted it. UK urban music will still dominate the Top 40, thanks to Aitch and AJ Tracey. They pair up on Rain, a song driven by a looped piano line and a trap beat, produced by Tay Keith, who brought us such bangers as Sicko Mode, Nonstop and Look Alive, three enormous rap hits from the 2010s. The lyrics of Rain namecheck McFlurry, Bugs Bunny, fellow British rapper Dave and footballers N’Golo Kante and Virgil van Dijk. It’s very British and very 2020.

Other British acts include Lewis Capaldi (Before You Go, a ballad), Sam Smith (To Die For, so-so) and Tom Grennan (This Is The Place, with its ‘you-you-you’ hook). It is no surprise that Sam Fischer, Australian-born but now based in the US, opened for Lewis; his song This City, first released in 2018, is Sheeran-by-Numbers but sung by a graduate of the Berklee School of Music. His voice is ten times better than Lewis’; fans of Ryan Tedder will like Sam, who deserves a spot on NOW 105.

For the Radio 2 crowd, we’ve got James Blunt and Ward Thomas, representing UK country, on the track Halfway, and Liam Gallagher’s song Once. The music video features Eric Cantona addressing his butler as ‘our kid’ (it’s Liam!!) while Eric lip-synchs the song in a bathrobe. It’s addressed to Liam’s brother Noel and rhymes ‘clean the pool’ with ‘send the kids to school’, with a mighty ‘SHEE-INE!’ in the first line of the chorus. Liam specialises in delivering meaningless lines with gusto, much like Cantona. Somehow, he has become a national treasure just by continuing to be Liam Gallagher for 30 years. Q Magazine’s May 2020 edition was splashed, again, with a celebration of the album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, now celebrating its silver jubilee but still reaching kids of 2020 as a fresh, classic album. (It’s an average album, but captured a moment in white rock culture.)

Ireland is represented by two songs. The Script are on NOW 105 with Run Through Walls from their nine-track album Sunsets & Full Moons, which was number one in the UK and in their home country of Ireland. Dermot Kennedy had an atmospheric hit called Power Over Me, for people who were giving Lewis Capaldi and Ed Sheeran a bit of a rest on their morning commute.

John Legend’s song Conversations in the Dark was performed on TV on Valentine’s Day, suitably for a lyric about, mostly, pillow talk. It’s as sickly sweet and sentimental as All Of Me: ‘In my eyes you are perfect as you are’ is John Legend-By-Numbers. It’s practically a Hallmark card set to music, but there’s a market for that and John is raking it in. Not as much as his wife, but their kids will never be poor.

Britain is finding it hard to produce a viable female popstar. Mabel, daughter of Neneh Cherry, is on with Boyfriend, a ‘this could be anybody’ bit of pop which, like Anne-Marie’s Birthday, is made for singing along to on TikTok. Is this what pop music is in 2020, bending to fit the medium? Absolutely. That’s the business: follow the money and the audience.

Dua Lipa, meanwhile, had a number one album with Future Nostalgic, after it leaked before its official release date. Its rush-release was especially useful when all fans could do was eat, sleep and make TikTok videos. Physical and Don’t Start Now, both on NOW 105, are pop gems: the former steals the title of one of the biggest Hot 100 songs of all time (which tied in with the keep-fit craze of the early 1980s), while the latter packs in musical, lyrical and production hooks that make it the best song of 2020 so far.

Perhaps Celeste, BBC’s Sound of 2020, will break through and join Dua Lipa and Mabel on a very sparse top table of pop. Stop This Flame was primed to soundtrack athletics montages (‘keep on, keep on going’) but will have to wait a year to do so.

The American version of hot pop star, in both senses of ‘hot’, is Selena Gomez. In April 2020, the former TV star had 173m followers on Instagram and was plugging her album Rare, her first in five years. It included the two hits Lose You To Love Me and the title track, both on NOW 105. The former is slinky and cool, the latter is sad and melancholic and was written with Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter. It’s modern pop music in two songs. Selena is still only 27. Fellow child stars Jonas Brothers return with new music, the poppy What A Man Gotta Do, which doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Rita Ora, like Rihanna, seems more interested in anything but music, with an acting role lined up in 2020. In the video to How To Be Lonely, a gift from Lewis Capaldi that failed to make the Top 40, she writhes on top of eggs at a time when supermarkets were running out of them. Tactless. Far better is Time Machine by Alicia Keys, with her first new music for four years; it’s a shuffling song where she hits some very high notes. We have to wait 90 seconds for the chorus, which seems like an eternity today. She is 39 and is more ‘adult contemporary’ than ‘pop’, and is thus an elder stateswoman of American pop and soul. At 39. Pop music, eh?

Back in the UK Ella Henderson (This Is Real, with Jax Jones), Paloma Faith (Mistakes, with Jonas Blu) and Jem Cooke (Rabbit Hole, with CamelPhat) continue the popular ‘Producer + Woman’ genre of music that found favour on Radio 1’s daytime playlist in 2020. Tweaking the formula by adding a man are Disclosure, who draft in Khalid to warble through Know Your Worth.

Other dance anthems of early 2020 are Lonely by Joel Corry – Disc 1 Track 2! – and Pump It Up by Endor, which is music for idiots to jump around to. MK and Sonny Rodera draft in Raphaella on the song One Night and Jax Jones two-times (and throws in a great ‘whatcha-whatcha-gon-do’) on Tequila, on which RAYE sings with passion and finesse of taking it ‘to the dancefloor’ and spending money at the bar. All three songs sound like the club in 2020, and it’s nice to hear RAYE team up with Jax Jones after the long-ago success of You Don’t Know Me, still one of the finest pop songs of recent years that introduced Jax Jones into the world. Would many people have recognised him on the BBC’s Top of the Pops Christmas special? Recognisability: whatcha-whatcha-gon-do?

Only five duos or bands are on the entire compilation: Little Mix, Ward Thomas, Jonas Brothers, The Script and The 1975. The last of these bands offer the indie love song Me & You Together Song, with a guitar-led hook and a baggy drum loop that distils 90s guitar music for an audience who missed the 90s and are now catching up on this weird series beloved by Mum and Dad called Friends. Through lack of competition, Matt Healy and co are the Band of the Moment; bands are in such short supply that, removing the trio of brothers and the twin sisters of Ward Thomas, there are only three non-sibling groups on the whole compilation.

This is incredible but not surprising. In fact, I just went to look up NOW 31, on which Oasis appear with their number one smash Some Might Say, and discovered that three bands – Wet Wet Wet, Pulp and Supergrass – comprise three of the first four tracks. In the Coronavirus era, where live venues cannot open and in any case may be forced to close, the rock band may be an endangered species if you can’t even be in the same room to rehearse. This is small beer compared to the impact of the global pandemic, but do we really want a whole Top 40 full of solo MCs, female singers and Ed Sheeran clones? Music industry: whatcha-whatcha-gon-do? (In the indie sphere, of course, there are tons of great bands.)

How about the track that I feel represents the era musically, lyrically and culturally? It’s for the FeedNHS cause, apt because its singer will host the next series of Great British Bake-Off, whenever the tent can be erected and everyone can take solace in baked goods. FeedNHS is an initiative to take food prepared by canteens and restaurants and divert it to hospital staff.

Originally sung on cult BBC TV show Shooting Stars – in the days before Facebook. Twitter, TikTok and iPhones – Matt Lucas posted a video on social media in which he imagined a baked potato advising people who were locked down in isolation to ‘wash your hands, stay indoors…Only visit grocery stores’, with Matt chiming in: ‘Thank you, Baked Potato!’

‘If I can connect with kids,’ he told the BBC, ‘maybe the kids can tell their parents.’ They did, as within two days 3m people viewed the updated version, which is a minute in length and perfect for virality. Matt helped push the song with duets with family favourites like Rick Astley, Ronan Keating, Gary Barlow (as part of his Crooner Sessions), Mylenne Klass and Brian May.

Matt had been on a NOW previously, with a charity cover of I’m Gonna Be along with Peter Kay’s character Brian Potter. Peter himself added to the efforts to cheer up Britain by releasing an audio version of his Car Share sitcom over Easter and fronting the Comedy Shuffle on Friday nights on BBC1. He ‘regretfully postponed’ a series of his Dance For Life shows in aid of Cancer Research UK.

In the 1940s, it was Vera Lynn, who turned 103 in March 2020, who lifted morale. Today it’s a bloke from Bolton and another from Edgware, proving that comedians are ‘essential’ workers in the Corona Era.

NOW 104: Kygo & Whitney Houston – Higher Love

An eBook of all the essays on the site will be available soon!

Dance Monkey would be the people’s choice, but I’m not The People.

In fact, the people’s choice was Colin Thackery, an octogenarian Chelsea Pensioner who was the winner of the 2019 run of Britain’s Got Talent. His immaculate version of the sappy, soppy Wind Beneath My Wings in memory of his late wife was great television, a Susan Boyle moment that led to an album deal just in time for Christmas. From One Direction to Colin Thackery, Simon Cowell has been responsible for some top moments in pop culture but, sadly, his era may have passed.

The end of the 2010s saw, predictably, a series of lists by music critics reminding people of the great recorded sounds of the previous ten years. There was plenty of music by women, gay or black artists, as the overcorrection of popular music began to accelerate. Significant lists were topped by Kendrick Lamar (Stereogum), Arctic Monkeys (NME, Lorde coming in second) and Kanye West (Rolling Stone, with Beyonce in the silver medal position). Incidentally, all three list-toppers are connected to California, either through being born, having recorded or being a resident there, though Kanye is on a different planet a lot of the time. He ended the decade as Musical Director of a gospel choir. Arctic Monkeys released a concept album with Alex Turner in the guise of a lounge singer, while Kendrick pushes the boundaries of hiphop and live performance. As the author of Alright, the anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement, he is if anything this generation’s Marvin Gaye or James Brown, a figure beyond music.

The big cultural hits of the decade were narrative television shows (Game Of Thrones, House of Cards) and Hollywood comic book adaptations like The Avengers. Politics went more right-wing while social media gave people the illusion of social democracy where opinion was currency. It also siloed people into tribes: we speak of ‘gay Twitter’, ‘black Twitter’ and ‘football Twitter’. Commentators like Katie Hopkins proved you could make money through commanding the air, even polluting it with toxic viewpoints. The likes of Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey and Louis CK saw their creative stock fall because of their private lives, and Michael Jackson and R Kelly ended the decade as pariahs.

To be a musical treasure in 2020, you must have millions of social media followers and ‘speak to’ (in the oleaginous phrase) hot-button issues like representation and diversity. This was, of course, before the Corona Era, which prompted the postponement of NOW 105 (due on April 3 2020). Sam Smith may prove to be more famous for coming out as gender fluid – Sam prefers the ‘they/them’ pronoun’ – than his/their increasingly derivative music, of which How Do You Sleep? is the latest.

NOW 104 was released in time for Christmas 2019, and collected the big hits of the last few months of the decade. The biggest of the lot was introduced to me on Twitter when someone said that Dance Monkey was number one in Australia and was going to take over the world: with four chords, a high-pitched voice and a ‘dance for me’ chorus primed for the era of TikTok, it did. Can Tones & I have another big smash or (as is likely) join Gotye and, to an extent, Hozier as one of the decade’s one-hit wonders?

The other big number one songs of the era featured Michael from South London. Take Me Back To London is a duet between Ed Sheeran and Stormzy (Michael Omari Jr), two acts who have performed on the Pyramid Stage – “headline slot” – at “Glasto”. A track from Ed’s collaborations album, it is a very contemporary song about the lives of world-renowned performers in jet planes (before the Corona Era) who just want to go home. Ed Sheeran has a pub in London, while Stormzy is the brightest light in the city’s urban music scene. It is only a matter of time until he breaks America.

Stormzy two-times on NOW 104 with the second hit from his second album Heavy Is The Head, which takes its title from the lyric in Crown. He the chorus as if intoning a hymn, before namechecking Jesus, Boris bikes, the Cambridge University scholarships in his name (“not anti-white, it’s pro-black”) and his rainfall-laden 2018 BRIT Awards performance (“I’m still soaked”). “I guess a little bit of heaven has to come with the hell” are his words of comfort for black Britons who are “on the cover of Elle”. Stormzy is a very important act and, like his mate Ed from Suffolk, has the business acumen to run his own career and dominate pop culture.

Stormzy has also kicked open the door for other British urban acts. AJ Tracey (“live and direct”) had a massive hit with Ladbroke Grove, named after an area in West London; it’s a significant song as it breaks him to a big audience but it’s quite a lightweight song and doesn’t say very much. Aitch, from Manchester and born in December 1999, appears twice: once with his own hit Taste (Make It Shake) and on Strike a Pose (“you’re kinda cute, you know”) with Young T and Bugsey. Fredo, who along with Dave beat Stormzy to the top spot when Funky Friday became the first purely grime track to get to number one – is on NOW 104 with So High, as a featured act with fellow MC Mist. (So Solid Crew and Roll Deep may lay claim to be the first overall.)

In America, of course, they have their own style of urban music: trap. Bbno$, pronounced ‘Baby No Money’, and Y2K duet on Lalala, which was top of the Viral 50 chart on Spotify nine months after it was first released. Over a trap beat they spout nonsense and it’s a fun piece of pop music while being entirely disposable. Yet the song warranted a Rolling Stone feature in which the pair talked about how to “spam people the same s— over and over again” through viral marketing, as well as how the song became popular on TikTok, which brings the school playground to the telephone screen. Strangely, it only reached number 55 in the USA and number 32 in the UK, but a hit today isn’t the same as a hit in the era of NOW 4 (more of which later).

Black artists dominate the trap scene but (of course) the biggest stars are the half-white Drake and the fully-white Post Malone. The latter has followed Aubrey From Canada into the pop sphere, with earworms like Circles (“run away, run away”) dominate streaming playlists and the radio. Incredibly, and maybe for the first time, an artist has a song with his name as the title performed by another artist (unlike Doop by Doop, which takes its title from the band themselves): Sam Feldt and RAN!’s song (“we party like”) Post Malone continues the DJ + Nondescript Female Vocalist tradition, as well as the current tropes of the bouncy post-chorus and the lyrical theme of partying nonstop, “never, ever, ever going home”. This was in the pre-Corona Era, before governments ordered people to stay home on pain of fines or illness.

There are plenty of DJ + Woman songs on NOW 104: Becky Hill sings on I Could Get Used To This, with Weiss on production, and it’s Bebe Rexha who is roped in to sing the Jax Jones-produced Harder (“you know I need that [sound effect + melodic line]”). Sigala return with We Got Love, calling up Ella Henderson, while Ritual has Rita Ora singing with TWO DJs, Tiesto and Jonas Blue, at times sounding like Korean Pop (“come on, come on” recalls the “ooh-wah” bit of Boy With Luv by BTS). Tiesto two-times with Mabel on God is a Dancer, on which the daughter of Neneh Cherry is sculpted into A.N. Other popstar: one moment she sounds like Ariana, now like Selena, now like Cher (the song is saturated with auto-tune) and not in any way like the singer from Finders Keepers. A shame, but that’s business, folks.

Also falling under this DJ + Woman category is a song from the latest release which updates old club music for the new era. Paloma Faith sings the Artful Dodger track Moving Too Fast from 2000 under the direction of DJ Spoony, who follows Pete Tong as brand ambassador for garage music, rather than house music, which has strings thrust upon it. The album Garage Classical brings back some of my favourite smashes from the turn of the millennium: Flowers, Body Groove, Crazy Love, Sweet Like Chocolate, Fill Me In, 21 Seconds and Gotta Get Thru This. Is it time for a Daniel Bedingfield comeback?! If so, the 20-year cycle strikes again.

Going back even further into the past, to Yazoo’s synth-pop, are Riton and Oliver Heldens who turn Don’t Go into Turn Me On. Woman singer Vula goes on about wanting a medical remedy from her “doctor love” in the pre-Corona Era. The music video features face masks and dancing nurses, and came out mere weeks before the Coronavirus struck Wuhan, China. Going back even even further are Haim, who offer the jazzy Summer Girl (from an album called Women In Music Part III) which has the feel of Walk On The Wild Side. In the modern era, the song which provides ‘the feel’ must be given songwriting credit (under the Blurred Lines precedent) and thus the late Lou Reed’s estate will see proceeds from the song. Lou Reed was famously not a nice man but he still influences rock music 50 years on from his heyday.

In the guise of Thomas Wesley, DJ Diplo collaborated with acts including Cam, Morgan Wallen and Jonas Brothers on dance tracks in 2019. The Jonases sing Lonely over a looped electric guitar line and snare rimshots, which give way to a parping post-chorus and some “hey”s. I still maintain Nick Jonas will be an important songwriter in the coming decade, not least because he was given an award by the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2016. (Ed Sheeran and Halsey have won the same award in recent years.)

The first rock tracks of any description on NOW 104, those with electric guitar as a lead instrument, come on Disc Two. Outnumbered is by Dermot Kennedy, the Irish Ed Sheeran, while Better Half Of Me is by Tom Walker, Ed Sheeran in a beanie hat. Sam Fender, the Ed Sheeran of the North-East but with more of a political conscience (the Kendrick Lamar of the North-East??) offers Will We Talk?, a very modern rock song that belies comparisons with Bruce Springsteen (the Boss of the Toon?).

Someone described Lewis Capaldi as the child of Kevin Bridges and Adele, and his very first single Bruises (“it’s your love I’m lost in…There must be something in the water”) finally takes its place on a NOW, with its sparse piano line and Lewis’s keening vocal. It was first released in March 2017; three years later, a possible subject of the song won the winter series of Love Island, more on which shortly.

Meanwhile Maroon 5 are still doing whatever the record company tells them to do: on Memories, a number 2 hit in America in which Adam Levine burbles on about the past, they repurpose Pachelbel’s Canon with the help of hip producers Monsters & Strangerz (Slow Hands, Work From Home) and top topline (melody) writers Jon Bellion and J Kash.

Malcolm Gladwell does not get a credit on 10,000 Hours, the collaboration between Scooter Braun’s clients Justin Bieber and Dan + Shay, whom I nickname Plant Pot + Shay because Dan brings very little to the table…Alright, he writes and produces a lot but you can’t hear him as much as Shay. And he looks attractive, like a tousle-haired Bieber. The song is about how much the three of them love their wives (“if that’s what it takes to learn that sweet heart of yours”) and could foreshadow a new, mature, middle-of-the-road Bieber, even though his 2020 album Changes is so current it’ll be out of date by August.

Two dance anthems of autumn/winter 2019/20 took off through use in other media. Ride It was an update of Jay Sean’s smash by a DJ called Regard, aka Dardan Aliu from Kosovo, putting the tiny new country on the map for happier reasons. People danced to the 20-second snippet on TikTok and the song became a club and radio hit. What’s Dardan’s next trick?

Joel Corry is a fitness trainer who was previously on Geordie Shore. TV show Love Island used Sorry, which is sung by the uncredited Hayley May (did she sign away her rights?), during the summer run and it thus became a hit. It is the perfect track for the show as contestants are forever apologising and mouthing platitudes. The track is notable for having the music drop down to just vocals and a beat for the chorus (“there’s no need to live if I can’t be with you”). Love Island was a guilty pleasure for many, but the suicides of two former contestants, as well as the death of presenter Caroline Flack, may mean it is mothballed in the post-Corona Era.

A-List Ladies are present and correct on NOW 104. Two former members of Fifth Harmony are next to one another: Camila Cabello with Liar, which thanks to its Dembow beat sounds like much of global pop in the last few years; and Normani with Motivation, which is made for My Gym Playlists. Lizzo’s 2016 song Good As Hell (“I do my hair toss, check my nails”) got a big push in 2019 and became a radio smash, while Lana Del Rey’s chart-topping album named after Norman Rockwell yielded the single Doin’ Time, which opens with a quote from the Gershwins’ banger Summertime.

Miley Cyrus wants to Slide Away (“I’m not who I used to be”) on a woozy track written with hip and cool Finnish popstar Alma. Expect Miley to dominate pop music in the post-Corona, along with Ariana Grande (who appears with a clean version of boyfriend, a duet with rap duo Social House) and Billie Eilish, who offers the similarly lower-case all the good girls go to hell from her GRAMMY Album of the Year. The number of singers and performers they will inspire will be incalculable.

The most fascinatingly performer on NOW 104 is the inspiration to the likes of Ariana and Camila. Now in her fifties, Celine Dion was one of fourteen children in Quebec who married her manager and has become one of the world’s most beloved vocal performers. Like Elvis and Sinatra, Celine is an interpreter, not a writer; she played Las Vegas in her thirties and has released 27 albums in English or French. Courage was her first in the former since 2013, on which Sia gave her the excellent title track Love Me Back To Life. Celine enlists Sia and David (real name Pierre!) Guetta for Lying Down, a self-empowerment anthem (“I can’t hear you when you speak your poison, bitter words can’t hurt me now”) that sums up her place in culture.

Lying Down is, of course, a piano-and-strings-led ballad, and follows Westlife’s song Dynamite, which in a departure for them is a fast-paced K-Pop track where Nicky does a rap. Not this time: Ed Sheeran wrote the song, which is all about ‘sleeping in on a Sunday morning’, love and stuff, with a chorus full of colours (“purple and green and red”). Both songs sound like the artists who wrote them: Shane is doing Ed and Celine is doing Sia. I think both writers are modern equivalents of the artists for whom they compose, with Ed writing soppy ballads that a boyband would have sung 20 years ago and Sia doing vocal gymnastics like her heart will go on and on. Music is repeating itself, or at least it is when you recognise the past in the present.

So what is genuinely new? The abovementioned British urban music and American trap that appeals to the kids with their smartphone jukeboxes. Two rappers are put together on Disc One: Lil Tecca’s Ran$om cycles a trap beat over which lazy-eyed Tecca sings for just under 2 minutes 30 seconds about what he “got”: Fendi, Chanel, Prada and quotes Drake (“started from the bottom”); on Panini (“don’t you be a meanie”), Lil Nas X bangs on for just under two minutes about having fans and women and being “number one on streaming”. It will sound old by the end of 2020, but sounded fresh when it came out.

Also new is Afrobeats, or Afro-fusion, spearheaded by Burna Boy, who guests on Be Honest by the underrated Jorja Smith. He pops up halfway through with a soulful croon. Fun fact: his grandpa Benson was manager of Fela Kuta, the pioneer of Afrobeat.

NOW 104 tacks on five tracks from NOW 4 because there’s space left over on the CD. The Style Council (Shout To The Top), UB40 (If It Happens Again) and Level 42 (Hot Water) all pop up, while Together In Electric Dreams struts in and proves that Giorgio Moroder is one of popular music’s great geniuses. He didn’t sing, so recruited acts like Donna Summer and, here, Phil Oakey from The Human League, to warble over the top of his sexy synth-pop. No Moroder, no Daft Punk, Guetta and the rest. Michael Jackson appears on Rockwell’s Somebody’s Watching Me (“And I have no privacy”), as a comment on the era of data harvesting and the like, 30 years ahead of its time.

And this we turn to the NOW Playlist entrant. Whitney Houston spent the start of 2020 on tour from beyond the grave. Eight years after she died, Kygo puts a fresh spin on Higher Love, which she covered in her Imperial Phase for a Japanese edition of her album I’m Your Baby Tonight. Love is a successful piece of product, for both remixer and performer. Her vocals are pushed forward in the verse and chorus, while horns and synths act as framework; the breakdown is addictive, chopping up syllables and creating a dancefloor-filling climax.

The future of pop music is using the brands of the past – Whitney, Madonna, Elvis – and refreshing them for a contemporary audience. ABBA had a musical, and now a live theatrical show while you eat dinner (at least you could pre-Corona), but I wonder if we’ll get a new version of My Heart Will Go On or Flying Without Wings, whether we want them or not. Will Burna Boy or Aitch be involved, and which dance producer will be tasked with updating it?

NOW 103: Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus – Old Town Road

Disc one track one surpasses all other tracks on a packed 103rd instalment. Number one in the US for 15 weeks on the day NOW 103 was released, Old Town Road is one of the most successful pop songs of all time. OF ALL TIME!

It’s a four-chord ditty sampled by Kio (Kio! Kio!) from a Nine Inch Nails track. If you had told Trent Reznor (who I hope it getting money from the success of Old Town Road) that he would soundtrack most of 2019 inadvertently, he would hurt you to see if you still felt. While you focus on the pain, you would get your ‘horses in the back’ and alcohol (‘lean’) in your bladder and resist attempts for people to tell you anything. Then Billy Ray Cyrus would pop up to remind the world he existed and all was right with the world.

As America detained migrants, geared up for another presidential election and welcomed two new babies into it – my half-brothers Joe-Joe and Jake-Jake – everyone was dancing like a cowboy to Old Town Road on a service called TikTok. People want to show off and dance: The Twist remains the biggest song of all time according to Billboard, with Black Eyes Peas’ I Got a Feeling and Uptown Funk high up there too. Only Despacito and One Sweet Day, a song about missing your loved ones, have been more durable number ones in the US than Old Town Road, which is not about missing your loved ones. Every year, it seems, has an inescapable party song. Maybe I can write the one for 2020.

What else is on NOW 103? Ed from Suffolk returns with two rappers – Chance The Rapper & PnB Rock – with a song with a hook ‘if you cross her, then you cross me’ about being nice to someone’s immediate friends and family. He also gifts Better Man, the most middle-of-the-road song you can imagine, to Westlife, the most middle-of-the-road band you can imagine. The song that knocked Ed off the summit of the UK charts (I Don’t Care is not on NOW 103) is Senorita, a duet between Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello that was chiselled to sound like summer, something to listen to as you munch burgers and kebabs. Now that’s what I call throwing another shrimp on the barbie.

Ed put out an album of collaborations (Bruno Mars, Khalid, Ella Mai, Travis Scott and Eminem among others) but chose not to tour it. Yet. Madonna also put out an album featuring plenty of acts (Quavo, Swae Lee, Maluma) which she will tour in 2020, with a slew of dates at the London Palladium. Her Eurovision appearance was a failure, and her focus has shifted to motherhood (her son David is a footballer in Portugal).

Without Madge there would be no Beyonce and indeed very few of the women who, unlike Madonna, are on NOW 103: Billie Eilish (Bad Guy, which is dull but has a hell of a hook), Zara Larsson (Don’t Worry Bout Me), Miley Cyrus (Mother’s Daughter), Mabel (the contemporary sounding Mad Love), Ellie Goulding (Sixteen, which caught my attention when I first heard it as it was better than the dross she usually releases) and Kylie Minogue.

New York City, produced by DJ Fresh, is a track promoting another Greatest Hits set, her fourth. I have two of them!. Her ‘Legends’ set at Glastonbury included guest spots from Nick Cave and Chris Martin; the set proved that the fluffy pop princess from off of Neighbours had fully become an adopted National Treasure. P!nk, meanwhile, had played two dates at Wembley Stadium in June 2019 and a single from her latest album Can We Pretend is nestled in the middle of Disc One. Little Mix, who must be headlining stadiums soon to add to their success playing repeatedly at big arenas like the O2, were set free from Syco and previewed album six with Bounce Back, which is 99% Back To Life by Soul II Soul, a number one 30 summers ago. Before any of them were even born.

Before Stormzy was born too. The Glastonbury headliner took time during his set to shout out to most of the UK grime scene, as the music of council houses in East London had a moment in the hot Somerset sun. Fashion Week, by Steel Banglez ft AJ Tracey & MoStack, is one of two grime tunes on NOW 103; the other is by Stormzy. Vossi Bop is about having fun at a coffee shop, and became the second UK number one for a grime act after Funky Friday.

Perhaps mums and their kids would not like grime, so the compilers give them Emeli Sande (Sparrow, another gospel-pop song from the underrated Scottish singer) and One Republic, whose song Rescue Me is another Ryan Tedder-penned smash. The world didn’t ask for a Lighthouse Family comeback, but they got one: My Salvation sounds like commercial radio in 1998. The new album included a greatest hits set, much like their next tour, which will see a sea of grey hairs.

Will any Ariana Grande fans go for Tunde and the other one? She two-times on NOW 103: break up with your girlfriend I’m bored (all lower case!) has Max Martin’s fingerprints all over it, while MONOPOLY is a duet with songwriter Victoria Monet and includes the word ‘discography’ over a trap-type delivery that is very current. Katy Perry, a TV judge, returns with Never Really Over, written by nine writers and sounding like everything else on the radio.

The sound of 2019 is sculpted by the likes of The Chainsmokers, who enlist 5 Seconds of Summer on the bro-EDM of Who Do You Love, and Avicii, whose posthumous album Tim yielded two hits: SOS with Aloe Blacc, which is not as good as Wake Me Up, and Heaven, with an uncredited vocal from Chris Martin of Coldplay. All proceeds from the album go to a foundation set up in his name. Incredibly David Guetta is still contributing to NOW, using the voice of Raye on Stay (Don’t Go Away), which is a triple rhyme!

Sigala have the lovely Becky Hill on Wish You Well, another one of their soaring dance-pop songs, while prodigious Martin Garrix brings in the fun pair of Macklemore and the bloke off of Fall Out Boy (Patrick Stump) for the excellent Summer Days, which reminds me of DANCE by Justice. Jonas Blue, revealed to be a massive fan of Max Martin in a show dedicated to Max on BBC Radio 2 over May 2019, re-introduces people to Theresa Rex on What I Like About You. Most people will know her voice from Solo Dance by Martin Jensen; here Theresa gets a credit as Jonas does his bounce-pop stuff.

Another Theresa got no credit when she resigned as leader of the country, leaving the mighty philanderer Boris Johnson to seize power. ‘F— Boris!’ chanted crowds at Glastonbury; what will Britain look like when NOW 104 emerges in November, allegedly after Brexit has been concluded. MEDUZA ft Goodboys have the song for the lads this summer with Piece Of Your Heart (‘DUH DUH DUH!) to distract people from the Brexit negotiations which began back in June 2016 (NOW 94!!).

Mark Ronson’s album of ‘sad bangers’ Late Night Feelings, written in the wake of his divorce, includes Find U Again, to which Camila Cabello lends her Ariana-esque vocals. Jax Jones (whatcha whatcha gon do!) two-times on Side One: One Touch is a song sung by Jess Glynne, and All Day and Night has Madison Beer and the disgraced DJ Martin Solveig, last seen asked a footballer if she could twerk. An innocent question asked with a guilty face: that’s the world we live in, an age of Uninnocence.

White men like Shawn Mendes (If I Can’t Have You), James Arthur (Falling Like the Stars), Lewis Capaldi (Hold Me While You Wait, from the UK’s biggest-selling album of the first half of the year, with the title Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent) and Jake Bugg (on the CamelPhat tune Be Someone) are on NOW 103. The brilliant Hypersonic Missiles by Sam Fender, the BRIT Award winner for Critics’ Choice aka This Guy Can’t Fail, and 3 Nights by Dominic Fike (a ‘listeners who like Post Malone and Drake might also wish to listen to…’ of a song) are great presences on Disc Two.

Groups of white men like Jonas Brothers (Cool, a lot of fun but not as good as Sucker), Bastille (Joy, from a concept album about a house party) and the two-timing 5 Seconds of Summer (Easier, which it doesn’t get as you grow up as a boyband) are also here, as is the frontman of another group of white men who have graced a NOW. While his brother gets column inches by bullying Lewis Capaldi, Liam Gallagher has put out a documentary (or, as one critic called it, a ‘corporate rebranding exercise’) showing him as a dad and a running addict. Shockwave is the first single from his second solo album, due in the autumn. Black Star Dancing, Noel’s new one that led Liam to tweet ‘LEO SAYER’ because it has a disco beat, is not on NOW 103. As you were.

The other big event of spring/summer 2019 was Rocketman, Elton John’s movie about Elton John starring Taron Egerton as Elton John. Together with Bernie Taupin, Elton wrote an original song for the end credits called (I’m Gonna) Love Me Again which he sings with Taron doing an Elton impression, which is odd. The chorus is in a different key from the verse (C-sharp while the verse is in C), which isn’t often the case in Elton’s songs. The new version of the movie’s title track also finds its way onto NOW 103, as does the title track from Yesterday, sung beautifully by Himesh Patel, who plays a bloke in a Richard Curtis film who is the only person to remember The Beatles. He gets a girl and things happen, as they do in Richard Curtis films.

The last four tracks, in the modern way, are from NOW 3: White Lines (Don’t Do It), Locomotion by OMD, It’s Raining Men and I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me. That was 1984 in music: rap, synth-pop, kitsch disco tunes and blokes from Ipswich singing pretty songs. Nothing has changed, nothing has changed!

NOW 102: Keala Settle – This Is Me

In the 1960s, before The Beatles released self-penned pop songs and sold them to the public by waggling their moptopped heads, official soundtracks to Hollywood films were the big-sellers at record shops. The Sound of Music OST kept on selling for years after its release; fans of the movie purchased a recording of the soundtrack so they could sing of female deers around the house and carry them with them in their hearts when out and about listening to the sounds of the sixties.

Then came rock music as a cultural force. OSTs did kick back in the late 1970s thanks to The Bee Gees and songs from Grease then, in the 1980s, pop songs would be tacked on as the ‘theme’ from a certain film. They could also be added as an afterthought to play over the closing credits: Everything I Do (I Do It For You) by Bryan Adams and My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion are two monolithic pop songs from movies, both about the clash of rich and poor, funnily enough.

As 2018 turned into 2019, a movie about a man who grew rich through his circus enchanted millions of people. The Greatest Showman is going to be Hugh Jackman’s magnum opus, the one between the commas in his obituary: ‘Hugh Jackman, the actor who starred as P.T. Barnum in the musical film The Greatest Showman, died…’ I saw the film in London a few weeks after it came out and thought it was fine. It was Disney product which was a vehicle for both Zac Efron and Zendaya, positioning them as the (rewritten) stars of their era.

The Greatest Showman is also a timely film in that its cast of freak-show curiosities are fighting for representation, just as transgender folk and women are being heard in a post-masculine world. Unfortunately, there are not one but two love stories getting in the way of this part of the plot, and I stopped caring about both love stories long before the film’s all too sudden final reel. I actually went ‘KA-CHING!’ on seeing This Is Me, the film’s big song written by Pasek & Paul and sung by Keala Settle, which I had been impressed with on the soundtrack.

At long last, This Is Me finds its way onto a NOW album a full 17 months after it was first heard. The mix of NOW 100’s reduction in current hits and the success of the official soundtrack, which was by far the biggest album of 2018, meant that the compilers of NOWs 99, 100 and 101 reckoned there was too much Greatest Showman in everyone’s car. NOW 102 relents and features three songs from the show: This Is Me is obviously there with its lyrics about self-empowerment (‘I won’t let them break me down to dust…for we are glorious’) and lots of woahs; from the re-recorded soundtrack album the song Rewrite the Stars is given new oxygen by James Arthur and Anne-Marie; and the opening song of the soundtrack, The Greatest Show, was performed by Huge Action himself at the 2019 BRIT Awards. The song closes Disc 2…Except it doesn’t close Disc 2.

What follows are six tracks from NOW 2, introducing young fans of pop music to Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (‘mummy, what does “when you wanna come” mean?’), Wouldn’t It Be Good by Nik Kershaw (odd chord progression in the verse), one-hit wonder Break My Stride by Matthew Wilder (majestic key changes), enrapturing Girls Just Want To Have Fun by Cyndi Lauper, Culture Club’s It’s a Miracle (Boy George and the band are still going) and Hold Me Now by an act who would score low on Pointless in the round ‘Performers at Wembley Stadium at Live Aid’, Thompson Twins.

NOW is a heritage brand, appealing to people who still buy CDs but who are adept at finding new tunes on streaming services. The point of NOW is to collect the best songs that capture a musical ‘season’. Early 2019, the ‘season’ captured by NOW 102, was dominated by the glory of A Star is Born. Sensibly the compilers have no qualms over including the mighty two-week number one hit Shallow, the duet between Lady Gaga’s Ally and Bradley Cooper’s Jackson in a film I thought was too long but made its point well. Lady Gaga will move into the phase of her career where she plays Vegas, writes modern standards and breathes new life into her old tunes. I always preferred her cabaret version of Poker Face, played solo on piano, and that is the Gaga I would love to see in concert.

Katy Perry, meanwhile, is the latest female voice on a Zedd track: the video for 365, inspired by the Spike Jonze film Her, is much better than the track. Katy takes a break from filming American Idol, where she is a judge, and staying active in gossip columns after becoming engaged to Orlando Bloom. I wish she’d make another I Kissed a Girl, and her recent hit Chained to the Rhythm came close.

Shallow was co-written by Mark Ronson, who returns with a new album in 2019 after his success with Silk City in 2018. Late Night Feelings will include Nothing Breaks Like a Heart, a fine pop song with vocals from Miley Cyrus, who is inspired by her godmother Dolly Parton’s song Jolene. Miley has stopped pratting about with wrecking balls and foam fingers and is set to dominate the culture for a decade, settled in domestic bliss with a movie star for a husband and in no great need of money. She need never work again.

There is a high quotient of men on NOW 102, both hip and heritage (ie, formerly hip). With Ed Sheeran settling into married bliss and building swimming pools with all his money, other men have stepped into the gap due to the absence of Ed product in the charts. George Ezra chose Pretty Shining People as single number four from the Staying at Tamara’s album, which was the biggest-selling album not to be attached to a Disney movie in 2018. The Times gave George five stars for his O2 Arena show, virtually saying he’s a nice bloke with an interesting voice. Tom Walker’s solo written Just You and I is a piece of fluff that climbed slowly up the charts when it was re-released in advance of his debut album. The aforementioned James Arthur offers Empty Space, while Raging Binman (aka Rag’n’Bone Man aka Rory from Brighton) wails over Calvin Harris’ Giant.

The heritage category makes NOW 102 an interesting purchase. Bryan Adams finds his way onto the compilation thanks to a co-write with Ed Sheeran called Shine A Light, the title of his fourteenth studio album; the Groover from Vancouver now lives in Hammersmith, has a young child at home and is a professional photographer. Westlife offer Hello My Love, written by Ed Sheeran, from their final ever album. Michael Buble enlists Charlie Puth, a sort of American Ed Sheeran, to help write the smooth Love You Anymore, from what could be his final ever album (his Carpool Karaoke, screened on Channel 4 to launch the album, was excellent). Hozier returns after several years counting the Take Me To Church money with Almost (Sweet Music), which has nothing to do with Ed Sheeran, and 74-year-old Rod Stewart offers Look In Her Eyes. He is not, however, as Sir Rod. The song was omnipresent on Radio 2 at the end of 2018, and includes the word ‘voguishly’ in its second line. (Why is Ed not Sir Ed yet, for services to British music?)

Take That put out Everlasting, another offering from their Odyssey collection, with a lead vocal from Mark Owen, a Barlow-by-numbers melody and a lyric about being ‘stars when we’re dancing’. Truly, Gaz is the Andrew Lloyd-Webber of pop, cranking out the same sort of thing for those who like it and who will pay good money to see the song performed at a Take That gig where they’ll be dancing.

I don’t need to tell you who wrote Thursday by Jess Glynne; if you imagine Ed from Suffolk singing it, you are correct to assume his fingerprints. Even when he’s not in the charts, he’s affecting the sound of pop music, like the Bee Gees did when they wrote songs for Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross. Lost Without You by Freya Ridings, however, is an outlier: a solo write by the act, released at the end of 2017 (the Year of Sheeran) which affected more and more people as the months elapsed with its first line ‘standing on the platform, watching you go’. The sentiment is so simple and the soft piano accompaniment perfect. The song became a top 10 hit in October 2018 and with any luck there will be more of that sort of thing on Freya’s debut album. Unlike Ed Sheeran, she did go to the BRIT School.

Congratulations are due to Jack Savoretti, real name Giovanni. His ballad Candlelight received a lot of love from Radio 2 and propelled his sixth album Singing to Strangers (good title) to the top of the UK album chart. The song has real strings on it and his voice is excellent; he grew up in London and Switzerland but his heart is in Genoa. He plays Wembley Arena in May 2019, whose next performers as I write this are Busted.

The big smash hit of the first quarter of 2019 came from nowhere. The Jonas Brothers were like One Direction but better, with a run of albums that came out every summer between 2006 to 2009. They were Disney stars of stage and screen, and music was just product to them, albeit ones they mostly wrote, to their credit as musicians. Two early hits of theirs were covers of songs by Busted, including Year 3000, where they did not sing about ‘triple-breasted women’ because they were teenage children. In 2019, the Jonasim (using the Jewish plural) reconvened and brought out Sucker, written with Ryan Tedder and driven by a syncopated beat. It went straight to number one in the US, helped by a big-budget music video and a Carpool Karaoke chat with James Corden.

A segment initially turned down by TV networks has now become a show in its own right, with folk driving around and singing songs in a car with the human form of an Excited gif, High Wycombe’s favourite son. P!nk was another act who was driven by James, and the announcement of her Wembley Stadium dates in 2019 bemused me until she was announced as the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BRIT Awards. Her catalogue is one of the most impressive this century, and she seems to be respected in the industry. Walk Me Home is her latest hit, written with old pal Nate Ruess from fun and with Scott Harris, who wrote Don’t Let Me Down for The Chainsmokers and is Shawn Mendes’ big songwriting buddy.

As of the end of March, this year there have been four songs which have topped the UK chart. There is no place on NOW 102 for the song which started the year as a rollover number one from last year: We Built This City (‘on sausage roll’), by the Internet parent LadBaby, of whom I hadn’t heard until the campaign to get the song to the top. Instead we get three of the other four: Sweet But Psycho by Ava Max (Amanda Koci to her tax authority) is 99% Lady Gaga and topped the charts all January.

The second number one takes a song from The Sound of Music, in a lovely piece of symmetry given the opening paragraph of this essay. Ariana Grande’s song about buying 7 rings for her friends takes the melody of My Favorite Things (Will Ferrell does the best version of the song as Robert Goulet) and then breaks into a trap beat. Disc 2 houses the 2018 number one and title track of her 2019 album thank u, next, where she is so ‘f—ing grateful for my ex’, Pete Davidson, who is getting funnier every episode of Saturday Night Live.

Ariana’s imperial period (copyright: Chris Molanphy, writer of’s Why Is This Song Number One? and presenter of the Hit Parade podcast) continues; Ariana is playing songs on her world tour which are drawn from both her recent albums. Miley, the Jonasim, Ariana: all were American kids TV stars in an era before LadBaby and Youtube. (Ariana was on Nickelodeon, not Disney.)

Social media has made a star of the holder of another number one in 2019, which is present and correct on NOW 102. Someone You Loved is an overly emotional song by Bathgate-born Lewis Capaldi, whose sense of humour is clear on Instagram and Twitter. Grace was his first big smash and is also chosen for the compilation, thanks to its huge chorus. Mabel was unlucky to be stuck behind Someone You Loved as the grime-pop of Don’t Call Me Up rose up the charts in spring 2019.

Kicking off Disc 2 is a song tacked on to the end of a Hollywood blockbuster, in this case Swan Song from the film Alita: Battle Angel, an odd-looking futuristic film helmed by James Cameron (Titanic, Terminator, Avatar). Dua Lipa co-wrote Swan Song with the great Justin Tranter (Sorry for Justin Bieber, Centuries for Fall Out Boy) and it’s a great record with a great title. Zara Larsson offers Ruin My Life, which only got to number 76 in the US Hot 100 (she can do better), while Sigrid released the euphoric Don’t Feel Like Crying, which is her fourth big smash in a row.

In March 2019 Sam Smith came out as non-binary. They (as one must use as a pronoun) team up with Normani, formerly in Fifth Harmony with Camila Cabello, on Dancing with a Stranger, a woozy pop song written by the superteam of Sam and Normani along with Jimmy Napes (Sam’s longtime collaborator) and Stargate.

There is only one orgy on NOW 102, perhaps because of the presence of The Greatest Showman. Goodbye is credited to (breathe in) Jason Derulo x David Guetta ft. Nicki Minaj and Willy William. Elsewhere Marshmello enlists hip New York-based Glaswegians CHVRCHES on Here With Me and Jax Jones has help from Olly Alexander and Years & Years on the bouncy Play.

Little Mix offer Think About Us, with Ty Dolla $ign popping up. The song is so far removed from Wings, the girls’ first proper single, and it remains to be seen what effect splitting from their management group, Modest, will have. They are also The Spice Girls’ managers; expect them on NOW 103 after a summer of stadium fun. Cardi B is the main artist, with Bruno Mars finessing the chorus, on the alluring Please Me, though I wonder how she will survive the recent admission that she robbed men while working as an adult entertainer.

Meanwhile, Charli XCX and Troye Sivan go back to 1999, complete with Michael Jackson impressions. The big entertainment news story of the first months of 2019 has been Leaving Neverland, the expose of two children who were bewitched by Wacko Jacko and are finally telling their side of the story. One of the morals is that unchecked power can lead to criminality, but also no chord progression ever did anything awful to children.

NOW 101: Marshmello & Bastille – Happier

The NOW series did not wither at 100, and continued to collect the best music for another four or five months just in time for Christmas 2018. By the end of the year I had moved into a flat, had found a raft of freelance and shift employment and was waiting with the millions of other Brits for our great nation to leave the European Union. As I write, the government are voting to influence how best to compromise so everyone is happy (nobody is happy).

Music brooks no compromise: it’s a product that has to appeal to as many people as possible, which is why Ed from Suffolk is one of the men raking it in at the moment. Ed does not appear as an artist on NOW 101, but a song he wrote is Track One on Disc One. The gossip was that Little Mix didn’t want Woman Like Me to lead off the campaign for LM5, their fifth album (the Spice Girls only managed three!). Its reggae feel works on any radio station the world over, the language is direct and there’s even a reference to ‘my mama’, which is still a terrible trope. Nicki Minaj pops up sounding neutered on a guest verse designed to keep her in the public eye, while Little Mix take her edgy sound and water it down for preteens, with added squawk midway through the chorus.

Benjamin Levin, who has also made a lot of money recently, appears under his stagename benny blanco (all lower case) in a trio with Khalid and Halsey with his/their worldwide smash Eastside (‘in the city where the sun don’t set’). It takes the bajon beat and wraps it in immaculate production; the song is okay but Ben knows how to make a record. Halsey two-times with a slow-burner of a song called Without Me. She performed both of the songs as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live, which I enjoyed.

Not only does Khalid appear three times, he follows himself on Disc Two. Better is followed by Ocean, the latter as a guest vocalist on a track produced by Martin Garrix.

Elsewhere it’s orgies all over the place. Stay Flee Get Lizzy call upon Fredo, Young T and Bugsey on Ay Caramba, which shows that UK grime can also do pile-ups to incite singalongs at house parties. When I heard No Brainer by DJ Khaled and friends (Justin Bieber, Chance the Rapper and Quavo), I came up with the genre of ‘orgy-pop’, which some have called ‘pile-ups’. This is obviously a ruse by record companies to increase awareness of certain acts by cross-pollination, the same way Youtube influencers collaborate on videos to drive eyeballs to their own channels. Is this what happened in the 1960s? Did Mick Jagger pop up on a Beatles track, or Lulu duet with Dusty Springfield? Major labels have fewer acts and less product to push, which explains the orgies. I’ll stop saying orgies.

The big pile-up can also be just an expansion of an act: track ten on Disc One is Electricity, which I will always associate with child Irish dancers taking their bows after the medal ceremony at the Watford Colosseum. Dua Lipa sounds great as she sings about love having ‘no ceiling’ to the backing of Silk City, who are the duo Diplo & Mark Ronson. Oddly, the pair are listed as featured artists even though they are Silk City, which is surely a tautology, like Wham ft. George Michael, as Careless Whisper was listed at the time.

Dua Lipa two-times with the Radio 2 playlisted If Only, a piano-led duet with tenor Andrea Bocelli that closes Disc One, while Diplo three-times. Ellie Goulding and Swae Lee are the voices chosen to sing the melodies of Close To Me, while Diplo guests on the irresistible Thunderclouds, credited to LSD ft. Sia, Diplo and Labrinth. The song was used to help someone sell tablet computers; I forget who.

Other faceless producers returns to NOW 101: Clean Bandit offer Baby with Marina and the Diamonds (as she is still called in the tracklisting, though her new album will be as Marina) and Luis Fonsi; Zedd produces another fine song in Lost In Japan, with vocals by Shawn Mendes; David ‘Pierre’ Guetta gets Anne-Marie in for the 2018-sounding Don’t Leave Me Alone, whose melody was written by Sarah Aarons, who wrote Zedd’s The Middle.

Jonas Blue two-times on consecutive tracks, the first with Back & Forth, billed as MK X Jonas Blue X Becky Hill (who deserves to be a bigger star), and next with Polaroid. Here he has help from Liam off of One Direction and Lennon Stella, who played Maddie in the TV show Nashville and is now using her long legs to try to have a Taylor Swift-type pop career (she’s a better vocalist than Taylor). Sigala trump both producers by enlisting, for some reason (see above), Ella Eyre AND Meghan Trainor AND French Montana: Just Got Paid has Meghan singing ‘gimme that money, money’ and it’s a song that is perfect for payday. It is functional and very little more, and is 99% Nile Rodgers.

Mr Montana gets Drake to help out on No Stylist, which is a melody attached to the ubiquitous trap beat (the one with the processed hi-hat) while Travis Scott does the same on SICKO MODE (all capitals). Oddly, Drake has no credit on the track in spite of Travis not entering it until a minute in. It’s like a James Patterson novel where the co-author has written most of it but Patterson’s name is still on it. Here, Drake fans know Aubrey from Canada is on it; looking at the Youtube entry, Aubrey Graham is listed along with (and I won’t name them all) TWENTY-NINE other writers, including Notorious BIG, whose track Gimme the Loot is sampled. I hope Travis negotiated a good contract to see money from SICKO MODE.

The big hits of the last half of 2018 include Promises, by Adam from Dumfries and Sam Smith (‘tonight!’); Hold My Girl by George Ezra, who played two dates at the O2 Arena in March (the song’s co-writer is his long-time guru Joel Pott, who was in the band Athlete); Be Alright by Dean Lewis, another hot guy emoting in musical form; the alluring Nevermind by Dennis Lloyd; and the party-starting Fine Girl by ZieZie.

The ‘it girl’ of 2018 was Cardi B. After contributing to a remix of Finesse by Peter from Hawaii (Bruno Mars), she pops up with a few bars on Girls Like You, a four-chord marvel from Maroon 5 who are doing exactly what they are told, but this time melodically and with a positive message for women. The band performed the song at the 2019 Super Bowl after Rihanna declined the offer to entertain the world at half-time. The music video, starring women as diverse as Jennifer Lopez and Sarah Silverman, was made for Youtube clicks, and the band succeeded with a US number one.

I Like It takes the old Latin hit of the same name and adds a beat to it, over which Cardi B, Bad Bunny and J Balvin join forces. It was a US number one too. Taki Taki, another example of music industry executives trying to hit every marketplace at once, is credited to DJ Snake ft. Selena Gomez, Ozuna and Cardi B. Ozuna is enormous in Latin America. Selena appears on track 21 of Disc 2 with her own song Back To You, another song which has been made to capture the trend that Zedd started off: vocal-heavy choruses, a quirky post-chorus instrumental bit and a woman singing about love and stuff.

The surprise hit of the season, which was enormous in the States, was Happier, where an ampersand joins Marshmello & Bastille. Culture is pushing the mental health trend (about fifty years too late) so we have songs that advise the listener to ‘be happier…see you smile’. The bounce of the track is addictive and Dan Smith adds a terrific vocal. Steve Mac, who co-wrote Woman Like Me and Shape Of You with Ed Sheeran, is the third writer on the track.

On Disc Two, the UK number one Funky Friday by Dave and Fredo yet again took the grime movement to the top of the charts, something not even Stormzy has done. Dave didn’t even include the song on his album Psychodrama, so confident is the Streatham-born rapper. Elsewhere in music that landed on Radio 1’s playlist in the autumn of 2018, 079ME by B Young and Body by Loud Luxury ft. brando (lower case) seemed to be played every hour. In My Mind by Dynoro & Gigi D’Agostino is a well-produced earworm. Best Life by Hardy Caprio ft. One Acen took the popular phrase ‘Living my best life’ and turned it into a hit before anyone else could, and Au/Ra and CamelPhat impressed me with Panic Room, which I first heard on a bus going to Hay-on-Wye and was pleased it had a wide audience.

It seems that it is Cheryl Tweedy’s turn to be the object of tabloid fun. She spent the first weeks of 2019 on BBC television as one of the captains (or judges) on the Greatest Dancer show. Love Made Me Do It was written by Cheryl with former Girl Aloud Nicola Roberts; Kylie Minogue and Natasha Bedingfield are also listed among its writing team. The song is forgettable fluff in which she says both the F word and the S word, and was her return to music after a few years raising her child Bear, whom she had with Liam Payne, her former partner. The Cheryl soap opera continues, as Heat Magazine reported on March 26 that the pair had ‘big plans for Bear’s second birthday party’. Was this how it was in the 1960s? Did magazines make a fuss about Julian Lennon’s birthday, or care about Carole King’s children?

As I write this paragraph I have just discovered that Britain will soon have a new Prime Minister. Brexit dominated the news in the final months of 2018, as did the American President and his cabal of advisors and friends. Amongst all this Ariana Grande continued her ‘imperial period’ (copyright: Chris Molanphy of with a release of her album Sweetener. G-D is a Woman was a song I never much cared for (breathin is far better) but it sounds like one she needed to put out; her BBC special was fine, but I’d have liked more ‘bops’, as she calls them.

Jess Glynne has become the most successful solo UK singer based on number ones. Many of these have her singing a chorus (Not Letting Go) or a looped line (My Love). All I Am is in the same key as Hold My Hand and is sung in a similar register, with some hooky parts and a killer chorus (‘I’m breaking my silence!’) that make it sound excellent in the car.

Other women on NOW 101 include Rita Ora, who seemed to be on tele all the time performing her solo comeback song Let Me Love You, which promoted her long-awaited second album Phoenix, and Sigrid. The Norwegian popstar contributes the title track of her debut LP Sucker Punch; the moment where the track drops out before the final chorus is magical. Mabel had another urban-inflected pop smash with One Shot.

We get to track 13 on Disc 1 before we meet a traditional rock band in Maroon 5. Panic! At the Disco is now pretty much lead vocalist Brendon Urie, and his/their song High Hopes did brilliantly well thanks to having a brilliant bridge, beginning ‘mama said’ and with a diminished chord on the word ‘complicated’, starting with the triumphant chorus and sticking the middle eight (‘stay up on that rise!’) next to the second verse. We’re still looking for the next Freddie Mercury, whose legacy was celebrated in the last quarter of 2018 with the PR piece Bohemian Rhapsody.

Odd, really, that there is nothing from that film’s soundtrack considering Queen’s long history with the NOW series. Instead we have a song that wasn’t good enough for Mamma Mia’s first movie, sung by four thesps on a jolly. When I Kissed the Teacher comes near the beginning of the second Mamma Mia movie, which stars Cher, whose album of ABBA covers is not represented (scandalously!!) on NOW 101. Nor is there anything from The Greatest Showman. Yet.

The eye-catching listing on Disc One is Pray For Me, by The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar, with the former sounding like Michael Jackson and the latter sounding like one of the most original voices of his era. Black Panther was one of the films of 2018 (didn’t see it, but should soon), and Kendrick was entrusted with the soundtrack, making it a phenomenon that tied up music, movies and internet culture: Wakanda and the characters in it dotted social media for months afterwards.

The 1975, led by Matty Healy, returned with TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME, which had a video much better than its title, while Take That delivered some new product in advance of their Odyssey Best Of celebrating 30 years of the band. Out of Our Heads was a ragtime-pop jam that had Gary singing in the top of his register and the other two (Howard and Mark) providing backing vocals. The band play stadium gigs in 2019 with Rick Astley; former member Robbie spent autumn 2018 on Saturday night TV debasing his legacy. He’ll always have Angels instead; maybe someone should make The Robbie Williams Story, starring Olly Murs in the title role.

Failing that, Rami Malek would do.