NOW 100 – The People’s Choice

The final curtain on this project but not the final NOW, NOW 100 is released on July 20 2018. It enters a world in which people have the option to not own the music they enjoy but to instead subscribe to a streaming service. Because of this, artists are having to go to the courts to get the money they deserve for having their work enjoyed by billions.

The big challenge of the next few years is fair compensation from Youtube, Apple Music and Spotify for songwriters in an era where nobody buys music if they can access millions of songs for free. As a songwriter myself, I will be supporting my peers and hope that ‘your songs’ can literally be your songs.

Stuart Maconie let the Radio 2 listeners choose the final entry into his People’s Songs playlist. Shrewdly we picked Merry Xmas Everybody by Slade (never on a NOW!). In the same spirit, you can take your pick from the 23 tracks from 2018 which are on NOW 100. Just 23?! Are they streamlining?

As well as announcing a CD release of the original Now That’s What I Call Music, it was revealed that NOW 100 would include songs from the decades; not just as in 1980s and 2000s, but as in NOW 1-10, NOW 41-50 and NOW 81-90. That is a great way of thinking about pop music, as the average pop act has a shelf life of three to four years, or ten NOWs.

A piece in the Observer ran in June 2018 a month before NOW 100 came out on July 20. Tom Lamont watches how the tracks for NOW 99 are selected, at the hallowed Abbey Road Studios.

‘[Jenny] Fisher brings her bag of memory sticks and printouts of a spreadsheet that lists about 65 songs for possible inclusion,’ Tom notes as ‘the cull’ starts when engineer Alex shows up to upload music to the computer. Meanwhile Steve Pritchard and Peter Duckworth wait to see that week’s chart positions, which could decide a track’s fate. As with the best mixtapes, the tracks flow from one to the other, then the jigsaw continues (‘Taylor to Bruno!…The Craig David features Bastille. We haven’t done Kylie yet.’)

It seems like an editorial conference on The Times to decide which stories have two pages and which have one, except it’s more frothy. Peter Duckworth opines on the popularity of the NOW series. ‘It’s the car,’ he correctly says. ‘The last bastion of the CD…Plus the CDs are “gift-y”. At Easter, when people don’t want to give more chocolates, they give a NOW.’

Speaking to Billboard, which celebrated the 100th edition with a piece of its own, Peter said that longevity makes NOW ‘cross-generational in its appeal. So mums and dads who had received NOW as a kid and felt nostalgic for it could then buy the album for their own kids and give their children the gift that they had loved when they were young.’

Peter even compares NOW’s effect to that of Star Wars, where parents took their kids to see the characters they had loved when they were kids. I would thus make Chris Brown and R Kelly the Darth Vaders of NOW. Robbie Williams and Kylie Mingoue are Luke and Leia; Ed Sheeran is Chewy.

I had no idea that NOW’s Christmas edition is one of the ten best-selling albums in chart history. Only six albums are ahead of it, which shows the pulling power of Jesus and Slade in equal measure. Christmas 2017 saw good sales for the first NOW Country released in the UK, which includes the likes of John Denver, Glen Campbell, Dolly Parton, Lady Antebellum and Shania Twain.

Radio 2 (naturally) broadcast a celebration of Now That’s What I Call Music as part of a show about compilations. The 1970s gave consumers the chance to buy soundalike compilations, with the songs recorded almost X Factor-style by session singers and musicians. The current team of compilers combine science and art with an objective view of what a hit is, responding to the taste of the audience who stream and download in their millions. What’s more, they are a trusted brand. ‘Even in the age of streams, people need a curator. It’s a vast forest of songs out there,’ says Peter.

Do we, as fans and consumers who can listen to a New Music Friday playlist every week to refresh the sounds and tastes in pop, need NOW? Peter Paphides, the music critic, says that NOW ‘provides some direction’ to people trying to ‘find their way in the jungle of streaming’. Mark from Westlife think the compilers do a great job picking the tracks (less so when the early Westlife tracks weren’t on them) but ‘you can’t replace A&R-ing. At some point someone has to have good taste in music.’

The songs that were chosen for Disc 2 of NOW 100 summarise pop music neatly. From the first ten NOWs come Red Red Wine by UB40 and Against All Odds (Take a Look At Me Now) by Phil Collins, perhaps as an acknowledgement that two Virgin acts were omnipresent on the early NOWs. The compilers then skip to the 1990s quarter of Wet Wet Wet (Love is All Around), Spice Girls (Wannabe), Oasis (Wonderwall) and Robbie Williams (She’s Madonna…nope, it’s Angels), who have all sold millions of albums and remain part of British culture today.

NOW 100’s second disc lays out songs by the key sonic architects of the pop era. Mutt Lange is there thanks to Livin’ on a Prayer by Bon Jovi, and Max Martin is represented by Baby One More Time and I Kissed a Girl (two-timing even on the Best of NOW!). Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars appear with Uptown Funk, Timbaland is there with Cry Me A River by Justin Timberlake, and Wyclef Jean and Shakira prove the indomitability and timelessness of the Colombian’s truthful hips.

Ed Sheeran two-times with Sing, co-written with Pharrell, and Love Yourself, his song for Justin Bieber. The compilers could not ignore the power of the beige, with You’re Beautiful, Rule The World and Viva La Vida representing James Blunt, Gary Barlow (via Take That) and Chris Martin (via Coldplay). Survivor, the Destiny’s Child song, and Can’t Get You Out of My Head represent the titanic mononymnical pair of Beyonce and Kylie.

Xenomania pop up, not with any of Girls Aloud’s classics but with Believe by Cher, 20 years old in 2018 and still sounding like the future. It is also brilliant that the compilers also saw fit to include my playlist entry for NOW 46, Reach by S Club 7, written by Dave Arch Orchestra whose arrangements of classic tunes have been delighting millions on Strictly Come Dancing in the last 15 years.

Six weeks before the compilation was released on July 20 2018, which brought my silly project to a close, nowmusic.com ran a vote to see what the general public thought were the top tracks ever committed to NOW. A series of songs from each decade – 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s – were picked by the team over there and fans could vote on individual tracks of the decade and overall Best Song Ever. You could also pick your favourite NOW; mine was NOW 25.

Elsewhere the King and Queen of NOW were selected, as was the best band. Respectively I voted George Michael, Kylie Minogue and Spice Girls, acts who had hits in at least two, sometimes three or, in Kylie’s case, four decades. The best song of each decade according to me (end of debate.) went to Wake Me Up Before You Go Go (1980s), Baby One More Time (1990s, praise be to Max), Crazy in Love (2000s) and Someone Like You (2010s). Uptown Funk, Happy and Black Magic are all worthy winners for the 2010s and for the overall Best Song Ever, but let’s see whose fans can game the system.

For best collaboration, I lingered on Rather Be but went for George & Elton for Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me: ‘Ladies and gentlemen Mr ELTON JOHN!!’ swung it. The guys from the suburbs who took on the world are inspirations to me as I draw this Now That’s What I Call NOW project to a close today, with the final podcasts and the final slew of songs recorded for the project.

But what of Disc 1, representing summer 2018? In the podcast series I spoke about eight or nine NOWs at a time, with the final podcast separated into two: Iain Richards helped me pick tunes from NOW 91 to NOW 99 to advance to the playlist but, since we were recording in May, we predicted songs which would make the cut for NOW 100.

We got most of them, including the three number one hits One Kiss, by Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa (note the ampersand, denoting a duet rather than a ‘feature’), I’ll Be There by Jess Glynne and Shotgun by George Ezra. I think this is a country song and I am pleased to see two country acts on NOW 100, as expected. Maren Morris sings the mighty The Middle, another collaboration between producer Zedd and ‘trackmeisters’ Grey, while Florida Georgia Line are listed as being featured on Meant To Be by Bebe Rexha, which sounds like a duet to me.

Two pioneers of the ‘feature’ are present, along with Adam from Dumfries. David Guetta and Sia team up again on Flames, which was nowhere near as epochal as Titanium, while Clean Bandit enlist Demi Lovato on Solo and cut up her vocal in one of the choruses of the decade to rival their others. It is incredible that the band have not followed up their debut album yet, despite issuing a total of six songs (five of them massive hits) since the New Eyes cycle ended.

Max Martin and Ed Sheeran are here too, represented respectively by the lower-case no tears left to cry by Ariana Grande (about the Manchester bombings in 2017) and 2002 by Anne-Marie. Perfect is omitted, probably because enough people own the song and its parent album Divide. Also missing is anything by Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the people’s cellist who played at the Royal Wedding. Maybe NOW 101 will have some classical pieces on it.

Post Malone is the latest white guy to take the sounds of black music and become a millionaire: Better Now makes its way onto NOW 100, proving the compilers have their finger on the pulse. Years & Years teamed up with Greg Kurstin for their second album, whose second single If You’re Over Me went into the top ten. It is no coincidence that the album came out the week of London Pride; Olly Alexander is an openly gay frontman who may be the most important singer-songwriter of the era not to be from Tottenham or Suffolk. Shawn Mendes is so well respected that he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 People of the Year; he appears on NOW 100 with In My Blood.

Scott Mills, the new presenter of the Official Chart Show on Radio 1 after deputising for decades, announced that Youngblood by 5 Seconds of Summer was one of his songs of 2018 so far. Scott’s show often accompanies an old reference with the sound ‘WHOOOOO?’, which is never not amusing.

Elsewhere, Jonas Blue enlists Jack & Jack on Rise, the newly single Liam Payne duets (it’s an ampersand) with J Balvin on Familiar and Khalid and Normani do the same on Love Lies. Cheat Codes (whom I just looked up are three American DJs) draft in Little Mix on Only You, giving Simon Cowell a presence on NOW 100. M-22, another new name to me, is a dance duo comprising a Brit and a German (it’s like the Christmas truce!!) who bring in Medina, a successful singer from Denmark, on First Time.

The trend for piling up artists (I call it ‘orgy pop’ but nobody else will) is present: Bad Vibe, by M.O., Lotto Boyzz & Mr Eazi; Jackie Chan, by Tiesto & Dzeko featuring Preme & Post Malone, who thus two-times; and Ring Ring, by Jax Jones & Mabel feat Rich The Kid. Why is Mabel an ampersand and Rich the Kid a ‘featuring’? My friend Henry told me that the difference between an ‘and’ and a ‘featuring’ is in the essentiality of how they contribute to the track; if they are in the room when the song is written, it’s an ‘and’.

Hence the top ten hit Answerphone by (note the credits) Banx & Ranx & Ella Eyre featuring Yxng Bane, which must be the most ‘x’s in any pop song credits aside from the late XXXTentacion, whose music is too full of swear words for a NOW. Avicii is also missing from NOW 100 despite his death earlier in the year.

In a perfect bridge of then and now, four girls performing as MU4 sing the old Supremes song You Can’t Hurry Love which, in its version by Phil Collins (not Sir Phil, oddly) was track one on side one (not Disc 1) of Now That’s What I Call Music, the first volume. Helpfully the song is listed as GMB Competition Winners, which must have meant Good Morning Britain shut up the former editor of The Mirror up for long enough to allow singers to entertain the nation. The judging panel included Kimberley from Girls Aloud, A&R chap Mac Fox and X Factor icons Reggie & Bollie.

Part of the prize was to record the song at Abbey Road and have it featured on the album with ‘up to three nights in a three-star London hotel’ and £5,000 split between the performers with no other royalties ‘for the avoidance of doubt’. They also got a free copy of NOW 100. It is no surprise whatsoever that MU4 are current students at the BRIT School, which since 1992 has trained kids in the art of being a recording or performing artist. BRIT School old boys and girls to have appeared on a NOW include Katy B, Karis from Stooshe, Dane Bowers, Ella Eyre, Imogen Heap, Jessie J, The Kooks, Leona Lewis, Katie Melua, Joel Pott from Athlete, Raye, Rizzle Kicks, Kate Nash, Noisettes and the two chanteuses of pop of this century, Adele and Amy Winehouse. But not Ed Sheeran.

I have really enjoyed sifting through hundreds of tracks for this project, some of which have been lost to the ages, others rediscovered by my 30-year-old ears. I have a new appreciation for British soul and nineties dance (but NOT Cotton Eye Joe by Rednex).

I hope that one of my own songs will make it onto a NOW of the future. Here’s to the next 100 compilations and to the good health of Now That’s What I Call Music!!

Hear 12 podcasts and 100 Songs from 100 NOWs at soundcloud.com/jonny_brick

NOW 99: Stormzy featuring MNEK: Blinded By Your Grace (Part 2)

In 2015 Kanye West performed his song All Day (which was co-written by Paul McCartney!!) at the BRIT Awards. Behind him were figures in black who made up the UK grime scene. Dan Hancox, in his excellent new book on the genre, notes that there was ‘no way any MC would be invited to perform under their own steam’, so a major star gave them a leg-up.

By the end of 2017, grime artists had been nominated for the Mercury Prize and, in Skepta’s case in 2016, won it. Wiley was named an MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours list, while his foe Dizzee Rascal had left Miami and settled in Kent. The Boy Better Know crew, including Skepta and JME, headlined the 16,000-capacity O2 Arena in South-East London, mere miles from where Wiley and Dizzee had started their beef in 2003, and Akala, brother of Ms Dynamite, was gaining more plaudits every time he spoke eloquently on the BBC. I bumped into him at the Hay Festival and had a short chat with him. He’ll be an MBE soon too, as will his sister.

The start of 2018 was dominated by another ambassador of grime. Drake’s song God’s Plan was number one until new rules about streaming forced it down the charts after ten weeks. Because NOW 99 does not include the song, it isn’t eligible for inclusion in the NOW Playlist. I have instead chosen a popstar who, like Drake and before him NWA and Snoop Dogg, sold black sounds to white audiences.

It was a tough call. I asked Fraser McAlpine which track he would choose and he sensibly went for IDGAF, the sixth single from Dua Lipa’s debut album, but thanks to a coin toss New Rules went through from NOW 98. When she was profiled in GQ magazine, Dua came across as determined to succeed. IDGAF, as in ‘I don’t give a fig’, is a fun, poppy tune that sounds great on a car stereo or at a party.

Other party bangers populating NOW 99 include These Days, on which enlist three helpers: Macklemore, Jess Glynne and newcomer Dan Caplen. The song kicks off NOW 99 and eventually knocked Drake off the top. Sigala and Paloma Faith’s top 10 hit Lullaby, and Jax Jones, with vocals by the mighty Ina Wroldsen, finds it hard to Breathe. Like Zedd, Jax Jones is growing in my estimation with every radio hit. Likewise Anne-Marie, whose song FRIENDS is a collaboration with Marshmello on which they receive equal billing; the tune is single number five from her album Speak Your Mind.

Old friends return. Taylor Swift, missing with music from 1989, released Reputation in 2017; …Ready For It makes the compilation, while her fellow female Pink had Beautiful Trauma, the second single from the album of the same name, beautifully sung.

Many tracks point to the sound of now. Camila Cabello’s follow-up to Havana is the incredible Never Be The Same, a song whose ‘nicotine’ chorus (or is it the bridge?) goes right up into the top of her range. It sounds like nothing else on the radio. Sigrid’s next single is Strangers, which is also remarkable in structure, melody and lyrics; her talent is scary. Fine Line is by Mabel & Not3s, while My Lover is credited to Not3s X Mabel, proving both that either men or women can come first these days and that Mabel has inherited her mum Neneh Cherry’s ear for a hook.

Raye, who is working with Fraser T Smith on new music, looks back to the Ashanti song Always On Time on her own Decline, another winner and a duet with Mr Eazi, a Nigerian singer. I hope more African stars make their way over to the UK, not just to play for the diaspora here but to work with Western acts.

Peter from Hawaii is dripping in Finesse, with Cardi B singing the opening rap on a remix of an album track that sounds like the best of Jam & Lewis and Teddy Riley crunched into a pop-funk granola. Craig David continues his run of hits with I Know You, a duet with Bastille where his vocals mesh with those of Dan Smith. Jason Derulo enlists French Montana to help him with the tush-shaker Tiptoe, George Ezra brings the ‘love-a, love-a’ hook on Paradise and there are appearances from Paloma Faith (Guilty), Calum Scott (You Are the Reason), Sam Smith (One Last Song, a move into 80s hair metal…nope, it’s a ballad) and James Arthur (Naked). Tom Walker had a top ten hit with Leave a Light On, a cross between Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran, befitting for a track co-written with Steve ‘Shape Of You’ Mac.

Much hoohah was made when Radio X named a Top 100 Song list with 16 Oasis songs – five in the top 10 – but Oasis remain the last great rock band. Arctic Monkeys have a claim, as do Muse, Kasabian and The Libertines, but for durable acts to press themselves upon pop culture, Oasis are really the last ones. As I mentioned in the NOW 33 essay, it was all downhill from Knebworth…

Closing the compilation is catalogue, selected for wretched reasons. After the horrid attacks on Manchester in May 2017, Oasis soundtracked the city’s revival. In an eerie repeat of the choice I faced on NOW 33, Don’t Look Back In Anger was the song that made the biggest mark, but Live Forever remains an important part of their catalogue. Liam Gallagher had taken to performing the song in his live shows to promote his album As You Were; perhaps this is a compromise, as Noel wrote the tune and Liam sang it.

There are now popstars who were barely out of nappies when Oasis were playing to half a million people in Hertfordshire. Many of them make the NOW 99 tracklisting: 5 Seconds of Summer (Want You Back) and Demi Lovato (Tell Me You Love Me). J Hus (Bouff Daddy) was born in May 1996, Ramz (Barking) in February 1997, Khalid (Location) in February 1998. This makes me, at 30, feel ancient.

Dave, a young rapper who won an Ivor Novello Award for Best Song Musically and Lyrically with the seven-minute Question Time, appears on a NOW for the first time, featuring fellow rapper MoStack, with No Words. Other stars talking over beats effectively include NF (Let You Down), B Young (Jumanji), G-Eazy & Halsey (Him & I) and CLiQ ft. Alika (Wavey). Getting very rich very quickly, Post Malone was joined by Ty Dolla $ign on Psycho, while Drake features on the BlocBoy JB song Look Alive, driven by a looped piano but missing a chorus.

Dimelo by Rak-Su, featuring Wyclef Jean and Naughty Boy, was debuted on Saturday night TV: a Watford band with a Watford-based produced and a Fugee, with someone genuine and original. The debut album from the winners of The X Factor 2017 will emerge in 2018, and will build on the success of their hit, which aped the Latin influence of 2017 that Simon Cowell realised could make him some money. I preferred the Havana knock-off Mamacita.

Blinded By Your Grace (Part 2) is an anomaly on NOW 99. Its gospel feel, finger-clicking on the offbeat and massed choir outro helped bring it to the Radio 2 audience: grime had finally reached the middle of the road!

Stormzy had already had exposure on BBC 1Xtra, the urban station, with his freestyle skills and his campaign to get Shut Up to number one over Christmas 2016. In 2017, Gang Signs and Prayer emerged, an album of immaculately produced contemporary British rap songs. He appeared with David Beckham at an event for a sportswear company, made the NME apologise for putting him on the cover without his permission for a piece about mental health and was nominated for the Mercury Prize.

More than that, his BRIT Awards performance of his two big hits (this one and Big For Your Boots) gave him front-page headlines. He called out the Prime Minister on ‘the money for Grenfell’ as water poured down on him, alone at a microphone stand singing along with a choir wearing balaclavas covering their faces. It was broadcast on primetime on terrestrial television and remains one of the decade’s most brilliant performances of its kind. When he kicks into Big for Your Boots, he reminds me of the first time I heard Dizzee Rascal, but without the abrasiveness of Boy In Da Corner.

According to Dan Hancox, grime emerged through its environment, its power coming ‘from transmuting the anxiety, pain and joy of inner-city live into music’. It was a ‘sonically violent enactment of the claustrophobia of the inner city’, with a ‘collective spirit’ keeping the scene together even as it tries to expand beyond small postcodes in London.

Annoyingly live shows were tough to put on thanks to Form 696, where police could shut down an event if it posed a risk to the public; if so, they needed ‘the full names, addresses, telephone numbers and dates of birth for all of the artists and promoters’ or just their passports. It seemed racist, and it was, and the form was finally rendered unnecessary in 2017, just when MPs were pledging allegiance to the grime sound.

Stormzy is Britain’s most important popstar. He represents black youth in a time where, in 2018, sixty kids were murdered 110 days into the year, and in April 2018 the Prime Minister had to apologise to anyone of West Indian descent who was worried they would be deported from the UK due to a lack of paperwork, which the Home Office were alleged to have destroyed ten years ago. Remember how I said in the last essay I have never been ashamed to be British? I am now.

In his freestyle Stormzy referenced Daniel Kaluuya, the lead actor in Get Out, a black horror film that satirised race and privilege. At the same time, actors like John Boyega and broadcasters like Clara Amfo and Julie Adenuga were visible presences in the media and arts. Riz Ahmed, who won a drama scholarship to the secondary school I attended, is one of the most promising young actors in Britain, if not the world; there is a black editor of Vogue magazine in the UK, Edward Enninful, and the model Adwoa Aboah is everywhere in fashion. At long last, and with good reason, black men and women are being allowed (which is a verb I hope doesn’t come off in the wrong way) to succeed. In 2018, however, Lil Dicky can still mine a comic seam with Freaky Friday (not on NOW 99 because it mentions a very rude word), in which a Jewish boy wakes up the body of a black popstar who is still having hits despite hitting Rihanna.

In case you are wondering if Calvin Harris has made it onto a NOW from 2018, he has: The Weekend is a collaboration with SZA. It appears he has had 30 UK top 40 hits, though this track did not chart, a standalone single.

U2 in 2018 seem like an anachronism; they haven’t troubled the UK top 10 since 2007 (their 2009 single Get on your Boots stalled at 12), but they don’t mind so much as their heyday brought them 34 hits, including seven number ones. They remain one of the world’s greatest groups, worth their status alongside The Who and The Rolling Stones as great survivors. You’re The Best Thing About Me sees them return to a NOW and it’s a perfectly fine pop song with guitars.

30 years into her own career, and turning 50 in 2018, Kylie Minogue celebrated a number one album which included the mighty, country-tinged Dancing, with the double-edged hook ‘when I go out I wanna go out dancing’. Some of the album was written by renowned country producer Nathan Chapman. Aside from a run in the late 1990s where Shania Twain emerged, country has never been ‘it’. I am confident it will have its moment in the next five years, and on NOW 99 Florida Georgia Line feature on the pileup, or ‘orgy’, song Let Me Go with Hailee Steinfeld, Alesso and Watt.

Chris Stapleton co-writes and sings Say Something with Justin Timberlake, who released his fourth album Man of the Woods to coincide with his 2018 Superbowl Half-Time Show. Stapleton’s beard is more impressive even than Rory Graham’s, aka Rag’N’Bone Man, whose song As You Are sits between Wild Love, the return of James Bay who famously wore a hat to promote his first album and equally famously didn’t wear a hat to promote his second.

Maroon 5 also linger deep on the second disc, with a tune called Wait written by singer Adam Levine with Ammar Malik (Moves Like Jagger), J Kash (collaborator with Charlie Puth) and John Ryan (most One Direction songs). Maroon 5 used to be rock and now they are pop, which begs the question: is the rock band dead or just lumbering on waiting for an asteroid to hit it?

Maybe the asteroid has ‘Michael Omari, Jr’ on it: the name Stormzy was born with.

NOW 98: Dua Lipa – New Rules

It took the toss of a coin to determine the NOW playlist entrant for NOW 98. Iain Richards tossed and it came down on Dua Lipa, with New Rules, the sixth single from her self-titled debut. It sounded like female-dominated pop in 2017 and was a much-deserved first number one that kicked the door open fully for Dua to burst through. She was on the cover of GQ Magazine soon after, in which her parents kvelled, to use the Yiddish word for being proud of their progeny.

The coin helped Dua defeat the era’s most prolific songwriter to have ever come from Suffolk. Ed Sheeran played to over 300,000 over four June nights at Wembley Stadium in 2018, cementing his status as ‘the stadium busker’ with a spreadsheet on his laptop mapping world domination.

I admire musicians who, from an early age, know what they want to do. Britain doesn’t like musicians getting too big, and so Ed from Suffolk follows in the grand tradition of people who are ‘too successful’. Chris Martin from Coldplay, Bono from U2 and Simon Cowell from TV are three men who are hugely wealthy but much mocked in culture, Martin for his lyrics and ‘uncoupling’ from his Hollywood wife, Bono for his sanctimony and Cowell for making Robson & Jerome a chart-topping duo.

Ed from Suffolk played open mic nights as a teenager, building connections, discipline and resilience while improving his songwriting. Never mind Gladwell’s Ten Thousand Hour theory, Ed created his own story, not dissimilar to The Beatles in Hamburg or Ashley McBryde’s eleven-year stint playing dive bars before having her first big hit about a dive bar.

Ed is signed to Elton John’s management company Rocket Music, can sell out Wembley Stadium over multiple nights (as Elton did in the 1970s) and shifs millions of units (as Elton did in the 1970s) full of well-written songs about love and life (as Elton did in the 1970s, 1980s and up to the present day). Record sales in the UK in 2017 show Ed far, far ahead of second place. Taking silver was Ed’s mate Taylor Swift, on whose couch Ed had surfed on a visit to Nashville.

Ed Sheeran’s music is an example of the ‘monogenre’. His music is a little bit r’n’b, a little bit urban, a little bit Top 40, but also a little bit folk and country. From the time of his first album + (or Plus), Ed was equal parts Damien Rice and Damian Marley (sorry…), rapping along to an acoustic guitar like some ginger busker who could also write political songs like Small Bump and The A Team.

On x (Multiply), Ed went stratospheric thanks to Thinking Out Loud. When I first heard the song, I messaged the song’s co-writer Amy Wadge on Twitter congratulating her on writing the Song of the Year (it was). Amy goes over to Nashville several times a year to write with American acts, a move copied by writers usually based in Los Angeles or New York City. I know friends who go to Nashville once or twice a year who then build followings on both sides of the pond. If anything, Ed Sheeran blazed the trail; he is an admirer of country band The Shires and gave them a song, Stay The Night, that made it on the duo’s third album.

On his third album Divide, Ed outsold every other album in the world. My friend Angeline bought three copies of the album to take back home to East Asia. It included two tracks released on the sixth day of 2017 which dominated not just that week, or that month, but the entire quarter. Shape of You was number one in the UK for so long that it was able to be joined by the other fifteen tracks in the UK Top 20. No performer will ever match his nine songs in one Top 10 because the Official Charts changed the rules to ensure only three songs from one album charted at any one time. Ed Sheeran literally altered pop music.

Castle on the Hill (which was on NOW 96) was the other song released two months before the album came out, a song that included a namecheck for Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. The song that was the third single was Galway Girl and is on NOW 98; it is rooted in an Irish folk instrumental written by the band Beoga, who are all credited alongside Wadge, Foy Vance, Johnny McDaid and Sheeran on the track. It’s a country song: verse one sees Ed meet the girl in Dublin on Grafton Street; verse two sees Ed get trounced at both darts and pool before watching her sing and dance (‘a cappella…using her feet for a beat); verse three sees the closing of the bar and the close of the ‘perfect night’ that goes no further.

Many people, including Laura Snapes and Ed’s record company, did not like Galway Girl. The Unbreak My Chart podcast was launched on iTunes by Laura and her friend Fraser McAlpine in 2017, but the pair rapidly realised the Top 10 was not Sheeran-proofed. In any case, Laura accepted a job as Deputy Music Editor of the Guardian so could not dedicate the time UMC deserved. Fraser McAlpine, Laura’s co-host, came up with the term ‘The Ed Sheeran Singularity’ to mark the moment.

I like Ed Sheeran as a businessman and had a realisation when I wandered around Wembley just before one of his four shows. For every girl who was walking towards the event there was a guy, usually with muscles, tattoos and an expression of ‘doing the right thing for this one’. I realised Ed’s genius was not in combining rap and acoustic music, but in marketing: every girl wanted their boyfriend to tell them they ‘look perfect tonight’, were ‘in love with the shape of you’ and ‘played the fiddle in an Irish band’ (mmm…) and Ed was the soundtrack to their romance. Though the boyfriend may not like Ed banging on about takeaway pizzas or Doritos or Van Morrison or Damien Rice, he still bought a ticket to the show, because he was ‘doing the right thing for this one’. Ed also gives a shoutout to the ‘hero dads’ at his concerts; he is a businessman of the highest order who ought to teach at the BRIT School which (little known fact) he didn’t attend. Every musician on NOW 98 can learn from Ed from Suffolk, the market leader.

Post Malone, the white version of Drake, blethers monotonously over his UK number one Rockstar, a trap song which admittedly has good production as well as rapper 21 Savage. I prefer the three-chord marvel Havana, a step up in the career of Camila Cabello, who is assisted by Young Thug. Havana is part of the trend that is the result of music executives, in time-honoured fashion, demanding more of whatever just made their company a lot of money. In the Despacito mould are Mi Gente by J Bavin and Willy William (not a good name!!) and Reggaeton Lento by CNCO (pronounced ‘cinco’) and Little Mix, on a song that is sung in English and Spanish. Say the song’s title in a strong Scottish accent and laugh for weeks…

Sticking to the script and not going Latin are the following acts: Sam Smith returns with Too Good At Goodbyes; Charlie Puth is as addictive as ever on How Long; Clean Bandit team up with Julia Michaels on I Miss You (one of their best songs); and Pink blethers on about ‘searchlights’ on What About Us, a three-chord marvel that sounded great on the radio over late 2017, which saw me the most depressed I have ever been.

I was working at this job and then ten weeks later (it’s always ten weeks later) I wasn’t. The boss was woeful, the atmosphere was morgue-like and everyone leapt up at 5.30pm to leave. In December I was late in because of snow two days running, took the third day off and was fired on the fourth day. I was annoyed as I wanted to keep the job for the sake of the CV; in the end, I realised the world was unfair and I had to stop putting myself in stupid positions just to earn money. I would write songs instead, an activity that Ross Golan has said has a 95% failure rate: if one song is written every working day of a typical month, one in 20 songs might get cut by an artist. At least I would create something while failing and not have to play office politics, a game I always tend to lose. As for recruitment agents, I hope they enjoy their commission bonuses and office Christmas parties.

Zayn Malik and Sia, who need never work again, team up on Dusk Til Dawn, a song I never liked; Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj tell Taylor Swift (not mentioned in the song) to ‘retire’ on Swish Swish, a song I never liked; Maroon 5 do whatever the record company tell them to do and duet with new star SZA on What Lovers Do, a song I never liked; Louis Tomlinson takes the lead vocal on Back To You, a pileup of Bebe Rexha and Digital Farm Animals, a song I briefly liked because of the syncopated vocal delivery.

Old friends apart from Ed from Suffolk return: Jason Derulo (If I’m Lucky), Craig David (Heartline, where he puts his ‘heart on the line’ like he did back in 2000 when he had sex for four out of 7 Days), Demi Lovato (Sorry Not Sorry), Stefflon Don and French Montana (Hurtin’ Me, WITH NO G!!) and Charli XCX, with the video game-sounding Boys.

Remember the chap who hit Rihanna in 2009? Me neither, but he appears with Questions on NOW 98, which repurposes Turn Me On by Kevin Little. More Than Friends repurposes the lyrics of Don’t Let Go (Love) by En Vogue and is credited to James Hype and Kelli-Leigh, who sings competently.

Top dance anthems from the end of 2017 include Real Life, a massive banger from Duke Dumond, NAATIONS and Gorgon City, and the fun More Than You Know, a collaboration credited to ‘Axwell /\ Ingrosso’. MK took listeners back to the early 1990s with 17, thanks to uncredited vocals from Carla Monroe. The song was co-produced by Camelphat who, along with rapper Elderbrook, was nominated for an Ivor Novello Award in 2018 with the groovy Cola.

The Killers return to a NOW with The Man, which moved towards disco; Paloma Faith offered Crybaby, one of her better songs; The Script warbled their way through Rain (which was all over Radio 2); and Rag’N’Bone Man offered more of the same with Grace (We All Try). Returning to a NOW is Liam Gallagher with Wall of Glass from his album As You Were, which became his Twitter sign-off; Twitter was invented for mouthy acts like Liam, and he has earned a lot of money since going solo and exploiting the catalogue while also introducing some new songs co-written with top writers and producers. Brother Noel once called him ‘a man with a fork in a world of soup’; his own new material from the quirky album Who Built The Moon, released in 2017 too, is missing from NOW 98.

Several acts two-time. Liam Payne yells at the listener to Get Low on one of Zedd’s less good tracks (hey, not every one can be a hit…), then sings falsetto (badly) on the awful Bedroom Floor. Rita Ora offers the slight Anywhere and sings on the excellent Avicii song Lonely Together, while Khalid comes from nowhere to offer his own Young Dumb & Broke (was I young at 29? I was certainly the other two adjectives) and Silence, a track produced by Marshmello, another anonymous dance producer who two-times with Selena Gomez purring the song Wolves, ironic since she admitted suffering terribly from lupus.

Mabel McVey, daughter of Neneh Cherry, appears with Kojo Funds on the brilliant Finders Keepers. Another new name for NOW 98 was Alma, sounding like 2017 on Chasing Highs, while in UK rap Yungen and Yxng Bane teamed up on Bestie. Also appearing was Michael Daapah, who performed as Big Shaq and sang a song that had the chorus that said he would take off his jacket but Man’s Not Hot. It was a pastiche of grime and proves that whatever genre becomes big, it was always a safe, stupid parody that sold more than the harder-edge artistry. Stormzy would have torn his hair out if he’d had any!

Over in the States Lil Uzi Vert had a hit with XO TOUR Lif3, a song that takes the Drake template and runs with it, as so many hundreds of songs in 2017 did. Far more exciting, even though there was not much melody here either, was Bodak Yellow by Cardi B, a former stripper who looks set to be the key female voice of US hiphop in the next few years.

In the post-Trumpian world, young people were more aware of the world around them. Logic and Alessia Cara team up on a very important song which uses the Suicide Prevention Hotline number, 1-800-273-8255, as its title. It seems that, in the absence of leadership from the White House, popstars were trying to educate their fans on how best to deal with the pitfalls of life, much as grime stars did in the UK.

And I almost got through this essay without mentioning Little Bit Leave It, a song that capitalised on the bromance between Chris & Kem on the stupidly popular TV show Love Island. They will always have a NOW 98 appearance, which capitalised on their 15 minutes of fame.

NOW 97: Luis Fonzi featuring Justin Bieber and Daddy Yankee – Despacito

Summer 2017 can be summarised by one word: Despacito.

You heard it the first time and thought it was fine, then it got better with each listen. Luis Fonzi’s four-chord Latin pop hit was reworked for an anglophone market and with Daddy Yankee rapping and Justin Bieber singing in Spanish, Despacito was a global smash. It equalled I Gotta Feeling’s 16 weeks at the top of the US Hot 100 and topped the UK charts on three occasions between May 18 and August 17. Its total of 11 weeks makes it one of the biggest hits of all recorded time. Tushes were shaken and Bieber had yet another number one.

The song that Despacito knocked off the US and UK number one slot is also on NOW 97. DJ Khaled was famous for yelling three phrases: ‘We The Best Music’, ‘Another One’ and, famously, his own name. His 2017 album Grateful included the likes of Beyonce, Jay-Z, T.I., Drake, Rihanna, Rick Ross, Nas, Alicia Keys, Nicki Minaj, Calvin Harris, Future, Fat Joe, Gucci Mane and his newborn son Asahd. The big song was I’m The One, a four-chord marvel with verses rapped by Quavo (‘QUAVO!!’), Chance the Rapper and Lil Wayne, while Justin Bieber showed up to sing the irritating ‘oh-way-oh’ hook. I hated the song but loved the energy of DJ Khaled, who returns in 2018 with more of the same or, as he would put it, another one.

Also on NOW 97 is the number one by Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, who is no relation to any character on Coronation Street. Humble is a great song from DAMN, an album that would help him win a Pulitzer Prize for his great work with words. The song was replaced at the top by Peter from Hawaii, as Bruno Mars released the second single from 24K Magic called That’s What I Like, which had a gorgeous bridge and a tremendous middle eight.

Lady Gaga’s song The Cure, written with Willie Nelson’s son Lukas, was performed at Coachella, the festival for beautiful people in California, and released as a standalone single. Gaga headlined the 2017 Superbowl Half-Time Show, opening with a version of God Bless America pre-taped on the roof of the stadium and running through Poker Face, Born This Way, Telephone, Just Dance, the glorious A Million Reasons and Bad Romance, six hits that prove the durability of the star born Stefanie Germanotta. A horrible illness would derail her world tour, though A Star Is Born will send her back on the publicity trail in October 2018.

Justin Bieber – who will certainly headline a Superbowl show within the next three years, probably with DJ Khaled – showed up to record 2U, an execrable piece of music by David Guetta (who two-times but I’ll get to that later), while Mama bounces along thanks to Jonas Blue’s production and the vocals of William Singe. Calvin Harris put out the track Feels, as in the phrase ‘it gives me all the feels’ which idiots were saying during 2017, with vocals from Pharrell Williams (whose band N.E.R.D. returned in late 2017), Katy Perry and Big Sean, another ‘pileup’ or, as I call it, orgy. Katy two-times with the average Bon Appetit, a Max Martin track, and Max also co-writes Rockin’ (WITH NO G!!) for The Weeknd.

Clean Bandit follow up Rockabye with another great song called Symphony, with vocals from the ever excellent Zara Larsson. Anne-Marie & Mike Posner showed up on the dull Remember I Told You by Nick Jonas, which Nick wrote with Mike. Oddly, it was never released as a single and went to number 97 on streams, so why was it on a NOW if it wasn’t a hit? It just seemed to be brand awareness with a bit of a melody, something to flesh out the compilation. Nick’s fellow photogenic chap, Shawn Mendes, outdid himself with the outstanding There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back (WITH NO G!!), which is not fleshy at all and is all sinew and bone, muscular pop from a guy who has gone up in my estimation with every song he has released.

Miley Cyrus, who turned 25 in November 2017, returns with the languid Malibu. Fun fact: Billy Ray named his daughter Destiny Hope but she was nicknamed Smiley, hence Miley. She will have a terrific career now she has stopped swinging on wrecking balls, though her recent album Younger Now was not as successful as it could have been and she promoted it through a judging stint on The Voice.

Cowellpop was still going strong. Niall Horan had 2017’s biggest song on American radio with Slow Hands, a song I didn’t like at the time but appreciated enough to record a version as part of my 100 Songs from 100 NOWs project. His mate Harry Styles had a UK number one with a song that was compared to David Bowie (by idiots); Sign of the Times was long and dull and was allegedly about a mum having a difficult birth, which seems like fake news. James Arthur, meanwhile, popped up to moan his way through Sun Comes Up by Rudimental, which could have done with a better vocalist.

Olly Murs duetted with Louisa Johnson on Unpredictable and Little Mix two-time: on Power, featuring a rap from Stormzy (more on him later), they are exceedingly naughty (‘I’m a machine when I do it’), while they are poppier on No More Sad Songs, featuring a rap from Machine Gun Kelly, from Cleveland, Ohio. Future, from Atlanta, Georgia, appears on a NOW with Mask Off. He would end the year as a featured act on Endgame by Taylor Swift.

Nine writers came together to compose Swalla, a tush-shaking piece of pop from Jason Derulo featuring rappers Nicki Minaj and Ty Dolla $ign; Nicki would feature on a Taylor-baiting track by Katy Perry called Swish Swish, which is on NOW 98. Taylor’s ‘squad’, visible on social media, included Hailee Steinfeld, who appears with a song which could be sung by anyone – Most Girls, a self-empowerment song co-written with Ryan Tedder – and HAIM, who return to a NOW with Want You Back, one of very few songs led by a guitar riff on NOW 97.

Sia helped write Crying in the Club for Camila Cabello, who sings over the demo. Camila had split from Fifth Harmony, who try to keep their career going with Down, featuring Gucci Mane; Demi Lovato appears twice as a featured artist on No Promises by Cheat Codes (which is dominated by a chorus full of ‘na-na’s) and on the MNEK co-write Instruction by Jax Jones. The latter also has a rap from NOW newcomer Stefflon Don, as in ‘Stephanie from London’. Fellow UK rapper J Hus leapt out of radios over summer 2017 with Did You See, as another UK rap artist broke big with a predominantly white audience, following in the bootsteps of Stormzy.

Dance producers Martin Garrix (There For You, a duet with gay popstar Troy Sivan), Kygo (First Time, a duet with Ellie Goulding that is 99% something by The Chainsmokers, as if the world needs more of that sort of thing) and Sigala (Came Here For Love, a duet with Ella Eyre) return to a NOW, while Maggie Lindemann had her song Pretty Girl remixed by Cheat Codes & Cade. I was ambivalent about that song. I loved On My Mind by Disciples, which got my tush moving..

RAYE follows her guest vocal on Jax Jones’ big hit with her own tremendous song The Line, which shows a keen awareness of the recent output of Bruno Mars and pop music in general, making her a talent to watch. Neikid return, with help from Mimi, with Call Me, a dance-pop update on Call Me Maybe that sounds awfully like 2017. Bad Liar, the new single from Selena Gomez co-written by Julia Michaels and based on Psycho Killer by Taking Heads, was beloved by Fraser McAlpine, who helped me on the first three of my podcasts to go with this series of essays.

Along with fellow Cornish scribe Laura Snapes, Fraser presented the excellent, short-lived Unbreak My Chart podcast, which I adored listening to in spring 2017. Ed from Suffolk, whose music dominated the run of UMC and who will (at last!!) be discussed at length in the next essay, writes two songs for other people that make NOW 97. Strip That Down was a hit for Liam Payne featuring Quavo (QUAVO!) while Your Song was given, gift-wrapped, to Rita Ora. The song that was the only non-Sheeran song in the UK top ten the week Divide was released is on the compilation too: Something Just Like This took a great Chris Martin vocal and ruined it with awful squelches from The Chainsmokers.

Disc 2 kicks off with Unforgettable, a song I took a long time to warm to, by French Montana (‘Mon-TANA!’) and Swae Lee; I didn’t like the production on the vocal, until I heard it enough times and did. JP Cooper still receives a push on a NOW with the hugely melodic and whistle-tastic Passport Home, written with Jamie Hartman, who was counting his Rag’N’Bone Man money from Human.

The three members of Take That return with Giants, and it’s only fair for the compilers to include them after having Robbie on a recent NOW. I went to see the band perform the song for a BBC TV show and was struck by how professional they were, plugging their music (and appeasing Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) and forthcoming tour on primetime TV. Gary Barlow had spent the first quarter of 2017 as a judge on his own BBC TV talent show Let It Shine, as he and his band picked young lads to play a boyband who would sing Take That songs on a musical which would also appease the taxman.

2017 was marked by two awful tragedies in quick succession. A moron broke fire at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in May, killing girls who only wanted to dance to pop music. Ariana’s song One Last Time became the rallying cry of defiance, though it was not even on her current album, and that song closes Disc 1. David Guetta co-wrote it, which I didn’t know.

Disc 2 closes with a version of Bridge Over Troubled Water by Artists for Grenfell. Stormzy opens the track with a rap that notes, ‘That could have been my mum’s house, that could have been my nephew’, while WSTRN divide the verses with a rap of their own. There are also appearances from Tokio Myers (the piano-playing BRIT school alumnus who won Britain’s Got Talent 2017), Robbie Williams (who lives just up the road from the Tower), James Blunt, Rita Ora (who grew up in the area), Bastille, Craig David, James Arthur, Labrinth, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Leona Lewis, Jessie J, Ella Henderson, Louisa Johnson, Jorja Smith, Emeli Sande, Kelly Jones from Stereophonics, Paloma Faith, Roger Daltry of The Who, Anne-Marie, Nile Rodgers and a choir of children from local schools singing almost a cappella. The song shot to the top of the charts before being dislodged again by Despacito, an accurate summation of the general mood of London and Britain as a whole in summer 2017.

I have never felt ashamed of being British – I am a British Jew whose home has always been the UK – but I came close when it became clear that the victims of the inferno in the Grenfell tower block in West London were mostly of immigrant background. I hope that the Inquiry into the deaths of innocent people will bring justice and comfort to those who lost their loved ones, though I cannot be sure of anything these days. It ought never to happen again.

NOW 96: Sigrid – Don’t Kill My Vibe

Angeline was her name, a payment processor in the corporate action department of a big bank. She was in Canary Wharf for 12 weeks; I met her during the fifth and spent time with her for the remaining seven weeks. I will never forget those blissful hours, full of fun and laughter, and I am sad we could not make the relationship work when she returned home to Manila.

In pop, we have reached a third generation of popstar today: The Beatles begat George Michael (via Wham) who begat Sam Smith, for instance; Shirley Bassey begat Sheena Easton who begat Adele; ABBA begat Max Martin who begat Sigrid.

‘It is rare to witness a singer with such obvious star power who also seems so unassuming,’ wrote Will Hodgkinson in a four-star review of Sigrid’s show on July 11 2018, the day England played a World Cup Semi-Final. This led to the odd sensation of the show being sold out but half full; Sigrid will play London many times in the next few years and become a star so bright she will become her own archetype. Will also notes her dance routines, ‘somewhere between an aerobics workout and a hiphop video’.

Sigrid is from Norway, a country which has not made much of an impact on global pop culture. Probably they are best known for scoring ‘nul points’ in the Eurovision Song Contest on more than one occasion, but for me they are renowned for producing Bergen-born Sondre Lerche, the exciting singer-songwriter who started his career as a crooning teenager before producing wacky pop music and following his own muse, commerce be damned.

Sigrid, on Island Records, will be a popstar for many years to come. Like Lorde, she makes forward-thinking pop music which goes long on her personality. Like any young female musician, she has faced obstacles in her career, one of which led to the creation of the anthem of the current era and one of the best pop songs ever written. At the moment she is making some of the best pop music in Europe; along with Lorde and Childish Gambino, she is at the cutting edge of pop. I wonder if Max Martin will give her a call…

I’m watching her performance in Swansea in May 2018 as part of the BBC’s Biggest Weekend. She is on the small stage in a tent, in overalls. As with previous TV performances, such as her Jools Holland debut in 2017, she commands attention and looks like a star. The song is enormous, at odds with her tiny stature. I don’t like comparing artists to Bjork but Sigrid really can step into her shoes if she wants to explore artier music.

Don’t Kill My Vibe is found on NOW 96, which came out in spring 2017, nine months before Sigrid was named as The Sound of 2018. Hang on, I thought she had three radio hits in 2017… It turns out the criteria was that the act should not have had a top ten hit before November 2017. The Sound of 2017 poll had decreed that an act should not have had a top 20 hit. They should also not be ‘widely known by the UK general public’.

It was clear that Don’t Kill My Vibe, performed on TV and at festivals, being streamed millions of times, was a hit and that Sigrid was a known name. The charts were thus a poor metric, since they did not even count Youtube streams, something that would soon change.

The dominant sound of pop in 2017 was urban in flavour, in what was revealed to be identical to what happened in the USA when new methods of scoring hits in the early 1990s came through the SoundScan process. Country music also did well in the new system in 1991, leading to the phenomenon of Garth Brooks, but in 2017 country was slowly building its reputation. I enjoyed the 2017 Country2Country event at the O2 Arena, in particular the smaller acts playing the Indigo2. Radio 2 were throwing their weight behind both The Shires, whose second album had been promoted heavily in 2016 (but were beaten to the top by a chanteuse called Barbra), and Ward Thomas, missing from NOW 96 despite topping the album charts in 2016.

Here is a list of acts who all topped the album charts in 2016, some of whom had been on a NOW, some of whom had not: PJ Harvey, Radiohead, Paul Simon, Rick Astley, Blink-182, The Last Shadow Puppets, Michael Kiwanuka, Biffy Clyro, Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra, Frank Ocean, Barbra Streisand, Passenger, Green Day, Elvis Presley, Kings of Leon, The Rolling Stones and the duo Michael Ball & Alfie Boe. NOW was predominantly for singles acts like James Arthur, Little Mix and Ed Sheeran. Robbie Williams, bizarrely, returns with the ‘therapy session in a song’ Love My Life, from his own number one album from 2016, the year he turned 42. He was more known for his Soccer Aid games for UNICEF than for his current radio smash.

I wish the compilers of NOW would be braver and drop in more heritage acts into a compilation; who can say what would happen if a fan of Drake first hears the jazzy style of Paul Simon, or if Ed Sheeran’s loyal fans run into Biffy Clyro? Fraser T Smith has spoken of how young acts have never heard of the Eagles, an act with whom he is intimately familiar as a guitarist. Admittedly young folk born around the year 2000 are already doing that thanks to networks of friends posting Youtube clips, so I wonder how valid my argument is.

In spring 2017 the UK was in the grip of Edmania, thanks to the simultaneous release of the lead singles from Ed from Suffolk’s third album Divide: Castle on the Hill is track 1 on Disc 1 of NOW 96, while Shape Of You was deemed too ubiquitous (either by Ed or the compilers) to include. It was the most streamed song of January, February, March and April 2017, topping the UK charts for 14 weeks. It remains an addictive piece of pop; Johnny McDaid, Steve Mac and Ed will receive huge cheques every month for the rest of their life for writing a shuffling song about going out to a bar, meeting a girl and going out on a first date. So will the members of TLC, whose song No Scrubs is interpolated in the bridge: ‘you know I want your love’ is very close to ‘I don’t want no scrub’ in the post-Blurred Lines world.

The Weeknd drafts in Daft Punk on two immaculately produced tracks, both big radio hits. I prefer the soul of I Feel It Coming to the dance-pop of Starboy, but nobody was making pop music like Abel Tesfaye. Dua Lipa has a hat-trick: she appears on her own charming Be The One, and as a vocalist on both the Martin Garrix track Scared to be Lonely and No Lie, yet another hit for the Trojan Horse of pop, Sean Paul.

Returning to a NOW are The Chainsmokers (Paris, still dull), Zara Larsson (I Would Like, still fun), Jonas Blue (By Your Side), M.O (the sunny Not In Love, with a rap from Kent Jones), The Vamps (All Night, a duet with producers Matoma) and Katy Perry, on a track co-written with mighty Max Martin that was called ‘woke-pop’ because it mentioned that ‘we think we’re free’ while ‘crazy, living our lives through a lens. I love Chained to the Rhythm, featuring Skip Marley doing a rap about waking up lions, and especially admire the production. Katy’s Imperial Phase was over, however, and her fifth album, Witness, stiffed relative to her previous four, not helped by an odd livestream which helped (or hindered) the launch.

I loved Call On Me by Starley, which used a four-chord riff to get tushes shaking in early 2017, while even better was You Don’t Know Me by Jax Jones featuring Raye. Raye finished third in the Sound 2017 poll, won by Rag’n’Bone Man who seemed to have been around for a while in a rap guise. As Will Hodgkinson put it, why play to a few people above a pub when Rory from Brighton could take a major-label deal and sell out arenas? The voice was fine, but I gave up on the album when I realised it was ‘Sound Of music’. Human, the lead single, remains terrific, thanks to the writing of Jamie Hartman. The song was number one in Germany but was a victim of the Shape Of You hegemony in the UK. Skin, the follow-up also on NOW 96, was just dull but sounded pretty.

Touch by Little Mix is a formidable, filthy piece of pop: ‘fingers on my button’, ‘just a touch of your love’?! As their fans grow up, so the content can become risqué. I am still annoyed they have not released Oops as a single, but am delighted that four young women can play large arenas and teach younger women that hard word and persistence can pay off; the girls will pass the seven-year mark of their career in summer 2018, which is very impressive indeed.

Peter from Hawaii returned with an album influenced by Babyface, Jam & Lewis and Teddy Riley and took the GRAMMY hat-trick of Album, Record and Song of the Year in 2018 for 24K Magic, which is on NOW 96. His fellow GRAMMY winner from the past John Legend, who had worked with Lauren Hill 20 years before, brought out Love Me Now, which has a fun shuffle; John also appeared in the movie of early 2017, La La Land, which famously lost the Academy Award for Best Picture to Moonlight, a film about a gay black man.

In the clubs, Martin Jensen kept the tropical house beats rolling with Solo Dance, Kygo enlisted Selena Gomez on It Ain’t Me, which goes easier on the tropical beats, and Tom Zanetti features Sadie Ama on You Want Me. Zedd had another hit with Stay, a duet with Alessia Cara, who had sung the theme song from the movie Moana. You’re Welcome, a song written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and sung by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, is not on a NOW but was one of the big hits from the kids movie. Hamilton, written by and starring Miranda, swept the Tony Awards on Broadway in 2016, as it ought to. I caught the show in 2018 and all the reviews were correct; it is the most complete piece of art of this century so far, and I cannot wait for Lin-Manuel in the Dick Van Dyke role in the new Mary Poppins movie over Christmas 2018.

Louis Tomlinson, whose voice was the weediest of the five One Direction members, warbled along on the Steve Aoki club tune Just Hold On. Another former vocal harmony group member, Camila Cabello, pops up singing the chorus on Bad Things by Machine Gun Kelly, while Congratulations introduces non-fans of trap to Post Malone, a white version of Drake, and Quavo (‘QUAVOOOOO!’) from the band Migos. Future, an enormous trap star who released two albums on one day in 2017, guests on the Ariana Grande track Everyday.

Future pointed the way to the musical future; even though Drake is absent from NOW 96, his influence is omnipresent. Even Calvin Harris knows where the wind is blowing, drafting in Migos and Frank Ocean, appearing on a NOW for the first time, on the fun song Slide. David Guetta, who is 50 years old, features on the Robin Schulz song Shine a Light, which I never liked; Cheat Codes also pop up on the track. Major Lazer continues the pileup (or ‘orgy’) trend on Run Up, featuring both PARTYNEXTDOOR and Nicki Minaj.

Ina Wroldsen appears as a featured vocalist under her own name on the Martin Solveig song Places, with a bulletproof hook: she has written the likes of How Deep Is Your Love (Calvin Harris and Disciples), Then and Alarm (both with Anne-Marie), Symphony (Clean Bandit ft Zara Larsson), Hold My Hand (Jess Glynne) and Twilight (Cover Drive), Impossible (Shontelle, and James Arthur) and several tracks for The Saturdays.

Also stepping out of the writers room, Julia Michaels has got Issues (‘one of them is how bad I need ya’), on which it is clear that the future was here and its name was trap. The biggest trap hit of late 2016 became big when it soundtracked online videos of idiots standing like mannequins; even The X Factor got involved, as Simon Cowell kept copying trends to earn money and ratings. I had no idea what Black Beatles by Rae Sremmurd featuring Gucci Mane was about, but the processed beats were, and still are, not for me.

Sage The Gemini has a hit under his own name with the addictive, flute-led Now And Later, while Tinie Tempah toned it down a bit on Text From Your Ex, featuring a sweet hook sung by Tinashe on a song written by Ina Wroldsen, who thus two-times. Stormzy cements his underground success as he appears for the first time on a NOW with Big For Your Boots; more on him shortly.

Lorde’s second album Melodrama was well received, although Max Martin told Jack Antonoff that Green Light, the album’s first single which he co-wrote, had incorrect ‘melodic math’. In catalogue, Train pluck the classic song Heart and Soul and update it as Play That Song, which is irresistible and fun and has very good melodic math.

Two of the UK’s biggest artists are on NOW 96, one for wretched reasons. While Coldplay released the six-minute Hypnotised as the new hit from A Head Full of Dreams, Fast Love (Part 1) stands as a memorial to Georgios from Bushey. Christmas Day 2016 brought news of the death of George Michael, possibly Britain’s finest pop vocalist whose influence will linger for a long time.

NOW 95: Clean Bandit ft Anne-Marie and Sean Paul – Rockabye

I don’t know when the ‘pileup’ method of pop began to become commonplace, but in many ways it is a trend from the current digital era. Why include one act when you can have three, or even more? I call it ‘orgy pop’, although you may call it Pileup Pop.

Clean Bandit were known for drafting in guest vocalists such as Alex Newell and Jess Glynne, so the next step is to bring in two. Sean Paul and Anne-Marie take roles on the song for single mothers, Rockabye, and Iain Richards and I agreed that this should be the song that represented NOW 95 on the NOW playlist, which chooses one song from each NOW that is musically, lyrically, culturally and personally the ‘best’. Pick your own 100 yourself!!

Arguments for NOW playlist songs could be made for a host of songs from the latter half of 2016. James Arthur had been dropped for not selling records and insulting gay people on social media; nobody, not least Simon Cowell who discovered him, could have predicted a second act featuring the smash hit Say You Won’t Let Go, a four-chord marvel about fidelity. Little Mix launched their fourth album with the brilliant Shout Out to My Ex; the most controversial thing that had happened to them, besides Perrie breaking off her engagement with Zayn Malik, was when in one of their many (many!) interviews Jesy spoke in a Jamaican patois and set users of Twitter abuzz.

Only 12 songs topped the UK charts in 2016, thanks to streaming lending power to the fat end of the tail. Lukas Graham was a five-weeker, Mike Posner was there for four, James Arthur and Little Mix each at the top for three. Rockabye was the 2016 Christmas number one, proving that streaming had killed the Christmas number one as well…or had it?

Aubrey from Canada aka Drizzy aka Champagne Papi aka Drake had the hit of summer 2016 with One Dance, a song people would not stop streaming despite it having very little by way of melody; it was 99% bajon beat, stayed on top of the UK charts for 15 weeks and was a nine-week US number one before being knocked off the top by Sia and her Cheap Thrills (see NOW 94). The year’s longest-running US number one, with 12 weeks (it only managed four in the UK), was the infinitesimally dull Closer by The Chainsmokers featuring Halsey, which banged on about ‘never getting older’ in a song that sounded like Instagram set to music.

Ending Drake’s summer-long hegemony – even the charts made summer of 2016 a bust – Justin Bieber managed his second UK number one of 2016 after Love Yourself with Cold Water, a five-week chart-topper as part of a Major Lazer song where Mo had her second number one. Bieber did not slow down, two-timing on NOW 95 with his sixth big hit inside a year with another guest vocal appearance on DJ Snake’s Let Me Love You.

For those tallying up, the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir started the year at the top, then came Love Yourself, Stitches and Pillowtalk. There had been 25 songs at number one in 2015; as of July 12 2018 there have already been 10 chart-toppers, two coming from Aubrey from Canada. Something had to change, but it would not do so until a ginger bloke from Suffolk forced the hands of those who totted up the charts.

Also returning to a NOW are big stars of recent years. Emeli Sande got married and had a divorce in between albums one and two, and Hurts is the apt comeback song. Calvin Harris returns with My Way, a track with no guest stars and welcoming back his voice to his own music; he had become the richest DJ of them all and need never work again. He’d even hung out a lot with Taylor Swift, who spent 2016 taking a breather after a busy 2015 touring 1989. Lady Gaga, meanwhile, unveiled new album Joanne with Perfect Illusion, which is a neat summation, musically and as a title, of her career.

Like Ed Sheeran, who spent 2016 taking a ‘gap year’ from social media, I have an on-off relationship with sites like Twitter. Like human society, it thrives on gossip and bullying; in 2016, Stephen Fry quit the platform saying it had changed but popped up in July 2018 to praise the England team after their performance at the 2018 World Cup. In 2016 of course, a country with fewer than 400,000 people beat England in the European Championships; I ended the game laughing at our ineptitude. The summer of leaving the EU had got even worse: first Drake mumbling at the top, now Wayne Rooney reduced to park soccer player rather than the best English player of his generation…

The stories of Polish people being told to ‘go back home’ were unsavoury, as were my living arrangements. Why I decided to pay £670 a month to move in with a couple who were unsuited to each other, whose quirks grew tiresome after a while and whom I eventually did anything to avoid speaking to (was I spending time with my evil friend?) is easily explained: £670 a month to live in London is a bargain. I was desperately unhappy, spending days looking for jobs and waiting for work to come in. I even helped lug leaflets around when ‘on trial’ for a day at a shop down the road. I was paid £40 in cash, then not told that I had not been taken on until I chased up; they wanted someone more foreign. Brexit in reverse but I cannot blame them for hiring someone else.

I ended up seeing the same faces day after day in the library I lived next to, palming off suggestions from family to become a journalist or teacher. I was listening to a lot of country music and reading books, but I wasn’t earning much money, which was a problem. By this stage, I was barely speaking to my housemates and felt worse than ever. I had been duped, without real malice, by the guy I wanted to give my all for, though I have huge respect for anyone who can launch a business targeted at fans of Watford FC. In the meantime I had finished my own football book and wanted to promote it but had no energy to; I didn’t want to go out because I’d only spend money I didn’t have, and I didn’t want to stay in because it meant talking to my flatmates or listening to their stupid arguments.

Fortunately I met a lawyer whose name I won’t share. She was brilliant to me and we hung out; it turned out she was spending Christmas a mile away from me, so I met her parents on Christmas Eve (earlier than planned) and she met my family on Christmas Day. We saw in the New Year together in her London flat with her sister and her puppeteer fiancé, then ended the relationship three weeks later when it became untenable. I saw La La Land the day before I turned 29 and vowed that I would stop messing around.

Six weeks later I met another girl, but more on her later.

To music, and Christmas 2016 saw the deaths of Leonard Cohen and George Michael, who had both been on a NOW in some capacity. Donald J Trump won the US Presidential Elections and proceeded to undo eight years of work by the Democrats; what a stupid political system, but at least it gave us great satire in the shape of Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers and Saturday Night Live.

Meanwhile my dad had met a 35-year-old French woman and was about to move to New York City himself to live and work, fed up of the bachelor life in Berkshire with his boat, house and Mini. He craved the concrete jungle where dreams are made, where big lights would inspire him and where his girlfriend ran a vegan clothing business. That is, clothing sourced by sustainable means, not clothes for people who didn’t eat animals with a face.

Aside from the six number ones from the latter half of 2016, there are some top pop songs on NOW 95. I have recently got into Zedd in a big way, and Starving (credited to Hailee Steinfeld & Grey ft. Zedd) is a really great pop song that I have recorded as part of the 100 Songs from 100 NOWs series. It sits on Disc 1 alongside tracks by blokes: Olly Murs (You Don’t Know Love), Maroon 5 (Don’t Wanna Know, still doing whatever the record label tells them to), Charlie Puth (Dangerously), JP Cooper (September Song) and Shawn Mendes (Mercy, his best song yet).

Michael Buble returns with I Believe In You, another unabashed pop song (with a key change!) written by a total of nine people. His 2016 album Nobody But Me featured songs written by Brian Wilson (God Only Knows, the finest piece of popular music ever written), Ross Golan and the pairing of Harry Styles (still no solo album…) and Meghan Trainor. Mr Buble cancelled his 2017 tour to be with his son, who was diagnosed with cancer, but wowed the crowds in London in July 2018 with a super set which included Feeling Good, Haven’t Met You Yet, Sway, Crazy Love, Home, Everything and, of course, Cry Me a River, which has suffered death by X Factor.

Representing the ladies are Ellie Goulding (Still Falling For You, rotten), Louisa Johnson with So Good (which was), Zara Larsson (Ain’t My Fault, more Swedish pop) and Dua Lipa with the passable Blow Your Mind (Mwah). I preferred earlier single New Love. Fifth Harmony sung That’s My Girl, a song which provided the soundtrack to Team USA’s 2016 Olympic success.

Two new names which may well be around for some time pop up on NOW 95. Anne-Marie released Alarm, her first single as a lead artist, with the hook ‘there goes the alarm’. Her album would not come out until 2018, an enormous lead-up which copied the Clean Bandit approach: why bother with an album if people want tracks for their own playlists? Heloise Letitier could be one of her generation’s most vital performers; recording as Christine and the Queens, because she fell in with the drag queens in London, the now gender-fluid Christine re-recorded her French songs into English and hit big with Tilted in 2016, which was popular enough to make it onto NOW 95. It’s another song that sounded like nothing else on Radio 1 and was a rare song to leap from the leftfield playlist of 6Music to the Top 40 sounds of the UK’s state-run pop station.

Ariana Grande, whose career may last a while yet, is uncharacteristically crude on Side To Side, a filthy song more befitting the featured artist, Nicki Minaj. Nonetheless, it is another hit for Savan Kotecha and Max Martin, who had passed 60 US top 10 hits by the end of 2016. Craig David sung competently on All We Needed, the 2016 Children In Need single, but he was more comfortable on the Sigala track Ain’t Giving Up. Sigma employ Birdy on Find Me, while Martin Garrix drafts in Bebe Rexha on In the Name of Love.

Sia, meanwhile, made The Greatest, on which Kendrick Lamar appeared, thus gracing a NOW compilation for the first time. Kendrick’s incendiary rapping had made him one of the most epochal performers; his album To Pimp a Butterfly showcased the thoughts of a deep-thinking artist unafraid to be political. Alright remains one of the most important songs of the decade and was taken up by the protest group who had to point out, in a time of supposed racial equality, that Black Lives Matter. Offaiah also represented black lives on NOW 95 with Trouble, with grime not yet taking over the compilations; instead, Charli XCX brought her quirky pop song After the Afterparty to NOW 95, featuring rapper Lil Yachty.

To really irritate DJs, Mo two-times with her own excellent Final Song while M.O, a British girlband whose name is an acronym for Modus Operandi, had the equally fab Who Do You Think Of, their first UK top 20 at the fourth attempt and credited to eight writers including (remember him?) Ferdy Unger-Hamilton. His brother Gus’s band Alt-J had won the 2012 Mercury Prize and had gone onto an impressive career mostly catered to by BBC 6Music.

Iain Richards wanted to argue for Sexual by Neiked featuring Dyo as a playlist pick, a song that was never my favourite because of the falsetto chorus; it was nonetheless nominated for an Ivor Novello Award in 2017 as Best Contemporary Song.

Catalogue comes from two inspiration sources: Mark Morrison inspires The Mack by Nevada, where Mark is credited along with Fetty Wap as the 20-year cycle returns; Bob Marley is evergreen, inspiring a LVNDSCAPE & Boiler remix of Is This Love. Other dance tracks come from Cash Cash & Digital Farm Animals (Millionaire, featuring old NOW staple Nelly), Matoma & Becky Hill (False Alarm, another stunning vocal from Becky), Wilkinson featuring Karen Harding (Sweet Lies) and the awesome Galantis & Hook n Sling with Love on Me, which was always fab that year on Radio 1, brightening up my pathetic existence.

Two One Direction lads appear on NOW 95: Zayn sings on Cruel by Snakehips and Niall Horan closes Disc 2 with an acoustic guitar in his hand and melancholy in his voice. This Town sounds a lot like Ed from Suffolk, who was plotting his return for the start of 2017.

Meanwhile I was sitting waiting for work to come in, hoping like so many other people, many who supported the Democrats or those wishing for Britain to remain in the UK or those who pledged musical allegiance to David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen or George Michael, that 2017 would be better than 2016.

NOW 94: Viola Beach – Boys That Sing

It’s tough to explain what being in a band is like unless you have been in it. Though I know several groups (one of whom has just come onto the coffee shop’s speakers as I edit this piece!), I admit that I am not much of a team player, for reasons of nature and nurture, though that will change as I write more songs with other people (hit me up @jonnybrick if you write too!).

I admire anyone who is part of a group of people pursuing a common cause, be it in a school, hospital or business. In rock music, transferring energy through melody and lyric is a magnetic feeling and many are still attracted to it, although not as many as the time before Snapchat and Youtube. Some do it because they fancy travelling, playing music on every continent; others are content to make it a hobby, something to pass empty evenings and weekends, playing covers and adding joy to local folk.

Viola Beach were kids who, like so many others in 2016, were going around Europe playing gigs. One winter day they were in Sweden and fell to their deaths. Their final gig was on February 12 2016; the website Setlist.fm lists nine songs which they played including Boys That Sing, the single; the previous month they had played Radio X, the station for blokes in London, and played both KOKO, the massive venue in Camden Town and Nambucca, which had been a haunt for countless indie bands and acts including Frank Turner. Frank who writes about the Nambucca spirit in his memoir, which is a primer in how to become an independently minded rock musician. Viola Beach were well on the way and it remains a travesty that they died before they could get there, though their debut album was a posthumous number one when it was released.

When they headlined Glastonbury in 2016, Chris Martin told the crowd of thousands that they were substituting their cover of “Heroes” by David Bowie. His voice cracking, he tells the story of Viola Beach, ‘a band that just got signed and were on their first tour of the world’. Reminded of how they got their start before they became Coldplay, the band decided to ‘let them headline Glastonbury for a song’. Coldplay performed Boys That Sing as a virtual duet, with the band’s parts doubled and the music video played onscreen before Chris Martin took the second verse. It was a tremendous gesture which must have given solace to the band’s families. Chris Martin, who became ‘too successful’ in about 2004, will step into Bono’s shoes whenever U2’s frontman can rock no more. U2 are the archetype, Coldplay the second coming. The band’s Up&Up (with no space!) closes Disc 1 of NOW 94 in tribute to their headline set and is placed immediately after Boys That Sing.

The sound Viola Beach made was similar to the likes of Bombay Bicycle Club, Two Door Cinema Club and Foals: jerky guitar-led pop with a strong sense of melody and arms-round-shoulders choruses. Guitar music was still a soundtrack for youngsters, but they were more likely to have their generation’s version of the guitar: the smartphone with websites like Youtube (for videos), Spotify (for music) and Instagram (for photos). The world was in their pockets so why did they need to go to a club, shopping mall or cinema to meet people when they could continue their Snapchat streaks, browse ASOS (As Seen On Screen) or fire up Netflix?

Truly this was a different age to the one I grew up in, with MSN Messenger, slow broadband speeds and John Peel on the radio. Now everyone was John Peel, investigating the music of today and yesterday. Record labels had less money with which to develop talent, while the end of 2016 saw a trend for people whose popularity had come via Youtube release items full of words on paper. Authors tore their hair out: so all I have to do, they thought, is blether on about make-up, do silly challenges, prank my friends and confess my deepest secrets and only then can I get a book deal?

As you can tell, at 30 I have figured out much about the world (I have so much more to discover and I’ll never learn it all!!) but I do know that a hit is a hit when it has insistent hooks, some form of backbeat and, sometimes, a good salesman selling the heck out of it.

NOW 94, celebrating the music of summer 2016, contains another host of faces ‘selling’ their product, devised in writers’ rooms or production studios, which will be played on the car radio, in people’s earbuds or in a live space. Some of these faces wanted you to have a good time, not least Max Martin, whose 22nd number one was sung by a chap who sung some of his second. The marketing campaign for the movie Trolls centred around the early release of the movie’s theme, Can’t Stop the Feeling, sung by Justin Timberlake. It contained a brilliant bridge, a sweet chorus, some falsetto vocals and, on the line ‘got this feeling in my body’, Hook B in the final half-minute.

Taylor Swift wrote This Is What You Came For under a Swedish-sounding pseudonym and those are her vocals poking out of Calvin Harris’s number one hit, featuring Rihanna. Her song Bad Blood (not on a NOW) topped the charts in 2016 and 1989 would go on to win the Album of the Year GRAMMY at the start of 2016, as planned. (Adele famously beat Beyonce in 2017, with both of them too big for a NOW.)

Rihanna, meanwhile, passed on Cheap Thrills, a song about not ‘needing dollar bills to have fun’ written by Sia. The Australian singer put out a whole album of rejected songs, This Is Acting, and had an enormous hit with Cheap Thrills, a duet with Sean Paul, who by that stage had had 21 UK top 40 hits, which he seems to have done by stealth. Hair, on which he sang with Little Mix, was number 22 and sounds like a quirky album track elevated to the status of ‘fourth single on an album’, which it was.

We should have sent Sean Paul out to fight for the campaign for Britain to remain in the EU. Eventually, and with much controversy and absenteeism from young people, it was decided by popular vote that Britain should leave the EU. I don’t know if that brought back my evil friend, but it certainly didn’t help my mood. I remember uttering the four-letter word Hugh Grant utters several times at the start of Four Weddings and a Funeral when discovering the news, and summer 2016 was dominated by the Brexit shenanigans. And, of course, the death of Prince in April at 57 years of age. He will go down as pop music’s greatest, most demanding entertainer, excelling even James Brown.

The music on NOW 94 helped those in mourning of Prince (never on a NOW as a lead act but sampled on occasion) and mollify people who voted to remain and who had to accept the consequences of the stupid referendum that divided a nation. Years & Years included Tove Lo on the brilliant Desire; Clean Bandit had another hit with Tears, featuring X Factor winner Louisa Johnson who, as of July 2018, is no longer signed to Simon Cowell’s label; The Chainsmokers had another hit, featuring the vocals of Daya, with Don’t Let Me Down, which was annoying but not even their most annoying song of the year.

The old dance trio who each had one name are back together on NOW 94. Sigma and Kygo respectively enlist Take That on the euphoric (all their tracks are euphoric!) Cry and Irish rock band Kodaline on Raging. Sigala two-time with tunes that call on two musical heroes: Say You Do enlists Imani Williams and DJ Fresh on a song with a tropical feel which interpolates the hook of the Mariah Carey song Always Be My Baby, giving Say You Do a total of ten writers; Give Me Your Love is a terrifyingly good song featuring both John Newman and Nile Rodgers.

Dance bangers from the middle of 2016 included Sex by Cheat Codes, on which Kris Kross Amsterdam wanted to talk about sex, quoting Salt N Pepa’s famous song. Dua Lipa, meanwhile (and I will get to her at length eventually), was Hotter than Hell and Selena Gomez sang Kill Em With Kindness, a t-shirt slogan of a song. Tinie Tempah had Wizkid for company on Mamacita.

Jonas Blue return with an original composition, Perfect Strangers, with JP Cooper, who gained plaudits when I spoke to Lauren Housley in June 2018; they had both been on the same circuit in their early days. Having signed to a major label, this was their way of ‘testing’ JP Cooper in the market. Meghan Trainor, who had been launched so well in 2014, had a big hit with No, which I didn’t like at the time but have come round to; LA Reid, her boss, sent Meghan her album back and told her to write a hit, meaning that No is a hit inspired by the word ‘no’!

I took to another hit song much more quickly: I remember being in the car (it was a hire car because I’d sold mine in 2015) listening to Radio 1 and This Girl came on. Credited to Kungs vs Cookin’ on 3 Burners (WITH NO G!!), I immediately thought that this would be a UK number one. I was right, but then any idiot with ears could have said the same thing.

As someone who worked from home, I smiled at the Fifth Harmony (featuring Ty Dolla $ign) song Work From Home, with its idiotic ‘work, work, work’ hook. As someone who likes cake and the ocean, I went wild for the funky Cake by the Ocean by DNCE, the band formed by Joe Jonas; his brother Nick had also enlisted Tove Lo on his song Close. Equally bouncy was Good Grief, the return single from Bastille, and We Don’t Talk Anymore, by Charlie Puth featuring Selena Gomez, which I recorded as part of the 100 Songs from 100 NOWs series.

Max Martin has yet another hat-trick with two familiar faces. Just Like Fire by Pink was from the Tim Burton movie Alice Through the Looking Glass, while Dangerous Woman and Into You are both songs by Ariana Grande. It’s hard being a popstar, as evidenced by the penpic of Ariana who ‘released her second fragrance, launched her debut makeup collection…and launched her debut fashion line’ as well as put out her third album. She is now engaged to be married to comedian Pete Davidson; will she choose a Max Martin song for her first dance?

It’s a good NOW for fans of photogenic gentlemen: Shawn Mendes is on with Treat You Better, while the fourth single from Justin Bieber’s album Purpose is Company. The act who ought to have won The X Factor in 2015, the ever-smiling Reggie ‘n’ Bollie, had their first single New Girl hit the charts. Calum Scott won hearts on the 2015 version of Britain’s Got Talent – a more reliable ratings winner for Cowell than The X Factor which in 2016 was limping towards its 13th series – and put out what Peter Robinson of Popjustice calls a ‘sad lad’ cover of NOW playlist entrant Dancing On My Own by Max Martin’s mate Robyn.

Good news too for fans of will.je.suis, who has writing help from Charli XCX and drafts in Pia Mia to sing Boys & Girls, which samples a Kylie Minogue track and sees will.je.suis move with the times and use a less subtle beat on one of his best songs in years. If you are wondering if David Guetta is on NOW 94, he is: Zara Larsson pops up on This One’s For You, which sees Guetta chasing the tropical house trend and, though the song is fine, his Imperial Phase is over.

The teenager Desiigner bought a beat, rapped over it on Panda and obtained the patronage of Kanye West, who included a full minute of the track on his latest artistic statement, The Life of Pablo, launched at a fashion show. His Imperial Phase was over, reduced to being mentioned in the penpics; I miss the old Kanye, to quote the egomaniacal rapper.

Even Craig David was more popular on NOW compilations than Kanye: Craig two-times with a solo song One More Time (which threw back to his heyday with The Artful Dodger, a sound Disclosure had brought back into the charts) and a duet with Blonde on Nothing Like This. He spent most of summer mixing his DJ sets with touring his UK number one album Following My Intuition.

More fun was Don’t Mind by Kent Jones, a song with a chorus that included the word ‘hello’ in French, Japanese, Spanish and Haitian creole (Sak pase? N’ap boule means ‘What’s up? All good!’) that leapt out of the radio. Less fun was the moaning I Hate U, I Love U by rapper Gnash featuring Olivia O’Brien on the chorus; I prefer the ode Odi et Amo by (my main man) Catullus, which says the same thing. I could certainly empathise with Galantis, whose massed choir sang that they had No Money.

2016 also saw a businessman from New York take the Republican nomination for the US President. I was glued to three or four US talkshows, cycling through the videos uploaded onto Youtube before I settled down to work. I had started a new job that I don’t particularly want to talk about – the guy who took me on didn’t particularly want me to talk about it, or even give me any work to make the job worthwhile – but it led to me driving up to Sunderland the day I launched my book to the world.

At some point (okay I’ll talk about it), I had 200 books in Watford, 56 books in Wimbledon and no paid work for weeks. I was more angry that I hadn’t had as much work as I thought, since I had told the eBook business to take their books and shove them, and I was paying £1050 a month for the flat, which I moved out of because they raised it to £1100 without due cause. I’ll tell you more about my next place of residence in the next essay.

The point I was going to make was that Donald Trump appeared on Saturday Night Live and danced to Hotline Bling by Drake, which is on NOW 94. More on Mr Trump and Aubrey from Canada, amusingly lumped together, in the next essay; what a shame Viola Beach could not write songs about Donald J Trump.

NOW 93: The 1975 – The Sound

NOW 93 was released in spring 2016. It contains only 44 songs, two fewer than NOW 92. Straight outta Christiania, a commune in Denmark, Lukas Graham’s chubby face toured the world with 7 Years, which was successful enough to make track 1 of Disc 1 of NOW 93 and was a favourite of kids aged seven and of their parents, who heard the melancholy in the song. I dock it points for containing my least favourite motif: ‘Mama told me…’ I will never write a ‘mummy/daddy/grandma told me’ song, but I will write songs that look back on being a child, which was a simpler, happier time.

Justin Bieber has two number ones on the compilation: Sorry, written with Julia Michaels, and Love Yourself, written with Ed Sheeran and more or less a duet because Ed’s vocals are still on the track. Love Yourself (originally F— Yourself) replaced Sorry at the top of the US Hot 100, which had brought Adele’s dominance to an end. Work, by Rihanna featuring Aubrey from Canada, started a nine-week run of its own just as I launched a Popular Song podcast from Blastocyst.org.uk. I never liked Work (where was the melody?!) but it had the right amount of Drake on it and he can sing. In a contest between the Biebs and Drake, I pick Max Martin’s latest hit.

Biebs gave his blessing to A Bridge Over You – a version of Paul Simon’s contemporary hymn Bridge Over Troubled Water – upon learning that staff from Lewisham and Greenwich hospitals had come together to save the status of two South London hospitals which were scheduled, but for their intervention, to be amalgamated, causing headaches for regular users. The song was the 2015 Christmas number one.

David Bowie, who could probably afford private treatment, appears on NOW 93 for wretched reasons, but the song “Heroes” remains one of his most durable songs and probably the most popular ever to be on a NOW. It had soundtracked the entrance of British athletes at the London 2012 Olympics and was produced by Brian Eno, who saved David’s career when drugs threatened to kill him in his late twenties back in the post-Ziggy days of 1977. Cancer struck David Bowie down at 69, following the release of an album whose cover was a black star. History will declare Bowie as someone who followed his muse; like Kate Bush or Bjork, he was a visual artist also working in sound whose work travelled around the world. His son Duncan Jones has gone into the movie business and has to answer questions about his late father in every interview; such are the perils of being descended from a popstar. My dad was in the suit business, so I am fine in that regard!

In January 2016 I had broken up with Amanda, who returned to the USA. I was working on A Modern Guide to Modern Football, my big book on Watford FC and football as a whole. I also combined forces with two even bigger Watford fans on a podcast venture which has kept me sane over the last two years. The Ronny & Ramage podcast began in February 2016. I had bumped into Paul ‘Bodie’ Tucker at an event in 2015 and in early 2016 he revealed he wanted to present a podcast about Watford FC and football with his brother Gary. I said we should do one at once and we are still going, with a loyal online audience who appreciate an independent view on their beloved Watford, who survived the first season back in the top division in 2015/6 and even played an FA Cup Semi-Final at Wembley Stadium (four visits, only one win). Send us a message on Twitter @Ronnyandramage and catch up with two years’ worth of pods at soundcloud.com/ronnyandramage.

Also back in the top division (of pop) was Craig David. (You will miss these segues…Only eight essays left.) At the time he was actually resident of a hotel at Heathrow because he whizzed around the world DJing. In 2016 the time was right to return to the charts with songs like When the Bassline Drops, which also introduced Big Narstie to many people. Since 2016, the chubby rapper has become a light-entertainment star with his own Channel 4 show which also promoted his album. The first guest on the show was Ed from Suffolk, who is godfather to Big Narstie’s daughter.

Returning acts on NOW 93 include Jess Glynne (Take Me Home), Charlie Puth (One Call Away), James Bay (If You Ever Want To Be in Love), Ellie Goulding (Army), Shawn Mendes (solo this time, with Stitches), Major Lazer (the bouncy Light It Up, featuring Nyla and Fuse ODG) and Olly Murs, with Stevie Knows. Fun fact: when I was a contestant on Popmaster on BBC Radio 2 in February 2018, I did not know he sang the song which was on the Radio 2 Playlist at the time. I still got my ‘One Year Out’ T-shirt.

Olly was now six years into a career which shows no signs of slowing down. I have written at length about archetypes and called Robbie Williams a sort of Ringo Starr figure; Olly Murs is one step removed from that, a version of a version of an archetype. Jason Derulo is one of many singer to plunder the toybox of Michael Jackson but sing and dance brilliantly; he appears on his own Get Ugly (with a ‘diddly’-tastic post-chorus) and as a guest on Secret Love Song by Little Mix. The Weeknd, one of many self-absorbed popstars in the pre-‘woke’ era, is also a version of a version, half-drawling and half-singing his way through The Hills, a song I admired rather than loved.

Rapper G-Eazy gets Bebe Rexha to sing a fantastic hook on Me, Myself and I, which is a song that encapsulates the three obsessions of young people at the time before political activism became a trend when some Republican got into the White House and Britain’s old people outvoted the young people in a big debate on the island’s future, to put it insanely reductively. Pop is ‘small-p’ political, rather than about Politics, but the trend will continue in the next decade as people try to shape the world they live in and hector dissenters about what they ought to think. It’s rather Orwellian…

The one-word dance acts Sigma (Coming Home, with Rita Ora), Sigala (the brilliant Sweet Lovin, WITH NO G and vocals by Bryn Christopher) and Kygo (Stay, featuring Maty Noyes) are all present on NOW 93, as are The Chainsmokers, who have stopped taking a #SELFIE and team up with ROZES on a song called Roses. Robin Schulz was also all over Radio 1 with Sugar, featuring the vocals of Francesco Yates, while AlunaGeorge draft in Popcaan on I’m In Control. Silento tries to prolong his 15 minutes of fame – now 15 seconds in the era of Youtube – by singing on the Dawin song Dessert.

Zayn Malik, as Zayn, suffers so badly from stage fright that he is often unable to perform. He is a super vocalist, as shown on his debut single Pillowtalk, which was the first debut single by a British artist to enter the Billboard Hot 100 at number one. His old friends put out the last single with History, a fun acoustic song that has a great chorus; One Direction would go on hiatus, without officially splitting up, in summer 2016.

Showing no signs of stopping are Coldplay, whose A Head Full of Dreams album included Hymn for the Weekend. The song continues Beyonce’s run of guest appearances as she blethers on about being ‘drunk and high’ (not with a young baby she won’t be, but I think it’s a metaphor). The song is produced by both Stargate and Avicii; it didn’t fail. Avicii is namechecked on In Ibiza (as per the radio edit of the song I Took a Pill in Ibiza), which brings Mike Posner back into the hit parade on a bittersweet song which is actually about the perils of club culture.

Perhaps Mike knew that excess would kill Avicii, and that life was better in writers room than on big stages. I wonder if he can buy a house thanks to the billion (1,000,000,000) streams of the song (fun fact: he can’t, because of punitive royalty rates!). He tweeted that a ‘new album is on the way’ back in March 2018.

The Sound of 2016 longlisted Dua Lipa, J Hus and Mabel (more on all of them shortly) but it was Jack Garratt, a bedroom musician from Hertfordshire, who topped the list. I loved his song The Love You’re Given and millions more went wild for his sounds, such as Worry, which mixed beats and sweet vocals and is on NOW 93. Second was Alessia Cara, whose song Here is also there, blethering over the familiar loop from Isaac Hayes which was also sampled by Portishead on Glory Box. The lyric, following Lorde and others, took a jaded view at teen parties; was this a marketing angle or a universal truth?

Other catalogue on NOW 93 included more songs that put dance beats under old sets of lyrics: Jonas Blue did it with Fast Car, with the vocals of Dakota, and 99 Souls took The Boy is Mine by Brandy & Monica, took out Monica and replaced them with Destiny’s Child. The result, The Girl Is Mine, was a club banger. Alan Walker was another Scandinavian bloke with a laptop; I never liked his song Faded but millions more did.

I liked two songs on the compilation more than the rest. Both can be classed as rock but are actually just pop with guitars. Elle King is the daughter of actor Rob ‘You can DO IT!’ Schneider (I have just discovered the line is from the movie The Water Boy!) and I loved her Ex’s & Oh’s, another song I first heard on America’s Greatest Hits before it swept across to the UK, where Elle found her ‘better lover’. Her album Love Stuff was great and she is still working on the follow-up.

The 1975 have readied albums three and four, following the international success of (breath) I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It. My ears were working when I messaged Mike Crossey, the producer of The Sound, the album’s second single, telling him it was Song of the Year. It remains a bouncy, frantic song which mentions the word ‘epicurean’. It peaked at 15 in the UK, which makes me want to borrow Mark Radcliffe’s words about it being impossible that there were 14 better songs that week. The public had failed to make a great song a ‘hit’ but then what was a hit if people weren’t buying music? I will try to answer this question in a later essay.

Another rock number one first heard on Paul Gambaccini’s show was by twentyone pilots, from Columbus, Ohio. It was so rare to see a song written by one person and Tyler Joseph wrote every note of Stressed Out, one of the big singles from blurryface, himself. Mike Elizondo has the great feat of producing both this song and many of Eminem’s finest, such as The Real Slim Shady; he can also walk unmolested down a street, something Tyler may not be able to do after a few years touring the world. In July 2018 he and twentyonepilots announced new music. Trench will emerge in October 2018.

Two-timing on NOW 93 with her own Lush Life and singing the hook on Girls Like by Tinie Tempah is super Swede Zara Larsson. I love Lush Life, one of my songs of 2016, because it bounced into life and had several hooks. Another dance-pop song that did so well that it won an Ivor Novello Award was All My Friends by Snakehips; the song featured young singer Tinashe and an independent rapper from Chicago named Chancellor aka Chance the Rapper. Chance released free mixtapes early in his career, donates large sums of money to social projects and refuses all major-label advances. I would say he is an archetype and I will follow his career with interest.

In case you are wondering if David Guetta wrote anything on NOW 93, he did: Bang My Head features both Sia and Fetty Wap, two acts I don’t believe would have met were it not for David Guetta. In case you are wondering if Max Martin wrote anything on NOW 93, he did: Selena Gomez wrote Hands To Myself with Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels, a song that gets better with age.

In case you are wondering if any stars of the 2014 X Factor have anything on NOW 93, they do: Fleur East sings Sax, which is 100% Uptown Funk. The 2015 Contest was won by Louisa Johnson, which I momentarily forgot.

NOW 92: The Weeknd – Can’t Feel My Face

The credits listing the writers of the songs on NOW 92 are not printed in the booklet, breaking a tradition that stretched back to 1983, even if they had been printed in a tiny font for several editions. Instead there was adverts for Now That’s What I Call Sing and for four NOW compilations (Christmas, Party Anthems, Disney AGAIN and 80s AGAIN). There was also a contest to win a 40-inch-screen TV, which obviously seemed more valuable to promote in the booklet than give props to the writers of some of 2015’s most brilliant pop songs. The link that sends a listener to the credits is now broken. The penpics, happily, remained to give a short summary of who sang which song.

Even an alien can tell that Max Martin’s fingerprints are all over some of the tracks on NOW 92, released in time for Christmas 2015. You will know if you have read these essays at length that Max Martin is the Lionel Messi of popular music. He has had 22 US number one hits, 18 sung by female voices. The four sung by blokes are It’s Gonna Be Me (*NSYNC), One More Night (Maroon 5) and his most recent pair, Can’t Stop the Feeling (Justin Timberlake) and Can’t Feel My Face by Abel Tesfaye aka The Weeknd.

Formerly a purveyor of slow ballads, The Weeknd had his first commercial splash with Earned It, from the Fifty Shades of Grey movie (never on a NOW). Can’t Feel My Face was an addiction song that was heavily rotated on the radio as I kept editing books and realised my relationship was dead.

The song begins with the vocal at the top of the mix, with just atmospheric synths behind it; the chorus comes in with just the drum shuffle and hooky bassline, the vocal double tracked before the drums cut out for a bar of a cappella delivery and the verse then repeated with a lyrical variation over the drums. Then the synths return for the recap of the bridge (‘she told me don’t worry…’) before the chorus. The Max Martin-patented Hook B appears during the third chorus immediately after the second, giving the chorus lyric a new melody, which is followed by four bars of vocalisation and synths, then comes the bridge, with a few extra beats tacked on, and the chorus a couple of times. It ends with a ‘hey’ and then the listener, addicted, puts the song on again. Max has another number one hit and all is right with the world of pop.

The Weeknd begins a successful few years as one of the dominant voices of pop, but Max Martin would only add one more US number one to his tally. Shaad D’Souze wrote a piece on Vice magazine’s Noisey music service asking whether Max had lost his touch, since no song of his topped the charts in 2017. Yet he had music on hit albums by his three main collaborators: Pink, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. Composer Owen Pallett likened Max’s melodies to those of ‘an architect’s pencil’.

As the author of the piece notes, some of 2017’s biggest hits were ‘all lyrics’ like Bodak Yellow by Cardi B. When Max tries this, as he does with Taylor Swift, it is ‘a facsimile of icy, unemotional trap’. In an era of streaming, lyrics are more vital than ever, even more than a hooky melody. In the melodic era, before streaming, Max was Messi; in the new era, the likes of Drake are the new breed. The conclusion is that Max is out of vogue but ‘trends in pop are cyclical’ and there is every chance Max can have his third golden era.

Aside from Can’t Feel My Face, Max and his mate Savan Kotecha make three other appearances on NOW 92. They co-write the perky On My Mind by Ellie Goulding, the gorgeous Cool For the Summer by Demi Lovato and the beyond funky Focus by Ariana Grande, which borrows from her song Problem and features Jamie Foxx yelling ‘focus on me’ in the chorus; all three artists get co-writing credits on their hits, as Abel Tesfaye did on his. This was another summer where Max Martin’s sound dominated Top 40 radio (as it is called in the US) or Radio 1.

Taio Cruz is one of seven writers on Kiss Me by Olly Murs, which takes the vibe of Can’t Feel My Face, removes the references to addiction and asks a girl to ‘kiss me like you mean it’. Dr Luke is one of five writers on the execrable Locked Away by Rock City, recording as R City, a song on which Adam Levine lowers himself to featured vocalist. Ross Golan is one of four writers of Wake Up by The Vamps, while it took seven people including Julia Michaels and ‘Sir’ Nolan Lambroza to create the sultry Good For You for (and with) Selena Gomez, which featured popular rapper A$AP Rocky. Being 27, I had no idea who A$AP Rocky was.

I knew of Fetty Wap when I heard the awful Trap Queen (a song about drugs that was driven by a trap beat), while I knew of Silento after hearing the even worse Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae), another song that was more dance routine than pop song. I preferred Glitterball (Sigma featuring Ella Henderson) and WSTRN (In2), while Ed Sheeran two-timed on Rudimental’s great Lay It All On Me as well as his own Photograph, complete with a lyric about ‘ripped jeans’.

Little Mix (Love Me Like You, another Camille Purcell tune) and One Direction (UK number one Drag Me Down, their worst single) also appear on NOW 92 representing Cowellpop, as do 5 Seconds of Summer with the pop-punk She’s Kinda Hot, written by the Madden brothers from Good Charlotte. Charlie Puth has a hit under his own name with Meghan Trainor popping up on the second verse of Marvin Gaye on which he quotes four Marvin songs including Got To Give It Up, the song which was proven to have inspired Blurred Lines enough to give Marvin’s estate a lot of money.

Straight covers of catalogue come from Grace, featuring rapper G-Easy, on an interpretation of You Don’t Own Me (a hit in the 1960s for Lesley Gore) and from Aurora, the latest beneficiary of a sync on a John Lewis Christmas advert. This time, Noel Gallagher’s song Half The World Away, an Oasis B-Side which was the theme to the TV show The Royle Family, was chosen to get tills ringing over Christmas 2015.

Fully five songs take an old piece of catalogue and twist it into new shapes: Sigala take ABC by The Jackson Five and turn it into a number one hit called Easy Love; Philip George and Anton Powers take Be Alone No More by Another Level, put a dance beat underneath it and title it Alone No More; Joe Stone borrows This Is How We Do It, puts a dance beat underneath it and title it The Party; Diplo and Sleepy Tom take Don’t Walk Away by Jade, put a dance beat underneath it and title it Be Right There, while Felix Jaehn enlisted Jasmine Thompson on a dance-pop cover of Ain’t Nobody (Loves Me Better) by Rufus & Chaka Khan, a song which has recently been ruined by an advert for a travel agent. Chunky by Format B samples Function at the Junction by Shorty Long and sounds great in a room playing house music at a club.

The man whose music dominated NOW 81 to 90, as Max Martin has dominated two ‘decades’ of NOWs, was also all over the radio again. Calvin Harris enlisted Disciples on How Deep Is Your Love, where Calvin himself pops up warbling through a vocoder. The song is followed by Runnin’ (Lose It All) – WITH NO G! – by Naughty Boy. The female vocalist on the track is Beyonce, back on a NOW again and now a mother to Blue Ivy. Arrow Benjamin’s contributions are as essential to the track (he sings verse two) as the former Destiny’s Child member; the inlay booklet alerts purchasers of NOW 92 to the fact that Shahid aka Naughty Boy won Deal Or No Deal, which was still a fixture on Channel 4 in 2015 but had outstayed its welcome.

While X Factor 2014 winner Ben Haenow was duetting with Kelly Clarkson on Second Hand Heart (which sounds like a Simon Cowell version of pop in 2015, complete with tropical house beats, atmospheric vocals and on-the-beat drums), Stormzy was building a name for himself with songs like Know Me From while Skepta was preparing his album Konnichiwa, which would win the 2016 Mercury Prize for Album of the Year. The real anthem of 2015 was his song Shutdown, which is nowhere near NOW 92. Skepta’s brother Jamie, recording as JME, teamed up with Youtube video gamer KSI, from Watford, on Keep Up, co-written by rapper Sway and JME. Naughty Boy is not the only Watford-based act on the compilation. Where was Elton John to complete the hat-trick?!

It may seem innocent but this grime sound, pioneered by Stormzy and Skepta, was the true sound of British music. All it needed was a pretty face; Skepta was from the ‘ends’ of Tottenham and had an air of menace, and that is without going into the problems posed by large gatherings of black youths to listen to grime, which (to be facile about it) was very tough to do because of the gangs who were all into the same music. A new book on the grime scene, Inner City Pressure by writer Dan Hancox, is out now.

Pianist-chanteur Benjamin Clementine won the 2015 prize, beating Ghostpoet, Aphex Twin, Slaves, C Duncan, Eska, Roison Murphy (formerly of Moloko), Gaz Coombes (formerly of Supergrass), Jamie xx, SOAK, Wolf Alice and Florence + The Machine. An act could remain independent and have a successful career, supported by the likes of BBC 6Music and labels like XL, Domino, 4AD and Song by Toad records, the label run out of Edinburgh by my friend Matthew Young who celebrates ten years of pratting about with a run of gigs in 2018. None of his acts have ever been on a NOW…yet.

Massive tunes that powered me through the working day as I listened to Radio 1 included Here For You (more of the same from Kygo, with added Ella Henderson on vocals), Turn the Music Louder (Rumble) by KDA featuring Tinie Tempah & Katy B, Peanut Butter Jelly by Galantis, Talk To Me by Nick Brewer ft. Bibi Bourelly (which had shades of Craig David) and Intoxicated by Martin Solveig & GTA, perfect ‘Chris Stark music’ for bouncing about to in a club while being intoxicated.

The most outstanding tune of the era was Never Forget You which paired the production of MNEK and a new vocalist from Sweden named Zara Larsson. More on her shortly. Wretch 32’s song Alright With Me featured PRGRSHN and, despite being written by Emeli Sande, featured a hook sung by Anne-Marie. More on her shortly. Pia Mia was another young vocalist, reminding me of Lumidee with her hardly there voice on Do It Again featuring Tyga and some chap who once hit Rihanna. No more on Chris Brown shortly.

Plenty will follow on Justin Bieber, who turned 21 in 2015 and announced himself to an adult audience with three number ones from his album Purpose. I was clamouring for Justin to make some music befitting of his undoubted talent; he is an amazing drummer and co-wrote every track on Purpose. What Do You Mean became his first UK number one, topping the charts on three occasions for a total of five weeks. Easy Love by Sigala first deposed then was deposed by it. The same fate befell Sam Smith with his Bond theme.

Bond themes come around every three years or so; the next one is due in 2019, and I would favour a female voice, perhaps Shirley Bassey once more. After interesting themes by Madonna, Chris Cornell and, strangely, a collaboration between Jack White and Alicia Keys, Bond went for a ballad with the excellent Skyfall by Adele (not in any NOW in 2012 or 2013). Radiohead submitted their Bond theme for Spectre, which was rejected, and was given away for free as a download at the end of 2015. Sam Smith sang the theme proper, using the familiar chords and warbling on about risking it all; his falsetto was gorgeous but I never liked Writing’s On The Wall. Sam two-times with Omen, reunited with Disclosure who also had a good 2015 but not quite ‘Bond theme and squillion-selling album’ good.

Among the other 46 songs packed into NOW 92 are ballads from Years & Years (Eyes Shut), Birdy (Wings, very tender) and Jamie Lawson, who rose from absolutely nowhere as an Ed from Suffolk-approved artist to have a number one with his open mic smash Wasn’t Expecting That, a proper song with a twist at the end that captured hearts. Like Foy Vance’s album, Jamie’s music came out on Gingerbread Man, a label run by his former open mic circuit chum.

Another self-empowerment ballad made it all the way to number one in the US: Fight Song by Rachel Platten compared a girl to ‘a small boat on the ocean sending big waves into motion’. Along with Roar by Katy Perry, it is perfect for a montage of women playing sport, coding computers or being terrific.

Another terrific woman reintroduced herself in late 2015 with one word: hello. Adele from Tottenham returned with her third album 25, which was the biggest selling album in both 2015 and 2016. She was not on a NOW but everyone owned the album anyway. Adele, like Bruce Springsteen and Madonna, was too big for a NOW.

NOW 91: Little Mix – Black Magic

The inlay booklet to NOW 91, a collection of songs that were huge in the post-Uptown Funk world of summer 2015, contains a double-page computer-generated picture of a series of water slides. Music has always had a social function, be it to soundtrack chattering networkers in a salon in Georgian England, get people through picking cotton in the Deep South or have something to nod along to while taking drugs in the rock era. In 2015, pop music was like a sunhat; you put it on and went outside to play.

There are several big sunhats, or tunes, from summer 2015 here. I recall that Kanye West headlined Glastonbury with his massive ego, England’s Ladies football team lost in the last minute of their World Cup Semi-Final to Japan and I celebrated Watford’s promotion to the Premier League. Otherwise I spent it watching Netflix with Amanda in our four-room flat in South Wimbledon. She wrote chapters of her book and earned no money, I read chapters of books and earned money. It was stressful to deal with a lettings agent rather than a landlord, and I vowed never to rent a property through a lying, deceitful agent who assured me the landlord was in the country and didn’t alert me that workmen would be present for a year building an extension to the law firm we lived above. (I could have chosen to live somewhere else, so on my head be it.) The head of this agency, which was named after a famous South-West London postcode, once accidentally sent me a lewd picture and has been fined for trying to trash another agent’s reputation. All I wanted was a place to live; instead I barely existed and, without warning, my old friend moved back in to stop me enjoying life. There was only room for two in the flat; three was a crowd.

As I continued to write my football book, I listened to lots of music, especially the Radio 1 playlist, which in summer 2015 included tracks written by James Bay (Let It Go), Hozier (Someone New) and J Kash. The funniest pop song of summer 2015 was by LunchMoney Lewis with Bills, co-written by Ross Golan’s great friend Jacob ‘J Kash’ Kasher. The poor chap is hungry but has to ‘work, work, work every day’ to pay all his bills and ‘make sure everybody eats’. The chorus is driven by an infectious piano hook while LunchMoney sold the song and made it his own. I’d put him through to Boot Camp.

J Kash also helped Carly Rae Jepsen follow up Call Me Maybe. He is partly responsible for the electrifying I Really Like You, beloved by my friend Iain Richards. I tasked Iain to help me pick the final ten playlist songs for the NOW playlist. At this point I will thank Fraser McAlpine, Chris Imlach, Polly Holton and Adeel Amini, as well as Iain, for giving up their time to help me in my silly project. You can hear our discussions at soundcloud.com/jonny_brick.

Our playlist choice was from Little Mix, the girlband of the era, stepping into the vacuum created by the departures of Girls Aloud and The Saturdays. Black Magic was the first single from their third album Get Weird; a three-week UK number one, it is 99% Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (I’m not complaining). It is a superb confection written by four writers including Camille Purcell and Ed Drewett, who were essentially staff songwriters for whomever Simon Cowell wanted to make money off. Aston Merrygold from JLS had gone it alone, but Get Stupid is just that.

Iain was only 17 when these songs emerged in summer 2015 but he was a huge pop fan. He also advocated See You Again by Wiz Khalifa, with a hook written and sung by the young music college graduate Charlie Puth. I noted Ross Golan’s successes in the last essay and Ross had Charlie on a great episode of his And The Writer Is… podcast; Charlie sent the song’s demo off to the record label thinking someone like Justin Bieber would record over his part. In the end, they kept it in and See You Again, a song from the seventh Fast & The Furious movie which was released after the death of its star Paul Walker, took over the world after Uptown Funk. It stayed at the top of the US Hot 100 for six weeks before being displaced for a week by Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar – thanks to the release of the video of Bad Blood, featuring Taylor’s ‘squad’ of women – then reigning at the top for six more weeks. Thus it topped the charts for 12 weeks and became the American version of the Robbie Williams song Angels.

Then came six weeks (interrupted by Max Martin and his friend Abel Tesfaye, more on whom next time) of Cheerleader, remixed by Felix Jaehn and sung brilliantly by Jamaican singer OMI. The song had been number one in the UK in May and June, and eventually toppled Wiz and Charlie in late July. Was reggae back?!

Max Martin wrote Love Me Like You Do by Ellie Goulding, from the movie Fifty Shades of Grey, and Tove Lo two-times having also written that song and Talking Body, her own hit and another Popjustice pop classic that deserved to be even bigger than it was. It was produced by Shellback, who spent 2015 counting all the Taylor Swift money. No track from 1989 appeared on a NOW, but then it sold 10 million copies so everyone owned Shake It Off, Blank Space and Bad Blood. Jason Derulo had a four-week UK number one with the brill pop song Want to Want Me.

Better than all of those tracks was a song by Major Lazer & DJ Snake featuring Mo. Lean On was the streamed more often than any song in 2015 (Taylor Swift kept her music off Spotify and sold 10 million albums…) because it was so infectious. The inlay booklet says the trio, made up of Diplo, Jillionaire and Walshy Fire, took ‘the best elements of EDM, dancehall, hiphop and pop’; they would have more hits but none as ‘earth-shaking’, to me, as Lean On, which I have never not loved. It is one of the decade’s finest pop songs.

I recorded my version of another, Shut Up And Dance, by Walk the Moon. I first heard it on America’s Greatest Hits, the Radio 2 show presented by Paul Gambaccini, as the number one in the rock charts, though it’s a pop song with guitars. Rock, as I have written, is now as heritage a genre as romantic classical music.

When it sailed in at the top of the UK charts, Black Magic had deposed a dance track called House Every Weekend by David Zowie, which is present on NOW 91 along with fellow number one Not Letting Go, a summer smash sung by Tinie Tempah on the verses and Jess Glynne singing a great hook. Michael Jackson’s brother Jermaine is credited since the track samples There’s a Better Way. It became Tinie’s sixth UK number one and the fourth for Jess.

In summer 2015 the ‘stadium busker’ Ed Sheeran headlined Wembley Stadium, supported by OneRepublic. He was the first solo performer to headline there since Elton John 40 years before him; Elton went on to declare his bisexuality, which ended his Imperial Phase, while Ed had a bit too much fun and took the whole of 2016 off. Nobody has heard from him since (!). He appears on NOW 91 in a duet with Rudimental on his song Bloodstream, written with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol (whose depression derailed his career) and Johnny McDaid. On Disc 2 is the other act supporting Ed at Wembley, Northern Irish cult hero Foy Vance who sings on the Rudimental track Never Let You Go. I had been introduced to him by Matt Livingstone, from Foy’s hometown of Bangor, back in 2007 at the Fresh Air music team. Foy is staunchly independent and, in a just world, would sell as many records as Ed. His great third album The Wild Swan was released on Ed’s Gingerbread Man imprint.

Returning to a NOW are Years & Years (the Greg Kurstin co-write Shine), John Newman (the Greg Kurstin co-write Come and Get It, on which he sounds like he’s found a donut on the vocalisation before the chorus comes in), Meghan Trainor (Motown pastiche Dear Future Husband) and Florence + The Machine (Ship to Wreck, where she sounds shipwrecked).

Jessie J delivers a song co-written by Sia and Sam Smith called Flashlight from one of the summer’s big movies, Pitch Perfect 2, a movie about a cappella contests and directed by Elizabeth Banks, who it must be noted is a woman. One of the stars of the Barden Bellas, the group who sang their version of the song during the movie, was Ester Dean, who watched her co-star Hailee Steinfeld have the pop career she (scandalously) has not yet had. What will it take to make Ester Dean a star?!

Iggy Azalea continued her career with Trouble, co-written by Judith Hill, herself a session vocalist who would have sung with Michael Jackson at his London shows in 2009. Iggy’s career would be stymied by accusations of cultural appropriation that seem both stupid and unfounded; Jennifer Hudson, who became a judge on The Voice UK, adds her soul to Iggy’s rap. Rita Ora appears with Poison, which is written by a young lady called Julia Michaels with Kate Nash (that Kate Nash!): ‘I could have beer for breakfast, my sanity for lunch’ is a heck of an opening line on a song that explodes on the title line and introduced the world to Julia’s songwriting. Maybe she can help make Ester Dean a star…

Nolan Lambroza, whose stage name is Sir Nolan, was the third writer on Poison and also wrote and produced Jealous for Nick Jonas, breaking away from his brothers. The chorus is one of the best of the year, while the production is contemporary and forward-thinking. He is an interviewee on And The Writer Is…; now I know what he has produced I can listen to the interview, which I skipped at the time, foolishly!

Nick’s fellow heartthrob Justin Bieber is moving into the Imperial Phase of his own career by warbling over cutting-edge EDM tracks. Where Are U Now is credited to Skrillex & Diplo and features elephantine woodwind. Stargate write Worth It, the latest hit for Fifth Harmony (featuring Kid Ink), while the girls’ fellow teenager Martin Garrix enlists Usher on Don’t Look Down, co-written by busbee, who was spending 2015 writing songs with young country music starlet Maren Morris over in Nashville, which had its own serial drama on US TV which I used to watch with Amanda. There are three centres of pop music in the USA: New York, as it always was; Los Angeles, as it always was; and Nashville, Tennessee.

Originally a county hit for Easton Corbin, Are You With Me was remixed by Lost Frequencies and became a UK number one. The song was co-written by Shane McAnally, whose name is misspelt as ‘McAnnaly’ in the booklet. Shane wrote with Maren’s fellow Texan sweetheart Kacey Musgraves on songs like Follow Your Arrow, one of the decade’s greatest pop songs and never on a NOW. Shane is openly gay and has written for the likes of Old Dominion, Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban; Kacey, who headlines Wembley Arena in October 2018 as part of her European tour, is being positioned as an act who can hook pop fans to country sounds. Expect to hear her song High Horse on NOW 101, if the stars align.

Catalogue also makes an appearance on Somebody, a radio-friendly ‘terrific two’ sung by Natalie La Rose which featured Jeremih interpreting the Whitney Houston song I Wanna Dance With Somebody. Jeremih two-times as a guest on the Krept & Konan song Freak of the Week, credited to 12 writers because it samples Who Am I (Sim Simma) from The Roots, whose UK chart career consists of two top 40 hits including The Seed (2.0), the track that introduced me to the power of Tariq ‘Black Thought’ Trotter’s lyrics and Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson, the modern-day Funky Drummer. Lethal Bizzle, meanwhile, takes a break from selling merchandise with the word ‘dench’ on it with his song Fester Skank, featuring producer Distortion.

Simon Aldred had written People Help The People, a hit for Birdy when she covered it, and the openly gay Simon writes and sings Waiting For Love, a brilliant hit for Avicii co-written by the two-timing Martin Garrix. Galantis have a big hit with Runaway (U & I), a club smash, Pep & Rash fill clubs with Rumours and Ane Brun adds a lyric to the Dr Kucho! & Gregor Salto instrumental Can’t Stop Playing (Makes Me High), remixed by Oliver Heldens.

Five More Hours was written by Julian Bunetta and John Ryan with Chris Brown (you know my feelings on him by now) that was credited to Deorro x Chris Brown since it was a remix of the Deorro instrumental Five Hours. Show Me Love, meanwhile, was more catalogue: a slowed-down version of the Robin S anthem by Sam Feldt (featuring Kimberley Anne).

Blonde recruit Alex Newell to bring his almighty voice to All Cried Out, and the latest Clean Bandit hit is Stronger, also featuring Alex (uncredited, scandalously). He appeared in the TV show Glee as someone to rival the voice of Amber Riley, who was clearly to be the breakout star of the show with her equally mighty pipes.

Pipes of a different kind are used by Kygo, who have summer 2015’s two omnipresent hits which are both on NOW 91. Firestone is the one that included the lyric ‘We light up the wooorld! sung by Conrad Sewell while Stole The Show has Parson James lamenting a lost love. Both songs are classed as ‘tropical house’ thanks to the choice of instrument used on the melodic hook of the song, which is more memorable than whatever the vocalist is warbling on about.

Fun fact: Michael Harwood, whom I mentioned as former member of Ultra who went to my old school, co-wrote Stole The Show, which was recorded at his Tileyard Studio complex in Kings Cross, London. The inlay booklet notes that Kygo appeared in the Radio 1 Live Lounge, which has replaced Top of the Pops as the BBC’s top place for popstars to promote their latest tunes. BBC 1Xtra launch the careers of rap stars with their Fire in the Booth segment; Drake brought fire to the booth on July 14 2018.

The new trend sweeping through EDM would be the pileup, or ‘orgy’ as I call it. David Guetta doesn’t just get Afrojack onto Hey Mama but also brings in Nicki Minaj and Bebe Rexha on the irritating but infectious tune which I never liked. I don’t know why Verdine White, bassist of Earth Wind & Fire, needed to team up with Flo Rida and Robin Thicke on I Don’t Like It, I Love It, another track that took the Get Lucky/ Uptown Funk formula of funky guitar and rapping, but I am sure Verdine’s accountant was happy.