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.