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.