Now 86

now86It’s odd how this time last year there were worries that Now 83 would be the last Now album ever. That didn’t happen obviously, we had the usual three releases plus many spin-off albums, and a TV documentary celebrating 30 years of the compilation, and in the last month the launch of a music TV channel. They seem to be wanting to milk the brand if anything.

The album cover for Now 86 is dark blue and white, and it’s funny how they’ve released a Now Disney Princess album, as this cover reminds me a bit of Disney’s Cinderella. They’re clearly going for a Winter Wonderland feel. Glistening snowflakes, a bright white moon, snow covered trees, and idyllic scenes of people ice skating, and some London landmarks. The US equivalent, Now 48, has exactly the same cover but with New York landmarks instead of London ones.

I’d say Miley Cyrus was the Emperor’s New Clothes, but we all know she isn’t wearing any. Look, maybe I’m just getting old and out of touch, but why is the world giving her so much attention for doing little more than running around naked like the Foreign Exchange Student from Not Another Teen Movie. Her track on this album ‘We Can’t Stop’ is awful. The production has everything but the kitchen sink thrown in, but it sounds very monotone despite that. It would be my least favourite track on the album if not for a song that sounds even more like a load of random cacophonous noise, ‘Booyah’ by Showtek feat. We Are Loud & Sonny Wilson.

Jessie J’s ‘It’s My Party’ has been compared to ‘We Can’t Stop’, they both have similar lines. ‘It’s My Party’s chorus goes “It’s my party/I’ll do do what I want”, and ‘We Can’t Stop’ has “It’s our party/we can do what we want” running through it, although Jessie J’s track is more like P!nk’s ‘Get The Party Started’ or ‘Raise Your Glass’ in sound. Jessie J’s song wasn’t as big a hit, but I like it more than ‘We Can’t Stop’. At least Jessie J actually sounds defiant and like she’s enjoying herself. Miley Cyrus doesn’t really sound like she’s having a good time on ‘We Can’t Stop’. If anything, she sounds a bit depressed. (1)

If it’s not enough we have a bland cover version by whoever wins X Factor to er, look forward to every December,  another depressing Christmas tradition that’s becoming just as inevitable is a dreary lifeless cover version by a breathy voiced girl with a piano for the John Lewis Christmas advert. This year it’s Lily Allen croaking her way through Keane’s ‘Somewhere Only We Know’. I don’t know why they didn’t just use the original, or, if it had to be a female vocalist, Laura Michelle Kelly’s cover of the song is much nicer.

There might be many things you could accuse OneRepublic of, but failing to use a sound that’s popular is not one of them. Their previous biggest UK hit was ‘Apologize’ in 2007 which featured Timbaland back when it seemed every hit song featured him in some way. Now they sound a bit like a catchier, poppier more radio friendly version of Imagine Dragons, and have managed to get their first UK number one with ‘Counting Stars’.

As well as OneRepublic, there is pop-rock on this album by boybands with instruments Lawson and The Vamps. One Direction don’t play instruments (yes, I know one of them played an acoustic guitar on that song Ed Sheeran wrote for them or something, but I mean as a regular thing) but pop-rock seems to be the sound they are going for, with ‘Best Song Ever’ as many have pointed out, sounding very like The Who’s ‘Baba O’Reilly’.

Indie rock is represented by the Arctic Monkeys, with their rather fine track ‘Do I Wanna Know’. A strange thing about the Arctic Monkeys is, while all their albums have reached number one, their singles fortunes have been up and down. In the late 2000s they started out having lots of top ten singles, including two number ones (‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ and ‘When The Sun Goes Down’, pub quiz fans). But after 2010 their singles stopped reaching the top 20, until this year for some reason when they had ‘Do I Wanna Know’ reach number 11.

Singer-songwriter James Blunt, who like the Arctic Monkeys broke though into the mainstream in 2005, followed a similar pattern. Had a few top tens in the 2000s, then when the new decade arrived some of his singles didn’t even chart, until this year when his campfire-ish track ‘Bonfire Heart’ got to number 4. It was released in late October, in the run up to Bonfire Night on the 5th of November, maybe that had something to do with it becoming a hit.

We have another James on this CD, last year’s X Factor winner James Arthur with his first ‘proper’ release outside of his winner’s single. It’s a shame he seems to be such a dickhead really, as ‘You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You’ isn’t bad. It’s probably the best release by a male X Factor winner. Unlike the songs that were released by Shayne Ward, Joe McElderry, Matt Cardle or Leon Jackson for their first (and last in Leon’s case) albums, it sounds current. (2)

In fact, ‘You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You’ sounds very like a, somewhat watered down, version of John Newman’s songs with Rudimental, or his solo ones like ‘Cheating’ on this album. John Newman’s voice is raw, yet powerful, and ‘Cheating’ has an urban sound with brassy backing. The trend for urban acts to have jazzy trumpets in their music is still going strong. Hip hop act Rizzle Kicks make a lot of use of brass sounds in their tracks like ‘Lost Generation’, and there are examples of many other hip hop/R&B acts doing that on this CD, such as Jason DeRulo – ‘Talk Dirty’, will.iam – ‘Bang Bang’ (3) and Eliza Doolittle- ‘Big When I Was Little’. But some hip hop/R&B acts are still using moody electronic dance backing tracks too, on this album we have Drake – ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home’ , Tinie Tempah feat. John Martin – ‘Children Of The Sun’ and Sean Paul – ‘The Other Side Of Love’.

Minimalist electro-dance seems popular in general at the moment. For me the two best dance tracks on this album are ‘Wake Me Up’ by Avicci, which is very classy and has a county-ish guitar and soulful vocals by Aloe Blacc, famous for his hit ‘I Need A Dollar’. It has more lyrical depth than most dance tracks. That said, the other dance track I really like is an instrumental, chart topping house track ‘Animals’ by Martin Garrix, which is very catchy full of icy beats and electronic bleeps.

Speaking of animals, there are a lot of animal motifs on this CD. Bruno Mars has ‘Gorilla’, (according to the CD booklet, while it’s not the title track it is why he has a gorilla on the cover of the album it is taken from Unorthodox Jukebox). Katy Perry has ‘Roar’, where she dresses in leopard print and compares herself to tigers and lions. The video for Storm Queen – ‘Look Right Through’ features a bloke dressed up as a cartoon snow leopard. Then there’s the animated bear and the hare from the overhyped John Lewis advert, but the animal that occurs most often is a fox. We have to acts with fox names (Foxes and Ray Foxx) and we have Ylvis with their track ‘The Fox (What Does The Fox Say?)’.

The Ylvis track is kind of this year’s ‘Gangham Style’, in that’s more of a viral You Tube video than a hit song really, even though in both cases people liked and bought the songs. Ylvis are a Norwegian comedy duo who created the video to publicise their chat show and never expected it to be as big as it turned out to be.  I was never that much on the ‘Gangham Style’ bandwagon last year, but I really like ‘The Fox (What Does The Fox Say?)’, it is very funny.

They say celebrities have massive egos but severely low self-esteem, and Lady Gaga’s ‘Applause’ very much seems to demonstrate that, where she talks about how talented she is, but needs applause from her fans. It’s a good song, but what’s often a problem with Lady Gaga is the spectacular visuals often distract from her songs, and with ‘Applause’ the video and her elaborate face make-up on the cover of the track are more interesting than the track itself.

I think Lady Gaga opened doors for more quirky female solo singers to become popular, but whether that is the case or not, there are a lot of them having big hits at the moment. This album includes Lana Del Rey with a dance remix of her song ‘Summertime Sadness’. Foxes, who was mentioned earlier, is just a solo female vocalist rather than a group, and appeared on electro-dance producer Zedd’s top 40 hit ‘Clarity’. Foxes had an even bigger hit herself, ‘Youth’, which is on this album. She has a very nice voice, the backing track sounds very ’90s indie-dance. And then there’s Maud Lorde, not to be confused with Eurovision 2006 winners Lordi, who are a Finnish metal band. Lorde is a New Zealand singer-songwriter, and the track here is ‘Royals’, a song about how ostentatious displays of wealth and the bragging about their money and lavish lifestyle by pop stars are vastly out of touch with ordinary people who listen to and buy their songs. It seems to have struck a chord with people, as it has topped the charts both here and in the US.

My favourite track on the album also kind of fits into the “quirky girl” trend, Ellie Goulding – ‘Burn’. It was co-written by Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, and was at one point recorded by Leona Lewis for her album Glassheart, but never made it on there. It seems strange in hindsight, given that ‘Burn’ gave Ellie Goulding her first number one single and stayed there for 3 weeks. Glassheart, on the other hand, bombed and Leona quickly moved on to making a Christmas album, but having heard both versions I don’t think Leona’s version would have been as big a hit to be honest. Ellie Goulding’s voice has an ethereal quality which suits the mystical feel of the song more. It’s very catchy and has great production, I think it’s a fantastic track.

Notes

1) Having said all that about Miley Cyrus, I quite like her other hit this year, ‘Wrecking Ball’. I’d be surprised if it isn’t included on Now 87, despite the fact that will probably be released around late March, which will be ages after the song was a hit.

2) I think series 2 X Factor winner Shayne Ward was a bit unlucky really, he won the series just before Leona Lewis, and before she won the way of doing things with winners of that show was to crap out the debut album as soon as possible to cash in, so he just ended up with a boring load of cheese, and from then on they never really knew what style to stick with for him. (I have a soft spot for ‘No U Hang Up’ though). I think, of the male winners, he was their best shot they had at getting a decent pop star, but there you go.

3) I like will.i.am’s ‘Bang Bang’ but the mix on this compilation is a bit weird. Too many vocals layered over each other at once.

4) I was a bit surprised when looking at the writing credits and finding out Chase & Status feat. Moko – ‘Count On Me’ was co-written by Radio One DJ Zane Lowe!

5) I really like The Saturdays – ‘Disco Love’. It namechecks ’70s, ’80s and ’90s dance pop, with Donna Summer for the ’70s, ‘Physical’ by Olivia Newton-John for the ’80s and ‘Baby One More Time’ by Britney Spears for the ’90s. It makes me feel a bit ancient that ‘Baby One More Time’ was released long enough ago to be considered nostalgic though.

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