Now 88

now88With the three main Now! albums every year usually the second one has lots of summer holiday themed stuff on the album cover as it tends to be released in late July.  They haven’t done that with Now 88, possibly because they have also released a Now That’s What I Call Summer compilation this year. Instead they have gone for a fairly straightforward album cover, that which shows a rollercoaster ride.

The opening track on the CD is ‘Ghost’ by Ella Henderson. In 2012 she was the SHOCK! ELIMINATION! of the ninth series of The X Factor after she ended up in the bottom two with eventual winner James Arthur. Fast-forward to 2014, and James Arthur has been dropped from his record label while Ella Henderson has just had a big number one single which also has the coveted position of track 1 on CD 1 of a Now compilation. That ‘Ghost’ has done so well came as a bit of a surprise, but it is the best single released by a former X Factor contestant in a very long time. It was co-written by Ryan Tedder who also co-wrote ‘Bleeding Love’ by Leona Lewis. The two tracks are quite similar, both being classy R&B ballads with horror imagery in the lyrics and performed by a female singer with a great voice. 1)

R&B was a dominant genre for much of the 2000s, then it took a bit of a backseat, but pop music trends go round in circles and it appears to be coming to the forefront again. There are a lot of R&B influenced tracks on this compilation, among them another singer named Ella, Ella Eyre who was the guest vocalist on Rudimental’s 2013 charttopper ‘Waiting All Night’. Her solo single on this CD is the stylish ‘If I Go’.

Like Ella Eyre, Sam Smith also first made the top 40 as a guest vocalist on tracks for urban-dance producers, in his case for acts such as Naughty Boy and Disclosure. Since then Sam Smith has been named both the BBC’s Sound of 2014 and  has won the Brits Critics Choice Award. While they don’t always make the right call, it’s fair to say they have with Sam Smith, as he has done very well both here and in the US. His track on this compilation, ‘Stay With Me’ is a very soulful tearjerker ballad, and shows that he has a very beautiful and very distinctive voice.

Then there’s ‘Classic’ by MKTO, which not just sounds retro-soul, but kind of lampshades how nostalgia focused it is, using terms like “rewind throwback old school” in the lyrics. It sounds very much like ‘I Want You Back’ by the Jackson Five. It references Cadillac cars, Marvin Gaye, Prince and Michael Jackson, but it’s really about a girl they fancy. As so often is the case with recent songs which talk about how gorgeous a girl is, she is compared to Beyonce. It’s all very cheesy really, but I can’t help but love it.

Ed Sheeran is mainly known as a sensitive singer-songwriter strumming an acoustic guitar, but he has used urban sounds in his songs now and again. He’s never really done anything as straight-up pop-R&B as ‘Sing’ though. Still, it has earned him his first number one single. It was co-written by man of the moment Pharrell Williams, and it sounds like an attempt to be like Justin Timberlake. The odd thing about that is that the real Justin Timberlake is struggling a bit. His most recent chart hit is featuring on Michael Jackson’s ‘Love Never Felt So Good’, which is appropriate as Timberlake began his solo career trying to sound like Michael Jackson. ‘Love Never Felt So Good’ is included on this compilation, though it is the solo Michael Jackson version rather than the one featuring Justin Timberlake. It is a pretty good track too, again very retro-soul and smooth, and was originally recorded as a demo in 1983 and has been re-worked to be included on Jackson’s posthumous Xscape album.

‘Problem’ by Ariana Grande is a bit of a Pick N Mix sort of track. It has lots of different elements which don’t really connect. Sassy brassy backing track, klaxons, Big Sean whispering the chorus, Ariana Grande doing vocal gymnastics and Iggy Azalea getting a big section to herself where she references Jay-Z’s ’99 Problems’. But it has all resulted in a very good track and a massive hit. Like Pick N Mix, sometimes random mixes can be just what we want.

Iggy Azalea has her own song on this compilation, the very fun ‘Fancy’. It has an ace video which parodies iconic ’90s movie Clueless. Charli XCX sings the chorus, and I continue to hope she gains more mainstream success as she is potentially a great pop star. For now it’s nice she has another hit, her first being ‘I Love It (I Don’t Care)’ with Icona Pop.

There are a few acts with two songs on this compilation 2). A lot of people, myself included, thought ‘Rather Be’ by Clean Bandit feat. Jess Glynne was a glaring omission from Now 87, but better late than never as it is included on this one, as the opening track of CD 2. While ‘Rather Be’ has been played so much this year fatigue will have inevitably set in now, it still sounds good. Possibly because it was a hit more recently, Clean Bandit’s follow-up single ‘Extraordinary’ is on CD 1. The guest vocalist on that is Sharna Bass, and the track makes great use of steel drums. ‘Extraordinary’ should have been an even bigger summer hit than it was, in my opinion.

Some other great summer anthems on this compilation include Fuse ODG feat. Sean Paul – ‘Dangerous Love’, and Calvin Harris going for a “what it says on the tin” approach titling his summer single ‘Summer’. Calvin Harris writes and produces brilliant tracks, though he sings ‘Summer’ himself, and let’s be honest his singing voice isn’t the best. It’s better when another pop star sings his songs.

An example of this is ‘I Will Never Let You Down’, which he wrote for Rita Ora. It’s a fantastic pop song, very well suited to Rita Ora’s voice and in my opinion the best song she has ever released. Having said that, it will probably feel awkward for her to perform in future, as she and Calvin Harris were in a relationship and have now split up.

There are a number of songs on here which reached number one that sampled songs which didn’t get that high. One is Secondcity – ‘I Wanna Feel’, which samples Toni Braxton’s ‘You’re Making Me High’ (number 7 in 1996). Rixton’s ‘Me And My Broken Heart’ samples ‘Lonely No More’ by Rob Thomas (number 11 in 2005). The best of this bunch is Sigma’s ‘Nobody To Love’, which rather than a sample per se is a reworking of a remix they did of ‘Bound 2’ by Kanye West (number 55 in 2013).

I was half-expecting Neon Jungle’s ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ to be a cover or a sample of the Guns N Roses track of the same name, but it isn’t. It isn’t a cover version at all, but a pretty decent electro-dance track from the urban girl group. It does remind me of another song though, ‘Kernkraft 400’ by Zombie Nation.

‘Jubel’ by Klingande is pretty rubbish and uninspiring. A sleazy saxophone, something which sounds like a synthesised banjo and, I quote the CD booklet on this, “an unnamed guest singer”. will.i.am somehow got to number one with the dreadful ‘It’s My Birthday’. But no song on this compilation is as lazy, shallow, annoying and pointless as ‘Wiggle’ by Jason Derulo feat. Snoop Dogg. It really offers nothing at all other than yet another song about appreciating “big bootys”.

But there is some good stuff on here. ‘Budapest’ by singer-songwriter George Ezra is a very nice acoustic guitar track which also uses a Vox Continental organ. I like that sound as it makes me think of cinemas. The crowd of people wearing 3D glasses and eating popcorn in the video probably adds to that.

Sometimes a remix can turn a good song into a great one. The Robin Schultz remix of ‘Waves’ by Mr. Probz and ‘Stay High’ by Tove Lo feat. Hippie Sabotage are examples of that. True they were fine in their original forms, but the remixes gave them that extra something which allowed them to become international hits. ‘Waves’ is a good soundtrack to relaxing on a sunny beach by the sea, and ‘Stay High’, originally titled ‘Habits’, talks of always being in a drunken melancholy haze after a bad break-up.

While it isn’t a remix, Coldplay’s ‘A Sky Full Of Stars’ taken from their new album Ghost Stories may sound like one. Like a lot of Coldplay songs it’s a nice, wistful stargazing track but it has more of an electronic sound as it was produced by dance DJ Avicci.

Overall, Now 88 has a lot of forgettable songs on it, but the good stuff included is very good.

Notes

1) Ella Henderson isn’t the only former contestant from a reality TV singing contest to get a surprise charttopper included on this compilation. Becky Hill, who had been on The Voice features on dance producer Oliver Helden’s ‘Gecko (Overdrive)’.

2) The other acts that make two appearances on this compilation are Jess Glynne (on ‘Rather Be’ and her solo song ‘Right Here’), and boyband with guitars The Vamps, who have ‘Last Night’ and one with Demi Lovato – ‘Somebody To You’). In Demi Lovato’s last few singles they’ve had her doing pop-rock (‘Heart Attack’), the pop release of a Disney ballad (‘Let It Go’), club-dance (‘Neon Lights’) and collaborating with first Cher Lloyd (‘Really Don’t Care’) and now The Vamps. They really don’t know what direction to stick with with her do they?

3) Speaking of ‘Let It Go’, the version that actually was a hit is included on here, Idina Menzel’s one in the Disney animated film Frozen. The track is not at all well suited to summer months, and it’s a vastly overrated song anyway. There, I’ve said it. I mean, the animation sequence which includes the song in Frozen is good, but out of context the song isn’t much to write home about. While Idina Menzel may, technically, be a good singer, her voice isn’t pleasant on the ears at times, it can be a little shrill and screechy.

4) According to the CD booklet, before Kiesza became a pop star she was a trained ballerina, had been in the Navy and was offered to train as an army sniper. It’s a pity her song ‘Hideaway’ isn’t as interesting as her C.V.

5) ‘Touch’ by Shift K3Y isn’t a bad track, but what a rubbish name. It looks like a car number plate! I know replacing letters with numbers is nothing new, but it reads like “Shift Kthreey”. Couldn’t they have just gone for “Shift Key”? Fair enough, pop acts want their name to be findable on the internet but it still looks daft.

6) I was surprised that Paloma Faith’s ‘Only Love Can Hurt Like This’, her biggest hit to date, was written by Diane Warren. She is famous for penning big, bombastic movie ballads like ‘There You’ll Be’ by Faith Hill, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ by Starship and ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’ by Aerosmith. ‘Only Love Can Hurt Like This’ is more of an understated pop-soul song, which granted is the sort of thing Paloma Faith does.

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