Now 96

Now 96 have gone for a multicoloured cover, lots of bright colours. What exactly the brightly coloured things are is another matter. I think it’s meant to be a bit like paint being added into water. Or perhaps screwed up coloured tissue paper. Or colourful clouds. Or colourful cabbages. Or colour vomit. I suppose as an album cover on a shop shelf or as a pic online for downloading or streaming it works OK though.

The biggest hit of the year, in fact the only number one of the year at the time of writing isn’t on this CD. That song is ‘Shape Of You’ by Ed Sheeran. But Ed Sheeran does get the coveted track 1 on CD 1 position with ‘Castle On The Hill’, released at the same time as ‘Shape Of You’. To be honest, I suspect Ed Sheeran likes
‘Castle On The Hill’ more, it’s more the sort of song he does, whereas ‘Shape Of You’ feels a bit more like “we want a big pop hit to launch the album campaign with”. If that’s the case, then Ed Sheeran might like it getting the coveted track 1 CD 1 position and not having to live in the shadow of ‘Shape Of You’ for once, given that ‘Castle On The Hill’ was number 2 when ‘Shape Of You’ reached number 1.

‘Castle On The Hill’ is a guitar strumming song focused on nostalgia for your childhood and teenage years. The line “tasted the sweet perfume of the mountain grass I rolled down” is a somewhat flowery way of describing falling down a hill and breaking his leg as a kid. Then he talks about drinking and smoking, and “running from the law” as a teenager, he’s probably trying to make himself sound edgier than what he was like in reality. But since when was nostalgia ever reliable and accurate?

There’s a bit of a humblebrag in that bit where he talks about what happened to all his mates when they grew up, as if to say “Needless to say, none of them were as
successful as ME!”.

‘Castle On The Hill’ talks about growing up, his first kiss, how there’s no place like home and stuff like that. Held together with the romantic image of watching the sunset over a castle on the hill. OK, despite all my snarkiness, I do kind of like ‘Castle On The Hill’, it’s a nice enough song. There are millions of other songs like it, but it is one of the better attempts at that kind of song, so on the whole, it’s alright by me.

Rag’n’Bone Man won the BRITS Critics Choice Award and the British Breakthrough Act this year, and he’s had a big hit with ‘Human’, which is well deserved as it is an excellent track. Dark dramatic production and quite earthy, confessional lyrics. His voice is great on this as well, it’s very rich and soulful. I’m not so keen on his other song on this compilation ‘Skin’ yet though, but maybe it’ll grow on me.

Girlgroup Little Mix have what I think is their best track they’ve ever done, ‘Touch’. It’s a fantastic, catchy tropical house pop song, and even though this song could well have been a summer smash, it still sounded good and was a big hit in winter, which shows how strong it is. That the incredibly tacky music video for it doesn’t seem to have done it any harm is also a testament to how good a track it is.

Unfortunately, despite Now 96 starting off so well with three very good tracks, it mainly dissolves into a beige mush from here.

I guess there’s an argument that Ed Sheeran’s ÷ album is kind of like a Now album as every track on it made the chart thanks to streaming. The booklet points out that in one week every track on ÷ was in the top 20. That is a bit ridiculous whichever you look at it. I can see the chart rules changing if that sort of thing becomes a regular occurence when there’s a big hit album. However, despite Ed Sheeran only getting one song on here (albeit the top spot), there’s still not much variety on Now 96. There are no less than three dance DJs on here called Martin! (Martin Jensen, Martin Solveig and Martin Garrix).

Dua Lipa features more than any other act on here, she has three songs (featuring on Sean Paul’s ‘No Lie’, her own song ‘Be The One’ and with Martin Garrix on ‘Scared To Be Lonely’). Despite all those appearances she still doesn’t make much of an impact as all three of those songs are forgettable.

The Weeknd & Daft Punk have two songs on here where they collaborate, ‘Starboy’ on CD 1, and ‘I Feel It Coming’ on CD 2. Daft Punk have a history of collaborating with the big hip hop superstar of the day as they did with Kanye West on ‘Stronger’, which was, let me check, 10 YEARS AGO!!!! Jaw drop, are you joking, where does the time go etc.

Bruno Mars has funk-disco-R&B track ’24K Magic’, which is an alright song. Not much else to say about it really, even the CD booklet seems to be struggling. It says the track is “yet another success”. Something about that phrasing sounds a bit weary. It also says that it’s the title track to Bruno Mars album and he bought the car that is used in the video.

Anne-Marie has ‘Ciao Adios’, both words meaning Goodbye in Italian and Spanish respectively. You could do a whole bunch of songs with that concept, couldn’t you? You  could do one called ‘Au Revoir Auf Weidersehen’, the French and German words for Goodbye. Add Dutch and such a song could be huge in Belgium as those are its three  official languages. Then you could use all the words for Goodbye in South Africa’s 11 official languages, would be a long title though. Yes, I’ve ended up getting sidetracked because the song ‘Ciao Adios’ itself isn’t very compelling.

But talking of international team-ups, we have a German bloke (Robin Schulz) and French guy (David Guetta) and three Americans (Cheat Codes) collaborating to make ‘Shed A Light’, which sounds quite uplifting with the strings, but the video shows an astronaut couple on an ice planet who are consumed by some sort of dark smoke cloud monster which seems a bit like the one in Lost.

A glaring omission on here is ‘Something Just Like This’ by The Chainsmokers & Coldplay, which honestly is one of my favourite songs of the year. You know that week  when Ed Sheeran had his whole album in the top 20? Well ‘Something Just Like This’ was the only Sheeran-less song in the top ten that week! It’s not on Now 96, though there is a Coldplay/Chainsmokers collaboration. ‘Hypnotised’, a Coldplay track produced by The Chainsmokers. It is taken from the Kaleidoscope EP, which was made up of leftovers from Coldplay’s A Head Full Of Dreams album. ‘Hypnotised’ is a bit sickly, like a cup of tea with about 895 sugars put in it.

The song that has grown on me the most after listening to it on here is ‘I Would Like’ by Zara Larsson. I still don’t think it’s anywhere near as great as ‘Lush Life’,but ‘I Would Like’ has grown on me, mostly because of constant radio play. That said, while I’ve heard the song a lot I didn’t even know ‘I Would Like’ was the title before getting this CD!

Hip hop track ‘Black Beatles’ by Rae Sremmurd feat. Gucci Mane became a hit after being used in videos for the viral internet craze the Mannequin Challenge. But, however it became a hit, ‘Black Beatles’ is actually a pretty good track. It doesn’t deserve to be filed in the same bin as inane rubbish like the ‘Harlem Shake’ or ‘Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)’ which also became hits because of viral internet memes.

There are far too many tracks with feeble, whiney vocals backed with annoying tinny dance music on Now 96. On CD 1 there is a continuous run of them from tracks 11-17, though the worst one of this type is on CD 2, ‘Issues’ by Julia Michaels. They’re the audio equivalent of a bad cold. Gives you a headache and leaves you feeling bunged up and drowsy.

I like tropical house, but we’re definitely at saturation point now. Kygo & Selena Gomez – ‘It Ain’t Me’ is one of the better ones, but it’s still very mediocre. The fact that The Vamps are jumping on the tropical house bandwagon now with their track on this CD ‘All Night’ with Matoma perhaps suggests it might be time for a new one to roll in.

It’s the second year in a row that The X Factor winners song hasn’t been on the spring Now release, so that’s a positive change I guess. There is a fair bit of filler though. Sigrid’s ‘Don’t Kill My Vibe’ only got to number 89! (Can’t say I like it much either, especially the way her voice yo-yos from squeaky to croaky). Another act, Post Malone, hasn’t even charted at all in this country! Something about the name Post Malone sounds like they accidentally included the name of a delivery service on the tracklisting, like in The Simpsons where Bart thinks the map publishing company name Rand McNally is a country.

Interesting tracks on here are few and far between, and it is a relief to hear one when you’re listening to the whole compilation in order. These include the grime track ‘Big For Your Boots’ by Stormzy and ‘Green Light’ by Lorde, which is a bit poppier than what she’s done before and sounds a bit like early to mid ’90s dance.

With politics being an absolute mess at the moment it’s surprising that hasn’t been reflected in pop songs much, and even more surprising that the one who has released something talking about it is Katy Perry of all people! That song is ‘Chained To The Rhythm’, which features Bob Marley’s grandson Skip Marley. The song talks of the illusions which are sold to people, how we all willingly distract ourselves from the problems in the world and everyone just goes along with it because, well, everyone else is. It might not to saying anything profound, but it is still satisfying that at least something is being said in a world where the Trump administration and Brexit are happening. Katy Perry memorably performed ‘Chained To The Rhythm’ at the BRIT Awards this year with a performance featuring two puppet skeletons dressed up as Donald Trump and Theresa May.

Producer and multi-instrumentalist Jax Jones has track 1 on CD 2 ‘You Don’t Know Me’ featuring RAYE, which is a very good house track. I like the cereal box thing they’ve got going on too, it looks like it was based on Froot Loops. No Toucan Sam on it though, instead there’s a dancing cartoon man with a beard and a cap. Jax Jones produced another song on this CD, ‘Text From Your Ex’ by Tinie Tempah feat. Tinashe. Jax Jones has an interesting real name, Timucin Fabian Kwong Wah Aluo. That’s almost as amazing as Dido’s full name, Dido Florian Cloud de Bounevialle O’Malley Armstrong.

As a tribute to George Michael, Now 96 includes ‘Fastlove Pt. 1’. It seems kind of a random choice, while it was a decent sized hit I’m not sure it’s ever been regarded as one of his classics. It might be because at the time of its release they included a remixed version on Now 35, the one on here is the main version.

The final track Calvin Harris feat. Frank Ocean & Migos – ‘Slide’ isn’t bad. Calvin Harris goes R&B! The best thing about it is that Frank Ocean has such a brilliant voice.

Overall, there is a bit of a “will this do?” feel to Now 96, even if streaming slowing down the charts probably makes it difficult to fill it. To be fair, the first Now album of the year is usually the weakest, but I hope the other two are going to be a lot better. This one was a bit of a struggle to get through to be honest, listening to it all in one go so many of the tracks blend into one and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so indifferent after listening to a Now album before. That said, it starts and ends well enough. Starts with a ‘Castle On The Hill’ and ends with a ‘Slide’. Well, it sounds like a reasonably good day at a theme park.

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