Yeah, I realise this is incredibly late. Now 103 is due out soon! But this review is here now, no pun intended.
CD1 is bookended with two Translantic chart topping Ariana Grande singles. She is probably the biggest star of the first quarter of 2019. Perhaps “pop chameleon” is a bit of a stretch, but Ariana Grande is showing a lot of different sides at the moment.
‘7 Rings’ shows a slightly shallow and materialistic side, to be honest. It’s about being rich and squandering it all on luxuries. To be fair, I’d never be able to relate to this song, even if I did have a lot of money. It’s about being a spendthrift, and I’m the opposite extreme, I’m a tight fisted money hoarder, so I’m very stereotypically Yorkshire in that respect.
‘7 Rings’ is based around the song ‘My Favourite Things’ from The Sound Of Music, and this isn’t the first time there’s been an urban reworking of that song. There was ‘Favourite Things’ by Big Brovaz in 2003, where they talked about similar “favourite things”, diamonds, rubies, Bentley cars and Gucci dresses. The Now 102 booklet doesn’t mention that song, but it does say that ‘My Favourite Things’ was sampled on the 2006 track ‘Wind It Up’ by Gwen Stefani. The only problem with that is, it wasn’t! ‘Wind It Up’ sampled ‘The Lonley Goatherd’, which yes was also from The Sound Of Music, but it is a different song.
The second Ariana Grande song, which closes CD1, is ‘Thank U, Next’. It is a rather sweet, graceful track, taking stock of aspects of her personal/love life which have been out in the public eye, and taking the view that it’s all a learning experience, even if, as in one case, the former partner and the relationship “taught [her] nothing”. Though one thing the video teaches us is that noughties nostalgia is here already. The ‘Thank U, Next’ video references and parodies several noughties films, such as Mean Girls, Bring It On, 13 Going On 30 and Legally Blonde. Which oddly enough means the video reminds me mostly of the 2001 spoof film Not Another Teen Movie.
It’s not on this CD, but ‘Breathin’ is my favourite recent Ariana Grande single, which is a very good song about trying to deal with anxiety.
As is often the case with the first Now! of the year, we get a lot of BRIT Award winners. Ariana Grande is one of them, winning the International Female Solo Artist award. The 1975 won British Group and British Album of The Year. George Ezra won the British Male Solo Artist award. Little Mix won the British Artist Video of The Year award. Tom Walker won the British Breakthrough award. Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa won the British Single award for ‘One Kiss’.
Calvin Harris also won the British Producer award. He very much has the status of superstar producer nowadays. He performed at the BRITS with a medley of a bunch of
his hits, one of them appearing on CD1, ‘Giant’, featuring Rag’n’Bone Man. But it should be noted that Rag’n’Bone Man’s powerful voice is an important part of that track as well.
Pink won the Outstanding Contribution to Music award. The song on Now 102, ‘Walk Me Home’, is a new single, a pleasant ballad that gets a lot of radio play.
Tom Walker’s track on Now 102 is ‘Just You & I’. I quite liked the video for this song. I liked the colours in it. The plot is a man named Connor and a woman named Jess (or possibly Jez?) wake up handcuffed together, and after not being able to get the cuffs off they go on a date to a cafe, the seaside, an aquarium and an amusement arcade. Better than some rom-coms!
The male singer-songwriter trend is still going, with Tom Walker, Georgde Ezra, Lewis Capaldi, James Arthur, Jack Savoretti and Hozier all making at least one appearance on Now 102. I don’t think they all sound similar. George Ezra is quite cheery, while James Arthur and Lewis Capaldi are more earnest for example. But there’s certainly a lot of them at the moment.
Of course the biggest of them is Ed Sheeran, who also won the Global Success award at the BRITS. Ed Sheeran doesn’t appear on Now 102, though songs he’s co-written do, such as ‘Hello My Love’ by Westlife, and ‘Thursday’ by Jess Glynne.
While we’re still on the BRIT Awards, I found Jess Glynne’s performance of ‘Thursday’, which was with H.E.R., to be very moving, and I think it really conveyed the message of the song.
‘Shallow’ by Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper is from the film A Star Is Born. It won the Oscar for Best Original Song, and the song was a Translantic number one, albeit it got to number one in the UK in 2018 and the US in 2019. I haven’t seen the film, but by all accounts Lady Gaga was great in it, and Bradley Cooper sings well on ‘Shallow’, so we have an actor who turned out to be a good singer (Bradley Cooper) and a singer who turned out to be a good actor (Lady Gaga). As I said I haven’t seen the film, but even without knowing the full context the song is emotive and the relationship rings true.
Mark Ronson had a hand in writing ‘Shallow’, and he makes a credited appearance on this compilation, with the track ‘Nothing Breaks Like A Heart’, which is sung by Miley Cyrus.
Another film soundtrack features on CD2, in fact there are three songs from it! The film is The Greatest Showman, which I haven’t seen either (Yes, I know I’m really out of touch with the big films at the moment!). But it says a lot if a film/musical song can work out of context, and ‘This Is Me’ by Keala Settle & The Greatest Showman Ensemble was a huge pop hit. It’s a powerful, heartfelt song about standing up against adversity, so really it’s no surprise it was a breakaway pop hit, but it is still unmistakably a song from a musical.
The Greatest Showman also had a Reimagined album – basically, pop covers of the songs. One of them features on Now 102, James Arthur & Anne-Marie’s version of ‘Rewrite The Stars’.
Finally from The Greatest Showman soundtrack is ‘The Greatest Show’, by, deep breath, Hugh Jackman, Keala Settle, Zac Efron, Zendaya & The Greatest Showman Ensemble. Hugh Jackman opened the BRIT Awards with a performance of it. The original version already sounds slightly Panic! At The Disco-ish, and indeed the pop version on Reimagined is by Panic! At The Disco.
‘Dancing With A Stranger’ by Sam Smith and former Fifth Harmony member Normani, has very mesmerising production, some of which was done by Stargate. While it is a duet,
the implication is that they’re singing about different people not each other, it’s the situation that they have in common, that is going to a club to dance with someone new to get over a heartbreak. It’s one of Sam Smith’s best ever songs in my opinion.
Last year, Cardi B featured on ‘Finesse (Remix)’ by Bruno Mars, so this year Bruno Mars returns the favour by appearing on Cardi B’s track ‘Please Me’. Both songs were partly produced by The Stereotypes, though Bruno Mars himself was involved in the producing of ‘Please Me’. It is a good track, a flirtatious, fun and sexy R&B song.
We have some modern pop-R&B songs, with ‘Don’t Call Me Up’ by Mabel and the Disclosure produced ‘Talk’ by Khalid.
‘Play’ by Jax Jones feat. Years & Years continues Jax Jones cover art parodying well known colourful products. Before it’s been Froot Loops (‘You Don’t Know Me’), Tic Tacs (‘Breathe’) and Haribo Starmix (‘Ring Ring’). This time it’s Play-Doh.
‘Sweet but Psycho’ by Ava Max is a catchy dance-pop song, but, listening to the lyrics and seeing the video, whoever she’s talking about, the balance seems massively tipped towards “psycho”.
‘Goodbye’ by Jason Derulo x David Guetta x feat. Nicki Minaj & Willy William is a messy, cacophonus din. It might be due to David Guetta’s production plus three different performers all competing for attention at the same time, plus it also incorporates ‘Time To Say Goodbye’ by Sarah Brightman & Andrea Boccelli.
‘Lost Without You’ by Freya Ridings sounds like a John Lewis advert cover of itself, with the droning, whiney voice and the plinky plonky piano, and let’s face it, it was probably only a hit due to it being featured on overrated ITV2 reality TV show Love Island.
The Jonas Brothers make a comeback with ‘Sucker’, though they’ve had various solo projects so they never really went away. ‘Sucker’ is actually their highest charting
song ever in both the UK and the US, in the latter it got to number one.
Lewis Capaldi got to number one here in the UK with the first track on CD2, ‘Someone You Loved’. The booklet points out that Peter Capaldi (who Lewis Capaldi is related to) features in the video, and the song is for Live Life, Give Life, an organ donation charity. I don’t begrude him his success, but I don’t quite “get” Lewis Capaldi, to be honest. I prefer ‘Grace’ of his two songs on Now 102, but even that doesn’t do much for me. Ah, well.
‘Candlelight’ by Jack Savoretti has a quite dramatic sound, making it slightly James Bond theme-ish or something from a spaghetti western.
I was surprised at just how much I liked ‘Almost (Sweet Music)’ by Hozier, as I never liked his biggest hit ‘Take Me To Church’ all that much. But the choppy sound of ‘Almost (Sweet Music)’ makes it a very interesting track!
Dance DJ Marshmello had previously worked with Bastille on ‘Happier’, and here he collaborates with CHVRCHES for the track ‘Here With Me’. It’s a formula that’s been
working well. Marshmello gets a song with more lyrical and emotional depth than usual, while the indie band get a pop chart hit with prettier and more polished production. ‘Here With Me’ on surface level seems like a sweet love song, but the lyrics and the delivery are quite melancholy. While unrequited love/love hurts songs may be a very, very well trodden path in pop music, I think ‘Here With Me’ is one of the best songs of the year.
My favourite song on Now 102 though is ‘Don’t Feel Like Crying’ by Sigrid. It is a joyful sounding song about dealing with heartbreak, distracting yourself from it by being happy, but with the background feeling of “it hasn’t hit me yet”, and that the sadness will come sooner or later. The production reminds me a bit of the 1992 hit ‘Walking On Broken Glass’ by Annie Lennox.
Speaking of the ’90s, 1999 was 20 years ago! It doesn’t seem that long ago, but it was! We have been getting a lot of ’90s nostalgia recently, not least with the Spice Girls reunion tour, and the song ‘1999’ by Charli XCX & Troye Sivan. It sounds like it could have come out in 1999, sounding like the electro-sugar-pop songs that were popular back then. It namechecks ‘Baby One More Time’ by Britney Spears, which always seems to make an appearance in these nostalgia tracks. The video features references to films like Titanic, The Matrix, American Beauty and The Blair Witch Project, pop groups like The Spice Girls, the Backstreet Boys and TLC, and technology like The Sims game and the Nokia phone. I remember all of that. To be pedantic, it’s more late ’90s (and early noughties) in general than a specific year, but you always get that with nostalgia stuff.
’80s nostalgia isn’t going away anytime soon either. They reissued Now II on CD to commemorate its 35th anniversary, and they included six songs from that at the end
of Now 102. I wasn’t even born when Now II came out, so I don’t have any nostalgia associated with it, but two of the tracks are very well known pop hits which are still played a lot today (Frankie Goes To Hollywood – ‘Relax’ and Cyndi Lauper – ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’). The other four (Nik Kershaw – ‘Wouldn’t It Be Good’, Matthew Wilder – ‘Break My Stride’, Culture Club – ‘It’s A Miracle’ and Thompson Twins – ‘Hold Me Now’)… well, they’re probably the more “of their time” variety of nostalgia. They haven’t really aged well, but being obviously from a bygone era will be part of their appeal.
The booklet only contains chart entry information for the six “throwback” songs though, the date they entered the chart and the date they reached their peak position. Which makes you wonder if adding the Now II songs was a late decision or that they didn’t really care about it.
Taken as a whole rather than individual song quality, on Now 102 CD1 is the stronger of the two CDs, CD2 has the feeling of being jumbled up with stuff they had to fit in somewhere.