From 1992 to 1998, through the ages of 7 to 13 years old, I bought or received as birthday/Christmas presents every instalment in the NOW That’s What I Call Music! series. From NOW 22 to NOW 40, I had them all, mainly on cassette (only with NOW 39 and NOW 40 did I make the leap to CD), and listened to them endlessly. I didn’t listen much to music on the radio, so along with Top of the Pops and The Chart Show, they were my primary source of music during my formative years. But by the time of NOW 40, I felt I had outgrown them (geez what a precocious thirteen year old) and able to develop my own tastes. It’s a testament to their eclectic nature that I was still able to gravitate towards the indie, alternative, rock, and dance acts that would comprise most album purchases then on. Yet more so than any other compilation series, the NOW series holds a special place in the hearts of many, a time capsule of musical tastes, and in the face of the rise of internet downloads and streaming services, it’s remarkable that it is still going.
With NOW 90 recently released and on a nostalgia kick, I went back and listened to the 19 NOW compilations of my childhood (through the medium of Spotify), and created this handy playlist of songs that offer a cross-section of mid-nineties pop. Some I loved at the time, some are very much of the era, some hold up remarkably well, some don’t so much. It’s a mix of classics, curios and cheese. The only rule was that I could only include one song per artist. I hope you enjoy it!
Although I listen to far more music today than at any point of my life, I am very much out of touch of what’s in the charts (I am constantly listening to new music, just rarely anything that finds its way into the top 10, if that is still even a thing). So, as a means of comparison, I listened to all of NOW 90 too. What have I learned through this whole experience?
OBSERVATION ONE: Pop music is generally better now than it used to be…
To qualify this statement, popular opinion is generally ‘music was better in the 70s/80s/90s/etc’, but really it’s the good music that is remembered, the bad music that is vilified, but then an awful load of mediocre guff that gets forgotten about. But the NOW compilations do not forget. And you can pick any Side A of a NOW Compilation (where most of the pop hits end up) and it will generally stand toe to toe with any other. Two or three genuine hits, but mostly filler singles from already established artists. Which is to say, the pop music of NOW 90 is generally better produced, better presented, and less likely to rely on gimmickry, wackiness, and earworm tactics to get a hit. Plus, everyone looks cool. Pop music in the 90s was never about looking cool. Now it’s genuinely confusing when you see a handsomely made music video, really interesting use of design on the album cover, stylish fashion shoots, enthusiastic reviews from respected critics, and then you actually listen to the song and you realise, “oh this is just pop music” (looking at you, Bastille). Fewer insipid boybands, none of the gut-churning day-glo awfulness – that’s got to be a good thing, right?
OBSERVATION TWO: …but pop music is ultimately blander than it used to be.
Now this isn’t nostalgia talking, but if we get rid of those lows, it means we deny ourselves those highs, and mainstream pop music today lacks character. So what’s the problem? No more Barbie Girls, MMMBops and Cotton Eyed Joes! But what’s left to talk about if every song in the chart is perfectly agreeable, adequate, fine. With everyone able to easily pursue whatever music interest they have without having to trouble the charts or radio output, it seems harder than ever for something new and exciting to come along and change the game for everyone. There is still the potential for a genuine novelty hit – to think that Gangnam Style was almost three years ago – but more often than not (Gangnam Style being the not), a global market demands something with global appeal, something that can speak to any language or culture without causing confusion or offence. Maybe pop was always about incremental change, pilfering sounds and styles from niche subgenres, incorporating them into existing forms to make them more palatable to public tastes. But just listen through that playlist of mine, and you see the variety on offer. Try to picture any of those songs on NOW 90, and they’d stick out – not necessarily because of the genre, the sound, the technology, but because there is vibrancy, a sense of fun, excitement and self-aware silliness, that is missing.
I mean by golly, this was just at number one the other week. It sounds like something performed on The National Lottery circa 1996. Surely we’ve come a long way since? Or is pop music perpetually trapped in a state of what will ultimately just form this year’s wedding DJ songbook?
OBSERVATION THREE: Whatever happened to reggae-pop?
One thing I totally forgot about was the sudden and strange reggae-pop boom of the early 90’s? One can perhaps point to renewed interest in Bob Marley following the release of Iron Lion Zion, while Shaggy was the most famous crossover hitmaker (Oh Carolina kicked it off, but Boombastic – as featured on a jeans commercial as was the style of the time – was the biggie). And it seemed like few pop songs could resist inserting a reggae breakdown (at least if a rap breakdown wouldn’t fit the bill). How could we forget Peter Andre’s Mysterious Girl? Answer: NO ONE COULD. Aswad, UB40, Inner Circle, C.J. Lewis, Ini Kamoze, Chaka Demus & Pliers, Shabba Ranks…all had mainstream hits. Yet, few seemed to bother the charts again, and the trend had little lasting impact or influence on the charts. However, it was a flame that burned briefly but brightly.
OBSERVATION FOUR: Oldies were still churning out not so goodies.
It was surprising on my relisten that in the mid-90s, so much is comprised of what even at the time you’d think of as being ‘Dad’s Music’. In reality, there was only about a decade between their initial success and their appearance on my NOW compilations, but I’d find myself listening to Duran Duran, OMD, even the Bee Gees. Further down the running order with each passing year, but still present. Heck, side one tape A of NOW 32 featured Queen, Meat Loaf, Simply Red, U2, Tina Turner, Cher, Paul Weller, Suggs, and Paul McCartney. Doesn’t seem very 1995. Even NOW 40 kicked off things with a Grease Megamix! Looking at the NOW 90 track listing, the only genuine old-timers are Take That, while the likes of Usher, Kelly Clarkson, Cheryl (Cole), and even McBusted are the new decade old fogies. There’s little for anyone born in the previous millennium to really tangibly claim to have ‘grown up listening to’ anymore. Move along wrinklies!
OBSERVATION FIVE: Featuring…
One thing that became very clear looking through the tracklist of NOW 90 was the current trend of ‘Featuring’ other artists on songs. Many current chart-botherers have successfully piggybacked on another artist (usually a guest singer on a DJ or producer’s song) to launch themselves. A shame it’s usually in service of generic house or drum and bass of zero nutritional value and lyrics torn from an office motivational calendar that sounds like the same kind of background white noise found on any hairdressers’ radio up and down the country for the past 20 years. Still, that’s a nice way to give new talent a boost I suppose, but I’d like to see some more proper DUETS, the value of which was irrevocably damaged when the colossi of Stevie Wonder and Blue joined forces. But failing that, we need some [Artist] VS [Artist] or [Artist] x [Artist] collaborations. I think we’ve had RUN-D.M.C. VS Jason Nevins, and that’s about it. Though I always feel like those songs that shamelessly pilfer classic songs and just add a beat and a rap interlude are kind of ‘versus’ the original. And we end up with Daz Sampson ‘Forrest Gumping’ himself into Marc Bolan’s past.
And finally, OBSERVATION SIX: Um, Britpop wasn’t very good?
It’s going to be really hard to explain to future generations quite what a cultural megaforce Britpop really was, not just because it’s a term that is as weird and baggy as the fashion of the time, wrapped up in Loaded Lad culture, sold abroad as Cool Britannia, and ultimately killed off by New Labour and the Spice Girls. But primarily because it actually wasn’t very good. Just like the punk and new romantic movements before it, a select few singles will remain etched into the public psyche and doomed to ring out in pubs across the land come karaoke night, while people of my generation will no doubt bore their kids having developed their own strain of You Had To Be There-itis. But whatever Britpop was, it possibly did more harm than good. Last year’s Britpop at the BBC may have highlighted a few underrated and forgotten curios, but in the harsh light of the now, it generally seems like some of the least interesting music being made at the time. Most of the best bands lumped into it were around before it and carried on with their own thing beyond it, and as strange as it now seems that rock music dominated the radio, listening back a lot of it was frankly annoying. Preferable to the drippy earnestness of the current singer-songwriter soulful troubadour boom, but often either too clever-clever or too stupid-stupid, irony or no. While it shares little actual DNA, you can see how it created a climate in which an audience would be more willing to accept the surfer rock/ska punk of the late 90’s as a result. All I’m saying is Britpop begat Smash Mouth and there is no greater sin.