If you grew up in the UK and remember a time when CDs were used as stocking fillers, chances are you’ve owned a Now That’s What I Call Music compilation. Ubiquitously permeating the corner of your view like a forgotten stye, these compilations have always been there: occasionally jolting into your consciousness when you notice they’ve been prominently displayed in a Tesco superstore for the last three decades.
For those who don’t know, the seemingly immortal compilation collates together the most popular songs several times each year and packages them into a box-set for people who are too lazy or young to discover music for themselves. There are hundreds of these compilations. In fact, there are so many that if we hurled them off a tall building, the heavens would open and the sky would rain jewel cases for hours.
From the compilation’s early beginnings as a vinyl only release, through to their themed editions – like Now That’s What I Call Disney or Now That’s What I Call Dance – and up to the current day, it’s impossible to write a definitive rundown of every single one without asking serious questions about my career and sanity. But fuck it. I'm going to pick a selection of ten UK editions that represent the breadth and width of NOW phenomena. Why? Because, when you think about it, these albums offer up an eerily pertinent snapshot of the last three decades of music.
Beyond the think-pieces, the BBC 3 documentaries and magazine archives, the NOW compilation is the greatest insight we have into our country's listening habits. Which, really, is a land that's been populated by people who once consensually chose to listen to a song called "DooDah!" from a group called Cartoons. A strange realm, where Bob the Builder, Ant and Dec, and Las Ketchup sit alongside Bjork, Faithless, and DJ Luck and MC Neat. A lens, that looks not on the great movements of yore, but on the music that would be blasting as you cooly slid on your knees across the floor at a village hall disco. Or as you tried to avoid your over-bearing boss at the office christmas party. So here it is: here are the ten compilations that represent who we have been, ranked from worst to best.
10. THE ABSOLUTELY ABYSMAL
As this compilation demonstrates, 2014 was a particularly bad time for mainstream music. It was the year Tom Odell sidled into our speakers, hand-in-hand with Hozier. It was the year that Meghan Trainor released a song about how you should proportion your body fat in direct correlation to boys needs. It was also the year that Sam Smith metaphorically stayed over one night, started slowly moving his stuff in and then never, ever left. But most importantly, it was the year that Iggy Azealia, Ten Walls and R Kelly all appeared on the same compilation. 2014 was so bad that we made a long list of all the bad things that happened. The only good thing about 2014 was that “Blurred Lines” was not released that year.
9. NOT QUITE THE WORST, BUT WHAT THE FUCK WAS GOING ON IN 1998?
Whenever people mention the late 90s, it’s invariably tied up with a kind of gooey nostalgia about Pokémon cards or UK Garage or green gunge or proper pills. And while all of those things were great, we tend to forget about all the shit that happened, like soul patches or The Phantom Menace or this particular NOW 40 compilation. Sure, there’s a Massive Attack track on there somewhere and Billie Piper’s “Because We Want To” could be called “semi-iconic” at a push, but it’s buried amongst layers and layers of hell, like “King Fu Fighting” by Bus Stop and Peter Andre’s Little Mermaid soundtrack and “I’m Horny” by Mousse T and Hot ‘n’ Juicy and “Doctor Jones” by Aqua. 1998 was the pop equivalent of getting so drunk on a night out that you shat yourself, and still can't bring yourself to half laugh about it.
8. WHEN X FACTOR OBLITERATED ALL OTHER MUSIC
Listen, I like curling up on the sofa with a packet of bourbons to shout at X Factor contestants with walnut whip hair as much as the next Gogglebox nan, but even I have to admit that 2011 went way too far. This NOW compilation is like a perfectly untouched snapshot of that era, right before the strange and spiralling death of TV talent shows, when it was still considered acceptable to have X Factor alumni One Direction, JLS, Olly Murs, Matt Cardle, Leona Lewis and Cher Loyd all in one place, like a roast dinner entirely made up of peas and gravy. But that wasn’t okay then, and it isn’t okay now.
7. THE YEAR OF JAMES BLUNT AND CRAZY FROG
If you asked me to recount something significant from 2005, I wouldn’t be able to do it because any memory from that year is clouded by the sound of “A ring ding ding ding ding, a ring ding ding dingdemgdemg” aka Crazy Frog. It was also the year James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” and Kaiser Chiefs’ “Everyday I Love You Less and Less” came out, and NOW 61 includes all of those songs. The only reason this compilation wasn’t ranked as the absolute worst is because there’s a Roll Deep track on there, and I’ve got a soft spot for the first Killers album. That aside, if you can’t remember anything about 2005 either, then why don’t you relive it here.
6. OOPS!….I DID IT AGAIN
There are quite a few questionable moments in NOW 46, the second compilation which we were blessed with during the long hot summer of 2000. Coldplay’s “Yellow” and Moby’s “Porcelain” are right there next to each other, and there are two whole tracks from Steps, who were never good, however much you try and revive them behind a thin veil of irony. However, it also includes some genuinely iconic uber-pop treasures. Britney Spears’ “Oops!…I Did It Again” isn’t just a nostalgia trip – it’s seminal, and metaphorically gave birth to an avalanche of good-girl-gone-bad pop princesses that make up a large slice of today’s pop culture fabric. Also, anyone that says they don’t find NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” more infectious than a common cold is lying - not just to you, but to themselves.
5. ALRIGHT FOR WEDDINGS AND OFFICE PARTIES
On the one hand, the first ever NOW compilation is obviously fucking terrible. UB40 and Kajagoogoo are on there twice. There’s a track called “The Safety Dance” by a band called “Men Without Hats”, and Rod Stewart makes an appearance with his second worst song “Baby Jane”. On the other hand, it’s worth reminding ourselves what these compilations are actually for. They’re meant to be the soundtrack for your great uncle’s third wedding. They’re meant to elicit a slurring sing-a-long at your office Christmas party. With that in mind, you don’t want a sludgy Sonic Youth deep cut or early Frankie Knuckles. You want “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “Karma Chameleon” and something, anything, by Duran Duran.
4. EYEHOLES IN A PAPER BAG, GREATEST LAY I EVER HAD
Placebo’s “Nancy Boy” threw a sexually fluid spanner into a 90s music scene dominated by lads getting pumped up on WKD and Chumbawamba, simultaneously enticing a generation of teenagers to paint their nails black, take drugs and have loads of sex with all the genders. For that, we will be truly thankful, which is why NOW 36 ranks quite highly on this list, despite containing Kavana’s cover of “I Can Make You Feel Good”. There’s also No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” on there, which caught Gwen Stefani at her absolute Tragic Kingdom peak, when she managed to inject dizzying teen angst and tear-soaked heartbreak into one glittering, sugar-smothered musical tornado. “Don’t Speak” offered up the perfect pop song to sing to our own reflection, launching all the words at the mirror in the same way we wish we’d launched them at an ex.
3. WHEN EVEN YOUR NAN WAS TAKING E
If NOW 19 is anything to go by, 1991 was the year that rave classics began to properly infiltrate the mainstream, meaning that sweat-covered, pill-soaked tracks like The KLF’s “3am Eternal”, Nomad’s “(I Wanna Give You) Devotion” and The Source feat. Candi Station’s “You Got The Love” found themselves nestled up next to Seal and Rick Astley. I’m not going to pretend I remember the dawning of rave culture because I wasn’t alive yet and can barely remember Pop Idol, but I try to give credit where credit is due.
2. WHEN CRAIG DAVID WAS ALL OVER OUR…
Sure, there are a few clunkers in here, such as Martine McCutcheon’s long forgotten ballad “Love Me”, which she released after her character on Eastenders was lobbed down the stairs (RIP Tiffany Mitchell). But unlike the other compilation released in 2000 (at number 6) NOW 45 is full to the brim with actual bangers, namely DJ Luck and MC Neat’s murky garage archetype “Little Bit of Luck” and Artful Dodger’s two classic’s “Re Rewind” and “Movin’ Too Fast”. This is a compilation where Siquo’s “Thong Song” is a handful of tracks away from Blink 182’s “All The Small Things” and Craig David’s youth-defining 2-step creation “Fill Me In” sits right at the top next to Britney Spears. I would definitely listen to this the whole way through, although I’d probably press skip on Vengaboys.
1. THE BEST
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt while staring, dead-eyed, into the neon-coated void of NOW compilations, it’s that they’re all awful. We know that already, because they appeal to people who need their music presented to them, in the form of the biggest hits. Even this one, which I have named “The Best”, has Bob the Builder’s “Mambo No.5” and Westlife’s “Uptown Girl” on it. But to me, Now That’s What I Call Music 50 has just enough good shit to get past the bad shit.
It has So Solid Crew’s urban psalm “21 Seconds” next to Afroman’s iconic puff-pass-puff anthem “Because I Got High”. It has Destiny’s Child’s original arse anthem “Bootylicious” next to D12’s slurring, infectious “Purple Pills”. And it has Britney Spear’s slinky sex jam “I’m a Slave 4 U” beside Mary J. Blige’s “Family Affair”, which includes words that she made up: “Don’t need no hateration, holleratin’, in this dancery”.
This is a compilation with Sum 41, Alien Ant Farm, and Wheatus all in one breath. It is a compilation that reminds us that Kate Winslet had a fleeting singing career. It is a compilation that has three of the Spice Girls singing three separate songs. It’s the best compilation we’ve got.
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