The last thing I remember before getting irresponsibly drunk at a friend's wedding reception last year is a roomful of thirtysomethings losing their shit to Whigfield's "Saturday Night".
If you, too, were 9 years old in 1994, you’ll cherish it as the song that put a bullet in Wet Wet Wet's 15-week reign at number one, prising Top Of The Pops – the centrepiece of your Friday night – from the clammy grip of Marti Pellow droning on about the feeling in his toes. Alternatively, you may remember "Saturday Night" for its astonishing ability to unite any given group of repressed Brits in shoop-shooping, hip-thrusting, borderline hysterical euphoria. It is also track six on Now That's What I Call Music! 29 a.k.a. the dawn of my musical awakening.
If you thought women’s suffrage was 2018’s most significant 100th birthday, you were wrong. This week we celebrate the release of Now That’s What I Call Music! 100. It is a momentous occasion for an industry that seizes on the new, wrings the life from its body, then drops it faster than you can say Cazzie David. Longevity, you see, isn’t sexy. It is 35 years since Now first hit record stores – in popular music, that’s a lifetime. Back then, Sean Connery was James Bond and McDonald’s had only recently begun serving chicken nuggets; the iPhone was barely a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye. And as for the artists on that first edition? Let’s just say your dad would approve...
In the '80s and '90s, compilation albums made a lot of sense. Before YouTube, SoundCloud, Spotify and Deezer and all the rest, building a music library was a painstaking – not to mention expensive – labour of love. Nowadays, we have artists' entire back catalogues at our fingertips but 20 or 30 years ago, the only way to get your hands on a new track was to tape it off the radio or bowl along to HMV on a Saturday to buy the single. Albums like Now were a neat solution to cassette tape clutter, rounding up the latest hits while they were fresh. But in 2018, how we listen to music has changed. If we hear a song we like, we can download it in one click or stream it to our heart’s content; meanwhile the business of putting together a compilation album is such that, by the time it comes out, we’ve played those 'latest hits' to death. Case in point: The lead track on Now 100 is "One Kiss" by Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa, released in the UK on 6th April – three months ago.
So if we’ve stopped relying on the Now albums for a new music fix, how do we explain their continuing existence? Someone is buying them, that much we know – it is said that the average British home owns four copies – and the franchise has proved popular enough to generate a number of increasingly niche offshoots (Now That’s What I Call Dad Rock, anyone?).
Weirdly for a brand whose USP is relevance, newness – NOWness – the answer is nostalgia. Take five minutes and do a quick survey of your colleagues or friends; I guarantee everyone will have a favourite Now, and it will almost certainly date to their teenage years. How do I know this? A study published in the journal Memory & Cognition in 1999 found that adults experienced stronger emotions when listening to songs from their youth as opposed to songs that were popular later in life; they remembered more about these songs, too. Which brings me back to Whigfield.
Britpop, indie, power ballads and trip hop are jumbled up in one glorious mish-mash that highlights just how diverse the UK’s popular music scene was before Ed Sheeran came along and vomited mediocrity all over it.
Now 29 was the first proper album I owned and, looking back at the track listing, my god is it banger after banger. Stone-cold classics – "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun", "Cigarettes & Alcohol", "True Faith '94" – rub up against one-hit wonders (hi Michelle Gayle!) and wouldn't-have-a-clue-if-they-ran-up-and-slapped-me-in-the-faces. There’s Lisa Loeb, whose 1994 look I am very much channelling right now – "Stay (I Missed You)" remains my go-to karaoke number – and Take That, whose 1994 look is probably best forgotten. Track 14 is "We Have All The Time In The World" by Louis Armstrong, originally released in...1969? I am nonplussed until Google reminds me that it was reissued after soundtracking a wildly popular Guinness advert. Side one ends with the 'credible' section (R.E.M., The Rolling Stones, The Cranberries) while side two swerves into R&B – I know I should hate "She’s Got That Vibe" but I just can’t – before checking in with Celine Dion and Kylie Minogue during her massively underrated wilderness years. Britpop, indie, power ballads and trip hop are jumbled up in one glorious mish-mash that highlights just how diverse the UK’s popular music scene was before Ed Sheeran came along and vomited mediocrity all over it.
I have a theory that the idiosyncrasies of Now’s track listings contribute in no small part to its enduring popularity. There is without question a hierarchy: the biggest songs go at the beginning – think "Spice Up Your Life", "Baby One More Time", "Bad Romance" – and the weaker, 'filler' tracks towards the end, by which point most people have stopped listening or gone off to do the washing up. Then within that hierarchy, you can spot trends and rivalries. The boy band vs. girl band wars of the mid to late '90s are in evidence from Now 34 onwards, later superseded by genuine infighting and acrimonious splits: solo tracks from Geri Halliwell, Emma Bunton and Mel C appear on Now 44 alone (Geri pops up twice). Robbie Williams is everywhere, natch. But what I love most are the completely illogical moments – the glitches in The Matrix, if you will. Like the strange segue from Bob The Builder to Eva Cassidy singing "Over The Rainbow". Or the glaringly obvious theme of three of the last four tracks on Now 38: Cast's "I'm So Lonely"; Peter Andre's "Lonely"; Boyz II Men's "4 Seasons Of Loneliness". Consider them little musical Easter eggs. (Although please can someone find Now 38's track lister and check they're okay?)
Let us not pretend that Now That's What I Call Music! is – or has ever been – cool. In its heyday, it was for kids like me who would record the Top 40 off the radio every Sunday and tack posters of Brian from Backstreet Boys to their bedroom walls. Now, it’s a relic; a woolly mammoth stranded in an unfamiliar musical landscape. But as a snapshot of a moment in time, it cannot be bettered. Perhaps, 20 years from today, Gen Z will remember Now 100 fondly. Or perhaps they’ll just look back and think, 'Eh?'