Now That’s What I Call Music and the state of pop

Do the charts matter anymore? It’s a question that’s cropped up frequently in recent years, as successive changes in the compilation and content of the UK Top 40 cause many music fans to scratch their heads and wonder if things truly were better in their day.

When SOURCE ran its own Pop Quiz at The Hope a few years back, one question we’d ask each time, which every team always failed to get right, was “Who is this week’s No.1?” Even when the answer was something as ubiquitous as Clean Bandit’s ‘Rather Be’ or Pharrell’s ‘Happy’, we’d still draw blank looks. Like our loyal but challenged quiz teams, if you’re the sort of person who claims never to have listened to an Ed Sheeran song or, worse, posts “Kanye West? Never heard of her” memes on Facebook, it’s your listening habits that are to some degree at fault, not necessarily the charts.

It’s true, however, that the Top 40 has, in its essence, changed. In the digital era, whenever there has been an alteration in the way the Singles Chart is compiled (such as the adoption of download sales, phased in from 2005, the removal of the necessity of a physical release in 2007 or the eventual inclusion in 2014 of streams towards a song’s chart position) there have been notable but relatively minor effects on its contents. It’s the cumulative effect of these changes that has shifted the Top 40 away from the understanding of previous generations.

Since its inception in 1983, Now That’s What I Call Music! has reflected these changes, its tracklisting offering a reasonably definitive overview of the previous three or four months’ hits. Despite the public’s fondness for streaming and downloading music over physical formats, particularly among the teens whose tastes have the greatest influence on the Singles Chart, Now’s double CD format remains a reliable seller. The love for the Now format is evident on the series’ Facebook page, home to some of the most cynicism-free music fans on the net. Unashamed in their love of the hits, even of the never-changing Now artwork, they’re a heart-warming bunch.

Outside of this adoration though, ‘Now 96’, released last Friday (7th April), hits the shops at an uncertain time for the Top 40. Ed Sheeran is currently holding his 13th week at No.1 with ‘Shape Of You’, a once unusual achievement but one coming close to equalling Drake’s 15 consecutive weeks at the top with ‘One Dance’ (belatedly on the previous ‘Now 95’) last summer. Both aided by their appearance in hit films, only Wet Wet Wet’s ‘Love Is All Around’ (15 weeks, 1994) and Bryan Adams’ ‘Everything I Do (I Do It For You)’ (16 weeks, 1991) can match or beat Drake’s achievement.

Sheeran may well now have this record in his sights, even if, as he said on The Graham Norton Show back in January, he was hoping his own simultaneously released (and superior) ‘Castle On The Hill’ would take its place. For now, Sheeran’s got a different, unprecedented chart record under his belt, when, thanks to the inclusion of streaming as well as sales, every track from his ‘÷’ album entered the Top 20 on its release last month.

Sheeran’s statistical success may be less of an ongoing anomaly than it first appeared, with every track of Stormzy’s ‘Gang Signs And Prayers’ album and Drake’s ‘More Life’ mixtape also reaching the Singles Chart in his wake. Such log-jamming of the Top 40, coupled with the longer life songs enjoy through streaming, has led to a slower-moving chart than fans were used to. 2016 saw less songs reach No.1 than in any previous year of its existence while there are generally fewer new entries in the Top 40 each week than before.

Peer through the colourful inky swirls of its sleeve and for now there’s little sign of this stasis on ‘Now 96’. Sheeran’s nostalgic ‘Castle On The Hill’ opens it (‘Shape Of You’ perhaps being held over ‘til next time to avoid damaging its chart-topping run), then it’s another big-selling song to counter the “There’s no musicians anymore” naysayers with our own Sussex bluesman, and next month’s Great Escape headliner, Rag’n’Bone Man and his breakthrough single ‘Human’. His decently performing follow-up ‘Skin’ appears on the second disc, such artist duplication a common enough feature of Now albums since the series’ original 1983 double-vinyl (which somehow found space for two Kajagoogoo singles – bonus points for remembering the second one – as well as cockatoo haired frontman Limahl’s solo debut, while Phil Collins turned up both on his own and with Genesis).

Both of The Weeknd’s two Daft Punk collaborations, ‘Starboy’ and ‘I Feel It Coming’ also appear, the latter arguably 2016’s best single. Equally fine, Dua Lipa turns up with the irresistible ‘Be The One’ alongside her guest spots with Sean Paul (‘No Lie’) and Martin Garrix (‘Scared To Be Lonely’). Any of these support the argument that, if the singles chart is dying, it’s not because there’s a lack of great songs. Ironically the longest-serving, most traditional band on the album, San Francisco’s ‘90s survivors Train, offer the worst track by some distance with the numbingly simplistic ‘Play That Song’.

Nonetheless there is a common sound that persists here, that mix of tropical house beats and cut-up vocal hooks that makes Kygo & Selena Gomez’s ‘It Ain’t Me’, Martin Solveig’s ‘Places’ and Major Lazer’s ‘Run Up’ indistinguishable when snatched casually coming from a Brighton beach bar. That these are interspersed with such excellent fare as the post-modern invention of Rae Sremmurd’s ‘Black Beatles’, Stormzy’s pleasingly brutal ‘Big For Your Boots’, Lorde’s snarling ‘Green Light’ (unexpectedly reminiscent of Right Said Fred’s ‘Don’t Talk Just Kiss’) and the greatest British pop group of our day, Little Mix, with ‘Touch’ paints a more diverse picture of the pop scene than one might fear.

‘Now That’s What I Call Music!’ is only a few albums away from its hundredth edition (due next summer, at the current rate of release) and it’s hard to imagine Sony/Universal wanting to can the series without reaching this publicity-worthy moment. Whether the Top 40 will contain enough diversity, or even enough songs, to sustain it much longer will only become apparent over the coming year. Right now, the carefully curated ‘Now 96’ suggests a reasonably rosy picture. Keep one ear on the charts and the other tuned to the industry chatter at The Great Escape to see if this optimism is misplaced.

Rag’n’Bone Man headlines The Great Escape at Brighton Dome on Saturday 20th May.

Features 7 months old

Stuart Huggett

Stuart Huggett grew up in Hastings, publishing fanzines and writing blogs about the town’s underground music scene. He is a regular contributor to SOURCE, NME, The Quietus, Bowlegs and more. His huge archive of magazines, flyers and vinyl is either an invaluable research tool or a bloody pain. He occasionally runs tinpot record label Dizzy Tiger, DJs sporadically and plays live even less.

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