Long Reads

Why Now That’s What I Call Music is the one album that will never die

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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Jamelia, Kylie and Ariana Grande in a hero image for a Now That's What I Call Music 100 thinkpiece.

From endlessly replaying Billie Piper to bonding with family over Tom Jones, five women explain why NOW That’s What I Call Music’s 100th release is worth celebrating.

Nothing says ‘British institution’ like a NOW That’s What I Call Music compilation. You might not remember the first time your grubby paws came into contact with that iconic CD sleeve – the metallic two tone background, the bevelled Microsoft Word Art lettering – but it’s guaranteed that at some point in your life, the double disc snapshot of 30-odd chart-topping tracks will have been in your possession.

Statistics don’t lie. Since the first NOW collection was conceived of by two rival record executives from Virgin and EMI, seeking to capitalise further on a run of successful singles in 1983, over half of the UK population has owned at least one of the albums produced by the franchise – and that’s not counting spin-offs. Rifling through the CD collection of the average British household will probably produce about four different editions of the record. It’s the biggest-selling compilation series in the world. And now – aged a respectable 35-years-old – NOW has finally reached triple digits with the release of NOW That’s What I Call Music 100, out today.

NOW has managed to weather earthquakes that have caused other titans of the music world, like Top of the Pops, to crumble and fall. Streaming will not weary NOW, nor the years contemn. There’s even an app containing every NOW album, allowing users to wander down memory lane at will.

The latest version pays tribute to all the discs that have gone before, played on repeat until they were worn out and scratched to the point of skipping from being left in car gloveboxes sans case. The A-side contains the zeitgeisty pop tunes NOW is known for – Ariana Grande’s latest sits alongside George Ezra’s inescapable Shotgun – but the second half of the album is dedicated to some of the biggest hits from yore. Oasis, Kyle Minogue and UB40 all make appearances while James Blunt is also immortalised on there, which may mislead archaeologists of the future into thinking he was significant. 

To pay tribute to the only CD series that could unite the fanbases of Tom Jones and Alice Deejay, Stylist asked five women who’ve grown up with NOW for their memories of a franchise that serves as the only reminder that yes, Jamiroquai was once a superstar and the last gasp of military-jacket-wearing-indie happened in 2005. Headphones on… 

Aimee Cliff, Deputy Editor of Dazed 

Aimee Cliff, deputy editor of Dazed
Aimee Cliff, deputy editor of Dazed

“Music used to be expensive. The first album I ever owned was a precious object; a cassette my mum presented to me proudly on a payday in 1996. I repaid her by wearing her patience thin along with the tape, replaying it over and over again. I don’t want to get all ‘back in my day’, but in 1996, you had to get everything you could out of music, because it was a scarce resource.

By the time I was a teenager, I was discovering new songs on YouTube and in zip files sent back and forth over MSN Messenger; but somewhere between the cassette and the illegally shared mp3s, there were music video TV channels, and there was NOW.

The immense popularity of the NOW series means that it’s long since engulfed all the other labels, becoming a shopfront for pop music itself, and giving an easily digestible rundown of the zeitgeist every four months. Today, kids have a million curated playlists on Spotify and the like, like Rap Caviar or Hot Hits UK, to perform more or less the equivalent function. 

The crucial difference, perhaps, is how finite a NOW CD felt. You’d get one, and that was it, for four months. Where today you would skip any track that sounds a bit off-putting in the first 30 seconds, in the ‘90s, I’d sit excitedly with each one, and try to hear what it was saying.

It wasn’t an artfully curated compilation – it was a marketing exercise! – but NOW was often full of things to discover, if you pored over those CDs like I did. Take my personal favourite entry in the series: the final NOW CD of the 20th century, number 43, released in November 1999. It stomps in with Britney Spears, winds its way through Mambo Number 5, Sing It Back, and Canned Heat via a detour of Phil Collins and Supergrass. There’s a Spanish-language track by a certain solo Spice Girl and a disco belter from Diana Ross. And that’s just disc one. 

Growing up in the 2010s must be a wild experience, with the freedom to roam your way through the vastness of all music ever recorded, and decide from an early age what your own tastes and tribes are. It’s admittedly empowering, being able to skip through playlists that have been curated for you, and put your own lists together of whatever you like. 

Growing up in the Nineties, though, NOW was an experience to be savoured. Some of it was great, and some of it was terrible – but by smashing Culture Club next to Vengaboys next to Toploader next to Honeyz, it taught me something about listening openly, generously, and always with a wide-eyed anticipation of what was coming next.”  

Jamz Supernova, BBC Radio 1Xtra DJ 

Press shot of Jamz Supernova, BBC Radio 1xtra DJ
Press shot of Jamz Supernova, BBC Radio 1xtra DJ

“Between the ages of six and 10, I was in afterschool club and the only CDs they had were NOWs. You would pick the ones you wanted – or the ones that had songs you wanted – and make up dance routines to them. NOW 43 was the first time I heard a garage record – it had Shanks & Bigfoot’s Sweet Like Chocolate on it, which we played on repeat. That is my favourite NOW. Looking at the tracklisting still prompts a wave of nostalgia to wash over me.

I was really excited about the NOW albums as a kid and I think for a lot of DJs, NOW would have been early inspiration in their formative years for making their own compilation CDs or playlists. It was a big factor for me when I got to secondary school and started doing that. 

NOW also validated my music taste. If I saw it had a track on there from, for example, Jamelia, I would think ‘I knew that was a good record’. It was the same as predicting who’s going to be number one or how many units an artist would sell, a real music nerd thing.

I stopped buying NOWs in the early Noughties after discovering pirate radio, which was the next step. The NOW compilations covered every genre which is still nice to look back at – you can see where music was at that time and how different the popular genres were. But by the time I got to 2000/2001 I was streamlining what I was listening to – garage and urban music. 

But I still want the next generation to know what a NOW album is. If you watch kids like my little cousin picking out music, it’s not that different to what we were doing with NOW CDs – they’re just typing in in the song instead of skipping to it on the record. They’re still playing Ariana Grande and Stefflon Don over and over again on repeat. NOW would be a cool thing to share with them, a shot of nostalgia about ‘this is how we used to do it’.

NOW feels like such a British [institution]. Although if I was making a NOW album in 2018, I’d probably go for a Drake song as the first track, purely because of his contribution to music. But that would be followed up by J Hus Did You See and the Jorja Smith/Preditah collaboration, On My Mind.

The way I would listen to it would different too. It would come from a studious place, to see what makes a great pop record. But then NOWs were never made for you to listen all the way through, as if they were a complete album. Those CDs were about capturing a moment, in which every person could find one thing, or one song, they liked. And that’s what NOW has always been good for: catering for everyone. 

Jamz Supernova broadcasts 11pm Tuesdays and weekends from 1pm on BBC Radio 1Xtra

Hannah J Davies, Music Journalist 

Headshot of Hannah J Davies, freelance music journalist
Headshot of Hannah J Davies, freelance music journalist

“Growing up in a hugely uneventful corner of the London suburbs in the Nineties, a trip down to Big Tesco in the family Mondeo was quite the weekly highlight. There, I would eat the best part of a baguette and a punnet of grapes before we’d reached the checkout (something I now gather is massively illegal) and, if I was very, very lucky, I would get to pick something of my choosing.

Realistically we’re probably talking about a pack of seafood sticks, but one day in 1998 I asked - nay, begged - for my first NOW CD. I was nearly six and obsessed with the oh-so-rebellious pop of Billie Piper’s debut Because We Want To, which featured on the first CD of NOW 40, a double album that cost 10 times my weekly seafood stick allowance. I pleaded with my mum for this highly essential purchase and, as we were a house that bought and consumed a lot of music (and probably because I was screaming), she caved in.

I was ecstatic - as well as Billie, it featured the Spice Girls, Steps, Aqua, Boyzone, Peter Andre and, er, Catatonia, who I didn’t quite appreciate then.

Nowadays, my relationship with NOW is slightly different. As an adult I understand how brilliant a business model the franchise is and how it’s survived so many changes to the way we listen to music - the new NOW is expected to sell a quarter of a million units in its first week alone.

As a music writer covering a decent amount of pop, old NOWs are like time capsules that give you an insight into music history, from enduring classics to the novelty acts we never heard from again. When working on a piece about musical trends that referenced the Nineties, my first thought was to scan NOW track listings. Before NOW, people didn’t really understand what the compilation album was. It was, by all accounts, regarded as quite tacky. Then NOW brought artists from across the major labels together and made it into this huge rite of passage.

Despite my new perspective, I’ll always regard NOW with a music fan’s fervour. I’ll think of dancing manically across my bedroom to Out Of Your Mind by Victoria Beckham and Dane Bowers in a Tammy Girl crop top, or how we all definitely, definitely shouldn’t have been listening to 7 Days by Craig David in primary school. I’ll think of holding a physical CD, of dance mats, and of how much money I spent calling premium rate phone numbers for Hear’Say to win Popstars.

NOW pinpoints what pop is and was at specific moments, but as time goes on those songs naturally become the stuff of highly rose-tinted memories. This year they’ve also made the second CD a ‘best of’ collection, which really plays into the nostalgia element. Sadly there’s no Billie on there, but I’m sure I’ve still got my copy of NOW 40 kicking about back in Zone 4.” 

Tobi Oredein, Journalist 

Headshot of journalist Tobi Oredein
Headshot of journalist Tobi Oredein

“Parents often define your musical tastes in the beginning stages of your life. My mum would usually have Michael Jackson and Tina Turner playing while dancing around in the front room; she even believed that her voice carried the same raspy timbre that took Anna Mae-Bullock from aspiring nurse to global superstar. Whereas my dad, our family’s resident music boffin, had Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston and The Beatles on heavy rotation. While songs in the top 40 played intermittently thanks to Top of The Pops, it was those five artists who soundtracked my early childhood.

On my eighth birthday, my dad bought me my very first CD player - it was a glossy and sleek yellow appliance that played both cassettes and CDs. It also had a radio - and in 1997, it was a top of the range, highly modern music player. And with my gift came NOW That’s What I Call Music 37

NOW 37 featured songs by Eternal, Foxy Brown, Spice Girls, Shola Ama, No Doubt and, memorably, the classic Mmmbop by Hanson. That CD quickly replaced my parents as my musical authority figures and helped me find my independence in terms of what music would start to fill life’s moments of silence and be the musical reflections of my moods.

The NOW CDs became a staple in my music collection well into my teens. I would often skip tracks with heavy guitar riffs whereas songs that featured soulful vocals over uptempo tracks were firmly on repeat. I would play the CDs most mornings before school and as soon as I got home as loud as I possibly could, much to my the annoyance of my parents and neighbours.”

While the NOW CDs initially allowed me to distance myself from my parents’ musical preferences, years later they helped my mother and I find a common musical ground. NOW 47 was the soundtrack to our family Christmas the year it was released. It featured hits by Robbie Williams, LeAnn Rimes and Tom Jones, which appealed to her musical sensibilities, while I loved the album for appearances from the likes of Craig David and Nelly. We spent that Christmas dancing around the conservatory dining table with the album on repeat, bonding together.

That’s the wonderful thing about NOW CDs – they act as entry points for those of us keen to figure out what sounds set our musical taste buds alight without necessarily knowing where to start. But they also bring families together to create shared musical memories because they cater to everyone. I hope NOW 100 will give others the joy that earlier installments once created for me.”

Daisy Jones, Managing Editor of Noisey 

“If you grew up in the UK and are old enough to know how a CD player works, chances are you’ve owned a NOW compilation. Over the last three decades, the franchise has become an institution. They’re a staple on our supermarket shelves. In our Christmas stockings. In a dusty pile inside our nan’s glove compartment. Embedded into the fabric of British culture, like party rings on plastic plates or sunburn, or going ‘weheeyyy’ when someone drops something. When I heard 100 of them in total had been released, my first response wasn’t ‘wow’. My first response was: really? Is that all?

The NOW compilations aren’t exactly “for the heads”. They’re usually compiled of chart music from the time of their release and –  as we all know – the general public have terrible taste. They enjoy things like Sam Smith and tropical house and, at one point, Crazy Frog (NOW That’s What I Call Music 69, from 2005, FYI). 

That said, during a time before Spotify, before YouTube, before everything, this was how you could hear your favourite pop music in one place. When I was barely a preteen, I distinctly remember rinsing NOW That’s What I Call 50 in particular until it was so scratched that it would jump and splutter every time I pressed play. Where else could I listen to So Solid Crew followed by Britney Spears followed by Afroman? The fact they were all on one CD felt like a revelation. 

But more than that, the NOW compilations have created a time capsule of the UK’s listening habits, and there’s nothing else like it. I’ve long been obsessed with looking through them and seeing what they can tell us about music over the years. If you scan the back of NOW 19, for instance, you can see that 1991 was the year everybody including your mum’s mate Karen was getting heavily into acid house, with tracks like Nomad’s “(I Wanna Give You) Devotion” and The KLF’s “3am Eternal” nestled up next to Seal and Rick Astley. 

Fast forward 10 years, and the UK had gotten bang into garage and 2-step, with tracks from The Artful Dodger side by side with DJ Luck and MC Neat. Another ten years, and it was all X Factor cast-offs. In other words, the franchise is an unparalleled, era-spanning music education. 

I can’t remember the last NOW compilation I owned. It might have been NOW That’s What I call Running! Or – and I think this is genuinely the truth – NOW That’s What I Call Driving Rock! Either way, I wouldn’t have noticed it was there because they’re so familiar. They’re like Heinz Beans or your old school friend Jason in that you’ve just assumed that they’ll always be there, and you don’t want them to go anywhere because that would push the world off balance, and nothing else could fill the particular hole they’d leave.

NOW compilations might not be the most boundary-pushing or niche brand of music consumption, but that would be missing the point entirely. They’re here to give us the hits, in one place, and as time plunges forward, and the years rack up behind us, they’re a window into years gone by, and how music once was.”

Images: Getty