At Christmas, my son gifted me a copy of the very first U.S. Now That’s What I Call Music! album. My initial reaction was a burst of laughter. I hadn’t received a compact disc (you remember those, right?) as a gift in several years, but, as he astutely pointed out, the pop hits compilation is filled with bangers from its era (1998), including Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy,” which, I’m not ashamed to say, is one of my go-to karaoke songs. I’m also not ashamed to say I’ve been listening to the album on my car stereo’s CD player (yeah, my car is that old) the last few weeks.
Known simply as Now!, the music series periodically compiles the biggest hits from various pop music artists into a single collection. The series started in the United Kingdom way back in the 1980s and made its way to places like South Africa and Asia before debuting in the States right before Y2K. In the era of Napster and Limewire, Now! was a hot commodity since it grouped the songs Internet surfers coveted in one tidy place. Some of you might be surprised to know Now! is not a relic of the past, but still is a now thing. A new compilation, Volume 73, is slated for digital and CD release on January 24. It’ll feature artists like Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish, Luke Combs and Travis Scott. And, a popular London night club recently announced a monthly club night devoted to the series. The U.K. version of the series has more than 100 volumes, so the club's DJs will have plenty of big hits from which to choose.
Depending on your music aesthetic, Now!'s now-ness may or may not be good news. “Serious” musicphiles often deride the series, precisely because it collects top-selling hits for each of its volumes. There’s not much diversity and, some argue, little creativity in these chart-toppers. The fear is that one day, in post-Armageddon times, some semblance of rejuvenated humanity will stumble upon Now! and hear the Black Eyed Peas’ “Don’t Phunk With My Heart,” (Volume 20) or “All About That Bass,” (Volume 52) and judge us harshly. No one wants their refined music tastes looked down upon by some snobby futuristic space caveman.
Houston Press has been among the ranks of Now! critics. In a piece from a few years ago, a friend and a very fine writer dismantled Now!'s 2016 collection, Now That’s What I Call Rock, by asking the salient question, “What evil is upon us?” She called the collections “spam,” questioned the will to live of Now! buyers and urged all others to “resist the temptations” of the “soul-sucking compilations.” She made good points, foremost that the series’ producer, Universal/Sony, could use its considerable resources to focus on new acts instead of a long-running cash cow (it's super lucrative, with more than 250 million album sales globally). Her biggest blow came when she noted someone actually thought it would be a good idea to include Alien Ant Farm’s version of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” on a compilation dubbed Now That’s What I Call Classic Rock. Worse yet, someone agreed and there it is, track 48, right after the classic rock hit “How You Remind Me” from classic rock juggernaut Nickelback.
Now! has had its share of missteps and possibly so many that it long ago wandered away from music’s sunny path and into a terrifying, lightless no man’s land. But, unlike my colleague, I come not to bury Now!, but to praise it.
Let’s begin with the series' resilience. Despite an expected drop in sales, the series continues to churn out physical copies. Compact discs might be all but dead and the people at Now! could easily focus on digital versions, but really, wouldn’t that be just another playlist on your favorite streaming service? If you’ve ever once complained that the music industry changed mediums so quickly it rendered your cassettes and CDs useless, then Now! is a strike against that tide. They keep making CDs available for those (someone, anyone) out there collecting them. If you have every edition, come forth, show your face and be known to the world, avid music fan.
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Good or bad, these collections do capture the spirit of popular music at a given time. Each volume is a record of what listeners preferred. Being upset about that is like holding some nefarious historical atrocity against a historian. And, to be fair, some of the music listeners preferred “now,” are now some of modern music’s classic hits. Songs like “’03 Bonnie and Clyde,” “Mr. Brightside,” “Born This Way,” “Happy,” and “Rolling in the Deep,” are all on Now! discs. These are songs from talented musicians and music icons. Hell, even the snobbiest of futuristic space cavemen would have to admit we knew how to have a good time by grooving to Now! body movers like “Tik Tok,” “Locked Out of Heaven” and “I Gotta Feeling.”
Those songs, all in a single place, might spark some love for music in our hypothetical futuristic listener’s heart. It’s why I was given this recent gift in the first place. My son was 7 years old when the first Now! album dropped in the United States and some of the songs on it – tracks like Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta,” Hanson’s “MMMBop” and Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” – helped shape his own musical identity. After I unwrapped the present, we listened to the disc and let the music take us back in time.
My daughter-in-law was especially excited and she shared her connections to the music with us, stories about her we'd not yet heard. We all talked about the past as we hummed along to the songs. That’s something the series has done for real-life listeners over four decades. Now!'s CDs can create or nourish a love of music and the series' songs help us recall moments in our lives and times. Even when they goof (Alien Ant Farm?!) they remind us that, if we're lucky, music has always been there to soundtrack our days. That can’t really be a bad thing, can it?