A Love Letter to Now! That’s What I Call Music
My first Now That’s What I Call Music! CD was a Christmas present. It was 1999 and for the first time, my sister and I had a stereo in our shared room. The disk featured both Britney Spears and Sporty Spice. An unthinkable, impossible thing in the late 90s – a time when I was still untangling cassette tapes with a pencil and could only hear my favourite songs by sitting for hours by a radio and hoping for the best.
Auspiciously enough, my first Now! CD – number 44 – was their most successful volume and the most purchased compilation album of all time. Not bad for something I accidentally stepped on two weeks later. But by then it didn’t matter, because it had done its work. Like a shiny circular angel, it had redefined music for me. It was no longer something alien and inaccessible. The door was open and I was dancing my way through it.
For many of us, Now! was an entryway into “trendy” music. It was gold dust for kids who couldn’t afford to regularly buy CDs, or who didn’t get an iPod until years after everybody else. It taught us what we liked and it taught us what we should pretend to like to make headway with cooler kids at school. Growing up, a Now! CD played in the car on a long journey had a placating and unifying effect that would have been impossible with almost any other disc. In the early 2000s, my parents said nothing while I bopped along in the backseat to Bootylicious, knowing that when Lighthouse Family played I wouldn’t beg them to change it. That was – and still is – the natural give and take of a Now! anthology.
I can also credit Now! with my love for making mixtapes and compilation CDs. I have a crush on you? You’re getting a mix. Looking a little sad? Mix coming your way. You smile at me in a supermarket? IT’S MIX O’ CLOCK. My Spotify library is littered with half-finished playlists I made for half-loved men, birthday mixes that have been swelling in size since 2012 and about a dozen sleep playlists that I listen to in rotation.
Even this week as I carefully curated a housewarming playlist, I found myself referring back to track lists from Now! CDs that came out before my parents had even met. Try it yourself. Throw on the first ever Now! CD at your next party and thank me later. Turn up to Phil Collins. Get in your feelings to UB40’s Please Don’t Make Me Cry. Text your ex to Baby Jane by Rod Stewart. Dance drunkenly to Karma Chameleon before earning yourselves a few noise complaints scream-singing Bonnie Tyler.
And was any of it groundbreaking? Not really. Was it culturally myopic? Perhaps. But nobody buys a Now! CD expecting to discover some under the radar hit. It’s a celebration of the popular, the catchy, the play-it-on-repeat-until-your-dad-bangs-on-your-door-and-tells-you-for-the-love-of-god-turn-it-off. Historically Now! CDs hovered perennially at the edges of uncool, but never really settled there. Doubtless it was far more questionable not to have at least a small stack of them by your CD player.
It’s 2018 and Now! 100 is on course to be the year’s best-selling album. Featuring a mix of new hits and classics Now That’s What I Call Music! from their own back-catalogue, it’s a worthy tribute. They’ve had our backs for more than three decades. Only one of the Now! compilations didn’t make it to number 1, and that was Adele’s fault. Beloved, scheming Adele; we forgive you.
We have the Now! series because of a funny poster and a good idea. The poster: a Danish advert for bacon featuring a pig and a singing chicken, bought by Richard Branson and hung above a desk to brighten a co-worker’s day. The good idea: put a bunch of hit singles on a cassette or a double vinyl LP and sell it. Not the first to do it, but the first to do it well. And 35 years, 9 formats, 120 million sales and 654 weeks at number one later, they’re still running this show. Now that’s what I call one Hell of a legacy.
Alexa, play Angels by Robbie.