Now That’s What I Call Music! 85 (Not A Review)

It’s no secret that Popular, my main feature for this website, and a project that’s now run through almost 10 years of my life, spent much of last year beached – only 6 entries in 6 months. I never imagined I’d given it up, but I turned over possibilities as to why my enthusiasm had so clearly dimmed. More responsibilities? Sputtering energy? Reading too many comics? Maybe, maybe, but there was another factor too. Popular is a journey of indefinite length, but one where I can always see the future mapped out, and in 2011 and 2012 that map showed a miserable prospect. Clouds of grey hits in a chart I hardly paid attention to. Was this it? Had I stopped caring about pop? Bound to happen one day, of course – and it doesn’t need me as a listener. But if I had stopped caring, why care to write about it?

But then something happened. The pop songs I noticed seemed to be the ones a lot of other people noticed, but then – to my surprise – they were also the ones a lot of other people bought. Even better, songs people bought that I hadn’t yet heard turned out to be crackers too. 2013 has been a springtime for the Top 40, with a remarkable sequence of good Number Ones, some the kind of records I can’t wait to write about, others singles I know I’ll struggle to capture – but I’ll enjoy trying anyhow. Something has changed in my appreciation, though. For the first time I don’t have a mental model for who is buying singles, and how (and with whose money) – overall sales keep twitching up, setting new records each year, so “mostly digital, mostly cheap” feels like a good starting assumption. But how singles get to Number One? I could hardly even guess.

That detachment makes it more exciting waiting for what the charts will fling up next. So far in 2013, they’ve rarely disappointed. And I’m looking forward to this latest Now That’s What I Call Music! installment – Number 85! – as a return to the reason I originally liked the series, an inexpensive way to snap up a bunch of great pop singles. As opposed to… what? Why else would anyone buy one? Now albums are high sellers through the bad times as well as the good: their appeal doesn’t shift depending on my (or anyone’s) subjective take on the temperature of pop. But in one way this is quite strange. Now albums are the cultural equivalent of an alligator or a shark: they are surviving unchanged in an era of rapid evolution.

In particular, Now albums represent something that used to be central to pop, and is now far more marginal: they are among the last of the bundles. Pop used to be absolutely full of what marketers and accountants call bundled content. A week in pop might involve listening to Radio 1, buying the NME, and watching Top Of The Pops on a Thursday. If you were old enough you might go to the pub and put some money in the jukebox. And from 1983 on, you could go to Our Price and spend your wages or your pocket money on a Now album.

Radio 1, the NME, TOTP, the Jukebox, Now – all bundles, all based on the idea that the price of getting to indulge your tastes is that you have to experience other people’s. I doubt the notion of the chart as a Reithian endeavour – an educational space where different ideas of quality and creativity rubbed shoulders – was high in the minds of Radio 1’s founders. But that’s what it was, nonetheless.

Most of those bundles are gone now, or much altered. The NME is a slender magazine relying increasingly on the past; jukeboxes are no longer common; Top Of The Pops is dead. Radio 1 is still a bundle, but a lot more of its emphasis falls on specialist shows than it used to. Only the Now albums remain unchanged – 40 or so tracks across two CDs, the pick of the last 4 months.

The whole direction of web-era culture is anti-bundle: a turn away from the set menu and towards the buffet. Give people the chance to opt out of the stuff they don’t care about and – surprise! – they take it. This applies to humble websites too, of course. If Popular was a print fanzine – 20 write-ups an issue, say, plus a letters page – it would be a bundle: I’d have not much idea which of the write-ups people actually read, and I’d happily assume the answer would be “all of them”. But with social media and Google Analytics and other content management tools, I can see that Oasis and Blur bring in ten times the hits of poor Shaggy, and the imaginary venture capitalists behind Freaky Trigger might well be asking me to ‘pivot’ into reviewing every track on the Shine albums instead*.

So if bundles are ailing, why is the Now series so healthy? Its very fixity helps it, of course: it’s British pop’s equivalent to Wisden, or the CIA Factbook, or Jane’s defense guides – a journal of record. So a certain segment of Now buyers – people for whom being into ‘the charts’ is a very British sort of hobby, like steam trains or model soldiers** – simply pick it up and file it away (or play it once, and grimace). It’s also a very good deal, and a snapshot for those too lazy or disenchanted to keep up with high-selling pop. In a physical format, at least, it’s a solid gift. And, who knows, maybe the format retains a lucky-dip appeal, bucking the unbundling trend. I like bundles, after all – I can’t be alone. Turns out, for the moment, I like pop too.

*I am not going to do this, sorry Carsmile.
**No slight on these people. I’m at least halfway one myself.