Then and Now (Metro, 18th Jul 2018)


The ultimate pop compilation album is celebrating its 100th birthday.

DO YOU remember your first NOW album? Since 1983, when the first NOW That’s What I Call Music! compilation was released on vinyl and cassette, it’s been a rite of passage for generations of Brits to pick up their first album in the NOW series, which features the biggest popular hits of the previous few months. Somewhat astonishingly, for those who remember the likes of NOW 1 — featuring Phil Collins’ You Can’t Hurry Love and Temptation by Heaven 17 — NOW 100 is set to be unleashed on Friday.

The hundredth edition will have a special format. Disc one, as usual, will be devoted to current chart favourites (including George Ezra and Ariana Grande) but disc two will feature a selection of classic NOW hits (by the likes of Oasis and Kylie Minogue) taken from the previous 99 volumes.

NOW has become a global name, with franchises in 60 countries from New Zealand to South Africa. It’s racked up more than 120 million sales over the past three-and-a-half decades — NOW even claims that the average UK household owns at least four of their albums. But just how, when every streaming service offers dozens of chart playlists that are updated every week, does an old-school compilation series like NOW stay successful?

Maybe it’s because, in the face of endless choice and characterless automated playlists, people are still turning to trusted tastemakers to discover new music — whether that’s a Radio DJ or a venerable brand like NOW. Certainly for new artists, appearing on the NOW series still remains a badge of honour.

‘Being included on two of the NOW albums was a real bucket-list tick,’ says chart-topping 24-year-old Becky Hill. ‘I’ve grown up with the series and to have my name on two was incredible.’

While the contents of each NOW album are in part dictated by chart positions, sales, streams, radio and video play, they are still curated by a team of living and breathing humans.

‘After lots of discussion, we compile the track list on the very day the album is mastered at Abbey Road,’ says Jenny Fisher, one of NOW’s directors, who has worked on the compilations since NOW 32 in 1995.

What’s more, NOW has been unafraid to evolve. The series has passed from vinyls and cassettes to minidiscs, CDs and digital downloads, and in 2017 launched its own streaming service, the NOW Music app. The brand has also launched on TV and channel NOW 80s pulls in an average of two million viewers a quarter.

But for all these changes, it’s the basic pop-loving premise at the heart of NOW that keeps the compilation series thriving.

‘Each album is a collection of songs that everyone is familiar with,’ says Fisher. ‘And these songs always represent great memories and emotions.’

Happy 100th, NOW — and here’s to the next hundred albums.

Now that’s what I call a fact!

■ The series took its name from a 1920s advertising poster for Danish bacon, featuring a pig saying, ‘Now that’s what I call music’ as it listened to a chicken singing.

■ The most popular NOW compilation of all time is 1999’s NOW 44 — featuring Britney’s best-selling single Baby One More Time — which has sold 2 million copies.

■ NOW That’s What I Call Christmas is the sixth biggest-selling album of all time, with more sales than Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

■ Robbie Williams holds the record for the most NOW appearances, featuring 30 times as a solo artist and with Take That.

■ Vinyl editions ended in 1996 with NOW 35. In 2005 NOW 62 became the first NOW album released as a digital download.