The Anniversary

Now That’s What I Call Music! Turns 20

I burned my final mix CD in 2013. “Random Music” was scrawled in sharpie across the reflective silver disc, belying the very deliberate and not at all random methodology that went into my song selection. Danny Brown opened the tracklist on a bold note. Disclosure maintained the energy at a slower pace. “Rhythm Is A Dancer” by SNAP! sped it back up (I was really into Eurodance that year). Every transition mattered in building the right mood and flow. Like any good mix, it was a labor of love.

Now That’s What I Call Music! is kind of like a loveless mixtape. The compilation album series launched in the US on Oct. 27, 1998 — 20 years ago this past Saturday — following the success of the UK’s original franchise, which dates back to 1983. Even though the American version of NOW! arrived just as CD burners were becoming widespread, the franchise was a huge success. I guess for every person who delights in painstakingly assembling their own mix, there’s another who wants to be served up a recognizable mass product.

After the first US Now! went platinum, the next 28 volumes followed suit. They started cranking out two volumes a year, then three, then four, including Now That’s What I Call Christmas! and Now That’s What I Call Country!, among other themed off-shoots. Eighteen albums from the series climbed to #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, outpacing every individual recording artist besides the Beatles. Last Friday, they released two new albums: Now That’s What I Call Music! 68 and Now That’s What I Call Music! 20th Anniversary: Volume 1. By the end of this year, they will have released eight albums in 12 months.

Each CD in the Now! series is like a musical time capsule. Although the first Now! was released late in 1998, it mostly compiles hits from 1997, like Hanson’s “MMMBop” and Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta.” It had all of the songs you knew and loved, according to commercial data, and maybe a few you missed. If there’s a perfect place for one-hit-wonders to exist, it’s on a Now! CD. Remember “Lips Of An Angel” by Hinder? Now! 23 does. Remember “One Call Away” by Chingy? Now! 16 does. Remember “Around The World (La La La La La)” by ATC? Oh, Now! 6 definitely remembers “Around the World (La La La La La)” by ATC. Remember “Get Gone” by Ideal? Honestly, no. But Now! 3 does.

But for every handful of “Oh yeah, I remember that” songs there were a few bonafide classics, at least on the early volumes. Radiohead’s “Karma Police” and Janet Jackson’s “Together Again” made it onto the first Now! CD. The sixth, released in 2001, had “Yellow” by Coldplay and “Love Don’t Cost A Thing” by Jennifer Lopez. Tracklists reflected what was playing on the then-relevant radio: mainly pop, but with a healthy mix of alt-rock, R&B, and hip-hop. Back when popular music wasn’t as homogeneous, Now! boasted a somewhat compelling assortment of hits.

Now!’s 20th anniversary volume largely blocks out that sense of variety, featuring the biggest hits from the biggest pop artists, like Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and One Direction. It’s a one-note collection, albeit one that works, banking on our investment in things that bring us familiarity and comfort. At its core, the Now! series is built for this kind of thoughtless engagement. In that sense, the model almost makes more sense today than it did 20 years ago.

Music discovery in the streaming age is a daunting, sometimes fruitless task. People are busy and overstimulated and don’t have the time or energy to work for their music. The endless choices call for some sort of narrowing agent, and an algorithm-generated playlist is a seductive option, hand-feeding us the songs and artists we like, plus new songs and artists that sound like the songs and artists we like. Perhaps responding to this trajectory, each Now! volume, and popular music as a whole, grows increasingly monotonous.

Now! doesn’t challenge the infinite stream. It adapts to the environment and mimics it on a smaller scale. The CDs have started featuring bonus tracks from up-and-coming artists, a development that they’ve dubbed, “NOW Presents What’s Next.” It’s like Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlists, but with a sort of permanence, given that the selections don’t change every week. Mood and genre playlists take form in Now! special editions — Now That’s What I Call Funk, Now That’s What I Call Love Songs, Now That’s What I Call British, Now That’s What I Call a Workout 2017 Hits & Remixes, to name a few. There’s even a Now! app — in addition to the physical releases several times a year — to stay on track with the music industry’s rapid output.

At this rate, most singles translate as a one-off hits, shaped around a specific trend or moment and destined to get lost in the scroll. The tracklist for the latest volume, Now That’s What I Call Music! 68, is filled with songs that would be hard to imagine as future classics — Post Malone “orders sushi from Japan” over an unremarkable Tiesto beat, Dua Lipa and Calvin Harris collaborate on a mild club song — but “timeless” doesn’t seem to be the goal.

You can’t help but laugh reading through the Now! discography. Some of these songs just weren’t meant to last — there are very few people bumping Hoobastank in 2018 — but they play in my mind with as much clarity as they did years ago. I still know every word to “Stuck” by Stacie Orrico and “Flavor Of The Week” by American Hi-Fi. Maybe people will look back on Now!‘s more recent iterations with the same amusement. But with the constant, quickening chug of the hit machine and the ephemeral quality of its products, physical recordings might be pointless.

That said, Now! continues to chart, if not as robustly as in the beginning. As recently as May 2014, Now! 50 debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200. Now! 65 is the most recent volume to debut in the top 10, having entered at #10 in February, but subsequent installments have bowed in the top 20. The hits are fleeting, yet the Now! framework continues to look better with age — sort of a primitive, delayed Discover Weekly for people not plugged-in enough to seek out new music each week.

Peter Duckworth, one of the directors of the UK’s Now That’s What I Call Music brand, tells the Guardian that he doesn’t foresee the franchise dying out. He says, “Even in an age of streams, people need a curator. It’s a vast forest of songs out there.” It gets to a point where infinite choice feels like no choice at all. We trust in the algorithm. We surrender to it and let it play in the background of our lives. Before the algorithm, people trusted Now!

Duckworth calls Now! CDs “gift-y,” to which I say, “What a terrible gift.” I’d argue that the intimacy of music-sharing, and the intention of music consumption, died years ago, along with the mixtape. A mixtape — the hidden messages, the physicality and packaging — remains unmatched by the passive nature of a shared playlist or a Now! CD fished out of a bin at Blockbuster. With playlists, we have the benefit of choice and the illusion of its lasting impression. On the other hand, Now!‘s chart-driven tracklists give the illusion of choice while actually providing a permanent document. These impersonal relics might not mean anything to us in a few years, but at least we’ll have record of which shitty songs everyone was listening to.