Nothing about the “Now That’s What I Call Music!” series is cool. Not the title, which is something a dad says quietly to himself when the Eagles finally comes on, nor the overeager cover design, nor the late night infomercials that hawked them on US television. But it is possible that when future archaeologists are piecing together the shards of our fallen civilization, no other artifact will be as vital to establishing the evolutionary timeline of the industrialized world’s musical tastes than these battered CDs.
“Now That’s What I Call Music!”—or Now, as it’s popularly known in the UK and elsewhere—debuted in 1983 in the UK, as a partnership between music licensing giants EMI and Virgin Records. According to legend, the name came from a 1930s poster Richard Branson spotted in an antique shop on London’s Portobello Road. (It turned out to be a fortuitous purchase in multiple ways: Branson eventually married the shop owner.)
The track list of the first album is an audio time capsule of the 1980s: “You Can’t Hurry Love” by Phil Collins; UB40’s “Red Red Wine,” Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Men at Work’s “Down Under. And Boy George, of course. Not every artist proved to be a lasting sensation—it’s hard to recall any other entry in the Kajagoogoo canon, other than perhaps “Too Shy“—but the vast majority of the songs did.
The first international edition came a year later, in South Africa, and over the next two decades it spread across the globe. Today there are country-specific Now compilations in more than two dozen nations, including New Zealand, China, Finland, and Saudi Arabia.
Despite the title, there is no single “I” that chooses this music; the albums could just as accurately be labeled “Now That’s What Now Calls Music.” Each album is a collection of 20-odd hit singles released since the previous Now album, a timeline that varies depending on the market (the UK drops three pop collections per year; the US just one.) A Now album isn’t a straight ripoff of any chart’s top singles, but rather a carefully curated selection from multiple music charts arranged by country-specific curators.
No country has embedded Now so deeply into its cultural DNA as the UK, its native land. By 1989, Now and its imitators so dominated UK music charts that a compilation-only splinter chart was created to stop them from gumming up other artists’ shots at number one.
The rise of digital music has not usurped Now’s crown, at least when it comes to albums. The 2016 edition was the year’s top-selling album. In 2017, four of UK iTunes’ top 10 best-selling albums were from the Now family. There are Now spinoffs of all flavors: Now That’s What I Call Club Hits, Now That’s What I Call Running, Now That’s What I Call Christmas.
The global ubiquity of Now albums may come as a surprise to people in the US, a relatively late addition to the global Now family. The first US compilation arrived only in 1998 (sample tracks: the Backstreet Boys’ “As Long As You Love Me,” Hanson’s “MMMBop,” K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life”). Buying a Now album with one’s pocket money isn’t a childhood memory for Americans the way it is for many people in the UK and Commonwealth countries.
Yet the genre isn’t close to dead in the US. “Now That’s What I Call Music 65” (Camilla Cabello’s “Havana,” Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry”) sold only 25,000 copies in its first week this February, AdAge recently reported. But the albums have a long tail and typically sell about 250,000 copies over their lifetime. About 1.5 million Now titles are purchased in the US each year, AdAge wrote, and though they can be streamed on Spotify and Apple, most purchases are in the form of physical CDs. It’s far from a chart-topper—Cardi B’s “Invasion of Privacy” just sold 255,000 copies in its first week—but it’s not nothing.
A user of the data platform Kaggle collected every title on the first 61 Now albums released in the US, and we added data for the last four albums to be released. An analysis of the 65 US albums shows how useful the Now albums are as cultural compendiums. It’s not an annual list of a year’s best music, or its most original, or works of emerging artists. It is, however, a virtually perfect index of what was broadly popular. Nickelback, Ne-Yo, and Taylor Swift feature frequently on Now albums; Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Eminem never have.
The compilations are also an effective tracker of music listening habits and tastes. Pop song titles are getting shorter, and so are those on Now CDs. Pop songs are getting shorter in length, and so are those on Now albums.
Just as reading the encyclopedia won’t make you an expert on anything, listening to the Now oeuvre will not be a deep dive into any particular artist or genre. It will, however, give you a serviceable understanding of the music in any calendar year. It’s a resource that could be handy for a high school dance (or reunion), a multigenerational wedding, or as background music to pile through a mall.
And there’s something rather pleasant about this. History has so many ways to record conflict and division. Now albums are collections of things (“Despacito,” Maroon 5) that human civilization has grudgingly agreed upon.
In an era of single-song downloads, Now has long since outlived its original purpose as a ready-made collection of favorite singles. But while it’s too early for an obituary, it’s not too late for an appreciation. A US dance teacher says she buys copies every year for practice routines; this summer will see the much-anticipated release of Now 100 in the UK.
It may not be what you call music, but it is a good record of what we called music together.