Now That’s What I Call Pop History, Vol. 1
The Now music collections are a weird and unique beast. The collection, running in the
US since 1998 and now 65 volumes deep, has consistently worked to transcend genre and
deliver a snapshot of the musical zeitgeist in the months before the album. It’s an audacious
and laudable goal, and it’s one that lends itself to looking back and analyzing the evolution of
pop music in the 21 st century in near-endless quick steps. More importantly, the Now series was
my gateway into music. When I was a wee youth, Volumes 1-8 made up pretty much my entire
CD collection and helped me realize some very defined musical tastes at the time (Rock=good,
soul/R&B=not my thing at the time, Rap=I don’t know how to feel about this as a 3rd grader).
Because of Now’s semi-encyclopedic structure and my personal history with the series, I’m
going to honor 20 years of Now by reviewing every damn one of these albums, one track at a
time. So join me on this journey as we explore the evolution of modern pop, revisit some old
classics, and hear some songs for the first time that left the cultural consciousness as soon as
they entered (note: I’m probably going to be hearing a lot of these songs for the first time,
because I tend to spend long periods hilariously disconnected from said zeitgeist and these first
few albums are all nearly 20 years old, so feel free to shame me as needed for not knowing
some society-shattering hit).
Let’s dive right in for Volume 1, from October 1998 (For reference, all these volumes are
playlists on Spotify now, give or take a track or two on each, so feel free to follow along there).
1) Janet Jackson – “Together Again”
Like a lot of people in my immediate age group, I don’t actually know Janet Jackson for any of
her music. I just know her for the Superbowl 38 halftime trainwreck and the subsequent deeply
problematic ruining of her career as a star (as has been discussed plenty with Justin
Timberlake’s recent return to the halftime stage). But, I’ve been told that she was an
immensely talented artist who made some damn good pop music. This song sure as hell agrees
with that assessment. It’s infectious, bubbly, feel-good dance pop with some really inspired
musical touches. The harp especially brings a good and unique balance to the otherwise
entirely electronic track. It’s very much in the “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” vein of music. I
would happily dance to this awkwardly in a club full of people.
2) Backstreet Boys – “As Long as You Love Me”
Admit it right now. Were you a Backstreet kid or an N*sync kid? When I was listening to these
albums, I was firmly Backstreet, but in my more mature years, I’ve shifted to N*sync a bit. They
just ended up sticking with me more through the years. No matter which way you lean though,
boy band dominance is one of the major through-lines of the first few years of NOW. We’re
going to be seeing Backstreet a lot over the first 10ish volumes, and none of the other
boybands are here yet, so we’ll save all the in-depth comparing for the coming weeks.
This track on its own is one that’s still pretty enjoyable to listen to, even if its musical stylings
are immediately identifiable as late-90s/early- 2000s. It’s got that kinda weird Spanish
guitar/piano and chimes/dance beat mix that immediately identify a pop/R&B love song from
this period. This almost certainly wasn’t the first song to use this sound-style, but it is probably
one of the ones that’s held up better throughout the years.
3) Fastball – “The Way”
I have absolutely no recollection of this band or this artist at all. Exciting! It’s a solid, enjoyable
late-90s one-hit- wonder alt-rock song (you know exactly what this means, and apparently so
did NOW, because I count at least 5 other bands that fit this description on this album). This
one has the added touch of being built around an extremely Texas-Western guitar riff that’s
been fuzzed up. It’s solid enough, but I can understand completely why this track and band has
been relegated to the dustbin of history.
4) Harvey Danger – “Flagpole Sitta”
Speaking of late-90s one-hit- wonder alt-rock, here’s a song that never faded away into history.
This song still gets played all the time on the radio, because it fucking bangs. This song has such
a weird, anxious energy driving it that makes it extremely catchy and poignant even 20 years
later. I’ve found this song is best listened to in the car, when you can turn it on, turn your brain
off, and just rock out and scream along to it for the next 4 minutes. It’s extremely cathartic and
energizing and may get you a speeding ticket if you’re not being careful.
5) Spice Girls – “Say You’ll Be There”
Oh shit, I didn’t realize this was a Spice Girls song. I didn’t recognize the title, and don’t know
who I thought it was by, but that chorus is unmistakable. The Spice Girls are such a weird beast,
because around this time they basically ruled the world (Spice World the movie, two huge
albums, basically the face of England). But in just a year or two they fizzled their next album, fell
off the face of the earth, and somehow still managed to stay hugely culturally relevant for the
next forever. I don’t entirely get it, but hell yeah good for them. The music here is about as
standard a girl/boy band sound as you can get, but it’s still extremely danceable after all these
6) K-Ci & JoJo – “All My Life”
I remember this song, and thought it was still an R&B classic that didn’t need a ton said about it.
Until I listened to the lyrics again and, uhhh:
Girl you are close to me you're like my mother
Close to me you're like my father
Close to me you're like my sister
Close to me you're like my brother
Well. The rest of the song might be romantic and mood-setting and everything, but telling your partner
that they’re all of your immediate family members is gonna make things get real weird, real quick and is
going to be a hella buzzkill. Hailey brothers, you tried, but you tried too hard and just made it awkward.
7) All Saints – “Never Ever”
Another one I have absolutely no recollection of the band or the song. All Saints was another
British girl group, which means that no matter how successful they were (and it seems like they
were pretty successful), they were always going to live in the Spice shadow. This song mostly
deserves that positioning. It’s a well-made, sad pop song, but doesn’t do anything particularly
unique or interesting for most of its run. However, it glimpse unique greatness with its near-
minute long, spoken word/piano/choral ooooo intro that suggests something much darker,
weirder, and more interesting lurking under the pop sheen of the rest of the song.
8) Tonic – “If You Could Only See”
Ok, I honestly thought this song was by Vertical Horizons, but it was merely one of the handful
of late-90s, post-grunge bands that merge into the ideal of Vertical Horizons in my head.
Honestly, this song probably deserves that kind of semi-anonymity, because it’s a very good,
very listenable rock song that has absolutely no unique identifiers in it to help it stand out from
the rest of the very good, very listenable rock that came out in this period. This has to be one of
the weirdest hells for musicians, with tons of people knowing your song and absolutely no one
knowing it was your song that they know.
9) Hanson –“MMMBop”
I did not realize this song had lyrics outside the chorus. That chorus is still eternally annoying,
even decades later, but honestly the rest of the song is actually really enjoyable. It’s very
Jackson 5 by way of late-90s pop/rock sensibilities. It’s not good enough to make me endure
the chorus to ever listen to this specific song again, but it makes me curious to actually hear
what the rest of Hanson’s music sounds like. Maybe I’ll go out, grab a six-pack of Mmmhops,
and check out the rest of their music some night.
10) Cherry Poppin’ Daddies – “Zoot Suit Riot”
I remember Cherry Poppin’ Daddies being a thing, mostly because that extremely questionable
band name, but this is absolutely not the sound I had connected with them in my head. This is
just straight up ‘30s-style big band swing music. It’s enjoyable and a pleasant surprise, but I do
not understand how this was able to be a hit in the ‘90s. The late ‘90s really were a strange
time. If only I had been more than 5 at the time to experience it.
11) Imajin ft Keith Murray– “Shorty (You Keep Playin with My Mind)”
Hell yeah we finally got some rap (in the form a single verse on another song I don’t remember
at all). Honestly, the rap verse doesn’t even fit that well in this song. Most of the song is just
light, fluffy, kinda forgettable R&B, and then Keith Murray busts in with a harsh voice and heavy
flow that just never feels like it fits in with the song. I can see why this was a hit, because the
individual pieces are all solid enough, but it just doesn’t cohere for me today.
12) Brian McKnight – “Anytime”
Brian McKnight was one of the smoothest men alive in the late ‘90s. This song made this album
despite not even remotely being a hit in the US, but I think it’s easily one of the best songs on
this whole compilation. It’s smooth as hell, with a perfect mix of funk guitar, piano, and beats
all complementing McKnight’s silky, wistful voice. This is a song that could easily be used for
either getting really sad and lonely to or getting real steamy with, and it wouldn’t be weird
either way. It’s a rare accomplishment for a song, and I’m glad to have this as a pre-emptive
palate cleanser for the next song on the list…
13) Aqua – “Barbie Girl”
This. Fucking. Song. It was ear poison the moment it came out, and it has not aged well at all.
Every facet of this song is terrible. The singers’ voices are grating in so many different ways. The
beat is designed to get stuck in your head in the most irritating way possible while providing no
enjoyment. The lyrics are just chock full of questionable gender politics that I don’t really even
want to touch. This is bubblegum pop at its absolute worst: overly sweet with no substance,
and it will make you feel sick if you consume too much of it (too much, in this case, is about 10
14) Radiohead – “Karma Police”
Well, at least they bookended “Barbie Girl” with the two actual best songs on this compilation.
While I’m not as familiar with Radiohead as I probably should be, I do know this song is dope as
hell. Since Radiohead probably doesn’t need any more critical acclaim from random white
college dudes any more than they’ve already gotten throughout their career, I’ll use this spot
for a different note. If you haven’t noticed yet, this NOW volume is surprisingly alt-rock heavy,
which won’t be repeated in any following volume. I don’t know if the people putting this
together were just feeling super edgy for this particular album, or if they were just tossing stuff
around to see what America was really into, or if rock was actually this prominent at the
moment and just fell off a ton in popularity in the next few months. Whatever the case may be,
this is the most rock’n’roll NOW ever has been and ever will be, so enjoy it while it lasts.
15) Everclear – “I Will Buy You a New Life”
For some reason, I just adored Everclear’s tracks on these early NOW volumes. They have such
a fun, unique sound to me, mostly based around Art Alexakis’s extremely distinctive voice, even
if most of their songs are depressing as hell. This is one of their big songs that wasn’t about
Alexakis’s youth and daddy issues, and it’s one of their more restrained songs. Alexakis takes a
dreamy, reassuring tone while listing the kinds of just plausible but out of reach things he wants
to get for his lover to make her happy. It strikes me as a bittersweet song, because he wants to
buy her the world (even if that world is just a new garden, car, and fancy house), but you can
tell there’s no way he can follow on that promise, even as grounded as it may seem. Man,
Everclear was some good shit, and they should get way more recognition then they do these
16) Lenny Kravitz – “Fly Away”
Lenny Kravitz has faded away into the music background over the decades, but there was a
time where he was a legit rock star on the top of the world. This song and his cover of
“American Woman” in particular were just inescapable in the late ‘90s/early 2000s. This song
has a lot going on, with the heavy main riff, the funk bass and electronics, and Kravitz’s kinda
whiney voice. I know bringing all those elements should be interesting and daring, but
somehow it comes off as safe and sort of boring. Maybe it even was daring and innovative
when it came out 20 years ago, but at this point it’s just something I would hear in the
background in a mall, but with a harder guitar than most of the other stuff playing.
17) Marcy Playground – “Sex & Candy”
Much like “Flagpole Sitta,” this is a rock one-hit- wonder that actually sticks with you. There’s no
mistaking this beautiful, grimy weirdness for anything else. Somehow Marcy Playground
managed to give every part of this song, from the vocals to the guitar and drums, a completely
flat, detached affectation that lets the song maintain a simultaneous air of cool and unease for
its entire run. This is such an odd, idiosyncratic song (even more so than the Radiohead) to end
this album on, and I think I can comfortably say that NOW never includes a song this weird
Next Time: NOW still tries to find its feet, and one of pop’s biggest names comes roaring onto