Twenty years ago, someone finally told Americans what music was. The release of Now That’s What I Call Music! on October 27, 1998, was a turning point, a moment when the chaos of the auditory world was silenced; when consensus was reached by the mere declaration that nay, this—a collection of 17 contemporary songs—was music. Since that day we have had help in determining what is and what is not music (now), in the form of triannual installments in the Now series. We have never learned the identity of the authoritarian figure who guides us—this so-called “I”—but no matter, he or she or they or it has been just and resolute and unfleeting. The things they have called music have never been not-music, and so the ecosystem has remained intact.
Not counting bonus compilation albums—like the unassailable Now That’s What I Call Christmas! and the international-friendly Now Esto Es Musica! Latino—there have been 67 Now albums in the United States series. (The United Kingdom series has 100 albums and has been in circulation since 1983; the old country has known what music is for much longer.) All 67 albums have, undeniably, featured music—they are hitting 1.000 in that respect. Where the albums differ is in the aggregate quality of the music they contain—while all Now albums have definitively told us what music was in a given three-to-four-month span, they have never guaranteed that that music would be necessarily good. On the 20th anniversary of the birth of Now That’s What I Call Music!, there’s no better time than now to determine which compilations are superior, and where all of the albums rank in relation to one another. This time, I am the “I,” and the following list will be called “Now That’s What I Call a Good Installment of ‘Now That’s What I Call Music!’”
To appropriately rank the Now albums, I devised a formula to take into account the commercial success, accolades, and feeling of essentialness of each song featured. Half a point was awarded for every week a song stayed on the Billboard Hot 100; five points were awarded for every Grammy nomination a song earned, while 10 points were awarded for a Grammy win; lastly, one point was awarded for every MTV Video Music Award nomination, while two points were awarded for every VMA win. Those numbers were then totaled and averaged. The Essential Score for each album was determined by rating each song’s essentialness on a scale of 1 to 10. How do you determine how essential a song is, you ask? I’ll answer that question with a series of questions: How efficiently does the song conjure a sense of time and place? How well does it capture where popular music was as a genre when it was included on Now? And lastly, how good is the song to this day? Taking those questions into account and assigning each song an Essential Score, I—again, I am the authority here, which is valid because as Now doctrine states, all people who started the sixth grade three or four years before or after the first Now are Now experts—averaged those numbers to arrive at an Essential Score. Each album’s Points Average was then multiplied by its Essential Score to give us a Now Score. Simply put, the higher the Now Score, the better the Now album.
Before we get to the actual ranking, a couple of caveats:
- Every song on every album was factored into the scoring. However, starting with Now 32 in 2009, the compilations began including a set of four to six bonus tracks titled “Now What’s Next.” These songs were not factored into scoring, as they are mostly random shots in the dark at predicting future hits that never panned out. The Now albums are remarkably more proficient at declaring what music is in the present, rather than attempting to determine what music will be in the future.
- The last two Now albums, nos. 66 and 67, include songs that were released after October 1, 2017, meaning they have not yet been eligible to be nominated for, and win, Grammys. In those cases, educated guesses were employed.
Now (heh), on to the ranking, which will also comprise my stray thoughts and observations, blistering takes, some mini rankings, a handful of fun facts, and a running series I would like to call “I Can’t Believe That’s Not Music!”
Now Score: 24.22
Release Date: November 4, 2016
Most Essential Song: “This Is What You Came For” by Calvin Harris, featuring Rihanna
Least Essential Song: “Me Too” by Meghan Trainor
Because our fearless leader in music determination set forth the difficult task of providing updates at least three times a year, many times there just aren’t enough defining songs to fill a compilation album. So, as you’ll see often around the bottom of this list, Now resorted to selecting other tracks from artists who had hits earlier in the year, in the hope that the follow-ups would be as successful as their predecessors. Now 60 is the worst-case scenario for that strategy, as it features an irrelevant song from the “All About That Bass” girl, a useless track from the “livin’ like we’re renegades” band, and an even worse song from the guy who sings in seven-year intervals.
If this was music in late 2016, then those months are truly the darkest days of American pop culture.
Now Score: 29.82
Release Date: July 22, 2003
Most Essential Song: “Clocks” by Coldplay
Least Essential Song: “The Road I’m On” by 3 Doors Down
Daniel Bedingfield’s “If You’re Not the One”, a song you probably only barely remember, is on this album. I bring that up only to note that, yes, Daniel Bedingfield is Natasha Bedingfield’s older brother! I hope Natasha brags about being called music more times than Daniel at family dinners.
Now Score: 30.70
Release Date: August 31, 2010
Most Essential Song: “California Gurls” by Katy Perry, featuring Snoop Dogg
Least Essential Song: “Pray for You” by Jaron and the Long Road to Love
Each Now album follows more or less the same formula: The first seven to nine tracks are undeniably successful pop songs; the next two or three are hip-hop or R&B-leaning; then the last six or so are a mix of country and rock songs. As far as I can tell, Now is FAR BETTER at selecting the best pop songs, and when they miss on the back half of the albums, they really miss. That’s the case here, as “Pray for You” is a forgettable country song in which a man openly admits to fantasizing about physically assaulting his ex-girlfriend.
That’s music, though—you can’t argue that.
Now Score: 32.65
Release Date: March 15, 2005
Most Essential Song: “Drop It Like It’s Hot” by Snoop Dogg, featuring Pharrell
Least Essential Song: “Jessie’s Girl” by Frickin’ A
The Grammys showed way too much deference for U2 in the mid-aughts. “Vertigo”—the first track on Now 18, which is quite bad—won THREE Grammys in 2004. “Vertigo.” The song in which Bono, in Spanish, counts “one, two, three—fourteen!” They got three Grammys for that.
Now Score: 32.71
Release Date: November 20, 2001
Most Essential Song: “Fat Lip” by Sum 41
Least Essential Song: “Me, Myself & I” by Jive Jones
Now 8 gives us our first installment of “I Can’t Believe That’s Not Music!” because Now 8 selected the original “I’m Real” by Jennifer Lopez instead of the Murder Remix of “I’m Real” featuring Ja Rule. The latter is a perfect song that begins with Ja Rule yelling “What’s my motherfucking name!” and has a video in which J.Lo confidently wears head-to-toe pink Juicy Couture and a ridiculous fedora. The former is a song you would listen to only if you accidentally clicked on it thinking it was the Murder Remix.
I have complete faith in the all-knowing “I,” but sometimes I wonder …
Now Score: 37.33
Release Date: August 3, 2018
Most Essential Song: “Boo’d Up” by Ella Mai
Least Essential Song: “Let Me” by Zayn
Music, in its most current state, is bad.
Also, how’s this for injustice: Both Zayn and Liam Payne appear on Now 67. In all, 10 solo efforts from former members of One Direction appear on Now albums, though none of those are songs by Harry Styles. I really thought he’d be the one to release the most music. Alas, “Sign of the Times” is not music.
Now Score: 43.34
Release Date: February 2, 2018
Most Essential Song: “Havana” by Camila Cabello
Least Essential Song: “Let You Down” by NF
Once again: Music, in its most current state, is bad. Now 65, in particular, features a three-song run that paints a ghastly picture of recent popular rap, from G-Eazy’s “No Limit” to NF’s “Let You Down” to Post Malone’s “I Fall Apart.” Woof.
Now Score: 43.88
Release Date: April 29, 2016
Most Essential Song: “Love Yourself” by Justin Bieber
Least Essential Song: “Something in the Way You Move” by Ellie Goulding
A really tough listen all the way through, Now 58 starts with a low-impact Kelly Clarkson song (“Piece by Piece”) and continues with a slew of artists’ lesser hits (“Roses” by the Chainsmokers, “In the Night” by the Weeknd, “Out of the Woods” by Taylor Swift, and “Middle” by DJ Snake) and also songs by G-Eazy (again!) and Bryson Tiller. No thanks!
Now Score: 47.20
Release Date: July 23, 2002
Most Essential Song: “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton
Least Essential Song: “Move It Like This” by the Baha Men
Now did not realize that a song by the Baha Men about letting the dogs out would so resolutely become music. To make up for that exclusion, Now put their next song on Now 10. This was a mistake: “Move It Like This” did not chart, and as of today, still does not have more than a million plays on Spotify. It is also very painful to listen to.
I can’t really blame Now for this series of errors, though. The early 2000s were clearly messed up. We were a bunch of people running around barking at each other. Then when the barking stopped, we stopped listening. We as a culture need to take responsibility for our turn toward canine-related party jams, rather than hold Now accountable for its inability to predict that rather embarrassing phenomenon.
Now Score: 47.50
Release Date: March 23, 2004
Most Essential Song: “Toxic” by Britney Spears
Least Essential Song: “Shorty Doowop” by Baby Bash
Now 15 is an intriguing installment. Its Essential Score is 5.00, a relatively respectable rating on the higher end of a scale that ranges from 6.69 (Now 48) to 3.13 (Now 60). However, its Points Average sits at just 9.50 (the elite Now albums boast point averages in the upper teens). This means two things: That some of the album’s iconic songs surprisingly didn’t chart very well, and that the highs of the album were dragged down by much lower lows (I’m looking at you, “Everything” by Fefe Dobson). So before we move on, I’d like to give a couple of songs their due:
- “Toxic” by Britney Spears is the best song and video Britney Spears has ever released, please do not @ me.
- “Holidae In” by Chingy forever changed how one refers to spending a night at a hotel chain known for its affordable rates.
- Let us never forget Eamon’s “Fuck It (I Don’t Want You Back),” a song that became a hit despite having a hook filled entirely with obscenities and a verse in which the singer calls his cheating ex a “burnt bitch.”
Now Score: 47.65
Release Date: December 7, 1999
Most Essential Song: “All Star” by Smash Mouth
Least Essential Song: “Chanté’s Got a Man” by Chanté Moore
“Chanté’s Got a Man” is a wildly rude song. The thesis of “Chanté’s Got a Man” is “Oh dang, it’s really too bad your boyfriend is cheating on you, but guess what: I’m in a very stable, rewarding relationship.” It’s just a whole bunch of boasting—all done in the third person—directed at a woman going through one of the hardest periods of her life. Chanté didn’t need to do this.
Now Score: 48.80
Release Date: May 4, 2018
Most Essential Song: “The Middle” by Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey
Least Essential Song: “On the Loose” by Niall Horan
The sound of a car turning signal has haunted me since the day “The Middle” was released as a Target commercial on January 28, 2018. Please make it stop.
Now Score: 49.90
Release Date: November 6, 2012
Most Essential Song: “Gangnam Style” by Psy
Least Essential Song: “Hello” by Karmin
Speaking of Karmin, remember when Karmin was on Saturday Night Live? That was, um, interesting. The performance has mostly been scrubbed from the internet (which makes sense), but you can still read this breakdown by Vulture of all the absurd gestures Karmin made during it, which is probably better than actually rewatching the thing.
Now Score: 50.98
Release Date: June 15, 2010
Most Essential Song: “Baby” by Justin Bieber
Least Essential Song: “Solo” by Iyaz
The Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition” is on Now 34, which can mean only one thing: (500) Days of Summer played a major role in dictating what was called music in 2010.
Now Score: 51.04
Release Date: November 8, 2011
Most Essential Song: “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People
Least Essential Song: “When We Stand Together” by Nickelback
Say what you want about Nickelback, but it’s a fact that they are music. Since “How You Remind Me” landed on Now 10, Nickelback has appeared on 12 editions of Now—more than 20 percent of the time. You cannot avoid their music, which you’ve probably already noticed.
Now Score: 51.54
Release Date: October 27, 2014
Most Essential Song: “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor
Least Essential Song: “Love Runs Out” by OneRepublic
Now 52 is perhaps the only time the compilation’s “Now What’s Next” section predicted future success: The last track on the album is Rae Sremmurd’s first single, “No Flex Zone.” Considering Now’s shaky track record with hip-hop (see: Now 65), that they were able to foresee Rae Sremmurd’s breakout is absolutely stunning.
Now Score: 51.87
Release Date: March 25, 2003
Most Essential Song: “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” by Jay-Z, featuring Beyoncé
Least Essential Song: “Blowin’ Me Up (With Her Love)” by JC Chasez
Ugh, poor JC. Now 12 marked the first time both he and Justin Timberlake appeared on the compilation as they embarked on post-’NSync solo careers. “I’m just as much music as Justin!” I bet JC thought to himself when he saw this tracklist. But it all went downhill from there: Now 12 would be the last time JC was ever called music, while Justin was called music 17 more times.
Now Score: 52.06
Release Date: February 7, 2012
Most Essential Song: “Someone Like You” by Adele
Least Essential Song: “Lullaby” by Nickelback
Notice how all of the Nows that include late-era Nickelback are ranked so low.
Now Score: 54.50
Release Date: November 2, 2004
Most Essential Song: “Pieces of Me” by Ashlee Simpson
Least Essential Song: “Angels” by Jessica Simpson
Now 17 once and for all ends any debate over which Simpson sister had better bangers. It’s “Pieces of Me” above everything Jessica put out, even if we’re discussing the SNL, Irish jig version of the song.
If we ever do a ranking called “Now That’s What I Call a Reality Show!” though, Jessica’s taking home the belt.
Now Score: 55.28
Release Date: November 7, 2006
Most Essential Song: “SexyBack” by Justin Timberlake
Least Essential Song: “These Walls” by Teddy Geiger
This is easily the horniest music that has ever been in Now’s 20-year run in the States. The album features Timberlake’s “SexyBack,” Lyfe Jennings’s (yeah, I don’t know either) “S.E.X.,” and Ne-Yo’s “Sexy Love”—not to mention “Promiscuous” by Nelly Furtado and Fergie’s “London Bridge,” a song that likens female arousal to the lowering of an old crossway.
Now Score: 55.83
Release Date: July 27, 1999
Most Essential Song: “… Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears
Least Essential Song: “I Think I’m Paranoid” by Garbage
The second Now is a wondrous snapshot of popular music in 1999: It has Britney, the Backstreet Boys, “Closing Time” by Semisonic, “You Get What You Give” by New Radicals, the Blackstreet and Mýa song from the Rugrats movie, U2, Sublime, Jay-Z, and that spoken-word song about wearing sunscreen. It also doesn’t have any massive hits—“Closing Time” was the album’s longest-charting song at 37 weeks on the Hot 100—which is why this bizarre conglomeration of songs is ranked so low.
Now Score: 55.86
Release Date: June 3, 2008
Most Essential Song: “Lollipop” by Lil Wayne
Least Essential Song: “Killa” by Cherish, featuring Yung Joc
In this installment of “I Can’t Believe That’s Not Music!”: John Mayer’s career. Mayer appears on Now 28 twice—on his own song “Say” and as the featured artist on a cursed cover of “Beat It” by Fall Out Boy that I had erased from my memory. Those two appearances are the only time Mayer was ever considered music. That’s right: “Your Body Is a Wonderland” is not music. Neither is “Gravity.” And neither is the ultimate “I just realized I should treat women like humans” track “Daughters.”
Why? I blame the multiple popped collars.
Now Score: 57.39
Release Date: November 19, 2002
Most Essential Song: “Hot in Herre” by Nelly
Least Essential Song: “Feel It Boy” by Beenie Man
News flash: Jennifer Love Hewitt is music.
Sample lyrics from “BareNaked”: “Sometimes I think I’m the only one/Whose day turned out unlike it had begun.” [Whispers.] Jennifer, this is a description of literally every person’s everyday experience.
Definitely music, though.
Now Score: 57.87
Release Date: May 4, 2015
Most Essential Song: “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift
Least Essential Song: “Nobody Love” by Tori Kelly
Just to give you an idea of how the music gods (read: Now) judged Taylor Swift: “Blank Space” is the first time she ever headlined a Now album, and only the second time she landed on the lauded first half of a Now album (“I Knew You Were Trouble” on Now 46 was the first). This is mostly because it took Now an oddly long time to consider Taylor Swift to be a pop star. Even with songs like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (Now 45) and “You Belong With Me” (Now 32), Swift was getting slotted into spots usually reserved for country singers like Keith Urban and Jason Aldean. This is another example of how Now is an authority strictly only on what currently is and isn’t music; when it comes to foreseeing the shifting landscape of the pop genre, Now is weirdly hopeless.
Now Score: 59.73
Release Date: November 9, 2010
Most Essential Song: “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry
Least Essential Song: “September” by Daughtry
Across 67 albums, only 14 songs received a perfect 10 in the Essential Score category. “Teenage Dream” is one of them, and because I don’t have much else to say about Now 36, now is a good time to do a mini ranking of all the most essential Now songs.
A Mini Ranking of All the Essential Now Songs
14. “What Would You Do?” by City High
13. “Crank That” by Soulja Boy
12. “MMMBop” by Hanson
11. “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” by Jay-Z, featuring Beyoncé
10. “Sorry” by Justin Bieber
9. “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen
8. “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry
7. “Toxic” by Britney Spears
6. “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton
5. “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee
4. “Hey Ya” by Outkast
3. “… Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears
2. “24K Magic” by Bruno Mars
1. “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé, featuring Jay-Z
Play the above 14 songs at my funeral.
Now Score: 60.61
Release Date: November 11, 2008
Most Essential Song: “Disturbia” by Rihanna
Least Essential Song: “Thunder” by Boys Like Girls
Never heard of Boys Like Girls? Well, they’re a band that sounds very much like Dashboard Confessional, which—welcome to another round of “I Can’t Believe That’s Not Music!” Brace yourself, this is likely going to be the most shocking edition of this feature: Dashboard Confessional has never been called music. I know. I agree. My hair is currently everywhere.
Now Score: 60.79
Release Date: May 5, 2017
Most Essential Song: “That’s What I Like” by Bruno Mars
Least Essential Song: “The Fighter” by Keith Urban, featuring Carrie Underwood
Now albums are very quick to call songs in prominent ads music. It’s a tradition that began when Now 11 included “Days Go By” by Dirty Vegas, or as you probably know it, “that song that was in that Mitsubishi commercial with the dancing lady.” The tradition continued on Now 62, which features “Down” by Marian Hill, otherwise known as “that song in that iPhone commercial with the dancing guy.”
If your song ends up on a commercial, especially one featuring a person dancing, congrats, dude—your song is probably music.
Now Score: 61.43
Release Date: August 4, 2017
Most Essential Song: “Slide” by Calvin Harris, featuring Frank Ocean and Migos
Least Essential Song: “Swalla” by Jason Derulo, featuring Nicki Minaj and Ty Dolla $ign
Have you ever listened to the lyrics of “Something Just Like This,” the Chainsmokers/Coldplay song that’s on Now 63? They make no sense. Take the first verse, for example:
I’ve been reading books of old
The legends and the myths
Achilles and his gold
Hercules and his gifts
And Batman with his fists
And clearly I don’t see myself upon that list
I’m sorry, hang on. Did we just jump from Achilles and Hercules to SPIDER-MAN AND BATMAN? This is the worst book report on the Iliad ever written.
Now Score: 61.71
Release Date: March 24, 2009
Most Essential Song: “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga
Least Essential Song: “18 Days” by Saving Abel
Lest you think this was the only time Saving Abel appeared on a Now album—the 3 Doors Down–lite band was also on Now 29 with “Addicted,” a song whose uncensored hook is “I’m so addicted to all the things you do/When you’re going down on me in between the sheets.” “Addicted” was on the Billboard Hot 100 for 33 weeks; music in 2009 was disgusting.
Now Score: 63.23
Release Date: March 11, 2008
Most Essential Song: “No One” by Alicia Keys
Least Essential Song: “Into the Night” by Santana, featuring Chad Kroeger
Shout-out Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger, who hopped on the Santana train eight years too late.
Now Score: 65.61
Release Date: August 7, 2012
Most Essential Song: “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen
Least Essential Song: “One Thing” by One Direction
Now 43 is an inflection point in the Now nexus, capturing most of the artists either on the downslope of their careers or headed toward their apex. On the wrong side of the peak are artists like Usher (“Scream”), Maroon 5 (“Payphone”), and Ne-Yo (“Let’s Go”). On the rise are One Direction (“One Thing”), Ellie Goulding (“Lights”), and Calvin Harris (also “Let’s Go”). Now 43 also features M83’s “Midnight City,” which is great, but random.
Now Score: 66.18
Release Date: November 13, 2007
Most Essential Song: “Crank That” by Soulja Boy
Least Essential Song: “I Don’t Wanna Be in Love (Dance Floor Anthem)” by Good Charlotte
Instead of a blurb here, I embed this piece of sacred wisdom:
In this world you either crank that soulja boy or it cranks you— Soulja Boy Tell 'Em (@souljaboy) July 26, 2018
Now Score: 66.18
Release Date: July 11, 2006
Most Essential Song: “Ridin’” by Chamillionaire
Least Essential Song: “Tonight I Wanna Cry” by Keith Urban
I’m beginning to suspect that T-Pain has a problem interpreting the messages sent to him by various strippers. “I’m ’n Luv (wit a Stripper),” which appears on Now 22, is not the only song in which T-Pain documents his unrequited love for a stripper. The subject of “I Can’t Believe It,” whom T-Pain reportedly puts in a mansion somewhere in Wiscansin, is intimated to be a dancer. There’s also the song “Bartender,” and while it’s never specified whether this bartender is working at a strip club or just a regular bar, the dynamics of a relationship between a patron and a bartender and that of a patron and a stripper are similar enough to conclude that T-Pain has once again misinterpreted “working for tips” to mean “true love.” He and Wyclef Jean need to talk about this in group.
Now Score: 66.97
Release Date: February 5, 2016
Most Essential Song: “Sorry” by Justin Bieber
Least Essential Song: “Focus” by Ariana Grande
Can we take a step back and appreciate how important “Sorry”—and all of 2015—was for the rehabilitation of Justin Bieber? Believe-era Bieber was defined by speeding arrests in Miami, neighborhood vandalism, the Conner4Real hair cut, and songs that were way too sexual to be sung by an 18-year-old. Things were dismal. Then he jumped on a glorious song with dolphin sounds and released “Sorry,” a genius track that outright apologizes for all of his past behavior. All of Bieber’s no. 1 hits were released after 2014—that’s not a coincidence. And now my guy is free to marry a Baldwin and wear baggy SUNY sweatshirts in the middle of July.
Now Score: 67.19
Release Date: July 31, 2001
Most Essential Song: “What Would You Do?” by City High
Least Essential Song: “From My Head to My Heart” by Evan and Jaron
It’s strange: People are pretty rude about mumblerap, but I don’t remember anyone throwing their hands up about Mystikal yelling “Danger!” into a microphone over and over again.
Now Score: 67.58
Release Date: July 19, 2005
Most Essential Song: “Mr. Brightside” by the Killers
Least Essential Song: “How to Deal” by Frankie J
Fun fact: Frankie J has been called music more times than Drake.
Now Score: 68.03
Release Date: February 3, 2015
Most Essential Song: “Boom Clap” by Charli XCX
Least Essential Song: “Waves” by Mr. Probz
Ansel Elgort—and his DJ alter ego Ansolo—have never been called music. I’m sure this grinds his gears. I’m even surer he thinks solely about this when dunking basketballs. “‘Thief’ was a hit!” he says to himself, after checking to make sure he went live on Instagram. “Why did I wear that leather jacket with ridiculously long tassels if Now wasn’t even watching?!”
But Ansel shouldn’t be so hard on himself. He was in The Fault in Our Stars, which popularized “Boom Clap” by Charli XCX. Ergo, Ansolo is so close to being music.
Now Score: 68.07
Release Date: May 7, 2013
Most Essential Song: “I Knew You Were Trouble” by Taylor Swift
Least Essential Song: “Hey Porsche” by Nelly
I know it’s on Spotify, and on YouTube, and of course that the all-knowing “I” determined that it was, in fact, music, but I don’t know. I’m really not convinced that “Hey Porsche” by Nelly is a real song.
Sometimes the “I” is a cruel, hateful god.
Now Score: 68.20
Release Date: February 5, 2013
Most Essential Song: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” by Taylor Swift
Least Essential Song: “Feel Again” by OneRepublic
Let’s do a mini ranking of all the people Taylor Swift has made literal music about (allegedly).
A Mini Ranking of All the People Taylor Swift Has Made Literal Music About (Allegedly)
5. Joe Alwyn (“Delicate,” Now 67)
4. Katy Perry (“Bad Blood,” Now 56)
3. Taylor Swift (“22,” Now 47)
2. Harry Styles (“Style,” Now 55)
1. Jake Gyllenhaal (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Now 45)
Now Score: 69.02
Release Date: November 14, 2000
Most Essential Song: “It’s Gonna Be Me” by ’NSync
Least Essential Song: “Incomplete” by Sisqó
That “Incomplete” by Sisqó landed on Now 5 is the most solid evidence we have pointing to the Now religion including karma—it’s on there because “Thong Song” is not on Now 4, or any Now for that matter. That is a near-criminal act of erasure that cannot be forgiven. But tossing a meaningless also-ran on the next compilation is a nice way to say, “Hey, my bad, Sisqó.”
Now Score: 70.88
Release Date: March 27, 2007
Most Essential Song: “Fergalicious” by Fergie
Least Essential Song: “Shortie Like Mine” by Bow Wow
We let Fergie get away with so much.
Now Score: 70.98
Release Date: March 19, 2002
Most Essential Song: “Get the Party Started” by Pink
Least Essential Song: “Giving In” by Adema
From the Top 25 on down, we’re talking about Nows that are chock-full of iconic hits. This one has Britney’s “I’m a Slave 4 U,” Mary J. Blige’s “Family Affair,” Shakira’s “Wherever, Whenever,” J.Lo’s “Ain’t It Funny,” Ja Rule’s “Livin’ It Up,” Nelly Furtado’s “Turn Off the Light,” and Petey Pablo’s “Raise Up,” the most prominent song to ever advocate for using one’s shirt like a helicopter.
It also has a shocking amount of forgettable songs, like Aerosmith’s “Just Push Play,” “Caramel” by City High, and “Lights, Camera, Action!” by Mr. Cheeks. I, for one, am stunned that Mr. Cheeks didn’t gain more mainstream popularity.
Now Score: 71.10
Release Date: January 27, 2017
Most Essential Song: “24K Magic” by Bruno Mars
Least Essential Song: “Guys My Age” by Hey Violet
Here’s another fun fact: If you invite me to your wedding and don’t play “24K Magic,” I am taking my gift back.
Now Score: 71.13
Release Date: May 1, 2012
Most Essential Song: “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye, featuring Kimbra
Least Essential Song: “Get Yourself Back Home” by Gym Class Heroes
Here are five reasons why I think “Somebody That I Used to Know” isn’t remembered so kindly, despite it not being that bad a song:
1. No one knows how to pronounce “Gotye.” (It’s GOH-tee-yay, FYI.)
2. It features someone named Kimbra.
3. The whole bit about “collecting records” got super old, and was immediately a dated anecdote.
4. That little chirping noise.
It’s definitely the last one.
Now Score: 72.36
Release Date: August 9, 2011
Most Essential Song: “Party Rock Anthem” by LMFAO
Least Essential Song: “Who Says” by Selena Gomez & the Scene
As a young buck, I looked down on LMFAO. I scoffed at their zebra-print pants, the fact that a grown man was calling himself Redfoo and gallivanting around with his nephew. I hated the commercial with the dancing rodents. But as the years have passed, and as I’ve neared the age Redfoo was when “Party Rock Anthem” was released, I’ve come to realize how priceless LMFAO’s idiotic exuberance was. They were party people (in the house tonight), and they just wanted to have a good time.
Also, on LMFAO’s 2011 album Sorry for Party Rocking—look at this cover art—the song “Sorry for Party Rocking” appears before “Party Rock Anthem.” That is so, so stupid. LMFAO is a modern treasure.
Now Score: 74.66
Release Date: July 17, 2007
Most Essential Song: “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood
Least Essential Song: “The Great Escape” by Boys Like Girls
Boys Like Girls have been called music a confounding amount of times. The band is on five Now albums, which is way more than other rock bands like the Killers (one time), Radiohead (one time), Kings of Leon (zero times), and the White Stripes (zero times—not even “Seven Nation Army” is music).
I thought I knew what modern rock was; I was wrong.
Now Score: 75.07
Release Date: November 4, 2003
Most Essential Song: “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé, featuring Jay-Z
Least Essential Song: “Walked Outta Heaven” by Jagged Edge
Mya’s inclusion on Now 14 (“My Love Is Like … Wo”) brings us to the most egregious case of “I Can’t Believe That’s Not Music.” I hate to tell you this, but “Lady Marmalade” by Christina Aguilera, Pink, Lil’ Kim, and Mya IS NOT MUSIC. What’s more blasphemous: Questioning the Now gods or stating that “Lady Marmalade” isn’t music?
Now Score: 78.54
Release Date: November 1, 2005
Most Essential Song: “These Words” by Natasha Bedingfield
Least Essential Song: “Just Want You to Know” by the Backstreet Boys
Now hung onto the boy band craze a bit too long. I believe Kevin of the Backstreet Boys was 72 years old when Now 20 came out.
Now Score: 78.78
Release Date: August 6, 2013
Most Essential Song: “Cups” by Anna Kendrick
Least Essential Song: “Beneath Your Beautiful” by Labrinth, featuring Emeli Sandé
I picked “Cups” as the most essential song over Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” because I need us all to never forget the odd state pop music has been in this decade. Anna Kendrick did a cups routine in a movie and everyone was like, “Hm, yeah. I guess that’s a massive hit song.” And then Anna Kendrick made a video that was COMPLETELY UNRELATED TO THE MOVIE.
And then she just went back to making movies. Guys, that’s weird.
Now Score: 79.40
Release Date: November 3, 2009
Most Essential Song: “You Belong With Me” by Taylor Swift
Least Essential Song: “Had It All” by Katharine McPhee
Speaking of actresses making bizarre forays into the music world: Now 32 includes “Good Girls Go Bad” by Cobra Starship and Leighton Meester. That song is way better than “Cups,” by the way.
Now Score: 81.59
Release Date: April 4, 2006
Most Essential Song: “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield
Least Essential Song: “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been” by Relient K
The run in the middle of Now 21 is sublime. It goes from “Lean wit It, Rock wit It” by Dem Franchize Boyz to “Stay Fly” by Three 6 Mafia to “I’m Sprung” by T-Pain. Then after a random Ray J song (!!), it drops “Because of You” by Kelly Clarkson and “Unwritten.” I think I’m starting to tear up.
Now Score: 82.97
Release Date: March 23, 2010
Most Essential Song: “Need You Now” by Lady Antebellum
Least Essential Song: “I Wanna Rock” by Snoop Dogg
A hot take: “Need You Now” is one of the best songs of the decade, across all genres; it’s probably top five.
Now Score: 83.04
Release Date: June 30, 2009
Most Essential Song: “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga
Least Essential Song: “Note to God” by Charice
Here’s a question I’ve been waiting all day to ask: Is Ally, Lady Gaga’s character from A Star Is Born, music? Relatedly, is Jackson Maine music? In the universe of A Star Is Born (assuming that Now exists in that universe), I’m guessing that “Maybe It’s Time” ended up in one of the country slots on an early Now. I’m on the fence when it comes to “Black Eyes”—that song might rock too hard to be called music. But you know “Shallow” made the cut—all those YouTube views would be impossible to ignore.
As for Ally’s solo work, “Why Did You Do That?” is making a Now track list—it’s a good song, and FAR dumber songs have been called music. I also think “Heal Me” makes a Now album, off of the success of “Why Did You Do That?” alone. “I’ll Never Love Again” also makes a Now album, one that is dedicated to Jackson Maine.
In our universe, meanwhile, I’d expect “Shallow” by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper to land on, like, Now 69. Bradley Cooper is music.
Now Score: 84.53
Release Date: November 3, 2017
Most Essential Song: “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, featuring Justin Bieber
Least Essential Song: “Dusk Till Dawn” by Zayn, featuring Sia
There’s a song on Now 64—one of the most award-winning collections of songs in Now history—called “Body Like a Back Road” by Sam Hunt. What … does that mean? Whose body are we talking about? Don’t you think they should see a doctor?
Now Score: 85.16
Release Date: August 5, 2016
Most Essential Song: “Panda” by Desiigner
Least Essential Song: “Never Forget You” by Zara Larsson
If Desiigner hadn’t done this…
… people would be a lot more willing to concede that “Panda” is a pretty good song.
Now Score: 87.15
Release Date: August 7, 2015
Most Essential Song: “Where Are Ü Now” by Jack Ü, featuring Justin Bieber
Least Essential Song: “Fun” by Pitbull, featuring Chris Brown
Now 55 captures the apex of DJ-dominated pop music with “Where Are Ü Now,” Major Lazer’s “Lean On,” David Guetta’s “Hey Mama,” and DJ Snake’s “You Know You Like It.” You might think, “Well, that sucks,” and you’d probably be right. Overall, Now 55 is not this high because of the quality of the DJ songs (well, except for “Where Are Ü Now,” which is perfect)—it’s this high because of the charting success of the DJ songs, and the overwhelming commercial success of Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” which also lands on Now 55.
Now Score: 89.80
Release Date: September 5, 2015
Most Essential Song: “Let It Go” by Idina Menzel
Least Essential Song: “Wild Wild Love” by Pitbull, featuring G.R.L.
Now 51, brought to you by the wickedly talented, one and only Adele Dazeem.
Now Score: 92.63
Release Date: May 6, 2014
Most Essential Song: “Turn Down for What” by DJ Snake and Lil Jon
Least Essential Song: “La La La” by Naughty Boy, featuring Sam Smith
“Turn Down for What” is Lil Jon’s revenge on the Now god after it somehow determined that both “Get Low” and “Yeah!” were not music. In response to these truly harsh, obviously misguided snubs, Lil Jon clearly sat down with the then-unknown DJ Snake to make a song that was so music it would eventually drive everyone mad.
Now Score: 92.72
Release Date: July 27, 2004
Most Essential Song: “Hey Ya” by Outkast
Least Essential Song: “Just Like You” by Three Days Grace
I’ve given myself to the power of the Now Formula, and I trust its ability to objectively determine the best Now. That said, Now 16 may be my personal favorite. It has timeless hits like “Hey Ya” and “Naughty Girl” by Beyoncé, but it also has nostalgia-heavy tracks like JoJo’s “Leave (Get Out),” Yellowcard’s “Ocean Avenue,” Britney Spears’s “Everytime,” and Los Lonely Boys’ “Heaven.”
It also, for some reason, has Juvenile’s “Slow Motion,” marking one of the only times Now correctly classified rap as music. More on that below …
Now Score: 93.97
Release Date: February 4, 2014
Most Essential Song: “Hold On, We’re Going Home” by Drake
Least Essential Song: “Drink a Beer” by Luke Bryan
“Hold On, We’re Going Home” is one of only two times that Drake has been called music (the other was “Best I Ever Had”). He is resoundingly the most popular musician of his generation—the crazy thing is that he doesn’t actually make music though.
By now you’ve noticed Now’s struggles with rap. But I still want to highlight the few times in the last 20 years that rap was called music. To do that, I’ve created a playlist called “Now That’s What I Call Hip-Hop!” Enjoy.
Now Score: 94.24
Release Date: July 18, 2000
Most Essential Song: “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” by Eiffel 65
Least Essential Song: “I Belong to You” by Lenny Kravitz
We’re getting into the nitty gritty now, where every remaining Now has a valid argument for it being the best ever—just over 10 points separate Now 4 from the very top. I mention that because even though Now 4 is outside the top five, holy shit, it freaking BANGS. It opens with “Larger Than Life” by the Backstreet Boys, includes “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” and J.Lo’s “Waiting for Tonight” (oh!), and may feature the best closing run of any Now album: Ben Harper’s “Steal My Kisses” to Smash Mouth’s “Then the Morning Comes” to Train’s “Meet Virginia” to Macy Gray’s “I Try” to Hanson’s “This Time Around” to the closing track, Blink-182’s “All the Small Things.” Incredible.
Now Score: 95.63
Release Date: October 30, 2015
Most Essential Song: “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa, featuring Charlie Puth
Least Essential Song: “Strip It Down” by Luke Bryan
R.I.P. Paul. You’re music now.
Now Score: 96.37
Release Date: April 3, 2001
Most Essential Song: “Bye Bye Bye” by ’NSync
Least Essential Song: “Gotta Tell You” by Samantha Mumba
It was very difficult choosing the most essential song off Now 6, which tells you why it’s ranked so high. In one corner you’ve got “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” by Jennifer Lopez, which was the subject of probably my favorite episode of Making the Video. In the next corner there’s Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open,” and may I just say WELCOME TOOOO THIS PLACE, I’LL SHOW YOU EVERYYYYTHANG. Then there’s “It Wasn’t Me” by Shaggy, a song in which a man is caught literally having sex on the floor of a bathroom, and when that man asks Shaggy for advice, Shaggy just says, “Lie about it, bro.” Not helpful, Shaggy! She already saw me!
Ultimately though, I went with “Bye Bye Bye” because it’s the song that helped ’NSync snatch the boy band belt from the Backstreet Boys once and for all. And because if I don’t pick it, Puppet Justin Timberlake might murder me.
Now Score: 96.90
Release Date: October 27, 1998
Most Essential Song: “MMMBop” by Hanson
Least Essential Song: “Never Ever” by All Saints
The first Now is a glorious, clear mission statement, perfectly encapsulating what music was in 1998. Janet Jackson’s “Together Again” opens the album; Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy” closes it. In between there’s Fastball, Tonic, “Flagpole Sitta,” the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, and “Barbie Girl” by Aqua. Now 1 even includes “Karma Police” by Radiohead. It is the best snapshot of a moment in time ever offered by a Now album.
Now Score: 102.94
Release Date: May 3, 2011
Most Essential Song: “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele
Least Essential Song: “Hold It Against Me” by Britney Spears
“Rolling in the Deep” is tied for the highest points total of any song featured on Now with 67.5 (with Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now”). It’s a big reason why Now 38’s Points Average is so high, and hence why Now 38 ranks so high (though “Fuck You” by Cee Lo Green and “Grenade” by Bruno Mars also do some heavy lifting). It’s also a good excuse for one more mini-ranking. Only seven songs across all of the Now albums scored at least 50 points; here they all are, ranked (by personal preference):
A Mini Ranking of the Top-Scoring Now Songs
7. “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith
6. “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars
5. “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran
4. “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele
3. “That’s What I Like” by Bruno Mars
2. “Humble” by Kendrick Lamar
1. “Need You Now” by Lady Antebellum
Now Score: 103.66
Release Date: November 11, 2013
Most Essential Song: “We Can’t Stop” by Miley Cyrus
Least Essential Song: “Love Somebody” by Maroon 5
Now 48 captures the time in 2013 when pop music completely lost its mind. It is the Miley-Cyrus-grinding-on-Robin-Thicke-in-Beetlejuice-pants of Now albums. And because of the micro-era it encapsulates, almost all of the songs are nostalgia-heavy and essential-feeling—for good and bad reasons. From “We Can’t Stop” to “Blurred Lines,” from “Get Lucky” to “Summertime Sadness”—even on down to “Sail” by AWOLNATION—Now 48 is a magical listen.
Now Score: 104.61
Release Date: February 8, 2011
Most Essential Song: “Only Girl (In the World)” by Rihanna
Least Essential Song: “Love Like Woe” by The Ready Set
I could simply print the entire tracklist of Now 37 and it would be a sufficient explanation for why this ranks at the top of this list. But this has been a long article, and you’re probably ready to move on, so here are just a few highlights on an album that is 100 percent full of them: an anthemic, all-girl, four-song run featuring Katy Perry (“Firework”), Pink (“Raise Your Glass”), Kesha (“We R Who We R”), and Rihanna; “LIKE A G6” (emphasis mine) by Far East Movement; “No Hands” by Waka Flocka Flame; and freakin’ “Stereo Love” by Edward Maya and Vika Jigulina.
Now this is what I call music.