clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The History of ‘Now That’s What I Call Music!,’ the Pre-Streaming Playlist Behemoth

Before there was RapCaviar, there was ‘Now.’ The best-selling compilation series celebrates two decades in the U.S. this week with the release of a new edition and a retrospective collection. But what did ‘Now’ mean in the CD era? And what’s its place in a curation-dominated future?

Alycea Tinoyan

Sean Nelson, frontman for Seattle alt-rockers Harvey Danger, remembers saying no. In 1998, “Flagpole Sitta,” a wry and boisterous joybomb from the band’s 1997 debut album, Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone?, was an unlikely Top 40 hit, back in an age when wry alt-rockers were far more likely to suddenly become pop stars. And suddenly, the boys had decisions to make. Did Nelson want to rewrite the lyrics to one of his other songs for an upcoming film called Cruel Intentions? No. (“At that point, it was called Cruel Inventions,” he notes. “They changed it, because their market research told them that everybody thought it was a movie about science.”) Can Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra sit in when the band plays “Flagpole Sitta” on Late Show With David Letterman? No. And do Harvey Danger want to be on the first American volume of a new blockbuster compilation series called Now That’s What I Call Music!?

No.

“We were feeling a bit overexposed,” Nelson says. “Particularly in the sense that we were all very aware that we were going to be on the one-hit-wonder train, and we were sort of very eager to not be on that train.” So the band passed. “We had the kind of deal where we were technically—we had the rights to say no to anything we wanted. We had putative freedom. And so we said no, and thought that was that.”

And then, several months later, while the boys were hanging out in some bar somewhere, this commercial came on the TV.

Hanson’s “MMMBop.” Backstreet Boys’ “As Long As You Love Me.” Spice Girls’ “Say You’ll Be There.” Tonic’s “If You Could Only See.” K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life.” Everclear’s “I Will Buy You a New Life.” And, yes, Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta.” Seventeen monster hits across the bewildering pop diaspora, available via 1-800 number for $17.98 on CD or $15.98 on cassette. “And we just were so utterly crestfallen,” Nelson says. “Not because we were on this compilation, which was fine, but more because nothing we thought was true was actually true. In a year of—we had a lot of good times, but there was also a ton of real disillusionment. So, Now That’s What I Call Disillusionment!

Catchy (and malleable) title, right? The Now That’s What I Call Music! empire dawned in the U.K. in 1983, sired by Virgin Records and taking its name from an extremely British in-joke about eggs and bacon. It took 15 years to hit America, but when the U.S. Now 1 arrived on October 27, 1998, a new chart colossus was born, from its euphoric opening number (Janet Jackson’s “Together Again”) to its sardonic closer (Marcy Playground’s “Sex & Candy”). The various bedfellows here started out strange—no matter how often you revisit the Now 1 tracklist, the leap from Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” to Radiohead’s “Karma Police” is an invigorating slap in the face—and only got stranger. Now 2, released in July 1999, kicks off with the immortal double-shot of Britney Spears’s “...Baby One More Time” and The New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give,” a megastar lifer giving way to a transcendent one-off. It made both perfect sense and no sense at all.

On Friday, the franchise—a veteran of the boy-band-driven early-2000s CD boom, the post-Napster industry hellscape, and the latter-day turn toward heavy streaming—will celebrate with two new releases. Now 68 is business as usual, packed with the hitmakers of right this second: Post Malone, Ariana Grande, Imagine Dragons, the Chainsmokers, and Ella Mai. Whereas the somewhat convolutedly titled Now That’s What I Call Music! 20th Anniversary, Vol. 1 puts one series-debut ringer (Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”) atop a partly fan-voted greatest hits of the greatest hits, from “Get the Party Started” (Now 9) to “SexyBack” (Now 23) to “I Gotta Feeling” (Now 32) to “Blank Space” (Now 54).

Both Now chief operating officer Jerry Cohen and longtime series producer Jeff Moskow proudly describe their crew as “the original playlisters.” And while this is not technically accurate—the Canadian outfit K-tel, for example, used corny TV ads to sell its various corny ’70s compilations—the longevity of this particular enterprise is still confounding, and awfully impressive. All 67 U.S. volumes of Now That’s What I Call Music! have made the Billboard Top 10, with 19 hitting No. 1. Lucrative spinoffs range from Now That’s What I Call Country to NOW That’s What I Call Christmas! to Now That’s What I Call Dad Rock and far beyond. And each new release is available on services like Spotify, where the Now brand also maintains myriad streaming-exclusive playlists, fiercely competing within the very everyone’s-a-playlister ecosystem that might’ve rendered the brand obsolete. Go to any Target or Walmart or the like, and there you’ll find physical Now CDs, selling briskly despite the forever-impending death of that ecosystem.

But that longevity, at least in the highest echelons of pop music, proved elusive for many a Now artist. “I think it put us in the time capsule of 1998 and absolutely locked the door,” Harvey Danger’s Nelson says. For rock bands and stylistic oddities unlikely to maintain superstar status beyond the teen-pop-heavy turn of the century, this was a trophy with the crushing weight of a millstone. “On the one hand, I guess it’s fine to have once been included in the yearbook,” Nelson continues. “And to be on the first one is kinda—you wouldn’t call it a feather in your cap, I guess, but of the many sort of footnotes and asterisks that Harvey Danger’s career consists of, that is definitely one of them.”

The reentry from that stratosphere, however, could be rough. “On the other hand, it was a definitive signifier of the fact that this thing that we cared about a lot and that meant a lot to us—our music, and even that song—was truly relegated to the K-tel trash heap of pop culture,” Nelson says. “I think that’s what it means, like, ‘Welcome to being, you know, litter, in culture.’” The challenge, with any given volume of Now That’s What I Call Music!, is what happens when that famous title-as-statement no longer exists in the present tense.

Tony Scalzo, singer and guitarist for the Austin rock band Fastball, has no memory of being asked. But there sits his group’s biggest hit, the piano-driven and cheerfully doomed road-trip anthem “The Way,” at Track 3 on Now 1, right between “As Long as You Love Me” and “Flagpole Sitta.”

“I didn’t even notice,” Scalzo says. “There was no way to notice. I do interviews, right? I do them, what, 10 to 15 times a year. And back then, I would literally do 20 a day. Including an acoustic performance at some mall opening, or three radio stations in the morning, and two in the afternoon, plus playing a show. So I was oblivious to anything other than what was right in front of me. For probably about a year.”

Much like Harvey Danger, Fastball found themselves launched into deep space by one serendipitous hit, even though deep space of the Britney Spears variety was never exactly the goal. “I really just wanted to be in this mid-level, alternative-music thing—alternative rock,” Scalzo says. “I wanted to be on top of the bottom, and we ended up being on the bottom of the top.”

Both bands went on to lengthy and enviable careers of critical acclaim, devoted fandom, and some further super-mainstream success—Fastball’s ballad “Out of My Head,” culled, like “The Way,” from the band’s 1998 album All the Pain Money Can Buy, closes out Now 3, released in December 1999. But for many alumni, Now That’s What I Call Music! still uncomfortably encapsulates a singular apex, a time capsule and high-water mark from a chart perspective, at least. “It’s literally a snapshot of the times, of an era,” Scalzo says of the series, which did not figure into his music-listening diet then or now. (Same deal with Nelson.) “And if you ever wanted to find out what was going on musically, those are the main—I mean it’s not even like somebody’s idea of it. This is it. It’s factual. It’s law. It’s documented.”

That documentation starts with Cohen, the COO, a London native involved with the U.S. iteration of Now from the beginning. He describes his job, simply, as “really just pulling Universal and Sony in the same direction towards making great records and great playlists.” (That label arrangement, more or less, has survived 20-plus years of traumatic music-biz mergers.) Now has long been a multimedia brand, from the pop-yearbook-style physical releases to the constantly updated streaming playlists that duke it out with the likes of Spotify’s RapCaviar to other past and present schemes like a planned concert series. Those playlists, Cohen says, are a bigger and bigger piece of the pie, but he doesn’t see physical CDs ever dying out entirely.

The construction of any given Now CD or playlist is not a random or algorithmic or passive concern. Half-joking, I ask Cohen whether he has a personal favorite volume, and it turns out he has two: Now 1 for the historical milestone, and good old NOW 37, from February 2011, from which Cohen then names several prominent artists off the dome, including Bruno Mars, Eminem, Katy Perry, Pink, Kesha, Rihanna, Chris Brown, and Taylor Swift. “A really strong tracklist,” he enthuses. “Perhaps more than most.”

Moskow, who has worked on every U.S. volume since Now 4 in 2000, describes the thought process with an artisan’s zeal. Every song on every CD has to be licensed, of course, with the attendant label considerations factoring into the mountain of streaming and radio-play and sales data that helps determine the tracklist. But every major decision is his. “I look at every album like a painting, and the songs are the individual colors of paint,” he says. “So basically, when you’re creating a compilation that has both DJ Khaled and Keith Urban, sequencing matters.” The goal is to give each volume “a sonic DNA, so that you listen to it and it feels cohesive—it feels like someone has, for lack of a better phrase, curated it. They’ve taken the time to paint the picture, to put this all together in a way that makes sense.”

So what are the rules? “We’ve done a lot of research over the years, and basically what the consumer has said is that they do like their tempos together,” Moskow says. Now tends to group ballads in a loose cluster near the middle, and add a few country songs near the end. (For sonic reasons, he and Cohen say, not some-people-hate-country reasons.) “What we go for,” Moskow continues, “is what I call ‘the Ache.’ Which is, you make this, and it sounds so good you wanna eat it. Like it sounds so perfect that you listen and you go, ‘God, that really flowed great, man, that sounds fantastic.” This intensity of this curation extends even to the space between tracks, which is much briefer than on a normal single-artist CD, to better mimic the dead-air-averse flow of a radio station: “Believe me, and if you interviewed my engineer he’d laugh, because we spend hours debating over half of a second.”

To even mimic pop radio in 2018, as opposed to the Spotify or Apple Music experience, is a slight anachronism. But even now, the core of Now’s business skews to an even older institution: to actual humans purchasing actual CDs in actual stores. With a laugh, Moskow will gladly explain this via an oft-used and well-honed anecdote about “the average age of the American car,” which at the moment he calculates as roughly 11 and a half years old. His point is that most older cars—and even some newer ones—still have CD players, “and average Americans sometimes will just pop a CD player in the dash. They got their kid in the car. They’re going on a road trip. They want clean repertoire. They don’t wanna be fumbling with their phone. We don’t want kids’ songs—we want pop songs. But we want them to be clean.” (The CDs are always clean edits; the playlists, not necessarily.)

End result: “When you put a Now album in that dash, you’re gonna have an hour and 20 minutes or so of family-friendly pop entertainment without any fumbling, without any ‘How do I connect my phone?’” Moskow says. “It’s convenient. It’s like, sometimes you go home and you make a meal for your family; sometimes you go to the drive-thru. Period. That’s it. Right? It’s not hard.” Or at least, a great deal of hard work goes into making it seem that way; like the best pop music, at least theoretically, it’s all about taking a gourmet approach to a mass-market experience. The cars keep getting older. But the spellbound kids stay the same age.

Steve Perry, frontman for Oregon swing-revival totems the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, remembers saying yes. The words Now That’s What I Call Music! didn’t much move him one way or the other. “I just said, ‘OK, whatever,’” he tells me. “It wasn’t like when Weird Al said, ‘Hey, I wanna do a parody of your song.’ That was a big deal.”

“Zoot Suit Riot,” the band’s massive 1997 hit, is certainly the most sonically anomalous moment on Now 1, a suave and brassy calling card for a late-’90s subgenre that delighted as much as it confounded, even if its time in the chart-pop firmament was brief. “We were on the way down, actually, when we got on that,” Perry says of the comp now; he said no to a few things that he may regret in hindsight, but Now wasn’t one of them. (The band declined to cover the ’50s Louis Prima hit “Jump, Jive ‘an Wail,” which would soon soundtrack a viral-for-its-time Gap ad, and plans for the Daddies to play Monica and Chandler’s wedding band on Friends fell through when the show wouldn’t fly them in from a European tour.)

Perry is not surprised at the brevity of his moment in the Top 40 spotlight. “It doesn’t empower males, swing music,” he says. “Therefore, it was quick to be thrown aside, because it’s not metal, and it’s not tough-guy music. That’s what makes it, you know—if you do little girls wanting eeny, meeny, miny, moe kind of melodies, like the dance beats so they can thrust their hips around. Or it’s men trying to feel like they are tougher than they actually are. That’s pop. That’s what’s going to work.”

The Daddies’ biggest full-length album by far, then, is 1997’s Zoot Suit Riot, which collects the best of their earliest, most swing-oriented work, the title track included. But the band, in various configurations, has put out five albums and counting since, content with its one passing foray into the brightest possible spotlight. “You’ve got to kind of grab your moment while you can,” Perry says, and while he certainly doesn’t regret doing Now, it makes for a striking and somewhat uncomfortable mile marker: “I mean, I think what’s interesting is that once you’re on something like that, you’re immediately uncool. You know what I mean?”

So what will the tracklist to Friday’s Now 68—with its jams from Tyga, and Bebe Rexha, and Calvin Harris with Dua Lipa, and Kygo with Miguel, and good old DJ Khaled with various buddies—look like in 20 years? Will it register in hindsight as a shrewd encapsulation of a single moment in time, or a wacky grab bag that elevated some of its artists but flustered and disoriented a few others? And will Now That’s What I Call Music!, as a franchise, exist at all by then? Moskow and Cohen both point to the brand’s sterling reputation, and those handy dashboard CD players, and an undying desire, for a less obsessive music listener, to get the best of the best in pop music in the most digestible possible package, and if not the best of the best, at least the best of the biggest. A yearbook, even a sonic one, still has its uses, even if you wince at the haircuts in retrospect. For 20 years, Now has chronicled and explained the American pop-music landscape as faithfully and consistently as anybody, even if many of the artists themselves can’t quite explain it, and even if you might not like the picture you’ve been painted.

Higher Learning

Nicki Minaj vs. the CDC and Wellness With Devi Brown

No Skips With Jinx and Shea

How Death Row Records, Vibe Magazine, and Adversaries Made ‘All Eyez on Me’ a Classic

Rap

Drake Can Change. He Just Doesn’t Have to—Yet.

View all stories in Music