Thursday, May 8, 2008

Revisiting Now That's What I Call Music, Volume 1

By Evan Rytlewski
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Each old Now That’s What I Call Music compilation is a time capsule, a one-disc summary of the state of popular music for a given month. Since its American debut 10 years ago, the compilation has released over 25 installments, but few tell a more vivid story than the very first one. Released in late 1998, it documents a time when corporate pop had overthrown alternative rock. Music sales were stronger than ever, but the mid-’90s renaissance had ended—good music was heading back underground again, so pop music was a mixed bag. Recently, I discovered a copy of this historic first Now That’s What I Call Music compilation, and took a track-by-track trip down memory lane.

1.    Janet Jackson – “Together Again”
A major hit now only faintly remembered, this flimsy dance-pop song sets the mood for the rest of the compilation perfectly.

2. Backstreet Boys – “As Long as You Love Me”
The most fondly remembered Backstreet Boys singles are enthusiastically busy, up-tempo dance ones, but the band’s real bread and butter was always syrupy, studio-glossed ballads like hit. Perhaps no other act better bridged the divide between teen-friendly Top 40 and workplace-tame adult contemporary than the Backstreet Boys.

3. Fastball – “The Way”
By 1998, the alternative nation had fallen. Most of the bands once labeled as grunge were dead or on their last legs, and teenage angst had been replaced by an even-tempered, VH1-friendly earnestness. The bands now being marketed as alternative were tame ones like Matchbox 20, Third Eye Blind, The Wallflowers and these also-rans, Fastball. Their breakthrough single about missing people contained just enough intrigue to capture the public’s interest, but like the couple this song describes, the band soon disappeared.

4. Harvey Danger – “Flagpole Sitta”
One-hit wonders that probably could have stuck around, Harvey Danger delivered one of alternative-rock’s final last gasps with “Flagpole Sitta,” an out-of-nowhere single that melded mall-punk enthusiasm with modern-rock paranoia.

5. Spice Girls – “Say You’ll Be There”
One of the Spice Girls’ better singles, “Say You’ll Be There” rides the kind of killer, speaker-rattling, bump-’n’-grind beat you’d expect more from R. Kelly than five British women.  

6. K-Ci and Jojo – “All My Life”
One of the Top 10 slow-dance songs of all time? It just might be.

7.    All Saints – “Never Ever”
Is there a greater indignity than being in a teen-pop group nobody remembers?

8.    Tonic – “If You Could Only See”
Ironically, I only really only remember this song from its prominent placement in the Now That’s What I Call Music TV commercials.

9.    Hanson – “MMMBop”
They’d doubtlessly rather be remembered for their work with the Beastie Boys and Beck, but The Dust Brothers also produced this catchy little bastard. There’s even some timid DJ scratches buried in the mix.

10.    Cherry Poppin’ Daddies – “Zoot Suit Riot”
Cherry Poppin’ Daddies were the worst of the major swing-revival groups, the Silverchair to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s Nirvana.

11.    Imajin ft Keith Murray – “Shorty (You Keep Playing With My Mind)
I’m expecting that follow-up Imajin hit any day now…

12.    Brian McKnight – “Anytime”
Brian McKnight is a talented man—that’s not in question—but he doesn’t bring the party.

13.    Aqua – “Barbie Girl”
Was Aqua paying tribute to Euro-dance or making fun of it? It’s really hard to tell. They were like some unholy mish-mash of Ace of Base and Whale.

14.    Radiohead – “Karma Police”
Holy shit! How did this end up on here? OK Computer’s stand-out opus stands out that much more on a compilation filled with disposable pop, but it lends some much needed context to the album. In 1998, much of the country was listening to “Zoot Suit Riot” and “Barbie Girl,” while would-be one-hit wonders Radiohead were quietly emerging as one of the world’s biggest cult bands.

15.    Everclear – “I Will Buy You a New Life”
And with this track, the “Heroine Girl”/”You Make Me Feel Like a Whore” band won a new audience of lovelorn teenage girls.

16.    Lenny Kravitz – “Fly Away”
Lenny Kravitz’s metrosexual Jimmy Hendrix routine grew old fast, but the masses couldn’t get enough of this, his most successful single.

17.    Marcy Playground – “Sex and Candy”
Like “Flagpole Sitta,” this was one of alternative-rock’s last gasps. It’s a nifty little song, though—Butthole Surfers for the masses—and it makes me wonder if these guys would still be around had a meteorite not smashed earth and destroyed all of the modern-rock stations at the end of the decade.


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