This UK-themed installment in the long-running Now That’s What I Call Music series has what should be a simple remit to fulfill: assemble a collection of some of the biggest modern hits by British artists for the American market to coincide with the 2012 London Olympics. Britain has a proud musical tradition spanning centuries, and arguably its post-World War II pop pedigree – boasting immortal names including the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Queen, David Bowie, Depeche Mode, and countless more – is second to none. So what better opportunity than this to show Americans who wouldn’t know their trip-hop from their dubstep that Old Lady Albion has still got it?
Looking at the tracklist, it’s immediately striking that meeting the disc’s pretty straightforward purpose is apparently easier said than done for the Now compliers, as the very first song on tap is Blur’s alt-rock mosher/inadvertent sports anthem “Song 2”. Yes, it’s a tremendous track and the most obvious claimant for the opening slot amongst the assembled titles, as well as a nice nod to the Britpop group’s recent reunion. But it’s also 15 years old. Even older is the incongruous inclusion of Radiohead’s self-loathing classic “Creep” (the non-profane edit, of course), which came out in 1992. At least “Creep” penetrated the pop Top 40, unlike “Song 2”, which went no further than the Top 10 of the Billboard Modern Rock Charts. Between these (admittedly top-notch) selections from two decades past, that leaves Coldplay’s half-finished excuse for a song in “Viva La Vida” to represent proper post-millennial British rock. Even those who can’t stand Coldplay on principle could probably pick more competent cuts from the band to include with ease. Overall, Now That’s What I Call Music gives the impressions that the mainstream rock in the UK has not been in the rudest of health since the decline of Britpop. Which bears some truth, to be honest, but EMI wasn’t necessarily starved for high-profile choices from the period (how about latter-day Oasis or the Darkness’ camp masterpiece “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”, or Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out”?)
So the disc’s requisite rock segment is problematic, to say the least. How do other genres fair? Hip-hop is virtually absent, as are recent developments in electronic music like the much-maligned dubstep. In contrast, the pop, R&B, and dance offerings have no such trouble fulfilling the modernist quota, as Noughties staples from James Blunt, Amy Winehouse, and Lily Allen in addition to more recentish fare from Jessie J, Taio Cruz, and Florence and the Machine beef up the roll call. It’s a laudable roster of marquee names in British music – indeed, Adele is the only glaring omission from this lineup of contemporary hitmakers who would be familiar to the American audience. The record is not hampered by her absence, for as it stands this is the cream of mainstream British pop, represented by songs that live or die by the strength of their hooks. That can be a blessing and a shortcoming, as the CD clearly demonstrates that a mawkish yet memorable melody can allow an otherwise clumsy piece of songwriting (*cough*“You’reBeautiful”byJamesBlunt*cough*) to become a transatlantic chart-topper.
Now That’s What I Call British illustrates that recent UK musical trends aren’t too removed from what’s been going on in the States, even after taking into account this disc is tailored specifically for Americans. More than half the tracklist exhibits an electronic dance-informed affinity for uniform beats, soul power belting, and a general reluctance to try something as innocuous as inserting a middle eight somewhere between the endlessly cycling verses and choruses to spice up the rigid arrangements (a sick beat drop is the most startling compositional trick you can usually hope for). A few selections provide much-needed innovation and daring to stand out among the airbrushed uniformity, however. Sade’s 2010 comeback single “Soldier of Love” is an unlikely yet admirable hit, its sultry militaristic vibe tinged with surprisingly abrasive guitarwork. It’s not necessarily successful as a pop single, but it’s a fascinating listen nonetheless. Far more successful is the Gorillaz’s menacing “Feel Good Inc.”, the genre-bending global smash that allows Blur’s Damon Albarn to bookend the disc with two contributions from his many musical dabbling. I’m assuming he got to cash a sizable check on the back of this whole affair.
The Now compilations aren’t intended for the critics – they are squarely aimed at the mainstream casual buyer. But that doesn’t mean they have to coddle the masses, either. Aside from the conspicuously ‘90s emphasis on the rock end of things, Now That’s What I Call British is a fairly respectable overview of the current British pop climate that doesn’t try to dial down the idiosyncrasies of the post-imperial nation. It’s certainly less squeamish about touching tracks that are “too British” than other such efforts have been in the past. With familiar names from the baby boomer era (whose music has become so ingrained in the American psyche that they might as well be considered domestic artists) nowhere in sight, hearing Kate Nash rattle off casually in an undiluted accent in “Foundations” is refreshing reminder of the pancultural world we live in. Even if not everything on this compilation is destined to make the year-end critics’ polls, each track at the very least manages to impart why it deserves a spot on this diplomatic envoy. Which makes the fact that the best songs offered are in a distinctly grungy vein and weren’t even released in this century all the more glaring.