Now That’s What I Call Music! Has Had 50 (!) Installments


The Now That’s What I Call Music! series hit a landmark last month with the release of its 50th compilation. That’s right, the quarterly collection of today’s top hits has been going on for over 15 years worth of yesterdays, making for an interesting time capsule and documentation of what was happening in popular music. But with the music industry having so many well documented issues, why is it that Now has managed to not only stay afloat, but flourish?

Believe it or not, the all tenderloin value of Now was not originally an American creation. Shocking as it may seem, not unlike the United States, Now! originally came from the U.K. where the first compilation was released in 1983. It soon became an institution, reaching its own 50th release in 2001 and is still putting out releases to this day.

The Now! series finally arrived in the United States in late 1998. At the time, special-TV-offer compilations were big business. From Razor & Tie’s Monsters or Rock to those Time Life “Songs of the {insert decade here}” collections, the prospect of not having to buy a bunch of different full-length albums in order to get the few songs you really wanted was an exciting one. This was pre-YouTube, pre-iTunes, even pre-Napster. Music collections were limited to what could be assembled on 80-minute discs. Now‘s gimmick was going to be the novel idea of taking the most popular and beloved songs that were currently on the radio and putting them on one easy to own CD. It’s brilliant, really.

Revisiting the first Now That’s What I Call Music! compilation released stateside is a bizarre hodgepodge. You can tell the makers were testing the waters as to what constituted the songs that people “Called Music,” so there’s about a two year span worth of time-tested chart busters. With the earliest being Spice Girl’s “Say You’ll Be There” and the newest being Lenny Kravitz’s “Fly Away,” the middle consisted of both obvious pop phenomenons like Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” and Hanson’s “MMMBop,” catchy alternative crossover tracks like Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta” and Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy,” as well as retrospectively baffling choices like Radiohead’s “Karma Police.”

Once the TRL-era was in full swing by the time Now That’s What I Call Music 2 arrived, it was getting clearer what the music of Now was going to be. The second installment featured Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life,” giving him the distinction of the first rap artist to have a track appear on a Now compilation.

Now 50 is a two-disc affair, including both the standard popular tracks of today, as well as an additional bonus disc promising “The Best” of the Now era. It’s rare for the series to take a look backward as — aside from the various spinoff Christmas and Disney compilations — they’re focused on the, well, Now. Even the iTunes availability of the Now compilations (only sold as entire albums) goes just as far back as Now 33, released in early 2010. But Now isn’t slowing down, as the next installment is already slated and being promoted for next month.

Now 51 will feature Justin Timberlake’s “Not a Bad Thing,” notable as it’s his record 18th appearance in the Now Series. Including his work with *N’SYNC, Timberlake shockingly didn’t appear on the compilations until “It’s Gonna Be Me” on Now That’s What I Call Music 5, coincidentally the highest selling entry in the series with sales of 4.8 Million. Behind Timberlake is former girlfriend Britney Spears, whose 16 appearances started with Now That’s What I Call Music 2.

With 29 platinum albums, 18 #1 debuts (second only to The Beatles who have only one more) and the bulk of the recent catalog hovering right around the 500,000 mark, Now shows no signs of slowing down. Despite more ways than ever via streaming sites or legal MP3 purchases or illegal downloads to access all of these top hits, Now‘s stuck to their guns and carved out a dependable niche as, not tastemakers, but Taster’s Choice. Along with the added bonus for future historians being able to have exact moments in popular music history isolated in a place-by-place progression, Now continues to be the standard bearer for assembling today’s hits, today.

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