The following article may contain spoilers. If you haven’t seen the Black Mirror “Bandersnatch” episode yet then just stop what you’re doing right now and go see it.
For those of you who have watched the episode: Bandersnatch is all about choices, but no choice in that thought experiment of an episode was more vexing to me than the musical choices (that’s right, I had an easier time figuring out how to dispose of a body). Do I seriously have to chose between Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra or Tomita’s The Bermuda Triangle? Fuck you, Black Mirror. The answer is I get a job that doesn’t pay shit wages or I turn to a life of crime so I can afford both albums, because they’re both fucking amazing.
However, that’s not the decision that led me to write this. Rather, I was set off by the decision our poor puppet of a protagonist has to make while riding the bus. Thompson Twins vs. Now That’s What I Call Music Volume 2? “Ha!” I thought. Easy. Thompson Twins is an amazing 80’s synth pop group and I’m pretty sure Now That’s What I Call Music Volume 2 either didn’t exist in 1984 or, if it did exist, surely it was filled to the rim with pure audio diarrhea like all of the later horrid compilations that I am more familiar with.
Then I got curious. Did Now That’s What I Call Music Vol. 2 exist in 1984? I’m pretty sure that compilation didn’t come about until the early 2000’s, so I did some googling. Turns out I could not have been more wrong.
To tell this story, however, I need to back up and explain my bias against this particular audio cassette featured in Bandersnatch. I’m an American. I grew up in the US-land of the free, home of the brave, and purveyor of a different series of Now That’s What I Call Music compilations that are completely independent of what the UK got. In fact, let’s look at what volume 2 of Now That’s What I Call Music, published in the States in 1999, had to offer. Here’s the track listing:
…Baby One More Time
|2.||You Get What You Give||New Radicals|
|6.||My Favorite Mistake||Sheryl Crow|
|7.||Praise You||Fatboy Slim|
|8.||I Think I’m Paranoid||Garbage|
|10.||Because of You||98 Degrees|
|12.||Take Me There||Blackstreet & Mýa featuring Mase & Blinky Blink|
|13.||When a Woman’s Fed Up||R. Kelly|
|14.||Father of Mine||Everclear|
|15.||What I Got||Sublime|
|16.||I’ll Never Break Your Heart||Backstreet Boys|
|17.||Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)||Jay-Z|
|18.||Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)||Baz Luhrmann|
Don’t get me wrong, there are some real gems here, but for the most part this compilation is a perfectly preserved time capsule of popular music in 1999 and it has some real garbage on it (save for the band Garbage, which is actually pretty good). Some of these tracks are outstanding, and some have not withstood the test of time for various reasons, some of which I will not get into because there are already entire documentaries on how much of a piece of shit R. Kelly is. The matter is compounded once you compare what the UK got from the compilation of the same name a full 15 years prior. Here’s the track listing for Now That’s What I Call Music II, UK edition, 1984:
Radio Ga Ga
| Artist |
|A2||Wouldn’t It Be Good||Nik Kershaw|
|A3||Hold Me Now||Thomspon Twins|
|A4||Get Out Of Your Lazy Bed||Matt Bianco|
|A5||More, More, More||Carmel|
|A7||Only You||Flying Pickets|
|B1||99 Red Balloons||Nena|
|B2||Girls Just Want To Have Fun||Cyndi Lauper|
|B3||My Guy’s Mad At Me||Tracey Ullman|
|B4||Break My Stride||Matthew Wilder|
|B5||Breakin’ Down (Sugar Samba) Julia & Company*||Julia & Company|
|B6||That’s Living Alright||Joe Fagin|
|B7||I Gave You My Heart (Didn’t I)||Hot Chocolate|
|B8||Bird Of Paradise||Snowy White|
|C1||Relax||Frankie Goes To Hollywood|
|C2||Here Comes The Rain Again||Eurythmics|
|C3||What Is Love?||Howard Jones|
|C4||What Difference Does It Make?||The Smiths|
|C5||(Feels Like) Heaven||Fiction Factory|
|C6||The Politics Of Dancing||Re-Flex|
|C8||Wishful Thinking||China Crisis|
|D1||Modern Love||David Bowie|
|D2||It’s A Miracle||Culture Club|
|D3||Undercover Of The Night||Rolling Stones|
|D6||New Moon On Monday||Duran Duran|
|D7||Pipes Of Peace||Paul McCartney|
Holy shit! Now that’s what I call music! Not only did you get 30 tracks for your money in 1984 vs. the 18 tracks you got in 1999, but for your money you also got a metric fuck-ton of classics that have withstood the test of time. Queen! Thompson Twins (so no matter what you chose in Bandersnatch, both albums had the Thompson Twins)! Nena! Cyndi Lauper! Eurythmics! Thomas “she blinded me with motherfucking science” Dolby! Wow! I had to suffer through horseshit yuppie white wine mom music like Sheryl Crow on the compilation of the same name but the UK got The Smiths? What the fuck? Prior to Bandersnatch making me aware that this compilation exists if you told me at a party “Hey, I’m going to put Now That’s What I Call Music Volume 2 on!” I would have said, “Well, would you look at the time, it’s getting late, I best be off I got stuff to do early tomorrow morning…” The 1984 edition of Now That’s What I Call Music, however, would have turned that party into a magical 80’s dance party with a solid list of bangers that would have kept that party going.
Let’s break this compilation down, track by track, to examine how much better it is compared to what we got in the US a whopping 15 years later:
1.) Queen “Radio Ga Ga”
Listen, I will be the first to admit that this isn’t my favorite Queen song, but with a track record that includes hits like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Killer Queen” let’s face it, Queen set the bar so fucking high that even they had a hard time reaching it. It’s still a classic and I can’t help but think of how relevant it is right now as I sift through the 1999 US edition of Now That’s What I Call Music. Radio Gaga indeed. Also, that Roland Jupiter-8 that Queen used for the bassline and arpeggios really satisfies my current need for synthwave. When I listen to this track I am reminded of the fact that synthwave isn’t fake retro. The sounds you hear in modern synthwave most certainly have solid roots in the music of the 1980’s. Just listen to the synth bass in this track if you don’t believe me.
2.) Nik Kershaw “Wouldn’t It Be Good”
I have not heard this song in ages. It just doesn’t get much radio play where I am and I haven’t really thought about this track in a long time. I can’t thank Bandersnatch enough for reminding me that this song exists. “Wouldn’t It Be Good” is still a banger, people, a must have on any 80’s pop playlist. It’s got cool synth sounds and that big 80’s snare sound that we all know and love, so come on. This track still delivers.
3.) Thompson Twins “Hold Me Now”
Do I need to even get into this track? It’s Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now.” A classic for all the ages. One of the greatest synth pop tracks ever written, recorded, and performed by anyone. This is one of those songs that I will still be listening to until the day I die. This one’s a keeper-a real treasure amongst the pantheon of 80’s pop music.
4.) Matt Bianco “Get Out of Your Lazy Bed”
Oh yeah, I forgot that there was a 50’s revival during the 80’s. That’s interesting because there is an 80’s revival going on right now, so I guess it takes 30 years for pop culture to come back around. This track is a quirky one. It definitely has a 50’s influence, but it sounds like the Stray Cats as interpreted by Devo. I don’t think this track ever reached the states. If it did I never heard it back in the day. I’m not crazy about it but it’s not half bad. It’s got an interesting concept that is very much a product of its time and place-a 50’s style swinging rock tune that uses 80’s electronic instruments in its arrangement. It’s a cool idea even if it isn’t necessarily your cup of tea.
5.) Carmel “More More More”
This compilation has some soul to it! This track really conjures a 60’s Motown vibe that I will always be in the mood for: Hammond organs, tight horn arrangements, a gorgeous chorus with intense backing vocals, this song nailed the period twenty years after the fact. Much like the previous track it’s proof that vintage sounds that were good ideas 20-30 years prior will still be a good idea today. I mentioned synthwave earlier, a genre I adore, because of the strong emotions it evokes. Nostalgia music will always be force in any decade to satisfy the cravings of the older population for the music of their youth. New music with an old sound is also a good way to inspire the up and coming generation with the sounds of yesteryear. Who knows, maybe the kids listening to this stuff will someday incorporate these sounds into their own music, thus continuing the cycle. No genre ever truly dies. Not even disco.
6.) Madness “Michael Caine”
According to Wikipedia Michael Caine initially refused to let his voice be sampled for this track but his daughter begged him to let Madness use it. Thank god, because I can’t imagine a Madness “Greatest Hits” compilation without this track. I still listen to that album on occasion so this track is most certainly in my recent memory, and it still holds up as one of the best tracks Madness ever put out. In doing research for this article I stumbled across the fact that this song was inspired by a 1960’s espionage film titled “The Ipcress File.” Michael Caine, who plays a spy in the film, repeatedly says the name of his character in the film while undergoing torture in order to keep sane. Now that I am aware of this fact this fun 80’s pop tune has taken on a much darker tone than previous listenings.
7.) Flying Pickets “Only You”
I gotta be honest here, I prefer the original Yazoo version of this song. I like acapella arrangements of popular tunes but this one just pales in comparison to the original. I bought the Roland re-issue of the 808 drum machine after hearing Yazoo’s “Only You” because I thought that drum machine just sounded so good and so perfect in that track. Flying Pickets “Only You” will not inspire me to take singing lessons. Still, great song, and both versions are worth a listen, but I’ll be sticking with Yazoo for repeated listening.
8.) Nena “99 Red Balloons”
Again, do I even need to get into this? This song is a classic that will never die. At the time UK and US punks generally eschewed electronic instruments (was Gary Numan an exception? I don’t know) but German punks seemed not to mind. Originally written in German as a protest against the threat of nuclear war this song is still relevant seeing as how the world still has a stockpile of nuclear weapons that could still annihilate just about every living thing on the planet one million times over. I love this song but it will always be a reminder that the cockroaches will eventually inherit the Earth.
9.) Cyndi Lauper “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”
Do I really need to break this track down? If you’ve never heard it before then there’s seriously something really fucking wrong with you. This track still makes its way into Bachelorette party playlists for a night on the town. This is still a must play for any 80’s dance party. Putting this track on a Spotify 80’s playlist is just a cliché at this point, an easy decision, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You can’t talk about the pop music of the 1980’s without mentioning this song. It will always be the song that Cyndi Lauper was most known for, even if I am more of a fan of “Goonies R’ Good Enough,” mostly because I’ve seen that movie about a thousand times and that song never ceases to put a smile on my face.
10.) Tracey Ullman “My Guy’s Mad at Me”
Another cover appears on this album, this time a cover of another band featured on the album, Madness. The original is amazing. This version isn’t bad but it just doesn’t hold a candle to the original. I think it’s testament to the genius of Yazoo and Madness that their songs appear on this top 40 album even if they’re not being performed by the original artists themselves. Give this track a listen, then go listen to “My Girl” by Madness. Ullman has a better singing voice to my ears but the horn arrangement and jaunty ska feel of the original has just a bit more kick to it. That being said, this version is not bad.
11.) Matthew Wilder “Break My Stride”
Still a banger! Still a dance hit! This is reggae put into an 80’s pop blender and spat out through electronic instruments. It still works, it’s still fun, and it’s still on every 80’s reggae playlist along with Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” and Musical Youth’s “Pass the Dutchie.”
12.) Julia & Company “Breakin’ Down (Sugar Samba)”
Listen to that voice! That poppin’ bass line! If you can’t get down to this you probably can’t get down to anything. This song is just timeless. You got all the best elements of soul, funk, and R&B on this track and it is still a winner 35+ years later. If you haven’t heard this one already then get ready to shake your booty, because its infectious beat will make you want to move.
13.) Joe Fagin “That’s Living Alright”
By track 13 we get to the first track that I wasn’t particularly crazy for. It sounds a bit like an 80’s sitcom theme. *Googles* Oh, it was. No surprise there. I don’t know if this track ever made it to the states. I don’t remember hearing it while I was growing up as a kid in New England at the time. The show it’s from, “Auf-Wiedersehen, Pet,” never aired here in the states as far as I know so I never saw it. This is where I have to tread lightly because yeah, the theme to Cheers is a bit cheesy, but I also love that song and that show. If I were to hear anyone speak ill of it I would be mildly offended because I love Boston and I grew up with that show. I have a connection to that music. I’m not sure if I can watch a show about the pains of migrant UK workers in Germany and feel a connection to the subject matter. That being said it might be worth it since it’s British television, so I imagine there aren’t too many episodes. *Googles* 38 episodes. That’s the entire run. Sure, I might give this a go at some point.
14.) Hot Chocolate “I Gave You My Heart (Didn’t I)”
Decent pop tune. Nothing to write home about. I just expected a bit more from the legendary band that wrote the insanely catchy dance hit “You Sexy Thing.” Still, not bad, it’s just not their best.
15.) Snowy White “Bird of Paradise”
This was a pretty mellow guitar-driven soft rock tune. There’s some pretty nice riffing on this track but ultimately it didn’t do a ton for me. It’s got a strong Dire Straits feel to it so I can’t hate too hard on it. Not half bad but this track certainly isn’t the best song on this compilation.
16.) Frankie Goes to Hollywood “Relax”
Again, do I even need to get into this? This track is easily one of the greatest gay anthems of all time. A legendary tune for all the ages. Hell, I don’t care what your sexual preference is, this song will get you moving on the dance floor. It’s a classic, it will always be a classic, and it will always get me in the mood for a party.
17.) Eurythmics “Here Comes the Rain Again”
You’re reading a blog dedicated to all things retro. What do you expect me to say about this one? You already know that this is one of the greatest songs ever written. Annie Lennox is a God. If you don’t agree with any of these irrefutable facts then fuck off already, this blog isn’t for you. Also, this is the track that plays on Bandersnatch if you select Now That’s What I Call Music 2 over Thompson Twins, a decision that was as gut wrenching as deciding between Tomita vs. Tangerine Dream. Both choices are the right choice. I say listen to both, there is no wrong answer here.
18.) Howard Jones “What is Love?”
Oh, fuck yeah! That lively synth bass line. That beat. Synthwave wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for badass 80’s synth pop like this. This track is an absolute gem and I just plain love the arrangement on it. This track features so many different wonderful vintage synth sounds that blend perfectly with each other. The chorus is a proper earworm and you will not be able to get this track out of your head after listening to it.
19.) The Smiths “What Difference Does It Make?”
Full disclosure: Johnny Marr is one of my favorite guitarists of all time. I love the guitar work on this song so very, very much as it’s very emblematic of his style in general. This is another one of those “What more need be said?” tracks. The Smiths are legendary and this track really makes this entire compilation live up to its name. This, my friend, is what I call music. Music of the highest order.
20.) Fiction Factory “Feels Like Heaven”
I’m a sucker for New Wave so this track hits all of the sweet spots. It’s pure audio bliss. This song is heaven to listen to. It’s uplifting yet it has some real drama and gravitas to it. This track is the kind of track that inspires tears of joy.
21.) Re-Flex “The Politics of Dancing”
GET DOWN MOTHERFUCKER YEAH!!!!! This one’s a banger. A must spin at any serious 80’s dance party. This track is a test to see if you are still alive. If you aren’t nodding your head to the beat in the first 10 seconds then you are dead inside. And those synth sounds! Again, would the genre of synthwave even exist today if it wasn’t for tracks like this?
22.) Thomas Dolby “Hyperactive”
I first saw the crazy video for this track on an episode of Night Flight. I have always loved the quirkiness of Thomas Dolby’s music. Most people will remember Dolby for his smash hit “She Blinded Me With Science” but this track is not to be missed. This tune features some fantastic 80’s synth and vocoder sounds on top of Dolby’s unique songwriting style. I’m sure this track is featured on other compilations as well, most probably any serious collection or “best of” Thomas Dolby’s music.
23.) China Crisis “Wishful Thinking”
I already mentioned previously that I’m a sucker for New Wave. The string arrangements on this track are just plain wonderful and the horns blend nicely with the arrangement. This is solid soft rock and well worth a listen.
24.) David Bowie “Modern Love”
I’m more of a fan of Bowie’s earlier work but this song is still one of Bowie’s best. There’s not much that I can say about Bowie that hasn’t already been said. 2016 was a bloodthirsty year in terms of celebrity deaths and I still remember weeping uncontrollably when I read of Bowie’s passing. He was an absolute musical titan that changed the face of rock n’ roll forever. It’s quite possible that his style of singing is the most imitated rock vocal style in history and yet, at the same time, the man is inimitable.
25.) Culture Club “It’s a Miracle”
You can’t talk about 80’s pop music without touching upon Boy George and Culture Club. I absolutely love the bass line to this song, it fits the drums so perfectly. Boy George’s voice is so iconic, so distinctive that even if I had never heard this song before I would still know that it’s Boy George singing. His voice is pure dynamite on this track.
26.) Rolling Stones “Undercover (Of the Night)”
Much like Bowie I am more of a fan of the Rolling Stones’ early work. This track instantly made me think of when the Rolling Stones went disco with their hit “Miss You” in that this song is very easy to dance to. Is it my favorite Rolling Stones song? Hardly, but it definitely has an absolutely infectious dance-rock beat to it. Worth a listen just to hear where the Stones were at musically in the early 80’s.
27.) Big Country “Wonderland”
Fuck yeah! Solid 80’s rock here. I’ve always loved this band and I always will. This track might not be my favorite Big Country tune but it’s still one of their best. This song features everything you’d expect from a Big Country track: Driving guitar chords and riffs, big sounding drums, thumping bass, and rich vocal harmonies. Big Country is a band that lives up to their name-this track feel vast, epic, and well worth exploring.
28.) Slade “Run Runaway”
Wait, this song was written in the 80’s? Why did I think that it was written in the 70’s? Huh. So Slade was still doing a 70’s sound well into ’84 and they were still churning out hits. This is a retro blog so hats off to them for not changing their sound to fit the times on this track. If you’re not a fan of 70’s glam/arena rock then this track won’t really do it for you. While this sort of music doesn’t comprise the bulk of what I listen to these days I will always have a soft spot for that sound. This is solid rock n’ roll, period.
29.) Duran Duran “New Moon On Monday”
This band needs no introduction. If you are even remotely familiar with the pop music of the 1980’s then you know who Duran Duran are. This track has a wonderful transition in its chorus where the song completely changes tone from the verse. This is another one of those tracks where, even if I had never heard it before, I would instantly recognize it as a song by Duran Duran; Simon Le Bon’s voice is just so unique and instantly recognizable. I love this band and I love this track.
30.) Paul McCartney “Pipes of Peace”
I have to admit, I am not crazy about this track. Don’t get me wrong, Paul McCartney is a genius, but his solo career has always been hit or miss with me. This song is not anywhere near as good as anything Sir Paul wrote with the Beatles. I don’t think it even holds a candle to the best tracks he wrote with Wings. It has an interesting arrangement and some cool background vocals but let’s face it, it’s not McCartney’s best work. That being said, when you have some as prolifically brilliant as Paul McCartney, you can’t expect every track to be a winner. The previous words were very tough for me to write because of how much I adore the Beatles, but come on. Is this track better than “Hey Jude?” “Band on the Run?” No. It’s worth a listen to hear where the man, myth, and legend was at in ’84, but I get the feeling that this track was placed dead last on this compilation for a reason.
Conclusion: Wow, what a ride! When I first saw this album featured in Bandersnatch I thought it was fake, mostly because the compilation called itself Now That’s What I Call Music, a compilation that I was never fond of even back in the late 90’s. What we got in the states was drastically different from what the UK got. If you compare the two compilations that are volume 2 of Now That’s What I Call Music the UK version is just vastly superior. More tracks, better tracks, better value, period full stop. Pop music has changed over the years, and not necessarily for the better. Unlike the horrible musical decisions you are forced to make in Bandersnatch (seriously, Tangerine Dream vs. Tomita. Fuck you!) the decision between the US and UK version of Now That’s What I Call Music 2 is a no brainer: The UK version is chock full of timeless classics that I still love today. If you don’t believe me then just listen to all of these tracks, they’re all here on this page for you to explore. Unlike the time in which this compilation was released we now live in a magical world where all music is available at the press of a button, so do yourself a favor and check this one out. You won’t be disappointed.
So there you have it. I just reviewed a 35+ year old album. I think it’s safe to say that this blog is the most culturally relevant blog that exists on the Internet today. Clearly I have my finger on the pulse of current pop culture. You’re welcome.