You know that unsourced proverb about monkeys and Shakespeare? The one that essentially claims that an aimless word generator will eventually spit out the greatest works of mankind? I’ve always found that concept fascinating because it’s kinda true: There are just so many novel possibilities when you combine unbridled randomness with literal infinity.
I’m speaking, of course, about Now That’s What I Call Music, the inexplicably immortal compilation album series—which just celebrated its 56th edition earlier this year. We all have great nostalgia for Now Music because the commercials were unavoidable, but also because their business model was hilarious. They grabbed any 20 hits, no matter how mediocre, and sold them in between episodes of Johnny Bravo.
At the time, I didn’t care, but as I age, I’ve started to realize that the Now series is the closest we’ve come to seeing the “monkeys and Shakespeare” proverb realized. There’s no way Now compilations are put together by real humans, right? They have no point of view whatsoever and are created simply to exist. However, that also means by mathematical law, there have to be a few legit classic Now albums. I’m not saying they’ve pounded out the works of Shakespeare, but they must’ve come close a few times right?
With that, I present you the five objectively best Now That’s What I Call Music compilations. Let’s put our faith in the machines!
5) Now That’s What I Call Music 43
Best Song: “Midnight City,” M83
Worst Song: “Back in Time,” Pitbull
Look, man, this is totally just another random Now Music compilation, which feels even more unorganized due to our decentralized moment in pop music. That being said, how crazy is it that M83 were on a Now album? It’s so unbelievable that I have to include it. Music is so weird now.
4) Now That’s What I Call Music 17
Best Song: “Lean Back,” Terror Squad
Worst Song: “Angels,” Jessica Simpson
There’s a lot of mid-decade hip-hop and R&B flotsam in the Now Music compilations, but I really can’t complain about “Lean Back,” “Goodies,” “Let’s Get it Started,” and “Ch-Check It Out.” I mean, that’s all stuff you listened to intentionally at parties in 2004, right? The back half gets a little more unforgivable in its butt-rock, but I’ll still take Franz Ferdinand and that one Finger Eleven song over, like, 3 Doors Down.
3) Now That’s What I Call Music 2
Best Song: “What I Got,” Sublime
Worst Song: “Millennium,” Robbie Williams
I understand that we’re at the precise cultural vortex where any compilation coming in hot from 1998 will be met with overwhelming, barely-serious praise, but I still think this lineup is pretty hard to fuck with. Yeah, it’s weighed down with some Spice Girls cuts, but the first third shows “Closing Time” into “Sweetest Thing,” “My Favorite Mistake,” “Praise You,” and “I Think I’m Paranoid.” If that doesn’t make the tiny dad in your chest sing, I’m not sure what will.
2) Now That’s What I Call Music 20
Best Song: “Sugar We’re Goin Down,” Fall Out Boy
Worst Song: “Beverly Hills,” Weezer
This is going to sound crazy, but Now That’s What I Call Music 20 is a really interesting album, historically speaking. You get the dawn of the emo-pop era (“Sugar We’re Goin Down”), the first real Rihanna song (“Pon De Replay”), the death of Weezer (“Beverly Hills”), and a bunch of surprising forgotten hits that are actually way better than you think (“Don’t Phunk With My Heart,” “Behind These Hazel Eyes”). Like, seriously, Now That’s What I Call Music 20 is a legitimate artifact.
1) Now That’s What I Call Music
Best Song: “Flagpole Sitta,” Harvey Danger
Worst Song: “Zoot Suit Playa,” Cherry Poppin’ Daddies
Yeah, that’s right: The best Now That’s What I Call Music compilation is the very first one. As I mentioned above, part of that is because the everything from the late ’90s sounds good right now, but I’d also argue that this record actually has the variety and dynamics that the brand has always promised. You get both Janet Jackson and Radiohead here. A Radiohead song that isn’t “Creep,” even! “Mmmbop,” “Fly Away,” “Sex & Candy,” and motherfucking “Barbie Girl” for good measure. My only real complaint is that Now Music was never this good again.
Photo via Hernán Piñera/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)