Best of British Pop Stars Vie for Olympic Spotlight

'NOW That's What I Call British'
"NOW That's What I Call British" features some of the best recent pop music by British artists. There is a companion album called "NOW That's What I Call Britain," with classical and traditional music. Source: EMI via Bloomberg

As the Olympic Games put the spotlight on the U.K., a swathe of new CDs patriotically flies the Union Flag for Britons ruling the airwaves.

“NOW That’s What I Call British” is a relentlessly upbeat collaborative effort, in keeping with the delighted spirit of Team G.B. and its surprisingly large haul of medals.

The album, released for the Games, puts “Pocketful of Sunshine” next to “Feel Good Inc.” and “Smile,” thanks to the unlikely bedfellows of Natasha Bedingfield, Gorillaz and Lily Allen (who just announced a stage-name change to Lily Rose Cooper.)

“NOW” kicks off in fine style with Blur, which is playing what may be the band’s last-ever show in Hyde Park on Aug. 12. “Song 2,” just two minutes long and replete with catchy “woo-hoos,” is as good as it gets.

Yet the tracks feel like they were chosen by corporate committee -- the “NOW” series is a joint venture of EMI, Sony and Universal. We don’t really need James Blunt or Sade’s “Soldier of Love” with its military drumbeat. The vintage song “Creep” isn’t Radiohead’s best, especially in a censored version where Thom Yorke croons “you’re so VERY special.”

Rating: ***.

Baffling, Brilliant

“Isles of Wonder” is a souvenir of opening-ceremony music. Released digitally minutes after the baffling and brilliant event ended, it’s now also in physical form.

“Jerusalem” is followed by Mike Oldfield’s guitar noodling, Dizzee Rascal going bonkers and Emeli Sande’s mournful “Abide With Me.” I loved the Arctic Monkeys’ performance.

Fortunately, the two-CD set skips Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and the tame “Hey Jude” sing-along by Paul McCartney. Just because he’s a great singer-songwriter doesn’t make him the only possible show closer for Jubilee concerts or other jamboree.

The CDs offer a heavy dose of Underworld, a group overexposed at the ceremony which also had a lot of James Bond, Mr. Bean and the Queen. There was only a smattering of high art and Shakespeare in Danny Boyle’s spectacular staging that surely had many non-Britons scratching their heads with its lengthy segment on the free National Health Service.

The closing ceremony will also come with an instant download, doubtless equally drenched in Cool Britannia, Swinging London and above all else Britpop, in every fashionable flavor.

Rating: ***.

Waterloo Sunset

Several CDs are out with the title “Best of British.” My favorite is from UMTV, with hits such as “Waterloo Sunset” and “Ghost Town.” U.K. stars are vying for worldwide domination with as much drive as their sporting counterparts. Rating: ***.

As the U.K. casts off traditional stiff-upper-lip reserve and showcases its culture, it’s time to discover P.J. Harvey’s “Let England Shake,” the Clash’s “London Calling” or Fairport Convention’s “Liege & Lief.”

These records suggest that the things that made Britain great are cool drizzle, warm beer, bountiful breakfasts, urban angst, wartime grit and constant apologizing. Rating: *****.

Village Green

Even more quintessentially English recordings are “Village Green Preservation Society” by the Kinks, “All Mod Cons” by the Jam and “Parklife” by Blur. Rating: ****.

“Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)” by the Kinks is a story with an agenda. In 1922 Britain ruled a fifth of the world’s population and its greatest contribution to global culture is the English language, its composer Ray Davies said. Rating: ***.

When the Olympics have come and gone, forget about pop. There will always be an England with its high teas, high culture and the arcane rituals of summer evening cricket.

“NOW That’s What I Call British” is on EMI North America/ Sony Music and Universal at about $12. Information:

“Isles of Wonder: Music for the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games” is on Decca at about $18,

The other CDs are priced from $10. Download prices vary across services.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Exceptional
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Mediocre
(No stars) Poor

(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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