Now That's What I Call John's Reviews! Now 2

Oh please, please! By definition alone, sequels are inferior!

So claims doomed movie geek Randy Meeks in (actually very good sequel) Scream 2. It's an outlandish opinion, but then it doesn't matter to Randy, given that he becomes a hapless victim of Ghostface later in the movie. Maybe in his last moments, he can contemplate successful follow-ups such as The Godfather 2 and The Empire Strikes Back.

But as these above examples prove, they are stepping stones in a big name movie franchise. Start with a classic film, and then build on it.

Same goes for albums. Not that many artists or groups stop at album number two – they make what's known as the “difficult second album”, and then move on to the next one, whether basking in critical and commercial acclaim or sheepishly acknowledging that they could have done better.

Then there's Now That's What I Call Music II. Now: Chapter Two. Now: The Revenge. The Now Strikes Back. Whatever you want to call it, Virgin and EMI realised that they had struck gold with a winning compilation formula with the runaway success of the first Now. It had sped to Number One on the album charts, where it remained for five weeks over the Christmas of 1983. Clearly, Santa had delivered countless copies to eager pop fans for that year's Christmas morning.

With that in mind, a follow-up album was inevitable. Again, it sticks with the same bold NOW logo, but establishes the mid-80s typeface for the track listings and sleeve notes. But whereas Now 1 was a yearly retrospective of 1983, Now 2 establishes the now-familiar pattern of rounding up the main chart hits of a few months. For the most part, Now 2 picks up where Now 1 left off, collating the chart entries between November 1983 and March 1984. Only one or two such as David Bowie's Modern Love were released earlier, but hey, what's a couple of months between friends?

Thinking about it, Now 2 manages to achieve what Now 1 failed to do when it comes to chart toppers. It includes pretty much the complete run of number one singles from 10th December 1983 to 17th March 1984. While Lionel Richie's Hello didn't quite make the pile this time around, I'm guessing that the track list had been chosen and finalised in early March – the latest common sleeve notes blurb date is 28th February 1984 (the album notes don't make their bets with Culture Club's It's A Miracle this time), around three weeks before Lionel reached pole position.

On the glass half empty side though, we're only talking about four number ones: Only You by The Flying Pickets; Pipes of Peace by Macca; Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Nena's 99 Red Balloons. The first and third of these remained at the top for five weeks each, setting out the stall for 1984 with lengthy number one dominations from the second Frankie song and Stevie Wonder's syrup-fest I Just Called To Say I Love You. Unlike the first Now, each of the four Number Ones are scattered evenly across the album, either closing or opening each side.

There's also more of an even balance in the way that the songs are arranged. The bookending sides one and four contain bigger hits and more well-known acts, while sides two and three include their fair share of lesser-known songs and artistes. This mix of crowd-pleasing tunes and harder-to-find rarities is what makes the Now series so appealing. Many of the modern-day 1980s compilation CDS and downloads tend to plump for the same old songs (which are just rearranged in a different order), whereas the 1980s Nows contain a lot of stuff that you've never heard before – or maybe once or twice if you've tuned in to the BBC4 reruns of Top Of The Pops.

But if it's big hits that you want from the freezing cold months of December 1983 to February 1984, then Side One should satisfy. It marks the debut for a number of Now stalwarts, notably Queen, who would return time and again to the fold. Appropriately, their big comeback single Radio GaGa kicks off the album along with their regular presence for the rest of the decade (in the wake of their less successful disco attempts of Hot Space a couple of years before).

It's a strong start that leads into more '80s Now regulars, Nik Kershaw and The Thompson Twins. Both came up with their fair share of great pop tunes. Wouldn't It Be Good is one of Kershaw's best-known ones kicking off a prolific year, while Hold Me Now signed off an equally hitsworthy 1983 for The Thompson Twins. Although it's not quite as good as Love On Your Side or We Are Detective in me humble.

Another of the regular Now stable in the 1980s, Madness, didn't quite go Top 10 with Michael Caine, which is a shame, since it's one of the best of their later songs from their original run. Like One Better Day, it's more of a wistful, melancholy take on the traditional Nutty Sound, which is maybe not what the record buying public at large wanted. Still, it's worth a listen, with Suggs taking a break from vocals to give Carl Smyth (Chas Smash) a go at singing the lead. Great catchy chorus with regular 1980s backing singer warblers Afrodiziak and even Caine himself making appearances.

The other big hit comes from a cappella group, The Flying Pickets, who came up with their unique take on Yazoo's Only You. Novelty act? Well, dressing up as miserable looking snowmen on Top Of The Pops only adds more fuel to this flame, but at least they can't be dismissed as one-hit wonders, given that they'd return to the charts and the next Now album. Doctor Who fans will probably recognise lead singer Brian Hibbard, who played a baddie in the 1987 story, Delta And The Bannermen – alas, his character got reduced to a smoking pair of blue suede shoes.

That leaves two of the lesser-known songs, both of which go all retro. Saturday Superstore favourites, Matt Bianco dance some doo-wop for Get Outta Your Lazy Bed with a chorus that threatens to pre-empt the theme tune from '80s kids TV show, Dooby Duck's Disco Bus. Meanwhile, Carmel's More More More is a cool fusion of 1960s brass, gospel and soul. It sounds exactly like the audio marriage of Sandie Shaw and Aretha Franklin, and is one of the album's hidden gems.

More oddities occur on the second side, although these work to varying degrees. After settling you in comfortably (or not, as the case may be) with the big hits of chart-topping, armpit hair champion Nena and shrieking hen party favourite Girls Just Want To Have Fun, the remainder of Side Two alternates awkwardly between novelty and bland restaurant muzak-style choices.

I do like Matthew Wilder's Break My Stride, a perky, catchy hit that's ideal for selling many a power drink, and also the curious one-hit wonder funk soul of Breaking Down by Julia & Company, even if it sounds like the sort of act featured on 3-2-1. I'm half expecting the sleeve notes to contain some kind of impenetrable clue that could lead to me winning a Vauxhall Astra.

Tracey Ullman's feeble take on Madness' My Girl isn't a patch on earlier greats such as They Don't Know or Breakaway, although she did manage to rope in Neil Kinnock for the promo video – try and imagine your average modern-day politician appearing in a pop video: there's more chance of seeing your dishwasher doing a song and dance routine. Meanwhile, with Auf Wiedersehen Pet reigning supreme on telly in 1984, its theme song also features here. It's just a shame that That's Livin' Alright is no more than lumpen, ordinary Joe Cocker-seque pub rock, although it does mean that the album does feature cameos from Lewis, Peter Pettigrew from the Harry Potter movies, and Les/Lesley from Benidorm. And no other Now can achieve this claim to fame.

Winding down, it's left to Snowy White's pleasant but dull Bird Of Paradise and Hot Chocolate's equally snoozy I Gave You My Heart (Didn't I) to sign off this side in less than dynamic fashion.

Side Three is edgier, with some interesting new-wavey choice cuts. Kicking off, Frankie say Relax, although my vinyl copy jumps like a flea on a barbecue. Possibly, DJ Mike Read secretly went to town on the vinyl with a very sharp school compass before the record was packaged.

This side again alternates between more familiar acts such as Howard Jones (the excellent What Is Love) and the Eurythmics and quirkier acts such as The Smiths, who make their lone contribution to the franchise with What Difference Does It Make. Some of these don't get mentioned so much, since Fiction Factory, Re-Flex and Thomas Dolby hardly troubled the UK charts.

At least Feels Like Heaven does crop up regularly on many an 80s compilation (and it always seems to play when I'm wandering round my local garden centre). Re-Flex and Dolby, not so much, which is a pity. The Politics Of Dancing is a good, solid pop song that's all about hmmmmm... feelin' good. Dolby's Hyperactive is maybe a bit too oddball for some tastes, but I quite like it – having said that, his marvellous I Scare Myself follow-up deserved to be a far bigger hit than it was. It's left to China Crisis to mellow the side out with Wishful Thinking.

Side Four is in established hands, with a closing home straight of hits from more familiar acts. For the pop fans, Culture Club and Duran Duran get a look in, although the not-so-big-hits It's A Miracle and New Moon On Monday begin both groups' decline in big chart hit fortunes.

Big Country is the other younger act of the seven, and that clever old compiler Ashley Abram was already on the ball back in 1984 by pairing Celtic-influenced Wonderland and Slade's Run Run Away back to back. Wonderland is the better of the two (always thought that Big Country deserved bigger chart success), with some lovely harmonies for the “Wonder-laaaaaand!!” chorus, especially in the fade out. On the other hand, if boisterous chanting and cheese grater-gargling vocals are more your bag, then Run Run Away is your chosen selection.

While young 'uns may have scoffed at the comparative old codgers on the rest of Side Four, it's still nice to have David Bowie and The Rolling Stones on the album. Actually, both of their songs are some of the most danceable in the forms of the funky Modern Love (1983 was a good year for Bowie) and the clattering drum/guitar combo for Undercover Of The Night (Or Undercover Of The Nooooooiiiiieeeeeeet as Mick Jagger hollers on a frequent basis). The album ends on a more wistful note with good old Macca playing the Pipes Of Peace.

At least it's not as maudlin as Victims.

Sequels suck? Well, the album-buying public clearly disagreed, as Now 2 zoomed to the top of the charts again, holding court for the majority of both April and May 1984. The second Now proved that the astute compilation choices were no fluke, with appetite for still more in the series.