Few pop artists have undergone such a sonic evolution over such a short time as Charli XCX. Charlotte Aitchison a.k.a. Charli XCX emerged from MySpace—not literally, although sometimes I wonder—before joining up with Asylum Records in the early 2010s. From which point she delivered star-making features that scored number one hits in the UK for Icona Pop and in the US for Iggy Azalea (and we all know neither of those songs would’ve become hits without Charli’s unparalleled hooks). XCX was a pop producer’s dream: short, catchy hooks and more than enough personality and vocal presence to survive any amount of producing.
However, having established her rebellious pop sound and her unique brand of song-writing on albums such as True Romance and especially the adolescent punk-pop inflected Sucker, she then teamed up with producers SOPHIE and A.G. Cook to make one of the most startling left turns away from the mainstream with the Vroom Vroom EP. Out with the guitars and drums and in with sleek, broiling electronics and squawking bass.
The experimentation of that little project soon sent ripples throughout her discography, and she began to refine and develop the sound, trying to find a perfect balance between experimentation and accessibility. One moment veering too avant-garde and risking losing her core pop appeal on her Pop2 mixtape, the next erring a little too cautious on the follow-up Number 1 Angel.
Finally, in 2019, four years after her sophomore album, she was ready with her third; the simply titled Charli. A fantastic blend of styles and sounds distilled into blissful pop anthems, that was swiftly heralded as not only one of the best musical releases of the year by even the most pop-phobic, but as a potentially defining moment for the pop music of our current and future era. Nor has Charli stopped there, swiftly following up with a fourth album in 2020, How I’m Feeling Now, written and recorded entirely under the COVID-19 social distancing lockdown, with more projects promised before the year is out.
With two such clear and distinct eras of music and so many great tracks to sift through, pulling together a playlist of a mere ten is going to be tough. Especially with Charli having delivered so many features over the years, from the fantastic smash hit club anthem “I Love It” with Icona Pop and her recent appearance on the remix of 100 Gecs “Ringtone” (which needs to be heard to be believed) to Danny Brown’s uncharacteristically blissful album closer “Float On”. As a result, I’ll restrict my choices to those tracks where Charli is the lead credited artist.
The Perfect Album Opener: “Vroom Vroom”
I have to admit to being a bit of an odd one out in disliking the Vroom Vroom EP as much as I do. When I first heard it, I absolutely hated it, this song included and although I have softened towards it a bit, I do still intensely dislike the other three tracks on here: “Paradise”, “Trophy” and “Secret”. As far as I’m concerned they’re her three worst songs, conveniently cordoned off into one corner of her discography. However, I have come around to appreciating what a defining moment this was for her career and how necessary the missteps on this project were, in order to get her to Charli and Pop2.
That said, the one song that has grown on me a lot is the title track. It’s a demented little number and forms the template for many of the lurid, braggadocious pop-rap bangers she’s delivered through the years, such as “Shake It”, “Click” and especially her later album openers “Pink Diamond” and “Next Level Charli”. As such, I’ve come to appreciate this track for its audacity and brazen energy and truly don’t think any Charli XCX playlist is complete without it.
The Perfect Duet: “Gone feat. Christine and the Queens”
Given how long her third album was gestating, and how much material of such a variety she had put out in that time, it wasn’t entirely clear how firmly established Charli was going to be on the self-titled album. However, any fears were definitively put to rest with the release of this single, the third for the album, after the comparatively safe first two singles.
“Gone” felt like the truly defining moment when the quality of the project seemed assured; it exuded confidence not only in her creative persona but in her sound. I still haven’t heard anything that sounds much like “Gone”: taut, tense and anguished, yet explosively cathartic. The heavy, impactful synth bass reverberates off the impeccably utilised white space throughout the track with the two vocalists trading bilingual verses, building to a breakdown crescendo of epic proportions. Despite the full-bodied singing, the song maintains an aura of impassioned restraint, tugging against the ties that bind the singers to the terrestrial plane. Something that feels by no means true of the next track.
The Perfect Anthem: “Blame It On Your Love feat. Lizzo”
Another respect from which I am distanced from most Charli stans is in that I much prefer “Blame It On Your Love” to the song’s original incarnation as the fan favourite “Track 10” on the Pop2 tape. Although comprised of the same vocal lines, the two tracks could hardly be more different, with one a heart-bursting, blissful, stadium pop anthem, and the other a slow-paced whimpering wail of love and wronged affection.
It feels perverse to compare them, but when forced I have to admit that the overblown melodrama of the finished song is just heavenly to me, while the rougher incarnation (while still one of my favourites from Pop2), struggles to find its direction a bit. The synth drop on “Blame It On Your Love” is such a jubilant and hard-hitting moment, it may be one of the most orthodox moments of pop music on Charli, but it’s a high point nonetheless, and its energy and charisma are just undeniable.
The Perfect Throwback: “1999 feat. Troye Sivan”
Despite her typically futuristic aesthetics, Charli’s music owes a huge debt to the pop stylings of the past, taking huge inspiration from the 80s, the 90s and especially the 00s. This nostalgia is something she gave voice to on Charli’s leadoff single, 1999, a glamorous throwback to an idealised carefree late 90s accompanied by guest vocalist Troye Sivan. The lyrics are intentionally shallow, remaining firmly rooted in a contemporary position of knowingly rose-tinted affection that lends the track a pervasive undercurrent of melancholy and even genuine despair. This effect is a considerable achievement given the simplicity of the lyrics and the gorgeous pop bliss provided by the duelling vocals and instrumental.
The Perfect Soundtrack Hit: “Boom Clap”
To this date, the soundtrack single “Boom Clap,” recorded for the young adult adaptation The Fault in Our Stars remains Charli’s biggest mainstream solo hit. The song encapsulates a perfectly bombastic form of euphoria reserved only for lovestruck adolescents.
The Achilles heel of the Sucker album was that, as catchy as they were, the punk-inflected instrumentals of tracks like “Break the Rules” – which has enough killer hooks for an entire album – or especially “Gold Coins” often felt cluttered and cacophonous. However, “Boom Clap” once again makes tremendous use of the white space leaving the chorus refrain of “BOOM! Clap, the sound-a my heart” to impact like a sonic boom. “1999” may be a song about nostalgia, but this one actually makes me feel nostalgic. The Sucker era has such an oddly timeless quality to it. It’s hard to believe these songs date back no further than 2014 at the most, I’d swear they were around when I was in primary school.
The Perfect Single: “SuperLove”
This jubilant, youthful energy as also something she brought to my favourite non-album single of hers, and my favourite song of her True Romance era “SuperLove” an unstoppably infectious and upbeat track that although not the most typical sonically, really defines the attitude and mental state of her pop tracks. The song conjures up the image of a long night of venue hopping parties, depicting herself as the force of nature you follow and the eye of the storm in the chaos. There’s a clarity of pleasure in the song that one seldom finds on an actual night out. When you do, it’s because there’s someone like Charli around, someone who holds your hand and pulls you through the crowd and whom you trust that nothing going on anywhere else could possibly be more fun that what will happen around her.
The Perfect Mixtape Song: “Emotional”
The hardest decision for this list was which track from the mixtape era I was going to choose. As previously intimated, the rough and unrefined quality of her sound in this era resulted in songs that she improved on with later releases. Not that these aren’t fantastic projects with many great songs on them: “ILY2,” “Out of My Head,” and “3am (Pull Up)” could each have easily made the list, it’s just hard picking a standout to represent them all, especially since Pop2 and Number1Angel have such different vibes to them. I almost decided to give this spot to the playful single “Boys” instead. In the end, I went with “Emotional,” a mournful anthem to chances not taken and romantic connections left untied, but feel free to substitute your own favourite from this era. Can’t go wrong.
The Perfect Love Song: “White Mercedes”
The unique selling point of the latter half of Charli’s career has been the expert way she mingles confident exuberance with a more vulnerable and introspective side. She seems to be perpetually longing for happiness and human connection, whether in the euphoria of the spotlight or the arms of another. She has sculpted herself a style and persona that slips between the two with unparalleled grace. One of the best examples of this tender side is the soulful ballad “White Mercedes”, a gut-wrenching ode to a lover to whom she feels she owes a debt of gratitude for accepting her and whose love she hopes she will one day live up to. It’s a sublime moment of fragility and openness and a reminder that Charli never holds anything back.
The Perfect Relationship Song: “7 Years”
This vibe was one she returned to on the following album How I’m Feeling Now, many of the tracks of which echoed moments on the previous record (“Pink Diamond” played the same ear-grabbing function as “Next Level Charli” and “c2.0” was a more reflective and sober remixing of “Click”). The middle section of the album hits a string of wounded, open-hearted odes to her enduring relationship with her boyfriend, “enemy”, “detonate” and “I finally understand,” and this is my personal favourite of the sequence. It has a warm, dryly witty chorus and catchy melodies and is written from a place of almost incredulous reflection. Picturing herself gazing out an aeroplane window, looking back on the last seven years of love and fame with equal parts affection, disbelief and gratitude.
The Perfect Closer: “2099 feat. Troye Sivan”
As her sound has evolved and as she has matured—which she most certainly has done, however it might appear—a melancholic undercurrent of what you might almost call paranoia has emerged to undercut the euphoria of her biggest hits. There is always that slightly wounded quality to her material, as if with every one of her endless parties there’s an unwillingness to face the daily grind awaiting the next morning.
That’s a particular quality shown most clearly in “After the Afterparty,” but it often takes a more abstract and indefinable form, best articulated in the lyrics to Charli and its whirring breakdown of a closer “2099.” It’s appropriately titled as it not only reunited Charli with Sivan who supported her on “1999,” but if that song is a romanticised depiction of the past, then “2099” is a fearful yet defiant meditation on an increasingly uncertain and fast looming future that feels more real by the day.
There were a lot of songs I might have chosen for this list, I’m confident I won’t have found space for at least a couple of your favourites, so which ones would comprise your lists?