The 10 Best Charli XCX Songs
There’s something unplayful and stringent about today’s pop landscape, as if personas are set in stone after they’ve been proven to work. Ariana Grande may never move past mid tempo R&B samples and ponytail extensions. I still don’t know the difference between Shawn Mendes and Charlie Puth. The ruthless pace of the industry is partially to blame for its biggest artists making forgettable music. There’s also the streaming economy’s algorithm-driven approximation of What The People Want motivating more of the same. So much of modern pop is generated to fit a fleeting trend, and the fast-fashion music model is riddled with design flaws. These songs aren’t built to last.
Charli XCX flies in opposition to all that. She follows the logic that you can’t get caught in a rut if you zig-zag fast enough. I don’t think that’s how cars work, but the theory has proven to be successful in her career. Charli’s pop is meticulous yet carefree, big and ambitious and hard to pin down. It’s founded in an appreciation of the pop canon and a forward-looking vision. Her pop is retrofuturistic in sound and aesthetic: songs that ring like caricatures of 1999 and the year 3000, album art with metallic blobs that can only be described as space goo. It’s distinctly Charli.
Charlotte Aitchison’s misfit avant-pop sensibilities can be traced back to her MySpace page circa 2008, when she was a teenager growing up in England, posting songs and demos for whoever would listen. After a promoter came across her profile, she went on to perform at warehouse raves in east London under the name Charli XCX, her MSN Messenger username at the time.
In 2010, Charli signed with Asylum Records. “When I got signed I hated pop music; I wanted to make bad rap music,” she said in an interview. “I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know what I liked … I was still figuring it out.” It wasn’t until 2012 that Charli XCX burst onto the pop radar, with “I Love It.” Having co-wrote the song with Swedish producer Patrik Berger, Charli was initially supposed to perform lead vocals, but decided it didn’t fit her sound. Instead, you could find her shouting from the sidelines and stealing the show on what would become an international hit for the Swedish duo Icona Pop.
Charli XCX’s commitment to her brand of pop stardom is so uncompromised and self-aware that it verges on parody. Perhaps the most straightforward distillation of her aura is in a viral video featuring the singer yelling at a low-energy German festival crowd in 2013. “I Love It” was climbing the charts and Charli had just released her debut album True Romance. In the clip, she shouts over the single’s pulsating backtrack, “Do you know this fucking song? I thought this fucking song was big in Germany!”
True Romance introduced Charli XCX as a new kind of pop star, one leading with postmodern flair and emotional candor. The album relies on her keen curatorial instincts and a clear grasp on the genre’s past and present — light AutoTune, ‘80s synth, Y2K teen attitude, and cutting-edge production. Producer Ariel Rechtshaid, now a fixture in contemporary pop and rock, was just starting to expand his roster, including everyone from Blood Orange to Sky Ferreira to Justin Bieber. True Romance was met with critical acclaim and adoring fans, but fell short of substantial commercial success, a pattern that continues to inform Charli’s pop-but-not status.
In 2014, Charli returned to the mainstream spotlight, still a supporting act, on Iggy Azalea’s chart-topping single “Fancy.” She took this time to expand her songwriting portfolio and delve deeper into Top Pop, working with big hitters like Rihanna and Gwen Stefani. Later that year, Charli earned her first solo hit with the infectious “Boom Clap,” her contribution to the soundtrack for the teen drama The Fault In Our Stars.
At the same time, Charli wanted to push beyond True Romance’s electro-pop toward something closer to rock. After making and scrapping a punk album with Patrik Berger, she began recording with indie stalwarts Rivers Cuomo and Rostam Batmanglij. The result was Sucker’s sugary, in-your-face power-pop, inspired by the Ramones and ‘60s yé-yé music. It debuted at number 28 on the Billboard 200, making it Charli’s first album to enter the chart. For years she’d still be surrounded by a narrative of being a rising pop star with secret weapon writing credits, but never becoming fully mainstream herself.
That, ultimately, wasn’t who Charli XCX was supposed to be. In the second half of the decade, she underwent a pivot that found her deconstructing and rebuilding pop in her own image. In 2015, she met the people that would help her unlock her new sound and identity. A. G. Cook and his London-based electronic collective PC Music, along with experimental producer Sophie, were instrumental in shaping the pop futurism now associated with Charli XCX. They produced the three releases — 2016’s Vroom Vroom EP and the 2017 mixtapes Number 1 Angel and Pop 2 — that would reorient her pop philosophy. These projects gave Charli the space to play around and realize her talent as a master collaborator, free from the constraints of a major label album release. Their sessions laid the foundation for her third studio album, 2019’s Charli, her most personal and adventurous work.
Charli XCX’s latest album, How I’m Feeling Now, was recorded and released in the first half of 2020, as the pandemic was spreading and fear was setting in. Her freewheeling innovation and community of fans and collaborators proved to be even stronger under the monotony of quarantine. It confirmed Charli as a post-internet pioneer, and not just because she compiled the album virtually. The internet, the town square of lockdown, is the album’s world. In glitch earthquakes, warped cries, and passing mentions of wearing a miniskirt on Zoom and staring at your phone until your eyes burn, she comments on the tool that’s remained a central presence through her entire career and most of her life.
During the summer of COVID, two months after putting out How I’m Feeling Now, Charli tweeted, “what is hyperpop?” Apparently uninterested in the replies, she followed up, “I do not identify with music genres.” Her dismissal is ironic, considering many fans credit Charli with popularizing the “hyperpop” subgenre. The term is shorthand for an extremely online array of electronic scenes and sounds — lo-fi trap, happy hardcore, and EDM, to name a few — sometimes pulling from SoundCloud rap and emo. The effect is an uncanny, saturated mutation of traditional pop. PC Music is one of hyperpop’s prime sonic guides. And, labels aside, Charli is its biggest promoter. But she’s right to refuse a single category: She’s an artist who has grown through constant evolution.
Charli XCX is a pop star with the creative spirit of a DIY artist. She’s both an It Girl and an outsider. She takes risks and influences the mainstream without being at the center of it. Charli spent much of her career navigating pop without adhering to it, and now she’s transforming the genre. In less than a decade, she’s already built a catalog that is rich and varied and boasts a dizzying amount of songs to call her finest moments. Here are her 10 best.
"I Got It” (From Pop 2, 2017)
For the final installation of her pre-LP3 mixtape/EP trilogy, Charli enlisted A. G. Cook to executive produce Pop 2. Together, they recruited an eclectic roster of collaborators and finished recording just a few months ahead of its release. The chemistry is palpable; Charli thrives as a silent leader behind Cook’s genius production. Pop 2 is a nonstop party with a stacked guest list, and the chaotic harmony of “I Got It” makes you feel like you’re there. Brooke Candy, cupcakKe, and Pablo Vittar spit verses around Charli’s wobbly drone: “I got it / I got it / I got it / I got it.” The posse cut is like a sonic twerk-off. Each artist gets a shot in the center and nobody misses. It’s the perfect structure for Charli to play both the star and the hype man.
“Boys” (Single, 2017)
Never has a song so strongly embodied the act of doodling a crush’s name in your diary with a fluffy pink pen. A Nintendo buhlip adds a wink to Charli’s simple refrain: “I was busy dreamin’ bout boys.” Its music video is like a mid-'00s teen magazine cover, filled with hot dudes and famous dudes eating cake and holding puppies. The cast presents an updated, inclusive dreamboat definition, their hunkhood not (always) defined by a six pack.
“Boys” was initially intended to be the second single from Charli’s celebrated, unreleased album dubbed XCX World by fans. After the project was leaked and subsequently shelved, Charli released “Boys” as a standalone track. Its cheeky appeal is similar to that of the album it was supposed to accompany. The rumored tracklist -- made up of leaked cult favorites like “Taxi” and classic Charli singles like “Girls Night Out” -- is effortless, flirty fun. “Boys” boasts the kind of hair-twirling giddiness that went out of vogue when we were told to associate it with weakness.
“Focus” (Single, 2018)
“Focus” shoots you straight into Charl’s universe, no intro. Synths build and beam around a single request: “I just want you to focus on my love,” repeated roughly 30 times. But it doesn’t get stale. Charli’s soft chant envelopes you in squiggles and lights, like a fembot siren. By the fifth “Just focus on my” you’re zooming through the sky in a flying pink car. “Focus” was released as a double single with “No Angel” as part of a series of monthly drops in 2018. Working with the freedom of a loose release strategy, Charli came away with no-strings-attached bops.
“Nuclear Seasons” (From True Romance, 2013)
Charli XCX’s debut album opens with thick fog and neon lights, industrial buzz and lush synth. “Nuclear Seasons” demonstrates Charli’s knack for stylish melodrama. The end of a relationship crashes and burns like the end of the world, leaving behind a plume of sparkling smoke. “Cause you taste the blast and it shook your bones/ I'm a warrior all alone,” her brooding erupts into a yelp at the sound of a whip-crack. “In the shelter I survived the storm.” Critics drew comparisons between True Romance’s darkwave electro-pop and similarly timed breakthrough albums from Grimes and Marina And The Diamonds, citing unconventional production and a bubblegum edge, respectively. But Charli’s emotional work set her apart, and still does.
“Famous” (From Sucker, 2015)
Sucker was like an initiation slumber party for Charli XCX’s girl gang, packed with songs for dancing around your bedroom and anthems for going out and getting blasted with your best friends. “Obviously, it’s about not giving a fuck," she said in an interview ahead of the album’s release. “Famous” is bratty and euphoric with lyrics you have to scream; Charli’s dreams of superstardom are painted in splashy tabloids and stretch limos and champagne towers. She craves the rebellious celebrity fantasy that doesn't really exist anymore, the iced-out diva behavior that she wears so well. “Music playing loud/ Tripping through the crowd,” she beams. “Put your sunglasses on/ Don't care if we look dumb.”
“What I Like” (From True Romance, 2013)
“What I Like” is the most understated song on True Romance. Charli strips back the glitter and drama for casual bliss and daydreaming. She’s blunt and low-key, somewhere between a smirk and a giggle, half-rapping about a new relationship: “All along, I wanted someone to vibe with/ Ha, we on some husband and wife shit.” It’s the calm before the storm. Some light thunder rolls in when she reaches the pre-chorus, the tension in her voice building and contracting: “When the last heart’s been broken/ We’ll be sitting on your bedroom floor still smoking.” The attitude-forward, lo-fi mashup sounds like a relic of the 2010s, with a music video that radiates eyeliner-smeared teen girl Tumblr in its prime. It’s like bedroom pop, but recorded in a hotel suite with all your friends.
“Anthems” (From How I’m Feeling Now, 2020)
Charli’s love of partying is a well-documented fact. But on her quarantine album, How I’m Feeling Now, the need for a night out is urgent. She sings about partying and performing like her sanity depends on it. She craves a release. So “Anthems” became a cathartic banger about couch-bound mood swings, produced by PC Music wunderkind Danny L Harle and 100 gecs’ Dylan Brady.
It resonates beyond lockdown isolation -- true to its name, it's an anthem, one for a restless, lonely generation, adults feeling like grounded teenagers in the year 2020. “I'm so bored/ Wake up late, eat some cereal/ Try my best to be physical,” Charli dead-pans over a skittering laser beat. “Staring out to oblivion/ All my friends are invisible.” She screams out to no one: “I want anthems/ Late nights, my friends, New York.” Charli workshopped “Anthems” with her fans via Instagram Live in the midst of quarantine, one way she could engage with the community she's built in a year without touring. “Anthems” offers an electric balm, a flicker of hope: “Finally when it’s over we might be even closer.”
“Gone” (From Charli, 2019)
Charli is exposed on her self-titled third album, turning her fears and insecurities into a work of pop theater. After the exhilarating I’m-never-gonna-die opening track, “Gone” throws us down to earth for the start of Act I. Charli teams up with Christine And The Queens’ Héloïse Letissier for a synth-pop panic attack. A. G. Cook and Ö’s slinky sonic ropes creep up and bind them, each artist taking turns attempting to break free. Charli starts: “I feel so unstable, fucking hate these people/ How they're making me feel lately.” Letissier volleys: “I see myself and I look scared and confused/ Wait, did they just talk? Why is it loud?” They push through the chorus, leaning on each other, strained under self-imposed traps: “Why do we keep when the water runs? Why do we love if we're so mistaken?” There’s a light at the breakdown, when thoughts spiral out far enough to briefly untangle themselves.
“Vroom Vroom” (From The Vroom Vroom EP, 2015)
In 2016, Charli announced her new experimental pop imprint, Vroom Vroom Recordings: “It will combine my love for bubblegum pop with mystery and darkness.” While the label only signed a couple of artists, her Vroom Vroom EP was the launchpad for Charli 2.0, the first of the three releases with Sophie and PC Music leading up to her third studio album.
The vaguely witchy True Romance and the fruit punch flavored Sucker were beginning to coalesce under a coating of liquid chrome. Charli took on a dark edge, vicious and dazzling. “Vroom Vroom” hits the gas on the transformation. Charli rides Sophie’s squeaks and plops and twists like she’s playing turbo-pop Bop-It. You can imagine Charli and Sophie ping-ponging lines in the studio. “Bitches on the beaches, lookin' super cute and freaky/ All my friends are princesses, we keep it whipped and creamy/ Ice cubes on our tongues, because we like to keep it freezy,” Charli talk-sings. Swerving between sour and sweet, flexes and high notes, bleating alarms and engine purrs, "Vroom Vroom" is hypnotic.
“Track 10” (From Pop 2, 2017)
Pop 2 is a blueprint for pop utopia, ruled by collaboration and fucked-up feelings and the pursuit of sounds you’ve never heard. The feature-packed mixtape culminates in a five-and-a-half-minute epic, produced by PC Music’s Life Sim, Lil Data, and A. G. Cook. “Track 10” is devastating and glorious. A luminous dial-up symphony guides Charli inward. Her heart beats in bass burbles and stuttering glitches. It boots up and malfunctions, exploding into a million metal shards and crystals. “I blame it on your love every time I fuck it up,” her voice shakes and swells into a distorted howl. What’s so impressive about Pop 2 is how intensely human it is. Maximalist electronic production acts more as a surgical device than cold armor; Its goal is open heart procedures.
Pop 2, and every album that’s come after it, is a testament to working with people you admire and seeking varied perspectives. For years now, Charli has drawn on those collaborations to remake herself, but also to create her own kingdom within the pop landscape -- a space for otherworldly therapy sessions, where we can hurt and heal and bask in the strobe light.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify: