Charli XCX has always stood alone in the pop world. With one foot in the world of high-gloss pop anthems and the other in the PC music group’s industrial and futuristic “bubblegum bass” aesthetic, Charli’s music up until now has been plagued with something of an identity crisis.
On the one hand, tracks like “Fancy” and “I Love it” are flat and generic pop hits that nevertheless saw massive radio play. On the other, tracks like those on her 2016 “Vroom Vroom” EP are a non-stop adrenaline rush. Charli experimented with her sound and pushed the limits of her aesthetic on this EP, with a number of abrasive and dissonant sounds that were worked in alongside otherwise traditionally structured pop songs to great success. 2017’s album “Pop 2” was Charli’s best effort to that date, one that saw her pushing her sound even further and beginning to synthesize her pop sensibilities with a more adventurous sonic palette. After what feels like an eternity of single releases, the track “1999” emerged at the end of 2018, and fans have finally been presented with the album “Charli.” Encapsulating everything that has made the singer’s work captivating up until now, “Charli” sees the British pop star come into her own. Equal parts infectious and left-field, the album is certainly Charli XCX’s strongest project, one of the best records of the year, and some of the most compelling pop music in recent memory.
The album begins with a great deal of momentum on the track “Next Level Charli,” as the catchy synth melody is complemented by punchy percussion, making the listener feel as if they are being propelled through space and time deeper into the tracklist. The second track “Gone” was easily the strongest of the singles. The vocals on this track are stellar, with both Charli and featured artist Christine and the Queens delivering energetic and dynamic performances. “Gone” straddles both sides of Charli’s musical sensibilities: an unapologetically infectious and catchy tune on the surface with some unconventional flourishes sprinkled throughout. The bridge is an excellent example, as the vocals seem to glitch in and out of the mix while a warped version of the chorus resurfaces and then fades away. The song “Cross You Out (feat. Sky Ferreira)” has an enormous sound, with visceral bass and percussion that make the track feel like a cyborg’s marching anthem. This effect may cause some listeners to feel that the song merely plods along without generating the same degree of forward momentum as the previous tracks. In stark contrast is “1999,” a relentlessly danceable track that takes off from the first second and doesn’t slow down. Lyrically, the track contains several playful nods to the late 90s as Charli looks back with nostalgia at the Spice Girls, Britney Spears, and old Nikes.
Troye Sivan delivers one of the several strong features on the album, with equally nostalgic callbacks to MTV and the show “Home Improvement.” Other notable performances include Kim Petras and Tommy Cash on “Click,” one of the album’s most sonically abrasive and avant-garde tracks. Petras and Cash both bring a unique tone to the song, while the beat wharps and seems to tear at the seams with each verse. In the song’s closing moments the wheels come off completely, as a cacophony of high-pitched chirps and metallic scraping consume the mix. “Blame it on Your Love (feat. Lizzo)” is an upbeat reworking of “Track 10” off of “Pop 2.” While the chorus of both songs is essentially the same, the instrumental tone of the Lizzo track is far brighter, and the structure is more traditional. Lizzo brings her trademark zeal while still matching the futuristic and playful tone of the track. While Charli has always been a frequent collaborator, the features on this most recent effort are better integrated, bringing a unique flavor to each track without detracting from the cohesive sound of the record.
Despite the album’s numerous high- profile features, some of the strongest moments on “Charli” come on the tracks with no collaborators. “White Mercedes” is a highlight on the album, with Charli delivering a heartfelt verse about feelings of insecurity and inadequacy in her relationship. For some listeners the song may even feel perplexing at moments, as they find themselves reconciling their physical need to move and sing along to Charli’s repeated declarations of, “Hate myself, I really love you/ Hurting you feels like I’m hurting as well/ All I know is I don’t deserve you.” The song “Official” is a tender reflection on intimate secrets and a relationship’s potential. Here, Charli gives the album’s themes of self-destructive or reckless behavior a hopeful spin: “You know the words to my mistakes/ You understand because you made ’em too.”
There is little to dislike on this album. Some moments such as the song “Warm (feat. HAIM)” are not as high-impact as some other moments on the album, but nothing is genuinely bad or poorly executed. “February 2017 (feat. Clairo and Yaeji)” feels like it could have been fleshed out into a more complete song as the track builds to a chorus which cuts out abruptly. Despite this, it serves a different role as a transitional moment in the tracklisting quite well. If anything, Charli XCX released too many singles too early. I had heard a third of the album’s tracks by the time it came out, a fact which lessened the front-to-back listening experience only slightly. Listeners who haven’t heard “Charli” or the singles yet, though, are in luck. It is rare that a pop album manages to feel fresh and inventive across its entire runtime, and yet “Charli” accomplishes just that. Marrying left-field production choices with a sharp sensibility for infectious hooks and finely-crafted pop tunes, here finally is the realization of Charli XCX’s potential as an artist. This record is one of the finest produced this year and a must- listen for any fan of pop music in 2019. Close this article and stream this album.