Charlotte Emma Aitchison took her stage name from her teenage MSN Messenger handle. Of part Indian heritage, Aitchison experiences sound-to-colour synaesthesia, where she sees sounds as colours – a phenomenon shared with other notable musicians including Duke Ellington, Billy Joel, Oliver Messaien, and Syd Barrett.
Aitchison was born in Cambridge and started her musical career at 14, playing illicit warehouse raves in east London. Her career proper started at the age of 18 when she released the single ‘Stay Away’, co-written and produced by Ariel Rechtshaid.
It’s surprising that Charli XCX isn’t a huge mainstream star – she creates memorable pop hooks, she has a sassy, sultry voice, and she enjoys a devoted Instagram following. She’s also been involved in hit songs for Iggy Azalea and Icona Pop. But her own work is just adventurous enough that she primarily enjoys a devoted underground pop following. She’s also still young and finding her identity, vacillating between the straightforward guitar pop/rock of Sucker and more experimental efforts like Pop 2.
Charli XCX Album Reviews
Best Album: Pop 2
Aitchison released her debut album at the age of 20, largely recycling material that had appeared on earlier EPs and mixtapes. By the time of the album’s release, she’d already experienced success as a songwriter, penning and singing backing vocals on Icona Pop’s ‘I Love It’, which eventually hit number one on the UK charts. Aitchison describes the style of music on her debut as “neon goth” – it’s a good summary of her brooding but poppy music. Aitchison’s principal collaborator for True Romance is producer Ariel Rechtshaid, who worked on the early and impressive songs ‘Stay Away’ and ‘Nuclear Seasons’.
The atmospheric ‘Nuclear Seasons’ is the highlight of the disc; its hazy beginning opens out into an insistent beat and rumbling bass that give the piece an industrial feel. My other favourite piece is ‘What I Like’, which turns from a deceptively industrial beginning into a breezy pop song. Elsewhere, XCX’s terse pop works well on songs like ‘Stay Away’ and ‘You’re The One’.
True Romance is a surprisingly accomplished record from a 20-year-old, striding an impressive tension between pop hooks and simmering backdrops.
Aitchison followed the moody and textured True Romance with the bright and poppy Sucker. It’s an interesting debate as to whether the move toward less nuanced upbeat fare is underselling her talent – I certainly enjoy True Romance more, as the relentlessly crunching guitars and peppy tempos of Sucker can wear thin after a while. But despite the lack of experimentation and stylistic variation, Sucker is effective when the songs are strong.
The best known song is ‘Boom Clap’, with its “on and on and on and on” hook – it’s one of those Charli XCX songs that sounds like it should have been a huge hit. Almost as good is ‘Gold Coins’, where the crunchy guitars aren’t too far away from power pop. I also enjoy the verse melody of ‘Doing It’ and the hooks of ‘Hanging Around’ and ‘Caught In The Middle’. Often the issue is that it feels ultimately hollow – like Aitchison is role-playing as an adolescent on songs like ‘Famous’ and ‘Break The Rules’, and her real personality only surfaces occasionally.
It’s not as moody and interesting as True Romance, but the best moments of Sucker are a massive blast of adrenaline.
Vroom Vroom (EP)
Aitchison took a pointed change of direction from Sucker, trading that album’s straightforward pop/rock arrangements for experimental, sci fi soundscapes courtesy of PC Music’s Sophie. Rather than a full album, a four song EP was released from the sessions. It’s the most adventurous release from Aitchison to date, but sometimes it lapses into gimmicky territory, especially when Aitchison raps. Her thick English accent has its charms, but it’s not her strength and she’d wisely use guest cameos for rapping in future projects.
As such, it’s often difficult to take these songs seriously as they’re too close to novelties. It doesn’t help that Aitchison is often pursuing a shallow, materialistic lyric agenda, full of braggadocio, which like her rapping is an uncomfortable fit. Of the four songs, the track that does work is ‘Paradise’, where it’s largely pared down to a pretty tune, Aitchison, and a piano.
Vroom Vroom is a transitional album for Aitchison, too gimmicky to rate among her best work.
Number 1 Angel
Collaborating with A. G. Cook and PC Music, Number 1 Angel was designated as a mixtape rather than a full album. Aitchison preferred to reduce expectations for her follow-up to Sucker, and quickly recorded Number 1 Angel in two weeks. Number 1 Angel mines an electro-pop sound that’s just boundary-pushing enough to give her some edge. Her voice is a major asset, full and rich, but bursting with a crass joie de vivre.
‘3AM (Pull Up)’ is one of the highlights, its lyrics wavering between lust and regret, culminating in the memorable “pull up pull up” vocal hook. ‘Babygirl’ is straightforward and smooth R&B, Uffie’s cameo gives it some tension while the hook is so strong that it works despite the sugar overload. Those are my two favourite tracks, but there are also strong vocal hooks on ‘Dreamer’ and ‘Drugs’.
I don’t love all of Number 1 Angel, but the best moments keep me coming back to it.
Not content with just one album masquerading as a mixtape in 2017, Aitchison released Pop 2 in December of the same year. Collaborator A.G. Cook stated that they wanted it to feel like a “restart” in terms of image and style after Number 1 Angel, but it essentially feels like a more accomplished and more adventurous sequel. It’s less reliant on the force of Aitchison’s personality than Number 1 Angel, and it features more solid album tracks to backup the highlights.
Just like Number 1 Angel, there are a pair of standout tracks. Firstly, the opening Carly Rae Jepsen duet ‘Backseat’, which contrasts Aitchison’s deeper voice with Jepsen’s sweet, high tones, as the pair sing a verse each, before disassembling into a closing section where the two treated voices duel each other. Jepsen’s “I got a thirst for distraction that I can’t take back” is a beautiful line, a shining moment in a great pop song. ‘Femmebot’ is the only song that Aitchison wasn’t involved in writing, but she’s a great front-woman for the sassy words, and the chorus is the album’s most ingratiating hook. There are some great album tracks buried towards the end of Pop 2 – the shimmering synths of ‘Unlock It’ juxtapose with the jarring vocal hook, while ‘Track 10’ invigorates a straightforward, catchy pop song with auto-tune experimentation.
‘Backseat’ is one of my favourite pop songs of the decade, and there’s plenty of fascinating, experimental yet accessible pop music on Pop 2.
Charli, Aitchison’s first official studio album for five years, attempts to bridge the gap between her pop sense and her experimental side. It’s a largely successful compromise that showcases the range of Charli XCX’s capabilities. It can be an exhausting listen, due to the volume of guest stars and the unceasingly glossy production from PC Music’s A.G. Cook, but it’s a fascinating smorgasbord of different approaches.
One of the highlights of Charli comes from the guest spot from Christine and the Queens. Chris’ airy voice blends beautifully with Charli XCX’s husky tones, and the song’s chorus is warm and inviting. It forms a strong opening pair with ‘Next Level Charli’, a terrific opener that largely dispenses with melody in favour of building intensity with layers of vocals and synths.
Sometimes Charli sounds like it’s trying too hard for commercial success. ‘Blame It On Your Love’ is a streamlined version of ‘Track 10’ from Pop2, and it’s less satisfying despite the Lizzo cameo. ‘1999’ isn’t a Prince cover, but feels like a half-hearted, lowest common denominator single, even though the video, full of 1990s tropes like a reenactment of Titanic and The Spice Girls, is charming.
Charli XCX’s maverick pop sense takes her in a few directions on Charli. She’s mellow surprisingly often, like on the single ‘White Mercedes’. There’s a lovely and soaring duet with Sky Ferreira on ‘Cross You Out’, while HAIM guest on the pretty ‘Warm’. Conversely, Charli flirts with provocative and futuristic R&B, like ‘Click’ and ‘Shake It’. On the latter, she delivers the chorus while letting her quartet of guest stars each have a turn with the verses.
The something-for-everyone approach of Charli can be frustrating, and it’s less satisfying than her moody debut True Romance or the futuristic pop of 2017 mixtape Pop 2. But with a little judicious skipping, there’s a strong pop album here.
How I’m Feeling Now
The lock-down album is something that 2020 will probably be remembered for. As far as I’m aware, the first 2020 lock-down record from a major artist was from Charli XCX. Aitchison, set herself a deadline of five and a half weeks to write, record, and mix a record during self-isolation. The songs on How I’m Feeling Now often profile her lock-down in Los Angeles. Aitchison recently told The Guardian that it was weird “yelling about my relationship into a microphone while my boyfriend’s in the other room, doing a puzzle”. A lot of the lyrics feel like internal monologues, analysing relationships, a stark contrast from her usual brash party-girl persona. Third single ‘I Finally Understand’ is about how enforced togetherness in quarantine brought her and her boyfriend closer together. The songs were previewed during weekly Zoom meetings with fans – sharing demos and early lyrics.
Making an album quickly has removed the second-guessing that’s negatively impacted Aitchison’s career. She still utilises her frequent collaborator A.G. Cook from PC Music, but the record feels on a much smaller scale than previous efforts; there’s less effort to spread over a range of genres to ensure mass appeal. The lack of eclecticism puts the spotlight on Aitchison’s songwriting – even though the medium is unabashed pop, How I’m Feeling Now feels intimate and personal.
There are hooky pop songs aplenty on How I’m Feeling Now, but they’re largely reliant on vocal melody for their appeal. ‘Forever’ is the most immediate song, while ‘Detonate’ and ‘Enemy’ both frame Aitchison’s vocals among percolating synths. Conversely, there’s less sonic experimentation than usual from a Charli XCX album – the first half of ‘c2.0’ is built around vocal effects before it opens into a lovely song. Perhaps echoing Covid-19 anxiety, closing pieces ‘Anthems’ and ‘Visions’ provide an unsettling conclusion where most records close with a gentle song.
It doesn’t quite displace Pop 2 as my favourite Charli XCX record, but the historical context of How I’m Feeling Now may mean that it’s her career legacy.
Charli XCX has had a mercurial career to date, veering between arty projects like 2017’s critically adored mixtape Pop 2 and more commercial projects like 2014’s Sucker. Crash is much closer to the latter, a fast-paced set of accessible pop songs. Where Sucker sometimes felt forced, on tracks like ‘Break the Rules’, Crash does a better job of self-expression. Perversely, Charli XCX embraced the pop game on Crash – where she previously wrote most of her material herself, here she tries working with songwriting teams as a way to extend herself. She’s also abandoned the hyper pop sound of PC Music for a more mainstream, 1980s sound.
The crash was actually planned for 2020, billed as a Janet Jackson-inspired record, but due to COVID, it was pushed behind her pandemic album How I’m Feeling Now. It’s already XCX’s most successful record on the charts, reaching number one in the UK and Australia. It’s a deserved success for a fun and fast-moving record – while not every tune is great, the fast pace makes it more than the sum of its parts.
If anything, it’s the lead single that’s a little underwhelming – ‘Good Ones’ is fine, but feels more like a routine album cut than the main attraction. ‘New Shapes’, with vocal cameos from Christine and the Queens and Caroline Polachek, is much more fun. The best stretch of the record is the juxtaposition between the introspection of ‘Break Every Rule’ and the hyper-chorus of ‘Yuck’.
Charli XCX is always interesting, and it’s nice that a more streamlined album has brought her some mainstream success.
Ten Best Charli XCX Songs
3am (Pull Up)
Next Level Charli
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Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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