England’s Charlotte Emma Aitchison is almost the archetypal millennial musician – you know you’re from the net generation when your stage name is taken from your 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.
I sometimes feel like an impostor listening to Charli XCX – she’s young and image focused, while I’m approaching middle age and wear whatever old t-shirt’s at the top of my drawer. But the thing that always surprises me about Charli XCX is why she’s not a huge mainstream star – she’s great at creating memorable pop hooks, she has a sassy, sultry voice, and 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. A lot of her work is on non-album singles – the joyous pop of ‘Superlove’ from 2013 is one of my favourite Charli XCX tracks.
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 mix tapes. 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 followup to 2014’s Sucker, and eliminate record company politics, and quickly recorded Number 1 Angel in 2 weeks. Aitchison has been a stylistic chameleon throughout her career – Sucker was guitar based – but 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 smooth R&B, although Uffie’s cameo gives it some tension, but 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.
Ten Best Charli XCX Songs
3am (Pull Up)
What I Like