×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Album Review: Charli XCX’s ‘Charli’

A backstory is perhaps not the most exciting way to start a review, but the drama behind “Charli” goes a long way toward explaining why, nearly five years after her last official album, Charli XCX’s latest is such a triumph.

At the end of 2014, then 22-year-old Charlotte Aitchison was on top of the world, with a smash hit as a solo artist (“Boom Clap”), another as a co-writer and featured collaborator (Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”), another as a songwriter (Icona Pop’s “I Love It”), and a critically feted sophomore album (“Sucker”). But with her career on a fast track, she began to sour on the music she’d been making — she’s said she hates “Sucker” — and veered into a much stranger, more confrontational strain of songs, often in collaboration with A.G. Cook (an executive producer here), Sophie and others who specialize in mutant pop with mechanical noises, sped-up voices and clattering, cacophonous beats.

A hyper-prolific artist who spews out music like a tempestuous volcano, Charli became frustrated by the music industry’s antiquated album/tour/repeat model and began sparring publicly with her record label; she completed an album called “XCX World” that leaked in 2017, so she abandoned it; and dropped dozens of one-off songs and even two full-length mixtapes of often off-kilter pop tunes. Ironically, at the same time, she was touring the world opening for Taylor Swift and is a co-writer of Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s summer smash “Señorita.”

Yet somehow, all of that dissonance has resulted in a mature, fully realized and downright visionary album that achieves her oft-stated goal of “pushing pop as far as it can go.” “Charli” is the best of both worlds: It’s innovative and adventurous but not off-puttingly weird; it finds her fine-tuning her pop instincts without getting overly gushy. It’s one of the most intelligent and sophisticated pop albums of the past decade, a merging of Hollywood sheen and European experimentation that — musically, anyway — is on a par with classics of that genre like Robyn’s self-titled 2005 album, Lady Gaga’s “The Fame” and Swift’s “1989.”

The album blasts off with “Next Level Charli,” a brash manifesto — “I go hard, I go fast/ And I never look back” — that she delivers in a rapid-fire rap-singing style that slams a pop melody into the cadence of hip-hop. Underpinned by a shimmering synth hook and atmospheric bass notes, the song is driven almost entirely by her powerful flow. It’s a striking stylistic turn that shows how far she’s come as a singer, and there’s absolutely nothing else like it on the album, which flows confidently from lilting pop to soaring ballads to upbeat party jams.

Anchoring it all are several well-chosen duets: Charli is a serial collaborator who generously shares the spotlight, and the best of the multiple tag-teams here — particularly “Gone” with Christine and the Queens, “Cross You Out” with Sky Ferreira and “Warm” with Haim — find her and her partners tossing melodies back and forth like a Frisbee, one-upping each other with vocal flips and flourishes. And the collaborations with artists whose voices are less naturally complementary to hers, Troye Sivan on “1999” and Lizzo on “Blame It on Your Love,” bridge the gaps with simpler, more direct melodies (she even does a slightly Swiftian ad-lib during Sivan’s verse on “1999”). While there are clear influences throughout the album, it’s all part of the ever-churning mix of styles: Sounds from the ’80s to the ’00s to the future flash by, evoking the Human League one moment, “Umbrella” the next; “Thoughts” finds Charli, an Autotune virtuoso, twisting her voice into wild shapes over a synth hook that resembles the THX sound test in a movie theaters.

Many fans of prolific, possibly ADD-addled artists — from Prince and Kanye to Sia and Guided by Voices — often wish that those artists would release 12 great songs, rather than 50 interesting ones with 12 songs’ worth of truly great ideas in them. With “Charli” and the five years and dozens of songs that preceded it, we have both. Ironically, it finds this gifted, restless and (apparently) easily bored artist creating exactly the kind of work she seemed to be resisting — a real, traditional album, with an arc and shape and multiple moods, a smooth but exhilarating cruise rather than a jarring joyride. The songs complement each other and contribute to a stronger whole, and are delivered with the confidence of an artist at the top of her game.

Album Review: Charli XCX's 'Charli'

More Music

  • Luis Fonsi Erika Ender Latin Grammys

    The Second Latin Explosion: How 'Despacito' Ushered in a New Generation of Stars

    Music is an ever-evolving art, and for the Latin Recording Academy, that’s meant riding multiple waves of attention. The most recent arrived with the stratospheric success of “Despacito,” which kicked off a second Latin Explosion with full force in 2017. The Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee hit, later featuring verses by Justin Bieber, made Latin [...]

  • Ricky Martin Celia Cruz Gloria Estefan

    From Idea to Legacy: Latin Grammy Awards Mark 20 Years of Global Recognition

    The idea of creating a separate organization to honor the diversity of Latin music was a discussion that took place for years before it actually happened, but an event driven by one of pop music’s most important crossover artists solidified it. During the 41st Grammy Awards ceremony, a young Ricky Martin was scheduled to perform [...]

  • Taron Egerton Elton John Rocketman Live

    Elton John and Taron Egerton Duet at 'Rocketman' Awards Season Event at the Greek Theatre

    “Rocketman” has officially launched into awards season. Paramount hosted a screening of the film with a live-performance of the score by the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra and a headlining performance by Elton John and the film’s star Taron Egerton. John and Egerton — who is in contention for best actor for his portrayal of the singer [...]

  • BTS 'Good Morning America' TV show,

    BTS Show Love for Lauv and Their Army of Fans in Video for Reworked 'Make It Right'

    Early Friday morning (Oct. 18), BTS gave fans a taste of what their upcoming “comeback” (Korean pop terminology for new music) may be like with a reworked version of “Make It Right.” The Korean boy band collaborated with the American singer-songwriter Lauv, who starts the soulful ballad off with a verse in English. Advocates for [...]

  • Michael Giacchino Film Composer

    Composer Michael Giacchino on Setting the Right Tone for 'Jojo Rabbit'

    Michael Giacchino is a widely respected film composer, with an Oscar and a Grammy for “Up” and an Emmy for “Lost,” as well as a Grammy for “Ratatouille.” He is stirring up Oscar buzz again with his score for Fox Searchlight’s “Jojo Rabbit,” written and directed by Taika Waititi. Giacchino talked with Variety about the [...]

  • Album Review: The Muffs' 'No Holiday'

    Album Review: The Muffs' 'No Holiday'

    It is heartbreaking that Kim Shattuck, the forthright singer and cocksure songwriter for the Muffs, died at the beginning of October. Renowned for her short, sharp brand of power-pop punk song, yearning but prickly lyrics, and screamy, shredded vocals with a tender, expressive edge, Shattuck — who spent time in the Pandoras, the Coolies and, for [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content