Here are the 15 best songs by Charli XCX, one of the most innovative pop artists of the decade.
Five studio albums, two EPs and four mixtapes into her career, Charli XCX has found her niche as a pop trailblazer who occasionally achieves mainstream success. But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, few pop stars in recent memory have traversed career paths as unconventional as Charli XCX’s. At age 30, Charlotte Emma Aitchison has gone from prospective worldwide icon/teen fave who first found stardom as a featured artist to underrated underground artiste who was reinventing pop music – and back. It really is a lot.
To help tell the story of her career, we’ve chosen what we believe are the best 15 Charli XCX songs as a lead performer (no “I Love It”, sorry) – all while explaining the role they played in her career path. If you don’t agree with the below ranking, please direct all your complaints and death threats to my editor. A less violent option is to share your own ranking with us – you do you!
Without further ado, these are the 15 best Charli XCX songs:
15. “Stay Away” (from True Romance)
Back in 2011, Charli XCX’s music career was at a standstill. She had just signed to Asylum Records, a label operating under Warner Bros. that had also recently snatched Cee Lo Green and a little ginger fella called Ed Sheeran. In an attempt to kickstart her career, Asylum flew Charli to L.A., where she would go through many fruitless recording sessions with a wide array of different producers. Only one of them clicked. It was Ariel Rechtshaid, whose most flattering producing credits at the time included bottom-of-the-barrel indie landfill acts such as We Are Scientists and The Blood Arm.
And yet it was that unlikely partnership that turned Charli into the global star she is today. In their first two-hour writing session, Rechtshaid and Charli co-wrote “Stay Away”, which would become one of the highlights of her debut album True Romance. Very much a product of its time, “Stay Away” is a cold, witch-house-influenced pop song with a bizarre half-rapped-half-spoken-word verse that Charli somehow sells with a straight face. Although it failed to make a dent in the charts, the song made the artist a critical darling, with Pitchfork granting it Best New Track status.
14. “Boys” (stand-alone single)
Intended to be the second single from a third studio album that never happened, “Boys” was released to critical acclaim in July 2017. Featuring a less abrasive sound than her last two releases (the SOPHIE-produced Vroom Vroom EP and Number 1 Angel, a mixtape enlisting the help of most PC Music producers), “Boys” is a quirky and charming pop song whose main hook is a Super Mario Bros. sample – which is extremely effective, by the way. With its catchy, meme-ready chorus, “Boys” really should have been a hit, yet it peaked at 31 in the UK Singles Chart and was nowhere to be seen in the US charts. It wouldn’t be particularly surprising if it made a resurgence as some sort of TikTok trend I don’t even want to understand.
13. “Boom Clap” (from Sucker)
First released as the lead song from a soppy teen romance, “Boom Clap” is Charli XCX’s first proper hit on her own. It made the top 10 in both the UK and the USA – an impressive feat for an artist whose previous singles have failed to chart significantly. “Boom Clap” is far from being Charli’s most adventurous moment, but it’s an outstanding pop song in its own right. You could even argue that this is her version of a late-70s butt-rock song: the song-writing is painted-by-numbers anonymous chart pop, but its cranked-up-to-eleven performance is so fun that one can’t help but join the sing-along. Originally offered to Hillary Duff, “Boom Clap” paints a world where Charli XCX hangs out with Max Martin and Mark Ronson instead of SOPHIE and A.G. Cook. It was actually produced by Stefan Gräslund as well as Patrick Berger, whose name is also associated to Robyn‘s “Dancing On My Own.”
12. “Backseat” ft. Carly Rae Jepsen (from Pop 2)
For the opening track of her magnum opus Pop 2, Charli XCX enlisted the help of the only pop star more criminally underrated than her by that point. Fresh off the heels of the critical success of Emotion and Emotion Side B, the perennially starry-eyed Carly Rae Jepsen pops up in this futuristic ballad produced by easyFun and A.G. Cook. Carly’s clear and passionate soprano vocals mark a stark contrast with Charli’s heavily-autotuned voice, adding even more power to a soul-stirring song that riffs off a common pop trope: partying and sex as an imperfect antidote for heart malaise.
11. “ILY2” (from Number 1 Angel)
This is one of the few Charli XCX songs that succeeds in finding a middle point between her two worlds – the big label product who can’t quite make it to the pop star A-list and the visionary pop savant whose wildest experiments are loudly cheered on by fans and critics alike. Produced by Danny L Harle, “ILY2” is an electro-pop banger that sits in the middle of Number 1 Angel, Charli’s third mixtape. “ILY2” anticipates the late-2010s/early-2020s hyper-pop trend of appropriating corny rock trope – see the Scorpions-like guitar lick plus solo in the bridge, or the chugging power chords that flesh out the chorus further than what its minimalistic backbone could possibly do. Aided by Harle’s pristine production (it’s impossible not to be in awe of that playful synth line in the pre-chorus), this could have been a massive hit single if marketed properly.
10. “Lipgloss” ft. CupcakKe (from Number 1 Angel)
Featuring one of the raunchiest artists to ever come close to a mic in pop history, “Lipgloss” is Charli XCX at her hyper-pop best: singing about wet genitals over a harsh electronic base courtesy of SOPHIE and A.G. Cook. It also features one of the CupcakKE-est CupcakKe lyrics ever: “More flavour than Flavor Flav / My pussy is very brave.” The whole thing is a lot of fun, but it’s also much more than that – a blueprint for later albums, its instrumental bears witness to Charli’s turn to an edgier and more experimental production style.
9. “Next Level Charli” (from Charli)
The received wisdom around Charli XCX is that her mixtapes contain most of her best work while her big-label studio records are always a bit of let-down. There’s definitely some truth to that. Charli’s third-studio album was released in September 2019 under the extremely blunt title Charli – perhaps a much-expected turn to sincerity after having made the most out of the glossy veneer of her recent mixtapes? Well, not quite. Charli isn’t a bad record by any means, but it feels weirdly impersonal and voiceless – and it definitely doesn’t come close to the potential sketched out on Pop 2 and Vroom Vroom.
That being said, there are a handful of tracks on the album that rank among her best work. One of them is the first track of the record, “Next Level Charli” – one of the few songs on Charli written only by Charli and frequent producer A.G. Cook. With an ominous synth acting as an initial bang, this is more of an introduction than a proper, fully fleshed-out song. Slightly OTT on the self-referencing department but incredibly effective as a melody, “Next Level Charli” is basically Charli XCX emulating the Paul McCartney of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” or “Magical Mystery Tour”. Its only verse is repeated almost a dozen times, and yet the song feels like it should be at least twice as long. How is it possible? Well, it’s Charli baby.
8. “Forever” (from How I’m Feeling Now)
Marketed as a studio album in spite of its DIY nature, Charli XCX’s fourth LP how I’m feeling now will go down in history as the first pandemic record by a big-ticket pop artist. Charli wrote, recorded and released the entire album in less than two months – a heavy contrast with the three-year rollout of a major label release. And yet there might be an argument for it as the definitive Charli XCX release. how I’m feeling now is a straight-to-the-bone, no-filler-all-killer album with Charli reining the overindulgences that had hampered some of her previous work.
Arguably her most heartfelt song to date, “Forever” is a mature love letter to a partner, a declaration of eternal love that goes beyond the natural ebbs and flow of a relationship. Its earnest lyricism and glitchy production earned it a few comparisons with fellow PC Music member Hannah Diamond – and not without reason. Like Diamond’s best songs, “Forever” is a simple, infectious song whose main objective is to reignite feelings that you thought you’d kept buried in adolescence.
7. “Lightning” (from Crash)
Charli XCX had to wait more than ten years to get a number one album in the UK. Crash, her fifth studio album and last one under her record contract with Atlantic Records, sees the British singer ditch her art-house credentials for a more straightforward dance-pop approach. For the most part, the experiment doesn’t pay off. Crash is fine, but not a lot more than that. It’s a weirdly anonymous record – one that could’ve been made by any pop star with the budget to enlist a dozen of different producers and thirty different writers. It’s not an unpleasant listen by any means, but it’s hard not to write it off as an end-of-contract fulfilment rather than a true artistic statement.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Crash’s best moment comes precisely when Charli goes back to her roots. The only song on the record produced by long-time collaborator Ariel Rechtshaid, “Lightning” is a new wave hit propelled by thundering drums and an infectious synth line. Not even bizarre production decisions (like the wildly out-of-place classic guitar or a four-minute running time that doesn’t do the song any favours) can stop “Lightning” from being one of Charli’s best songs.
6. “Gone” ft. Christine and the Queens (from Charli)
Her first collaboration with Christine and the Queens, “Gone” was smartly picked to be the third single off Charli. Fuelled by romantic doubts and insecurities, “Gone” is basically Charli’s version of a sad pop ballad – and by ballad Charli means an epic metallic-tinged song with a 114 BPM. Produced by A.G. Cook and Lotus IV, it features relatively minimalistic instrumentation, with an industrial bass working hand in hand with the percussive metallic pangs popping in and out of scene. Mirroring Charli’s growing despair as expressed in the heated pathos of her vocals, the instrumental becomes more complex as the song reaches its final point – a glitchy outro that wouldn’t have felt out of place on Pop 2.
5. “Nuclear Seasons” (from True Romance)
Co-written with Ariel Rechtshaid, “Nuclear Reasons” is the first great Charli XCX song. It’s also extremely baffling – in a good way. I mean, to start with, the song’s main hook is an Aqua-like “oh-ah-oh” backing vocal that stands out like a sore thumb against the darkwave-inspired instrumental. A clear sign of what was to come, this is an extremely busy and fidgety song – one that is never happy to tread the same path for more than 30 seconds. “Nuclear Seasons” is the sonic representation of a nervous kid jumping from one song to another whilst browsing an eclectic yet carefully curated music library that somehow includes both Cold Cave and Britney Spears. Intelligently tacked on to Charli’s first studio album, this is arguably her best non-PC music song.
4. “Anthems” (from How I’m Feeling Now)
Of all the great songs on how I’m feeling now (and there’s loads), none of them hits the brief as perfectly as “Anthems”. Co-produced by 100 Gecs’ Dylan Brady and inspired by the teen comedy “Project X”, “Anthems” does what it says on the tin – it’s a manic party anthem that could turn a wake into a rave in a matter of seconds. Written a few weeks into Covid lockdown, this is Charli XCX at her best, an edgy but unpretentious adrenaline shot coupled with an infectious chorus. It’s bound to remain a DJ set staple for decades to come.
3. “Unlock It” ft. Kim Petras and Jay Park (from Pop 2)
Hot take: no artist in the past decade has released more high-octane pop bangers than Charli XCX. And “Unlock It” might easily be the best one. Produced by A.G. Cook, “Unlock It” is built on an incessant looped vocal hook that has the same effect as ingesting 2kgs of pure sugar in one sitting. The song operates on a similar plain as “Vroom Vroom” or “Next Level Charli”, with Futurism-inspired lyrics about going fast, kissing hard, and getting high sung over a bubbly instrumental that peaks with its rumpled, cathartic end. Including a great feature from Kim Petras and an out-of-place-but-fun verse by Jay Park, “Unlock It” can teach us all a very valuable lesson – sometimes the batshit crazy choices are the ones that work best.
2. “Vroom Vroom” (from Vroom Vroom EP)
The biggest turning point in Charli’s career, “Vroom Vroom” will always be remembered for being one of the songs that put the trailblazer producer SOPHIE in the spotlight. And for good reason. Up to that point, SOPHIE had released her fair share of bangers – including 2013’s “Bipp”, which was already rightfully considered one of the best pop singles of the decade. But “Vroom Vroom” was something else. It was messy and chaotic, and yet at its heart was a pop sensibility that brought it closer to the mainstream it was trying to tear apart. Simply put, no other producer has ever got more out of Charli XCX.
“Vroom Vroom” is unstoppable, a hedonistic whirlwind comprised of dozens of influences (from UK bass to trap) all crammed into a blender. Atop it all sits Charli, whose swaggering braggadocio and questionable lyricism (“ice cubes on our tongues ‘cos we like to keep it freezy”) are the sonic representation of a Harmony Korine film: is this for real, or is it all a joke? And if it is a joke, then why am I so moved?
1. “Track 10” (from Pop 2)
“Track 10” is such a perfect song that Charli XCX saw no problem in re-hashing it for her self-titled album as the edgeless Lizzo collab “Blame It On Your Love”. True, “Blame It On Your Love” was supposedly recorded before “Track 10”, but surely Charli and her team knew that it would always pale in comparison with “Track 10”, right? Right?? Anyway, the god-awful Lizzo version died a sweet and fast death – it peaked at no. 70 in the UK charts before vanishing into the ether of songs that should’ve never existed.
But that’s enough digression. As the closing track on Pop 2, “Track 10” wraps the project up with a neat summation of its aesthetics: emotional sincerity expressed through heavily auto-tuned vocals, a continuous back-and-forth between the low-key and the OTT, and cathartic throw-everything-to-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks moments where everything sticks. You might not think that it’s the best thing she’s ever made, (although you’d be dead wrong), but there’s little to no doubt that “Track 10” is the ultimate Charli XCX song, for now.
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