Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of Charli XCX’s groundbreaking Pop 2 “mixtape”. It has dominated my listening rotation since its release, as its future pop folds are incredibly easy to get, for lack of a better word, addicted to. I’ve been so addicted, in fact, that for the week I was writing my Best 50 Albums of 2018 post, I had Pop 2 as my #1 album. It was only until I saw a fellow music fan rank it as their #1, which opened the floodgates for me. In the end though, I kept everything as it were. This was not before I wrote seven whopping paragraphs about Pop 2, which you can read below.
In summation, Pop 2 is a milestone for music as a whole, in my opinion. It was the best album of 2017, the best album of 2018, and will continue being a force until I can’t bear to listen to it anymore. Read my original manuscript for the album below.
1. Charli XCX – Pop 2
“A diamond-encrusted, digitally glitched SkyMall catalog.”
Is this a cop-out? Perhaps. However, this is my own blog. I can do whatever I want. Hope it isn’t anticlimactic for you, dear reader. Honestly though, this is a surprise even for me. For pretty much the entire year I had either U.S. Girls or Hop Along at #1. Mitski and SOPHIE both entertained the top spot occasionally, but held strong within the Top 5. However, there was one record present throughout the entire year that everything else was being unconsciously compared to, whether I liked it or not. This was Charli XCX’s Pop 2, which came out in mid/late December, 2017. GASP – a record at #1 that did not come out in the year constrictions? Next thing you know it we’ll have ants thinking they can drive cars! Well, at the time of its release, I had already published my Best Albums of 2017, so there was no way to include Pop 2 there. I was able to squeeze on “Out Of My Head” onto my Favorite Songs of 2017, and it dominated my listening for the first third of this year, petered off a bit in the summer, but surged back in a big way to close all this out. It was a FORCE.
As my Top 50 developed throughout the year, Pop 2 sat behind a glass case in my mind, watching from the outside as other records partied at the top and Charli’s rogue singles kept thoughts of Pop 2 fresh. Up until the week I’m publishing this list, I kept Pop 2 in its glass case, suspended from action and recognition for its achievements (in list form). Then I saw a fellow big music guy rank it as his #1 record of the year, metaphorically breaking Pop 2 free from its arbitrary shackles and giving it the OK to exist in this 2018 list-space. Thanks dawg! Is that to say that if someone else jumped off a cliff I would too? Nah man, this is a music blog we’re talking about! Chill out! Combined with the handful of singles that Charli has released this year that have acted as a bolstering force to further establish that Pop 2 is no one-time fluke, it’s a no-brainer that it has to be in the #1 spot.
Finally onto the music. Although the adjective “brilliant” is used a bit too loosely in regards to musical output these days, I would lobby that Pop 2 is in fact pop brilliance; a previously untapped echelon of pop that has only been flirted with in the past, at best. XCX has knocked on the door of this level of transcendence before, with her Vroom Vroom EP in 2016, and even with her first “mixtape” of 2017, Number 1 Angel, but neither achieved the euphoric highs that Pop 2 deploys.
Pop 2 utilizes a roster of perfectly-curated guest features (split with top-billing vocal guests and optimistic newcomers) with utmost precision & tact (something I put extensive priority in, see a clinic in my #1 record of 2016, Kaytranada’s 99.9%) while also balancing them well with Charli’s pop persona, keeping the structure of power in thirds: one piece for Charli, one piece for the guests and one piece for the instrumentals. In most cases, both Charli and the guest sing the chorus or hook on their own verses, then team up at the end. It feels like XCX is really collaborating with these artists, instead of just having a guest verse tacked on in an empty moment in the song. Sometimes I’m left with a yearning feeling after I listen to a guest-heavy record like this. The recent Gorillaz records really struggle with this balance: with Humanz overloading on guests and The Now Now sounding anemic without them, both albums suffer from a balance in variation and consistency. Strike the perfect balance between the two, you get a stage that allows dynamic performances by your guests, while still being held together by the overarching glue of the main artist. Ergo, if the listener spends less time wondering about weird inconsistency problems between tracks, they can spend more time focusing on the instrumentals, something that is highly recommended on Pop 2, where sound is layered, stretched, crushed, into space station-sized bangers.
Instrumentally, each track brings something new and fresh to the table (thanks to the impressive and honestly groundbreaking work from PC Music boss A.G. Cook) that continually stretch the boundary between pop, EDM, trance, and all forms of weirdo electronic from the past few years without being too obtuse, inconsistent or navel-gazing. There are some truly freaky sounds used on here (the broken computer speak on “Track 10”, the metallic, nefarious bass on “I Got It”, Caroline Polachek’s scream on “Tears”, the underwater synth explosion at the end of “Backseat”, bizarre gating in “Porsche”, the repetition of coins dropping and disposable camera wheel sound effects throughout), but there’s nothing that I can see people getting immediately turned off by like on other PC Music releases. This might be an exercise in restraint on Cook’s part, but the results are magnificent, so if anything I say keep on keeping on, my guy. Don’t get me wrong though, this definitely is not an across the board accessible album for any and all Top 40 pop fans. I can see “Everytime” on the new Ariana Grande album approaching territory explored on Pop 2, with its bouncing, hulking bass and errant clicks & pops. (I wanna take this time and let y’all know that I think the Ariana Grande album is good).
Overall, all the signs point to Pop 2 being a bastion, a touch point for the pop of the future. It consistently pushes into new sonic ideas, pushing the bar of how ~weird~ mainstream pop can sound, how spreading the wealth and letting dynamic guest stars shine is a recipe for success, and that Charli XCX is a creative genius and has really blossomed into a sound of her own while accumulating a rabid fanbase of fashion-forward weirdos and pop fanatics together.
This album has been like a specter haunting my year: “I came out after you finished your 2017 list, you absolute moron. What are you gonna do now? How am I going to get the resolution I deserve?” With this, I exorcise my demon and peacefully lay Pop 2 to rest. The house collapses on the upset burial ground, the puzzle box returns to the dealer, the girl returns to the well, etc etc. Yes, it’s another white dude in glasses talking about an album that came out exactly a year ago, but this is truly THAT important. Seriously though, I hope this doesn’t happen for 2019. Being haunted for a full year SUCKS.