Album review: Pop 2 – Charli XCX

John Preston

Charlotte Aitchison, aka Brit pop artist Charli XCX, has not yet become the mainstream star that seemed to be inevitable at one point a couple of years back. After penning ‘I Love It’ for Icona Pop and appearing on and co-writing Iggy Azalea’s ‘Fancy’, both unavoidable global number pop juggernauts, Charli XCX eventually released her bratty, riot girl-indebted, guitar-led sophomore album Sucker. But the world did not collectively sit up and pay attention to it.

She has since become one of PC music’s most prolific and staunch advocates and seems to be less concerned by how many streams she gets with an emphasis instead on creating subversive, challenging but still commercial music on her own terms. Forgoing the traditional route of releasing an album, Aitchison has instead put out her second mix-tape of the year and Pop 2 challenges what constitutes an important, more formally marketed collection of songs from a contemporary recording artist.

When Number 1 Angel was released in March it was thought to be a stop-gap mix-tape which would sit between Aitchison’s previous album from 2014 and her next full length record which she promised fans was imminent. Number 1 Angel was 10 tracks long, available to stream and buy and was all original material; an album by any other name. It was also a solid, idiosyncratic and wholly fresh piece of music that gathered a lot of media attention, small PA-style gigs and an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel from the singer of a song that still hasn’t been released.

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Aitchison still doesn’t appear to be in a position to embark on an official, label backed album roll-out campaign so instead has surprise released another 10 track mix-tape (some two-weeks’ notice was given on Aitchison’s Twitter account), and Pop 2 is a more nuanced and thoughtful record than Number 1 Angel. It’s also crazed, chemically euphoric and genuinely strange, some the things Aitchison may have trouble getting past listening party feedback surveys.

Guest vocalists are featured on all but two of the album’s tracks, that aren’t all necessary and some add little to the songs that they feature on but where else can you find a track list that includes Carley Rae Jepson, Tove Lo, MØ, Mykki Blanco, Brooke Candy, CupcakKe, Pabllo Vittar and Caroline Polachek of Chairlift? The diversity offered by the full roll-call of artists on Pop 2 is genuinely astounding and confirms Aitchison’s love and knowledge of the underground and sharing the limelight with other musicians who she rightly sees as her contemporaries.

The biggest name here aside from Charli XCX herself is Carly Rae Jepson and her feature on album opener ‘Backseat’ positions her as Aitchison’s mirror self with both agreeing that they’re better off alone. It’s a beautiful, sad dancer with both artists exuding a scintillating and effortless confidence that feels entirely natural and heartfelt.

Frequent collaborator Sophie returns only once as co-producer on the Tove Lo accompanied ‘Out of My Head’ which surprisingly, given Sophie’s confrontational production style, is probably the most straight-forward, sugar-rush of a pop song here. Elsewhere A. G. Cook takes control of production duties again and pushes Aitchison even harder than before to make her and the sonic world that insulates her sound even more fractured, lush, alien and disorienting.

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More than ever before her vocals are frequently warped with auto-tune and on the gorgeous kitchen-sink drama of ‘Tears’, a duet with the spectacular Caroline Polachek, distorted and pained screams are eventually heard in the background, traumatically shadowing the song’s more traditional R&B chorus.

‘Porsche’ is a spare and sticky ear-worm that would have Rihanna begging and ‘Femmbot’ is the staccato and unspooling PC music companion piece to the Robyn song of the same name from seven years ago.

The two songs that see Aitchison singing solo are not only the mix-tape’s sole attempts at what be described as ballads but they also add a richness, depth and human element to everything metallic and cool that surrounds them.

‘Lucky’ is a gradually, melodically ascending cloud of choral, pitched oddness that initially is too bent out of shape for it to appeal but give it time and you’ll be surprised at it’s beauty and simplicity.

‘Track 10’, the actual title and also its position in the track list as the closing track, is stranger still. Starting with electrical skips and garbled glitches of noise, Aitchison leads the next six episodic minutes into harps, droning synths, robot bird song and eventually a rave stomp-out.

‘Sorry I’m a little scared, but no one ever really cared,’ sings Aitchison immediately before she wants to fuck and then watch TV with this person that emotionally overwhelms her. It takes Pop 2 to a place which is vulnerable and passionate and secures Charli XCX’s place as one of the interesting and engaging pop prospects performing; make her your idol today.

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About John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.