Charli XCX has two careers. Her top songs on Spotify are “Girls” (by Rita Ora, featuring Charli, Cardi B, and Bebe Rhexa), “Dirty Sexy Money” (by David Guetta, featuring Charli and French Montana), and “Moonlight” (by Lil Xan, featuring Charli). Her most successful album was 2014’s Sucker, which I enjoy, but sounds just about the same as every song on the pop charts at the time. This year, she toured with Taylor Swift (I love Taylor, but I wouldn’t exactly call her innovative), playing her hits like “I Love It,” “Boom Clap,” and “Fancy,” which were all bolstered by soundtracks or memes. Despite what this list of features may look (and sound) like, Charli XCX is also one of the most innovative and unique popstars making music today, and there’s no better proof of this than her two-track pop masterpiece “Focus / No Angel.”.
In 2017, Charli XCX released two mixtapes largely produced by PC Music’s A.G. Cook and SOPHIE, which harken back the more experimental bent of her early mixtapes and debut album, True Romance. The tapes sound like the pop music of the future and heavily feature other loves of the alt-pop scene including Carly Rae Jepsen, Cupcakke, Brooke Candy, Tove Lo, and ABRA. This year, she has expanded on this alternative catalog with a series of singles including “5 in the Morning,” “Girls Night Out,” “1999,” and finally, “Focus / No Angel.” This two-track single is my 24th most listened to “album” of the last year with 122 plays and counting. Again, it’s only two tracks. And it’s only been out since late June.
“Focus / No Angel” is fiercely infectious. “Focus,” the A.G. Cook-produced opener, is repetitive in the best way. There are only 65 unique words in the songs three-and-a-half minute running time, but somehow Charli’s delivery (combined with the instrumental) make it equal parts catchy and captivating. I played it in the car for my 58-year-old dad, and his only response was “I don’t think this was made for me.” That’s right, Dad. It wasn’t. It was made for me. It’s great in a DJ set—the DJ played it during my college’s LCD Soundsystem-themed ball this fall, and I absolutely lost my shit. It’s also great just blasting in my headphones while I do homework, because I know it so well at this point that I can listen to it even while I’m reading—though there are no guarantees that I won’t put down my work at any point because the urge to dance is too strong.
“No Angel” has a bit more mythos attached to it than “Focus,” as it is one of the Charli XCX tracks that has alternately been leaked and performed live over the last few years, compelling fans to beg for its release. I, by principle, do not listen to leaks, so I hadn’t actually heard the track before its release, but I was aware of its legendary status, and it fully lives up the hype. It shows off a bit more of Charli’s party-focused songwriting mentality and the hook, “I’m no angel, but I can learn,” references the more self-reflective parts of her 2017 mixtapes. All I can say is, she’s got me and she won’t let me go.
I hadn’t really kept track of Charli XCX until 2018. I’ll admit, I was one of those teens enchanted by “Boom Clap” on the Fault In Our Stars soundtrack, but by last year and the disappointing release of Taylor Swift’s reputation, I’d drifted a bit from my poptimistic roots. Charli was all I needed to get right back into it. I listened to Number 1 Angel for the first time around January, and then Pop 2 a couple of months later. I quickly became enamored with Charli’s future-forward pop, but I found myself disappointed with the first of the 2018 singles. The hip-hop-flavored “5 In The Morning” seemed sort of formulaic, repeating the ‘party all night’ sentiments of previous songs like “Die Tonight” and “After The Afterparty.” “Focus / No Angel,” however, in its incessant repetitiveness and format as a two-track single, is the kind of project that begs to be left on repeat. Just when you might get bored by “Focus”’ chorus, you’re drawn in once again by the hook of “No Angel.” The two tracks balance each other out perfectly and not only prove that Charli XCX is the future of pop, but also work together to form one of the best “albums” of the year.
Delaney Neal is a college student splitting her time between Portland, OR, and the Bay Area. You can usually find her listening to Car Seat Headrest and thinking about her dogs. She’s on Instagram @laneyrse.