Modern life is chock full of paradoxes, and here’s another one just for good measure: One of 2018’s best pop albums actually came out in 2017 — and it sounds like it came from twenty years in the future. I’m talking about Pop 2, the most recent project from British pop wizard Charlotte Aitchison, known more commonly to her digitally-drained fanbase as Charli XCX. Her fourth mixtape (and seventh substantial project to date) dropped in the waning days of December 2017, nine months after its predecessor Number 1 Angel; practically upon impact, its ten songs blew anything she’d previously released out of the water, a truly futuristic-sounding document of pop’s zippiest laser-guided sounds imbued with the type of emotional sentiments that humans and cyborgs alike could relate to. Over the past six years, Charli’s spent her career trying on a few of sonic guises — alluring, synth-drenched darkwave, the puckered guitars of ’90s alt-rock — but the broken-glass refractions of dance and hip-hop on Pop 2 represented something of a glass-slipper moment for her career: something that fits her perfectly, and could be owned by no one else.
A fantastically noisy and bold collision of sound not unlike Kanye West’s car-crash classic Yeezus and Grimes’ strident and epochal Art Angels, Pop 2 will undoubtedly take up substantial real estate on decade-end lists this time next year, surely offsetting its unfortunate absence on 2017’s year-end lists. This is typically the point in which one is expected to break into a diatribe about the ever-early publishing date of year-end lists themselves; these days, most publications’ lists are rolled out shortly after Thanksgiving weekend, the lion’s share unveiled before outlets give their underpaid and overworked employees a chance to spend some time with their loved ones before heading back to the content mines.
As it turns out, though, the year-end list exclusion of buzzer-beater releases like Pop 2 isn’t really anyone’s fault — or, if you’re the external hard drive-half-empty type, it’s everyone’s. Despite the unfortunate truth that year-end lists across publications seem to be increasingly identical with every year, it still takes the type of time and planning to put them together that requires a start-to-finish process typically kicking off in late October. Long-lead promos — that is, advance listens to big-ticket albums that might warrant year-end inclusion — have largely become a thing of the past with hip, mid-to-big pop artists like Charli; as ever, Beyonce gets some credit here too, as her near-perfect eponymous album from 2013 was (just like Pop 2) a mid-December surprise release that served as a massively instructive marketing move for artists for years to come.
You simply can’t plan for things like Pop 2. At a time of year in which social media feeds are lit up with year-end bickering like strings of Christmas lights, it’s worth taking some time to reflect on the space this odd, beautiful record occupied in a calendar year pop landscape that it technically wasn’t even a part of. It’s been said — but is well worth repeating — that the genre was undoubtedly stuck in a holding pattern in 2018. Drake and Post Malone dominated the charts and discourse so thoroughly that it’s remarkable we haven’t yet been blessed (or, depending on how you look at it, cursed) with a collaborative track between the two of them; up-and-comers like Camila Cabello, Troye Sivan, and Christine And The Queens made potentially star-making gestures that nonetheless found said artists more or less where they were in the beginning of the year. Even contentious pop-rockers The 1975’s much-ballyhooed A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships failed to outperform its chart-topping predecessor in its first week of release, debuting at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 with effectively half of the previous record’s sales.
Excluding Ariana Grande — who swooped in during the second half of 2018 with the indelible auteur move Sweetener and ubiquitous one-off “Thank U, Next,” adding some much-needed femininity to chart-pop’s ultra-masc miserabilia — listening to pop in 2018 often felt like working in A&R, sussing out who might be big a few years from now based on potential. It’s through that lens that Pop 2 truly embodies the genre’s current moment; alongside whip-smart songwriting and moments of unbelievable tenderness, Charli used the tape’s ten tracks as a showcase for unsung and about-to-blow talent, proving she has as good an ear for “cool” as any label lackey.
Alongside higher-visibility artists like Tove Lo and Carly Rae Jepsen, Pop 2 is host to star turns from Chicago rap rapscallion Cupcakke, Brazilian drag queen belter Pablo Vittar, and underground queer-rap aggressor Mykki Blanco; even Brooke Candy — the stripper-turned-Grimes protegé whose sole release to date, 2014’s Opulence, was nearly and confoundingly unlistenable — finally finds a home on Pop 2, spitting a convincing extraterrestrial verse over the sputtering hip-hop of “I Got It.” Above all, Charli achieves a level of redemption for UK prankster-electro collective PC Music, whose off-kilter approach to dance and pop previously felt abrasive and confrontational in all the wrong ways. With contributions from affiliates A.G. Cook and SOPHIE, Pop 2 casts PC Music’s strange sounds in a pleasing new light, without losing any of the sharp right angles that they’ve been known for in the past.
As much as Pop 2 reflected pop in 2018, it’s also important to recognize the level of ubiquity that Charli continued to maintain during the year, wholly separate from its release. Despite having nary a new project to promote, her steady and impressive run of singles — the cavernous trap of “5 In The Morning,” the tunnel-vision trance of “Focus,” “No Angel”‘s spectacular Knife-y radiance — made as convincing of an argument as ever that we’re living in a post-album landscape. With her latest (and, barring any surprise releases, presumably last for the year), the Sivan collab “1999,” Charli flipped a just-okay nostalgia-novelty single into a practical meme factory, with an accompanying video that was loaded with more dated references than a Buzzfeed list and stood as one of the year’s funniest, most eye-catching clips.