Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Caitlin Carter, Joey DeGroot, and Carolyn Menyes chat about Charli XCX's new album Sucker. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section, and check back next week for more.
Caitlin Carter: Charli XCX finally seems to be having her moment. After helping bring songs like "I Love It" and "Fancy" to the top of the charts, she no longer needs to prove that she knows how to write a pop song. But why keep making other people tons of money when you can be the star? Although this isn't the UK songstress's first release, it ultimately serves as her mainstream debut -- as her last album, True Romance, received critical acclaim but didn't manage to find commercial success. With her name out there now, she gives us Sucker. It has that pop accessibility without any monotony. It draws from the shimmer of the '80s and the grit of punk rock. It feels fresh and has attitude.
But that's me. What do you guys think?
Joey DeGroot: I can't remember where I read it, but someone recently used the term "punk pop," as opposed to "pop punk" to describe the new Chumped album, but I think it applies much more to Sucker. This is absolutely a pop album, no question about it, but like you said Caitlin, there's an undeniable grit and punky attitude about it that makes it stand out above Taylor Swift or Maroon 5. Best of all (well not best of all, but another great thing) is that all of the songs are relatively short, keeping the album at a tight 40 minutes. There's no reason a song like "Breaking Up" needs to be any longer than 2:18, and XCX realizes that.
Carolyn Menyes: I love my pop stars a little dirty and raw and I love my songs short, so Charli XCX feels like a perfect fit for this. At first, I thought it was a little preemptive that Rolling Stone named this album among its best of 2014, but I actually really get it.
I don't think anybody would ever try to deny that XCX is a pop artist or that Sucker is a pop album, but she definitely has a sass and attitude about her that her contemporaries lack. Even on the hooks to "I Love It" and "Fancy," she's got a sneer and this album is full of sneers and snarls. XCX sounds like she doesn't care, and that's really awesome.
Something about me doubts whether or not this will really help XCX break in America. I know that "Boom Clap" was a hit, but I think that had a lot to do with its placement in The Fault in Our Stars. There's something about this that is just really hyper-British and I just wonder if XCX, despite all her critical acclaim, will ever really captivate the U.S. audience.
CC: To your point about her breaking in the U.S.:
I think there is a novelty to that Britishness -- think of all the American artists who have sang in faux English accents. We love hearing it. But on the other hand, thanks to the digital age, the Atlantic Ocean isn't the divide it used to be. I think people in the U.S. relate to the same things, so Britishness isn't completely a novelty thing. I don't know how much impact those early Puritanical years had on our cultural consciousness, but it seems like historically, British artists have been leaders in punk rock/rebellious/underground music. Where American pop stars capitalize on more of the sugary, sweet, sexy sides of pop, British acts tend to be more irreverent. As consumers we want and need both. So I think there is a place for Charli and her brand of pop in American mainstream music.
JD: I agree that she might have trouble breaking through in America as a true pop superstar, but I don't think it has to do with her Britishness (just look at One Direction). Rather, I think the relatively raw quality of her music might turn off mainstream audiences. This album is pummeling, unruly, and pretty much peaking at all times, which is nothing like Lorde or Adele.
Just look at Kanye West: even though Yeezus was his best album (in my opinion, but I'm probably not the only one), it didn't sell nearly as much as his previous albums, because of how abrasive it was. I think this album will be huge with pop fans who are interested in delving just the tiniest bit beneath the mainstream, but the people who pretty much only listen to whoever's singing on The Voice this week aren't going to get it.
CM: I think that's what I was getting at, Joey. I guess by saying this album is oh-so-British, I meant it had that thrashy punk rock London feel. This album feels like if The Go-Gos picked up more distortion and it actually really reminds me of that The Waitresses song, "I Know What Boys Like," which I'm assuming is where your '80s point came from, Caitlin.
It's not like Sucker is a complicated album like Yeezus or totally bizarre pop like what Gwen Stefani is doing right now (while she sits on The Voice, mind you). But it's just different enough, I think, to really keep it out of the top 10 on Billboard's Hot 100. I checked, and "Break The Rules," which is a wonderful nugget of rebellious, sassy pop, is nowhere to be found on the charts.
I like to give music audiences more credit than maybe you will, Joey, and maybe I'm just a little pessimistic from a lack of coffee, but I don't know if this is going to go anywhere. And that's not because of its merits.
Let's get into those merits a bit more, shall we?
CC: I really liked how the album opened. I think she really set the tone of the album with that title track. "Do you get me now?" she asks? I think we do. My favorite tracks were "Sucker," "Breaking Up," "Need UR Love," and "Hanging Around" (co-written with Rivers Cuomo).
JD: I'm a stickler for chord progressions and song structures, and what I appreciated most about the songwriting on Sucker is how it doesn't fall back onto any clichéd, predictable choices. My favorite example of this is the chorus to "Breaking Up," which has the type of inventive, Paul McCartney-esque chord progression that you simply don't hear on pop radio anymore. The structure of the song is unusual as well: it goes intro/verse/chorus, but then instead of returning to a second verse, it simply goes to a bridge, another chorus, and then it's done. That's some compact Ramones/Misfits punk songwriting right there, and I totally love it.
CM: The compactness of this album is what makes it so refreshing to me. Nothing crosses the four-minute mark, and only three songs run over three-and-a-half minutes. So punk and choppy, and I love it
Agreed, the album opener "Sucker" really just throws it all out there, it's a bit of a thesis statement for the record: bold, explosive, loud and if you don't like it, well, f**k you, sucker. She's then able to carry that momentum through the album's first five tracks, which is the album's strongest part.
"London Queen," in particular, is this great blend of hooks, throwbacks and sass. It doesn't feel like it should've been released in 2014, but here we are.
I will, say, however, that the album sort of drags a bit when XCX gets to "Boom Clap." I get that the song was the big single, but after five really punchy tracks, wow, that slows things down. It just made me feel sleepy. I got similar feelings from "Doing It," "Die Tonight" and "Famous." I get that XCX can't just release a whole album of two-and-a-half minute "punk pop" songs, but on the other hand, why can't she?
CC: Carolyn, the three songs you mentioned ("Boom Clap," "Doing It," and "Famous") are my least favorite. I mean there is nothing wrong with them, but I thought her other tracks were just more memorable, punchy and unique. And to your point, I think that she CAN do a whole album of two-and-a-half minute punk pop songs. I wish that more artists would release singles that are just that: SINGLES — something that stands alone outside an album. I know singles are a way to promote albums, but I wish that didn't have to be the case.
CM: Despite that, I think this album actually feels really complete. I feel like the reason why she added songs like "Famous" was because her label didn't want to release a full punk record. She actually said as much in an interview earlier this year.
JD: I agree that the album feels "complete," like every song is on here for a reason other than taking up space. This may be a bit blasphemous, but to me Sucker feels a bit like a Beatles or Smiths album, where every song is designed as a potential single. That doesn't mean I like every song on the album, but you can put every song on a party playlist if you really wanted to. Nothing here comes across as filler to me, which is really refreshing since typical pop albums (I'll throw rock, country, and hip-hop albums under the bus here too) are famously made up of two singles and a bunch of stuff that you'll only listen to once.
P.S. I actually thought "Famous" was one of the album's best songs, but to each his/her own.
CC: I actually liked the live version of "Famous" that debuted a while back. It packs a bigger punch, which is what it should do live. In album form, it didn't really do anything for me though. But back to you Carolyn!
CM: What did you like about "Famous?" I thought it dragged. It's actually the one song on this album that felt like a throwaway.
JD: The guitar riff in "Famous" (or strumming pattern, technically) is an absolute monster, especially when syncopated against the beat. I also felt that the vocal melodies, in both the verse and the chorus, were some of the album's strongest, but it all comes down to the groove and how the melody lays inside of it. I can see how you guys thought it dragged, though, since it's the longest song on the album. When I was just listening to it again, I was thinking it was over at the three-minute mark, but it kept going for another minute, which isn't necessary.
CM: That must be it, then. I have a short musical attention span. I also feel like the tempo is just so blah. It's neither fast nor slow, and that's a little dull to me.
CC: I was very impressed with this album, and I hope it gets the traction in the mainstream that it deserves. Charli XCX is filling a gap in mainstream pop, and I think her gritty, sassy sound is refreshing. Sucker was a cohesive effort that packed a punch almost the entire way through. I can't wait until she puts out that real punk album she's been talking about!
JD: Sucker is the rare pop album that doesn't really care whether you like it or not, which only makes it even more appealing. Charli XCX is an artist who realizes why people listen to pop songs in the first place, and cuts right to the chase with a punk-like efficiency and attitude. Part of me actually hopes that her sound doesn't take over the mainstream, just so I don't end up getting sick of it.
CM: Masterful, catchy songwriting with an attitude helps Charli XCX stand out from the pack. She's not just your hook girl, she's one of the more interesting and innovative pop singers out there, and you're a Sucker if you don't buy into it.