By Ben Kessler
The Best in Order of Preference
1. “Late,” Florrie
2. “Super Ultra,” Charli XCX
3. “Cold Summer,” CJ Hilton
4. “Warrior,” Queen of Hearts
5. “Skitszo Pt. 1,” Colette Carr
6. “Iconic,” Icona Pop
7. “True,” Solange
8. “Cityswitch,” SRH
9. “Ghost,” Sky Ferreira
10. “Against the Wall,” Kat Graham
The release of an EP has become a rite of passage in pop music. It’s meant to mark an artist’s readiness for greater things, while defining how that artist wants to be seen by his or her public.
In the pre-download days, the music industry didn’t have much use for EPs. They were neither here nor there. It must not have seemed worth it—all the paper, plastic and aluminum it took to convert five castoff tracks into a marketable product.
But EPs have now been embraced by the demoralized, declining music industry, precisely because the format is flyover country. There’s no recognized history of past success, no tradition associated with EPs. Failures go unnoticed amid that flat terrain.
Many of the artists who made notable EPs in 2012 probably won’t become pop superstars. But they were successful in this particular year, in this particular format, because unlike major-label moneymakers and TV talent show contestants, the recordings were made to justify their claim on an audience’s attention and did so, even if just for the length of a few tracks.
Stuck neither here nor there, they devised a destination for themselves and went there. And it turned out to be somewhere worth going. To me, that’s pop.
“Late” is Florrie’s third and final EP before her major-label debut, expected to drop sometime this year. All three were produced by Xenomania, the British pop production outfit where Florrie was once house drummer.
She has also been a model, and there is something of a runway attitude about these four tracks. Even more than in “Introduction” and “Experiments,” the first two Florrie EPs, the songs here march out fiercely to meet you.
“Late” goes way beyond ambition, aesthetic and commercial. These songs are so focused and tightly wound they suggest that, for Florrie and her collaborators, the pursuit of pop perfection has become an idée fixe.
Indulging Xenomania’s famous penchant for toying with song structure, Florrie builds ecstatic melodies out of chants that initially seem lightweight (e.g., “I shot him down-down-down-down-down-down,” “You gotta earn every inch of my body, babe”).
But if the songs on “Late” have a common “theme,” it’s that Xenomania’s pop vision—which Florrie incarnates—is not to be trifled with. The polish and sharpness of this sophisticated EP render totally irrelevant the question of how seriously we’re meant to take it.
That’s because Florrie and Xenomania prize sincerity over seriousness. The final track, “To the End,” clarifies the sense of moral purpose behind their embrace of what’s commonly labeled disreputable. Florrie calms the culture’s Fear of Music as she intones, “Who knows what the future holds? Better do what you’re told … I will only bring you happiness.”
“SUPER ULTRA,” CHARLI XCX
Late last year, just as Taylor Swift was making us all never want to hear another breakup song ever again, 20-year-old UK singer-songwriter Charli XCX refreshed the genre with her mixtape “Super Ultra.”
Chronicling fairly universal experiences of adolescent bad romance, Charli XCX doesn’t pretend she’s more mature, smarter, or wiser than Swift. She and her producers—a different one for each of the eight tracks—come up with a sound that is meaningfully trendy, forcing old fogeys to recognize the follies of their own youth in those of the Facebook generation.
“Super Ultra”’s nods to Kanye, M.I.A., and Clams Casino convey the tenor of today’s youth culture as faithfully as the aggressive, confused neediness in Charli XCX’s lyrics. (From “Cold Nites (Remix)”: “This shit for real/This shit is danger/You come around my house and you act like a motherfuckin’ total stranger.”) Unlike the faux-ingenuous Swift, Charli XCX shows nascent self-awareness by juxtaposing doomed young romance with mayfly pop trends—just as her mixtape’s title pointedly doubles down on gullible, internet-derived hyperbole.
“Critique” is entirely the wrong word to describe “Super Ultra,” yet this music’s under-the-skin mimetic acuity makes room for critique. If Charli XCX’s avowed aspiration to “make music that sounds like the internet” makes you cringe, the results are revealing enough to demonstrate exactly why you should—and, in so doing, restore hope to a dismal pop scene.
Lily Allen and Lena Dunham, I hope you’re listening.
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