The best albums of 2018, No 1: Christine and the Queens – Chris

At some point in the last few years, it stopped being enough for pop stars to simply have catchy songs and good hair. Now they had to be totally woke, and fluent in identity politics and intersectionality. (See: everything from Little Mix’s new album, featuring a song called Joan of Arc, to people digging through Dua Lipa and Stormzy’s archives to shame them for old tweets.) Inclusive, socially aware pop should be celebrated, but at its worst it can be a shallow branding exercise that makes the music feel like hard work.

The artwork for Chris.
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While she is hyper-versed in matters of gender, sexuality and class, Christine and the Queens (nee Héloïse Letissier) has never made these topics heavy-going. Funny, charismatic and an obscenely great dancer to boot, she has been a tonic since she emerged on the UK music scene in 2016. Still, discussions of her identity as a pansexual, politicised woman sometimes threatened to overshadow the music. And there was a big identity shift to get your head around on her second album, Chris – the name she now goes by. The album is a compelling portrait of a woman in flux. She cut off her hair and – having declared “I’m a man now” on her debut album – leaned into a muscular femininity. Since releasing her 2014 debut, she has embraced her power and sexuality, enough to question whether the two are interchangeable – or even incompatible.

Most of the songs on Chris detail her own pleasure and how the trials of loving feel: swaggering back from a tryst salty with sweat, like a man would; the way her jaw pimples when she feels shame; begging her male and female crushes to succumb to her skin, soft with desire but thickened by pride. She slips between dominant and disempowered archetypes, eroding what listeners might think of as traditionally masculine or feminine. All of which would be academic, even alienating, if her intricate synthpop didn’t convey these qualities – lustful intent, slippery power imbalance, the overwhelming churn of self-loathing beneath your skin. Sometimes the music does it more directly than the words. While there are beautiful lyrics on the album (“To love him is to scare a mist / to make a fauna flee”), her twisty intonation can render them opaque without the lyrics sheet.

Such a close relationship between sound and intent is testament to Chris stepping up as producer. She co-produced her debut and has since claimed that her label encouraged her not to make a big deal of the fact – which, if true, indicts the gulf between the marketability of empowered female pop stars and the industry restrictions they still face. After unsuccessful sessions with Mark Ronson and Damon Albarn as producers, she fought to make her second album herself, working with session musicians from several classic 1980s pop albums.

The music is full of familiar sounds – lead single Girlfriend pairs G-funk with cartoonish giggles and moans that mirror the comic bricolage of Slim Shady-era Eminem; the smashed glass and thrusting bass on Feel So Good recalls the Art of Noise’s crude sampling – but they’re subverted by moving musical storytelling and ingenious juxtapositions.

On one beautifully innovative song from her debut, Chris paired French singer Christophe’s 1973 hit Les Paradis Perdus with lyrics and melody from Kanye West’s 2008 single Heartless. On the new album, the song 5 Dollars pulls a similar trick with no sampled source material, giving Bruce Springsteen’s hard-won heroism a luminous synth aura and a touch of musical theatre.