Teenagers aged 13 to 48 turned out in their thousands for Olivia Rodrigo’s Glastonbury set in the summer of 2022. By then, 13 months into the promo tour that followed her debut album ‘Sour’, it was obvious that this former Disney kid was already one of the world’s favourite new singer-songwriters.
Sugary, rageful and acerbic, Olivia Rodrigo makes music for people who know that they’re just like all the other girls, reminding you how brutal life could be when you were a teenager.
‘Guts’, the follow-up to multi-platinum, multi-hit ‘Sour’, lands this month and will only be the second solo album to this 20 year-old’s name, and yet Rodrigo’s songs already fill music libraries the world over. But which are her best tracks? Here is the definitive NME list…
C, Em, Am and a variation on the F chord: the indie ballad bread and butter. That artists continue to find new ways to garnish them is something that the musically-challenged among us will forever marvel at. ‘Traitor’, of course, is one of these songs. Filled with hurt, it mirrors the heartbreak evident on those other mournful highlights from ‘Sour’, while sprinkling in elements from the more vitriolic ones. A petty anthem for the sorest moments following a break-up.
High School Musical is kinda emo now. The original, of course, had the heavily side-parted fringes and the desperate yearning, but did it have trap drums? Overblown bass? Symphonic electric guitar? If the show that made Rodrigo famous is to be believed, the high school experience is just like it was in 2006. The only real difference? There are more phones, and emo is no longer a dirty little secret.
Like a PG-13 version of ‘Cherry Bomb’ or ‘Bad Reputation’, ‘Brutal’ draws on the bristling rawness of riot-grrrl to open ‘Sour’. It’s a perfect curtain raiser, moving from sweet violins into distorted electric guitar. A thrashing pop song that dips several toes into the pond of punk, ‘Brutal’ filters these ragged elements through a shiny pop machine. Though the track’s punk edge is rigorously manipulated in the studio, the finished product is dripping in feral sugaryness, a mood that not only represents the album that is to follow, but also the entire teenage girl experience.
Being selfless in the wake of a break-up is an admirable and healthy approach, but there are limits, as Rodrigo says on ‘Happier’. The ‘Sour’ deep cut represents this dichotomy well, wishing an ex happiness with his new girl. Crucially, though, it also hopes that he’s not quite as ecstatic as he was when he was with her. A tween version of Adele’s ‘Somebody Like You’, ‘Happier’ strikes a balance between teenage pettiness and the self-awareness of a therapised generation.
6‘Bad Idea Right?’
Missing comma notwithstanding, ‘Bad Idea Right?’ is an early highlight from ‘Guts’, and represents a bridge between her first two albums. A chugging rhythm section delivers Rodrigo through a part-spoken, part-sung dilemma of that classic hurdle of singledom: going back to an ex. Relatable, addictive and delightfully conspiratorial, this is a track that answers the question: what if your punk heroes were a band made up of teenage girls?
A devastating put-down with an even more savage chuckle after its opening verse, ‘Deja Vu’ is a better-worded version of your post break-up diary entry. “Do you call her, almost say my name?” Rodrigo asks pointedly, “‘cause let’s be honest: we kind of do sound the same”. Knowing Billy Joel, sharing strawberry ice cream, trading jackets…none of these things are niche enough to claim for your relationship alone, and it’s just that sweet adolescent naivety that makes this the most relatable spot on ‘Sour’.
4 ‘All I Want’
Those of us who grew up with the Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens brand of High School Musical might not know the songs to have come out of Generation Z’s equivalent: the verbose High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. If the original meant a lot to you, it might even feel a little like cheating to check out the newer songs. If that’s you, we’re afraid to say that you’re missing out.
While many of the series’ songs are eminently listenable, ‘All I Want’ is particularly addictive. A huge, catchy tune in the vein of the hits that Rodrigo would come to pen under her own name, this is a morose, swelling and gorgeously performed ballad that rivals ‘Start Of Something New’ and ‘Breaking Free’ with ease.
Perhaps it’s because of her High School Musical pedigree, but Olivia Rodrigo has become synonymous with the piano ballad. The lead single for ‘Guts’, and the first taste of new music from the singer in two years, ’Vampire’ is just that, a fantastic, emotional serenade meant to be yelled out loud.
If you’re neither 13 years old nor the parent of a 13 year old, it’s more than likely that this is the song that booted Rodrigo into your consciousness. Debut single ‘Drivers License’ uses the sound of an open car door alert as its base melody, instilling the entire thing with an authenticity that puts you right inside Rodrigo’s massive SUV as she drives, crying, past the end of her ex’s road.
Rumours that ‘Drivers License’ referenced not only Rodrigo’s presumed former beau (and HSM co-star) Joshua Bassett but also his reported new flame Sabrina Carpenter did plenty of the hard work when it came to PR, helping this hit take all of the records it did. Mercifully for those of us who heard it played ad nauseum on the radio and out of bedroom windows, it is not only a chart-topping pop song, but a fantastic one too.
1‘Good 4 U’
The belated writing credit given to Hayley Williams and Paramore confirmed this enormous punk-pop banger as a new generation’s ‘Misery Business’. Emphatic drums, power chords and spiteful lyrics that ring true with anyone who has ever loved and/or lost, ‘Good 4 U’ is an emo-tinged power pop tune to top every decade end list.
“Maybe I’m too emotional, your apathy is like a wound in salt,” Rodrigo sings on the pre-chorus, a lead up to one of the most exhilarating choruses in recent pop memory. “Like a damn sociopath!” could be heard every few swipes on TikTok when the single dropped, and it remains Rodrigo’s crowning achievement.